When It Happened

What was Jim doing when it happened?

Was he sleeping? He ran every day…was it on a run? Playing guitar? He’d been sanding the ancient wood floors of our small Oak Park bungalow. Did it happen then? Was he on the Metra train headed to work in Chicago’s loop?

On the outside, life was normal. He was enjoying time alone while I was in Germany on a business trip with my boss, the queen of a good boondoggle. We were in that safety net of a young marriage – few responsibilities and only adoration for each other.

Chromosomes are too small to see, even with a microscope. They are described as looking like an uneven X, with longer legs than arms. Each chromosome comes as a set – 22 pairs plus the two that decide your sex, and this total of 46 make up a single cell.

There are trillions in your body.

What triggers one cell out of trillions to go rogue?

Inside Jim, deep inside, something broke.

Translocation is the swapping of material between chromosomes. Among the masses of chromosomes in Jim’s body – the body I loved – two swapped the wrong material. In an instant. Just like that.

A mutant cell was created, an immature blast, and this blast did what is simply in its nature…it multiplied. Imagine popcorn popping – that initial burst, followed by rapidly increasing “pops!” until the lid is lifted off its pan and white kernels spill out onto the stove top.

Jim’s abnormal cells spilled out from his bone marrow into his blood stream…and they took over. They crowded out the red blood cells and Jim became fatigued, lacking oxygen. They elbowed away the platelets and he developed clots in his legs. They pushed aside the neutrophils, and he came down with a fever. He was Jim on the outside but within, leukemia was swiftly taking over.

We spoke on the phone.

I was in the Marlene Dietrich Suite of the Hyatt hotel, my heels lay aside the white couch where I had kicked them off. I was cozied up in a corner, a crimson tasseled pillow cradled in my lap. He was dismissive about his state, “My knee swelled up. I must have strained it sanding.” It was simply a detail in his day.

I danced in a disco in Berlin. I kept requesting “Dancing Queen” but they never played it.

I sang The Supremes “Stop in the Name of Love” with my boss and co-workers on a karaoke stage at a random street fair.

I saw Lionel Richie in the lobby of the Hyatt and acted nonchalant.

Jim and I spoke again. His knee was still troubling him – he’d gone to the local hospital, picked up crutches and was told to take Advil. He was up to 12 a day.

The day before I flew home, I visited the Berlin Wall. I stood in the area known as “The Death Strip” reading about the over 5,000 people who tried to escape to the west by driving their vehicles straight into the wall, or by leaping over it from nearby buildings, or by digging tunnels under it.

More than one hundred people died while desperately trying to reach their families on the other side.

My First Crime

A lonely alley ran along the back of our dilapidated Eugene rental home, and my brother and I would spend hours riding our bikes up and down the dusty strip, our ankles caked in grime by the end of the day.candy aisle, Albertson's, rachelrenovation, Idaho Spud

I’d lean over the handlebars and pump my short legs with determination but my ancient tricycle could never keep up with Aaron’s two-wheeler. One day, as he left me in his wake again, I paused, considered, and headed out of the alley and onto the sidewalk.

When I reached the end of the block, I looked back. The empty sidewalk lay behind me. No one called my name. I faced forward, rolled down the curb and continued three blocks until I reached the Albertson’s.

As I rode up, the store’s automatic doors opened so I kept on pedaling. The tile floors felt smooth under my wheels after the cracked and bumpy city sidewalks I’d tackled in route. Riding up and down the aisles, passing startled shoppers, I at last found what I was seeking.

I climbed off my bike, pulling at my corduroy pants — a hand-me-down from my older brother that was too wide at the waist and too long at the feet, requiring constant adjustment. My mother kept my dirty blonde hair short, and between that and the hand-me-downs, I was often mistaken for a boy with pretty, long-lashed eyes.

The candy shelves towered above me and stretched far in each direction.

I recognized a candy bar shaped like a potato that my Idaho-born grandfather preferred, and started there. I bit through the chocolate coconut coating into the marshmellow filling, holding it in my mouth as the sweetness slowly melted, smelling hot cocoa with each bite. Bits of chocolate dropped onto my shirt. A nosy woman stopped and with hands on hips, asked me where my parents were but my mouth was too full to answer. She swung her cart around and started back toward the front of the store. I chose a Hershey’s bar next, savoring the quiet snap as I broke off sections to pop into my mouth. Rather than letting the chocolate slowly melt on my tongue, I chewed more quickly, feeling my time was likely limited.

Shoppers continued to pass me in the aisle, slowing down to take in the scene of the parked tricycle, a growing pile of empty candy wrappers, and a chunky three-year-old, sitting cross-legged in a chocolate haze. A curious crowd gathered.

By the time the store manager had been alerted, he found me working on my 3rd bar, the collection of torn wrappers at my feet and smeared chocolate on my face and hands.

He said hello and I smiled up at him and kept eating as he looked at me with both a frown and a smirk.

He took my trike in one hand and offered me the other. I was led to an upstairs office where I was rewarded for my crime with chocolate ice cream in a wafer cone. I was unable, between licks, to communicate where I came from and how to reach my parents so the police were called.

Two officers came to collect me with smiles and laughter — I grinned back boldly, feeling the attention.

Leading me to their cruiser they tossed my trike in the trunk, buckled me in the backseat and we drove a short block away to the police station where they sat me in a room with a large dark window through which I could see the top of my head reflected. I was given a can of Coke to slurp. I kicked my feet as it began to dawn on me that I might be in trouble. One of the smiling officers told me my mother was on the way. I asked if she was going to be angry with me.

No, he said, she’d be relieved to see me.

She blew in the door with worried rage — her glasses fogging up, her long brown hair falling out of a loosely piled bun held together with chopsticks.

She yanked me by my upper arm. There was still dirt under her fingernails and in the creases along her hands from gardening. It was clear conversation would wait until we were in the car. She thanked the officers, I waved goodbye, face still smudged with chocolate as she pulled me toward the door, my feet trying to keep up, alternately dragging, gaining, dragging, gaining.

In the car, she began to cry. I kept quiet in the backseat.

The next time it happened, the store knew who to call and she knew where to find me.

Author’s Note: I have been told this story over and over by my parents. I have very little memory of it and what I do recall appears to be incorrect. For example, I remember most clearly being at the police station — my mother (who would know) says the police kept me at the grocery store.

I am simply imagining my mother’s reaction above. When I asked her, she said she was relieved and embarrassed the first time. The second time…mad. There was no third time.

Trust Fall

The snow continues to fall and our window for escaping my in-laws is closing.

Cleveland is known for lake effect snow. As freezing air moves across a warm body of water – in this case, Lake Erie – the lower layers of the air pick up the lake’s water vapor. As the vapor rises, it freezes, and is deposited, as virgin snow, on the downwind shores.

snow storm, car in snow, griefThe deep powder would bury the city and all activity would cease as Ohioans huddle in the comfort of their homes – the blindingly white mounds outside growing and silencing the city. A newly fallen snow, in its undisturbed feathery powder, dampens sound waves by absorbing them.

White, dazzling, muted. Flakes, drifting down, one after another, to land, softly, clinging to the ground, clinging to each other, weaving a fabric of chilled crystals. What started out light becomes heavy. A snowflake caught on the tip of your tongue. A shovel weighed down with each scoop from a walkway.

Sometimes snowflakes look to be falling in slow motion, as if hesitant to hit the ground.

I free fall backwards to make a perfect snow angel but my trust fall lacks trust and instead my backend hits first resulting in a bottom-heavy angel. Jim laughs. I will do this again later in life in a snowbank in Washington State and my new husband, Kyle, will also laugh.

The snow creates a slick road. This thing of beauty teases the wheels of cars right into the ditch. The city is hunkered down. To stay in is synonymous with staying safe.

I once read of a father who tucked his beloved son safely in their vehicle steps away from his home while the father shoveled the drive. He had the car running to keep his offspring warm as the child watched his father rhythmically scoop and toss, shovel after shovel. The car was parked against a snowbank, quietly filling with carbon monoxide, its exhaust pipe blocked by snow. In what should have been a casual memory of a young boy watching his dad became a nightmare of grief and regret as a father lost his child on the biggest snowfall of the year. Stay safe. Stay indoors.

My small blue Toyota Tercel hatchback, with the hole in the passenger side floor, is not snow worthy. No all-wheel drive, no snow tires, no chains, no SUV confidence. We travel cautiously, well below the speed limit, raising our eyebrows at proper winter vehicles, nose down in ditches. Had we a cell phone, his mother would have been imploring us to turn around, to go back to Cleveland, back to their home, back to safety.

The two men I have married – ten years apart, first as a young woman and then as a young mother – bring to the partnership an ability to drive in snow. Their Midwest roots have provided them with a skill set I lack. One is dead and one is alive.

We wonder at the silence of the interstate, our little dark darting automobile the only one amidst the mute landscape. As if the plague has come and gone in the two hours since we’ve been on the road. It is both eerie and exhilarating. Once we arrive back home in Chicago, we learn that the freeway had been closed just after we drove on, making us the lone vehicle in our 346-mile trip. But even as we drove, we knew there was something special happening. When the tires slipped on the ice, and the steering wheel would pull in one direction, Jim would gently guide us back, over and over, patiently working with the hardened vapor.

My two husbands. These quiet men. There is safety in their silence. They tread softly – neither boisterous or heavy in voice or body. Yet their presence is solid, they keep me tethered, safely, to the present, my predilection being a deep lean forward toward the future. They keep me safe, they keep my falls cushioned. When we slip off track, it is easy to readjust our course – it’s a conversation, a hug, an inside joke.

They are my antidote…calming, beautiful, muted. They have light spirits, yet heavy grounding, to calm the racing of my mind so that I can see and feel awe at the nature around me. So that I can find my voice and hear my words.

Deep Blue Miracle

Despite the sunshine, the air carried a chill.

When the wind picked up, my hair whipped across my face blocking my vision. Jim held his ball cap down as the gust shifted, an invisible force threatening to lift the hat off his head and send it out to sea. He pulled his coat closer. It hung off him now. His bulk had dissipated with his appetite over those months of chemotherapy. 

rachelrenovation, The Book of Jim, Jim, art of a blue scrub jayThe air smelled faintly of salt and fish and cypress trees. Jim had taught me to capture the needles between my fingers, rub them together and then inhale the spicy scent.

The trees had been beaten by the unceasing wind, their trunks and limbs twisted into a grey, gnarled tapestry. Each tree’s evergreen needles clustered into a series of small dark green parasols perched at its crown.

This impromptu trip to Carmel was set in motion by a week delay in Jim’s next treatment, and now we were exploring Point Lobos Nature Reserve during this mild California February. 

I would later learn that cypress trees were a symbol of death and mourning for the ancient Greeks and Romans, who used the wood for coffins and planted the trees near graves to protect the dead from evil spirits. Escaping the daunting prognosis for Jim’s health, we had unwittingly walked into a veritable grove of grief.

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Learning How to Spell Fascism

I didn’t see him approach. My head was turned in the opposite direction, my neck craning to see Alicia Keys on the jumbo-tron. Two trees, a building corner and a half million people stood between me and where Alicia spoke on stage.

Women's March, Mom and daughter at women's march, January 22 2017, fascism, rachelrenovationI was cold from standing still, wishing my fingerless gloves had fingers. My protest sign was tucked under one arm, its cardboard stem resting against the ground.

I felt the vibration of his finger tapping on my sign before I heard him ask, “What do you think this means?”

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