Saturday, July 27, 2013

Saturday Musings, 27 July 2013

Good morning,

The week draws to a gentle close.  From the vantage point of Saturday morning, I gaze back six days to early Sunday, when a small black Kia jetted east, then a bit south, gliding to a stop in a GPS-tracked restaurant in Washington, Missouri. I sat in the passenger's seat; my son in the driver's seat; and we looked first at each other, and then at the restaurant to which we had come for purposes of meeting my long lost niece.

We eased out of the car, stretching muscles held still since the last rest stop. I hesitated, thinking the restaurant looked closed but Patrick ventured forward and soon we occupied a table facing the entry way. "Do you think she will come," I ask, and my son just looks at me. I can't decide what he thinks except that I should stop chattering.

A few minutes later, I saw a tall, sturdy man walk into the restaurant and glance over at us. He left again; and then came back, preceded by a short woman, whose picture I had memorized so as to recognize her. Patrick and I stood, and the two of them approached. I saw the curve of her smile, her profile, and my heart stopped. I knew that profile.

And in an instant, it is 1987 and I am again the age of this long-lost niece.

I sit in a Firebird, wearing a blue muslin dress and white leather Mary Janes, clutching a silk bouquet. I turn to see the driver, in profile, a profile that I have known nearly three decades since his birth brought even-ness to my family, four boys and four girls. "Steve," I say. "Aren't you driving a little fast for these mountain roads?"

He responds with a grin and an upward crank of the Grateful Dead, and hands me a bottle from which I take a swig. "You're getting married today, Mare Bear," he scoffs. "You gotta live a little, it's your last hour of freedom."

I glance in the side view mirror at the line of cars inching up the mountain behind us. The gathering of Corleys, all of whom stayed at the off-season motel in the little mountain town, follows us. I am supposed to be their navigator to Murray Valley, above the county seat of Newton County, Arkansas, in the rich lovely hills. "I can't see Mark's car," I tell my little brother. "I think we've lost him." Steve responds by slowing down a mile or two per wild hour and I take another sip of Chivas Regal.

I gaze out the window, deep into the valley, at the tops of the lush trees and clustered homes. I roll the window down and close my eyes, letting the breeze wash over my face. "Casey Jones" blasts across the otherwise quiet land. I feel the staccato tapping of Steve's hand on the steering wheel, the warm flush of the Scotch; the slight flop of my stomach. I can't say if what I feel is from the impending event, the alcohol or the lurch of the city car around the country corners.

I open my eyes. "Steve," I say suddenly. "I think the mountains are on the wrong side." He doesn't understand at first and makes a joke about God's choice of where to put the mountains. "No, no," I insist. "I think we're on the wrong side of the valley. I think we took a wrong turn."

He stops the car on the narrow shoulder, on the edge of the mountain, a thousand feet above the rolling, verdant fields of spring in Newton County. A half-dozen cars pull in behind us. Steve eases himself out of the driver's seat, confers with my older brother at the wheel of the second vehicle, and we all turn, slowly, and go back down a ways to where we got off track. I do not speak as we climb back up, this time on the right road but now thirty minutes late. I glance again at his profile and take another drink.

"You know, Mare bear," he finally says, "If you don't want to do this, you don't have to. We can just have a big party and get everybody high, they'll think you got married and then you can just go back to Kansas City like nothing happened." He reaches out and touches my arm, his own clad in the light brown of the jacket he has worn. I feel the warmth of him through the thin fabric of my dress. "I know," I tell him. The Dead sings on, whatever song is next, and soon we are in a clearing filled with scores of trucks, and Jeeps, and a handful of small, dusty cars that tell me some of my friends have made it down.

We stop. The cars behind us stop. It is still, except for the call of a bird from a tall evergreen by the side of the road. Steve is watching me, I can tell, his face turned toward me. The bottle is nearly empty and the music has stopped. Sweet air flows through the car and his hand rests on my leg. "Okay," I finally say. "I'm ready." And Steve walks round to my car, opens the door, and reaches his hand for mine, while the music of the mountains whispers on the wind.

A lifetime later I sat at a table in a Mexican restaurant, meeting Steve's oldest daughter for the first time. She was born of a relationship that did not endure. Her parents were too young, maybe; or maybe something else went wrong. They went their separate ways and she grew into a lovely young woman without my brother's help. Six months ago, I awakened in the middle of the night with a lurching feeling. I barely made it to six a.m. before I called my sister Joyce with this urgent question: "Didn't Steve have another daughter?" I've already forged a relationship with his younger daughter, Chelsea -- maybe not enough of one, but something -- and suddenly, I have this insatiable urge to find Amy. Both girls were raised by their respective mothers and stepfathers. Both girls bear the unmistakeable stamp of Steve's profile, the slant of his nose, the line of his strong chin. Beautiful women.

Amy and her husband sat beside me in that restaurant, then for another hour in Starbucks. She talked about her childhood -- surgeries for a difficult birth defect, surgeries that succeeded as I can see. Her coloring comes from her Italian mother, as do her deep brown eyes. But that profile: That is pure Steve; as is the gleam of mischief in her eye and the curve of her smile. She seems level though, in ways that he had never been. She possesses a kind of peace that I think he would have envied. I can't stop beaming as we visit, flush with a warmth not from anything I've eaten or drunk but from something else; something close to joy. The feeling lasts the whole way home, and lingers still.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Saturday Musings, 20 July 2013

Good morning,

The unexpected heat drives me back to the dining room table from the muggy porch. My morning sounds shift: the dryer, the washer, the distant sound of the barking dog; the occasional rustle of the newspaper from the living room, where my husband works the sudoku. Soduko? I've never been too sure which it is. My son awakened before any of us, and I found him on the front porch with a guitar in hand, and his cat sitting next to him on the cool concrete. Six a.m. Before the coffee finished brewing, he had gone back to bed and now sleeps, the gentle, whirring fan providing his white noise.

My affinity with sound sharpens as my ability to discern it wanes. I still hear the few old-fashioned flourescent bulbs which keen above me in stores that have not yet converted. Voices recede; I've had to learn to patiently request that people say again, say again, say again. My requests are met with varying degrees of impatience. Many erroneously deduce that I did not understand their meaning, and they start paraphrasing. My brain rejects the change: that's not what I heard before! I'm cultivating a "Miss Manners" smile, which principally involves the lower half of one's face. The eyes do not engage.

My suite-mate had surgery yesterday, and as I sit here, I say a little prayer of thanks that it went as well as it could. I've come to consider her a friend, someone whose presence in my life provides enrichment. She's had a lot to handle of recent days, and handle it she has, that Jane Williams, with courage and grace.

My mother-in-law has made it back to her skilled nursing facility after a harrowing ten days in the hospital. I sat beside her bed a day or so ago, watching her nibble the Laura Little fudge to which I have gotten her addicted. And in a flash, I found myself transported to another bedside, my mother's bedroom, in Jennings, 1985.

I hold a little cup of water and guide her hand to her mouth. She sits in a hospital bed which has come from Hospice. The cancer ravages her bones. A few days before, she had called me, voice trembling. Oh Mary, she whispered, calling me by my given name. The X-Ray technician broke my arm! I dropped everything -- my failing law practice could flounder a few days without me; my city courtrooms could be covered -- and drove to St. Louis to relieve my tired siblings and sit beside her bed. I can't recall a cast, but there must have been one.

She sipped the cool water that I had poured from the yellow pitcher. It sat beside her on a little wooden table. I waited for her to swallow, then shook another Demerol from the bottle, and folded it into her frail fingers. She raised it to her lips and shifted her eyes to meet mine. Brown gaze connected to blue. She took the pill, and I handed her another glass of water to wash down the medication. She swallowed; she could still swallow then. Later, we would all liquefy the pills.

I set the glass down on the bedside table and settled back in my chair. She glanced for a moment out the window, at nothing: the house next door, the driveway, the power lines. I waited. Willie Nelson sang to both of us on the turntable: You were always on my mind; you were always -- on -- my -- mind. I felt my mother wished to speak. I let the air between us be still; I waited for her words.

I think I'm getting addicted to those damn pills, she finally said. Her face suddenly turned back toward mine; those nut-brown Lebanese eyes bored into my Irish gaze. I felt a flood of disappointment and irony. I had expected a deep disclosure, something I could hold in my heart after her inevitable and impending passing. I shifted in my chair and broke away from her penetrating stare. Mom, I said, with a tinge of disappointment in my voice. You're dying, I don't think anybody cares if you're a drug addict. I stood, I paced; in the small room, a room in which her babies had been nurtured, a room that had once been half of a dining room, I looked in vain for a distraction. I did not know what I had wanted her to tell me but waves of anger surged through me.

Then I heard her voice: small, weak, a pale mockery of the voice that had always soothed me. I'm sorry, she said. I turned sharply towards her, standing over her, my body rigid and my mind raging. We stopped in that moment: My mother and I -- she in the bed where she would, in just a few short months, die; and I a few feet from her with arms clutched against my chest. And Willie Nelson crooned, over and over: You were always on my mind. You were always on my mind. Time stood still.

And then my mother laughed. The tones washed over me, a soothing tide, a flood of comfort as I huddled on a bleak shore. Imagine me! An addict! Me! I'm the most straight-laced person ever -- and now I'm a drug addict! Her frail body shook, not with pain but with laughter, and I felt my muscles melt and I fell into the chair, overcome with mirth, giggling uncontrollably. At that moment, my father opened the bedroom door. Everybody okay in here? He asked the question with a face gone grey with worry. Neither of us could stop laughing long enough to answer him. He shook his head and closed the door again. He'd seen us in this state enough times over the last few years to know that once we got to laughing we would not soon be able to speak a coherent word.

The other day, my husband visited a nursing home that one of his clients needs evaluated. He called me from the road, and told me, if I ever get so bad that I have to be in one of these places, just shoot me. Later, when I sat beside my mother-in-law's bed and my father-in-law asked how Jim's trip had been, I briefly debated whether JIm's father, Jay, would find the remark humorous. But I hesitated only a moment, then quoted the line, the lead bullet line, and for the next few minutes my father-in-law and I shared a belly laugh that amused his wife of sixty years even as she stared at us, uncomprehendingly, her bemused look a sweet unwitting echo of my father, as he quietly closed the bedroom door on his dying wife and her silly daughter, long ago and far away.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Saturday Musings, 13 July 2013

Good morning,
An endless string of lovely Saturdays stretch behind me in time.  I turn the calendar's page with a brief whisk of my finger and see months upon months of them.  Birds squawk; squirrels bark; and a woman clad in cotton strolls past with her dog on a leash.  The black cat, having eaten a handful of dog food that its shameful owner foisted upon him, stares balefully at  me, then tosses his body down onto the concrete pad of our porch, and tends to grooming his paws.  I close my eyes and let the wind toss my hair against my cheeks, surrounded by nothing but beauty, relentless, cool and serene.
I feel the rush of caffeine hit my veins, and think of the pale grey of my mother-in-law's face, three days ago, as she lay in a hospital bed, her worried spouse of fifty-eight years hovering nearby.  It will take a little hissy fit by her daughter-in-law who does not care about the nurses liking her, before a unit of fluids and two of blood will restore color to the delicate skin of the ailing lady's face.  I am struck by the amount of time women spend standing beside others during post-surgical hours.  I wonder, briefly, if there is a gene for knowing the proper ratio of diplomacy to insistence.
On the wall next to my cedar closet hangs  a framed piece of fabric, with the words, "Tomorrow Begins Today".  I remember my mother sitting beside my grandmother's hospital bed, needle flying quickly through the creamy cotton, embroidery hoop holding the work taught beneath her  brown-spotted hands.  Nana shifted beneath the sheets; a machine trilled; and my mother jumped from her chair.  A soft touch on the taught forehead; the machine's noise settled to a rhythmic, periodic beep.  
I pull my car into the long driveway of the hospital, day after day.  I've learned to lie to the guard.  The parking lot for the Heart Institute affords me a shorter trip to my mother-in-law's bed, past the better coffee shop.  I'm supposed to park in the garage for the main hospital but have learned that the trip from there to her room exhausts me.  My father-in-law doesn't cheat.  At eighty-four, he could fib with moral justification and park wherever he chooses, but he makes the longer journey, in his tightly laced Rockports and camper's shorts, twice a day, to sit by his wife's bedside.
I greet the coffee shop clerk as though we know each other.  I tease her about her co-worker, whom I have seen flirt with her on other days.  She knows my order already -- a twelve-ounce Americano, no room for cream -- and I have exact change ready.  It's day five, day six, day seven; and for someone who favors routine, these hospital visits tuck neatly into my morning.
As I walk down the corridor to the Blue Elevators, lab-coated figures stroll on either side of me.  Their thumbs fly across the tiny keys of small black devices.  Smartphones or iPods.  Eyes down, elbows crooked, feet on auto-pilot set to rapid, as I trudge beside them, a heavy bag with my own gadgets tucked neatly inside slung over one shoulder.  They keep typing in the elevator, and I gingerly sip my coffee, straining to read their badges.  A doctor who looks to be half a decade younger than my son; a nurse with an unpronounceable name smacking gum; a couple of worried relatives.  The doors open on Four and I disembark, swiftly glancing at the small waiting room where others clutch cups of coffee just as I do, but moving on, having seen no one I know, not really expecting to see anyone but looking just in case.
The ladies at the desk raise their eyes as I approach, then look back down.  I'm one of a series of faces with which they will for a short time be familiar.  After my mother-in-law returns to the Memory Unit where she lives, the fabric of time will re-seal, leaving no trace of me.  Some other grumpy daughter-in-law will make an impression, on some other day, for some other reason.  I know that their knowledge of me will not endure, but I don't mind.  I respect their profession and most of their work.  Our dumb luck dictated that the one inefficient nurse among them happened to be on duty the day of my mother-in-law's sharp decline.  She hasn't been assigned to Joanna's room again, and not necessarily by chance.  I smile when I see the assignment board; as long as certain names appear on it, and certain names do not, I know Joanna will be as fine as she can be, given what she has had to endure and the  present state of her long life.
The hallway to her room smells the way all such hallways do. I pause halfway down, and breathe in the mix of antiseptic and sweat, Lysol and despair.  I see a little clutch of medical students in the distance, stethoscopes shoved in deep pockets, narrow shoulders pulled back, eyes pinned to the doctor standing in their midst. For a moment, I am lost.  I could be in the hospital where my mother's cancer marched her towards a hastened end; the long ago facility in which my grandmother recovered from one devastating stroke after another; or  the Arkansas nursing home to which I brought a sheaf of papers for a client's son to sign, as he stood, soundlessly sobbing, over her dying body.
Yesterday morning, I arrived at my mother-in-law's bedside before her husband.  She had just awakened, and lay quietly beneath a white sheet, her hands on its edge, her eyes alert in the pink flush of her face.  Good morning, Joanna! I said.  She does not know me.  But she knows that I come to see her wherever she is.  I can only imagine who she thinks I am -- an aide or a hired hand, I've decided -- but she smiled at me, as she always does, and echoed my greeting.  I hear you had a long visit from somebody special last night! I am talking about my stepson, whose name is Mac, but I don't refer to him because I do not want her to be stressed with the challenge of trying to remember.
But I need not have worried.  OH yes! She answered.  Mac came to see me! And her radiant smile confirmed that she does, indeed, remember.  I set my coffee down, and bent to kiss her forehead.  The lingering pleasure of that visit has made a permanent mark on her mind.  Whatever else might happen to Joanna this day, this weekend, this life, she has had that moment when a six-feet-two handsome young man, with his baritone voice and his broad shoulders, has sat by her bedside and held her hand.
In a few hours, I will watch a young couple exchange their wedding vows.  When they have been married sixty years, as my in-laws nearly have been, I will be long dead.  One of them will fall ill, and the other will travel from the parking garage to sit in the uncomfortable visitor's chair and watch the dials of the machine which monitors the patient's progress.  Some young relative will bring a brief ray of sunshine into the room, and some nurse will forget to monitor the patient's condition as carefully as she should.  Another nurse will intervene, and disaster will be averted.  As they stand in the church this evening, this brave, slender couple who have chosen each other, I will sit with my husband, hold his hand, and wonder which one of us will go first and who will come to mourn us.  Then I will turn my eyes back toward the bride in her beautiful dress; and the sturdy, strong groom, and for a few minutes, nothing  will matter but the light of love shining from their faces.
Mugwumpishly tendered.
Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Saturday Musings, 06 July 2013

Good morning,

The distant rumble of a trash truck signals the morning has begun.  I have dragged a large pile of rubbish from the basement, the fruits of an Independence Day cleaning brigade.  I'm satisfied, smug:  I can use the laundry room again, and it only took two of us four hours to get it clean. I draw in the fresh June air. Three birds, flying in formation, land in the tree over our yard.  I listen to their song, wondering if they chatter amongst themselves or if they each have their own refrain. 

The neighbors' house stands in a state of stalled repainting.  The contractor husband divides his time between his flip-house projects and his wife's bedside.  Her perilous pregnancy demands constant medical care, just seven days from the planned early delivery.  A few corridors away in the same hospital, my mother-in-law lies in uneasy discomfort, having fallen in her "Memory Unit" and broken her femur, causing an irreversible change to her already fragile existence.  My husband and hers sit in the two chairs allocated to her private room, holding her hand.  I can picture the sweetness of her smile.

I spent July 06th in a hospital myself twenty-two years ago.  Another Saturday, two days before a planned C-section at 34 weeks gestation, my little baby eager to have the ties between us severed.  Labor pains started that morning, and the cadre of women in white decided to let the baby come naturally if he chose to do so.  I panted, listening to the somewhat patronizing tones of the nurses admonishing me to relax, just relax, now breathe, that's a good girl.  I gritted my teeth and glared at them but between contractions, I clung to them.  They seemed to understand the alternating waves of despair and dependence.  They patted my hand and smiled, unaffected by the daggers which I hurled at them in my pain.

Other hands held mine in turn.  The thin, cool hands of Paula Fulcher; the motherly grip of my friend Laura Barclay and the clumsy, caring touch of her husband Ron; the soothing, calming grip  of Joshua Dara, my colleague from Nigeria who divided his time between lawyering and preaching in the only black church in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1991.  They endured it all with me, that little labor team, uncomplainingly, even though to Ron and Laura there must have a tragic tone of irony.   I seemed to have conceived so easily, I, who had no husband, when they had been trying for years without success. 

I walked the halls and stood at the nursery window, that Saturday, so long ago.  I watched the tiny babies being tended by the efficient nursing staff. I gazed on women as they lay in stretchers, pushed down the halls, their huge bellies draped with soft blankets.  I yielded to passing wheelchairs surrounded by dazed, delirious family members, and smiling aides carrying flowers, new mothers on the way to  the rest of their own indelibly altered lives.  Once I doubled over, flailing, as a strong, urgent need rippled through me.  But the hours marched by, and the contractions brought no dilation, and finally, midnight came.  July 07th.

My midwife happened to be in the room at that moment.  I screeched at her to stop the labor, now.  She spoke in soothing tones, assuring me that I could endure for another few hours and soon the baby would come and I would forget the pain.  She did not understand.  Stop this labor NOW, I demanded.  I clutched her arm.  It's not doing anything; it's six weeks early, and July 07th is the father's birthday.  I will not spend the rest of my child's life thinking about the father that is not here.  My hysteria convinced her. She gave me a shot; I went home at noon, and reappeared, refreshed, with a well-rested labor team, ready for the birthing that Monday morning, July 08th, 1991.  Ron started the video camera; Laura and I were prepped and gowned, and Joshua stood beaming beside Paula's diminutive figure, my last sight as they wheeled me head-first into operating room number two.

A half-dozen years later, Ron would die when an aneurysm exploded in his head, apparently lying in wait since he skidded to avoid a deer someone kept in town as a pet and hit his head on the steering wheel.  He and Laura had just adopted a group of four siblings whom they had fostered.  She's raised them on her own.  Joshua slowly phased out law while he built a church in Louisiana; he and his wife, accustomed to the fifty-percent infant mortality rate in Nigeria, had eight children -- hoping for four.  Those eight children have all grown now, and Joshua is contemplating a run for Mayor of his small central Louisiana town.  I'm told Paula left Arkansas several year ago, and died under mysterious circumstances, in northern Florida, far from home. 

I still see them, in my hospital room.  Ron wears a Cardinal's shirt over his stocky frame, and bustles around, taking pictures that now have faded in a photo album.  I wish I could bottle that look on your face, he proclaims, in his gravely Oklahoma voice.  I'd make a fortune!  "Essence of Motherhood", I'd call it.  Laura crinkles her eyes in his direction, her glance flavored by the highlight of love.  Joshua hovers in the background, slightly embarrassed, averting his eyes from a woman, not his wife, nursing her baby.  And Paula, with her golden gaze, her diminutive frame, reaches her slender arms to take the baby so I will rest.  She settles into the rocker beside my bed, murmuring something only she and the infant can hear, and he drifts to sleep, the sounds of silence surrounding them both.

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.