Not Normal

I dreamt last night that I watched a mushroom cloud rise up above my city.

This is the type of dream I would have had in elementary school, when we were taught to hide under our small wooden desks — the kind with a lid and a compartment underneath which held our books, pencils, papers, treasures.

But this dream came decades later, long past the Cold War. Yesterday we celebrated our nation’s independence in a small NE Oregon ranching town, sitting on a curb along Main Street as a short, wholesome parade marched by.

Two tween girls dressed in independence regalia pulled and prodded Snow White the cow, who wore red, white and blue sweatbands on each of her four legs. Kids riding bikes festooned with flags and streamers skidded down the short three blocks artfully managing the distance between them and the pickup truck of veterans in front of them, where elderly men dressed in short sleeved, button up shirts sat on benches, wearing the hats and pins of those that served. A long line of emergency vehicles slowly paraded through with sirens on — the sheriff, the ambulance, and a whole host of fire trucks — the latter of which received the most applause as the wildfire season is upon us.


I laughed aloud when one of the fire trucks – this one looked more like a common semi with a water tank – sprayed a large water spout straight up to the sky where it appeared to be suspended for a brief moment, before crashing down on eager children, seeking a soak in this 90 degree day.

Something I’ve noticed about this small town is that politics are not loudly displayed. I’m sure people have their opinions (67.6% of Wallowa County voted for Trump) but they go about their business. I once brought Kyle home to the Maxwelton Beach parade in Langley — those were the Bush days, which seem tame now – and the artists and hippies of my youth (now weathered boomers) joined the parade with anti-Bush signs and giant paper mache puppets. I heard disgust expressed by some in the crowd who felt this wasn’t the time or place. This was how I grew up – you were vocal about our country’s flaws because it was your right.

Back in Oregon, as an adult long obsessed with politics and currently beaten down by political drama that is making a mockery of the democratic values I hold dear, I appreciated the Wallowa approach – small town, candy tossed from trucks, hallowed ground for veterans, firefighters, small children, sun, water, red, white and blue, and a break from disagreement.

So to then fall alsleep that night in a tent under a dark sky still blowing warm heat along a swollen mountain river, I was not expecting to dream of nuclear war.

In the dream, I am not in my city but I can see it from a distance. I’m at a workshop — I’m not sure for what — and surrounded with the usual dream-induced oddity of acquaintances that if I shared with these people in real life “you were in my dream last night,” they would find it creepy. We watched in horror asking one another if our families were ok.

As I urgently gathered my things, I formulated a plan to reunite with my family — I would drive to our remote and tiny parcel of land in Oregon ranching country and wait. Surely if my family were alive, they would flee there to meet me.

I awoke to the sound of the rushing river, the sun streaming in the tent, magpies and western tanagers singing their morning songs, my husband at my side, my kids safely with their grandparents on the other side of the country.

This is the lunacy of our current political environment — that on Independence Day mothers dream of nuclear war. A president who threatens freedom of the press, who dismisses the judiciary branch, who disregards the legislative process, who bullies from behind his device, who winks at racists and bigots, and whose lackeys bob their heads with forced smiles next to him because they’d rather have the power now then be on the right side of history later. Behavior by grown men that would be abhorrent if our children mimicked it…and mimic it they will.

This is not normal. We must not normalize it.

Daddy

My twins look up at Kyle.

They have shy smiles and occasionally duck their heads, cast their eyes down and hunch their shoulders, as they flicker between pride and embarrassment. Julia reaches up and gives a gentle tug of Kyle’s dark blue silk tie. Sean shifts his weight from leg to leg. There is so much love in the room for every inch of their seven-year-old bodies.

Kyle, my second husband, is adopting my children and we are surrounded with family. His – a kind, gentle clan from Iowa. Mine – an eclectic mix of loud and soft with divorces that have added many branches to our tree.

I smile as I survey the banquet room of Salty’s, swept up in bright love for my extended family. Kyle stands next to me – he is telling a story. He holds in each hand a small rock. He has carried these rocks for years, since the day I allowed him to meet my then toddlers, on a warm August afternoon at Shilshole Beach. Each child had lifted a stone and stretched out pudgy arms to give him these gifts.

“I think of Jim every day,” Kyle’s voice cracks, “because I now have the life he was meant to.”

Elliott Bay and the city of Seattle sparkle in front of us. In addition to our family, the Salty’s staff gathers in the doorway, curious to watch a video I have secretly prepared for Kyle. The video documents him with the kids from age two until now, following his journey into fatherhood.

At two they called him “Ky-ky.” At three they called him “Daddy Ky-ky.” By four, they simply called him “Daddy.”

In one of the final video clips, the then four year old twins sit at our home’s dining room table eating breakfast in their striped cotton pajamas. The sun is streaming in, and Julia, with her blonde curly morning hair proclaims, “Daddy, when I’m eight years old, I won’t eat waffles!”

We can hear but can’t see Kyle. “What will you eat instead?”

“Mashed bananas!” Julia giggles. “We ate that when we were babies. Mommy had to eat smooshy food and it went down to us. Yeah.”

“That was a long time ago.”

Julia counts “Four, three, two, one, zero!” while Sean says, “Daddy, part of it was when you were not in our city.”

“Yeah, I didn’t know you guys when you were eating mashed bananas.”

Sean is licking syrup from his fingers. “But did you knowed Mommy?”

“No, I didn’t know any of you.”

Julia is walking her sticky fingers across the table. “Daddy, do you know who was Mommy’s…” she pauses, “…who was our Daddy? ‘Cause it was Daddy Jim. He got cancer…so he died. So we found a new Daddy.”

“But Daddy? Know what?” Sean asks, as Julia lets out a big syrupy cough, interrupting him. “Daddy, since Julia coughed I don’t know what to say now.”

Julia scrambles onto her knees, eyes bright, smile wide, “I’ll try to keep my coughs in my belly!”

In the banquet room, laughter mixes with tears, and I hear my 87-year-old grandmother, who keeps forgetting that she’s already had her one glass of white wine so one has quickly become three, calling out over the din, “What? What is funny? I can’t hear anything. Turn it up!”

Kyle takes my hand. He knows me. He knows that I am the kind of person who will say I’m just headed to the bathroom but will then leave the party. He holds my hand tightly.

Envelope

Her mother is sobbing next to her. She is in shock, stoic. First in the elevator going down, and then at the curbside waiting for the hospital valet to bring around the station wagon, people come up to her mother to say they will pray for her. They assume it is her mother’s loss, not hers. She’s not sure why the loss feels proprietary to her — she isn’t the only one who loves him.

Her mother asks if she should drive but she wants to drive, she needs some semblance of control. It is a surreal trip home. She is driving away from him. She will never see him again.

The morning after in their Oak Park bungalow, she steps barefoot softly across the creaky wood floors, wanting to prolong the babies slumber. It is a gentle summer morning — sun shining but the air still crisp from the night before. The world seems to be moving in slow motion. Colors muted. Sounds unclear, hazy from a distance. Did it really happen?

She hears footsteps on the front porch, a pause as if someone is standing there deciding whether to knock. “Don’t knock” she silently pleads. Then the clank of the mail slot in the porch door as the metal flap swings back.

She waits — she’s not ready to be seen, not ready to be heard. She peeks out the front door, the enclosed porch an additional barrier between her and the outside world, keeping her hidden. A white envelope lays on the porch floor. The first condolence card. He has been dead eleven hours.

She slips out and picks up the envelope.

heavy, rich white
pure
purely heartbreaking
scrolling black ink
stark against the white frame
three names
not four

This gesture, a kindness from a neighbor states a fact she is not ready to accept. That in the space of a day, her family unit which had once been Jim, Rachel, Sean and Julia was now Rachel, Sean and Julia. He is gone. His name will no longer be written next to hers.

Even her bones feel tired. She thinks her forehead must now look Neanderthal for how heavy it feels, her throat constricted, still too shocked and wasted for tears.

This memory will come back to her many years later as her heart aches for an acquaintance who first lost his wife and now has lost one of his two sons. She thinks about how four becomes two. She thinks about how this man has had to endure seeing envelopes once addressed to four first reduced to three. And then only a few years later, reduced again from three to two. How his bones must feel tired, his forehead heavy, his throat constricted, too shocked and wasted for tears.

A simple act from the outside world to let you know they care but that forces a stark reality through ink and paper.

Rachel, Sean and Julia.

In Oak Park that June, more cards will arrive throughout the day and into the weeks and months that follow. Jim’s name will be within them but never on the outer envelope.

Her denial will long outlast the cards.

Author’s Note: I have kept every condolence card I received. They are beautiful and heartfelt and I appreciate every one. So what does a person do? Do you address the card to the full family…present and lost? We are all individuals and we won’t react the same. Speaking for myself, I would have liked the cards to include Jim. I would have liked them to say inside, “I hope it doesn’t offend you that I addressed this card to Jim too but I can’t believe he’s gone and I imagine you can’t believe he’s gone and I’m not ready to let him go. I hope that’s ok.”

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.

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.