One way radio

IMG_7091In July, Christophe and the boys and I spent an overnight at the Cutler Preserved Lands in Way Downeast Maine. It was a bit more than a four mile hike in on the inland trail, through spruce and spongy peak, across nearly continuous bog bridges until we came out onto Fairy Head where three campsites edge on the rock slabs and cliffs down to the ocean. We chose the farthest south of the three, it being closest to the tannin-steeped pool that would be our water source. We made camp, and spent the evening climbing, reading, or, in the boys’ case, standing at the edge of the surf in their underwear yelling at the waves to come hit them, a prospect that grew ever less likely as the tide was going out, and the tides in that part of the world are notoriously extreme. Eating our supper out of cups on the rock verge, we could look across to the tidy, red-roofed Little River lighthouse and all the corrugated coast jutting out and then receding. South of the light, there was Western Head, Great Head, and then around Dennison Point into Little Machias Bay. Protruding up above the land all that way off were three or four visible upthrust structures, thin, but vastly higher than anything else around them. They looked almost like the masts of a tall ship at anchor in the Bay, but sizing them up against the cliffs nearby, themselves a hundred feet above the water, these slender spikes had to be at least five times that. We finished our supper, washed up, and as the sun faded, retreated to the tents.

IMG_7113By the water, the mosquitos hadn’t been too bothersome. At our campsite, just in from the woods’ edge, they abruptly descended. They seethed, they teemed, they swarmed in a plague, settling on the least flash of exposed skin. Even the memory of skin attracted them; I set down a mug and came back to it a moment later to find it studded with mosquitos prodding its impervious surface. Diving into the tent, we zipped shut the door and listened to the high whine as they arrayed themselves in phalanxes on all the outer tent walls. For twenty minutes or so, we slapped at the ones that had followed us in, and then read, and then readied for sleep. Until I admitted to myself that I needed to pee. The usual mental dance had gone on, “it’s just my position. I’m imagining it. It’s psychological. If I can just go to sleep and stop thinking about it, I’ll be fine.” At least, I was forced to exit the tent, drop my pants, and crouch in the bushes. The mosquitos were so thick upon my rump that, slapping at them, I looked at my hand to see it fully blanketed in dead insects. Where those dead had been taken away, endless reinforcements took their places. I hauled up my pants and tried to dart back through the tent door. Even a momentary opening of the flap inhaled great gusts of them and for the next several hours, I heard intermittent silence and then slapping as Christophe nodded off between bites. I watched the stars and lightning bugs, doubly obscured by the tent mesh and the scrim of insects wing to wing and tail to tail. Eventually, I did sleep, and in the morning, the mosquitos, though not gone altogether, had dissipated some.

IMG_7117We packed up and walked the five miles back out, seeing almost no one until we were fairly close to the trailhead. Few people, it seems, venture all the way down to Fairy Head. We stopped on cobble beaches tucked between gray cliffs, and then climbed back out again and along trails that came within a foot of the sheer cliff edge. Spruce skeletons stood where they’d died, among their still living brethren. A moth so still and unperturbed by our presence we thought it was dead at first, livened up and hauled its furred legs over our hands. Simon whined, and Malcolm was sullen. We finished our snacks. Far down on the water, it was hard to tell what was eiders or cormorants in the water, and what just nodding lobster buoys in the waves. Simon had to be carried. Our pace quickened once we turned from the sea onto the trail back into the woods and out. Sweat-sodden, stinking and hungry, we drove south toward Machias. As soon as Christophe could get a signal, he looked up the tall metal masts we’d seen from Fairy Head. They were, he read to me, part of a vast array of radio antennae broadcasting very low frequencies for the U.S. Navy submarine fleet all over the Atlantic. The tallest of the towers are nearly one thousand feet high. The setup encompasses an entire peninsula in Cutler, the ground beneath the towers flat and bare.

I thought about the submarines out there, plying the dark waters. I know those things are not small, not a single man, or maybe two, crouching inside a metal bubble the way I imagined them I was a kid. I grew up near enough the Portsmouth Naval shipyard to see their arched backs above the waterline. Once, standing at Odiorne Point, I watched as one sailed out to sea, though “sailed” never seemed so inapt. A friend and I stared out at it, watching the malign beast slip slowly under. Only as the tip of the conning tower disappeared did we seem to shake ourselves awake. My friend said, “I wish I’d gotten a video of that.”  I hadn’t thought of it either, and we both stared at where the big metal dorsal fin had disappeared. The sailboats coursed into the harbor, and the flare-bowed lobster boats trailed their kites of gulls behind. No one who hadn’t been looking would know what was under there. These big nuclear subs hold more than a hundred men, some of them, so it’s not want of human company that would trouble the submariner. Quite the opposite, being sealed up in a drum with the same few dozen people like that. It’s not so much claustrophobia either, but almost the opposite–the knowledge of the mass, and volume, and extent of the oceans piled above, behind, and to all sides.

The radio antennae in Cutler are only capable of sending one-way, encrypted text messages, Christophe read to me from Wikipedia as we rode along the coast. I know the subs must have other ways to communicate, at least these days, but I could not shake the thought of that, of one way radio messages cast out over the North Atlantic to hold the fleet together with the slimmest strands. Messages received, but none sent back. A thousand foot high flinger of messages in bottles.

My mood improved a bit after a roadside lunch to raise my blood sugar, and we drove on down to the crowds at Acadia to spend one night there before the final leg home. Minor irritations, and some more substantial ones left me breathless with screeching at times, but Christophe was unflappable as ever, though he winced and turned down the volume on a Dylan song on the radio when a long, held harmonica note whined, it seemed to me, in the same key the mosquitos had during his long night of the soul in Cutler. I drove, and he occasionally read me a few lines from some article or other. I pointed out roadside oddities. We made it home and I unpacked and put our things away. A few days later, I picked up the book I’d been reading up there, and saw what I had not been able to in my headlamp’s light. Between several pages, I found the smeared bodies of mosquitos, and blotches of my blood, and his.

Killing time

On a garden tour in June, I saw a gray birch in the corner of a suburban yard. The write up on the garden reported that the homeowners had been working hard with an arborist to keep the tree going. It sounded generous, but looking at the tree was unsettling. The trunk was easily twenty inches across, the lenticels drawn tight across the bark. The top of the tree was less a canopy than two bifurcating branches veering away from each other, each with a straggled tuft of leaves at their ends. It looked like the still photos of the Challenger explosion–a white slug of smoke forking into two. My sister, also on the garden tour, gave me a dubious look as we gazed up at the tree. “It’s grotesque,” she said. These trees aren’t meant to live long. Springing up after a disturbance in the forest, they live fast and die young while the sun lasts, generally not surviving past twenty years or so. “I think it’s saying, ‘kill me,'” I answered. Frowning, we moved on.

I’ve killed more things than I could count. Before my training as a veterinarian, I worked at a wildlife rehabilitation center. It’s something of a misnomer, by the numbers, since we had to euthanize far more than we released. The injuries and illnesses were often too severe by the time the animals reach our hands, to be saved. I’ve killed with carbon dioxide, with syringes full of barbiturates, with knives, with shovels, and with my hands. They are intimate sorts of killing, at close range. Sometimes they are outside my professional capacity. Once, while out on a run, a phoebe came fluttering out from the bushes. Chasing it, I caught it up and found a purple swelling of blood and muscle overlying a catastrophic break in the humerus right at the elbow. It would not be repairable. I knew I would have to kill this bird, but I kept walking for a hundred yards or so, the bird cupped in one hand. It takes a moment of preparation to ready myself for this sort of killing. I had only my hands, so I would have to break its neck, a technique in which I am confident, but which still makes my hands shake. Mercy argued for immediate dispatch. The bird in my hand was undoubtedly in the seizure of terror that comes with being clutched by an enormous predator. Some people say that wild animals feel fear, even desperate fear, but not fear of death because they don’t understand that death exists. That may be so, but when we fear death, acutely, immediately, not as an armchair musing, but as a flashing, tires screeching, dry-mouthed, dilated pupil fear, it’s not consciousness of mortality or oblivion coursing through us. It’s something much older. Something from back when the amygdala first evolved, those malevolent clenched fists in the center of the brain that existed even in the ancient armored fish, and the enormous carnivorous salamanders before the Permian extinction. Our consciousness and self-awareness, and existential dread, are elaborations, not replacements. They are the gloss on the old text. The fear you feel in your body is the fear, we must presume, that a phoebe feels in its body in my trembling hand as we walk together down the road.

IMG_3621At last, I was able to stop, lay the bird on a stump, set my fingers to the base of its skull and, with my other hand, grasp its body and pull until the release that signals the separation of the first vertebra from the occiput. This particular bird did no kicking or spasming, though these are common after cervical dislocation. This bird just lay there. I waited, just in case, and before I went on, I arranged it at the very center of the stump, hoping the little altar would draw the attention of a scavenger who might put it to some use. Though even if the larger scavengers didn’t come, the small ones, the ants and the burying beetles, would be by in time. Nothing goes to waste. I didn’t check the bird’s belly for a brood patch, the warm, edematous skin on the abdomen that indicates the bird has eggs or young in the nest. It was more than I cared to know, whether under the eaves somewhere, a clutch of phoebes had now begun dying, without even knowing it.

We learn, in vet school, that euthanasia comes from the Greek eu and thanatos: “good death.” I have meted out countless deaths to wild animals suffering grievous wounds. Some seem like good deaths, though the standards I have are rough: quickness, minimal pain, as far as I can tell. By those standards though, I think I have never administered a good death to a turtle, and if the standard is speed, then maybe turtles never die well. Turtles do everything slowly. In medicine, they heal slowly, recover from illness slowly, and when they die, they die slowly too. Turtles are otherworldly this way, and though their species group is ancient, it seems that every turtle individually is ancient too, as if each once had seen the whole unfurling of the world since the beginning of turtles, plodding through the ash and past the litter of dead dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, “hardly affected at all,” say the paleontologists. Plodding is no way to deal with cars though, so we often received turtles smashed into smithereens, loops of intestines and livers and eggs nearly ready to lay spilled all over the road, but with front legs still trying to haul the wreckage around, and the eyes still bright. One snapping turtle’s demolished body had to be brought to us in a tote bag, blood seeping through the canvas, and the parts all unrecognizable but for the head and neck still fearfully snaking around. How do you give a good death to such a creature, who does not need a functioning body to be alive? We can inject our good drugs, that kill birds in a moment, but a turtle will walk around for hours with the medicine in its veins. They may appear dead, lying immobile on the table, but the heart still thuds at long intervals, and a tap on the surface of the cornea elicits a blink. I found a painted turtle on the road once, mortally wounded, but likely with days yet to go before death would come, on turtle time. I had nothing but a shovel, and could sever its head if my aim were true. My aim was not true. The first blow only sheared the front of its face. The second hit home. But even then, it’s unclear when a turtle is dead. Fellow vets will often give the death drug, and then, when the turtle appears dead, introduce a metal probe into the brain and scramble it, whisking at the tissue until no further messages may be conducted. That must be death, we presume.

Is it speed? Is it painlessness that matters? The fox in the yard killed ten of our chickens. Some we never found, but others were headless on the lawn. The fox possessed expert speed. The chickens likely felt little pain, and in the moments of chase, were they more afraid than when a child chases them with a stick and they run? If that fox had not killed them, I would have, though not for a few more years of egg laying. Whether with a knife or the needle, I’d have dispatched them for their age and declining utility. But when the fox trots around the yard at night, and I see its dark tail disappearing into the grass, I will it not to look at me with its yellow eyes. The fox is beautiful, and I don’t begrudge it its fairly taken meals, but standing between the coop and it, I feel the shepherd’s dread.

2500105847_4503a1c72b_oI am not a student of philosophy to even a limited extent, but I am a student of death. I’ve read this bit of Seneca on the subject. “If someone pities those who have died, let him pity also those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor an evil; for only that which is something can be a good or an evil but what is itself nothing and reduces everything to nothingness, delivers us to no category of fortune.” (Seneca, Consolation to Marcia, 19) The state of nonbeing from whence we came, and back to which we must pass are not supposed to be different on either end. But they are. There was an eternity of non-being for that phoebe before it existed. There is an equal eternity now that it does not. What I did was shorten by less than a hair’s breadth the span of time the phoebe had to exist. The earth is the same; we are the same. There was darkness, then there was all this, and ultimately, when the sun dies, there will be nothing again. No humans, no turtles, no foxes, no chickens. We will all have been restored to the nothingness by then, and who would want to stick around for the heat death of the universe anyway?

Cling to that, be comforted by the abyss. Deliver unto it swiftly those whose suffering you may end. Does it matter what the last moments are like? The Challenger astronauts, we know now, survived the initial breakup of the shuttle. So much of the investigation afterward focused on when or if they might have lost consciousness. The NASA report reads, “It is possible, but not certain, that the crew lost consciousness due to an in-flight loss of crew module pressure.” Possible. We hope. Please let them have lost consciousness, we think, and not have felt the arc, and then the drop, and the freefall to the ocean where, at last, the impact shattered them, shearing their hearts from their aortas. Massive violence ending the terrible suspense. Is that a good death? The fox snaps the chicken’s neck expertly, with no thought of mercy. Cafeterias of school children and their teachers watch the smoke plume split and one side has people in it, alive, and possibly conscious. A phoebe sits inside the loosely closed fingers of a runner who lacks the courage to kill it right away.  What do we do when we will one thing to die, or will another to live? Move the needle just a bit this way or that between the daylight and the dark. Oblivion chews too far into the brief bright band of a life; a child dies. We wish for a few hours more, or watching someone struggle for breath, for even a minute less. “Possibly conscious” might be the last shred of hope you cling to, or the most terrible torment that you can’t stop thinking about.

Oblivion claims nothing so absolutely as a wild thing. Nameless, leaving no stone or sign, no papers and whatnot. The paradox is that we fear death, or the state of being dead, partly because, we think, we’ll miss the people we leave, and partly because we will be annihilated. How can we hold both thoughts in our heads at once? Wild things die and are obliterated utterly. The unmourned, unnoticed, and unremembered dead. What was the phoebe’s last thought? Most likely the possibility of escape, even still. What is a birch tree’s last thought? Absurd to even consider. A birch tree springs up, gathers sun to make a body, collapses and rots. Twenty years. A turtle may live longer than an old, old person and take days to die, maybe longer. The inscrutable turtle smiles and I imagine our conversation as I carry him across the road to safety, “You know that story. There was that jolting, swaggering, pent up hare. He thought it was a race, but we all get to the same place eventually. It’s like your Goethe says, ‘Do not hurry; do not rest.'”

On public spaces

For four days, my six year old son Simon and I lived in the woods in the North Country of New Hampshire. My older son was at camp down the road, and Simon and I moved into a primitive campsite at Milan Hill State Park for the duration after dropping him off. A few days spent camping is really nothing like being homeless, except that it does alter one’s way of thinking along that bent. We hiked, but that took up only a few hours after Simon protested over the mud and the endless stream crossings, and the wet ferns higher than his head on the Mill Brook Trail. We turned back and instead ate sandwiches beside the ponds of the Berlin Fish hatchery, watching the enormous trout eat in the round pond, catching the scent of something marine among the balsams. When it rained, which it did often, we looked for places to pass the many hours. Each thing we did only took up a little time, and the day still stretched until it was time to go read in the tent and sleep.IMG_6992
I carried my pack everywhere, with our raincoats, our food, our water, and books and paper for drawing. We ate on the steps of little historical buildings, in parks, on the porch of the camp store at Jericho Mountain State Park.
I had not seen myself in a mirror in days, though I knew by feel that my hair was standing up wildly. Simon was delighted to be unwashed, his skin mica-flecked and sandy after so many swims in Jericho Lake. There, we often ate our supper, watching the RV campers having cookouts and the ATV riders circling the parking lot. As it began to rain one evening, we saw two men walking with flaming logs on boards from the beach toward their campsites. A park worker in a golf cart came skidding up beside them, I assumed to chastise them, but instead, he loaded the logs into the back and off they rode, sparks and flames trailing behind them.IMG_7009
We were almost never under a roof. Traveling the public thoroughfares and parks, we met the same pair of Mormon missionaries in two different towns. In Berlin, we lay in the shade near the ruins of the old paper mill, with the Presidential range hulking to the south, the dam to the north, and the blue-green penstock carrying the water that used to be in the Androscoggin River past where the Androscoggin meets the Dead. From the vacant park with its fruit trees and gravel paths, we could see the empty buildings, windows missing or boarded up, a mannequin vigilant in one on the upper floor. A few locals sat outside the Family Dollar and hailed each other as they smoked. We crossed the street to a small patch of grass with two sculptures on it. One, a misshapen male figure standing above a female one. Simon stood beside it and said, “It’s a woman. I think she’s dead,” and he reached out and cupped the pockmarked and pitted marble of her breast.

Among the ruins in Berlin.

Among the ruins in Berlin.

We went back to Milan Hill and I climbed the fire tower for the views while Simon whittled a stick down below. All was silent. The thrum of the ATVs at Jericho was replaced by the muffled drumming of ruffed grouse in the woods. The phoebe stood on a stump beside us, and a red-eyed vireo scolded us from its nest slung from a birch branch above.
It rained all night our last night, though we stayed dry in the tent. By morning, the wind was buffeting the rain sideways. We ate quickly in the only brief lull of the morning, and I looked at all the hours until we could pick up Malcolm from camp at four.

Simon was selected to aid in the bending fork trick by magician Norman Ng.

Simon was selected to aid in the bending fork trick by magician Norman Ng.

We drove the longer way into Berlin, past the ruined ski jump and rusted staircase up the hill. The steps themselves are rotted away and you can see the sky through the missing pieces of the jump’s decking. We drove through Berlin looking for someplace to pass the time, but their library was closed. I considered sitting in a church for a few hours, but drove on seven miles to Gorham instead. There, the library was just opening; Cora was putting out the flag and there was to be a magic show in half an hour. In gratitude, I set my things down and Simon and I settled in. Every time we moved, a high stench rose off us. Simon’s arms and legs were grimed, and he was wearing a torn fleece and rain boots with shorts. We lived at that library for five hours, doing a puzzle, paging through magazines in high-backed armchairs, reading every volume in the “Fly Guy” series.
Gorham is a town on the Appalachian Trail, so the people there are no strangers to dirt-smeared, ragged travelers with all their things in a pack on their backs. People who, even if not in their real lives, are temporarily homeless and sleep on the ground every night. Who rely on public spaces and the occasional beneficence of strangers. A woman and her son moving into the library for the day didn’t seem unusual to anyone.

Preparing the burnt offering on Milan Hill.

Preparing the burnt offering on Milan Hill.

We picked up Malcolm in the late afternoon from camp as the rain finally stopped. The car smelled of rancid socks and spilled tea as we wound down through Pinkham Notch and then the ever more civilized stretches of North Conway and the Lakes region. Places where there are, a man in Gorham had said, “You know, Connecticut types–they don’t have any mud on their hiking boots.” I grinned, pleased to be passing, unwilling to admit to being Massachusetts born myself.
Back at home, on our small private parcel of land, a fox had killed nearly all our chickens in my absence. The survivors were hunkered, silent, in the coop, looking haunted. Our house feels enormous for a while after being outside so long, and simultaneously hemmed in. It feels absurdly luxurious, the kitchen richly appointed with a refrigerator and a coffee maker.
Even under lesser circumstances, public libraries, public lands, are always my third space. Pocket parks, trails, places with no admission price and no one documenting my presence or recording exactly what I do there. These places are necessary, and not just for people sheltering from the rain, or passing inordinate numbers of empty hours. For four days, we navigated public lands, trails, buildings, almost exclusively, coming home just before Independence Day. We could move freely, without trespass, without questioning. Coming back to my home reminded me of my great good fortune in all the things that are mine. Our four days spent in the North Country reminded me of my equal fortune in everything that is no one’s particular possession, but all of our birthrights. Even if we do come from Massachusetts.

Old hat, new hat

On my way up to the White Mountains for a solo overnight, I stopped at a post office to mail some checks. I’m handling donations to my friend Sarah, who has breast cancer, and we were paying for quotidian things: tax bill, insurance, the will and trust she’d gotten drawn up in advance of her surgery next month. Her cancer is treatable, with a good prognosis overall, but cancer is always an odds game–survivability curves, and you don’t really know where one dot may fall on it. The people who say, “You’re gonna beat this!” are most likely correct. The people who say, “What if the doctors aren’t telling you how bad it is?” don’t understand how law and medicine intersect, but there is something to heed in their pessimism. And in any case, the treatment itself is a hard slog. I dropped the envelope into the mailbox and went on my way to the trailhead.

Views from the ledges below Whiteface summit.

Views from the ledges below Whiteface summit.

Climbing up Mt. Whiteface via the Blueberry Ledge Cutoff Trail, I scrabbled up the steep pitches, sometimes on all fours. When the trail leveled, I would pause a moment, look back at the elevation I’d gained, and listen to the drumming of my heartbeat in my ears. This is the way trails are in the Whites; some Yankee came along and said, “Well, what we want is to get from here to there. So let’s draw us a straight line.” There are no switchbacks, no meandering. There is the direct and straightforward route. By about noon, I was near the summit of Whiteface, which isn’t much to look at, being closed in by trees on all sides. I thought about Sarah, and her current reprieve after 12 weeks of chemo, but before the surgery. It’s what counts for freedom these days for her–not being tethered to a bag of chemicals once a week, not being governed by steroid psychosis. Meanwhile, I was free to walk these mountain trails, with a body that does anything I ask it too, and a mind that sometimes does.

I passed a monk in saffron robes and sandals in the col between Whiteface and Mt. Passaconaway. It occurred to me that only he on Earth knew exactly where I was at that moment, and only I him. I began feeling the usual afternoon anxiety of a solo venture–knowing I will soon be done hiking and there will be several hours left before sleep, and I will have nothing to do. That’s not my strong suit, sitting still, but I must challenge myself from time to time. I observed insect lives, and received the chattering abuse of red squirrels. The only words I spoke were occasional expletives or self-compliments on my own camp-making skills. I zipped up my tent door and accidentally snagged a wasp of some kind in it. The back end of its abdomen came off with a tendril of chartreuse slime and those were its guts. When the black flies descended in early evening, I crawled into my tent and read. I’d selected On the Road solely on the basis of its light weight and already bedraggled cover. The flies pelted the sides of the tent like a light, steady rain. Around eight, they left, and I emerged to sit outside for a half hour or so, watching the sky in the balsam smelling air.

Setup at the former Camp Rich site.

Setup at the former Camp Rich site.

By nine, I began attempting to sleep. It took many tries, and every time I was just about there, I jolted awake, once from a dream that I was fending off a lioness with a whip and a bucket, and once that I was sleeping in my bed at home and couldn’t figure out why it was so uncomfortable, like being on the ground. Each time I woke, the words “You forgot the most important thing!” leapt into my mind. What had I forgotten? I had hung my bear bag unusually well, everything was put away, I’d left my itinerary at home… and still three or four more times I woke up like that. Perhaps it was neglecting to tell my husband to use up the leftover soup in the fridge. There would be no telling him now, fully out of contact as I was. Whatever it was, eventually, I did sleep, waking a bit after dawn. I broke camp and packed my things, and found that Warren Zevon had found his way into my brain, singing only the line, “If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less,” over and over.

Making supper by the brook.

Making supper by the brook.

I had decided to take Dicey’s Mill Trail back to my car, even though I’d hiked it just last year and there were other trails I’d have liked to see. The truth was, I’d never entirely given up hope of finding the hat Malcolm left behind by the Wonalancet River almost a year ago. In the interval in between, I’d even considered making the drive to hike back in to look for it, but that seemed silly. Now, here I was anyway and why not? By 7:30 in the morning, I was packed up and headed out of camp and down the trail.

Last year’s campsite was well grown in, I was pleased to see, with beech and hobblebush slowing my travel, but I was at searching speed anyway. I considered how long I should devote to this foolish errand before giving up, and then, looking toward the rocks by the river where the boys had been playing, I spotted a dun-colored shape mashed into a crevice. The red ribbon was faded to gray, and there were holes in the brim and the top and it was dirt caked. Standing there over it, I realized that there had been two opposing thoughts in my head during this entire hike: that I would not find it (of course. How could a thin little hat survive the winds that funnel up these bowls and ridges, the snow we got this winter, the floods that swelled this river when they melted?); and that I would find it (why not? I find weathered human artifacts on the ground all the time that look like they’ve been there eons.) If I’d not found it, I would have at last given it up for lost, after almost a year, and it would have been the reasonable and expected thing. But I would have been pierced through by disappointment, I admit. That meant an almost equal share, or more, of me, expected to find it lying there. Until I did, I held both thoughts in my mind, bracing for one, hoping for the other, entertaining the alternatives.

I pulled it out and shook it and walked back out to the trail and told a man sitting there on a rock with his two well-mannered dogs about the situation, waving the hat at him. He let out a long “wow” and I marched across the birch log that serves as a bridge there.

The seasoned and the new.

The seasoned and the new.

I stopped at a thrift shop on my drive home, and, out of reflex scanned the hats as I’d been doing since we’d lost this one. There, on the rack, was a brilliantly white version of the rumpled, unraveling hat I’d recovered. The ribbon on this one was bright red and blue and the price was $1.99. I bought it, and took both home to Malcolm, picturing the way he’d give his high-pitched giggle.

He’s wearing the new hat today, but seemed reluctant about it. I offered to patch the old one for him, as best I could. He declined. “I love them both,” he told me. “Can we leave the old one the way it is and hang it in my room? And I could make a little tag, like a museum person? A curator?” He’s working on the verbiage now.

My sons are two years apart, so in the gap between them, I see all the things that disappear, at some point, with age. My younger son, Simon, still says bizarre things sometimes, but my elder son has long since lost that knack for the surreal. Malcolm was ever a sophisticated child though, and an independent one. We were well matched when he was a baby. He wanted feedings, changings, and then to be set down and left to himself most of the time. Simon on the other hand, bewildered me with his neediness. I wanted to leave him to sleep while I did other things; he wanted to reside in a marsupial pouch in my body. For almost two years, I carried him everywhere, pressed to my body in a sweaty, sticky sling. We were poorly suited to each other. I felt for the poor boy. Once, when he was not even a year, I read aloud an article about mother-baby mismatch–the worst mix being “the independent mother and the needy baby.” I glared at him as I read and he blissfully squirmed in my lap.

Now that he’s almost six, he’s left behind that desperately clingy phase, but he has never adopted his brother’s serious aspect, or his practical, cool demeanor. I understand Malcolm’s reserve, his restraint. He and I approach the world in similar ways. Simon, on the other hand, swaggers through the world, his shrieky voice piping incessantly, waggling his rear end in some absurd dance. He drifts into his own internal realm frequently: a place we call SimonLand, from which it can be difficult to recall him. When he does come awake, he reports epic dance parties and Lego and candy castles. His school reports speak gently of his lack of social graces. He leaves us reasonable, mature folk shaking our heads.

The other day, I was talking with Malcolm in the kitchen before school when Simon came bounding around the corner. “Mum?” he squeaked, “Will you play Book of Love?” Finding the Peter Gabriel version on my phone, I hooked it up to the speakers as the strings played. “Dance with me, Mum,” he said, reaching one arm toward me. Malcolm arched an eyebrow in his corner as I lifted Simon and swung and dipped him around the room. When we approached too closely, Malcolm fended us off with a banana, a bemused and cool look on his face.

10906164_10153013691371462_6817027729201892898_nThis month, a study came out about babies and their purported understanding of the laws of physics. When they see something that seems to defy the rules–a ball passing through a solid wall, or a toy seemingly suspended in mid-air–they focus carefully on the object as they do not when only the expected happens. The babies don’t just pay more attention, their brains open up to learning in those moments, the surprise focusing their minds.

Simon does that for me. I was a child like Malcolm: reserved, observant, cerebral. I am an introvert who has learned to emulate extroversion. I am often walled up in my own head, and it sometimes seems there’s no leaving it. Simon is the ball that defies physical law. He stormed into my life, clawing, mewling, desperate for human connection from his first minutes on Earth. He is still doing it, breezing through the barriers I’d thought impermeable. When he does it, I am mesmerized. We sail around the kitchen, and he giggles as he sings the lyrics. Malcolm shakes his head at what fools we are, but Simon has his fingers in the mortar of the bricks. He pulls at them a little bit each day, and I am learning.

My friend has breast cancer. The line elicits a wince, and a furrowed brow, and often a sorrowing head tilt. Sometimes it’s easiest to then say, “It’s a treatable kind though, and there’s no evidence it’s spread…” and for those who didn’t know what to say or do beyond the head tilt, this allows them to exhale and nod in relief and we can move on with other things. For anyone who’s been through cancer treatment though, the qualifiers don’t mean much.

Her cancer is locally invasive, and though there is no evidence of spread, she will spend the next year getting chemo and surgery, maybe radiation. One never entirely knows if the horses slipped out of the barn unnoticed before the doors were shut.

The night before her first chemo appointment, I dreamt I had a port placed just like she had, for delivery of the drugs directly into an artery. As the nurse snaked the catheter into my vessel, it made perfect dream sense. I could take maybe half the chemo for her and ease the side effects.

IMG_6550The next day, I walked to the hospital’s front desk and cheerfully asked where to “find my friend, who’s having chemo today,” in the same tone I’d used to visit her when she’d had her babies. Turning down the side hall from the bright lobby with its water feature and gift shop, I followed the bland carpeting down to the cancer center. Experienced patients were lined up in bays around the central station, quietly reading or listening to music while their treatments were administered. In my friend’s secluded room, the steady flux of close friends came and went over the full day’s treatment, and we were nervous, loud, making boob jokes, and death jokes, and assuring each other that we would get through all this like no one else ever had.

Bag after bag of drugs dripped in through the port she has and that I had only dreamed I had. We ordered hospital lunches: concave grilled cheese, a droopy veggie burger, a mostly frozen piece of lemon meringue pie. I thought of before her diagnosis, when the results were pending, and, in my optimism, I had still seen the path ahead where she did not have cancer, and we would talk about this as a scare. But she’d skidded onto this path instead, and the trail I’d seen dropped away from this ridge down into a place where she didn’t have cancer, harder to see with every step forward.

There is only so much of this trail that I can walk with her. Events that put our bodies in extremis isolate us utterly in some respects. I watched my grandmother die and though she was in my arms, she was a million miles away. When I was laboring with my two sons, it was not pain I felt, but terrifying aloneness. I was crouched at the bottom of the deep well of my body, and though I wanted someone to pull me out, or, failing that, to pull someone down with me, I could do neither. Sitting on my friend’s hospital windowsill, feeling my own body sound and strong, I watched poison pour into her heart, doing the job it does, and all its collateral damage too.

Though the prognosis is basically good, after these arduous months of treatment are over, nothing is sure. When my father had his heart attack almost ten years ago, I shifted into a new world where part of me expects, every day, to get a call that he’s dead. His life was no longer guaranteed after that day, as if anyone’s is. I do not trust his body though. I do not trust his heart to beat all the way through each day. When my friend is done her chemo, and surgery and all that, and I have every faith that we will be celebrating her clean bill of health a year from now, I will still step gingerly around the memory of these months. Her body will bear the visible scars, but these months are going to score us all deeply.

Late in the afternoon, I left the hospital, as another of her closest friends took over for the last shift and the drive home. We, the helpers, all come and go freely, untethered to infusion poles and pumps. We do not have to lie there, passively, control given over to the nurses and doctors, and so we cannot be in there with her, not fully. I was acutely conscious of the strength in my limbs, my unmarked flesh, my freedom as I passed through the outer doors back into the wide world. Back into the lobby, then outside entirely, free and healthy, my vision narrowed to a tunnel right in front of me and I felt my legs tremble. And I wished I could cry.


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