Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday Musings, 29 January 2011

Good morning,

I stretch my taut, aching muscles and shake the tingle from my right hand. Last night, I fell asleep after reading only 20 pages of a book on chronic pain management. I've decided that it is not so much that the pain is getting worse, as it is that I am getting crankier about living with it. I want to be one of those uncomplaining women whose epitaphs praise how much they bore without grumbling. I'm afraid it's too late for me in that regard, so I am now striving to be charmingly humorous in my constant whining about my fate.

I know I am fortunate. I've outlived all prognostications and at least one prognosticator. I've been publicly proclaimed too stubborn to die, too mean to live, and too irritable to be told which way to dance. But I have not done so with head held high, and stoic gaze, and dry eye. Rather, I have done so with sniveling spirit, and snapping voice, and more than a reasonable measure of stridency.

I am reminded, as I strain to lift my coffee cup, of one afternoon at St. Louis University, in the fall of 1973, my freshman year.

I struggled across the quad, against the beat of an early, cold wind. I pulled my camel-hair coat tighter around me, and bound the sash belt more snugly against my thin frame. Shifting the pile of spiral notebooks and texts from one arm to the other, I stopped, briefly, trying to decide if I could cut another class. Look out, gang way, I heard, from behind, and stepped aside just quickly enough to avoid being side-swiped by a fast-moving wheelchair.

I watched as the chair, bearing a slender man whose fragile arms nonetheless worked the wheels with fury, zipped down the sidewalk and across Grand Blvd., and continued on, weaving around students meandering toward the buildings east of Grand. Amazing, I thought. I continued my slow trod to class, and thought no more of him.

Later, in the student union, I saw the man again, wending his way past dawdling young people into the pub. I watched as he touched an arm, nodded, and moved beyond the first few tables, pushing aside chairs blocking his path. He settled at a table in the far back, his arms drawn up, his head bobbing, the lean line of his jaw pointing towards the ceiling as his eyes pitched round.

He caught me staring. You, girl, come on over here, get a better look! he called. I closed my eyes in a futile attempt to escape the taunting cackle. Come on, you know you want to! I'm a damn good lookin' fella, come on over and sit yourself down. By the end of his second sentence, I knew that I had no choice; the entire noon-day population of the pub waited to see what I would do.

I sat down at his table. Someone brought a cold mug of beer with a giant straw for him, and glanced at me. You want anything? I shook my head. The waitress left without a second's hesitation.

He leaned forward, mouthing the straw, taking a long pull. I've got CP, he said. What's your excuse? I knew he didn't mean my excuse for limping. I'm sorry, I said, knowing the words were not enough. I looked away from his struggle to drink without meaningful use of his hands or arms. In my 18 years of living, I had yet to encounter many people with physical conditions more serious than mine. The Americans With Disabilities Act had not yet pushed its way onto architectural planning; there were few "crippled people" as we used to be called, who could really navigate the world so freely as to be frequently out on their own. Only people such as myself, still ambulating though with difficulty, traversed the world on a regular basis until the advent of plentiful ramped curbs and accessible buildings.

He told me his name was David. I tendered my name. His interest drifted from the silence that ensued, and he saw other people, people he knew, and haled them. Soon, a cluster of laughing young men and women surrounded us, on chairs, crammed against the back wall, and standing. David had many more friends than I did, an easier demeanor, and a razor quick wit. He was popular.

I eased myself up from my chair after ten or fifteen minutes of sitting in the midst of their good-natured rowdiness. I put one finger out, and touched his shoulder. Nice to meet you, I told him, and he jerked his head in what might have been acknowledgment, or could have just been a random spasm. I left as quickly as I could, and the gap created by my absence closed around him. By some sad coincidence, a loud roar of laughter rose from his table just as I reached the door of the pub, and I could not help but believe that the joke was on me.

I saw him a lot after that. I learned that he intended to be a writer, a poet or a journalist, he had not decided which. He carried a tape recorder in a canvas bag hooked to the side of his wheelchair. He interviewed everybody he met, and went everywhere he could navigate on campus. People remembered him; folks in wheelchairs are not common enough to be unremarkable even now, and they were less so in the 70s.

I came upon David in the pub many days. He wore his straight hair long, and sported heavy flannel shirts over thermal t-shirts. Coats are too much work, he told me. I did not reply. I started sitting at his table, listening mostly, while he gently prodded stories from other students. I never knew if they understood themselves to be material for his work, or if they knew but did not care. Everybody likes to talk, he told me. He rolled his eyes to find mine, canting his head, manipulating the recalcitrant muscles of his neck. Got that? Everybody likes to talk.

He never asked me any questions though. My story did not interest him. I sat in a miserable huddle at his table day after day, and watched the ebb and flow of humanity seek him out. He would let one arm fall down and graze against each person as they sat beside him, but the arm would draw back up to his chest, tight and stubborn. His knees knocked against each other; he strapped his legs to the brackets of his footrest and kept them in a bound position all day He lowered his arms only to work the chair and get it going, and when he did so, great beads of sweat broke out across his forehead as he strained to force his arms to do his beckoning.

Towards Christmas break, I saw him with a girl, who pushed his chair, and stood behind him when they paused at lights. She wore an impossibly long scarf and had straight, waist-length hair of an indeterminate color. She had a tattered pea coat and tall, black boots with laces. She did not speak. That's Susan, he told me, gesturing with one crooked arm, one useless hand. She smiled at me with her mouth, under a slender nose and grim, honest, clear grey eyes.

I got involved in a play after Christmas, and got bitten by a brown recluse back stage during rehearsal one afternoon. I made the first performance -- Look Homeward, Angel -- and sat on the porch swing until the end of the second act, swooning with fever. My parents had come to see the show, and took me back to their house, where I sank into illness that lasted several weeks.

When I made it back to campus, I looked for David. But I did not see him. I would occasionally hear someone shout, Look out, gang way! and, turning, expect to see his small form in its metal ride, hurdling down the sidewalk. But it never was. His usual table had been pushed against the back wall of the pub, and the multitude of chairs previously grouped around it had been re-positioned. No one seemed to know why.

Towards spring, I stood, one afternoon, waiting to cross Grand, waiting for a walk signal. A small noise on my right distracted me, and I looked at the person standing there. I recognized the long, lazy sweep of mousy hair, and the arch of one brow over an unrestrained grey gaze. I asked her, Have you seen David lately? and Susan replied, just before stepping off the curb, He died.

I held back, unable to make my feet hit the pavement. I watched her cross, and disappear into the unending flow of students, living their lives, from dorm to lecture hall, from student union to the cool of the shady quadrangle. A horn honked, and I found myself standing in the crosswalk halfway over to the far side, crossing against the light. I stood very still, and waited, until the cars around me had passed, and then, lifting my tired feet a little higher, and holding my lily white spastic hands a little more easily, I made my way to class.

I focus, suddenly, on the quiet rush of the tinnitus with which I have lived for years, and the hum of the refrigerator. The sounds of the house shift around me, and outside, a passing car briefly revs its engine as it maneuvers around the two white SUVs parked in front. Lifting my coffee cup, I see that I have, without realizing, drunk another eight ounces of lukewarm artificial energy, and I think about making an egg before getting dressed, and getting on with my day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Dedicated to all the twelve-foot giants I have known. Rock on.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday Musings, 22 January 2011

Good morning,

The sun has climbed higher in the sky than I usually see as I write on Saturday mornings. I've slept a bit later; had coffee; eaten a Texas Ruby Red grapefruit, peeled; and read the Kansas City Star. I've traded idle pleasantries with my beloved, and kissed him goodbye as he headed for his 9:00 a.m. Board meeting. I washed and put away the breakfast dishes, and read a chapter of a pleasant novel by an Irish author whom I discovered at the public library yesterday. In short, I've done nothing at all, but the casual, first tasks of a day with few obligations other than laundry, and housework, and the running of errands.

I glance about the room, noting the chores to be done. I'm not an obsessive housekeeper. I make the beds; I put away the debris of weekly life; and I beat back the clutter that threatens to overtake my keeping shelf. Once a month, a college student comes for the heavy stuff, and every other week, I run a dust mop across the hardwood floors. Air filters hum between times, and the kitchen counters pine for a swipe at the end of the day.

I'm reflecting on mental illness today: the twist of thinking that drives a man to deep thoughts of self-harm; the jagged rush of chemicals that send a woman into hiding; the vile spread of gelatinous fear that overcomes a teenager just before she walks into a room filled with her chattering, sharp-eyed contemporaries. I have experienced sadness, and anger, and anxiousness; but I have been spared, I think, the kind of malaise that seeps into one's fiber or perhaps, exits within one's very genetic material.

Because I do not suffer genuine mental illness, I do not, truly, understand it.

Above the desk in my law office hangs a painting, intended to depict Venice. I can see it as I work; though more often, I am oblivious to it. The work has hung in every office that I have occupied since I received it from a client ten years or so ago.

Leah was her name. Intense, vibrant, driven; I see her sitting in my old office, an office from another decade, another century. I close my eyes; and her form solidifies. They did this to me, she urges. Make them pay. I gazed, without speaking, as she tried to explain. Then I glanced down at her intake form, where she had written the details of the matter that she wants me to handle. Military benefits.

I took in the gathering drops of sweat rising across the counters of her small face. I observed the tautness of her muscles. I listened as she talked, in rapid, jerky tones, about her time in service, and the young women who came to her, reporting sexual aggression by others. Leah had reported their allegations to her superiors. And they locked me up, and they gave me drugs to keep me from talking, and they made me like this.

The simplest analysis will serve this woman best,
I told myself, gently placing her intake form on my desk. You've got a diagnosis, and it says here, that your illness had nothing to do with your duties in the military. Our eyes met. We both understood the portent of that determination. I want to appeal, she proclaimed. I can pay. My aunt is helping me. She stood, and I could not help myself -- I moved back, rolling my chair a bit further from her as she paced around the large area beside the small conference table at which we sat. She did not notice. I can pay, she repeated. I cautioned her, explained the potential futility of the appeal, the number of hours that I might have to bill, the likelihood of a disappointing outcome. I don't care, she repeated. They did this to me. They did. I wasn't like this before.

The diagnosis appeared multiple times in the small packet of records that she had brought. Paranoid schizophrenia. In the next box, the offending appellation: Non-service connected. No benefits. Medical discharge, back to civilian life, apply for SSI if you can, thanks for giving us four years of your life, we can't use you anymore. But Leah told a wild story of hospitalization, experimental drugs, retribution for defending the women who sought her help, the sexual harassment of whom she protested. If her story could be confirmed, perhaps the determination could be successfully challenged, and she could receive full benefits for a service-connected illness. Perhaps. Perhaps.

I pushed the little pile of papers to one side, and handed her a copy of my standard hourly contract, only briefly wondering if she could be said to be competent to enter into a binding agreement. She signed her name in bold, precise letters, and so, our odyssey began.

I started in the usual way: I filed the appeal, and then requested documents. Leah went back to her apartment, somewhere east of Main, on Linwood, in a tall building where the sick and the old lived in flats that used to be occupied by rick folks with heavy Victorian furniture. Weeks passed; and months; and paperwork dribbled into my files, small little packets of records of Leah's many hospitalizations while in service.

I shuffled the papers, idly, flicking my eyes through the boxes. Suicidal ideation, check. Paranoid thoughts, check. I ran my finger down a list of medications.

Geez louise, I thought. This woman has taken drugs I've never heard of, and most of the ones that I have.

I paced around my office, looking at the two-inch file. There have to be more records than this, I thought. She was in the hospital for six months, maybe more.

I sat down at my computer, and wrote another request for documents to the military attorney handling the defense against my client's claims. I read it several times, changing a word or two, revising my phrasing -- first more snippy, then less; settling on what I decided came across as mildly threatening but not indefensible. Save, print, sign, mail.

A month elapsed. Leah called almost daily at first. I assured her that I would let her know if I got anything more, if any progress had been made. I tried to bear in mind that her diagnosis suggested that she might not believe me, but if her paranoia extended to me, she did not show signs of it. Our conversations consisted of a brief query on her side, a disavowal of progress on mine, and her quiet thanks.

After the second week, she stopped calling. Time passed. We waited.

At the end of the third month, our UPS delivery person came into the office with a dolly full of boxes. Where do you want them, he asked. My secretary pulled me out to the reception area. I counted. Three boxes. I could accommodate those in my office, I suggested. He laughed, then shook his head. There's more.

We co-opted the floor's communal conference room. We arranged six tables in a square around its perimeter, and filled them with the cartons hauled upstairs by the UPS guy, in his brown uniform, his tall, wiry frame straining as he lifted them from his two-wheeler. Who'd this person kill? he asked. I chuckled. Nobody, yet, I assured him.

Fifteen boxes in all. Fifteen boxes, that I had waited more than ninety days to receive, and the contents of which I would now have to review. I called Leah. Good, she said, softly. She had not doubted that the records would come. She had more faith in my letter-writing ability than I did, it seemed.

A day or two later, I got a notice that our hearing date had been set -- in two weeks' time. Two weeks? What's their hurry now, I asked myself. I went across the hall to the cold room where my assistant sat, inventorying the contents of the boxes, and broke the news to him. Can't be done, he announced. I can't inventory these documents in two weeks, and you can't read them in two weeks.

We asked for a postponement on the basis of the delay in providing Leah's medical records. We got it.

The first snow fell. Thanksgiving came, and Christmas. Leah called the office over the Christmas holiday, leaving a message: They've got me -- please help! She left a number, which turned out to be the patient line at a hospital psychiatric unit.

I went to see her just before the new year. Her brown skin streaked with ashy grey, her tight curls awry, wearing a faded flannel robe, she pleaded with me to get her out. I just want to go home. I talked with the doctor on duty. She's not a danger to herself, or to anyone else, he admitted, but we think she should stay. My eyebrows shot up. Why? He shook his head. He was not been the treating physician. He could not explain. My eyebrows went even higher. I'll get a writ, if I need to, I assured him. You'll have to, he said. Not his call.

I went a notch or two up the food chain, sitting in a dingy office, crammed away in the back corridor. The agitated administrator pushed piles of unread mail around on the scratched surface of his putty-colored steel desk, and snatched my client's chart from my hands. The doctor thinks she should stay, he grumbled. But he can't make the standard, I gently reminded, and she wants to leave. The doctor hovered in the background, arms tightly folded across his chest, wearing an expression that aroused my suspicion. Not concern -- not worry for his patient -- something else. Fear.

The two exchanged looks. I thought about the fact that no one knew where I was. Silence surrounded us, palpable, cloying. I did not relent. They did not speak.

After a few moments, during which more meaningful glances passed between the two of them, the doctor relented and signed a discharge order. I hurried out of the office, and found my client. Get your stuff, I told her. Before whoever told them to put you here finds out you're leaving. She changed into street clothes and we hastened to my car.

I parked on the silent, dirty city street where she lived. She fumbled with the damaged handle of the exterior door to her building, then led me past a small assemblage of residents sitting, wordless, in the lobby. Eyes averted, I stayed close to her, trying to ignore the smell of over-cooked coffee that permeated the hallway.

Leah's apartment surprised me. Simply, shabbily furnished, and small, nonetheless, light streamed in through large, clean windows and a floral scent clung to the fabric of the sofa and chair. But most surprising were the large canvasses everywhere: leaning against the walls, on wooden easels in the area that might otherwise be used for a dining table, in the hallway that must have led to a small bedroom.

I stopped, and stared. In vibrant colors, Leah had painted children of Africa. Not tragic, sympathetic poor children, but vibrant, alive, joyful little boys and girls -- with their mothers, with baskets of grain, with each other. In some pictures, she showed just the women, standing in small groups, seemingly engrossed in casual conversation, perhaps casting one disinterested eye over a shoulder at the watching artist. Her people of Africa did not beg for pennies, or bemoan their poverty. They simply lived, with no regard for anyone outside the happy circle of their existence.

On other easels, I saw a few darker works. A woman standing on a city street -- New York, perhaps, I told myself, from the sinister appearance of the alley behind her. Wide, staring eyes; tense body; an absence of peace. The contrast between Western poverty and African richness could not be ignored in Leah's work. Have you been there, I asked her. Have you seen these villages that you're painting? She shook her head. She gestured to a pile of magazines, from which, I presumed, she got some inspiration. Then she pointed to the picture of the woman on the streets of an American city, saying simply, But I've been there.

I left her, listening as she slid the brass chain into its slot. I walked more slowly down to the lobby than I had come up through it, and nodded, briefly, to the people sitting on plastic chairs. They did not return my greeting. I pulled my coat tight around me, and went home.

Over the next week, my assistant and I read the records. Entry after entry about Leah's illness -- its progression, its symptoms, its seriousness. We began to lose hope that we could prove anything of what she had told us. We found no mention of her having reported the other women's complaints of sexual impropriety by officers; we found no account of the experiments that she claimed had made her ill. We began to take a dimmer view of our attempts to have her mental state attributed to anything that happened to her while she was in service, which finding we would have to secure in order to get the benefits she wanted.

The new hearing date drew closer. I had spoken to Leah just a few times since her discharge from the hospital. She seemed to be doing well. She talked about taking classes at the local community college; she mentioned the possibility that her works might be shown. She asked if we had found anything. She did not get upset with my reply.

And then, just days before we were to have the hearing, as I read the last file, in the last box, I found what I had read through fifteen hundred reams of medical records to discover. One line, in one paragraph, on one page, of one month's reports. This patient would not be likely to have experienced any of these symptoms but for the medications given to her during the initial hospitalization. And the signature, legible, bold: A doctor in the branch of service in which my client had served.

I sat on hold while a clerk got the doctor's number for me. I sat on hold while a nurse looked for him. I sat on hold waiting for him to come to the phone, after he had been located. He spoke his name into the receiver. I identified myself, and explained the purpose of my call. A silence fell over the line. Finally, he said, calmly, I've been waiting for your call.

A few days later, I had official confirmation of what I had negotiated on the strength of the doctor's statements to me, which he put in writing. Full benefits. Permanent, full disability, service-connected. I called my client and let her know. She, too, met my words with silence; she, too, finally spoke in a gentle voice: Thank you.

Several months later, Leah called me. Her bill had been paid in full; her benefits had, presumably, had commenced. I had sent the fifteen boxes to storage, and restored the conference room to communal usability. Her case had receded into the history of my work as a solo practitioner -- one for the "W" column.

I've got something for you, Leah said. And I've gotten something for your son, too. I reflected, but only briefly. Come to my house for coffee on Sunday, I suggested. I had been to her house; it seemed only right that she should come to mine.

The doorbell summoned me that Sunday, promptly at the scheduled hour. Leah stood on my screen porch, with a large canvas covered in a sheet. She held a Tonka truck, still in its box but unwrapped. My son's eyes widened as she gave it to him. She pulled the canvas into the living room, and gently pulled the sheet down, revealing her painting of Venice.

On the back, she had written a simple sentence, thanking me for my work, and signing it, in red ink, with her full name.

The house has grown still. I've sat at this computer longer than I had planned. My legs have stiffened; my wrenched hip protests. The phone has rung but I have ignored it; I hope the caller did not take offense. I shake my head, and sniff the cup on my writing table, wrinkling my nose at the acrid smell of cold coffee. From downstairs, I hear the yowl of a cat urging me to come and turn on the water in the bathroom sink. I'll go and do her bidding, and then put on a kettle for tea. After a while, perhaps I'll start on the second chapter of my book.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Saturday Musings, 15 January 2011

Good morning,

I have broken my fast with a plate of crumpets, yogurt and banana. My sorry little behind is dragging around the house, my body tainted by a smear of shingles rash, my face tingling with the nasty little sting of the bug. I have not taken the dose of anti-viral medication properly, and the episode lingers, even rallies, reminding me that better living through chemistry requires careful attention to directions.

My housemate tip-toes through the morning, then ventures out into his day with something suspiciously close to relief. I have not snarled, but neither have I spoken; and he must be forgiven his trepidation. I lift a cup of cold comfort, and gaze about my bedroom. I see the assortment of pens and other flotsam stuck into my brother's coffee mug, including a small luster-lace key fob that my son made for me a decade or so ago. This mug sits on the back shelf of my writing table with a few framed pictures of my siblings, a Haviland fruit cup filled with pretty rocks, and a framed studio shot of my son at aged 2.

Today is Martin Luther King's birthday -- the actual birthday, not the day chosen to give people a paid holiday from government work in ostensible honor of Dr. King. Several articles in our newspaper mention Dr. King; more on the Internet remind us of his life, his work and his message. As for myself, I have a curious view of relations between people who are dark-skinned and people who are light-skinned. I vacillate between my recognition of our country's history of bigotry, and my own unwavering conviction that we cannot accept each other until we stop dwelling on our differences.

I am reminded of one of the foster children whom my son and I sheltered, back in the mid-to-late 1990s when we served as a foster household. I can see this chubby little baby, Bianca; feel the warmth of her fat body against my thin frame. Her eyes glistened as they fixed on mine, as she reached and claimed a great gob of my thick, coarse hair. I see her in my son's cradle, at the foot of my parents' old bedstead, in the back bedroom of my Brookside bungalow. She fascinated my son, who was five at the time. He stood for hours over the cradle, or the bouncy seat staged the dining room table, or the Grayco swing-o-matic in the living room. She clutched his small fingers with one hand while she waived her rattle with her other hand, and Patrick, in love, in love, in love, exclaimed to me, time after time: Can we keep her, Mom? Can we?

I could have. I wanted to keep her. I had wanted to keep little Kimmy before her, of whom I only recently discovered an endearing picture, at the bottom of a basket on a high shelf, saved but hidden, for fear my broken heart would not mend. Kinky corn rows sticking out from her delicate skull, inexpertly braided by her foster mother while her foster brother stood nearby; bright eyes; crooked smile. She spent several weeks with us before being placed with a "real" family, defined by her worker as one that looked more like her and had two parents.

Bianca came to us some months after Kimmy, but before the pair of brutally abused boys that would undo our resolve to continue fostering. Bianca had been born crack-positive but thrived, and by ten months, weighed more than Patrick had at twice the age. She demanded that I carry her everywhere, around the house, through stores, in the park. I did not mind. With Patrick at my heels, I sailed around the house doing chores, Bianca on a skinny hip, chortling by my ear, grabbing at my glasses, happy.

Until the week that Patrick got strep throat, the situation could not have been more perfect. But the pediatrician admonished me to find another home for the foster baby until Patrick healed. I can't place her anywhere else, whined her case worker. So I did the next best thing: I asked a friend to keep her for a day or two. I called the case worker back, but she had left the office. I tapped my pencil against the table, thinking, before dialing the extension for the worker's supervisor. It's out-of-county, I explained. So I wanted to get permission. It is just for 72 hours. She approved it, and off went my little Bianca, until Patrick's condition allowed for her return.

The following Saturday, the friend who had given her safe harbor returned her to my house, with a few assorted children of her own. Patrick and I had struggled through the week, and my friend stayed for a few hours, cleaning my house for me, while I played with the baby.

I had expected a visit from Bianca's CASA worker, and she arrived before my friend and her children left. I didn't hear the knock at first, but Patrick did, and he opened the door before I could caution him to wait. I came up from behind him, holding our little Bianca.

The worker gazed first at Patrick, and then at me, with the baby in my arms. No one spoke for a minute or two, and then the worker said, in tones that still cause my blood to freeze, You're white.

I don't know what prompted her honest reaction to bubble out of her wicked little mouth. She herself sported fairly dark skin; I am 1/4 Lebanese but in complexion resemble my Irish father. Patrick looks like his father, who claims to be half-Scottish and half-Native American. But whatever little nugget of bigotry prompted her outburst, out it did burst, and if the room had been chilly before her arrival, its temperature dropped another several degrees upon her announcement.

Patrick tilted his head back, looking up the length of her, and corrected her assessment. Actually, we're beige, he said. She tore her eyes away from my face and fixed them on my son, pulling her brow into a dark, angry frown. What did you say, she demanded of him. He did not shy back. I said we're beige, we are not white. She jerked her head back, and spoke again. And the baby's black, she snapped. Patrick gently corrected her. Actually, she's kind of Hershey-bar color, he observed.

I pulled the door open wider, and motioned Patrick to stand back. I asked the woman if she wanted to come into the house, and come she did. Who are all these other kids, she asked. I explained. I told her about the strep throat, and the case worker with no solution to offer, and the help given by my out-of-county friend. I gave her the name of the supervisor who had approved the child's stay away from my home. I showed her the cradle at the end of my bed, and the toys in the basket, toys that my son had chosen for Bianca, from his own collection of beloved baby playthings. She barely spoke, showed little civility, and glanced, with disapproving skepticism, at the cobwebs in my corners, the small smear of jelly on my son's door frame, and the scuffed black cowboy boots that my son had taken to wearing everywhere, including to bed.

Bianca was removed from my home by order of a Family Court Commissioner on the following Monday. I protested. The ostensible reason was, of course, the child's brief sojourn in another county, of which CASA claimed they did not approve. My son and I cried; my friend offered to write a letter, which could jeopardize her own foster license in the county where she lived. The supervisor who had approved the respite arrangements apologized. The commissioner noted my protest, and assured me that he did not consider that I had done anything wrong.

The man who came for Bianca simpered his own regret in hollow tones, as he waited impatiently on our screened porch. I gently tendered her into his rough, rigid arms, and gave him the new diaper bag I had purchased for her, fully stocked; and a second bag, filled with small toys, books, and stuffed animals that Patrick had chosen. My son and I stood on the porch watching the fellow sashay down our walk, taking the child from us, a child whom we had planned to keep. Bye, Bianca, my son whispered, and a thousand angels cried.

I took Patrick down to the Plaza that afternoon. We had lunch at Winsteads, and then went to a store the name of which I can no longer recall, but which sold semi-precious gemstones in a hexagonal plexi-glass bin taller than my son. Patrick studied the rocks, selecting each one with determination, measuring by a standard that I could not fully grasp. When he had found the ones that pleased him, he carried them to the counter, and paid "with his own money". The man counted change into my boy's tight little fist, and solemnly presented him with a velveteen bag of the stones that Patrick had chosen. Later, at home, Patrick carefully divided his booty in half, and trickled one pile into my outstretched hand. Those are for you, Mom, he said. To remember me by.

My feet are cold, tucked behind my lily-white spastic legs, under the old kitchen chair at my desk. The house around me has grown very quiet. I am alone. Laundry waits to be sorted, and floors to be mopped. After a while, when my housemate tip-toes back from his tennis game, peering around the front door frame to gauge whether it is safe to enter, there will be lunch to fix. I will dutifully take my new course of anti-virals, and perhaps by Monday, I will feel human again.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Saturday Musings, 08 January 2011

Good morning,

I raise the shade which hangs between me and the neighbors' house, and see the distant, shivering trees, stripped of their coverings, rising into the pale sky. On the horizon to the north, a yellow house with its angled roof sits beneath a power line. Beyond, I see the grey gables of a Craftsman bungalow huddling between the spindly trunks of two second-growth oaks. My neighborhood -- a different perspective, north in the weak wintry morning.

I attended a meeting at a faith-based organization which contracts to perform the services of a Missouri governmental agency yesterday, and I am still nauseous. I would like to say that I held my tongue, but I did not. As the workers kept us waiting for fifteen minutes past the allotted starting time, I surveyed the collection of grandparents, birthparents, fosterparents and lawyers. "So," I ventured. "Where do all of you all stand on the separation of Church and state?" One grandfather, looming large across the tiled floor, waved his cane at me. Exactly! he thundered. He shifted his arthritic girth in the rigid plastic chair, and briefly rolled his eyes towards the receptionist. Nothing personal intended, but I don't get it, never have. Why is this here outfit doing what the state's supposed to do? The birthfather, seated near me, added a thought. My kids' mother and I never got married. These folks don't believe in that, and I feel them judging me. How can I trust them?

Silence descended again on the small, desperate group gathered to hear what the workers 'planned' for two adorable boys unfortunately caught in state care because of their parents' drug use. The father has been clean for a solid six months; the mother supposedly still has not begun recovery. It has been a long two years for the family, and working on a third. Trial will occur in February. The "state", in the person of its faith-based contract organization, has defied the judge's order to plan for reunification, and has had a "concurrent plan" for adoption, though none of the law-abiding dedicated grandparents have been given services pursuant to this plan. We don't know who has, but we suspect it is the foster-family, the husband of which got a special green Visitor's Badge at yesterday's meeting, presumably to quickly distinguish the saved from the hopeless in the event of an evacuation.

This morning, my mind insists on staying stubbornly in the present. I hold myself still but memories elude me. Perhaps the warm fuzzies which I have been accused of favoring seem too saccharine in contrast to the world in which I spend my workaday hours. Perhaps the crises of my past, which normally make just as lively reading as the pleasures, lose their importance beside the cancer of a friend's mother, the death of an acquaintance's grandmother, and the febrile seizures of the one-year-old grandchild of someone whom I dearly love. Life takes its feather duster and swipes with determination at my cranial cobwebs. The stories scatter, falling to the pile in the dustpan, under the rug, into the cold air return in the back halls of my mind.

I regaled a suite-mate with wild descriptions of the afternoon's events on return from the meeting yesterday. I cannot abide these self-perpetuating bureaucracies! I fumed. I recounted how the agency's attorney refused to answer the birthmother's questions. We prefer to talk with your lawyer about that, he parried. At his evasion, I raised my eyes from the legal pad on which I had been scribbling meaningless notes to distract myself from tempting but careless expressions of disgust. Was her attorney invited to this meeting? I asked, with seriousness but hardly from ignorance. I myself had been omitted from the invitation list, an oversight that the group bemoaned with nearly believable, wide, accidental eyes. I don't know, I assume she was, the man replied. He tossed an imploring glance at his client's representative, who could not hide the small, reluctant shake of her head. Aha. Another blunder, to parallel the omission of the court's mandated plan of reunification from the printed agency report, an oversight blamed on "software error".

My suite-mate, who also happens to be my future husband, listened to my tirade with a small smile of his own, sitting quietly at his computer. When I paused, perhaps to draw a breath, he spoke in gentle tones. Watch out, he suggested. You are starting to sound like a Republican. Presumably, he had forgotten that reliance on faith-based groups is a Republican proclivity. He meant, of course, that my seeming outrage at governmental involvement in these folks lives suggested a non-Democratic orientation.

But that is not my point. My anger rises not because the state has involved itself in the lives of two children born testing positive for methamphetamine.

My trigger trips with the combined weight of the state's abdication of its duties to a faith-based organization, and that organization's abuse of its delegated power. Every step of this long journey gives rise to another illustration of the workers' disdain for everyone involved, from the most circumspect court-appointed attorney whose e-mails are disregarded, to the birthfather whom the state's lawyers insist on addressing in a mocking voice by his given name, a habit taught to law enforcement as a tool for degradation of suspects during interrogation. The mannerisms of these state agents reflect their overall goal of splintering this family -- their "concurrent plan for TPR and adoption", served by strategies and tactics diametrically opposed to the court's plan of reunification: false and unsupportable accusations against the grandparents, which cause them to incur more legal fees seeking exoneration; removal of the children from a daycare to which they were well-adjusted, for the sake of a short-term placement in a religious but terrible foster home, leading to more upheaval and fear on the part of these precious little guys; unexpected rescheduling of meetings; failure to invite key players to the new settings; continued use of unreliable third-party service providers; peremptory threats to schedule hearings or depositions without regard to others' dockets; snotty comments in open court, directed to parties or their attorneys by state employees; the list is endless.

I often remind myself that nothing I have suffered rises to the level of the worst pain, the most frightening poverty, the sheerest, starkest realization of pending and unavoidable demise. On days when I feel so bad that I want to throw a chair through a plate glass window, I tell myself: Think of everything you have been given, and everything you have been spared. This week, at the top of my list of horrors not visited upon me, are the companion evils of being, or being at the mercy of, a small-minded social worker in a track suit, a tank top and a training bra, sitting squat and insufferable in a dingy, crowded conference room, holding a defective print-out of the plan to strip someone of their parental rights.

My coffee has grown cold while I have been writing. My neck protests when I raise it from the angle at which it must tilt to see the screen to accommodate my failing eyesight. I gaze, just for a moment, at the thin white smear of cloud stretched across the expanse of sky over my neighbor's roof. It will not rain today; nor will it snow. But the cold has settled in my joints, and for the rest of the day, I will best survive by counting my many blessings, and making cup after cup of tea; Earl Grey; hot.

Mugwumpitudinally tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Saturday Musings, 01 January 2011

Good morning,

The gentle sound I hear is the little dog's carefree snoring. She sleeps in her tattered bed, head askew over the edge, oblivious to the passage of time and the turning of a new year. She knows only that her beloved boy has not made it home, and so she won't go into his room to sleep amidst the covers, without his long, lean body beside her.

My son received many admonishments to stay put last evening. The potential that he might consume alcohol and drive didn't worry as much as the potential that he might encounter someone else who had. His sleeping on a few feet of floor in a home where he spent many nights as a child seems more reasonable then venturing out into a city filled with amateurs attempting to navigate the city streets with impaired systems.

As for myself, I stayed home most of the night, after an early dinner with my son and fiance at Charlie Hooper's, where the jukebox played a curious mix of old Grateful Dead and more modern rock, while the waitresses sashayed in time to the music. I don't have much use for the kind of tipsy reveling that characterizes the heralding of the new year. I am content. I've unpacked a few boxes for the newest resident of the house, and culled out a round of nonmatching dishes to make way for his, which do.

All of this unpacking stirs memories of the many times I moved before I bought the Holmes House in 1993. I stop for a moment, raised coffee cup in hand, counting the places I've lived, and thinking aboutf my first real apartment.

On Russell, east of Jefferson, the shotgun flat had two bedrooms and rent due each Sunday. My living room windows faced north, the view consisting of a long stretch of other four-family flats, brick, with their curved German-style windows. In the '70s, the street's occupants were middle-class working people, who left each morning early and came home each evening late, tired and dirty, wanting nothing more than a heavy meal and a cold beer. I did not know any fellow St. Louis U. students who lived that far east. I chose the apartment for its rent and spaciousness, for the clean if old kitchen, and the well-kept hardwood floors.

I had spent one-and-a-half semesters living in a hastily-found dorm room, after an unpleasant conversation with my mother in late October. I'm going to be late, probably won't be home for dinner, I had said. She barked at me in reply: If you are not home by 5pm, don't bother coming home at all. I took her at her word, to her ever-lasting chagrin. My work-study job in the Financial Aids office garnered me an increased grant that covered the cost of a dorm room until the end of second semester, and that first summer, 1974, I sublet the apartment of a friend at Russell and Grand. When she returned from home for the fall semester, I found a place on down the road, far from campus, far from the clusters of apartments in which my contemporaries lived.

That year, I dated a medical student named Ray. We usually met on campus and went out together from there, so he rarely visited my home. He would bring me back to wherever I had parked for class or work, and I made my own way home. I only have one memory of Ray ever being in my apartment, and that was after our relationship had ended, in the spring. You broke up with me because I'm black! he shouted at me, in a raw, accusatory voice. Ray, Ray, do you think it took me a year to notice??

During the same time period, I had a friend, purely platonic, also black, named Hank. Hank, unlike Ray, freely came and went at my apartment. We fixed meals together, made fun of pop singers in loud, raucous conversations, and sat --- cozy, quiet, companionable, far into the night. Hank had strong, firm features; a short, sturdy body; and liquid, knowing brown eyes.

One Saturday, that spring, Hank rapped on the glass door to my apartment, hard and urgent. I lived on the second floor, and had to descend a long narrow stair to admit visitors. He knocked again as I came down the stairwell. Hold your horses! I called to him. I could see him through the window, glancing over his shoulder, worried, fearful. His polo shirt pulled tautly across his back and shoulder as he twisted around, and when he turned toward me, I caught a stab of the deep terror in his eyes. I opened the door. What's your problem? I asked. He put out a hand to urge me back up into the flat, and I had just a few seconds to see what kind of demon might be following him. I saw only my landlady, who lived in the flat below me, standing in the yard with two rough, heavy men from across the street. As I watched, my landlady folded her arms across her wiry body, and gave her head, with its row upon row of tight pin curls, a jerk in my direction. I could not read her expression.

Hank continued past my living room into my kitchen and opened the metal door of a cabinet, taking down a silver aluminum glass. He filled it with cold water from the tap, and drank: long, deep, without pausing to breathe. He set the empty glass down on the counter. I stood a few feet from him, not speaking, watching him stare at something in the sink. Finally, he faced me. I'm sorry, he said. I'm afraid I've caused you trouble.

I shook my head, disbelieving that this gentle man could cause anyone trouble. He rushed past me and paced around the living room, agitated, insistent, telling me that the landlady and neighbors seemed upset by his presence. Sit down, here, sit down, calm down. I touched his arm. He jerked away and continued his pacing. I stood, helpless. Don't be ridiculous, I assured him. What do they care who my friends are?

But care they did. The next day, my landlady awakened me with a series of forceful, insistent bangs on my front door that reverberated through the apartment and penetrated the thick fog of sleep. I stumbled down in my flannel nightgown, long, wiry hair tumbling over one shoulder, spastic legs protesting at such strenuous work before the synapses had stirred. What is it, I grumbled. Is the house on fire?

She handed me an envelope. It's your notice, you gotta get out. I stared at her, not awake enough to protest but aware of the ridiculousness of being evicted from an apartment with no more class than to cost fifty dollars a week. Why? I asked. We can't have no coloreds here, she snapped back at me, and turned on her tight little heel and walked over to her own stoop, disappearing into the door of her apartment.

I climbed the steps and sat in my living room. I looked at the shabby furniture that had come with the place -- a broken rocker, a bowed brown couch, a scuffed coffee table which appeared to have been used as a cobbler's bench and bore deep, scandalous scratches. Evicted. For having a black friend. And not even Ray, who had at least been my boyfriend.

I made my way into the galley kitchen, and put the percolator on the stove. As I waited for the first hot burst of coffee to appear in the little glass knob, I tried to get my mind around the landlady's comment. We can't have no coloreds here. In 1976. In a tacky little rundown neighborhood, east of Jefferson, in south St. Louis, where most of my Corley relatives wouldn't even want to be caught dead.

I spent the day gathering boxes for the move. I considered asking Hank to help, but thought that might just get him hurt. I had broken up with Ray by then, so I didn't have the muscle of a paramour on which to depend even if I would have asked, which I wouldn't have, for the same reason that I didn't ask Hank. I called a couple of my friends from North County instead, and started looking for somewhere to move.

One of my friends had a lawyer father. She mentioned my situation to him, and he suggested a complaint with the city. I pounced on this idea. The net result found a few hundred dollars in my pocket, which I used for a deposit on the next apartment, in Laclede Town, behind the University. My landlady admitted the reason she asked me to move. I don't think she even felt embarrassed. I'm not sure she knew why anyone would question her motivations. She didn't even have the decency to lie.

Hank had graduated, and left town shortly after my move. Though his full name has faded into the recesses of my old mind, I have not forgotten our friendship, or the hours we spent ruminating about the world, or that one, brief insight into what it must be like to face genuine hatred. I have not forgotten my glimpse of the fright in his eyes, or the electric feel of panic in his touch as he urged me back into the flat, as he pushed the door closed between us and that small, tight circle of angry neighbors on the sidewalk.

The dawning new year surrounds me, with its fresh, clean cold and the broad stretch of a pale sapphire sky. I shake away the memories, and get up to pour myself another cup of coffee. I've several loads of laundry to do, and New Year's Resolutions to make. After awhile, my son will come home, and I will hear all about the party he attended, on the last day of 2010.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

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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.