I wake this morning to the confusing sight of piles of clothing carefully deposited around the bedroom. I shake my head a bit, gingerly, lest the morning dizzy spells I've had for months overwhelm me. I sit a moment, remembering that my husband is in Dallas at his guys' weekend and I spent last evening clearing out his closet to get to the small door which leads to our attic. In the attic, I hope to find boxes of pictures, some books that I think I will re-read, and a small metal file filled with my early writing. So no burglary halted in progress at the sound of my stirring; just the result of two hours of carefully lifting his pressed shirts and wool suits from their rods and draping them, with equal care, about the bedroom. I rise and stumble, light-headed and woozy, down the stairs in search of coffee.
The little dog sits at attention in the kitchen, waiting to be released outside. Strange, I mutter, maybe outloud. I thought I heard Patrick come home 'round midnight. But no keys; no wallet; no abandoned glasses on the dining room table. I realize that I am alone, other than the brown mutt with her head now tilted to one side, pleading to be released. When I have obliged her and reheated the Starbucks Americano that I couldn't finish yesterday, I slip into the chair where my husband usually sits, and let my mind wander.
But memories elude me. The usual flood of sensation, the thoughts of places I've been and days I've lived lies quiet. I stand before the passive water and let my hand skim the surface. I hesitate to stir the pool. I know what lies beneath. Along with shiny crystals in the murky bed, ancient creatures hover. They long to nibble my fingers, lure me under, and pull me into their embrace. I loathe to wake them.
Some things don't bear replaying. A tender bygone moment might rise to unfold in its sweetness but for every such delightful story, a half-dozen terrifying hours clamor to be told. I've recounted what I tell as plainly and truthfully as my human mind recalls it, but spliced together with the most painful scenes left on the cutting room floor.
I've ordered my life with care. The cracks in its facade have been plastered and painted to match the unbroken contours. As long as no one pries with too keen a trowel, I know the surface will hold. I strain to balance the walls on a shakey foundation, never knowing when a spring tornado or the distant rumbling of a fault line might bring the whole house tumbling. I wrap the good memories around me and move forward in life, avoiding strong winds.
My mother received a diagnosis of uterine cancer in August of 1984. Through a series of lamentable events, the cancer spread, something that we were told only happened seven percent of the time with that particular disease. Of course, one of us would land on the far end of the Bell curve.
I went to see her in St. Louis not long after the full portent of her condition had been disclosed by the doctors. We stood in her garden, surrounded by the stamp of fall with its fading flowers and its golden haze. She said, "An angel came to me last night; at least, I think it was an angel. He had a soft voice. 'Lucy,' he said, 'You've got just under a year to live,'". She paused, then lowered herself onto her gardening stool and sank her fingers into the earth she had so carefully cultivated for years. "I'm okay with that," she told me, her eyes gazing somewhere I could not see. "I'm okay with that," she repeated as she stood. I put my arms around her. She seemed at once frail and resilient; fragile and powerful. I had no words in that moment thirty years ago; I said nothing. Nothing.
I've seen an angel twice, myself, so I didn't doubt my mother's account. The first time for me came on February 9, 1982, moments after I had been struck by a car and catapulted into the air. As I flew upwards, I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around my legs, tucking my head into the folds of my body and thinking, "Well, I won't die of a head injury, anyway." I felt myself rising higher and higher until I realized that I had left my body and sailed on, into the clouds. I gazed down at the ball in which my body had curled and thought, "I won't feel anything when I land."
And then I looked across the sky and saw an angel. She placed her hand on my head and spoke: "It's not time yet." And suddenly I was back in my body and hurdling towards the ground.
The second time I saw an angel was this week. As I drove down my street, I glanced over at the sidewalk and saw a form, seemingly human, striding with purpose. Layers of flowing cloth, grey, black and beige, fell from its body. I met the being's eyes and it held my gaze for several heartbeats and then vanished and I realized, in that moment, that I had seen the angel of death. "But not for me," I thought. "Not for me."
You might call me crazy. You might say my bleeding ulcer and whatever is making me dizzy causes me to hallucinate and you might be right. But whether I saw the angel of death or an apparition caused by lack of sleep, still, the moment haunts me and leaves me thinking about my mother in her garden, calm with the knowledge of how much time she had left to get her house in order.
Take this with you, take this one thing into your week: Leave nothing unsaid. The chance to speak might never come again. The face you love might die; or might close to your reach if you let that moment pass. Someone who needs your comfort might walk away and leave the capacity to trust lying broken at your feet. The desperate hours might never again open for the one whose hand stretches toward you. Leave nothing unsaid, or undone; leave no touch unoffered. Don't wear your shroud before your time.
I'm going to make a pot of coffee. When I feel my head has cleared enough to venture into the dark attic, I'm going to arm myself with a flashlight and find those pictures. I'm hoping they haven't been eaten by rats, or lost in my basement flood of 1993. But whether I find them or not, I'm going to St. Louis to see my cousin Paul soon. If I've found the pictures that I kept from my mother's belongings, the ones of his family and mine, I'm going to bring them with me. I'll sit beside him, and we'll smile and talk about how loved we were, and how sweet were the summers that our families spent together. One of his brothers, or maybe his wife, will sit nearby and listen, to whatever is left of his voice; and watch, whatever is left of his smile, as I know they will do as long as his valiant heart keeps beating against the march of the terrible disease that claims him. I'll sit as long as his ALS allows for visitors, talking, listening, and turning the pages of whatever album I've managed to find, pages in which our lives are encased and only the goodness endures.