Hung in Memory

Three Christmas trees stand in our house, each trimmed with memories old and new.

The oldest tree is a fiber optic tree I bought in my years at boarding school. Its motor to change colors is as loud as a washing machine, but Blondie loves it. She decorates it with all the Peanuts ornaments Bo has given me since we first started dating twelve years ago. The boys have a tree Bo bought during his year of ministry internship. We keep its ornaments mostly unbreakable, as the garland is often pulled off to be rope.

The family tree is a collection of Christmases past. There are ornaments Bo and I have made or received over the past thirty-some years.

My grandmother made this one by hand. The time, the patience, the steady hand to wrap the thread just so, to pin the pearls and sequins.

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When I was young, our ornaments were all packed in a giant stove box. At some point my elder brother and I started a contest to find this glass dove. Some years it was in the first layer of ornaments; other years the fifth.

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Some ornaments hang in memory of those who’ve died. When my mother’s parents died, I received their Christmas angels. They always fly just beneath the star.

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When my father’s parents died, I received back a few ornaments I had bought them years ago.

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Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

Last Christmas, my sister-in-law tried to kill herself.  This year our relations with Bo’s side have been tense, but nothing…out there, into the darkness again. And for that I’ve been thankful. They even wanted to come to our house last week for Blondie’s Christmas service and my birthday.

In the hours before they arrived, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

“It’s…it’s Aiden. Oh, Jean, he’s…he’s not with us anymore. He was so despondent, his partner…” sobs.

I stopped breathing. My cousin was just a couple years older, a sweetheart. When Mom faded after “partner” all I could think was, What the fuck did he do to my cousin, I’ll fucking–

“His partner found him. He…he hung himself, Jean.”

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

The oven declared something, I don’t know why the fuck that timer was even on, just so much God damn NOISE. Fucking NOISE when I all I could do was huddle up in the hallway and cry.

I managed to call Bo. He managed to get out of work just before his relatives came. My sister-in-law takes the coffee I offer her and asks, “So, how’s it going?”

Part of me just wants to punch her.

“Not great.” And I find I’m physically unable to make words. Do I just flat out say, “My cousin hung himself, so I’m pretty shitty right now because the last thing I want to do is celebrate a birthday or talk to people. I want to walk outside in the below-zero snow and fucking THINK, and cry, and let the tears freeze my face because I fucking failed my family.”?

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

No one acts like anything happened. They carry on just as we were directed to do last year: lots of plastered smiles and talk without substance. I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

My elder brother wants me to ride with him across the state for the funeral. I decline. I wanted to sit in silence…or noise, if I wanted. I want to control my environment, however briefly. To have ONE thing under my control.

Why, Aiden?

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The obituary barely mentioned depression. Was his depression like my own postpartum depression? Bo knew I was sad, knew I was depressed, but he had no clue just how bad it was until I put it into writing years later. He looked at me like he didn’t know me.

I learned as a child to live two lives: the life locked away with The Monster, and the public life of the Preacher’s Daughter. I learned to smile and joke and shrug and separate the pain and confusion so it felt like an other-life, like it couldn’t possibly impact the world outside my bedroom. Did Aiden live as two selves?

And it never even occurred to me to get it out, to really talk about it, until these past couple of years. Between the writing and the reading of Zoe Zolbrod’s experience as an abuse victim, I hadn’t physically felt just how deep that pain had saturated me. It’s been a long, nasty time, working the poisons out. And until The Monster agrees to family therapy, the poisons will never be out completely.

What kept the poisons in Aiden? Or did he not even know he had been poisoned at all?

When pain is all we know, we don’t realize there’s an alternative. The toddler of a friend of mine often tires of walking because she’s a problem with her hip my friend can’t afford to have surgically handled. The girl’s not a fan of walking or running, and who can blame her? She’s never known the movement to not hurt. Was that life for Aiden? Did life just never not hurt?

Much of my father’s family fell out of contact with Aiden when he opened up about his homosexuality. My uncle didn’t help much: while a kind and funny man, he was also very selfish, much like his wife. The two split not-amicably, leaving Aiden and his sister with their mother in the North Woods while he moved to Florida. Even Aiden’s funeral wasn’t enough to bring him back.

No wonder, then, when I went to the visitation and studied the pictures hung about the room and saw near nothing of our branch of the family. To my shame, it’s only right. The stills of his past were filled with those who were there for him in the present. While I can look back on the warm glow of childhood Christmases spent together, we only saw each other a handful of times in the past fifteen years: I had gone on to school, marriage, and motherhood. I only caught snippets of his struggles with alcohol, relationships, and relations with his own mother and sister. The last time I saw him was at our grandfather’s funeral. We spoke for a long time about faith and love, the insanity of kids–he had been helping raise his nephew. The last I heard of him he even had custody of one because his sister continued to struggle with drugs.

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How I wish I would have known of his love of the 80s. Of writing. Of him. Because for all that philosophical and nostalgic talk we never really talked about each other. We never reached for each other.

I have to live with that missed chance now, but I’m not going to let that regret ferment into another poison. NW Filbert once shared this quote from Wendell Berry to me. It’s never fit more than now:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Reach for those whom you love this Christmas. Hug them. Plant a big wet one on their foreheads. Christmas glows not only with light, but with hope. May that hope shine as you call them out of their inner darkness.

Click here for more on the American Federation for Suicide Prevention.

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Markers

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This lovely emerald isle was my Narnia whenever we visited my mother’s parents in Watertown.

Yeah, I know. Not much when I think about the camp that truly felt like Narnia to me. But my grandparents had no yard of which to speak, and the park  of the forgotten portal was off-limits without a grown-up. Something about drowning, or strangers, or, you know, those boring things grown-ups think about when there’s adventure to find!

Beyond the emerald isle, you can see a fenced-off cemetery. It’s very old–clearly once the outskirts of the town, until they built around it. It covers the entire hillside, a mile if not more. We always drove past it to go into town, and every time, my eyes fixated on this:

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Hard to catch, but I wanted you to see what my kiddie eyes saw: a stone tree.

I didn’t understand it. Why did someone build a stone tree in a cemetery? What’s it mean? Who’s it for? I imagined other strange creatures of stone, a whole land captured in a moment, eternally asleep until the right magic could wake it.

“No, Jean, you can’t play there. Good girls don’t go and play in cemeteries. NO, we are NOT going in there.” Neither my grandparents nor my mother seemed to remember that we used to live smack-dab next to a cemetery up north until I was 4, where our yard WAS the cemetery. So, was I evil for playing in it then?

Anyway.

Years passed before I finally dared to go it alone. Living at boarding school, free of sports and off of work. My grandmother in heaven, my grandfather in another part of town. We were told that GOOD students don’t go to this side of town, too much seedy behavior from the public children, keep OUT of there–

–until finally: “Fuck you, this is MY hometown, so I’M GOING,” I thought quietly and respectfully to myself. For I did think of Watertown as mine. It’s been the only place I’ve really known all my life. So to be told a precious piece of my little years was tainted by others’ sin…well. Note the aforementioned thought.

After visiting the park, I looked down the road, and remembered the hill. The cemetery.

Years of looking through the fence. Of a stone tree through a car window.

I had to see.

~*~

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No, these pictures aren’t from the 90s, sorry. 🙂 And I’m sorry to report the cemetery wasn’t the magical world trapped in reality as I had dreamt back then. What I found was the past entombed in the present.

At last.

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Rusted spikes run round the graves. I see old hoops for a chain to run across the opening. Someone did not want these places touched by strangers. I am sorry, but…I need to see.

Two books: one so faded I cannot read, and I have nothing with which to trace. Words lost to time and sight, but not to my fingers. If only I had the tools…. The other book marks names and dates. A hummingbird forever flying, vines forever climbing. But the tree has no top. A tree with no branches cannot live.

Why such small pieces of stone life? Surely a stone tree, branches and all, would symbolize life eternal, right out of Eden.

Perhaps the one who commissioned this was not thinking of life eternal. Perhaps all he, or she, wanted was some bit of hope clawing up through the ground. A flicker of life that darts in and out of the corner of one’s eye. One that could never be caught.

Whoever it was, this person wanted to sit with those laid to rest, and be with them. The difference in tombs, though…why but a trunk face for one, while a formal tomb with book for the other?

No inscription of any kind could be found on the trunk. Perhaps…not the one really loved? And yet this one was allowed inside the compound. Curious.

It made me think of another grave in another town.

I looked to the sky, to my empty hands. I had no flowers to give, but…

~*~

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No works of art marking where the dead rest this time. For every plaque embedded into the ground, you can instead see a bouquet of artificial flowers, courtesy of the memorial park.

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I cringe at the sight of a small yellow and white collection of fibers and plastic marking my father’s place.

No, it’s not fair to say fake flowers equal fake grief, but they seem so…obligated. For show. Look, someone likes him enough to make sure something bright is above his name. It will be there day after day after day–unless the lawnmower destroys it, of course. It could wave about in the wind for months, even, like the artificial Christmas wreath I once found on my grandfather’s grave in June. Faded, broken.

Sad.

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The closest thing to statue work is here: a tower with each side portraying a Gospel writer. Dad got St. Luke. He’d have liked that, I think: the practical doctor who saw Jesus better the lives of others’ through His Words and Actions.  Dad referred to Luke in more sermons than any other book of the Bible.He worked among all, gave them hope and faith, just as he learned from his Savior.

Do I wish we had given my father more of a marker? Good Lord, no…well, maybe a walk-in stone Tardis, but that’s besides the point. No, Dad, and me, and all of my family, are firm believers that death is but a chapter break, and that the bones and ashes placed in the earth are simply that–bones, ashes. The soul is not in that box, but in the heavens, beautiful as a star, and far, far happier. The last thing Dad would have wanted was for everyone to fixate on this rectangle with his name on it, and think that’s all it comes to.

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I get into the car as thunder bordered on the edge of the air. Grab a random burned CD and turned it up so I wouldn’t be lost to tears. And on comes “Journey of the Sorcerer” orchestrated by Joby Talbot. It just so happens to be the theme for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a favorite author of my father’s. Banjo and piano meets with raindrops, drops turned to streams as the brass swells to the that rebellious staccato up and down, down and up. Set to repeat, I feel the build and dance every minute of that drive home, awash in memory of  Dad’s eager talks about childhood adventures in Milwaukee, how Douglas Adams wrote the best Doctor Who stories in the Baker years–

–and hope to God this downpour smites the damn flowers.

 

Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like this character? Tough tamales, I’ll kill him. Why? Because I can. Mwa ha ha!

mediaLast Time, on Jean Lee’s World…

To be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went.

~*~

Now: This is the second step, and the more irritating of the two at that.

Death is a natural for the mystery. Death is itself a mystery, after all. Being a daughter of faith, I learned that death is but a door, a turning at the crossroads. All reach this turning when God says it’s time. Since the birth of my daughter I have seen four important people of my life take that turn: my father-in-law, my grandfather, my grandmother, my father. One year after another, Death’s crossing led my family away from me. The air tastes like vinegar when I think of it.

So when it comes to death in a fictional world, I do not take it lightly. In fact, I am infuriated when an author does. Like Eco.

Yes, Eco.

“But Jean, it’s a mystery. People die in mysteries ALL the time.” Well duh. My all-time favorite tv show is Murder, She Wrote, for cryin’ out loud. Once I started reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I lost myself in the intrigues of Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, P.D. JamesEllis Peters, and Elizabeth George.

Yes. In a mystery, someone dies. A bunch, even.

But those deaths are still not taken lightly. At the very least, those deaths serve the story, and press it forward. Justice is sought, and usually served. If justice is not served, there is at least some sort of reason to answer why.

Does Eco have such deaths? Oh, yes. A number of monks die in The Name of the Rose due to their involvement with something sinister. Their deaths work with the story. Eco even seems to relish the foretelling of their murders, which…eh. A little foreshadowing is fine, now and again, such as when Ado alludes to a future tragedy in the midst of a religious debate:

Perhaps I made a mistake: if I had remained on guard, many other misfortunes would have been averted. but I know this now; I did not know it then.

Or he’ll stick his foreshadowing into the chapter heading to hook the reader:

MATINS: In which a few hours of mystic happiness are interrupted by a most bloody occurrence.

Yes, it worked on me every time, blast him.

Yes, I’m still infuriated. Not about that–about the fates of two particular characters.

First, the girl. A poor villager smuggled in by monks for sexual favors and paid for with food. The only physical girl character in the novel (as opposed to female saints or witches), our narrator, the novice Adso, discovers her in the kitchen waiting for whomever has bought her that night. But his entry interrupts that, and they…well Adso’s far more poetic about sex than I could ever be. A few chapters later she is discovered by an inquisitor and branded a witch. Adso pleads with his master, William of Baskerville, to save her. He shakes his head. Nothing to be done. She is, as he puts it, “burnt flesh.”

Not that we see her death. We’re just told it will eventually happen in some other town. Adso never sees her after the arrest, and she quickly fades from importance.

I gritted my teeth over this one. So, the character was created to help propel seedy events. Growth of Adso’s character. Expose the absurdity of witchcraft accusations back then. Okay. Sure. But her death doesn’t matter? Even the screenwriters of the film version didn’t care for this, and had the girl be saved from the pyre. Saved or not, at least give the girl a chance to finish her life’s arc on the stage instead of off.

But the “death” that REALLY gets me is way, way in the beginning of the novel, with one of the first major characters we meet: Ubertino. An older man, very learned, experiences with the warring Pope and the Emperor, friend of William of Baskerville, and now in hiding for his life awaiting the secret religious debate to take place at this very abbey. At one point in their first conversation, Adso gets a little freaked out by Ubertino’s behavior:

At that moment, terrified, I thought Ubertino was in the power of a kind of holy frenzy, and I feared for his reason. Now, with the distance of time, knowing what I know–namely, that two years later he would by mysteriously killed in a German city by a murderer never discovered–I am all the more terrified, because obviously that evening Ubertino was prophesying.

Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is that there’s no telling who will be killed, when, with what, or why. Because Adso is writing this account years later, we know he survives, but that’s it. We don’t know if William of Baskerville lives through this murder. We only know that one monk has died under suspicious circumstances, but the book is massive (my edition is 538 pages long), so there HAS to be at least another death. Who will it be? Readers want to be invested in the characters. Sure, they want them to live. That makes them read on: so they live.

What we DON’T like is being told: “Sure, this guy will live. For now. He dies later, so you know. His efforts are pretty pointless here. But hey, he lives through this!”

Then what’s the point?

Why should I care about him, if I know he’s going to live through this ordeal only to die for no reason offstage? Any suspense surrounding this character is gone. That means the mystery around this character is gone.

And the last thing a mystery can afford to lose, is mystery.

 

Writer’s Music: Thomas Newman II

91ufkP71uyL._SY355_Long, long ago, one of my mother’s favorite stories was turned into a film (again): LITTLE WOMEN. She and my father decided to do a family movie outing, where he, my uncle, and my brother would attend one film, and my mother, aunt, and I would attend another.

I was seething the entire trip. Why couldn’t I see the boy movie? HIGHLANDER III sounded loads better than some girl movie. (May the snickering commence.)

Looking back…well, I never did get to see Highlander III, so I still don’t know whether or not I came out ahead. (Yes, I’ve been told I have, many times over.) No matter what I thought of the story or the film, one element stuck with me, hard: the music.

Newman’s theme to Little Women still surprises me with its versatility. The opening sequence shines brightly through the brass and strings. Splendor, light, joy–all this comes through in “Orchard House.”

The theme depicts a strength you can’t help but associate with Jo and her sisters. They’re a source of life for the brooding and sick surrounding them.

But then they grow up, part ways. It takes a death to bring them back together.

Now Newman could have written a special sorrowful theme. He could have devised something simple for the period, with, say, a violin or a flute. Lord knows I was familiar enough with the lone violin playing “Shenandoah’s Theme” every time an important person died in Ken Burns’ documentary THE CIVIL WAR. But Newman didn’t. He used his life-light theme again, but not with an orchestra. This time, the theme comes to us on piano in “Valley of the Shadow.”

A piano still has the feel of the period. It was the beloved instrument of the character who died. The theme comes to us in chords, without fluid arpeggios or connections: the notes move together, as these sisters must now move forward together.

I cannot think of another score where the main theme moves from triumph to mourning with a mere change of instrument.

Stories, at least the good ones, do not follow the easy journeys. They take the mountain trails, pass through all those shadowed valleys. Face the monsters all around.

Within.

Only then can a light of triumph shine upon that final page.

Click here for more on Thomas Newman.

Click here for more on LITTLE WOMEN.

 

Mrs. Fix-It

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My living room is a perpetual kill-floor.

“Mommy, fix Windlifter’s tail-fin?”

“No, it’s broken.”

“Mommy, fix the ladder truck?”

“Fix Dipper’s wing?”

“Fix the picture?”

“Fix it?”

“Fix it?”

“Can you fix it tonight?”

“No, it’s BROKEN.”

Bits of car, shards from a thrown plane. Train tracks strewn everywhere. Torn pictures, colored and blank. Books, stepped on, slid on, and therefore ripped.

Of course, this all comes from having twin boys who think biting and clawing are typical play. If something CAN break, it SHOULD, and because it is theirs it MUST be fixed. To accept something’s broken is to accept they did something wrong. Not the easiest task for a three-year-old.

And who is expected to fix whatever “it” may be?

Me.

~*~

My father was a Mr. Fix-It. Called away to the hospital to stabilize an uproar between family and staff. Between family and family. Called merely to sit, and to listen to those whose families act like they’re dead. Called away to sit, and to listen, and to attempt a bridging between those determined to tear their own families apart.

The demands on fixing didn’t stop with his vocation.

My aunt’s husband died a few years ago from excessive drinking and smoking. Surgery after surgery, warning after warning, and he never stopped. Many of us saw his death as inevitable. Not my aunt.

Life wasn’t quite so insane for me back then: Biff tucked himself quietly away in the back of my womb while Bash somersaulted to his heart’s content. Toddler Blondie loved to be with her Grandma and Grandpa, so we often visited on weekends. After a particularly busy morning outside Blondie crashed in the guest room; the rest of us settled for a quiet read/work time in the basement.

Then my aunt called. Mom put it on speaker, because apparently no phone call was private in that house. “I just got the autopsy report, and…” sobs.

This is my mother’s sister.

My mother hands her off to Mr. Fix-It, and goes to the laundry room.

I get up to go, but no–stay, Jean. You’ll wake Blondie.

So I sit, and listen to my aunt go on and on about why no one told her it was this bad, why her husband didn’t say anything. Dad all the while gently telling her no one could tell Uncle D what to do, Uncle D always had a strong faith, and on and on.

My mother occasionally comes by the phone, but doesn’t take over the conversation until my aunt’s sobs have died down. Until the fixing’s done.

Dad looks at me, shakes his head. Goes back to writing his sermon.

~*~

Being the stay-at-home-parent has made me the Mrs. Fix It of my family. All the ripped/cracked/frosted/peed on items are brought to me. When Bash gets over a tantrum, he comes to me to “clean his face.” Even if Bo is home, I’m the one sought. And if I plan to leave the home, Bo seeks me out to fix up the children’s schedule for him so he knows what to do and when.

~*~

Every family has a Fixer, the one who maintains the connections, is sought for improvements, changes.

Somehow, Dad’s death put his duties on me.

I didn’t feel it at first, overwhelmed by my own grief.

Then came the phone calls from my mother.

Grief counseling was a waste of time, she said. She wouldn’t talk to another pastor, because no one else was Dad.

I have two brothers: one who lives near her, the other a pastor elsewhere in the country. My mother and I have never been bound with more than the ties created by Christian duty.

Yet she talked to me. Sobbed to me. And I never, ever had the right thing to say.

Some souls are so…so rich with love and faith that when they are removed, it is a literal chasm in your emotional and spiritual self. I don’t know if, being my father’s daughter, my mom expected me to somehow replace Dad. I don’t know if, now that Dad was gone, she thought we could finally have a relationship. I don’t know. I’ve never known my mom, and in all the talks in tears I still don’t know her. Every attempt I made at comfort or encouragement was not what she wanted to hear, at least from me. So eventually, she stopped calling.

Then came the messages: friends of my parents, relatives of my father. At any given family gathering or run-in with friends I am the one who’s asked: “How’s your mom? Is she seeing anyone?” And all I can give are platitudes: “up and down.” “good days and bad days.” Facebook messages pop up from people I haven’t seen in years, wondering how she is. I am sought to maintain the connections. I am expected to Fix This, All of This.

~*~

I sit on the floor in my sons’ room. Shades still drawn. Dark, quiet, since the boys are happily watching their favorite trains.

Quiet but for my sobs.

There came a point where all I could see were expectations unfulfilled. Of progress dumped out onto the floor, and broken, again, to be fixed, AGAIN, and how come you can’t fix it why can’t you mommy FIX it Mommy FIX IT

And there’s nothing I can do.

Tomorrow I will leave the house, schedule neatly written and left on the kitchen counter for Bo, and pull up to an office building. Walk in. State I have an appointment.

Tomorrow I will go up to someone who’s never met me, and lay it all out. All the broken pieces, the twisted old bits that used to work until they were trampled one too many times.

Tomorrow I will ask someone else to help Fix It.

Me.

 

 

Writer’s Music: Anne Dudley

The let-down. The loss. However your characters experience it, there will come a time when the conflict snaps the characters’ will in two, and everyone needs a chance to cope.

I stumbled upon Anne Dudley’s album A Different Light in my father’s collection. Like me, he had rather eclectic taste in music. He didn’t always have patience for instrumentals, so I was rather surprised to find this.

“A Different Light” burdens a violin with most of the melody. Strings are all one hears in long, mournful chords. The solo violin seems to be lost in a disconnect from the rest of the strings, dwelling upon its own pain while the rest of the world presses forward, until the final minute–all the harmonies of sadness become one great swell, and then break apart again to fade, and to fade. When plot pauses to deal with loss, cast your characters in “A Different Light.”

Click here for more on Anne Dudley.

Click here for more on A DIFFERENT LIGHT.

Strange Grief

As desperation mounted in the search of Where Can’t Biff and Bash Reach Yet, the hutch felt like a safe haven. Shelves at my eye level, and a long wide ledge higher than that for sticking the drumsticks and plastic tools they use on each other’s heads. Candles were shoved in there, writing utensils, sharp things and long things that could become weapons. Even Blondie started shoving toys up there, or asking Bo and I to stick such’n’such race car “way up high where my brothers can’t get it.”

Then my boys discovered the joy in ladder-building. Nothing is safe on any edge ANYwhere.

Thank God wee arms can’t reach too far. To create more space in the depths of the hutch, I dump piles of papers and old toys from the hutch shelf onto the table. Blondie is happily surprised in finding an old magnetic dress-up set she thought lost months ago. Then: “Mommy, what’s this?” She holds out a blank card.

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Cheery thing. Blue-white check, two pastel, happy owls sharing a sparkly red heart. “Whoo’s nicer than grandparents like you?” “Nobody, that’s whoo!”

I take it, primly set it to the side. “It’s nothing.”

Bash notices. “Owls! Two owls! They are hugging!” I rip it from his hands before he can bend it. Primly set it aside again. Glare at my son for daring to bend a nothing.

Biff looks up from the Tinkerbell math game to see what the fuss is all about. “W.H. O. O. Spells? Spell?” Very keen to learn, that one.

I have to answer, don’t I? “What’s an owl say?”

Bash, voice high and syrupy-sweet: “Hoot hoot!”

“That’s what it spells.” Which of course it doesn’t. I look at the garbage can, the card, the garbage…

Blondie goes on tip-toe to give the card another once-over. “But what’s it for?”

“Valentine’s Day.” I can’t help but look outside at all the raking we’ve yet to do. Now that Bo found some kid-sized rakes, the kids can work with me for a change and clean up our yard before November gives out.

“What’s Valentine’s Day?”

“You know what it is, Blondie.” Why am I getting so heated about this? But I am. I snatch a cookbook from Bash when his only crime is touching the cover.

“Why was it in there?” She asks, pointing at the hutch.

“One. Two. Three hearts.” Biff pokes the card with his pudgy finger.

How did he get it down?!

I yank it away and just…hold it.

“M-o-m.”

“Yes. Blondie.”

“It’s Thanksgiving time, not Valentine’s Day time.”

“I know.”

“So why do we have that?” She points to the card. The entire planet is fixated on this one card and the weight of this, of IT, almost makes me answer:

Mommy got your grandma and grandpa a card for Valentine’s Day, but forgot to send it, because Mommy always forgets things, forgets little things and big things, and then Grandpa died. So now she can’t send it, because it says ‘grandparents,’ and the merest mention of Grandpa makes Grandma and Mommy cry, and we don’t want to do that to Grandma, do we? Yes, Mommy’s crying, let her cry.

Bash shoves Biff off the chair for a shot at the Tinkerbell math game. The distraction gives me just enough time to dodge the falling weight and say, “Because we can’t send it until another Valentine’s Day.”

Satisfied, Blondie returns to her prodigal toy. I scold Bash, he whines, “Go on timeout! Go to my room!” and he does so with the flair of a teenage girl. Biff discovers a raisin I missed in yesterday’s clean-up and tries to eat it.

I know I didn’t answer the question.

Hell, I can’t even answer the question for myself.

Why keep it? Why not throw it away?

I see that card, and I see the last chance I had at sharing a bit of love, of appreciation, with my father before his heart failure. I see the last chance stuck in a pile of papers like it was nearly two years ago. It was lost and forgotten then. I seem to lose it now, on purpose, forget it on purpose, just to remind myself of what I didn’t do.

My grief demands strange pieces to linger in the here and now. My father’s Facebook feed still shows up online. His handwriting on random post-it notes in books I borrowed long ago, or that Mom’s returned since then. His voice in a recordable storybook. I cry whenever my daughter opens it. I sometimes wish my sons would erase it, cast his ghost out of this house. Yet how dare I wish to destroy what is a warm reminder of happiness from my daughter’s past. How dare I.

I shove the card into the drawer with other cards—forgotten baby congrats, retirement wishes. Out of sight, out of mind. But never out of me.

The Old Crown

1439144371488On top of a cupboard in my father’s study sits an old crown. Sheet metal, cut and soldered together. Large, gaudy pieces of costume jewelry are glued near the points and at the base. A heavy thing—it gives one a headache after just a few minutes’ wear.

The crown was made in the 60s by my grandfather, a man for whom the theater was…well, it kept his sons out of trouble. And all three were such orators. Show some support, Rand, I imagine my grandmother saying. So Grandpa made it, and it saw the stage with my two uncles, and my father, who loved directing and performing in the works of Shakespeare. The performer in my father remained strong: he could speak in front of hundreds with ease, wit, and character. He brought a passion to the pulpit, to the sick room. He understood human nature, an essential skill for a reverend as well as an actor.

My father’s death froze the movement of many things—his study, for one. Phasers, sonic screwdrivers, Justice League Lego, starship ornaments and more remain a testament for the fantastic Dad so loved as much as his Calling. Notes about the elderly, conferences, hymns to be composed also remain, strewn about his desk as though he only stepped out for an appointment. My mother refuses to move them. While I cannot blame her for wanting that feel of Dad in his favorite room, it is…ethereal.

Yet for some reason, I am not put off by his crown. Perhaps because I, like my father, enjoyed time on the stage. I, too, love writing as he once did. And there is a sense of our bloodline with it: the love of my grandfather brought this crown into existence. My father preserved it, a memento of golden days. When I see it, I can feel the happiness it witnessed decades ago. More than all the phasers and comic books, the crown emanates importance.

It Matters.

I have written before on how things may inspire our stories. Sometimes, though, it isn’t about the writing itself. Sometimes, it is about the WHY. The crown reminds me of the joy found in exploring character, the sharing of story with others. The passion to create. The need to create.

This need may grow heavy upon our countenance, and bow us towards the ground. Take it off. Yes, take it off, and look upon it. Remember why you walk the world, day after day, with it. Why you share it with others. Why you love it.

Never has something so plain transcended into something so beautiful.

The Consequence of Denying “What If”

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Nurses in the intensive care unit step aside, for I move with purpose. It is my father’s gait, one I followed year after year as he brought me along to visit sick parishioners.

Rachel’s room is guarded by a cart armed with gowns and gloves. I cover myself as directed and enter a gallery of drawn flowers, suns, crosses, cakes—get-well cards sent from her students in the south. I lose track of all the tubes and where they connect and look for the girl I met in boarding school.

Rachel’s head tilts away from me, covered partly in bandages and partly with a blue Velcro noose. The note above her head explains how the noose is really a brace meant to keep her head upright. Towels are rolled up and positioned against her neck. The breathing and feeding tubes now have a guard that presses into her hollow cheeks; Rachel’s fingers look stuck inside the guard, like she had fallen asleep trying to pull it off. Which is quite likely, by the sounds of my last conversation with her mother.

-*-

“She keeps pulling out her tubes. I just don’t think she can take it anymore,” Mrs. Brim said to me as we stood over Rachel just a few nights ago. “She’s so sick of being here. She wants to go to her heavenly home.”

“Or she just wants to prove she doesn’t need them.” Why was this super-devout preacher’s wife talking about her daughter’s unconfirmed suicidal tendencies in front of her daughter, like she is something incapable of hearing or comprehension?

She waved me away then, like I didn’t really know her child. I shook my head like she didn’t know, either.

-*-

Rachel grew up a preacher’s child like me, and like me was sent to a Christian boarding school to learn how to serve God once adulthood hit. Unlike me, Rachel embraced this future. It was the only world she had known.

Reverend and Mrs. Brim put God above all things and taught their children to do the same. Music is for God. Read God-endorsed stories and Scripture. What you earn is for God. God, God, God.

I remember losing my voice more than once at their dinner table as I learned of the evils in society. The Brim parents ate like Jack Sprat and his wife, and looked the parts, too. “Imagine, these people call themselves Christian parents, but they let their children read about sorcery! Watch vampires and aliens on television! It’s all in defiance of God’s creation, Jean, you know that, don’t you?” Mrs. Brim always did the talking as Reverend Brim nodded along.

One weekend Mrs. Brim burst into Rachel’s room. “You won’t believe what I found today!” She held up a garment bag with a smile full of bravado. The smile faded when she noticed my copy of The Crying of Lot 49, but as she had no clue whether or not the book was evil, she did not comment. “I just couldn’t pass it up.” Mrs. Brim unzipped the bag. There hung a gold-white wedding dress, an unadorned gown of basic A-line shape, no train, and thin gauze for sleeves and collar. “It was such a bargain!” (All the Brims love bargains, but I don’t hold that against them. You have to when you’re a preacher’s family.) “Now you just need a husband.” Mrs. Brim laughed as though a wedding could happen once Rachel made up her mind with all those gentlemen callers, when in reality Rachel had yet to go on a date.

Rachel kept her face a complete blank, even when her mother insisted she try it on. I wanted to leave. That dress dictated the future: frugal marriage. Sensible lifestyle. Dedicated in duty. No-nonsense in family. A preacher’s wife.

“A perfect fit!”

I looked at Rachel. How could she not want to escape this? Didn’t she want to dictate her own life? The separation between her extremely conservative world and mine was bubble-thin. Just pop it and come out!

The next weekend I went home. There sat Dad in his favorite Doctor Who shirt (before it was cool) watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Wanna hit Hot Topic? I need a new Harry Potter shirt for the midnight premiere next week!”

Did a love of the worldly creations somehow make my father less godly? That’s what the Brims thought, hinting as much without saying it to my face. Yet I knew my father’s dedication to God was life-long and absolute. Grandma told me he played communion with his stuffed animals, for crying out loud, making little wafers with bread and putting grape juice in teeny cups. And then he’d go tie a red towel on his neck to be Superman. In the eyes of the Brims, one could not dabble in fantasy, for that meant you treated religion as fantasy. Now granted, Dad had Biblical commentaries shelved with Dragonriders of Pern, but that didn’t mean he took his divine vocation as a joke, nor did he consider dragon-riding a possible career change.

As my favorite writer Diana Wynne Jones wrote time and again, people need fantasy, to explore the “what if,” in order to work through the problems in real life. I, or I should say my children, are living proof of this: my post-partum depression reached levels so dangerous my rational self feared for my children’s safety. By writing about another world, I learned to cope with the one I’ve got.

-*-

The night before the surgery, Rachel explained that she hadn’t bothered seeing a doctor because she felt okay despite the weight loss. She just focused on her students. Being a dedicated servant to God’s flock, she knew God would see her through whatever ailment made her body act like an 80-year-old-woman’s. If not for her pastor specifically stating she needed to seek medical help, she would not have bothered with tests in the first place. Either God wanted her in heaven or He didn’t.

After years of hospital visits with strangers, church members, and grandparents, I knew how monotonous and confining those rooms could be. I raided my Diana Wynne Jones library and selected three favorites to help Rachel escape those sterile halls: Archer’s Goon, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and Charmed Life. I couldn’t wait for her to meet Chrestomanci and talk to her about how Jones blends worlds and pokes fun at all the clichés of the fantasy genre.

I stupidly pulled the books out with Mrs. Brim in the room.

“Oh what a nice card, Jean! And,” she paused at the sight of the books on the bedside table, “how nice. Thank you. Let’s move these for your supper, Rachel.” Mrs. Brim plunked the books on the windowsill behind the drapes. Rachel’s supper consisted of yogurt and Ensure. “Let’s not forget your owl!” Mrs. Brim balanced a large plush snowy owl where I had placed my books. I did not tell her the owl looked just like Hedwig from the Harry Potter series.

-*-

Now Rachel lay before me, barely sixty pounds, and unable to speak. The tumor had been wrapped around her brain stem for quite some time, according to the doctors. She needs a hole in her head to function as a drain, a permanent system where fluids could be siphoned into her stomach. And speaking of stomach, she needs a hole there too, so they can move the feeding tube. May as well put a hole in her throat so she can get her mouth back. All normal procedure—that is, until her fever goes away, which must stem from an infection we can’t find. We’ll just keep taking samples from all over and studying their cultures which could take days maybe weeks and keep her in intensive care which normally is just a short-term thing but what do you know, she’s been here five weeks. Well, what’s another week.

A week. I can’t imagine laying in that bed for an hour with all those tubes and noose on my head. I don’t blame Rachel for being so unresponsive. I just wish I could give her a new fantasy to live in, if only for a few hours, without backlash from her family. There are so many beautiful worlds out there, Rachel, beyond the Christian-approved Narnia and Middle Earth, where the quests are terrible and hilarious until the very end where all is well again. Without permission to share my fantasies, I resort to becoming Listener of Woes.

“It’s a shame her sister couldn’t come before the surgery,” Mrs. Brim says with a sigh, “but she had to play organ, and you know Ruth—she just has so many duties at the church, she didn’t want to let them down.”

I nod slowly because all I want to say is what   a   BITCH. Rachel may never be the same way again, and you put ORGAN before your sister? I do not say this because I know the answer: God first.

We say good-bye. “God has his plan for Rachel. We’ll see it someday.” She hugs me, which requires a very awkward bend forward on my part. I wonder if that wedding dress still hangs in Rachel’s old closet.

“The future is full of ‘what ifs’ to be explored, Mrs. Brim. Good night.”