Today, there is more of you missing. I almost walk past your door in the Intensive Care Unit, as I no longer recognize what is left of my husband. All but a few inches of your Adam’s rib-length wavy hair remains, cut jagged and frayed at the ends.
I know who did this. I call her Nurse Ratched because my brain is no longer capable of original thought. It seems to be missing parts too. She is the same one who ordered the straps to tie your arms to the bedrail. Yesterday, I watched mutely as she roughly swabbed the oozing surrogate mouth, cut into your throat. The mouth that holds the tube poked through your trachea that allows you to breathe. Your whole delirious body jerked at the insult, your arm shot out and smacked her leg. You now have the large purple triangle sign on your door. Labelled as violent.
Nurse Ratched is at the door now. I don’t want to hear her words, so I focus on the refrigerator-sized machine that filters and warms your blood. Like R2-D2, it flashes and spins, communicating through electronic beeps. She is talking again. I nod my head but keep my eyes on the machine. R2-D2 is sending an image, a movie clip, of me holding Nurse Ratched’s coiled flaxen hair bun, chopping it off with several uneven thrusts. This brings relief as I can’t seem to utter the words, Please stop. Please stop taking him from me.
They continue to take more of you. The list goes on: litres of blood, your velvety voice, your concept of time – past/present/future/night/day. Sitting at your side, I watch Nurse Ratched and a group of doctors discussing your chart, through the floor to ceiling windows of your “room”. No one makes eye contact. Grasping your hand, I sniff it like an animal searching for a familiar scent. Your skin used to smell like it had just been warmed by the sun, even when you hadn’t been outside for months. I lay my head on your chest, eyes closed, and listen to the whoosh and thump of the ventilator forcing air in and out of your lungs. Your meagre warmth slowly bleeds into my body. I think I hear your voice, distant, telling me a story.
The click of the door opening drags me back. A young man with perfectly pressed pants and a slight flush crossing his face tells me he is a Resident, in training to take care of patients in critical care. He introduces himself as Titus, and I want to laugh because I know in another life you would have giggled “tight-ass”. Titus tells me that he has seen me here every day, Just you, nobody else. He takes your hand in both of his and, looking directly at your sleeping face, says in a low voice, We have to keep fighting, Robert. You are a lucky man. You have a strong woman by your side to carry you.
No one has ever said this about me before. The knot, holding everything inside of me, begins to unravel. Everything is going to seep out of me. I’m afraid I can’t carry you. So grateful for this unexpected humanity.
The image of Titus flickers in my brain. I reach out towards him, put my hand over his. His hand is warm, he is real.
The Meeting. White room, brown table, blonde-haired doctor and nurse who look like they have gold dust sprinkled in their hair. A piece of paper with the outline of a man and a crudely drawn heart beside him that is almost as tall as him. The doctor is saying, It’s cruel to keep his body struggling and fighting. It’s time for you to make a decision.
Did I miss a crucial part of the plot? Is it a different day, sometime in the future? They say they finally got a good picture of your heart. Give me their best there is nothing to be done faces. Wasn’t it only twelve hours ago that everyone was cheering fight, fight, fight? Six hours ago that Titus championed the battle cry? I turn the picture of you, your heart separated from your body, upside down.
Back at your bedside, the gossamer-haired nurse is asking for permission to take more of you. Your skin, your eyes, and something else I didn’t catch. And this lifelong crusader for organ donation screams NO inside her hollow chest. I can’t bear the thought of your eyes gazing upon somebody else, the way they should be gazing at me. I picture myself catching your eye in someone else’s body, as we pass in the street. And your skin? Not that soft, sun-warmed skin that held all that is you together for 62 years.
I hear myself saying, Yes. My eyes drift back to the picture of the giant heart. I ask, His heart? You’re going to take his heart? She lets out a small laugh, and says, No, no. We can’t use his heart. It’s grown too big from overwork. It’s exhausted. It will go with him.
You seem whole again. For now, I am relieved.
The story behind the story:
I never imagined that I would write a piece about the end of my husband’s life in a flash CNF course. I knew that I would write something about his death, but at that time I didn’t believe that such a small container could hold something so big, so surreal. It was actually the word limit that made me pick a few pivotal moments from the last day, which allowed me to remember and describe everything I was seeing and feeling in excruciating detail, and portrayed my helplessness as I watched him “disappear.”
Lucy Wilde is a writer who lives in a cottage in the forest on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She divides her time between writing and communing with her erudite horse Magic, who lives on a nearby farm. She writes creative nonfiction and fiction, and her writing has appeared in several publications including Barren Magazine, The Citron Review and Atticus Review. Her hermit crab essay, “Release and Hold Harmless”, was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.
“Missing” was first published in White Wall Review.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – Emily Dickenson
I insist on driving. Dennis hands me the keys, indulging my need for that modicum of control. It’s his nineteenth visit to the oncologist, part of the routine over the last four years that has kept my husband close to healthy—and alive. I steer white-knuckled through morning rush hour; he gazes out the window at traffic. “Thank God we don’t have to do this every day,” he says, meaning the commute downtown. I mumble agreement and fight the anxiety crawling up my throat.
Parking at the Royal Victoria Hospital goes smoothly this morning. I roll into a spot on Level One near the entrance. Walking away from the car, I repeat under my breath: “32-row-B, 32- row-B, 32-row-B.” The glass doors slide open, and we stop for squirts of hand sanitizer, making sure to spread the slimy foam into the crevices between our fingers. We don’t want to add a superbug to our list of problems.
Bloodwork comes first. Dennis lines up, takes a number and the waiting begins. I join the rows of old and young bodies on linked chairs lining the wide hallway, one of 800+ people who pass through the cancer centre each day—800 patients and their companions. Some sit slumped with bone-deep fatigue; others pace with pent-up nerves. Dennis pulls the newspaper out of his bag, I open a paperback, both of us seeking distraction.
Dennis fills in the daily crossword with his usual neat block letters. I wish I could breathe calmness on hospital days like he does. But in this room, where illness is measured in stages, scenes of teary bedside farewells jump unbidden into my head. Dennis says worrying about what he can’t control wastes energy, and he’s trying to conserve his. I don’t want him bothered by my agitation, so I work at appearing calm— trying to still my twitchy feet and not fuss with the contents of my tote bag.
The receptionist in the blood-taking clinic calls out numbers like a deli counter clerk. Here and there a chin lifts, a head turns. When Dennis hears “47,” he makes his way to the back room, ready to surrender his arm to the technician’s stab. The blood flowing from his vein into the slim glass tube will transmute into numbers. Numbers that determine how the rest of the day will unfold. How the weeks and months ahead will unfold. If the hoped-for years will unfold.
In the waiting room, I imagine Dennis making small talk with the lab-coated worker as she smooths the label onto the vial. The needle pierces his flesh, and blood creeps up the side of the tube, his fate hanging suspended within those tiny glass walls.
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. Dennis has chronic leukemia, a rare type called LGL. I barely remember the initial shock the first time the oncologist spoke to us and used the word “cancer.” Chronic, not acute, the doctor explained. The possibility of living years with treatment.
I’ve become accustomed to the relief of good news every three months, the ebb and flow of angst that comes with discussing the state of my husband’s blood cells. I want this ritual to go on forever—the doctor’s reassuring words, my slow exhale, the slight giddiness of another partial win. Easing back into everyday life. Almost forgetting.
We walk through the crowd of weary faces to the next waiting area, where six doors lead to room after room of oncologists. All the chairs are filled by 11 in the morning. Dennis goes back to his newspaper, a long article about the latest political shenanigans in the States. I try to read my book, play on the iPad, do a crossword, but I can’t help watching the parade of frail humanity shuffling by. Or worse, being wheeled by. I can’t help wondering about their sad stories.
An old man with a wizened face and wispy grey hair sits nearby, his hand hovering near his throat. He fingers the navy neckerchief that fails to hide the red, raw skin of his neck and the indentation where surgeons have cut through to a tumour. The old man notices my glance. He hobbles over to chat; confesses he was a smoker. Throat cancer. Or did he say larynx?
I’m having trouble listening, but Dennis turns toward him and says: “That’s pretty tough. But you’re taking it one day at a time. That’s what you have to do. I hope you get good results today.” Dennis is so good with people.
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. The home treatment of daily pills and twice weekly injections have kept Dennis’s cancer stable so far. “Just a wisp of chemo,” said Dr. L. But after four-and-a-half years, Dennis is coping with fatigue and shrinking muscles. I’m diligent about blueberries and broccoli and banning barbequed meats. And we avoid friends with colds or flu. But then along comes a poor old guy with his neck scarred by radiation, his limbs weakened by chemo—what Dr. L calls “the bazooka treatment”—and my throat tightens. The precipice in our life might be invisible for now, but it’s always there.
Across the room, a young couple walks towards the check-in desk. The man, darkly handsome, wears sporty white clothes and pristine runners. His wife has a stunning face, with photoshoot-ready eye make-up and ruby lips, framed by a headscarf. Religious covering or disguise for post-chemo baldness? She strides beside him, tall and elegant, her magenta chemise flowing over dressy jeans. They both look so young, so healthy and hopeful. Which one is the patient? Does he stand at the receptionist’s desk with that wide-legged jock stance out of habit? Or in defiance of a diagnosis, standing tall and battle-ready, a silent message to the world and himself? Some cancer support groups disapprove of “battle language.” But if it’s not a battle, then what kind of struggle is it?
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. Dennis can still work and play—as long as he paces himself. Like other guys at 60 surely do. And both of us try not to dwell. Sure, we had to abandon travel plans. No one will insure him out of the country. But we’ve adapted. Learned to live in small increments of tame adventures close to home. This doesn’t bother me, but sometimes, in a quiet moment, Dennis talks about his sense of loss at no longer being able to explore the wider world.
Across the room, a young man with Down syndrome, with the tell-tale gauze in the crook of his arm, signs to his father, a fleeting smile coming and going on his round face. The dad keeps things cheerful, patting his son’s shoulder, keeping his fingers dancing in a light-hearted way. A life-long act of protection. The young man must be over 18, or he’d be at the Children’s Hospital. I doubt he understands how fear gets embedded in the very walls of this place. But his dad does. The young man ignores the rows of pale strangers, sighs and lays his head on his dad’s shoulder, pretending to sleep. His father raises his arm and ruffles his hair until the young man cracks a smile.
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. Our son is grown, well launched. That part of family life lies behind us. Dennis and I are free from parenting, free from being responsible for another human being. But not free from wanting to see our son move through adult life. Happy, strong, building his own memories. Staying close to his old dad. I want Dennis to be an old dad, with old lady me by his side.
A young woman in a pink tank top, ponytail swinging from the back of a ball cap, uses a single crutch to navigate her way through the crowd. She can’t be more than 25. One leg of her stretchy capris hugs her shapely calf, the other hangs loose over the metal of an artificial limb. Bone cancer, I guess. She makes her way on one leg to an empty chair, where she’ll listen for a disembodied voice to call her into an examination room. Like Dennis, she’s waiting. Just waiting, her wounds visible. Will this be Dennis at some point, taking a turn for the worse, ailments no longer hidden from strangers?
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. Dennis has an experienced doctor who presents at medical conferences all over the world—Australia just last year. And although Dr. L always runs late, he takes his time once we’re sitting in front of him.
They call my husband’s name over the loudspeaker. Dennis stuffs his half-completed crossword into his bag and I drain the last of my tepid tea. Together, we walk past the gatekeeper’s desk and enter exam room six. Dennis perches on the edge of the examination table and I settle on the hard plastic chair. We don’t talk much. That will come later on the way home, when we plan our next few months. For now, we wait.
After ten minutes, maybe more, Dr. L comes in, shakes Dennis’s hand and asks: “How are you feeling?”
Dennis chuckles and says: “You’re the doctor. You tell me.” I’ve always loved this about my husband, how he lightens heavy moments with gentle wit.
Dr. L smiles. “You’re the expert on how you feel. It’s part of what tells me if the treatment is working well or not.”
I interpret this little back and forth along with Dr. L’s smile as a good sign. He’s already read the blood results on his computer. He opens the file and scans the sheet. But I hold my breath until Dr. L rolls out the words we’ve been hoping for: “Your numbers are stable. You’re doing great. We’ll keep treatment the same and see you in three months.”
As he fills out the prescription forms, something inside me shifts back into place, a small flutter of something close to normalcy. That’s good enough for today. Good enough until the next appointment in three months. We can wait until then. We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. We get to wait.
The story behind the story:
A cancer clinic is a place filled with people living hard stories, many harder than my husband’s. Waiting there beside him for hours, struggling to keep my anxieties under control, I couldn’t help but wonder about all those stories, not just our own. As both wife-worrier and writer-witness, I wove together the tiny observable details and emotional flux of a single visit. Writing as catharsis. Writing as empathy for all those living hard stories. Four years later, the waiting still doesn’t feel routine. We are fortunate, I keep telling myself.
Karen Zey is a Canadian writer from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her CNF has recently appeared in Bright Flash LIterary Review, Porcupine Literary, The Drabble and other fine places. Karen leads the Circle of Life Writers workshops at her community library. You may read more of her work at www.karenzey.com.
I am twelve years old. I’m walking barefoot down my driveway to retrieve the Los Angeles Times, our morning newspaper. It’s still early, but the cement is warm beneath my feet and the sky is clear, promises of another perfect, 80-something degree summer southern California day. The paper is folded into thick thirds, tucked into the soft spot where the driveway meets the curb. Why these details stand out to me – barefoot, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, headed for the newspaper – isn’t really clear, except that the details consist of the moments before. Before life changed. Before unrolling the newspaper from its rubber band confines. Before reading the headlines. The top story took place the night before, on August 9th, 1969 and splashed across the paper read: “’Ritualistic Slayings’ Sharon Tate, Four Others Murdered”.
A dog barks across the street. I stop halfway from the end of the driveway to my front door. Living in Thousand Oaks, a small suburb north of Los Angeles, often felt like LA was one big, sprawling backyard, where every resident was connected to another. My mother grew up in Los Angeles and my grandparents still lived there. My father worked in LA and made the commute five days a week. If something this unthinkable, this horrific could happen in your sprawling backyard forty miles away, couldn’t any residue snake its way across the 101, up and over the hills, and slither into our hometowns, into our own backyards, and catch us unaware while we are sleeping? For weeks our slumber was ragged as we dreamt paranoia infested dreams.
My memory is wrong. It’s not really the right driveway, it can’t be; the driveway in my memory faces a different direction than the driveway I was living in when I was twelve. They are two completely different driveways. Not a big deal, or it shouldn’t be, but I have to wonder why I’ve superimposed a different driveway onto this particular memory. We lived in two houses the fifteen years we lived in Thousand Oaks, first a one story and later a two story, and this driveway doesn’t belong to either of these houses. Instead it belongs to the house I lived in for seven years in Hanford, a small town in California’s Central Valley, during my late twenties and early thirties. I can only assume my memories contained the correct driveway before I lived in Hanford, so I’m left to wonder why my subconscious made the switch after leaving Hanford. I wonder why it matters.
At the time of her death Sharon Tate was only twenty-six years old. Her career was on the rise, escalating in huge part due to her role in the 1967 hit “Valley of the Dolls”, a film based on Jacqueline Susann’s provocative blockbuster novel published a year earlier. Tate played Jennifer North, a showgirl more famous for her beauty than her talent who befriends the other two female protagonists. She embarked on relationship after relationship with men who are only interested in her for her body, and has a difficult abortion along the way to stardom. Jennifer eventually is diagnosed with breast cancer, told she must have a mastectomy and she will never be able to have children. When she speaks to her current boyfriend, a middle-aged senator, he tells her that he doesn’t care about not having any children while he assures her that his love for her body, and especially her breasts, will sustain the relationship. This is before she broke the news about the mastectomy. Distraught over her childless future and yet another man who loves her only for her body, Jennifer commits suicide.
I was too young to see the film at the time, but I remember the reviews were mostly bad although the film ultimately achieved success and a cult following, particularly after the Tate-Lo Bianco murders. Despite the poor reviews, Tate proved to audiences and critics alike that she could act and she wasn’t just another blonde starlet wannabe. She was Hollywood’s darling. Even her odd choice in marriage to Roman Polanski was softened because fans simply adored her. To me, Sharon Tate was beautiful. Living in a blue-eyed blonde lala-land could be hard at times when you have ordinary brown hair and are surrounded everywhere by what was considered the ideal. Even my sister had lighter brown hair that turned blonde in the summer. Not me. The closest I got was a late spring weekend in Palm Springs when my mother told me that my hair was the color of cigarette ash. I wasn’t flattered. But Sharon Tate, with her blonde hair and high cheekbones, was a classier version of the typical southern California beach blonde. Hundreds of pictures circulated after her death and my favorites were of her and Polanski together. I was on the brink of adolescence that summer, with a head full of romantic notions. The way he looked at her, with so much love and passion. These images contrasted with the pictures taken after her death, Polanski’s look of anguish, captioned with his words that he wished it were him the monsters had killed. I imagined he lost his mind after the death of Sharon and their baby. I imagined wanting to be loved that much. I imagined being loved just like that.
I found my mother’s copy of The Valley of the Dolls by accident. I was home sick from school, and had been going through the cupboards in our dark, narrow hallway, when I came across her secret stash. Hidden under stray magazines and torn towels was a treasure chest of novels that also included Harold Robbins’s “The Carpetbaggers”, Grace Metalious’s “Peyton Place” and Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.” By the time I stumbled upon the book, the movie had already been made, but it was before the murders. This was the book I gravitated towards. I grabbed the worn copy, retreated into my room, plopped myself in a comfy chair warmed by chunks of buttery sunshine spilling through the window and promptly wasted no time in finding out what all the fuss was about.
I was unprepared for what became an initiation of sorts into a secret, sordid world of grown-ups. My mother really read this stuff? Did she actually enjoy what she was reading? The very nature of the book was more than enough explanation as to why the books in the closet were not openly displayed on our bookshelf in the den alongside the popular bestsellers of the day, like Arthur Hailey’s “Airport” and Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain.” I couldn’t decide if the bigger shock was what was written on these pages or the fact that my mother owned, and I could only assume read, what was written on these pages.
My mind refused to see my mother as any of these women in the novel. The “dolls” not only referred to the manner in which these women were treated, as nothing more than toys, but also as a slang term Susann used for pills. I couldn’t wrap my head around any kind of commonality between my mother and the three main women in the book. Not in 1968 or 1969 anyway. I was too impressionable, too overwhelmed by and not really understanding what I was reading, yet I devoured that book every opportunity I had. Sex, beauty, affairs, money – these women lived and loved hard. They were alternately glorified and glamorous, objects of desire and subjects of pity. I read about Jennifer, Anne and Neely and saw in part something both to strive towards and stay away from. Had I had more maturity, I may have been able to see past the obvious differences between my mother and these characters – older, heavier, which automatically put her at a disadvantage with other women because I constantly heard her tell her friends so – and maybe I could have seen she had been playing with dolls of her own. Weight loss pills that she told me were candy, sleeping pills for those nights when my father didn’t come home…oh wait. Now I get it. It was there all the time, disguised under the most ordinary of domestic doldrums.
It’s August 9, 1982, exactly thirteen years after the Sharon Tate murders. At twenty five, I’m a year younger than the actress was when she died. I’m a wife and mother to a barely turned one year old son, and less than six weeks away from the birth of my second child. I sometimes think of the killings, of the lives that were so brutally lost, of a young mother denied her child and their future. It’s easy to remember on days like this one, when a news article appears in the paper, or a story on the six o’clock news, reminding us of the anniversary of one of the nation’s most gruesome murders.
A visit to my doctor earlier in the day had gone well, with him assuring me that everything looked fine. I was still more than two months away from my due date he had calculated, but his date was wrong. I knew when I had started to feel nauseous. I knew I was due around September 15th, not October 15th as he had determined when the two ultrasounds performed earlier in my pregnancy showed the baby’s head and chest size didn’t correlate with my original due dates, so he pushed my due dates farther back. The ultrasounds also showed that I had placenta previa, a condition that occurs in nearly one out of every three pregnancies in which the placenta lies low in the uterus, partially or completely blocking the cervix. Expectant mothers with placenta previa are told that the placenta often corrects itself by moving higher in the uterus, but if it doesn’t – which happens in 1 out of every 200 pregnancies – a cesarean is needed before the due date as complications such as bleeding resulting in major blood loss for the mother, or the placenta tearing and passing before the baby, can arise. My doctor didn’t seem concerned, so I wasn’t overly concerned. I had already had one c-section, what’s one more?
By late afternoon my labor began. With my mother watching our son, my husband and I headed out the front door to our beige Cutlass Supreme parked in the driveway and drove the ten minute drive to the hospital. I wasn’t worried. I believed the doctor would stop my labor, but if he didn’t, I’d remain optimistic. After all, I really wasn’t that far from my true due date. I still wasn’t worried when a nurse asked me as she wheeled me to the labor & delivery ward what brought me in to the hospital early responded with an outraged “your doctor gave you a pelvic exam when he knows you have placenta previa?” after I had outlined my visit for her. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently one of the worst things a doctor can do is perform a pelvic exam with placenta previa patients; the risk is a ruptured placenta and the onset of labor.
My doctor decided against stopping the labor. He was going to deliver the baby instead. He called for an anesthesiologist and I was put completely under. I didn’t receive an epidural like I had my first C-section. They knocked me out and cut me open and my son was born, only to die within the hour. At barely over three pounds, his intestines had ruptured to the outside of his body, caused by a hernia he suffered during pregnancy. The ultrasound hinted at these results, which my doctor failed to detect. My baby stayed alive while inside me; had I had the chance to carry him longer, he may have survived.
Life went on, but nothing was the same. I knew what it was like to experience a loss so deep that once you are pulled into its depths you never come out of it the person you were before plunging in. I found it impossible to believe my baby was brought into this world only to leave before I had a chance to know him, before he had a chance to truly live. I couldn’t believe this was his fate, or mine either, for that matter. I mourned through the days, remnants of my grief trailed behind me like a hallowed echo. My husband dealt with the loss in his own way, a way that meant let’s not talk about it and everything will be just fine.
I have one picture of the baby I lost, and although I can’t bear to look at it, for years I carried it in my wallet, next to the pictures of his two brothers and sister at six weeks, three months, six months, a year.
While in no way do I compare my experience with that of Sharon Tate and her unborn baby, I couldn’t help but feel some kind of connection that on this day, of all days, I lost a part of me, too. A son, a growing family, the belief that nothing bad can touch me, the future I had planned. Every year on this day, as yet another commemorative news story covered the anniversary of the murders, I mourned my own loss. I couldn’t help but feel that life was taken from me, too. This was the beginning of so many different ends – my innocence, my belief that these kinds of things only happen to other people, a family unscathed by tragedy, my marriage.
When Sharon Tate was six weeks pregnant, she had an affair. Or at least, that’s what former actor Christopher Jones told a British newspaper in 2007. And if we believe his story, he was the one she was having the affair with. With his good looks and raw energy, Jones was touted as the next James Dean and starred in cult classics such as 1968’s “Wild in the Streets” and David Lean’s 1970 hit “Ryan’s Daughter.” Jones was friends with both Tate and Polanski, and claims the affair took place in Rome during March 1969 where he was filming “Brief Season.” Tate had flown from LA to Rome with Jones’s manager while Polanksi was in London on business. The affair was brief, yet intense – “I loved being with her” – something Jones had hoped would continue once back in Los Angeles, but filming conflicts and Tate’s death cut any hopes of that happening short.
Jones was in Ireland filming “Ryan’s Daughter” when he received the news of Tate’s death. Devastated, he returned to California where he stayed for a while in the caretaker’s cottage behind the house where Tate died, subsequently abandoning his acting career. During his interview, he explained that during a visit to the Trevi Fountain he had a premonition that Sharon was going to die. Knowing the isolated location of her house, he had urged her to get a gun, to which she responded “I couldn’t shoot anyone even if I had one.”
Affairs were certainly not a rarity in Hollywood. I remember leafing through movie magazines of the era and looking at pictures of a celebrity couple so in love one month, only to have replaced their beloved with someone new the next month. Once while looking at the beautiful black and white photographs of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd that were taken after the birth of their daughter, I had asked my mother if she thought they would have stayed married had Todd not died in a plane crash. She shook her head no. “I don’t think so. I’m sure either one or the other would have found someone else. Those people never stay together.” I wondered about that. Their love for each other literally poured out of the pictures, demonstrating a passion that fulfilled all the requirements of my adolescent yearnings. I had stars in my eyes. But maybe my mother was right. If Todd had lived, maybe their relationship would never have lasted. Maybe Taylor and Richard Burton wouldn’t have had their sensational affair during the filming of “Cleopatra”, one that also began in Rome. But then again, maybe they still would have. I can’t imagine destiny keeping Taylor and Burton apart. I believed they would have found each other no matter what. I wanted to believe if something is truly meant to be, it’s going to find a way.
That driveway. That driveway that I’ve superimposed into my memory belongs to a one story house in Hanford. The house had a front green double door and wood paneling lined with bricks. A perfect house to raise a family. Maybe that’s why I chose that driveway, or maybe it’s because of a dream I once had while living in that house. I dreamt of a car that repeatedly drove down my street. Every time it passed by my house, a child in the back seat – I believe it was a blonde haired little boy – tossed a book out the open window. I stood by the end of the driveway and watched as the book landed at my feet. I’d pick it up, hand it back to the child, and the car drove down the street and out of view, only to circle around again and the process repeat itself. I didn’t notice a driver, just the child. When I woke up the next morning I had no recollection of the dream until I went outside to retrieve the newspaper. The driveway was shrouded in fog so thick the mist clung to my hair and I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of me. The Hanford Sentinel was there, making a T-shape against the driveway and the street. Lying next to the newspaper was a child’s book, from all appearances randomly tossed. I never found out who the book belonged to or how it got there. There was nothing unusual in the news that day, nothing out of the ordinary going on. Still. The sight of the newspaper in the crook of the driveway, the book lying so innocently next to it, the recollection of the dream the night before and the vapory air lent the morning a decidedly eerie feel.
For years that dream tugged at me, wouldn’t let me go. The fallen book felt like an offering, but whether I was the bestower or the bestowed upon I didn’t know. I thought of the son I lost. My three children all had various shades of blonde hair, so it was only natural that this mysterious tow-headed boy would remind me of them. Only it wasn’t one of the three, yet something persisted, something very familiar. Maybe I was stuck on the repetition. The action continued over and over, although I had no idea why. Possibly walking up and down the driveway held the explanation. I knew this dream was significant, one I could never really shake, yet no matter how hard I tried, every time I reached for its meaning, the message eluded my grasp, there but not there, much like the baby lying in my arms before the nurse reached for him and took him away forever.
Or maybe it’s not because of that dream at all. Maybe it’s because of other memories I have of that house, that driveway. The one I keep coming back to takes place in fall, on a hazy October day. It wasn’t a dream, it only felt that way. I’m standing at the top of the driveway, near the open garage door, slightly to the side, close to a rectangular patch of grass that separates my house from the house next door. Inside, my youngest son is napping. My husband has taken our oldest son and daughter to visit his family out of town. Seven years into our marriage, we’re unraveling and couldn’t seem to do anything to stop it. In the five years since moving from southern California, this is the first time I’ve declined the trip back home. I was done putting on an act and I knew my absence would send a message regarding the severity of our problems much more than my presence would.
I’m talking to a man who lived in our neighborhood, down the street a few blocks away. He’s a coworker of my husband’s and shift partner during their late-night highway patrols. We had met a year and a half earlier, at which time he and his wife and my husband and I and our young children quickly became close friends. The attraction between us was sudden and unexpected and not yet acted upon. This was before. Before my divorce. Before all hell broke loose. Before facing consequences. But here, in the lazy midafternoon sun, lingering outside in the autumn haze, I’m unaware of time and spouses and obligations as I’m swallowed up by blazing green eyes. He’s looking at me with a look I had only seen in photos, in a way I had only imagined, up until now. I feel as though I’m dizzy, dazed, dreaming, surrounded by flying particles of fine, glittery golden air. He’s the magnet that I’m being pulled to, drawn in by the intoxicating current of electricity swirling around us. From the garage, the radio plays “Higher Love” from Steve Winwood and Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles”, adding to the hypnotic trance I was falling under. I remember little of the conversation. It was all senses, and I was on sensory overload.
He had been riding his new Italian racing bike down my street when he stopped to chat. This had become an almost daily ritual, and one I found myself looking forward to more than I should have. He sat perched on the bicycle’s seat or stood, straddling the seat, and I stood near him. We didn’t leave that spot until it was time for him to go. I slowly walked beside him down the driveway, watching at the edge as he slowly rode away.
While most of our conversation is a blur, there is one question I remember him asking. He’s all smiles and stares, and I’m latched on, hooked by heat, unable to look away. He looks into my eyes and asks what kind of spell is he under, what have I done to him and I laugh. Little did he know I had often wondered the same thing about him. He would later tell me we were bound to happen, him and I, here in the same place, at the same time. We were meant to find each other, no matter what and I believed him. I knew what’s meant to be will always find a way.
The story behind the story:
The Tate-:LaBianca murders were a huge defining moment, both to me in my twelve years, as well as culturally, socially, in the end to the Sixties, the end of an era where we all came to a new reckoning. I’ll never forget walking down my driveway, picking up the newspaper and reading the headlines: the horror, the disbelief. Thirteen years later, on the anniversary of Sharon Tate’s death, I lost my second baby, an even larger defining moment in my life. Two tragedies, thirteen years apart. For the longest time, I couldn’t shake this coincidence, and thought maybe if I wrote about it, I’d discover a meaning that had until that point remained elusive. I knew when I decided to write about Sharon Tate I wanted to focus on her, and her life. This led to rumors of her affair, which provided a natural segue into my own potential stirrings of an affair. All of these threads played over and over in my head, all I needed to do was find the connection. Driveways figured so prominently in the mix I knew using them was how I wanted to frame the essay.
Cindy Bradley obtained an MFA in creative nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her essays have appeared in 45th Parallel, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Essay Daily, and Under the Sun, among others, and has been nominated for Pushcart and received a Notable mention in Best American Essays. You can find more of her work at http://www.cindybradleywriter.com/
“Death, Driveways, and Dreams” was first published in Under the Sun.
For years I kept his blue baby blanket in the bottom right-hand drawer of my dresser.
I stole it from the hospital.
I remember lifting it to my face and noting the sharp odor of sour milk mingled with the intoxicating scent of baby. Without a thought, I slipped the soft, waffle-like material into my brown paper sack.
When I got home, alone and hollowed out, I curled into a fetal position with the blanket bunched up like a pillow and cried.
I refused to wash it, hoping to hold on to what little remained.
In fragile moments, those times I couldn’t pretend anymore, I’d pull it out to hide my face and collect my tears. When the storm passed, I’d fold and tuck it away, careful to nestle his first pacifier and hospital identification bracelet, the one with the name I gave him on it, into the center, like eggs in a nest.
Now, thirty years later, that blanket cradles the other keepsakes I have of him. Pages of handwritten updates from his early life. A collection of school pictures and snapshots from vacations and holiday parties with his adopted family. A construction paper daisy chain. And now, his funeral program and a favorite stuffed animal, Scrappy, handed over by his adopted dad as an offering of solidarity.
Over the years, the blanket faded from baby-blue to the color of glacial ice, and my tears washed away his scent.
All that remains is the stale smell of sadness.
The story behind the story:
How can I share the pain of losing my child, not once, but twice? The reality is so big and all-consuming. So, I began by finding a small moment that, by itself, appeared digestible, deconstructed it, pulled apart the threads, and then rewove them into this flash cnf piece.
Candace Cahill is a first mother, an NPE, and the author of the memoir, GOODBYE AGAIN. She grew up in rural Central Minnesota with no running water or electricity, and by the time she graduated from high school, she’d learned books were an oasis and her guitar a good friend. After earning a Social Work degree, she embarked on a year-long bicycle trip across North America before settling in Alaska. Candace resides with her husband, Tom, in Denali and works as a National Park Ranger during the summer months.
“Blue Baby Blanket” was first published in Severance Magazine.
Facebook doesn’t seem to know that you’re dead; it wants me to wish you a happy birthday.
Google knows you’re dead. When I search your name, the third hit is your obituary. The first two results are for an Italian restaurant in Dayton, Ohio, which shares your name. According to their website, I can order jars of their Original Sauce online.
Facebook wants me to know that you like Josh Groban. Who knows, perhaps you still do. Theologically, I cannot say that you don’t. But Facebook could never know how much you loved that first Def Leppard record. You ordered it from the Columbia House Record Club, which I mocked you for joining until you surprised me with Darkness at the Edge of Town for my birthday and I felt like a jerk.
Facebook knows you like Target, or so they tell me. They seem to want me to like the chain store too, just because you clicked through once hoping it might mean coupons for diapers. What Facebook doesn’t know is that your daughter now lives with your sister in Norwalk.
Facebook doesn’t appear to know about those lost years between our high school graduation and the arrival of social media – when we reconnected. I don’t know much about those years for you either.
The photographs are still up, of snowy days in your backyard and a trip to an aquarium, so many of your little girl, you and your short hair. Some of your other friends have wished you happy birthday – “in heaven” or “tomy angel friend.” I won’t post anything, but you already know that. Perhaps I will pull out my Springsteen albums, though I’m pretty sure I no longer own them. I bet they’re up on Spotify. I wonder if Spotify knows who you are?
The story behind the story:
Yep, this piece came about from an actual Facebook notification I received one morning. As the optimistic youthfulness that was FB ages, so do my ‘friends’ and I. it should be no surprise that some would leave us, either through de-activating their accounts or passing away. Facebook’s ignorance of my friends’ passings gave me a moment of, dare I say, superiority over the social media giant, “ha, so much you know!” But, this also started me thinking about the other theme of this piece, the idea of how much FB, as well as Google or Spotify or any other site that employs cookies, actually does know about us – how much we share. So, thinking about mortality and privacy led me to jot down my thoughts and concerns about our relationships with technology and loved ones and how both leave us feeling like we are missing something.
A librarian, as well as three time Pushcart Prize nominee, Thomas O’Connell’s poetry and short fiction has appeared in Hobart, Blink-Ink, Jellyfish Review, and The Los Angeles Review, as well as other print and online journals.
“Arguing with Social Media about Your Demise” was first published in Freezeray Poetry.