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i.

This is not an instance of communication breakdown but an example of wounded pride. I am the type of vengeful, petty wraith who is at her most compelling when she’s scorned, a shiny new convert to the scorched earth policy. You think that the act of writing is an easy, thoughtless pastime, a hobby that does not require the fried mechanics of an exhausted, Möbius strip imagination and fraying patience. You think that the act of writing is an exercise in the ego’s masturbatory need for proof of life, the unquenchable hunger for outside validation. You think that the act of writing is a symptom of a space-bound dreamer, that the process of reading and comprehending literature in order to form a cultural dialogue is as fruitless as shouting in an empty, padded room.

You fail to realize that I am writing for my life.

Listen. Happiness? It just looks different on people like me.

                                            —Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

 

 

In Ithaca, New York, Tibetan prayer flags hang from the eaves of rambling Victorian houses, and quaint little carriage houses, and dilapidated A-frame houses with Pabst beer cans lining porch railings. Their lilting red, blue, orange, white, and yellow squares make no sound in the breeze, so thin and soft is the translucent fabric. On Aurora Street, in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies sits nestled in a nondescript turn-of-the century house painted a deep burgundy with gold trim. The prayer flags alight the house like year-round Christmas decorations. Down the narrow alleyway running just behind the monastery, Cascadilla creek burbles over shalestone, plastic bottles, discarded road signs, and outposts of tall, thick grass that curve like spider plants.

As a boy I was something of a wanderer. Our family home, broken and then repaired into a chimera of middle-class normalcy, existed in a state of perpetually coiling tension wound ever tighter by dysfunction and abuse. To escape it I often fled outright in long excursions around the neighborhood; at first on foot, and later through the greater range afforded by a bicycle. When I was about nine years old we moved into a house directly abutting a dry stretch of the San Diego River. I spent hours walking the arroyo with a wooden sword in hand and the family dog at my side, looking for ogres to slay.

Tear gas, for the uninitiated, really does make you cry.

And not in the gradual fashion of an organic cry, with the palpable build-up of liquid emotion that your body ultimately can’t contain and spills out onto your cheeks, your shirt, your lover’s shoulder.

The following are descriptions of six books I read as a kid that still haunt my brain to this day, as interpreted by my child-aged self.


1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein


Summary: Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy. She gave him leaves to play with, and he climbed her and swung from her branches. He loved her and hugged her a lot.

And then he grew up and forgot about her until he needed something. He took her apples to sell, like a teenager stealing drug money from a purse, and then blew her off again for a few years.

He came back only to cut off her branches and build a house with her severed limbs. This made her happy, even though cutting off all the branches on a tree would nullify its ability to photosynthesize, killing it slowly. But the fact that she’d helped the boy build a house made the tree happy, because she was a kind and selfless tree. And yet he ignored her again for a long, long time.

The boy didn’t come back until he was an old man, and when the tree asked him to play, he said, no sorry, I’m too old and all I want is to get the hell away from you again, you stupid nice tree. So the masochistic tree told him to cut her down and make a boat with which to sail far, far away from her, because apparently giving chunks of herself to this greedy, selfish man would never be enough to make him love her. And the sonofabitch did it. He said, “Thanks for your body parts!” and sailed off into the sunset. But still, the tree was just happy to have helped.

The heartless bastard came back years later to see how else he might destroy the sweetest tree on the planet, which was now only an ugly stump. The codependent tree stump was so happy to see him that she actually asked him if she could do anything else for him. He told her he was too old and tired to torture her in new and exciting ways, so he sat on what was left of her.


The moral: Sometimes no matter how nice you are to people, you’re still going to end up with an ass on your face.

Hidden message: Mom was right. If you give your body to a man, he will leave you.

Bonus trauma: The photograph of Shel Silverstein on the back of the book.


***


2. Bunnicula by James Howe


Summary: This family finds a cute baby bunny in a theater during a Dracula movie and brings it home, where a dog and cat with the miraculous ability to read reside. The dog and cat soon realize the bunny can magically escape his cage at night to suck the juice out of household vegetables, turning them ghostly white. Despite naming the rabbit Bunnicula, the family is too dumb to realize what is going on, blaming the obviously bitten and drained vegetables on some sort of plant fungus.

The cat researches a book about vampires, becomes super paranoid, and tries to kill the baby bunny by trapping it in its cage via vampire-repelling garlic fencing. We watch the rabbit suffer as it slowly starves, until the dog finally gets all aggro with the cat and saves the poor dying bunny. The dimwitted humans never figure it out.


The moral: Sometimes your adorable pets will try to kill each other while you sleep.

Hidden message: Animals are smarter than people.

Bonus trauma: Sketches throughout the book of a bunny with fangs and a malevolent gleam in its eyes.


***


3. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson


Summary: An unpopular boy makes friends with an odd new girl at school. They hang out together in the forest and use their imaginations to create a world in which they aren’t losers. One day, the boy chooses to hang out with a teacher he has a crush on instead of hanging out with the girl in the woods. The girl goes into the woods alone, falls, hits her head on a rock and drowns in the stream. The boy must live with the guilt for the rest of his life.


The moral: Hey, kids. Guess what? Your friends can die.

Hidden message: Hey, kids. Guess what? That means you can die, too.

Bonus trauma: Awareness of your own mortality.


***


4. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck


Summary: Just in case your parents haven’t yet had the birds and bees talk with you, this book starts off with a cow alone in the woods, failing miserably at giving birth. A wandering boy helps the cow release the calf that is stuck in her vagina like some sort of slimy and bleating mammalian cork by fashioning a crude pulley out of his pants, using a tree as a fulcrum.

The cow rewards him for helping her live by nearly killing him. Her owner then rewards the boy for not suing by giving him a baby pig. He calls the pig Pinky, and she becomes a beloved pet, much like a family dog.

I should probably mention at this point that the boy’s father slaughters pigs for a living. I think you know where this is going now.

They discover that the pig is barren, and therefore worthless. In one of the most horrifying coming-of-age moments ever captured in print, the boy is then forced to help his father murder Pinky. Descriptions of skull-crunching noises and snow-turned-to-red-slush abound. This book holds the distinguished honor of: First Book to Ever Make Me Sob Uncontrollably.


The moral: Living on a farm will make you so lonely that sleeping in a shed with a pig will sound appealing.

Bonus trauma: Highly disturbing pig-on-pig rape scene involving lard.

Quote I still love and should apply to myself more often: “‘Never miss a chance,’ Papa had once said, ‘to keep your mouth shut.'”


***


5. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls


Summary: A young boy saves all the money he makes trapping animals for years to buy two hunting dogs. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann, and the three of them become an inseparable raccoon hunting trio.

Old Dan eventually goes up against a mountain lion and is mortally wounded. Little Ann dies of starvation and a broken heart after dragging her weak dog body to the grave of Old Dan, where the boy finds her stiffened corpse.

He buries her next to Old Dan, and a red fern grows up between their graves. For some reason this ghoulish plant makes the family less sad about the painful deaths of their dogs.


The moral: Your pets will die before you do, leaving you heartbroken and bereft.

Bonus trauma: Learning that there have always been bullies, even back in the peaceful olden days when people had dirt floors and pooped outside.


***


6. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson


Summary: There is a family of Texas settlers. The dad leaves the farmstead for a few months to travel to Kansas for a cattle drive. His son, a teenager, must temporarily become the man of the house.

A yellow dog comes along and adopts the family. After it saves the younger brother from a bear, they all love it. After it saves the entire family from a hydrophobic wolf, the boy immediately shoots the dog in the head because it may have possibly caught hydrophobia from the wolf bites. (It is never mentioned that hydrohobia is old-timey speak for rabies, because creatures with rabies refuse/avoid water. This knowledge might have helped young reader me understand why everyone was killing and burning animals willy-nilly.)

The book jacket explains it all in one sentence: “Travis learns just how much he has come to love that big ugly dog, and he learns something about the pain of life, too.”

Because life is pain, children. Life is pain.

Got it?

Now who wants cookies?


The moral: In order to become a man, you must violently kill something you love.

Bonus trauma: Dogs always die. Seriously. They’re just going to die, kid, no matter what. Why would you get a dog, ever?


***


Following is an excerpt from “Cooking for Gracie,” a memoir with more than 40 recipes that recounts a year in the life of a new parent learning to cook for three.


Just weeks into the experience of parenthood, I seem to experience a fresh epiphany about every other day—moments of clarity, addicts call them, in which the camera lens of life is screwed sharply into focus, and the afflicted suddenly realizes what path he must take.

I’m having a moment of clarity now, alone here in my kitchen at night, where I’m spooning and spooning cold cereal. This is dinner, these days: standing at the kitchen window with a bowl of breakfast. I’m nettled by problems with sleep, and with timing, and with other things. The hour is late enough that even the pointillist panorama of New York, a city I’ve called home for fifteen years, seems almost subdued; York Avenue, five stories below, is nearly deserted, and taxis streak by only occasionally. Summer is barely hanging on, having exhausted itself with hot September. The scene appears tranquil to the naked eye, but it’s really not—if this kitchen were the galley of a Boeing jet, the Fasten Seatbelts sign would be blinking right now, directing all passengers to buckle up and prepare for terrible turbulence. I’ve ruined dinner, blackened it to the pan—the haze hanging below the ceiling is the proof. My wife, Jessica, and I were going to eat six pristine lamb chops an hour ago, but as we sat down at the table our weeks-old daughter, Grace, gave a cry of hunger from her room—and I looked up with the troubled expression of a picnicker who hears distant thunder.

Just weeks in, and I’m already a worried dad. The big questions seek me out after midnight, and apprehend me at the moment of sleep—there in the night, that grand unifier of parental anxiety. Every night I face down the stark information of Gracie’s low birth weight— these are delicate subjects, these subjects of Gracie, birth weight, and nourishment, and when our daughter delivers a cry of hunger we answer it. So an hour ago we abandoned dinner, and just now I blackened the chops trying to reheat them. I’d thought this would be a simple process of applying the flame, the necessary heat, but things moved much faster than I expected and quickly evolved into a Larry, Moe and Curley scene of the highest order. As I heaved the window open, fanning the smoke out into the night, I wondered if it was possible to be mad at a kitchen implement. But no, it’s hunger itself that I’m mad at—I was hungry for those chops, and now I’m having a bowl of breakfast instead. There was a time when I thought of hunger as a useful, instructive thing—not just physical hunger, but hunger for things like success, or romantic love. The idea was that the wanting could teach things about yourself, about your various prowling appetites, and perhaps I was right in that, because tonight’s hunger has propelled me into a moment of clarity, with all of its dreadful data about my situation.

Here is what I’m coming to understand: What is broken in the kitchen is broken elsewhere—the problem would appear to be that life no longer moves according to my schedule. If you’re a writer or a cook, timing is crucial; if you happen to be both, as I am, you’re finished without it. I used to have it, this timing, in the kitchen and on the page, but now it’s gone. I’m a beat behind in everything I do—I go around half the time feeling like an actor who belongs in a drama, and finds himself, instead, in a comedy, where the jokes are all at his expense.

 

********

 

I’ve felt this way for weeks—since September 9, 2007, when I surfaced from a deep sleep around 4 a.m. and found Jessica standing over me in the pale bedside light. Marriage has taught me a few things, among them that you should be worried when your pregnant wife wakes you at 4 a.m. by standing over you with the lights already on.

My confusion resolved itself quickly enough when Jessica told me in no uncertain terms that she hadn’t slept one minute all night, and added that she was pretty sure our baby was on the way, showing me startling evidence to the same. (I’ll not describe it here, but rather note that the condition “bloody show” is very well named indeed, and as bracing as two strong cups of coffee to see. Google it.) I slapped around on the floor for about ten minutes, searching for my clothes, and we phoned the obstetrician. The baby, if she came today, would be five weeks early. At our latest sonogram we were told that the baby’s weight was just north of four pounds. In most cases an obstetrician encourages a couple to remain at home until the woman is through early labor, but the fact that we were five weeks early, combined with other unusual conditions of the pregnancy, was enough to cause him to tell us to come on in, and right away. There were no cars out so early—we hunted down a cab, and the driver seemed to understand everything with a glance. He thundered through intersection and along crosscut, around hairpin and down avenue. Jessica was in that trancelike state women achieve when the biological imperative asserts itself; that is, she was an arresting example of female can-do. If there’d been any time to stop and think I suppose I would have panicked, but I was fully occupied by the events unfolding around me and, anyway, I was still shaking off the anesthetic effects of the martini I’d had at dinner the night before. We swept past the sleepy hospital admitting desk and were fired skyward by the express elevator to the birthing floor, where an IV was inserted into the back of Jessica’s hand. At this point Jessica’s blood pressure swirled upward like a cartoon barber’s pole, and I heard a staffer in attendance use the word preeclampsia. A monitor strapped over Jessica’s navel began delivering data to a printer beside the bed—a measure of the contractions she was experiencing. This immediately began drawing rolling ocean swells, and for a moment the illusion was complete: I imagined that this was indeed an ocean liner, and here were the heavy seas. But then the IV began to do its work, Jessica’s blood pressure eased, and the printout swells subsided into barely-noticeable upticks.

That’s it? I asked, and the attending doctor repeated my question in the declarative.

During the cab ride home I was electric with the cherry high of someone who has been granted a reprieve—every other block I felt the urge to seize the cabbie by the shoulder and say, “That was a close one, wasn’t it?” Now I had time to prepare for this thing I hadn’t been prepared for. I helped Jessica into bed, seared a grilled cheese sandwich for her and watched her eat, then pulled the covers over her head and drew the curtains. After offering a heartfelt plea that she rest, and rest well, I stepped into the shower. What a still moment that was, standing blameless beneath the roaring benediction of the showerhead, nodding to myself, arms crossed, eyes closed, breathing deeply through my nose and reflecting on the near-miss of a five-week ­premature birth. Close, Keith, I said, so close, too close, and then hollering Jessica ran into the bathroom and leaped, fully dressed and exultant, into the shower with me. Her water had broken. The warning shot had revealed itself to be the report of a starting gun.

We stood in silence for a moment—facing each other, hands clasped, like a couple about to recite a marriage vow. Even the most vivid memories tend to fade with time, but decades from now, when Death appears in my doorway and beckons with a bent finger, this is the image that will burn brightly in my mind’s eye—Jessica standing fully dressed in the shower, clothes dripping, wet hair plastered to her face and neck, and the waters that had protected Gracie for the first thirty-five weeks of her life now swirling around my bare ankles.

Here comes the future, at one hundred and forty heartbeats per minute.

 

********

 

I have a funny relationship with pain. The experts tell us that pain is trying to tell us something, that it is delivering a distress signal from a body part that is being misused, and that we ought to listen to that signal. For that very reason I don’t mind small amounts of pain—I’m strongly resistant to taking aspirin, cough medicine, allergy medicine, and other such palliatives for headaches, scrapes, burns, cuts, etc. & etc.—but I just can’t stomach the bad stuff. When it comes to the big-ticket items—knee operations, cavity fillings, room-spinning migraines—I immediately cave, jettison all principles, and request as much painkiller as possible, and the sooner, and stronger, the better. Were I faced with the prospect of eight or more hours of labor, I would surely arrive at the hospital pre-tranquilized, all but holding out my arm and slapping the vein to show the doctor where she should thread the needle. Jessica, on the other hand, has always been a believer in using aspirin and other painkillers to ease the discomfort of everyday headaches, sore muscles, cramps, etc.—which suggests that she believes in using modern medicine to ease pain. I was surprised, then, to learn that she planned to scale what is considered by many to be the Mount Everest of pain: to push a baby out with a drug-free birth. Upon hearing this news, my first thought, selfishly, was to fear that in this extreme circumstance I would be placed in a position that any husband deeply dreads: that of feeling essentially useless.1 There were a number of logical fallacies we employed to mitigate my (and Jessica’s) fear about meeting this challenge. “It’s temporary,” she would say, referring to the pain, “it’s temporary,” and I would nod my head and say, “Yes, it’s temporary”—thinking, But, Jessica, this is a very long temporary, lasting hours (or even, God help us, days) instead of moments. Nevertheless, we stuck with this line of logic, to great success. “It’s temporary,” she would say, and I’d nod my head and repeat the phrase back.

We would discuss this matter of painkillers nightly, sometimes more than once a night, and we even took a weeks-long class on how to survive a drug-free delivery.2 Through the early stages of this, there remained an element of unreality about the whole thing, which helped tamp down the urgency of the discussion—many first pregnancies, after all, don’t begin to show until some time during the second trimester, which means that even as you’re having these hard discussions about things like painkillers, the whole enterprise at times seems almost theoretical, as if you were being rooked by a slew of doctors and baby-gear vendors trying to separate you and your wife from your last dollar. The doctors keep telling you that a baby is on the way, these men and women dressed in long white coats, all busily poking columns of blood test results, a tax­ audit’s worth of facts about height, weight, bone length and fetal age, and the occasional sonogram photograph—but for the first five months you study your wife’s belly region and see no obvious evidence that any of this is true.3 I remained silent through much of the drug-free delivery sessions, thinking, Well, it’s her call isn’t it? But I also remained silent because a significant part of me believed that this would all resolve itself when the first wave of contractions hit and Jessica, duly startled by the size of the pain, would raise her hand and call for an epidural, and perhaps even a martini on the side to hold her until the anesthesiologist had done her work. I had this opinion because this is the way I would have come at the birth4—so I was doubly ashamed by my self-assured outlook when Jessica devastated all parties involved by seeing her way through labor without so much as an aspirin to blunt the edge of the contractions, even though near the end of it the pain was so intense and went on for so long that it caused her eyes to roll up until the whites showed, and forced her to grip me so tightly about the waist for support that she threw out my back.

Seemingly all at once, with the fury of a tornado that had gathered for hours and then dropped out of clear blue sky, here was the moment of birth, and here was Gracie, born at four pounds—her skin alarmingly gray. Just seconds old, the obstetrician held my daughter aloft with a single hand, then carried her over to the heat lamp, where an attending staff-member rubbed her dry with a towel, her color rising now, the staff member suddenly sweeping past me, taking Gracie out of the room in a cart, things already moving faster, and Jessica didn’t bother to remove her oxygen mask when she lifted her head and said: “Go with her.” Then down the hall, through the double doors and into another wing, this one as harshly-lighted as an interrogation room, Plexiglas isolettes lining the walls, each occupied by a tiny baby, and I thought, Ha ha, very funny, joke’s over, the NICU is where Other People’s children go. Isn’t it?

But I was now Other People, the person whose misfortunes you talk about in hushed tones, and the joke was on me. The unreality of the moment was scored by a sort of electronic symphony, alarms sounded by individual heart-rate and blood-oxygen monitors. Gracie now had one around her foot. The alarms are false, a nurse said, grasping my elbow for effect, no need to worry, it just means the baby has shaken the cuff so that it’s not getting an accurate reading—but later that night another baby’s alarm went off, and this time a pair of nurses seemed to materialize out of thin air at either side of the isolette, one with her hand inside going about some sort of complicated business with a baby the size of her palm. When I got it, when I realized what was happening, it was like being dashed with a bucket of cold water: the baby’s heart had stopped or the rate had grown erratic. The nurse was giving it CPR. I watched the nurse bring the baby out of it, my heart in my throat even though it wasn’t my kid, and I reflected that if you’d asked me before Gracie had arrived what emotion I thought I would have experienced in such a situation, I probably would have guessed sadness. And I would have guessed wrong. This was something more like waking from a nightmare long after midnight and sensing, with the decisiveness of a hatchet stroke, that someone was in my room and was here to harm me. Except this predatory force wasn’t here for me—it was here for my baby, and I could do nothing to protect her.

Three days later I was introduced to a diagnosis known as Failure To Thrive. The parents of its victims may feel inclined to ask why the name must be so literal. Perhaps we should rename hypothermia Failure To Keep Warm. I learned about this condition when my Gracie Failed To Thrive, and seemed to waste away before our glazed eyes, her weight sinking below four pounds. First she became too exhausted to eat; and because she was taking in no nourishment she became even more exhausted, the situation rapidly deteriorating from there. During the midday feeding she was nearly unresponsive, asleep in her mother’s arms while all around us babies were crying out for food. I was paralyzed emotionally. It was like trying to feed a plastic doll, and I suppose we were as naive and deluded as children playing house that afternoon. The nurse assigned to us, who had hovered at a distance for a day, now moved in, as if cued by a director with very good timing, and with gratitude I felt control being taken away from us. We were told that Gracie would be fed with a feeding tube that night, and were sent home. The last stage of my grandmother’s life began when she was fitted with a feeding tube. I was helpless to avoid drawing parallels. I found myself thinking, You need to begin dealing with this now. You need to accept what may happen. If you don’t, this is going to send you all to pieces. You will not recover.

My mother: ‘It’ll be okay. Babies are tough.’ But I’m not. At home, seeking comfort, familiar rhythms, I made dinner with ingredients from the cabinet. It didn’t help. She’ll come out of it. You’ll see. Sometimes I’d feel all right, almost human for ten or even twenty seconds. And then I’d picture my three-day-old daughter limp in her mother’s arms, unresponsive, and all at once I’d feel as if the ground had vanished beneath me.

This is how I feel when I fly over water at night—out of control, beyond the help of a higher power, and reliant on nothing but faith I’ve whistled up out of nowhere.

 

********

 

I push the plate of lamb chops aside and set the bowl of cereal on the counter. I’m no longer hungry; not for food, anyway—it’s something else I want, something I’m having a hard time identifying. Gracie is hungry, and I’m hungry. She did come out of it, just like everyone said she would. Our daughter is home with us, gaining weight—but in many ways I’m still back there in the NICU, a spirit haunting the waiting room.

I snap off the overhead light, then wrap up the chops and open the refrigerator door— the fluorescent interior light bathes the kitchen surfaces in soothing lunar shades: ultramarine, cerulean, bondi blue. I’m tempted to remain here, where things are being shown, if only for a moment, in the kindest light. In a little while I’ll have to come up with something for Jessica to eat—I want her to eat well, which will help Gracie get the nourishment she needs.

A simple syllogism that keeps playing its logic in my head:

Major premise: I’m cooking for Jessica. Minor premise: Gracie gets all her nourishment from Jessica. Conclusion: When I cook for Jessica, I’m cooking for Gracie.

Eventually Gracie is fed, rocked, and gentled off to sleep, and Jessica joins me. We watch a movie that makes us laugh, but my attention is divided. I realize what it is I’m hungry for; it is a lack of reassurance that has left me famished. But reassurance is in short supply these day, and it will be left to me to supply my own. Caring for my daughter—cooking for her—helps me cope. And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that when I cook for Gracie, I’m caring for myself.

And I’m doing it poorly. In this situation you don’t make delicate lamb chops, not if you’re wise to the new timing—you make lamb shanks, or braised veal, or short ribs, or a chickpea stew. You make something that can cook away all night, if need be. I must adapt, or we’ll all do without.

Soon I’ll have to learn to cook all over again.

 

_________________________________________________


1 This turns out to be a position that fathers-to-be find themselves in regularly. Throughout the many weeks of the pregnancy the father is often, much to his dismay, reduced to following stage directions—and he finds himself, paradoxically, in a key role that has virtually no lines.

2 And here I didn’t exactly earn votes for the title World’s Greatest Husband. This class was important to Jessica and, precisely because it was so important to her, I should have attended cheerfully and without complaint and in fact made a point to tell her that I believed in her and was here to support her—but instead I grumbled about the quasi-new-age aspects of the class, the paltry snacks on offer for pregnant women who were skipping dinner, the hours-long commitment, etc. & etc. In a nicely symmetrical come-uppance, the class turned out to be of great benefit to me: we had planned to hire a doula to help us through the birth, and when Gracie arrived early, before we’d had a chance to locate a doula, it was exactly the practices I learned in this class that allowed me to help Jessica through the delivery.

3 Though I should qualify—although in the first few months I saw no evidence of the baby in my wife’s belly region, I did see dramatic evidence that her body was going through remarkable physiological changes, viz., that this author’s wife, at the late first-trimester period of pregnancy, suddenly blossomed into a striking Playboy-bunnyesque build, one sharply arresting in its perfect recollection of many of this author’s latent adolescent desires, but enough about that.

4 An outlook surely informed by the fact that I am the son of a doctor and a trained nurse, and have developed a engrained trust for modern medicine and its practitioners.

 

Spiral

By Lisa Cihlar

Poem

This is the day that pain made. A spiral shelled snail creeping over shattered glass shards from a mayonnaise jar, dropped by a boy child. It spilled ants and sand and twigs across the north-side algae green walkway which is always slippery and more so in the rain. This is the day that pain made. A spiral shell edging along the blacktop where winter salts, spread by the man, have yet to succumb to spring showers. This is the day that pain made. A spiral inching under emerging spilt milk hosta leaves where the woman sprinkled diatomaceous earth. This is the misty slime trail that pain left.


Childbirth is a topic I do not often address in a professional capacity as doing so violates my well-founded resolution against discussing my reproductive organs on the internet, yet now that I am pregnant with my second child, the topic is once again at hand. I underwent a natural, drug-free labor with my first child and now as I prepare once again to do this stupid, terrible thing, I feel it’s my duty to council other young mothers on the hidden benefits of natural birth. (Note that some women find the term “natural” offensive, arguing that all childbirth is “natural” whether accomplished through chemical means or eased by medical interventions, but let’s be clear – after 200,000 years of human development, childbirth is still hideous and unnatural for everyone, epidural or no.)

Midwives, bloggers, and documentary filmmakers are quick to tout the many benefits of unmedicated labor, from faster recovery times to psychotic oxytocin-induced highs. The facts and figures I will leave you to parse on your own, but personally there are no data about the risks of fetal monitoring that will cheer me up when I feel like every bone in my torso is being simultaneously broken from the inside out. Let alone promises of spiritual awakening or a feeling of elemental connectedness with all forms of life.

Why then subject yourself to needless suffering? I offer the four hidden benefits of unmedicated childbirth: Machismo, Spitefulness, Superiority, and Something to Do.

One woman of my acquaintance dismissively suggested that women who refuse to take proffered medical assistance are “just doing it to be macho.” Well, yes. Of course I did it to be macho. Obviously. The last time I got really drunk I challenged my husband (who outweighs me by nearly 100 pounds) to an arm wrestling contest – I am all about macho. And needless, meaningless suffering is the core of machismo. I also happen to have been born with a high pain tolerance and I don’t want to let it go to waste. Bragging about one’s pain tolerance may be immoderate, but it’s really more an inborn physical trait than a finely cultivated element of character. In reality, I’m a coward about every other thing in my life—I have never had the courage to tell off a bully, send back an order, or ask for a raise, but you want to pull out one of my teeth? Bring it.

Of course I didn’t do it entirely out of machismo. I also did it out of spite. In fact I had been somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing until person after person kept telling me I couldn’t do it, that I would crack after an hour and start begging anyone at hand for drugs. Those of you who embark upon the natural childbirth course will soon learn that drug-free labor is one of the few goals in our society that people have no compunctions at all about shooting down instantly and viciously. Conventional politeness would suggest that when someone confesses a personal goal to you, you refrain from immediately scoffing at them: “Medical school? Man, you don’t stand a chance in hell;” “Ask her out? Good luck, buddy.” But tell your best friend, your mother-in-law, or your gynecologist that you’re going to try to have a baby naturally and they’ll laugh right in your face.

Like Marty McFly, there is no better way to get me to do something than to suggest I can’t do it. It’s not mature, it’s not admirable, but spite animates me in a way that courage or compassion could never hope to do. Once my (former) obstetrician had told me that 95% of his patients who claimed they were going to go natural caved, I was hooked – I would have sat right there in the doctor’s office smiling as I tore off my fingernails one by one just to show that smug jerk who was a quitter.

Base machismo and petty spite are joined by the third hidden benefit of unmedicated childbirth, a lifetime of smug superiority. Giving birth naturally means I can now scoff at every other instance of pain in any other person for the rest of my life. My sister has a headache? My coworker has a tooth pulled? Please. My husband could get caught in a bear trap and I’d be there saying, “Pfft! Bear trap? You don’t know pain.”

Of course, I didn’t do this unprepared, and this is the fourth benefit of natural childbirth—it gives you something to do. In my case, that meant a Bradley-style birth class where on eight consecutive Monday evenings we gathered in the desolation-grey conference room of a hospital in downtown Los Angeles and learned how to rock, roll, crawl, and respire our way to calm in the face of crisis. The class was enjoyable largely for the opportunity it afforded me and my husband to make fun of the other couples on the way home, but for those who want to save the $300 allow me to share the secret of the class with you now, for free. The secret is, breathe deeply. No matter what the question, the answer is to breathe. And there is only ever one way to breathe. Deeply. Whether in childbirth or free diving, the answer is never, ever to breathe in shallow, convulsive, hysterical pants.

Even when not in class, I approached pregnancy and labor like I was training for a championship bout. There were stretches, drills, breathing exercises, special teas and tonics to drink. I did Pilates and spinning classes, went running, did squats. I doubt any of these things helped at all, but it gave me a way to combat the gestational blahs and kept me occupied during what is essentially one very long, very slow, very boring opening act. I liked to imagine myself doing all these things as a part of a movie training montage, and when, after months of metaphorically wrapping my knuckles and jumping rope, I walked into the Labor and Delivery room to deliver my first daughter, I had the hard glint in my eye of the down-on-his-luck prizefighter at the end of the last act.

And yes, I nailed it. But rather than rest on my laurels, I went right back out there like a champ and got pregnant again. Now the only question is how to top myself for this next birth. Just skipping the epidural no longer seems like enough. I need to find a way to have it hurt more, last longer – maybe something involving exploratory colon surgery or unnecessary tooth extractions. Whatever it is, though, I can promise you I will spend the rest of my life gloating over it. And that’ll show them.

Tell me the story of your pain and disappointment.

Every excruciating detail.

Tell it to me so slowly that it becomes something else in the telling.

Tell me in English, but feel free to throw in words from other languages from time to time so that you know I am paying attention when my eyes don’t cloud with misunderstanding.

Tell me how hurt you were when your mom said nothing.

Tell me how betrayed you felt when your best friend died, but kept on living and turned the rest of your friends against you.

Tell me everything. Now.

 

 

Tell me why you walk with that limp.

Tell me how you came about your hatred of people who cannot spell.

 

Describe hell from the inside out for me, again, slowly, slowly.

 

 

And if you won’t, tell me why you never tell me anything.

Tell me why I am a fool filled with guesses even though I know how much you get off on correcting me.

Tell me why I can’t fuck you.

Tell me why there are hardly any reasons left for anything.

Tell me why they say blood is blue even though it’s obviously red.

Tell me why people are like this.

Tell me why we are called people just like they are called people.

Tell me something that makes a difference.

And hey, listen, make sure it’s a really big difference.

Don’t fuck me on this.

 

 

Tell me there will be beaches in my future.

And ice cream.

Tell me everything I’ve ever forgotten.

Tell me my name.

Tell me my real name.

Say it slower.

Look at me harder.

Tell me I’m shit to God so it at least makes sense.

Tell me I’m going to be President.

Tell me I will be assassinated on my very first day in the White House so all that nervousness will have been for nothing.

Tell me a child could beat me up, but don’t beat me up.

Get me addicted to the idea of your approval.

Give it to me a few times. Then never again.

 

 

Tell me I want to fuck men but am too scared.

Dress me in a dress then beat me for wearing that dress.

Tell me I killed my brother in my sleep and that the police are just too dumb to piece what happened together.

Be the detective that does.

Tell me I am going to be 400 pounds by next week and that no-one will ever make eye contact with me again for the rest of my fat life.

Tell me karma is real and I will never get it and this is going to keep happening over and over and over and over again.

Tell me a lie more convincing than the truth.

 

 

Tell me my hair is made of licorice.

Tell me my eyes are really my balls.

Tell me I had a kid 20 years ago and that he is in the next room waiting to hug me and thank me for the life I gave him because he is getting married and is very, very happy.

Tell me I’ll never.

Tell me my teeth are not my teeth but the teeth of a third world child whose parents decided they wanted to eat that day.

Tell me my skin is titanium and that two years from now I will be given a brand-new heart. Then tell me you’re kidding and cut the sides of my mouth like the joker in the dark knight.

Hurt me until I feel nothing then continue to explore that nothing.

Break the rewind button on my old VCR.

 

 

Tell me I’m dead.

Tell me I’m dead and when I freak out, rub mint leaves on my temples and stroke my hair and then tell me you were just making a stupid joke, that I’m alive as summer in a douche commercial.

Tell me slowly then quickly, slowly then quickly, so I can laugh at the rhythm of your lips.

 

 

Make me a promise in the form of a statue.

Let birds shit on it.

Let frat boys pee on it.

Let it get hit by lightning and crack open and when that new, wet, disgusting mutation of me crawls out, fuck it, fuck him up too.

Let the biggest loser we know make fun of this.

Choke me just with your thumb and pinky to let the world see and know how weak I really am.

Giggle as I turn purple.

Remind me purple is for fags.

 

 

Tell me my father raping me was because I am sexy.

Tell me that that atrocity is now somehow good for my bowel movements.

Ah, make up a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo, for which I am particularly prone.

Explain my sins in terms of time, weather, and place.

Tell me I matter to more people than I really do.

Tell me that I’m Japanese and that the reason I don’t have slanted eyes is because I was abducted at birth and given surgery so that I could enjoy the benefits of living here as an Aryan.

Call me Gook and Charlie and make gun shooting gestures at me.

Tell me that the Holocaust was a blast but Hitler should have finished the job.

Tell me about the evil already in me.

Tell me twice.

 

 

Tell me I’m a farmer living in Idaho and that my potatoes ain’t shit.

Tell me you know I’ve hired illegal workers and that the police are on their way.

Tell me every joint I ever smoked was dusted but that I was too stupid to realize it.

Tell me my ear is a sewer.

 

 

Tell me I look like John Travolta.

No, tell me I look like that kid from Mask.

Or the Elephant Man.

Tell me every woman that’s ever kissed me did so on a dare.

Tell me I’ll never get it up again.

If I do, laugh.

If I don’t, laugh.

Laugh at me like an old slave owner.

Niggerize me.

 

 

Tell me I should have been a woman.

Tell me I am.

Tell me I’m going to have my period for the rest of my life, uninterrupted.

Tell me I smell like iron.

Tell me if I have a baby she will be a slut too.

Tell me if I were in China I would have never been allowed to be born.

 

 

Tell me I don’t even deserve to cry.

Tell me the evil in me is a balloon and blow and blow and blow into my holes until I pop and the world becomes a really shitty place.

Tell me my mother has been paying my friends to be my friends for forty years.

Tell me you spit in my soup, came in my milk.

Yell at me like Adam must have Eve after you-know-what.

Like a bad big brother, make me hit myself over and over again.

Tell me Barry is dead.

And Lynn, and Erin.

Smear their blood on my stupid face and tell me it’s all my fault, that if I never loved them it wouldn’t have ever come to this.

 

 

Tell me in the voice I most recognize.

Tell me with intimacy, tenderness; like you think it’s turning me on.

Tell me on a crowded moving train so I can’t even scream.

Laugh as I swallow that scream.

Then another.

Then another.

Let your laughter be the last thing I hear before I pass out.


Dear Carmelina,

When Raj asked if I wanted to join you two in a ménage à trios I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. The only problem was that I was tripping on three hits of Purple Haze so when I kissed your thick lips all I could think of was getting my dick between them. But we’d just started so when I moved my hips up to meet your mouth.

“Whoa, slow down, cowboy.”

In my hallucinating state, I felt totally rejected. Then you and Raj started fucking and by the time it was my turn, I was a million miles away. That’s why I couldn’t get it up.

 

Dear Amy,

That first time you did Reiki on me, well, there are really no words for how it felt. You lit sage and waved it around my limbs, head, and torso in preparation for our session. You told me to put myself in a totally safe place. Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before so I fell in love with you that night. That’s why when you talked about marriage and kids the next time we saw each other, I didn’t even freak out. But then you started putting pressure on me to make money which has never been my strong point. And when you realized I wouldn’t be changing any time soon, you ended it. You left me alone on the path of Reiki.

 

Dear Babysitter,

We played a game where you dared my friend Cinnamon to rub her ass against mine. I think technically this qualifies as molestation but I remember thinking I was incredibly lucky to be part of something so grown-up at the mere age of six.

 

Dear Lisa Sparxxx (famous pornstar),

You’ve come to represent everything I’ve ever wanted and can’t have. When I see your big breasts, thick hips and perfect ass, I don’t get horny anymore. I get sad. I mourn the fact that I’ll never touch you. I desperately wish I was a football player or rock star or whatever kind of man you realistically might want. And I hate myself for not being him.

 

Dear Cynthia,

I would have been anything for you. I meant it when I told you I’d help raise your kids and try to heal all the stuff you’d never talk about. Waking up that first morning after our first night together, you handing me a plate of French toast and fruit, I fell in love with you all over again. Then, later that same afternoon, you accused me of masturbating in your shower. I denied it because I’d done nothing of the sort, but you had already turned to stone. When I cried you asked me if I was mentally unbalanced. No Cynthia, I wasn’t, those are called feelings

 

Dear Fellow Traveler,

It was dangerous working illegally in Eliat. Those Arab guys pinched my ass and tried to get me to fight them until your friend stepped in and told them he would fuck them all. But when you said it was too bad Hitler hadn’t finished the job? That was really over the line. What you didn’t know was that I’m Jewish and that I kept my mouth shut because you and your crew were the only thing keeping me safe.

 

Dear George and Robert,

Thanks for trying to get me home on your skateboards that night. And for propping me up when that cop came. According to you, he asked if I had been drinking and I replied fuck you and fell backwards, unconscious before I even hit the pavement. That must have been pretty funny. When I woke up in the hospital the next morning, my arms scarred from pulling IVs out as nurses tried to put them in, one nurse told me she thought they shouldn’t have given me anything so that I’d feel the full brunt of the hangover I had coming to me. I remember not understanding why she was blaming me for a decision that had been made while I was unconscious.

 

Dear Uncle Bernie,

You’re dead now, but I was just wondering if you knew that I faked my Bar Mitvah. My dad had me memorize an index card of transliterations so when I “read” from the Torah, I wasn’t really reading at all. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I was saying.

 

Dear Keira,

I still can’t believe you licked my asshole that time. Nobody had ever done that and I’m pretty sure nobody ever will again, so I guess that’s a kind of bond we’ll always share.

 

Dear Joe (stepfather #1),

You drank vodka in the dark and kept to yourself for the most part but once, just once, you got up in my face and when I didn’t back down you called me crazy. And when I tried to kill myself you said I was just looking for attention as if that somehow discredited my pain. I get it though, I probably reminded you too much of yourself. You died of alcohol; your way just took longer.

 

Dear Dad,

I have one good memory of you. You and I were in the ocean and every time a wave came you hoisted me up safely over it. I’ve thought about what you were trying to tell me by that many, many times. To be above everything is the best answer I’ve found so far.

 

Dear Thugz,

I only made it about twenty steps out the door when you pulled out your guns and marched me back into the house. You took turns punching me in the face thinking that I was holding out but I was just poor. That dollar you took from my pocket was my last. When you tried to hustle me back outside, I realized it was to shoot me. I almost lost my mind in that second but decided I’d force your hand instead and end the nightmare. I screamed.

“NO FUCKING WAY!”

I closed my eyes, fully expecting to feel the bullet, but you ran away.

 

 

 

 

 

I have been condemned. It’s okay. This is what happens. It was a long time coming. Actually, I don’t know how I eluded it for as long as I did. Luck, I guess. But I always knew that someday there would be a reckoning. I always sensed the day would come when I would have to pay. There are consequences to the things we do. This is just the way it is. Without them, it’s not life, it’s not real. We must suffer for our mistakes. For our crimes. This is the way it must be.  

I know how it all came about as well. I knew then. I’m not that ignorant. You’re young, and your heart aches. It won’t stop. You don’t know why. It just does. A drag here, a sip there, looking for a tiny bit of relief, something to dial down the furious turning of your mind, the relentless twisting. Trying to make sense of the contradictory emotions. All of it seems to accumulate in your soul. It becomes the depository for the pain. You try this and that. It turns out to be fruitless of course, and by the time you find out it’s far too late, but for so long it seems possible, to turn a mirage into something real. So you play with the salts, they fade, the half-life shorter and shorter, you start mixing this with that, waving your hands through the smoke.  

Eventually it stops working and still your heart aches. Your heart breaks. It breaks again. And again. You keep taking the drugs because you know it will happen again, and you just can’t bear it once more. You want to stop. But you can’t. It’s too late now. You try this, you try that, but every time the pain seems worse,  heavier, a dull heat somewhere inside, baking a part of you into something solid, a hard shell forming over your heart, fused with the flesh.

One day you wake up on a floor somewhere. You have nothing. Absolutely nothing. The illusions and delusions are gone. You see clearly. You feel like a fool. You’ve wasted so much time. You did. No one else. This is where you should stop. Find a way. Before it’s too late. Stare it down and start over. Shout. Scream. Yell for help. But you didn’t. You couldn’t. It was too terrifying to face. And you felt like a weak, useless, piece of trash for not being able to confront it, and begin anew. So you dig. You begin a tiny excavation, searching for the bottom. For years it goes on, miraculously, nothing happening but things changing hands, you sell and others buy, exchanging death sentences. Somehow it keeps the end at bay. Deeper, deeper, you go. You know that you are going the wrong way and you hate yourself for it. Your mind wants to stop and turn around. Your heart has dreams. But they were locked up now, out of the light, trapped inside the stone. It was your body that was in control now. Your body that was taking you down this horrible path. It was your flesh that caused this. It was the criminal. It must pay. Not for the crimes against society, and not by them either. You must punish yourself. For the real crimes, the inability to be what you wanted to be, what you thought you should be. For not being good enough, for not being strong enough. For not being able to love. For not being able to stop.

I must punish myself. No one else seemed willing to do it. I had to do something. I couldn’t blame it on anyone else. After all, it was I who had thrown my life away. It was I who’d broken the hearts and shattered the dreams of my loved ones, few though they were. It was I. The others, they found it within themselves to give me chance after chance. Try though I did, I could not take them. I felt undeserving. Maybe I have too much pride. Maybe, not enough. Did I deserve forgiveness? I don’t know.  It’s irrelevant now. There must be consequences or it would all be meaningless.

There was no trial. No lawyers, no courtroom. They weren’t needed. You knew you were guilty. And once you sentenced yourself, you knew what to do. Shot after shot, you carpet-bombed your flesh, until the highways were obliterated and all the trees turned to ash. Still, you kept on, wandering from place to place, burying land mines, planting pockets of black tar heroin, dope to be detonated at a later date. You buried them in the muscle, in the flesh. You dug deep. They did not dissipate and go away. They sat there like markings, give-aways, tattoos but deeper, of the thing you truly were. Black. Shapeless. Permanent, like ink. One day it will bubble up through your skin to the surface and someone will use it to write your fate on a scroll, to be read aloud in the public square on the day of your execution.

And now it is over. The sentence was real aloud and carried out. It was not as severe as I had expected, merely to live with the destruction. I have paid. Maybe, a little too much. Maybe, not enough. Only time will tell. I paid a pound of flesh from one side of my buttock, and another pound from the other. Just to be sure I took some from both arms and both calves as well, along with a few shards of bone for good measure. You always felt like an open wound, unprotected, vulnerable, and so it makes sense that is what you became. What remain now are scars, where the cavernous wounds once were. The things I will have to live with, fragile, delicate, ugly. Bloodless tissue, shiny like plastic. My hip is damaged, the bone dissolved from infection, one leg now shorter than the other and my hands don’t function correctly, the wires severed. This is my punishment. And yet it did not end me, as I had thought it would. I am still here, wondering why, and how.  Playing with words instead of smoke. Hammering with a hammer called hope, trying to break into my heart.

Hostage

By Peter Schwartz

Memoir


Wednesday, October 14th, 2009. I’m in my room on Albert Street in Augusta Maine, being held hostage. A woman almost a decade my junior has just told me she was raped last night, but for some reason she is directing all her rage at me. I’m trying to be supportive but she’s hitting me with everything she has, making fun of my anthropophobia and bi-polarity. It’s actually not the words that hurt so badly, it’s the fact that she would go after me like this. If she knew more about me, she’d have even better ammunition.

I’m asking if she wants to call the police but I know she doesn’t want to go through the degrading process of a trial so now I’m asking if she knows where this fucker lives. She likes that. I fantasize with her about finding his house, cutting his lights and phone, running in there, hurting him like he hurt her. But that part doesn’t last long. Now I’m getting questioned why I would make such an offer when I clearly hate her guts. She hates me so much right now she can’t even imagine I don’t feel the same way about her. I’m a safe target and I get the sense she has been waiting for this moment for years. I’m a monster, and nothing I say is going to change that. She tells me in a slightly different voice that if I hang up she will most likely kill herself.

I don’t understand rape, I really don’t. The whole turn-on with sex for me is that someone actually wants me. Simply taking that from someone is the most un-sexy thing I can imagine. I do understand the desire for vengeance though. My father used to beat the shit out of me over twenty years ago and I still occasionally fantasize about flying to his apartment in New York City and getting justice. Now she’s mocking my poetry and fiction, saying I think I’m so spiritual but I’m bullshitting myself, I’m just scared. I want to call her a fat, disgusting, piece of shit but I know those are the last words she needs to hear right now.

I’m think I’m him now. She’s making fun of the fact that I couldn’t get it up once. I’m not a real man and probably want to fuck my mother. I can’t take this. I cannot sit here and take this. I want to fight back but society’s rules are pretty clear here: victims have carte blanche to say whatever the hell they want. I’m a leech, a user, a liar, and a cheater. I contribute nothing to society. Okay, I’m there. I can’t believe I’m about to do what I’m about to do. Deeply nauseous, I instinctively glance at my toilet. I’ll most likely throw up later.

Even though according to her I have her life in my hands because I’m her only real friend, I’m telling her she can do whatever she wants. Another person entirely, I’m hanging up, imagining her hearing the sound of that dial tone, how that must be the loneliest sound in the universe. How alone she must feel. I fucking hate myself; I’ve proved her point; I really am that monster. But I’m also finally free of her wrath. I take a deep breath and try to remember who I was an hour ago.

 

 

 

When you enter the country of Pain, they confiscate your passport. You leave behind the things and people that used to feel important and familiar, in which you used to believe. Everyone in the new country is a stranger, though it scarcely matters because pain is really a nation of islands, and everyone who lives there lives alone.

In 1995, while my husband and I were visiting my best friend Tom in Barcelona, I became an unintentional and surprise immigrant in the country of pain. It happened overnight, and at first I did not realize I had “moved.” I believed I had a bladder infection. I’d had them before—many, in fact, even having been hospitalized for one as a child. Sometimes when I got one, I could not close my legs for the burning; I could not stop pacing the room; I urinated blood. But the agony was always temporary. You take your antibiotics, you take your pills that make your pee turn orange, you feel a little crazy for a couple of days and then it is done.

Except this time, it was not.

I tried to make the most out of the remainder of my trip—which then extended into London—but it was difficult. I was impatient for my stay on the island of pain to end. Surely once I got home to Chicago and could see my own doctor, I would get on the “right” drugs and I’d be fine in twenty-four hours. So we returned home, and my doctor, who knew I was prone to these infections, prescribed a stronger antibiotic over the telephone without making me come into the office. I began taking it gratefully.

I got worse.

What had been distracting and bothersome became blinding, all-consuming. My burning no longer happened only during or right after urination but was happening twenty-four hours a day. Eating seemed to make it worse. It grew difficult to function. I was exhausted from the pain, not sleeping, and had started peeing maybe 20 times a day at least. My bladder felt full constantly, as though with battery acid. The inflammation was so extreme I could feel it right through my skin, radiating heat and distended so that my lower stomach felt unnaturally tight and hot. Nothing alleviated it. I showed up at my doctor’s office and he ran a urine culture saying maybe the infection had spread to my kidneys. But this had not happened.

There WAS no infection. My urine was clean.

I went to my mother’s ostiopath. He gave me herbal supplements but they didn’t help. Like many inhabitants of Pain, I became desperate, without the usual sense of decorum and subtlety that people on the Mainland possess. I called my ostiopath too often and complained too stridently. I began to worry that maybe I was dying. I sounded, in short, like a crazy hypochondriac, since crazy hypochondriacs are sometimes indiscernible from people with real ailments the medical establishment does not understand. In truth, I could not be sure myself that I was not going Crazy, which is its own island adjacent to Pain. Maybe it was all in my head. It began to seem possible that one moment, a woman could be in Barcelona lying on topless beaches, seeing a Sheryl Crowe concert, smoking lots of hash with Spanish and Dutch friends, visiting Gaudi parks and having those delicious, vacation-specific afternoon long sex sessions with one’s husband . . . and that the next day she could be raving mad, driven to distraction and a mounting dread of life by physical agony that might not even be Real.

What was real? When you are in pain, it’s hard to tell. It’s in your head, they may tell you, and how can you prove it isn’t? Come in here, you want to say back—Come in here and let’s see how you like it; let’s see how well you cope. But you cannot peel back your skin and let others step in and poke around with their own pain receptors. Your sensations, your respective sanity or madness, are all inaccessible to them.

Maybe you don’t live on an island of Pain so much as become the island. Though, of course, metaphors fail. If you were an island, you would be one nobody wanted to visit. You would be prone to torrential storms that prohibited settlers from approaching your shores.

If you are not an island but a woman, you begin to wonder whether you can honestly go on living this way. You are 27 years old. You could conceivably live another 60 years. The thought of 60 more years, each stretched into its long days, its long hours, feels so unbearable, so overwhelming, that even if you have always been afraid of death you begin to think maybe it would be the “best thing.”Death begins to sound like a dangerous lover from whom you cannot stay away. Death begins to sound like the bad boy you know will be the end of you, but whom will get you out of your parents’ oppressive house, and so you cannot help but run off with him into the night at 17, when no one is looking, when it was not even something you had planned.

I began to take narcotic painkillers. A lot of narcotic painkillers. An addiction to Vicodin probably saved my life.

I alternated at first. Darvoset, large doses of Tylenol 3, which was weaker than the others but gave me a scraping feeling inside my stomach that I liked, that distracted me. Vicodin, or its stronger sister Norco. Percocet when I could get my hands on it. I drank very little alcohol because the fermented nature of it aggravated my bladder further, but I smoked copious amounts of pot.Sometimes I threw some Benadryl in for the hell of it, because though it did nothing to kill my pain, mixing it with the painkillers and weed made me more high so I didn’t care as much, yet didn’t increase my tolerance to the pills. I alternated so that I didn’t become immune to their affects, but sometimes I became immune anyway. Sometimes I took Vicodin after Vicodin at a party, hoping to numb myself out enough that I could smile and make small talk with people—so that I didn’t have to go home and cut myself with the unscrewed razor from my eyeliner sharpener, kept inside a felt cloth for that purpose now, and yet even when my ubiquitous silver pill case was empty the pain was still clawing inside my bladder like an animal determined to scrape its way through my skin and expose itself to the world.

Somewhere amid all this, in early 1996, I received a diagnosis. Interstitial Cystitis: an ulcerative, autoimmune condition of the bladder. It was said to be incurable but not necessarily progressive, and not actually “harmful” (if you don’t count being in blinding pain 24-7 to the point that you have to become a pill junkie “harmful”) to one’s long term health. It is no doubt indicative of my state of mind that this diagnosis actually seemed like good news. I was not insane. There were books about this illness; there were doctors who recognized it, though they did not actually know how to effectively treat it.

It probably goes without saying that, both before and after my diagnosis, sex was not a great deal of fun. And yet, I was determined not to relinquish it. To relinquish sex would be like making a space for Death on the couch. It would be saying goodbye to anything that made me a normal woman, a normal twentysomething person still in the prime of life—to what made me still me. I began to require extreme sensations, extreme scenarios, to transport me far enough away that the sex seemed pleasurable rather than torturous. Probably it makes little sense to say that, while I had always had an interest in kink, those were the years I most required it in vigorous and intense proportions. I just wrote a bit about that, but now I have deleted it; even after a decade, it doesn’t feel like something I can delve into here.  Suffice it to say that my husband was, at turns, befuddled, turned on, beleaguered, elated, exhausted. While I was busy popping pills, brewing Chinese herbs, seeing ostiopaths and chiropractors, attending a support group for people with IC (though it depressed me so deeply I never went back after meeting women who had had their bladders removed and lived on psychiatric medication), and becoming an incomprehensible fetishist, he had to continue doing all the “normal” things our lives required, like going to work, paying the mortgage. He worked long hours in finance and his firm was riddled with political unrest and in-house dramas. At times he seemed to me an infantile narcissist, pettily concerned with banalities that could not compare to my Life and Death situation. At other times he seemed a saint to put up with me—to still want to touch me, much less live with me—and I felt so grateful to have him I became as clingy as a child.

There were other things. Other factors. My husband’s issues as an adult child of an alcoholic were beginning to surface in the face of our stressful situation. There was a man with whom I began spending a great deal of time, who it would be fair to say was drawn to all the darker aspects of my personality, my life, while my husband wanted me “back” to the way I’d been before—wanted me healthy, which felt increasingly not even like a pipe dream but a bad joke.  Our marriage began to drift.

This was my life. 1997 came; 1998. There was no country of Healthy anymore. Other people lived there, but I could not even visit. The people in Healthy had strange concerns. They cried endlessly over brief love affairs gone wrong, or said “I wish I’d never been born” because they were having a hard time conceiving babies, or talked about their work problems as though these things carried the weight of a mass genocide. A close friend who was unhappily single once told me that I “had no problems” because I was married and my husband made good money.  She knew of my illness, but she herself was so ceaselessly healthy that to her it must have seemed abstract, somehow lesser than the difficulties of living alone in an apartment, sleeping alone in a wide bed at night. My friends’ language made no sense to me. Increasingly, I needed a translator to be among them. I was more comfortable among junkies, bipolars, survivors of cancer, who were, at the end of the day, always biding time, waiting for the next blow.

Yet I never really spoke of my illness. I followed a strange diet; I brewed tea with odd herbs; I took a lot of pills. Sometimes I cited the name of my disease as explanation for these habits, but I rarely elaborated. One thing everyone who lives in the country of Pain knows is that if you open up to somebody once about something that is fundamentally unchanging, constant, permanent, your “confidante” will begin to ask you about it frequently expecting some kind of progress report. They’ll say “How are you feeling today?” every time they see you, and if you keep saying, “Like slicing my arms open just to distract myself for one goddamn moment from the burning between my legs” they will not like this answer after hearing it for the 97th time. You will have officially become a buzz kill.Better to just say “Fine.” Better to just say nothing.

My years in the country of Pain are an episode of my life that is both integrated and self-contained.Now, in retrospect, the days, months, years blend together. All said and done, this period of my life lasted for three years and three months: from May 1995 to August 1998. At the time of its finale, I was living in Amsterdam with my husband. In the paradox that is life, my time in Amsterdam was both one of the best times of my life and also one of the most intensely unhealthy. Away from my doctors, my pain level escalated even beyond its usual state. There were days when all I could do was slam Famous Grouse scotch and smoke hash and pound Vicodin until I was incoherent, and still I could feel the edges of the pain snaking around me like a vice, strangling me. And yet, there were days at outdoor cafes and buying fresh vegetables at the markets near our apartment in the Jordaan; there were friends visiting and there was Paris and there was Brussels and there was London and there was Lausanne and there was still, strangely, an intoxicating infusion of sex and a falling-in-love-again with my husband amidst it all. There was a fear of flying that felt crippling and a continued flirtation with death. And then, abruptly, there was a visit to a health food store where I randomly described my symptoms to a Dutch employee of the store and she suggested the herb Pau D’Arco in larger doses than recommended on the bottle, and I tried it because I would try anything, with no hope or optimism that it would actually work when nothing else had, and within two weeks of popping 9-12 Pau D’Arco tablets daily, I was 100% pain free, off every other treatment from my Chinese herbs to my painkillers. I was, incredibly, a normal person again. Shell-shocked, perhaps, but incredibly—for the first time in more than 3 years—pain free.

One thing you tell yourself when you leave the Island of Pain is that you will never be one of those assholes again who sweats the small stuff. That you have learned what is Really Important, and that interpersonal dramas and posturing will no longer plague you—that you will be Grateful and Content with whatever life hands you so long as you remain healthy and pain–free. There are stories we tell ourselves. There are lessons we think we have learned. One is that Pain somehow elevates you from the rest of humanity, makes you more pure, makes you more wise. Maybe part of this is true. And in another, more-than-equal part, it is all bullshit. We all revert to a state of narcissism, which is, perhaps, the human condition. Before you know it, you are fighting with your spouse about the same crap everyone else fights about; before you know it, you are losing sleep over some ridiculous drama at work. It is true what they say about pain: the body cannot retain its memory of that primal state. The intensity is simply too much to cope with on any long term basis. At the end of the day, we all revert to a state of Normalcy if we can. Gratitude on a 24-7 basis holds out only so long.

It has been eleven years now since I left Pain behind and moved back to my native land. I have almost forgotten, now, what it was like to be a foreigner; what it was like to have lost my native tongue. For two years, I took Pau D’Arco daily out of fear, but eventually I stopped, just as I abandoned my Vicodin habit, my marital tumult, my cutting alone in my bathroom, my desire to end my life. Three years after my pain ended, I adopted two children, and five years later I had another, with a body I once believed incapable of even getting through a normal day much less bringing new life into the world intact. These days, I am just a Normal Woman, just a Normal Mom. A decade has worn down the memory of those days as an immigrant in Pain’s land. I tell myself, as all immigrants do, that now I am home for good: that I will never return to that land.

They told me that IC was “incurable” but that it could go into remission. I am, now, 41 years old. I have been in this remission for 11 years. Maybe, at any time, it could end, and there I would be, again. Back then, it was all I could do to get out of bed, to go to graduate school, to feed myself and speak to people and get through my day. Now, I have three children and run my own business and teach at two universities and run an online literary magazine and live with and financially support my elderly parents. If I were blindsided again that way, the consequences would not be the same. My stakes are higher. This time, I might not survive intact.

And so I wait. Or rather, I usually forget I am waiting. I relish the arrogance of forgetfulness, of normalcy. I am here, in my body, my normal body, right now. That other truth seems murky and impossible again. This is the arrogance of the human experience. Even though I have already touched that flame, it seems impossible, somehow, that such a thing could happen to ME.

Big Sky

By Kristen Elde

Travel

September 2003

It’s late, 12:30-late, and I’m just now pulling into the parking lot of Hubbard’s Ponderosa Lodge in Missoula. The toll of a thousand straight miles on the road won’t register for a while yet: I’m still carrying a charge.

“Hi. I’d like a room—two nights, one person.”

I’m traveling by myself, my preference from the age of five, a time when my version of a solo vacation was putting Mom and Dad thirty feet at my back, all but forgetting them as I crouched low, sifting through frosted sea glass and limpet shells with glossy, purplish undersides—alone on the beach with a green plastic bucket and an active imagination.

Front desk: “I’m sorry, but we’re actually booked solid through the weekend.”

I stare, confused. It’s the middle of September, and I’m in Montana. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to make a reservation beforehand. “Oh man. Really nothing?”

“Yeah, ‘fraid not. Maybe you haven’t heard, but it’s the big game tomorrow night. Hate to say it, but you’ll be lucky to get a room anywhere in the city.”

Ah, the big game. Sure. Of course.

I thank the attendant and drive down the road to my second try: Campus Inn. Again, no go. Two more hotels and I’ve reached the bottom of a sticky note lined with recommendations from a Missoula-born co-worker. Out of leads and just shy of resigning myself to a dicey stay in the backseat of my Honda, I decide to give it one last shot, pulling into the no-frills Mountain Valley Inn.

They’ll have me.

A half hour later I’m stretched out on a double bed, looking up at a popcorn ceiling and half-listening as a local news reporter covers the latest in a string of nasty brush fires. My calves feel cool against the starchy comforter, and I can’t believe that I’m here: far from Seattle, in a place where nobody knows me, in a room that I might easily never have known existed.

I sleep late into the morning, waking at ten o’clock to the sounds of construction workers outside my window. My eyes feel dry and a little achy, and I realize I’d fallen asleep with my contacts in, teeth un-brushed, yesterday’s clothes on. The same reporter is still talking about brush fires.

Once outside, I head east on Broadway, steps later turning off at Higgins Street—according to my co-worker, Downtown Missoula’s most energetic thoroughfare. Her description was apt. I wander in and out of art galleries, antique shops, and gear stores serving outdoor adventure seekers lured by the dips and crests of the Rockies.

I stop at a cheery bakery for a slice of peanut butter pie, which I enjoy under a noon sun, my back pressed up against the edge of a picnic table overlooking a tree-canopied nature trail. Several cyclists and a pair of joggers pass by, their low chatter overlapping the song of a carousel turning circles across the way.

I wander back inside, returning my plate and fork to the counter amid a bustling brunch scene. Thanking the college-aged kid behind the counter, I see myself in her place: hair pulled back at the sides, logo-imprinted apron, a pleasant espresso buzz lifting me through the afternoon. I’d take my lunch break outside, maybe at that same picnic table. Hmm, perhaps following my stint peddling organic veggies at the farmer’s market up the road, and after my apprenticeship with the cobbler back on Front Street. Really, I hate to prioritize. In my head, I could just as easily be doing one over the other, with each pursuit delivering the same degree of satisfaction.

Because I am alone here, this kind of posturing—the harmless, romantic kind—is fairly seamless. With nothing or no one to pull me back into my life, there isn’t the distraction, and the reinvention is cleaner than it would be if I were at home, or if I were away from home with someone else.

I’m sitting on a bench facing a paved walkway that cuts through the lovely, neoclassical University of Montana campus. I’ve got a book open—a Paul Auster novel—but I’m only half-absorbing what I’m reading, too aroused by reality to plunge into one of Auster’s twisting narratives. Although it’s a Saturday, there are still plenty of people around, and it’s the students I notice, heavy backpacks curling their shoulders forward, dingy flip-flops audibly scraping the cement as they pass by my bench. With my cracked book and my casual clothes, I look like them; there’s nothing to suggest that I’m not, say, pushing through the required reading for English 301, nothing to expose me for the UW alum that I am. I blend perfectly.

I make my way to the base of the “M” trail, named for the gigantic Times New Roman letter consisting of white stone and resting three-quarters of a mile up the west side of Mount Sentinel. Said the co-worker, the steep hike up is a not-to-be-missed event, affording exceptional views of the Missoula Valley.

As a distance runner, I’m in good shape. But after eleven switchbacks and a 620-foot elevation gain, I’m ready for a rest.

I catch my breath among a handful of people gathered at the perimeter of the alphabet’s thirteenth letter, stretching my legs as I survey the peaceful vista below: gray cityscape broken up by thick, deep-green parcels of fir trees, split in two by the inky Clark Fork River, ringed by mountains cased in golden-brown brush. Even busy Interstate 90, stretching across the north end of the city, imparts a certain tranquility.

Narrowing my focus, I try to locate my bench. I think I’ve picked out the row of campus buildings situated behind it, but assuming I’ve picked right, a few prosperous maples are obstructing my view. This gets me thinking about everything else I can’t see from here: students napping on the lawn, garage sales in progress, potholes in the roads, the entire east side of this mountain… Part of me is disappointed to have to admit to missing so much, but most of me appreciates the mystery, likes thinking about the infinite scenarios.

I wander away from the M, the earth dry and un-giving beneath my dusty shoes, bleached grasses and rampant weeds distinguishing Mount Sentinel from the lushness below. With the aid of my hotel map, I pick out Hellgate Canyon and Mount Jumbo to the north, the Bitterroot range to the south. The air feels raw and decisive as it enters my lungs.

I’d like to stay longer, maybe take a short nap myself, but the sun’s descent is well-underway, and it’s more than a light breeze that’s raising the hair on my arms. I’m hungry, too, and the granola bar I’d tucked into my bag isn’t going to cut it. It’s time to head.

Back on the precipitous trail, I find that it’s easier, going down, to maintain a sort of restrained jog than it is a steady walk. Certainly more forgiving where my knees are concerned. This in mind, I make my way along the zigzagging path, passing several people moving in each direction. Periodically I get a little ahead of myself, inadvertently picking up the pace and slipping into a near-run. When this happens, I simply make the necessary adjustments and push on.

Halfway to the bottom my track record takes a hit. Reacting to a surprise dip in the trail, my foot falls an extra inch, connecting with the dirt at the same time my pack, stuffed full with books and magazines, jumps up against my back. This repositioning throws me off and suddenly I’m airborne, for a split second flying parallel to the slope before the weight of my load pulls me to the ground—hard. Of course, given the surface gradient, the excitement’s only just begun. I bump and skid headfirst down the trail—my hands, elbows, and knees bearing the brunt of my stupidity—and it isn’t until seconds later that my pack, now hanging for the most part off my right shoulder, slows me to a halt.

“Oh my gosh, are you okay?”

The voice comes from above, from a switchback or two up, and as I struggle to right myself, it merges into a chorus of several voices, maybe four or five. But I seem to be trapped, confined in an awkward, crumpled, downward-facing position by this ridiculous ten-ton backpack of mine.

Panic sets in; the skin on my face and arms is suddenly burning, and not from pain. As hot, fast, embarrassed tears run over the rims of my eyes, I flash back to a mortifying experience: Sixth-grade biology class. I’m tipped back in my chair, my forearm resting on the table behind which Joe C., object of my crush, sits with an adorable smirk on his face. We’re definitely flirting, exchanging juvenile quips about our nerdy teacher, when Cute Stuff takes it a step further, without warning yanking the table in his direction. I follow my chair to the floor, partially catching myself with my hands as I/we strike bottom. It feels like whole minutes pass before I’m able to effectively rise up from that piece of dumb orange plastic, my head low, eyes prickly, as I take my seat for a second time. Pain is not on my radar.

This time is different, of course. No one around me is laughing; more importantly, they don’t know me in real life. Consequently, my initial embarrassment loses potency, and as I wiggle my shoulders a last, vigorous time, finally losing the hated backpack, what I’m left with is coarse pain, pain that alters the nature of my tears, pain that is very much on my radar.

I stand up fast, wincing. Instinctively I move to brush off my jeans, jeans that I notice have sprouted a hole in the right knee. Though my eyes are still watery and unfocused, I can see the bright red of my blood where it’s flush against my skin, the darker red where it’s begun seeping into the sides of the torn fabric. I see my skin, puffy and pale, almost white from the impact.

“Oh yeah, yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You took quite a fall there.”

I force a smile, something smart-alecky occurring to me. Oh, silly man, as if these bloodied palms of mine weren’t proof enough! I’m fine—fine as fuck!

“Nah, just some scrapes. I’m sure I can find some Band-Aids somewhere on campus,” I say, addressing the group of four—one couple, two singles—that had loosely assembled nearby. My palms have become pincushions, smarting with each new wave of insertions. My throat feels tight. I want them to leave.

“Well alright. Take care of yourself.”

Take care of yourself. As I turn and start walking, the words of the nice man, the sincere well-wisher, turn over in my head, and the tears in my eyes cease to be motivated by pain alone. Take care of yourself, because there is no one else, no go-to person at your side in case something should happen, in the event that something goes wrong.

The campus spreads wide below, visible from end to end. Ticket-holders have begun filling the white-lit stadium, their energy roving upward. Around them, the day is on its last legs, the sky glowing fuchsia as the sun drops steadily toward the horizon.

I am sharply afraid, disoriented and whimpering like that five-year-old on the beach suddenly scared to find she’s wandered beyond the place from which her parents are visible. Reflexively, I unzip the front pocket of my pack, reaching in for my phone, anticipating my boyfriend’s mild voice…

I don’t call, though, deciding instead to wait until I’m secure on flat ground, wounds addressed, wits gathered. There’s something else going on, too: from within, an appeal for a few additional minutes of solitude.

And without trying, I am systematically relaxing, conscious of my breath slowing, my throat loosening, my eyes gaining focus. I’m still worked-up, my body hasn’t stopped hurting (I’m limping slightly), but it’s my hurting body that is driving the intensity of my experience, authenticating my one-woman journey, the spectacle that preceded it ensuring that I don’t completely fade into the background. Reflecting now, I don’t think I ever wanted to fade completely.

Back at home and in the weeks that follow, I’ll have to explain the scrapes, several times. But the story will never come out as I want it to, lacking the emotional breadth that endears it to me. Writing it all down will be slightly more effective, but the truest way to tell it will be to graze the skin on my knees, or my elbows, which will bring it all back. At once frustrating and satisfying, I will be the only one around to hear.

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.