These are just a few excerpts from the many inspiring selections in Muse 8. To order a copy and read the entire issue, please visit our Support the Muse/Order Copies page.
Joan Cofrancesco, Object to Be Destroyed
Lee Miller's eye
to a metronome
as the eye ticked away
he picked up a
hammer and smashed
it to pieces.
I never understood
until you came into my life.
Anya Silver, I Hope My Nurses Remember Playing Records
the way we'd slide from paper slip each disc,
holding it still between our flattened palms,
easing it gently (A side, B side, back and belly)
down to the table. The wrist raised,
needle suspended, the pause to gauge
the proper place. It was important to wait,
to sink the point—don't slip!—into its groove.
Big stick, the nurses say, before the needle
enters muscle, or drains the opened vein.
Sweet ease, funk, crescendo, oh. Dancing
late night in a darkened rec room. Furrowed,
rutted, scratched in love and worn from use—
I hope my nurses remember playing records.
Jack Coulehan, Slipping Away
I'm not saying I didn't die
when the tap to my brain
tightened to nothing this morning,
but because it felt so good
with my pain gone and the scene
turned so topsy-turvy in this
mechanical room, death
slipped in behind my back,
but then my sister came—I hadn't
heard her voice so tense in years—
and the doc explained
that dead is dead despite my heartbeat.
She saw little sparks of the past
sputtering out of me
and started to choke on guilt,
which was falsely pumped up
but true in its own way.
For me the only difference
death made was release from being
pinned to my bed and a sudden
spurt of tolerance, but my sister
demanded to sleep on my death
and decide about the breather
in the morning. I'll be gone then—
I'm pouring through the pores
of this room, I'm already
feeling the jazz and hormones begin.
Marilyn Kanter, Meditation on Caregiving
I sleep with a ghost—my new roommate—a specter who is now impersonating my husband. My loneliness envelops me most when I'm home with my ghost. He wants us to huddle together, to curl up in our matrimonial cocoon, to keep me all for himself. He can't get enough of me, but I'm lonely as hell in that cocoon—that collapsing parachute of dementia where he's sucking up all the air, and I can't crawl out fast enough.
In his prime my husband was powerful, dynamic, and sexy—the guy with the corner office on the executive floor. Bold and abrasive he sometimes created professional enemies. While he mellowed with time, he was always a force—a man with driving ambition and an edge—a marketing problem-solver and troubleshooter for corporations in a global arena. That was then. Now his enemies have receded into memory, while his short-term memory has receded into God knows where. In the good years we were inseparable except when he was traveling, and then I had God on speed dial. "Just give me five more years. Don't let him die in a plane crash. Keep him safe, God, and I'll pay you back—you name it, community service—whatever it takes."
He was safe for most of our marriage, but nothing lasts forever. His downhill trajectory began after he underwent complicated cardiac surgery including aortic valve replacement, coronary bypass, and septal myomectomy—a shaving down of the heart muscle. During five endless days and nights in intensive care, he exhibited symptoms of ICU psychosis. Chief among his delusions was the idea that he was still married to wife number one, despite our thirty-two years of marriage. He wasn't sure what year it was and who was president, but his doctors said his disorientation would be short-lived—routine fallout from anesthesia and surgery. But I was worried.
So once again I negotiated with God and, to be fair, my pleas sort of worked. I still have my husband's body—frail but all mine—and flashes of his spirit, but his mind is gradually deserting him. I yearn for him to be my soulmate, but he is increasingly just my sweet puppy dog, following directions and taking little initiative. And I'm back to chatting with God. “Hey, God, is this your idea of a cosmic joke? A celestial sleight of hand? You left me his body but for some reason you needed his mind? Was that fair—your idea of the Golden Rule?”
I've lost that part of him I treasured most—that wild, quick mind that could analyze and illuminate the most difficult issues. I have conversations with my ghost now, but mostly they lead into a dense thicket of confusion. He circles around ideas but can't quite close in on anything. As a life partner and companion, he's lost to me in every way that counts. In his nearness I feel alone and beyond lonely. I live on my memories, especially those evanescent moments of joy from our past. I study old photographs looking for clues to his inevitable decline. But I can detect none.
One day he was himself. And then he wasn't. We both needed surgery, but he forgot to wait until I recovered. And suddenly we were on a collision course. That last day when he was still himself—or maybe his real self had already checked out—he left to follow his own surgical imperatives. We cried, clinging to each other to forestall the leaving. But leave he did. And I was alone with my disappointment and a delicate magenta orchid he sent me two days later for company on my birthday. A lovely but ultimately empty gesture. Those fragile blooms would wither and die just as my undying devotion would gradually come apart.
I treasure our many years of happiness and I'm committed to our marriage, but I am now the couple. I consult myself on everything of substance, except when I forget that he's not him. Then I pick his brain but the yield is close to zero. Our marriage is like a chess game where I play both sides—an enervating and thankless task. And like chess, my life strategy is simple—strengthen my defenses and keep the king in the game.
I yearn for some enlightened conversation, some warm companionship, some marital comfort, but my husband has withdrawn to the privacy of his own entangled thoughts—a hidden palace I cannot enter. A quiet docile ghost is my partner now as we make our way to nowhere. Slowly and inexorably to nowhere. But we are still a couple ‘til death do us part, as it will one day. But not yet, please God. Not today. I am not ready.
Anne Bingham, Dependence Day
Only yesterday I was on my hands and knees thinning lettuce, but then I fell, and the Green Ice grew tall candles that today are tipped with the red flames of house finches.
The home health aide du jour has arranged my hands, the paperweight of my right holding down the still living left. I am an expensive, articulated doll to be positioned just so, lest a hand with porcelain bones flop between the gleaming steel of the wheel's rim and the ungiving oak of the door jamb. Ah ya yaaaaaaa. It has happened before, it will happen again, and the home health aide du jour will fold my swollen and bleeding hand into the lap robe. She will not think to wash the lap robe in cold water, if she thinks to wash it at all, this soft white afghan, this wedding gift, and so there will be a stain and no one will know it is blood from her carelessness, the stain of her failure to grasp the concept of pre-treatment. They will assume it is drool, at best.
But they probably will assume it is Not-Drool.
I should have planted astilbe in more places in the garden. There would be more to see from this corner of the porch that looks into the shade and the one patch of sunlight by the back door. In the middle of the patch is the potted amaryllis my daughter brought at Christmas, its leaves drooping like the ears of a fancy Dutch rabbit. I will have to stake the ears tomorrow.
One of the lettuce flames has flown into the lilacs. It whets its beak on a thin shoot: swipe on the left side, swipe on the right side, swipe on the left side, like my husband standing over the turkey swiping carving knife against steel. I have not seen him for a long time, that husband. The home health aide du jour should see this finch. She calls them red sparrows, but they are house finches, an invasive species but nevertheless attractive. I will ask her to bring the field guide to birds that I keep by the kitchen window so that I can show her their true name.
Ah ya yaaaaaaa!
She does not come, will not come until the commercial, and then she will ask if I've messed my pants, but it is not really a question.
And she will push vanilla pudding at me, and it will be too sweet by half.
Bumble bees drone in the lazy heat. I am so tired.
The bees roar over the porch roof. The swarm must be big. I did not think bumble bees swarmed. The yard goes dark, then light, as the huge black bees, the bees that fly forth in July, pass by.It is too much to bear. Ah ya yaaaaaaa. My good arm flails for no good reason and knocks the pudding spoon from her hand. The spoon slides down my cardigan, leaving a trail of vanilla that looks like pus, lands on the bricks. Splatters pudding bloom on the screen walls of the porch, as if the spoon has sneezed without covering its mouth.
The home health aide du jour sighs and waddles off to get a cloth.
I watch a silverback chipmunk, a thirty-generation descendent of the ones my daughter tamed with raisins yesterday, when the salad garden was a sandbox. The silverback's ancestors wore Chip 'n' Dale colors then. A house two streets over had albino chipmunks in the yard, and now almost every chipmunk one sees is a silverback. My granddaughters would enjoy knowing this, but if I tell them, all they would remember would be Ah ya yaaaaaaa, ah ya yaaaaaaa.
I endure the clean-up. I ignore her probing, indelicate finger. She finally goes away. The bees have gone away too. A radio, or maybe her television, is broadcasting a Bob Hope special. He must be entertaining the troops. Who are we fighting now?
My daughter tells the home health aides du jour to protect my clothes when I eat, to puree real food in the blender sometimes, not to leave me sitting in a breeze as I am now, my right foot tapping to music it hears even when the TV is off. They never open the curtains in my room, and I love the morning light. It was the one with the carving knife who insisted on blocking out every bit of light from the bedroom, but he went away yesterday, in a long box, and it is my turn to have things my way, they keep telling me, and all I want is the sun in the morning and the round saucer of the moon through my window at night.
My toe catches a crocheted daisy, drags the lap robe down onto the bricks into the wet spots left by the pudding. I point my foot, flex my foot, point my foot. It would be nice to wear shoes again, sleek leather pumps with open toes and perforated leather for the summer, instead of these ankle-hugging, fake-fleece-lined, washable but still shit-stained velour booties. And a navy blazer with bright gold buttons instead of this sweater, but a blazer does not stretch enough for dressing Granny-tucked-in-a-corner-by-the-fire, attended by immigrants of uncertain legal status who steal things, load my chairs and silver in vans while I watch, unable to protest beyond ah ya yaaaaaaa. This business of keeping me in my own home, I don't know. These walls, this furniture, the red bricks of this porch whisper what it is really my turn to do.
A new woman comes, and a man and two little girls. The girls come to look at me. They go on about seeing bees. Fifty-two bees. The man tells the woman they are not bees, but seas, Sea one-tens, for cargo, not bombs. They are talking nonsense. No one can count bees flying, and there are only seven seas. I close my eyes so that they will go away.
They do not go away. The new woman talks with the old one.
The street was closed early and we had to find another way. Thank you for staying. How is she today?
The Air Guard flyover upset her, but then she went to sleep.
You girls go on with Dad. I'll bring Grandma when she wakes up.
The man steals bicycles from the big square car, and the little girls ride away toward the radio music on wheels twined with colors of blood and snow and permanent blue-black ink.
The heat and the music and the shade from the big tree remind me of sitting on a curb in shade that will not be shade for long, watching thunderheads rise over the buildings at the end of the street, hoping the storm will break before the last marchers reach the parking lot so I can see if the sousaphones will fill with water.
The new woman keeps trying to put a hat on me.
I push her hand away and close my eyes.
Mother, don't you want to go to the parade?
I am ready to go back to my hotel now, where they do not steal things. I will lock the door behind me, and go to sleep.
There is a spaceship in the driveway. It is a black round thing, on tripod legs. I hear the radio again, and gunshots. The army must be fighting the tripods.
The new woman goes right up to the tripod's ship. She opens it from the top and pours small black boxes inside. She squirts something on the boxes, and points a long red gun at them, a gun tipped with a flame that reminds me of…something to do with green ice.
Soon I see flames coming from the space ship. The small black squares must have been bombs.
That will teach them.
The new woman goes away.
The woman is on the porch. She wheels me up the ramp into the house. Is she taking me out to burn with the tripods?
She wheels me into the bathroom. She makes me sit there until I go pee-pee. Then she brings me back to the porch.
The far away radio plays more music.
The army shoots more enemies.
I do not hear any more bees.
The woman unfolds chairs, arranges them under the tree. They sit on the green lawn like blue and silver butterflies drying their wings. The woman goes away.
The woman is on the porch. She turns my chair toward the house. I would rather watch the butterflies.
The woman holds my good hand and asks questions, many questions. She wants me to play a spelling game. I am supposed to tap a foot or blink my eye or smile when she gets to a letter I know. The woman reminds me of the silverback, chirp chirp chirping like a smoke detector with a failing battery. I had my daughter convinced I could tell the chipmunks apart. That's Dale, I'd say. I haven't seen Chip since yesterday. I hope the cat didn't get him!
I miss my daughter. I wonder where they have taken her.
The woman leaves the porch. I turn my head very far. I see the space ship again. There are no flames now, only the burning aliens and a smell like the baseball place. I suppose they will stop the game now that the aliens are here. Or will they play now that the aliens are burning?
The children return with their stolen bikes. They do not seem ashamed of themselves. The man looks inside the space ship. The woman is with him. It hurts my neck to keep turning my head this far, this long, but it is better than watching the empty chairs on the place where I am sitting.
—Maybe we should make other arrangements. She doesn't seem happy. And her hand is all black and blue.
Should we take her for an X-ray?
—It doesn’t seem to hurt. I tried to put a sun hat on her, and she gave me a whack you couldn't believe. All those years in the weight room at the Y, and this is what it comes down to.
The parade would have agitated her even more. She's not used to crowds, and the yard is so peaceful.
—If only the stroke had been on the other side. She'd have her speech, at least. I could tell when she was here and when dementia was in control.
Aliens are burning to death in my driveway.
Red sparrows are burning the Green Ice in my garden.
The soldiers have gone away with Bob Hope, and I have not even the means of suicide.
Ah ya yaaaaaaa. Ah ya yaaaaaaa.