Monday, May 20, 2013
At approximately 1:30 p.m. on Monday, July 8, 1991, a gowned obstetrician named Elizabeth Warren raised sterile, gloved hands and smiled across a drape as a nurse prepared to tie a mask around the lower half of her face. "Sorry I'm late," she said, to the Irish midwife across the knees of their patient. Her assistant raised one eyebrow in the only portion of her own face still visible. "I was waiting for the Roto Rooter guy," the doctor explained, and she lifted a razor-edged scalpel to make an incision.
Twenty minutes later, a pearl-colored infant uttered his first breath-taking sound, laughter. All eyes in the room danced. The doctor and the midwife closed while the pediatrician took Apgar scores to gauge how much trouble might await the thirty-four week newborn and his thirty-five-year-old mother. Stitch, count instruments, count swabs, stitch, repeat. The woman lying under their obsessive attention to preventing a malpractice claim? Me. The laughing baby? Patrick Charles Corley. None other.
Over the next two decades, laughter dominated that baby's vocalization. He stomped around the living room of our home in Brookside wearing black cowboy boots and a towel tied to resemble a cape, at two or three years old, singing, "nananananananana Batman!". When I sat in my rocker and cried, he stretched the neck of his T-shirt over his five-year old head, and swayed back and forth, chortling, "I am an old woman, who lives by the sea".
At six, he climbed the stairs to his school, seriously inquiring of his ailing maternal unit, "Are you going to die before I'm old?' When I tossed off a cavalier answer -- "No, I am going to live to be a hundred and three, and nag you every day of your life!", he crowed, so loud the first-floor pre-school teacher shushed him, "Then I'm going to ANNOY you every day of YOUR life!"
The trek from 1991 to 2013 held a few detours, some that led to dead ends, no-through streets, and construction barricades. A skirmish or two with frowning principals, some medical challenges, and the occasional foray into misty valleys inhabited by unfriendly trolls. Along the way, Patrick uttered some damn clever lines, I am here to tell you. He grew to a height less than he wanted; he failed to groom muscles despite a solid year of working out every day; and he often biked further than his mother cared to know, starting with the length of the Brookside Trolley Trail at age nine. Sometimes it took him a while to learn something, but once he learned, it stayed with him like white on rice. Unless it's brown rice. Or black rice. Or that yellow stuff that comes in packets and takes forever to cook.
He got a white and black cat and named it Sprinkles after the candy you put on ice cream. He got a brown dog and named it Chocolate, because, well, if you're going to have Sprinkles, they ought to be chocolate. He organized a sit-down in Kindergarten when the teacher closed the playroom due to the carelessness of some of the older girls. The sit-down had as its mantra that the many should not be punished for the sins of the few. His mother taught him that. His teacher was not amused.
A few years later, in fourth grade, that mother got a call to come over and straighten something out at the school. I found Patrick, now nine, leaning against the teacher's office desk with a black Metallica hat pulled down over his forehead so low that only his nervous eyes could be seen.
"What did he do," I asked. When told he had publicly and loudly accused the teacher of being unfair, I fell silent. "Were you unfair?" I finally asked the teacher. It seemed that Patrick and another student had taken the same test, and missed the same question. The other child got an A; Patrick got a B. "That does seem unfair," I ventured. "The very same test? The very same one wrong answer?" The teacher nodded. "Why did he get a B?" I asked. The explanation: The teacher felt Patrick could have gotten them all right, whereas the other child could not have. "I've got to side with my son on the merits," said I.
I told him, later, on the way home: "Right message, wrong method."
Those words would haunt me. Years later, when Patrick, now nearly twenty, heard me lose me temper, he took me aside and told me, "Right message, wrong method." But he took his analysis a step further. He asked why I had raised my voice in the first place, what had prompted my displeasure. He probed my logic, and then declared that he had changed his mind. I had erred at both ends. What could I say? I had been warned; when I told my second husband that I preferred cooperation to obedience, he predicted eventual regret.
In reality, I have no regrets. Or, perhaps, only one: That I could not provide broader experiences for my son. But that lament has roots deeper than his twenty-two years.
To say Patrick's life has been a wild ride understates the situation. He hasn't been to Europe, or Canada, but he has been to Mexico, and L.A., and North Carolina; to the Badlands and Beale Street; to the Dakotas and New Mexico.
He has also been made to take chances. I pushed when I wanted to cuddle. When he nearly drowned as a toddler, I forced the swimming instructor to immediately put him back in the pool, so he would not later fear water. My payback came in photographs of him swinging on a rope to fall in a crystal clear pool of water, deep in a cave, somewhere in Mexico. And I cajoled him into taking that trip to Mexico, something he fought all the way to the airport. When he deplaned at the end of six weeks, tan, with astonishingly curly hair and three inches taller, he crowed. "I am so glad you made me go!"
One year he struggled to adjust to school because of health issues, and I decided to finish his elementary education as a home-school project. He read novels that others would not encounter until college, and stayed up until three a.m. at the Powell Observatory to see a low-hanging planet not normally visible here on Earth. On the first day of high school, where he found himself one of only three Caucasians in a class of 40, he pulled his dinner plate toward him and sighed: "Now I know what it must have been like to be Black in Atlanta in 1950." But he persevered, formed friendships, and learned lessons. Some I will never forget. On the bus to Des Moines with the Debate team, he mentioned that his colleagues would probably be the only black kids at the tournament. One of his teammates quipped, "Well hell, Pat, you're the only white kid on this bus. How does it feel?" The heavy silence splintered beneath the weight of their laughter, as they drove north through Missouri in the quiet of an autumn night.
The college choice became an awkward dance between grades that were good but not great and the limits of his mother's pocketbook. But respectable scholarships and some judicious use of limited funds got him to an ivy-covered, self-contained campus in the middle of Indiana, where he would cut off his curls, join a fraternity, perfect his guitar riffs, and discover his literary voice.
He came home for Fall break freshman year, taking the nonstop from Indy; but then stayed in his dorm that Thanksgiving, much to his mother's lasting lament. I thought there was a girl involved, but it turned out he just wanted to save my money. When he didn't answer his cell phone, I called campus police. "He's over 18," they explained. "We can't tell you anything; we can only do a well-student check." They found him ill, unfed, alone. The security officer called me back despite the fact that she wasn't supposed to do so. "What the hell," she said. "I'm a mom too." They made him go to Student Health and he got on antibiotics. Christmas-time, back home, he stood in the kitchen and admitted it had been a stupid thing to do. "Not stupid," I told him. "But let's communicate better. I would have gotten you tickets."
The following Spring Break, a small group of students spent a week in California. Patrick rode his bike across the Golden Gate Bridge right before a man tried to end his life by plummeting over its side. He called me, whispering, awed by the sight of a cop pulling the man back to safety. I keep expecting that week to appear in an essay, or a play, or a short-story. Maybe a novel.
His time at DePauw University had highs and lows. Good grades, bad grades. Expectations that matched reality; some which didn't. He spent a fabulous couple of weeks in Park City, walking alongside newsmakers. He won writing awards, richly deserved. Some chances he took; some chances he squandered. For the last three months, he has told me that he did not intend to walk at commencement, and I have answered his news with the same dogged refrain: "It's important to me that you do." Most of the time, he did not answer. Once he said it meant more to me than it did to him and I snapped back: "Exactly why you should do it."
Last Friday, he called me, apprehension apparent over the crackle of a bad connection. "I'm about to open my grades," he intoned slowly, gloomily. I waited. The silence sizzled with his fear. Suddenly: "I passed! I passed! I'm going to graduate!" I released the breath I had intentionally held. Pride would shortly replace relief, but at that moment, I could only say, "Thank God!"
Most of the village which raised my son attended Commencement in spirit. Beside me on chairs dampened by the prior night's sudden shower sat my stepson Mac, who just completed his first year at Rhodes College; and my husband Jim, who has been Patrick's stepfather for a scant but potent two years. We had taken my son and a friend to dinner on Saturday; and fretted past midnight about the lost graduation tickets, which we would only need if the affair moved inside. I took some of that worry out on the wedding party having a kegger in the room next to ours, at 1:00 a.m. They were not pleased.
But the weather did not disappoint. A sapphire sky towered above us. Early fog burned away before nine. I held chairs while my companions got coffee, chatting with the young man to my right engaging in a similar violation of protocol. The quadrangle slowly filled, hundreds, thousands, mothers in new spring dresses, fathers in an assortment of khakis, siblings in short sleeves, all with cameras close at hand.
The faculty paraded into their seats, walking with a noticeable measure of unbridled joy. Some wore unorthodox hats, and I turned to my husband to gesture. "This conservative college seems to be relaxing a bit," I said.
Then the school band struck up the chords of Pomp and Circumstance, and the students flowed down the aisles. I strained to see Patrick, not sure if he would enter from the left or the right, not having known in advance that there would be a left or a right, not having asked. But I needn't have worried. I saw him clearly. He wore a wild pair of sunglasses above a dazzling smile, the light of laughter in his eyes visible across the many rows. I should have known; I did know; how could I not have recognized him?
He entered, laughing, once more. There have been tears in the last twenty-one and 3/4 years, and there will be more. He will encounter mountains that he hesitates to climb, and walls in which he cannot see a door, or a window, or even a crack. He will no doubt flounder from time to time. He will dawdle at intersections, torn between an easy path and a winding road on which he fears to tread. But on that day, on Sunday, 19 May 2013, just before noon, he walked across the stage without so much as a glimmer of concern. With a wide, open countenance, hand reached out for that of President Casey, he made his last journey as a college student, and descended on the other side as an alumnus of DePauw University, class of 2013.
And his mother, she who had trembled with trepidation beneath that draped sheet in 1991, wide awake, gripping the hand of her labor coach, listening to surreal chatter about the flood in her doctor's basement and the tardiness of the plumber, could not be more proud.
Saturday, May 11, 2013
As I stood in the crowded restaurant last evening, leaning against the half-wall separating the bar from the dining room, I gazed up at the tension in my husband's face. Long days, hard work, his mother's decline -- all haunt him. The accumulated impact deeply mars his face and draws his brow to a tight bundle of dispirit. I close my eyes, and reach across the small space between us, touching his arm. I have spoken to my father-in-law; I know what kind of day it has been.
As we wait for a booth, my own mother's face floods back to me. Its mottled brown skin, the slight hook of her nose, the muted red of the lipstick she bought several at a time to be sure she always had the right color. Auburn waves, later streaked with grey, framed her narrow face. She sang in deep, low tones, lullabies and Broadway show tunes. Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind". The spiritual, "Goin' Home", sung to the haunting strains of "The New World Symphony".
I am five, maybe six. I stand on the little bench, in my mother's kitchen. An apron has been wrapped around my small belly, the strings tied in front. With sleeves folded over and over, my arms stretch to knead the dough that my mother and I have made. She sprinkles flour on the surface of the counter, spreading a fine layer with an easy, practiced motion. She instructs me in the best technique, knuckles first, pushing away, then pulling back.
I raise my eyes to meet hers, pale blue gaze fixed on warm brown pools of wisdom. She wears curlers, tightly rolled, fixed with long white plastic sticks, wrapped round with a bandanna. She raises one eyebrow and I turn back to the dough we are making for Sunday dinner. It will rise twice in the yellow Pyrex bowl, after which we will form it into clover leaf rolls. My mother places one hand over mine, gently guiding my movements. "That's the way," she says, and her tones wash over me, leaving a flush of pride in their wake.
At her direction, I spread a clean dish towel over the ball of dough, after she flips it to be sure the melted butter adheres to both sides. Then onto the warm oven it goes, so the heat will encourage its rising. "Now what?" I ask her, and she looks down on my face. She flicks her eyes toward the living room, where a slight noise has arisen, like the whisk of a fox running past the chicken coop, briefly startling the sleeping hens. She stares toward the hallway. I turn, too, and both of us stand motionless.
I hold my breath.
It could be anything, from a couple of boys grousing with each other to the dog rummaging in the Sunday newspaper. I suspect, in the tiny corners of my young mind, that my mother fears something worse. My stomach clenches. I am five, I am six, and I already know the wild ride between serenity and chaos.
But the moment passes. I climb down from the bench and my mother takes me into the bathroom, where she lets down the curls formed around my head by old-fashioned plastic clips. She helps me into a dress and then does her own hair. Other children emerge from the two bedrooms and my mother goes to get the baby ready for church. My father still sleeps.
Later, after Mass and before we go home to form the dough into rolls, I stand with my mother outside of the church. My older brothers run around near the grotto. There must be a toddler in tow, at the very least. Maybe my mother is pregnant with the one who will be named "Stephen" because he evens out the balance of genders. I hold my mother's hand.
A lady walks over to us. She wears a jacket that matches her skirt. Her hat forms a broad band across her forehead. The redness of her cheeks fascinates me, and I stare at the huge beads around her neck. She leans down. "What a pretty little girl," she trills. "What sweet banana curls. Your daddy must be really proud of such a pretty child," she tells me. Then she folds her body into a deeper bend, to get her face very close to mine. "What does your Daddy do, little girl," she asks, in a voice shrill with malice.
"He drinks," I tell her.
She gasps, and pulls her body away from mine. She clutches her handbag against her chest. Her faces hardens. She hastens away, leaving my mother to stand with her hand on the top of my head, and me to wonder what I have said to make her face turn to steel.
I am five, I am six. I do not know what it means to drink. I have heard my Nana say this, talking on the hall phone in her home, while I sit on the floor between her knees and she brushes my hair.
My mother's hand lingers against my cheek. It does not feel like steel. It feels like silk. I glow where she touches me. I close my eyes, and the world stands still for just a few moments, until the sound of my brothers' impatience cuts through the morning air. We start the long walk home.
In a few hours, the fudge shop will open. I will go and purchase two one-pound boxes, and then drive out to the facility which, by the merest chance, currently houses both my mother-in-law and her sister, though in different units. I will visit first one, then the other, and tell silly stories about what I have done this week, some of which might even be true. I will try to amuse them while I am there, and to leave a smile on each of their faces, because that's what my mother would do.
In Memory of Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley,
10 September 1926 - 21 August 1985
She who has gone home.
Saturday, May 4, 2013
As I slipped my car into its space at the back of our house, this Friday, at the end of an unrelenting week, I felt the chilly air seeping into the inch of space between the top of my car door and the lowered window. I shut off the engine and listened to the interchange between the ringing in my ears and the night sounds of our back yard. The rustle of leaves; the ping and pang of settling metal; the gasp of the car's heater, then its sudden silence. I sat, my hands on the wheel, my forehead lowered to its cold smooth surface.
A half hour later, I would tell stories of my roller coaster ride, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, over a deli dinner at our long oak table: Hearings won; young, rude lawyers chastened by stern judges; smiling clients and warm clasped hands. I would shrug off disappointment at one or two developments, and listen to my returning stepson struggle with his trepidation over a bollixed housing arrangement for the fall. After dinner, I would read in my favorite rocker, on the tablet which I find so indispensable, its e-reader an aid to my strained eyesight; from disdain to dependence, in just a few short months.
But before I left the isolation of my car, I let my mind wander. I raised one hand and touched the glass beside me, the glass on which a uniformed officer had wrapped with a sudden bang, the glass that I had lowered to hear her admonishment to move my vehicle, please, didn't I know I was parked in a 4:00 zone? Thursday, en route home from the second court appearance of the day, a light snow falling on the 2nd of May. I had gazed around me, unseeing, immersed in the strained, fearful tones on the other end of my cell phone, the shocked voice of a client that had compelled me to park in the first place.
Pulling back out onto Troost Avenue, I had continued to reassure my client as to the outcome of a hearing. We got what we wanted, I reiterated. You will not have to attend mediation with your husband, the Court will appoint a guardian ad litem for your children, they will not have to go see their father.
It's a rare case for me, where I am not pushing equally parenting. I'm usually a fathers' advocate; I frequently wrangle for as much cooperation as possible; I most commonly drag everybody in sight to mediation, settlement conferences, and counseling.
This case is different.
Like lava spewing from a once-dead volcano, the stories of beatings, bullying, and emotional manipulation by my client's husband spread over the contours of this case. I cannot stop the flow. I cannot protect my client and her children from the scalding molten rock, or the relentless devastation. Though the father denies many of the accusations, he admits some of them and dismisses others as blown out of proportion. A wink is as good as a nod. His lawyer uses the phrase "over-discipline" and my stomach flops. "Over-discipline"? This sounds like something I might do to a steering wheel, like "over-correcting", or to a sailboat, or a satellite. My mind reels.
Thursday bled into Friday, a day when a client for whom I had recently won a sad little hearing lumbered into my suite to hire me on another matter. Divorce papers this time, served by the same lawyer who represented his wife in an unsuccessful effort to get a restraining order. The judge had agreed with me: one altercation did not abuse make, especially when that altercation consisted of my client, the husband, taking out a loaded gun and begging his wife to shoot him. Two weeks later, the client is back in my office, confident that I will get him as good an outcome in the dissolution as I did in the Adult Abuse action. He signed the contract and I took his check. As he struggled out of my office, heavy cane gripped in one hand, smooth-shaven head trembling, chest heaving, I could feel the weight of his grief settle around my own narrow shoulders.
And so my work week ended, with me sitting, alone, in the front seat of my Saturn.
I slid my hand down the glass, slowly, leaving a long streak which did not fade. In the glow cast by a motion light on the neighbors' house, I watched as the wind tossed the branches of the towering cedars which separate our yards. Straggling vines trailed over the fence, stirred by a small critter scampering past, which had no doubt been startled by the sweep of my headlights. I watched its grey form disappear into the undergrowth.
I am also small, huddled in the seat of my vehicle, alone in the darkness. But I have no connection to the skittering in the night, to the billowing masses of clouds high above me. In the house, the sentient beings who comprise two-fifths of my nuclear family stand over their own distractions -- an irritating phone call, a mass of belongings to unpack and put away. The burdens of their own lumpy weeks. I will hear their tales, by and by, squinting my eyes, wrinkling my nose, making little clucking noises of sympathy. But there in the shroud of night, I remained bound by my taut, solitary skin, hovering in the gap between my identities, in the transient slip of space where I am responsible for no one. I breathed; in, out. I blinked, long, hard movements, eyes closed, eyes open, eyes closed. I sat, motionless, while the shrill squeal in my ears caught and held its own rhythm, and the flutter of an angel's wings caressed my cheek.
The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.