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trout stream

When I was ten, my parents sent me to summer camp for two weeks. They made the arrangements secretly, knowing a fit was inevitable the minute they broke the news. I was an explosive kid, coming as I did from a histrionic family, and my parents wanted me gone for a while so they could rage at each other without me around to upstage them.


My daughter, not yet eight, has grown suddenly careful with her money.  She’s not greedy.  (She often forgets to ask for her allowance.)  But, now that she’s figured out that money is finite, she spends what she has with great deliberation.

Prior to our recent beach vacation, she planned a lemonade venture for weeks in her mind, fantasizing about the preparation of the drinks, the inevitable line of customers, the transactions.  Our family has a running conversational riff about one day opening a store selling only her favorite foods: salmon sashimi, cucumber, chocolate, a few others equally eclectic.  She’s sophisticated enough to know it’s a joke.  So when she contemplated the lemonade stand she settled on two items she thought would have a better shot than sashimi: lemonade and chocolate brownies.

My wife donated the brownie mix.  My daughter and her cousins worked on the sign for two days, including graphic representations of their offerings.  They stirred the lemonade from a mix, planning to add lemon slices for authenticity, but in their excitement they forgot that last touch.

They set up their stand in the shade of a tree on a corner in Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where cars are banned and people run errands with golf carts.  My wife and I went off with the six-seater to pick up house guests, leaving my daughter and her two cousins in the hands of my sister and brother-in-law, who monitored from lawn chairs.

I feared that the first lesson of commerce would be how hard it is to pull in customers, but I suppose I overlooked the cuteness factor of two eager little girls and a well-tanned five-year-old boy with a mop of thick dark hair and a smile that could melt icebergs.  Less than an hour later they had sold out, if you don’t count the three brownies they’d set aside for themselves.  And who’s scrooge enough to count that?

They declared with pride that they had eighteen dollars — six for each of them with no arguing about the relative contributions of the youngest.  But I was determined that there be a business lesson in this.  I said they must deduct expenses.

“What are expensives?” my daughter asked with great seriousness.

Aw, heck.  I explained the concept of costs, but my heart had gone out of it already.  We deducted three bucks and they each ended up with five and we headed for the ocean.

Over the next two days, my daughter proudly left three shops in a row without spending her share of the bounty.  Then, on the way home, we stopped in Richmond.  A few blocks from the Jefferson Hotel, we passed a plain storefront with agates and geodes in the window.  It specialized in beads and rocks, playing down the access-restricted head shop in back.  Beads and rocks, as it happens, are the specialties also of every seven-year-old girl in the world.  We entered with my daughter in the lead.

The place had only the most basic merchandising, home-made strands of beads and minerals hanging from plain hooks, drawers filled with colorful beads, rocks and small fossils sorted by type on tables and shelves.  My daughter was — well, like a kid in a rock shop.  She had to have everything, but knew she couldn’t.  The clerk behind the counter — eager, friendly, New Agey — must have been disappointed with our admonitions about the budget, but she didn’t show it.

After about twenty minutes of touching everything, creasing the brow, doubling back, touching again, my daughter settled on a shelf of sparkling golden rocks.

“I think I want some gold,” she said.

It fell to me, over her shoulder, to point out like a heel that she was looking at pyrite, fool’s gold.  So what?  It sparkled, it fell within her budget, and the one she selected filled her palm perfectly.

Scarcely an hour earlier, we’d been dragging her through the hot, humid streets of Richmond, urging her forward, reprimanding when she dropped too far behind.  Now, leaving the store with her treasure, the kid had springs in her steps.  She knew for sure that she’d chosen wisely, that she’d taken possession of something that in turn had the prospect of possessing her.  She declared that she’d start a rock collection and that she’d look up on line, when we got home, about pyrite.

In that moment, she reminded me of an older nephew whom we’d taken to the Bronx Zoo years ago, before we had a child of our own.  All he wanted to do was go into every gift shop and buy trinkets, which he’d stuff into his pockets with an owner’s pride.  Real live lions and giraffes and elephants — couldn’t take those home.  A rubber rhino to control, to have forever, to place on the shelf as a trophy — that’s what a kid’s after.

My daughter, among other interests, pursues fireflies at night with the determination of a big game hunter.  She’s evolved from wanting to trap them in a jar, where they surely die, to wishing only to see them glow in her hand for a few seconds.  Then she sets them free and seeks another.

The morning after her purchase, I emerged from the shower to find her in a huff.  My wife explained the problem: she’d lost the pyrite — had it and then didn’t.

“How do you lose a rock in a hotel room?”  Maybe the same way you let a firefly go.

When my wife went into the bathroom I helped my daughter search the covers of each bed, look under and behind every piece of furniture.  Gone.

I was halfway through Round Two when she turned to me, reconciled to her loss.  “Well, thanks anyway for helping me, Dad.”  I paused and swallowed.  That unprompted thank-you was real gold.

We ran out of places to look, but she found the rock in her knapsack a few minutes later — had put it there for safe keeping and forgotten.

That afternoon, back home, she asked without prompting to use the computer.  Then she came back downstairs, requesting help.  She did a Google search and couldn’t find fool’s gold or pyrite.  Turns out the first six hits or so for fool’s gold reference a movie.  And she was spelling pyrite wrong.  I set her up on Wikipedia and she printed the results.

The article states: “Despite being nicknamed fool’s gold, small quantities of gold are sometimes found associated with pyrite.”

So true.

Cup of TNB – Episode 1. Featuring D.R. Haney, author of the novel Banned for Life.  Hosted by Joseph Matheny.


The late-night June sky was exceptionally clear, rabid with wild stars. As I walked home from a Silverlake bar, I witnessed the usual constellations—Orion, Ursa Major. In addition, I spotted new, undiscovered formations. I named them all: Zardoz, Love Bullet, Moonlight’s Motel.

An elderly Hispanic man approached me. Rumpled white shirt, black Dickies. His face: a complex map of worry lines. There was a dog at his feet—a mish-mash of sheltie, collie, and pure innocence. The collarless canine trotted happily alongside the old man.

“Beautiful dog,” I said, as we met eye-to-eye.

The old man grunted, “Damn dog’s not mine. She’s been following me.” He kept walking. Never once looked at the animal. Just stared straight ahead, into the flash and burn of liquid diamond headlights streaming down Sunset Boulevard.

The dog remained by his side.

That dog was screwed, I realized. It was obvious the old man didn’t care for her. As soon as he reached his destination, he’d slam the door in her face, leaving her to wander the streets. She’d be roadkill before sunrise.

I called out to her. She glanced back. I got down on one knee, called again. She bolted for me, jumped into my arms. I carried her back to my place. The whole way there she was a furry bundle of tail wags, whimpers, shivers, and happy licks.

* * *

When I was four, I received my first dog: a part-collie, part German Shepard that my brother and I named Bandit. I loved that dog intensely. Not knowing how to fully express that love, I’d squeeze Bandit tight, as if all my love could be transferred through brute force. Those love sessions generally ended with Bandit biting me, and my parents rushing me to the doctor. But I didn’t care. I always went back for more. That’s how much I loved that dog. That’s how much I wanted that dog to love me.

As I grew older, I learned how to better express that love: fetch, long walks, feeding Bandit turkey straight from the Thanksgiving bird. Eventually, the dog died. My family had him cremated. That’s how much we loved Bandit. To this day, my father still has the dog’s ashes, and insists on being buried with them when he goes.

After graduating college, I left that loving, secure, pet-friendly environment to live in California. It was now fast-paced city life all the way: Playing in bands, partying till all hours, working lousy paying jobs, living in crappy apartments.

But once I found that dog on Sunset, I wanted to do whatever possible to become a stable pet owner. First off, I named the dog Venus, for the Goddess of Love.

I took her to the vet. Got her all her shots. The doctor gave her a clean bill of health. She was so adorable we couldn’t figure out why she’d been abandoned. Maybe she’d gotten lost. Maybe her owners were worried sick, trying to find her.

Over the next couple weeks, I posted flyers in dog parks, dog shelters, vet offices.

Even had a friend take this picture of the two of us.

I posted it on numerous pet-related Internet sites.

I didn’t receive one call from anyone claiming to own her. But I did receive tons of calls from people wanting to adopt her.

So I gave myself a goal.

For a month I’d work my ass off, either trying to find a place suitable for the two of us, or I’d offer Venus to the best home possible.

I poured through rental ads. Made tons of calls to the places I could afford. Landlords chatted up homes and apartments as if they were palatial estates, but in person amounted to little more than busted-up, beer-breathed accommodations, with weed-ravaged dirt yards.

I soon realized I didn’t have my shit together enough in the financial department to properly care for Venus. It broke my heart. Broke it into pieces tinier than those stars I’d witnessed in the late-night sky when I first discovered her.

Around that time, I received a call from a man in La Cañada—a suburban community at the base of the Angeles National Forest. The man said he’d seen an Internet ad for Venus. Said he had a family. A beautiful home and yard. Told me he’d like to adopt the dog.

I relayed the whole story. How I’d tried to find her master. How I’d even tried to make a home for her myself, all to no avail.

Listening to my sadness and frustration, the man said it was obvious that I loved Venus very much, and that if I’d allow his family to care for her, they’d do everything possible to honor that love.

The next day I packed Venus into my clunker Toyota, and headed up to La Cañada. The family, their home: Norman Rockwell updated. Made more posh, and heartwarming. Venus immediately took to the kids—a young boy and girl. They ran with Venus throughout the huge fenced-in backyard.

It was all so much. So much love. If Venus couldn’t stay with me, I realized, this was exactly where she needed to be.

The man handed over a wad of neatly folded bills. “Here. I’d like to pay you for what you’ve spent on vet bills.”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“Really,” he said. “It’s the least I can do.”

My love and pride didn’t want to take the cash. But the truth was I’d spent a good portion of rent money to care for Venus. I had no idea how to make up the difference. “Alright,” I said. “Thanks.” Then I added: “Mind if I say goodbye to her?”

“Not at all,” he said.

I gathered Venus into my arms, gave her a big hug. It wasn’t as huge and hurting as the hugs I used to give my childhood dog, Bandit. But the hug was enough to let her know that I loved her very much. And that I’d miss her dearly.

“I’ll never trust another old person,” Bart Simpson once said, and for that nugget of wisdom I’ve always half-respected him. The fact is the elderly are as capable of screwing you over as a menacing looking teenager, or a hardass, stoneface punk twenty-something. Worse, the elderly won’t just take you for a ride… They’ll say they ‘fleeced’ you and call you a ‘rube’. Of course, if you trust the elderly, you can have no complaints about being called a ‘rube’. That’s just exactly what you are.

And that’s exactly what I am. A rube. A pure-bred, plain-as-day rube. I met an old man and let him have his wicked way, and he damn well did it on national TV. No, not Korean national TV, which is of interest only to Koreans, and which is so backward, racist and pedophilic that no one could seriously give a fuck what is said there… but the BBC!

Being fleeced like a rube on the BBC is like being pantsed at your wedding, or outed at your funeral. It makes you look more foolish for not realizing that you were being watched… by several million people. You didn’t just fail to notice one person rape your dignity – you failed to notice an audience of millions, or their cameras, lighting or sound equipment.

 

These arrangements of empty chairs are what’s left of celebration, argument, meditation, sleep and revelation.  They huddle together like still animals in the cold.  From a chair beneath a plane tree, the round tracks of a cane disappear into the gravel.

The single chairs are absent of their poets, readers and afternoon philosophers.

Those side by side and face to face are absent of their lovers, their chess players, the soon to be married and the just abandoned.

The great groups of circles and strange half-moons have lost their lecturers, their students.

I’m at the airport, confident. I’ve never had vertigo in a plane before, so I’m not worried about jumping out of one.

Besides, my dad is jumping, too, and I don’t want to wimp out on him. Mom is here, too, documenting the whole thing in photos, so if I wimp out, there will be photographic evidence of my cowardice.

This is a photograph of being in love.

It’s a picture of a feeling in a moment.

It’s a record of a time when the whole world came alive.

I took it from inside a girl’s convertible.

I volunteer at a local hospital once a week. I’ve been doing this since we moved to Miami Beach more than eight years ago. Normally I play with kids who have cancer. They play like any other kid, but usually they can’t get out of their beds because of all of the tubes and fluids going in and out. Usually I work with my friend Melissa. We think alike.

We bring our own toys because the teenage volunteers seemingly can’t take in the rules when the rules are explained to them. They leave pieces of the games behind. Sorry with two blue men and one yellow man; Chutes and Ladders with no spinner; Candyland without a board; Operation with three little white pieces instead of sixteen; Four in a Row with only a few of the of the segments that make the frame and perhaps half of the pieces. You see the pattern.

Melissa and I have a favorite donation. A wonderful group of ladies gets together and sews soft white pillows to donate. We bring permanent paint markers, which the children use to decorate the pillows for themselves or for their grandmothers or another loved one. The kids love this the best, of all that we can offer them. They make glorious things. They make creative pictures of which only a child can conceive. When they’re finished with their pillows, their parents will usually add the child’s name and a date. I once had a boy who spent almost three hours filling in the entire pillow with the red permanent paint pen. He wanted a red pillow.

This week Melissa and I went into the cancer ward, and there was a lady in a chair in the hall. She was rocking back and forth and back and forth at the edge of the chair. She was keening. Her wailing was like that of an infant who cries so hard she can’t catch her breath and fights for air in gulps. Her eyes were damp and open. She didn’t see who or what was near her. She could only see what was in her head. She saw and heard her child’s doctor saying the words that she could not bear to hear. She heard the words over and over and she rocked and she rocked and she keened and she was sightless.

In eight years I have seen many troubling things. But this image, and the sound of her keening and the futile, condemned look in her eyes will haunt me for the rest of my life.

94 Comments »

Comment by jonathan evison |Edit This
2009-07-24 13:28:06

. . . this is crushing, irene . . . god love you for the work you’re doing!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:26:36

Jonathan,
The kids want t be treated as close to normal as possible. Mostly we just play with them and we have fun with them. Cancer is highly treatable now in children.

Comment by Jim Simpson |Edit This
2009-07-24 20:33:53

It takes a lot out of them, but you’re right, it can be treated and they can live long and prosper. Bless you for being there for them.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 06:53:24

Jim,
Treating cancer is a really tough row to hoe. It’s hard enough for an adult, but imagine a child having to go through all that it takes. There’s no question but that they suffer, but they are sturdy little kids and they are ordinarily surrounded by those who love them.
Being there is a blessing to me.

Comment by Melissa(Irene’s friend) |Edit This
2009-07-25 02:23:26

The thing that still haunts me is that, NO ONE… nurses, doctors, social workers were trying to help her. She was giving a chair, and left alone. Thank goodness they had called for help finally. I am still wondering how long she sat there. Her eyes, so wide, so red, from crying. Irene,we will go back and play like we always do. That is what we are there for. Love you.

Melissa

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 02:50:08

We discovered her after finally a woman from the hospital staff was with her to do what she could for her.
I imagine many people tried to get through to her, but were not able to.
Perhaps they knew that nothing could help, but just sitting on the floor next to her and holding her hand would have been enough.
Perhaps all that could have been done.

It’s really good to work with you, Melissa. Really good.

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Comment by George |Edit This
2009-07-24 13:49:14

We do not put our own problems in perspective until we read about people with real sorrow.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:27:45

I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never been affected like this before. It just won’t stop playing in my head.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-07-24 14:16:06

oh man.
that poor woman.
i’m sorry, mom.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:28:38

I’m helpless to understand it.

Comment by Brad Listi |Edit This
2009-07-24 14:17:54

Holy mercy.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:29:42

She was hoping for some. That was when she came to understand there would be none.

Comment by Aaron Dietz |Edit This
2009-07-26 21:23:40

Well said. This little comment reply was equally as impacting to me as the piece.

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Comment by Stefan Kiesbye |Edit This
2009-07-25 07:35:29

yes.

Comment by Stefan Kiesbye |Edit This
2009-07-25 07:38:29

what I wanted to say is, that, yes, it’s a moment where there is no no out, just an impasse.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 11:53:44

Precisely, Stefan.

Comment by Stephanie |Edit This
2009-07-24 14:23:27

Wow, Irene. You are amazing for putting your time into visiting these kids.
After my mother recovered from breast cancer, she would volunteer doing the same thing, saying it was a totally full filling and rewarding experience. But it caused so much depression, seeing most of the children were terminal. Her psychologist recommended she stop.

I wouldn’t even want to imagine how it sounded to hear that mother crying like that(just imagining it is completely depressing), I would have cried myself.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:32:37

Stephanie,
Honestly, most of them are cured or go into remission today. Since we act as though everything is all right, they don’t even worry.

Comment by Megan DiLullo |Edit This
2009-07-24 14:24:29

Thanks Mama Zion for helping so many people.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:37:40

Megan,
You have to understand that these are children. What a child experiences is what he thinks is normal. Most of them just take being in the hospital and all that it entails as what their life is. When they start so young, they don’t know anything else.

Comment by keiko |Edit This
2009-07-24 14:28:14

oh man, poor lady. i should take dewey to volunteer more often.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:40:43

Keiko,
You should! Brooklyn loves her work at the abused children home. She cheers them up and makes them feel loved. In turn, that makes you feel like you are making a small difference in their lives.
The hospital is a bit tricky with dogs. Some doctors allow them and some do not. The kids who get to see the dogs really thrive from the pure love of a therapy dog.

Comment by christine w. |Edit This
2009-07-24 14:36:09

You are amazing.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:42:40

Christine,
I’m just a mother whose children have grown up and gone. I miss children. Usually it is very good for me. This particular incident was stark and is burned in my heart forever.

Comment by Brin Friesen |Edit This
2009-07-24 14:39:17

Jesus, Irene. Where does your mind go to deal with such a place?

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:50:02

Brin,

This was unusual. No one could see this and not know it.
For the most part the little ones don’t even know they are different.
It is more difficult with the teenagers because they know what is happening to them. It takes a strong back to go into their rooms smiling and play uno with them, or talk about the work they have to do for the once a week teacher who calls them to try to keep them caught up in school. They can tell if you are faking it. You have to be happy when you go in their rooms. You learn how to do it because it’s important.

Comment by Frank |Edit This
2009-07-24 14:43:46

Share, yes. “Enjoy”? Don’t think that’s quite what this one is about…

You’ve captured the poignancy of despair so well, here, all the more sorrowful because it’s dangerously real, not safely encapsulated within a fiction, however good that fiction may be. Did anyone -could anyone? -give that grieving woman any comfort?

You do good work, Irene -on paper, and on the wards.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 02:55:50

Frank,
People were at a loss as to what to do for her, before someone from the hospital was called to try to help.

I think that there are reasons for this. I think people are afraid to get so close to despair. Also I think that on the whole people are cowards. It’s something we all have to fight against. It’s scary to face such pain. It’s natural to feel cowardly and useless.

If we had been there to find her in this state, we would have just parked the toy cart and sat down on the floor and touched her in some way she would allow. Perhaps held her hand or simply touching her arm.

Even though she was alone in her agony, she should have had someone to sit with her.

Comment by Irwin |Edit This
2009-07-24 14:58:42

Jesus, my eyes are dampening.

One of the moust haunting, touching things I’ve ever read here.

Beautiful.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 02:56:29

Thanks for reading, Irwin.

Comment by Irwin |Edit This
2009-07-24 15:00:02

Incidentally, is Chutes and Ladders like Snakes and Ladders? And if so, why no snakes?

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 02:57:37

Irwin,
I’ve never heard of snakes and ladders, but it sounds like the same game to me. You funny people across the pond have the strangest names for things.

Comment by Irwin |Edit This
2009-07-25 04:47:57

Board game with squares going up to 100? Ladders go up, chutes go down?

That’s snakes and ladders, except with chutes in place of snakes.

To be honest, chutes make more sense.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 06:56:55

Yup, sounds like the same game. I think the snakes sound like way more fun though. kids like a little faux danger. Chutes are just slides. Americans are always trying to sugar-coat things for kids. A way of learning to deal with actual danger is to play act at it. Americans can be such idiots sometimes. You should see how the old books we used to read are being edited. It’s a crime.

Comment by lonny |Edit This
2009-07-24 15:05:04

yikes

i dont have anything else to say

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 02:58:25

Yeah, Lonny. Yikes indeed.

Comment by Cayt |Edit This
2009-07-24 15:19:54

Mama Zion, you are an angel.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:00:59

Hardly, Cayt,

There are lots of volunteers. Usually they are, like me, lonely for the children they raised who have grown up and left. You just have to have empathy. It’s a simple requirement.

Comment by Ben Loory |Edit This
2009-07-24 15:26:58

i’ve been haunted by that lady since you told me about her the other day. this only makes it worse. one time i was in the emergency room waiting area when a doctor came out and told a woman her son had just died of a gunshot wound to the head. she fell on her knees sobbing and clutched the doctor’s hands and pleaded with him to say he was lying, demanded. he just stood there and then tore himself away and walked off. it was the worst thing i ever saw and i did absolutely nothing. the girl i was with got down beside the woman and held her and apologized over and over and over and the woman didn’t even know she was there. i don’t even remember how it ended. i can’t even conceive of an ending. i probably went home and read a book. sorry this was so long.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:14:02

You see, Ben! This happens all the time, but rarely are we find ourselves in the position of spectators.

I know I would have been that woman, pleading and demanding for the doctor’s words to be lies. So would most parents, I think, given they were in her unenviable position.

In this case, the doctor was an ER doc. Can you imagine how many of these scenes he has to try to file away as far from his conscious mind? It probably happens every day. How could he continue to save those that he can if the despair takes over? If you can’t protect yourself in some way doing this job, you would just have to quit. I think he should have called over a nurse or a social worker to be with her, though. Perhaps they were understaffed. Who really knows?

I would have did as your girlfriend did, I hope, but most people can’t be near such grief. it’s just too frightening. It hits too close to your own life, to your own child, to your own kin.

As to writing a long comment, please do. The piece was mighty short. It needed some balance.

2009-07-24 15:31:10

A friend once told me about the sound he heard his grandfather made after losing the woman he’d been married to, and loved, for the overwhelming majority of his life. He said it was a sound unlike anything he’d ever heard before, and something he’d never forget.

You’re a wonderful person for doing the work you do, Irene. My heart goes out to her, and to you.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:15:37

Simon,

Human grief, once witnessed, can never be forgotten, nor should it be.

Comment by Ruthie |Edit This
2009-07-24 16:26:15

Your story started out with a light tone as many of yours do but its plunge into seriousness was quick and amazing. The way you described this woman was vivid. It must have been heartbreaking to witness. In a few words it reminds us all to be really, really thankful for our own good fortunes.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:19:53

Ruthie,

Being a volunteer puts things into perspective. It grounds you in a greater reality.

Comment by Melissa(Irene’s friend) |Edit This
2009-07-24 17:17:09

The best part of my week is going to see these children. It makes your heart swell to get a tiny smile of of a sick kid.
Irene. That mom will be with me. I think forever.
I was that mom once. the reason I went back to the hospital to volunteer. My oldest son had three operations there. Pretty major but not life threating.
There was a day I could not take it anymore. my baby lay there in bed, hurting with no smile.
I broke. I was in a tiny waiting room and I was wailing. A wonderful volunteer came and put her arms around me.
I am just giving back.
Melissa

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:22:16

I won’t forget either, Melissa, we’re together in that.
I’m giving back, too. Everyone has something to give back for.

Comment by Rachel Pollon |Edit This
2009-07-24 17:23:17

Oh Irene, it’s so wonderful that you go there every week and make those children’s and families lives a little brighter during such an awful time. I’m so sorry for this woman. And for you for having to experience it. But really it shows what a strong and empathetic person you are for being there to begin with. I’m saying a little prayer for peace… for everyone.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:26:03

Thanks, Rachel. It does your heart good to volunteer. It’s a whole lot easier to do it if you are retired. All of you are mostly young and busy with work and families. One day you may find that there’s a hole where your children were. This is a way to fill up that hole.

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-07-24 17:33:14

James Michael Blaine said something in the comments section of his last post. To someone who said they didn’t believe in an afterlife, he (jmb) responded that he didn’t believe in *this* life. I’m inclined to agree with him.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:28:15

Erika Rae,
We both know that jmb is wise beyond his years. I hope it is as comforting to be him as it seems from the outside.
What’s the expression? Life is hard and then you die.

Comment by the kayak lady |Edit This
2009-07-24 17:42:05

thankx for sharing your words about the experiences you witness at the hospital. i see lots and hear lots at nursing homes and assisted living homes where i give massages on tuesdays and thursdays. sometimes i laugh til i cry and sometimes i just cry. God loves us all. and the rest is up to us.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:32:20

Brooklyn went to a nursing home for years. She’s having trouble walking now, so she’s only doing the abused kids place for now.
I find the nursing home to be absolutely terrifying. I smiled and I laughed with them and I saw how much joy my therapy dog gave them, but I still drove home crying every time.
You are a stronger person than I, Mary.

Comment by sara k |Edit This
2009-07-24 17:48:34

makes me really appreciate me and my family’s good health. i’m sorry you experienced something so heartbreaking.

“When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.” ~Barbara Bloom

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:34:09

Sara K,

That is a beautiful quote and a wonderful sentiment. I’ve never heard it before.
Thank you.

Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
2009-07-24 18:00:04

Irene. I don’t think I can say anything that everyone hasn’t said already.

I used to volunteer helping kids with their homework after school at a battered women’s shelter. And we too spent our time acting like everything was normal, keeping their spirits up. It was easy to forget about the horror in their lives.

Until a scene like this intrudes on the delusion.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:36:26

Exactly, Marni.

The delusion is such a comforting cloak. When it’s ripped off, it rips off your skin.

2009-07-24 20:20:42

Aw…

You’ve broken a hundred hearts with this post…

… and healed a thousand more.

xo

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:37:31

Famous New York Kimberly,

kiss back.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-07-25 01:32:24

The cancer ward for children is, alas, one of the places where you can be exposed to raw pain like that. That possibility is probably what makes it such a scary place for many of us. Not only must you radiate cheerfulness, you must also steel yourself for a glimpse at horror.

And I echo what everyone else says. You’re racking up karmic frequent flier miles, Irene, that’s for sure. It’s inspiring.

Greg

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 03:43:03

I agree, Greg.
It is too scary for most people and it is really hard to “radiate cheerfulness” with horror just around the corner.

I hope it does inspire people, but in my case, I am only trying to do what has been done for me. So many kind things people did for me at moments when I needed them.

Comment by ksw |Edit This
2009-07-25 04:03:51

one of your best pieces. as a bit of solice, sometimes the prognosis works out better than the prediction.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 04:22:29

Thanks for that, doc! A little light at the end of the tunnel is what is needed here!

2009-07-25 05:52:18

This is my favorite piece of yours. And it hits home, and not just cause I watched a kid make a crayon pillow a week ago.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 06:58:28

Thanks, Nick.
That means a lot to me.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-07-25 09:58:09

I hear there is a peace
that passes understanding
but it does not feel like peace
first there is shock
then pain
then anger
then, if you can give yourself
to reality
and the futility of control
compassion

I am far from this peace.
I want to tear down heaven
& demand the insanity
stop

the other day outside the ER
a black-suited man walked slowly from the
double doors
carrying an infant car seat
a little yellow blanket covering the face
stuffed lion dangling from the side
the doors closed
and opened again
and then came the mother
and it just hurt me so bad Irene
so bad

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 13:57:13

The tricky part of peace
that passes all understanding
is that you can’t
understand
the shock
the pain
the anger
the reality and
the futility

No one who is
sentient
can feel the peace.

All with empathy
have issues
with reality

There must come a time
when the fact that
a child
who is born
and yet can’t live
is understood.

It just is not
now.

The capacity to
tolerate
the pain of
the wait
is
grace.

2009-07-25 14:09:30


amma
mother
Zion

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Michelle Shayne |Edit This
2009-07-25 10:57:22

It’s beautiful that you play with the children. They need the opportunity to just be a kid – not a sick kid- just a kid.

I’m just now coming off my rounds with adult cancer patients. Reading your words that sting with the pain you observed with the lady in the chair is jarring. The patients I saw today were at a very different place in their journey. A parent who is unable to save her child reveals a burning fury unlike anything I saw today. And yet, my adults, like the children with whom you play, also long for the time when they could just be themselves- as they were before the cancer. They want to work and be with family. They want the energy, the appetite they once had.

Keep doing what you’re doing with the children.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 12:25:34

Michelle,

Are there therapy dogs where you do your rounds? If the doctors allow it, the dogs are such a respite from their travails. They comfort the sick. They reassure the troubled. There is consolation for the bereaved. Dogs, I believe, are a gift from G_d. They can replace the knowledge that all will be well with the knowledge that, for just this moment in time, all IS
well.
I believe that working with children is easier. They are so young that they do not know any other life. This is the life G_d gave them. They don’t question. It is the older children, the ones who know what is happening, who are the heart-breakers.
I know it is the same with adults. They know the score. They know the odds. But Lord, they want so badly to just be back to normal. The normal that everyone else takes for granted.

(Shura and Vera would have loved my dogs. They were the best grandparents my children ever had.)

Comment by Ben |Edit This
2009-07-25 11:34:16

Be honest, Mom, advertisements for children’s cold medicine haunt you. It is a pretty low threshold.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 12:27:38

Ben,
I will grant you that I am emotional, but I assure you that some memories are burned into your heart. I hope that you never, ever know that.

Comment by Frank |Edit This
2009-07-25 17:25:27

Irene-

As I read through the comments, and your responses, there was something amorphous but vaguely familiar far in the back of my mind that finally coalesced into coherency and came into focus: I think that helping that poor lost woman was -is -perhaps akin to comforting the mortally wounded or maimed at accidents or in wars: just being there.

I’m still shaking my head at the scene you described.

The best thing -no, that’s only relative -the good thing about your piece is that is makes us consider the consequences, and to consider wht each of us might have done/would do in a similar situation.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 23:42:32

Thanks, Frank. I certainly do hope something good can come from this horrible story.

Comment by Tim |Edit This
2009-07-25 17:41:13

Again with the uplifting stories . . .

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 23:43:06

Tim,

I paint what I see….

Comment by Gina Frangello |Edit This
2009-07-25 19:03:59

Hi Irene–
One of my best friends used to be a kid on a cancer ward. She had childhood Hodgkin’s, twice, and spent much of her high school experience in hospitals. She is now 40 and has just adopted a baby from Ethiopia. She remembers people like you, who volunteered their time (especially her tutor, since she was a little bit older) very fondly, very kindly, as making a true impact at a time when many people could not treat her normally, could not bear to look.
That is the good thing I had to say.
The awful one is this: I don’t think you will ever shake that woman from your mind. When I was about 14 years old, a kid a few years older than I was, who lived on our block, died. It had been an accident: he went into the hospital for a knee surgery and they gave him the wrong anesthesia, something he was allergic to, and killed him. His family was poor, Spanish-speaking, with no real resources and there was never a lawsuit, though there should have been. But at his wake, his mother had pulled her chair up to the casket and was sitting there stroking her son’s hair, keening just the way you describe. She did this for most of the entire night. It seemed bottomless, where she was. It was the most horrible, intimate, harrowing thing anyone there had ever seen. It burns you and leaves a scar.
I commend you for continuing to walk into that place after seeing such a sight. It’s human nature to want to avoid pain, and the pain you saw was so profound that it hurt even those who are not directly involved.
What you’re doing is so important. I know there’s a lot of joy there too, and you and Melissa are just the wise, fun women to find it.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 23:49:39

Oh Lord, Gina,
That poor woman. I can see it and hear it as if I had been there.
I know that I can see it better because of what I’ve seen before.
You must feel the same way about the lady in the chair.

“Intimate,” that was the word I was searching for when I wrote this piece. It was something so private and yet so public that it frightened people away.

I’m so glad to hear that your friend has good memories of the volunteers.
You see, everyone? Childhood cancers are very frequently cured!

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-07-25 20:24:47

Irene, you are wonderful. How lucky they are to have you, how lucky you are to have them. Bless you.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-25 23:51:10

Hi Zara,
Thanks for reading.
As I’ve been saying, I’m the lucky one.
I have debts to pay.

Comment by Marcia, still in Illinois |Edit This
2009-07-26 05:40:14

I don’t think there is anything worse than losing a child. But the children need to play and not just see people who are scared or grieving. That’s why you go.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-26 08:02:02

Marcia,
You still retain the title of the smartest person in the world.

Comment by Ed |Edit This
2009-07-26 05:55:33

Your story made me feel a lot of emphathy. And also made me want to find out more about the word “keening”. According to Wiki:
“Written sources that refer to the practice in Ireland reappear from the sixteenth century on. It should be noted however that the principle of improvised vocal lament is in no way reserved to Ireland (the term keen is also used with reference to Scottish tradition) and that laments are documented from various cultures around the world.

The Irish tradition of keening over the body at the burial is distinct from the wake – the practice of watching over the corpse – which took place the night before the burial. The “keen” itself is thought to have been constituted of stock poetic elements (the listing of the genealogy of the deceased, praise for the deceased, emphasis on the woeful condition of those left behind etc.) set to vocal lament. While generally carried out by one or several women, a chorus may have been intoned by all present. Physical movements involving rocking, kneeling or clapping accompanied the keening woman (”bean caoinadh”) who was often paid for her services.

After consistent opposition from the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland (Synods opposed the practice in 1631, 1748 and 1800) that went so far as to recommend excommunication for offenders, the practice became extinct; the Church’s position is however unlikely to have been the sole cause. Although some recordings have been made and the practice has been documented up to recent times, it is generally considered to be extinct.”

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-26 08:08:45

Wow, Ed,

Keening has more meanings than I knew! Thanks for checking that out.

I was speaking of the rocking, vocal lament.

The fact that it became institutionalized at one point, I think, is secondary to its natural existence as a reaction to a devastating event.

If I’m not explaining myself well, write back and I’ll try to do better.

2009-07-26 11:48:37

Bless you for the work you’re doing, Irene.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-26 13:08:33

Bless you for wearing that hot red bathing suit at the LA off the blog show! I hear you kicked ass!

In response to you I would reiterate that I am blessed by being with the children.

Comment by Ursula |Edit This
2009-07-26 13:14:12

Your story is wonderfully told. Your visits must bring some normalcy to these children that maybe do not even comprehend fully what is happening to them. The way you describe the woman rocking and lamenting, not being able to accept the inevitable, the image will stay with me for a while. Hopefully some of the children will do well.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-27 02:18:39

Thanks, Ursula,

Whatever you do, don’t read Gina’s comment. You’ll end up with two stories glued forever in your brain.

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-07-26 18:22:52

And to think that I’ve been mildly depressed all day–and for what? I didn’t and don’t know the reason.

Anyway, I feel properly put in my place.

Bless you, Irene.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-27 02:15:50

Hey, Duke,

Honestly, I feel as though I should be a nun, the way everyone is treating me.
I don’t do anything special. I just play with kids because I’m lonely and it makes me happy.

You’re right, it is a good lesson in perspective, eh?

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-07-27 02:39:23

That was my point.

Comment by Amy |Edit This
2009-08-05 08:51:06

You mentioned something about an incident at the hospital to me the other day, but you didn’t want to talk about it. Now I know why. One thing I know is to try to be compassionate to other people. We never know where there road has taken them.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-08-07 11:39:00

Amy,
Sometimes I find it difficult to verbalize things and yet I can somehow write it out.
Can’t say as I know what makes that true for me.
I also think your attitude is correct.
You just never know.

Comment by JEANNETTE |Edit This
2009-08-07 04:31:45

Irene I didn’t realize you volunteered at the hospital. what a difference in the lives of those kids you are making. God bless you for what you are doing!! I feel so sorry for that woman. It makes you rethink the little things we complain about.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-08-07 11:43:57

Jeannette,

Grief is a horrible thing to witness.
Horrible.

I went to a spa for the first time the other day.

Booked myself a massage and a facial at Burke Williams. It’s very fancy, and when I checked in I was immediately escorted to the ladies’ locker room, where there were Jacuzzi baths and showers and a sauna and a steam room and dozens of beauty products and expensive blow dryers and fuzzy bathrobes and towels, all of which were available to me.

I’d been told when I made the reservations that I should come at noon, as this was when the spa opened, and I was free to spend the entire day there, soaking in various baths with other naked women.

My spa escort brought a number of rooms to my attention during the tour.

“This is the Silent Ladies’ Room,” she said. “You can come here and be quiet.”

Inside, there was a woman being quiet.

“This is the lounge,” she said. “You can sit here quietly.”

Then she brought me to my locker and told me to get naked and please remember to wear my special spa slippers. “They’re in your locker, along with your bathrobe.”

I put on my bathrobe. It was very large, too large. I put on my spa slippers, which fit perfectly. I found this strange, because I am an average sized female, but my feet are smaller than average.

I had an hour before my massage appointment, so I walked to the steam room. On the door was a large sign that said: “Do not use the steam room if you are wearing contacts.”

I was wearing contacts.

So I went to the sauna. Same sign on that door.

I noticed a bowl with bananas and apples. I hadn’t been told anything about the bananas.

Could I have a banana?

I looked around me.

No one.

I quickly took a banana. I hid in one of the showers while I ate it, just in case.

It was still only 12:20. My appointment wasn’t until 1:00. I walked around. Where were the other naked ladies?

I went to the Silent Ladies’ Room.

I sat quietly for a moment.

I went to the lounge.

There were more bananas in the lounge.

I stared at the bananas for a moment, then grabbed one, unpeeled it, and ate it. Right there in the lounge. An employee walked by as I ate the banana. I got nervous and stuffed a giant piece into my mouth, just in case she was planning to take it away from me.

She didn’t take the banana away from me, though, so I became bold and took another one and ate that right there in the lounge, too.

There was nothing to look at in the lounge. There was a fireplace, but I’d hardly call that entertainment.

Another lady in a bathrobe and special spa slippers entered the lounge. I got nervous in her presence, so I got up and went back to my locker to get my cell phone. Maybe I had some good emails.

No service.

I ate another locker room banana.

I went back to the lounge, and sat down. My masseuse walked in and asked if I was “Leonora.”

“Yes,” I said. Because there’s really no point in correcting her.

She put her hand on my back and kept it there as she guided me to the massage room and spoke to me in a thick accent. This made me feel as though I was in trouble.

In the room, my masseuse told me to get naked.

Everyone wanted me to get naked.

She left, I got naked, she came back in.

“No no, darling. You need to be on your stomach,” she said.

I predicted she might want me on my stomach, but it seemed rude to have her enter the room with me not even facing her with a nice smile.

“Oh my goodness! So many tattoos on your body!” she said.

“Heh heh, yes,” I said.

“You have large bruises here,” she said, poking my right butt cheek.

A few nights before I let a stranger in striped pants and a feathered hat spank me with the riding crop at the after party for the TNB reading series, and he wasn’t very gentle.

“Oh, ha, yes, that’s because of this person, I don’t know his name, and this event…it’s really not a big deal,” I said.

Then massive amounts of oil were poured all over me.

As she rubbed me down, the masseuse verbally pointed out all of my bruises and scars.

“What happens here? You have bruise here, also,” she said, holding my arm.

“I think I fell,” I answered.

“You have scar here,” she said, tapping my chin.

“Yes, yes, I drove a scooter into a parked car,” I said.

“You have bruises, many bruises here,” she said, holding my leg in the air.

“Right, I’m fairly certain I was sleepwalking,” I said.

“Also many scars on toes,” she said.

“Scooter accident again,” I said.

This went on and on for the entire massage.

Then it was over. She told me to drink plenty of water and guided me back to the ladies’ locker room with her hand on my back, telling me about how I should really use the steam room.

I had an hour before my facial.

I stood in the ladies’ locker room. Now there were more naked ladies in there with me.

My contacts were still in, so I still didn’t use the steam room.

I ate another banana.

I accidentally looked at a woman’s bush for too long, and she caught me. I pretended I was looking at something behind her. Hmm, that’s interesting, what’s that? A used towel? Interesting.

I got into the Jacuzzi with two other naked women.

No one was speaking, even though we were not in the Silent Ladies’ Room or the lounge, where we were free to sit quietly.

It made me uncomfortable, to not speak to my naked Jacuzzi partners, so I got out, put my robe back on, and ate another banana.

Then I went and sat in the lounge quietly. I pretended to be very relaxed.

The lady doing my facial came to retrieve me.

She also placed her hand on my back as we walked to the room.

We got to the room, and even though I was there for a facial, I was told to get naked again.

The lady smeared many delicious smelling things on my face and then, for some reason, massaged my feet, which are not a part of my face at all.

As she was removing the face mask she’d applied to my skin, she tapped my chin.

“You have a scar here,” she said.

Then I was brought back to the ladies’ locker room with her hand on my back.

I took a long shower, and then dried off while trying not to stare at an old woman’s naked body.

I put two bananas and an apple in my purse, and then left the locker room.

Many people put their hands on my back as I was walking out, all of them asking how my stay had been.

“Oh, very relaxing, just wonderful,” I said. “Your bananas are very nice.”

Parking was twenty-one dollars.

You must always consider the following—

Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

It’s your duty, friends and brethren, to contort even the measliest of facts. Don’t tell the truth—conceal it. But, absolutely, amp it up if you can. And for crissakes make us laugh or make us cry. That’s not asking too much.

I figured I’d give it a whack. I took to it seriously. Too seriously? Perhaps. But history is serious business. And when I look at the photograph my heart flutters. It is, hands down, my favorite photograph ever. It’s also a somewhat uninteresting photo. Just two boys standing in a front yard in 1985. Arriving at this conclusion, my heart settles into a deep state of languor. Galaxies of dust awakened from adulthood inertia swirl about looking to settle again.

The photograph arouses memories: watching Telemundo and chomping on warm tortillas…Mr. Lechner’s stinky pigeon coop…the burned-out shack filled with saucy Polaroids and unopened packs of Garbage Pail Kids cards…games of Butts-Up against the church wall…Atari at the alcoholic’s house…the phantom Klansman that stood before my bed every night for weeks, robbing me of sleep…the failed repossession of my General Lee Big Wheel from the Mexicans on Helgessen Street that ended violently.

All of these memories are barely stories, hardly tellable. They’re sentimental soundbites, if anything.

Backstory can be interesting: I spent my youngest years in a small two-bedroom house in an unincorporated neighborhood on the outskirts of Palatine, a suburb nested on the northwestern edge of Chicagoland. Our house stood amongst homes of varying design and color, of all shapes and sizes, and no two alike; individuality by design was paramount in this neighborhood.

No two families were exactly alike, either. I can recall truckers and stock brokers, illegal immigrants and Vietnam vets, all living on the same stretch of asphalt.

My neighborhood sat kiddie-corner to a sprawling forest preserve. Forest preserves are the only access most suburbans have to wilderness. But, by and large, most stick to the bike trails that encircle the preserve, well-distanced from the sticks, casting the woodland an ambient backdrop.

But I grew up on Woodland Road, and Woodland Road was in the sticks. It did not suggest any of the tidy vinyl-streaked uniformity that one expects of a suburb proper.

This photograph was taken by my mother. It shows me and my childhood best friend caught doing whatever boys did in 1985. We’re both blond, ruddy-faced, and grubby, distinguishable only by height (I’m the shorter one). That kid and I did everything together. Where I ended and he began was simply a matter of physics.

We’re standing beside an odd V-shaped tree, a sort of Siamese pine. The lawn is plush and overrun, in desperate need of mowing. But no one nagged you about it. The driveway running alongside us looks like an accident, spilled gravel, and there’s construction debris piled up at the foot of it. Behind my best friend and me looms a towering wall of leafy green. This looks nothing like suburbia. This looks like Louisiana.

Of course, now everything’s changed. That great wood land across from my first house has since been leveled and supplanted with a bunch of ugly vinyl castles. Last I visited, baby trees had been planted on the front yards of these new homes, ensuring a partially shady future for what was once my unincorporated Eden. Even my house had been leveled.

The first story I ever knew:

I was riding the bus home from school one day. The bus turned onto Woodland Road and lumbered past my house, as usual. As the bus passed my house, heading toward my bus stop, the back end took a hop, propelling every kid into midair. We’d run over something. One of the sixth graders sitting in the back seat, nearest the emergency exit, pressed his sweaty finger to the window and called my name. Everyone looked out the back window and let out a collective gasp.

Patsy. My puppy. She was dead.

She lay in the road curled in a ball. It looked like she was asleep on the warm asphalt.

And that bitch of a bus driver had done it.

We had just gotten Patsy. The bus driver pulled up to the intersection of Helgessen Street and Woodland Road and let me off. I didn’t drop my bag and run screaming like kids do on TV. I didn’t abandon my backpack and sprint up to Patsy and drop to my knees, tiny fists clenched, and scream, “Why, God, why!” Instead, I ambled down Woodland Road toward my house, humiliated. Patsy wasn’t dying. She was dead.

The sun burned high and hard. My mother placed Patsy in a cardboard box and weaved the flaps shut and set the box beside our driveway.

It was a long afternoon. Neighborhood kids came by, one by one, ordered by parents to express condolences—but really to see a dead dog. I undid the flaps and opened the box and showed them Patsy, balled up tight, her eyes clamped shut, white teeth locked in one final gnarl, flies banking in on her. Early bird gets the worm.

Then we lamented. My neighborhood comrades told me they couldn’t believe what the bus driver did to Patsy. We turned our bus driver into a wicked succubus. Medusa. The Wicked Witch of the Northwest ‘Burbs.

I played the good guy for a while.

The Tragic Tale of Patsy Versus the School Bus. My first story. My only complete memory of Woodland Road.

If I wasn’t on that school bus there would be no story.

And the photograph, that’s life before story. An artifact of innocence, a snapshot of two dumb little kids getting dirty, exploring the woods, at war. Woodland Road is and never will be a street of dreams. It’s just a strip of asphalt that’s still there, even though my house, my friend, those woods, and my dog are not.

Childhood is but a dream.


“Collarbone” is not a word one expects a two-year-old to whisper in one’s ear in an underground, candlelit cavern. I blame myself. For not asking questions about what was down there. For exposing her to death at such an early age. For taking her down into the catacombs in the first place.

We are in Stefansdom in Vienna, the massive Romanesque and Gothic cathedral at the city’s drizzle-damp center.

Through the yawning arch, the carved columns support a soaring nave leading down to a massive baroque high altar, beside which hangs the Christ child with a three stemmed rose. The scene is framed and set aglow by candles burning to long dead saints, lit by the genuflecting living in the cold, damp air of sacred space.

Oh, but underneath.

Our tour guide rushes in exactly on time sporting a suit too small for him in the shoulders and the careless sandy blond hair of an academic. He has a strong Viennese accent – an outrageous accent hovering somewhere between an Inspector Poirot and a Jar-Jar Binks. He takes our money and leads our group of about 20 down into the bowels of the cathedral.

This is the point where some sort of mothering instinct should have kicked in – the kind where my brain sends the message, “Catacombs are where dead people reside. Huhn. Perhaps this is not child-appropriate.”

But, the truth is I was fascinated. I love dead people. I mean, not in the way that I would like to find one of their kind cuddled under my sheets, but I will admit to a moderate fascination with the other side. Not enough to turn me into a kohl-lined, Rob Zombie worshipping member of tribe ‘Emo’, but, you know, enough to take an occasional peek into the cadaver lab at university and to enjoy the movie “Blade.”

It starts light. We see tombs. Sarcophagi. It is a burial place for royalty and church leaders — the usual stuff one sees under such places. And then, he takes us into the chamber.

The word “collarbone” cuts through the chill of the room and I turn to see what my innocent little cherub is looking at. Behind bars, I see them: the remains of two souls long since passed. They are draped in cloth, which I can only guess must have qualified as garments at some point, but which now do little to hide their skeletal remains.

We move on from there.  Through the earthen tunnels of the lantern lit catacombs, we peek into the various rooms.

Everywhere, there are bones.

We are told that the remains of more than 11,000 people surround us – mostly bubonic plague victims from the 1700s. When the nearby graveyards were filled, the bodies were carted to the cathedral, where they were tossed akimbo into a mass grave deep underground — under the incense and the candles and the Christ child holding the three stemmed rose.

At some point, some of the monks who lived and worked at the church took it upon themselves to give the bodies a more respectable resting place. By then, the flesh was gone and the joints long since severed, so the monks set to work organizing the bones in a most logical way: femurs with femurs, clavicles with clavicles, skulls with skulls.

From a practical standpoint, this only makes sense. Certainly I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for the incorrect reconfiguration of nearly 11,000 pissed off souls.

Through the frigid catacombs we walk, peering into room after room stacked neatly with bones. We hug our own thinly veiled bones for warmth as we approach the pit where the monks had left off their task. Imagine a silo filled with bones. It has been capped off and has peepholes at the top for easy viewing. One by one, we approach it. Grimly, we stare into the dry soup.

I am torn between protecting my daughter from these sights and exposing her to the truth early on.  Handing her off to my husband — and thus my personal responsibility for her well-being — I fall behind the group. I want a picture, but pictures are not allowed.

And still…I want a picture.

I wait for the guide to disappear down the hall. I can see my breath in the lantern light. I am alone. Alone with dem dry bones. I point my camera into a small room, covered with iron bars. It’s dark in the room, and I have no idea what I’m even photographing.

A chill. A rush. Immediately, I am regretting my photo and am racing toward my husband and daughter at the back of the group.

Back out in open air, we huddle by a wall to review the picture I had stolen from underneath on my digital camera. The clatter of horse hooves echoes off the stone street as I find it. There, in the gray, is a dimly lit clutter of bones. These were not among the organized. The respected. These bones were not at peace.

A shudder took me over just as I threw my head back and laughed.

At the time, I could not have told you why I did this. There was something so deliciously terrifying about it all. In retrospect, I think this must be ingrained somewhere deep within – that perhaps these bones are at the center of the writer’s psyche. When we write, sometimes we return the bones to flesh. Sometimes we do the reverse, stripping as we go. Ultimately, we refuse to acknowledge they can be separated at all: the bones from the flesh; the cathedral and the catacombs; the sacred and the profane.

As writers, we peek into the pits, we excavate, we catalogue, we get to the core of our humanity…and if we do it right, we scare ourselves to death.

And we love every minute of it.

As for my daughter, well…if she doesn’t become a writer, there’s always therapy.