Speaking of, I posted the following on August 19th, 2021, my 62nd birthday (even tho’ it’s saying August 20th, the birthday of my cousin Susan, may she rest in peace).
This is the first of six posts, selected chapters from the novel I wrote some years ago and submitted, unsuccessfully, to the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. In fact, I should’ve started here with the intro to that sixth post down: “Elaine Vitale.” Read that, it explains this – fragments of a novel I finally put together but did not finish six years ago.
This first chapter creates a motivation for two workers in an old folks home to learn the stories of their clients, their patients, their mentors. It is a frame story with connecting threads. Missing in the next posts are stories about my Aunt Lourene, other old folks, and my imaginary neighbor who hides in plain sight from the CIA, a sanctioned mafia.
Perhaps I should include all those chapters, but I only polished these a bit. Clare starts it off, but the finish, the euthanasia of another character, I could not write. I could not give up the ghost, go gentle, hear the bells toll, or ever say no to another breath. Here’s to trying again, reincarnation, renewal, and gasping for a grasp (or vice versa)...
Young with a new idea, she was surprised to find herself old. Drifting out of sleep, back into semi-consciousness, Clare was aware of her bones and her breath. Summoned by the hum of the attached medical equipment, she felt the echo of the ache of the age of her body. Her eyelids parted to reveal a big, hazy moon hanging just outside the small window of her room. Slowly, she rolled her head over, stretching the tubes in her nose to see the blurred blip on the screen of a machine on a rickety rack of techno-gadgetry next to the bed. She turned back to the window and, attempting to stretch her toes, arthritic joints and the dust in her lungs brought her more completely back to reality. Tired still, she closed her eyes again.
She had been dreaming of her youth, and just a moment before she had been young, sprightly, and beautiful. It was a sunny day abbreviated by fluffy clouds. She was in a meadow running, not too fast, from her lover. He had finally and gently caught her and they had tumbled together through the grass. They had lain on their backs breathing hard and watching the clouds above drift through the bright sunshine. He was holding her, whispering love in her ear, and she was smiling with joy – for a moment.
Then, she was running again in the meadow, faster, away from her lover – no, away from her husband. In the dream, she went through a series of scenes, being caught and tumbling through tall grass, through dried lawns, through a mountain of laundry, into beds, classrooms, doctors’ offices, and a wilderness of cities and forests, always in bright light. Her idea was a regret-tempered contentment, a resigned satisfaction, her artwork was finished, no more retouching. She thought maybe she had felt a tear follow a wrinkle down to a smile.
Waking up, she was on her back again, but now however, she was old, alone, and pained in the small hours of the night. Instead of the sun, she looked back at the moon and started to cry, her gentle sobs changing the blip on the machine screen. She tried to cry her way back to sleep, back to her dream, her joy, back to her lover in the meadow, or even to her husband, to her children, or to some part of the wilderness of her life and that idea of contentment. The pain in her body prevented such sleep relief, and she was conscious only of the drone of those medical contraptions calling her to keep breathing, forcing her to keep feeling the pain.
As sleep did not come, Clare began to wallow in the pain, to revel in her misery, and she allowed a wave of self-pity to sweep over her, a torrent of cleansing tears. In the next slow moment however, she felt guilty for such selfishness. She had lived a long and wonderous life. Her dreams reflected many moments of joy and complexity, befuddlement and confidence, achievement and frustration, tedium and transcendence. Many others, she thought, led lives of nothing but simple suffering, short ones at that, perhaps even brutish.
Under her translucent, wrinkled skin a nostalgic imagination could see a lovely woman. Svelte under wilt, cheekbones dappled. White hair flowed onto white sheets in a white room, dark in the shadows of the night. Inside big eyes, now under withered lids, her colorful past reflected on her consciousness. As a girl, as a Lucinda Matlock, she had dallied away with Mikes and Spikes and the likes of which her children might not imagine. And then she was a Mom to two, a friend to a few, and a servant to many, so many that she could be great. The rollercoaster of parenthood was bolstered by her confidantes, her Sylvia Sextons, Edna St. Vicious Parkers, and the teacher job she’d had that kept her close to a quasi-peligroso edge, to the seasons of social movements, at least close to the zone of proximal development, to the young at heart, to the ever new, ever old, ideas of life among the living.
She’d been a good wife, up to a point. The point when she realized that her lover had become just a provider of meals and mortgages and not of new ideas, she decided to take their marital drift further. When his prepared mind no longer favored chance, she decided to take one and left him. The girls had made it to college, so she decided to make it in New York, or Europe, or on many an exotic beach. It was natural that there were no more lovers in meadows, so she had had some likes in restaurants and museums, conferences and conversations, but it became apparent that there were very few new ideas for one who’d contemplated so many – existential, reverential, monumental.
Of course how many new ideas can you have in a kitchen or a laundry room or a mommy mobile. Had she been a good mother? She had done her duty, her girls loved her, and each in her own way was reliving a different set of their mother’s mistakes. Ah, the sins of the mothers are visited upon their grandchildren, or the lack thereof. One was trying to emulate the free spirit, the libertina pursuing a new idea of happiness. The other is trying to emulate the dutiful wife and community member with that old idea of happiness. At least it has been interesting to see how words and deeds translated through generations – from her grandmothers, mother, herself, her children, and even the echo of ancestors uttered from the mouths of babes. That old idea made her grateful.
At least she had a lot of gratitude. That was how Clare eventually went back to her husband, and she had stepped into the old shoe of their marriage with thanks. Of course he soon died and she became a serial old person moving from porch to porch, from the nostalgia of others to her own. Not only was she grateful for her long, happy life, she was very grateful for her mind, still vibrant it was, even as her body deteriorated. Her inside had grown more beautiful, as her outside – not so much. In the creaking now, she had spent several years living in her and others’ pasts as the present became more unbearable.
As these thoughts drifted through her consciousness, she began to feel a welling satisfaction, a contentedness tinged with a gray lining. She saw order in the world, a kind of old world order, and her decaying condition was just part of a full life. Although she had sometimes been a religious woman, a Christian for awhile, a dabber, a default Buddhist, the promises of heaven or reincarnation seemed dubious, wishful, unscientific. And she was afraid to die. Sermons on the afterlife or the next life were not convincing to one who had also juxtaposed physics and biology with no-more-existentialism and was facing an inevitable eternity of nothingness. In the next moment however, she experienced a feeling of completion, transcendent of religion. Everything was all right. Like all things in the universe, her anguish – as herself, would pass.
Or should it? She remembered her. Another bit of her, or another herself? The shivering shadow crossed her consciousness. Her dead baby, and the art of forgetting was gone again. The idea of philosophy and lofty purposes shriveled once more by that momentary reality. That once forever. Her abortion. This time it came back to her differently. All the explanations, rationalizations, confabulations of logic didn’t matter. Her own abortion was upon her and that idea of a person bobbing along the river of time, that little flame of life in its common moment of termination, it – she, became a kindred spirit. It was time to abort herself. It time for justice. An eye for an I must die, a heartbeat for a heart attack, a reckoning with recklessness, oh these oh so many years later. She had kept her secret, but now she wanted to know the secret.
It was with this seemingly sudden revelation that Clare felt strength invade her decrepitude. She did not want to be a slave to fate, chance, kings, things, or desperation. She was prouder than death. Her fear abandoned her, and she began to assess the reality of her situation. She decided to turn this newest idea into action. Her vision no longer blurred, she examined the machinery connected to her body, keeping it alive. Then, with a conviction to move she had not felt for months, she struggled to sit up in her bed. Gnarled hands clutched at the side railings and she pulled with all her might.
Finally somewhat upright, she looked more critically at the tangle of tubes strewn between her and the rack of medical equipment. It seemed so foreign to her, all the buttons and dials, screens and meters. Yet, these gadgets had become part of her, they had taken over her body, the octopus had its tentacles in her. She became more resolute in her desire to wrest control of her being back from these newfangled contraptions, from this inhuman use of human beings, this technological crutch, this lie. For a moment, she turned to look at the moon shining on her face as it was through the little window, and she knew that moonlight was really sunlight.
Then, she turned back and reached for the many tubes and wires. Grabbing ahold of all she could, she began to pull. At first, nothing happened. Clare however, was determined now, so she took them in turn, and as she continued to yank, one by one they started to pop loose. The tubes and wires came free both from the machines and from herself. One of the black boxes on top of the stack of machinery came crashing down pushing the tangle of tubes and wires to the floor. She felt sudden jolts and pains as they were torn from her chest and her face. She felt sudden stings as IV’s were ripped from her arm, but she was finally able to raise it free and clear, and she did so with a defiant fist. The blip on the screen stopped moving.
Clare now sat still, recovering from her strenuous feat, the noise, the chaos. She took a long, rasping yet unaided breath, looked around, and realized she had done the job, she was released. Liberty was truth, now there’s an idea she thought. Then, she lay back down on her pillow and began again to relax. She felt freed, she felt calm, she felt relieved. The drone of the machines was no longer audible. Clare closed her eyes and issued a long, ashen sigh. The dust settled, as it always does. Slowly, she drifted back into sleep, back to her dreams, back to her lover in the meadow. And as she lay in the meadow of her dreams, those memories, those spirits, and the sun came out from behind a cloud, and as she gazed up, it became brighter and brighter and brighter.