Saturday, August 28, 2010

Saturday Musings, 28 August 2010

Good morning,

The sweet breeze caresses my bare legs. On the parkway, a squirrel skims across the vincas and shimmies the height of a maple, clenching something round and scarlet in his mouth. The crickets still cry out to one another, or maybe that call comes from something more prehistoric -- this year's lusty crop of locusts, or perhaps the earth itself. The dark green expanse of lawn still lies in shadow, as the sun struggles to crest the steep pitch of the rooftops.

I hear the distant drone of traffic, somewhere to the east, where the sun has already risen and people have already swilled their fill of morning coffee and adjudged themselves capable of operating a motor vehicle. I would not inflict my driving on the world this early; I can barely walk; I did not even carry the laptop to the porch by myself. Though I am clearly a morning person, my neurons are not, and they grumble, looking for a chance to retaliate.

A cloud of sentimentality swirled around me all week. Last Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of my mother's death; my sister, traveling companions and I toasted her with raised cups of water and coffee at the St.Louis Bread Company. A few days later, a friend shared news of a Walk to Washington intended to raise awareness of depression, which triggered an afternoon of reverie about my little brother, whose suicide in 1997 abruptly introduced me to despair's keen power.

My brother's story is not my story; I have no license to even attempt to explain his decision, or to name the demons that drove him. I own my memories of him; a few precious photographs; and a couple of prints from the Lafayette Square home tours which once adorned the walls of his apartment.

Steve wears the same smile in each picture that I have of him. I see the fragility now, but I missed it in the years before his death. I notice now the distant pitch of his gaze, though in life, I would not have said he looked anywhere but squarely at those around him.

Steve radiated energy. He never just walked into a room: He entered snapping, dancing, eyes darting, calling your name, reeling you into his circle. He would tuck me under one arm and take a long draw on a Marlboro as he pulled us both towards the bar and flashed a radiant smile at the waitress. Two Stingers, babe, one for me and one for the shrimp here, he would say. You met my sister? This is my sister. . .He drank, and at times had worked, at O'Connell's Pub on Kingshighway in south St.Louis. There we consumed Stingers in memory of my mother after her funeral; there, he seemed to have many friends, and seemed to feel at home.

My son remembers my brother as a big man in a black shirt. Steve wore that shirt on his last Christmas, when he gave Patrick an alien catcher and a collection of creepy aliens rendered in hard, dark plastic. But I see the two of them in other scenes, earlier in the reel, long before Steve's tragic ending. I replay them repeatedly, clicking my mental remote control, searching for my favorites. Do you remember when your uncle Steve played with you and your cousin Whitney in Joyce's family room, I ask my son. He shakes his head and the small gesture momentarily startles me. Does he look like Steve? Does he wear that tender smile? Does he carry that sorrowful stamp?

Patrick and I flew to St.Louis for my father's funeral in a twenty-seater out of Springfield, Missouri, the closest fully functional airport to Fayetteville where I lived at the time. Patrick was two months old; I canceled his baptism because of my father's death, as a consequence of which, he celebrated his solitary Catholic sacrament in the Abbey at the Priory in West St.Louis County. After the baptism, after the celebratory breakfast, after the week-long cathartic cleaning of my parents' home, my son and I returned on the same small plane to our southern life.

Stephen took us to the airport. As usual, we tarried over coffee and cut our arrival time close. He dropped me at the door, saying he would park the car and bring my belongings -- including my son, still seat-belted, soundly sleeping. I glanced in the back, and Steve dismissed my fear. I'll bring him, don't worry; how could I forget your baby? This was in the days before orange and red alerts; he told me he would meet me at the gate, with my carry-on bag and my child.

I got our boarding passes, and made the long walk to the gate, where I waited. I fidgeted, first on one foot, then the other; up, down; hallway, chair; but he did not come. The gatekeeper had him paged; he did not come. The pilot exited the plane to inquire as to the reason for the delay in departure; and still, my brother did not come. The small group of passengers were apprised of the situation and polled, and agreed that they could wait a few more minutes; and still, he did not come.

The airline personnel finally signaled that they had to release the plane. I put one hand on the blue-clad arm of the attendant, and begged her for just another minute. I could see the stress of her life in the lines around her eyes; I knew she wanted to help. I reminded her that if I did not board that plane, I would not get home for another twenty-four hours, since they had only one scheduled flight per day. I played the orphan card; I told her, in wheedling tones, about my father's funeral, about the difficult week. As she hesitated, I tightened my grip on her arm, and turned us both toward the concourse, at the end of which I could see the river of shuffling travelers begin to inexplicably part.

Some hundred yards away, still a faint blur, came my brother. He left laughter in his wake as he always did, though on that day the smiles arose not because of the strong draw of his masculinity or the irresistible pull of his perpetual trawl. As he neared the gate, my hand on the arm of the attendant eased; I knew she could not see what I saw and fail to wait.

They came toward us, my brother Steve and my son Patrick, and every person whom they passed must still remember. Stephen had strapped my son, car seat and all, onto a luggage cart, and had taken off at a dead run: my infant son beaming, his little ears pressed flat against his head, my brother's tall frame and long legs catapulting them both the entire length of the Lambert-St. Louis airport.

If I close my eyes, here, with the kiss of the morning sun on my face and the chill of the morning air on my silk-clad shoulders, I can still see them -- my son squealing in delight, his adoring gaze on the grinning countenance of my little brother. I can see the victorious flash of my brother's pale blue eyes, as he released the strap and swung the car seat over to the waiting arms of the airline attendant. I told you I would bring him, Mar Bear, he admonished me. Have I ever let you down?

In 1997, after my brother's penultimate suicide attempt, I stood with him at yet another bar, drinking yet another Stinger, in yet another south St. Louis evening crowd. I chided him about his unsuccessful overdose, from which he had awakened in renal failure, causing him to summon paramedics with a punch of 911. I don't get it, Steve -- you take an overdose, then call 911 to save your sorry butt, I said, laughing into eyes that held grief to which I must have been blind. Before answering, he took another drink, and lit another cigarette. It's simple, Mar Bear, he finally said, in a voice that I did not understand, not then, not now. I wanted to die, not suffer.

A handful of months later, he got his wish.

The sun has cleared the rooftops, and the neighbors have begun to load a great pile of boxes onto a flatbed truck. The dog-walkers have all come and gone; and the crickets have sung themselves to sleep. There is laundry to be done, and dishes to put away, and after a while, the black cat will rise from the cold concrete on which he now sleeps, and insist on being fed.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

To anyone who has known depression, or known someone who suffered depression -- and for anyone who has been spared its grip -- please, I ask you:
sign the petition to increase awareness of this terrible disease:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mugwumpitudinal Musings; 22 August 2010

Good afternoon,

The floors have been swept; the counters scrubbed; the sheets folded with crisp corners and smooth edges. I stand amongst the various old wooden chairs, and tables, and the pale orange curtains hanging at my windows. I am home; and the adept work of my house-sitter surrounds me. The black cat tarries at my feet, softly mewing; and the little brown dog sleeps on the porch outside the back door.

I listen to the inanities of the Verizon Wireless hold chatter. I have circled around 3 times in her mechanical litany. I have been to three Verizon stores and called two more; I am caught in the endless loop of their bureaucracy. They claim that my phone was purchased "at a third-party vendor"; yet their name glares at me from the invoice. They admonish that one employee avers that he tried to help me "but I had left the store"; I volley with the astonishing but true information that the "manager" kept me waiting for 45 minutes while he lallygagged in the backroom, and only offered a temporary replacement by phone to a companion ten minutes after we had left, when he realized that he might have made a tactical error by trying to sell me a new phone instead of replacing the phone that had died. No, he didn't help me, I tell them. We are long past the hope of catching more flies with honey. I am, in any event, allergic to honey.

My vacation leaves me emotionally reinvigorated though physically drained. I have been to Ludington, Michigan and all points in between. I felt the rough, pleasant warmth of sand on my feet, as waves rose and fell, and my tall, strong son cavorted in the warm water of in Lake Michigan at Epworth Heights. I allowed myself the luxury of ice cream, thick with swirls of caramel and chunks of dark chocolate. I fell asleep to the endless, soothing sound of those same waves, and awakened before the sun rose, to drink strong coffee while reading nothing more or less challenging than book five of Donna Leon's series set in Venice. And I ate Mexican food cooked by beaming immigrants in Indianapolis before settling my son at DePauw University and journeying home again. I have averaged 25 miles to the gallon and 25 smiles to the hour. I have learned of the triumphs and joys of 80-year-old twins and the ambitions of a sixteen-year-old scholar. I have heard wisdom a la Cohen Brothers, "it's a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart. .. " and I have justified myself by way of electronic mail to a former client who wants me to do more work without more compensation. I have toasted the twenty-five year anniversary of my mother's passing, and wished a friend's son Happy Birthday, on the same day, by way of public posting on his Facebook page.

My fifty-fifth birthday looms ahead of me two weeks hence; a week later, my Double Nickel Birthday bash at which we will be raising money for the Children's Miracle Network, the chosen charity of the Indiana Chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon of which my son is this year's DePauw University Philanthropy Chair. I had hoped that by this age, I might have learned patience, but patience remains a virtue that I possess in only small amounts, the fountain of which has slowed to a trickle and will soon be entirely depleted.

I am still on hold, twenty minutes after commencing my fifth or sixth call, waiting for a briskly and coldly competent customer service representative to locate a replacement Blackberry for the failed one sold to me by a store masquerading as a Verizon store which had apparently converted mere weeks before my purchase to a "third party retailer". I close my eyes. The gentle hum of the central air reminds me that regardless of my bank balance, and certainly, despite the failure of technology, I have comparative wealth.

There is no memory that can supplant the joy of the present; no restless, beckoning ghost that can obscure the prospect of happiness in the future. Some material goods elude me; there are some luxuries of which I can count myself deprived. But I am, on balance, a lucky woman, a turn of events not necessarily entirely of my making. In the end, a relentless determination, combined with good fortune and the sweet attentions of others, has helped me to survive to middle age, and has brought me to the brink of the 55th anniversary of my inauspicious birth. In the meantime, I have showered, and put up my hair, and donned a soft cotton dress. I pad around my little bungalow, with nothing more challenging to do than worry about what to have for dinner.
I meant to do my work today,
But a brown bird sang in the apple tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
And all the leaves were calling me.
And the wind went sighing over the land,
Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand,
So what could I do but laugh and go?(fn)
Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

fn: by Richard LeGallienne. For the movie, "Friends", Elton John added a middle verse:

I asked a lizard the time of day
As he sunned himself on a moss-grown wall
and the buttercups nodded their smiling heads
greeting the bees who came to call.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Meandering Mugwump: Moratorium on Musings

My dear friends:

On the morning of Saturday, August 14th, I will be embarking on a trip -- first to Ludington, Michigan (oh, does that have 2 d's, possibly?) and then, at the end of next week, to Greencastle, Indiana. The first leg of the trip will be purely recreational -- Patrick and I have been invited to join the MacLaughlin/Mitchell clan as they celebrate an 80th birthday for twin sisters who are the matriarchs of the clan. The latter part of the trip will be to ensconce Patrick at the SAE house on the DPU campus -- which, in case you did not hear, has been named the number 10 party campus in the entire country. (A dubious distinction, but one which Patrick avows will not interfere with his studies.)

During my wanderings, I will be taking a Brief Vacation from the Musings. Like the lady with the red light on her porch, but not for the same reasons, I trust my vacation will "drive my customers wild", and you will be waiting, with patience but eagerness, for my return. This shall occur on Saturday, 28 August 2010, and might occur at some sporadic time before then, if time, wi-fi, and mood stir me.

Until we are reunited, please, know that you are in my thoughts as I hope I am in yours.

Happy trails,

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Saturday Musings, 07 August 2010

Good morning,

With a stout cup of French Market on the tiled table beside me, near the newspaper, overshadowed by the gardenia that I have yet to kill, I am again enthroned on my beloved porch. The heat has abated, at least for this morning, and the breeze wafts the American flag, lifting it to unfurl and stretch, and wave with a heady reassurance that time has only served to perpetuate.

My stubborn allegiance to my particular vices can be forgiven, I hope, as I raise my cup to a passing neighbor. I do not drink alcohol to excess; I've never been one for drugs, except the prescription kind; and I don't beat my child except with hopelessly maudlin metaphors.

I started drinking coffee at 17, during weekend stints at St. Vincent Psychiatric Hospital in St. Louis County -- the old facility, with a sweeping, wide driveway, Gothic turrets and frightening back hallways. I served as unit secretary for 3South, the acute ward. On Saturdays and Sundays through my senior year of high school and first year of college, I transcribed doctor's orders and served the clerical needs of the patient care staff, watching the truly ill wander the hallways and sometimes, climb the walls.

I have only to catch sight of a slender woman lighting a cigarette -- of old, in a restaurant or an office; but these days, more often on the patch of concrete in front of any building -- to remember my favorite patient, and wonder where life has taken her, with her anguish, and her desperation.

Her parents gave her the name of Sydney, and they told everyone whom they met, including a scrappy little ward clerk with a tumble of hair, that they had wanted a boy. Sydney's frame mimicked the thin body of an adolescent; she wore her hair short, with a pale blond lock across her forehead. She favored body-hugging ribbed turtle neck sweaters and hip-hugger blue jeans. During the time that I knew her, Sydney was in her early twenties, and spent several months each year getting stabilized on 3South.

Our ward consisted of ten patient rooms, a nurses' station, a dining room, and the back hallway where the EST treatments took place. The dining room stood at one end; the nurses' station, where I worked, at the other. Between them, the patient rooms flanked the corridor, five on each side; and in the corridor itself, clutches of chairs stood at intervals in a clumsy effort to make the place look homey.

Sydney paced from one end of this confine to the other for most of the hours between meals every day. The aides placed breakfast in the serving trays at 8; lunch at noon; and dinner at 5. Sydney went through the line and took minuscule helpings of each offering, huddled in a metal chair at a Formica table by herself to nibble at the tasteless food, and then, greedily lit a cigarette.

She pulled huge gulps of smoke into her lungs, closing her eyes, holding each draw as long as she could, then releasing it slowly, purposefully, taking several quick breathes between drags of cigarette. Her smoking fascinated me; my parents both smoked at the time, but I did not, never would, and I could not understand her obsession.

One afternoon, halfway between lunch and dinner, I chanced to be returning from my afternoon break and saw Sydney in the dining room. I don't remember what caught my eye -- the peculiar cant of her head, perhaps; or a fleeting look of restrained panic. I paused, standing outside the door, watching. I glanced at the house phone on the wall, prepared to summon help by calling a code if I needed to do so, but waiting, in case I did not.

Sydney walked, hesitantly at first but with a quickening pace, to the long table on which clean, unfilled serving vessels stood. Her hand slowly rose, suspended above the empty space where aides would later stack dishes for the next meal. I swear that I could see her take a plastic plate from a ghostly stack; and lift a spoon to serve a scoop of invisible green beans, then mashed potatoes, then a piece of gray meat vaguely reminiscent of steak. I narrowed my eyes and blinked; but the serving trays remained empty, the spoon nonexistent, the plate imaginary.

But Sydney carried it gently, gingerly, to the table and set it in front of her. She took up an unseen fork, and speared a bite, sliding it between her lips, and chewing. I shook my head, turning my gaze to each end of the hallway, hoping a patient aide would chance upon this scene. When I looked back into the dining room, she still sat, eating food that I could not see, from a plate that did not exist, with a fork that I could swear she held but which still rested in the buffet behind the locked door of the downstairs kitchen.

She finished, and rose to take her plate to the bus station. Reaching towards the bin in which the dirty dishes were to be stacked by the patients, she released her hand and I will swear, to this day, that I heard the clatter of the heavy plastic plate falling onto others already there. Sydney turned, then, and saw me; I drew back, but I need not have worried. Her dance had its own choreography.

She sat again at the table, and took out her pack of cigarettes. She drew one out with a smooth and practiced motion. Placing it between her lips, she leaned forward, and I could see the form of a patient aide not yet on duty, leaning to light the cigarette for her; and I watched the rise of her chest as she drew a long, unbroken swell of unseen smoke. Then she closed her eyes, and euphoria settled on her features as I jumped back from the sight, stunned, saddened, and suddenly, ashamed.

Much of my day consisted of transferring medication orders from patient charts to requisition forms. Hospital care has greatly advanced in its record-keeping aspects with computerization; but forty years ago, the pen and the three-page carbon-paper form served as the vehicles for communicating with the various departments of the hospital. Ostensibly, I did not need to read the patients' history to perform my duties, but that afternoon, I read Sydney's chart, and learned that her father only allowed her to smoke after she had eaten. I mentioned what I had seen to the head nurse, who shrugged her shoulders dismissively. Nothing surprised her. She did not even make an entry in Sydney's daily log, though knowledge of this behavior might surely had aided in her treatment.

Later that summer, Sydney came again to 3South but on a stretcher, strapped and submissive, probably sedated. She lay in her bed for several weeks before whatever she had taken or been given worked through her system, and then resumed her pacing, up, down, nurses' station, dining room.

Between my desk and the rest of the floor stood a dutch door. We kept the top half open and the bottom half shut, supposedly locked. On a late August day that year, I was transcribing orders from a stack of charts at my desk, unaware that the last nurse to leave for lunch had failed to latch the door behind her.

As I tried to decipher one doctor's particularly nasty scrawl, a large drop of red, viscous liquid fell upon the page. I looked up. Sydney stood over me, her wrists held out in front of her, blood dripping from puncture wounds up and down her slender arms. Sydney, I said, you are bleeding on my charts.

What should I do,
she asked, in a barely audible whisper, her eyes wide, her face blanched. Bleed somewhere else, I snapped.

She moved, then, to the end of my desk, holding her arms over my waste basket. With only a small glance back at my work, with only a brief hesitation, I lifted the phone, to call the code, and then stood back while all hell broke loose.

My last sight of Sydney was of her eyes: large, luminous, not even pleading, just watching me, from the cart on which the code team had placed her, as they pushed back through the hallway, and furiously raced towards the medical unit, where tired nurses would try to stench the flow from holes created with the narrow end of a rat's-tooth comb.

The coffee has grown cold, forgotten beside me. The black cat came home a few minutes ago, with a new, disturbing gash in his neck. My son still will not let me get this creature fixed, and so he fights with anything that challenges his territory, and I am waiting for the day when he is not brushing up against my legs when I come out onto the porch to get my newspaper. I understand why Patrick insists that we not curtail his cat's true nature. But freedom has its price, just as captivity does; and I am sometimes unable to decide which is worse.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

My photo
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.