We Would Never Have Thought

We would have never thought that one day we would sail on this vessel, from ‘News of the day,’ published in L’Album du Siège, 1870, Honore Daumier. Public domain.

Murle may have put my sister in the psych unit.  Murle is discussed at my aunt’s funeral, we might as well have put up a scarecrow of her in a pew.

I’m in the bathtub.  I feel like Marat about the bathtub.  French.  Although I’m eager to abandon my phone, this time, why? It is in the bathroom, and buzzes.  And buzzes.  I’m reading a large print book about a family with multiple schizophrenic sons.  Multiple.  It’s giving me a good standard for comparison.  I’ve learned to lean and lie on my side in this bathtub.  It’s not so deep.  I make it work.  Lay a wet washcloth on my chest so my breasts and belly are warm.

I sit up.  I have to drain.  

Word is my sister is being checked in.  

I find the bust that broke in my move.  Plaster, painted gold, Minerva.  Maybe?  I sit on the couch with a screwdriver and start boring it into Minerva’s neck.  On TV, I saw people drill holes in each half of a broken antique, place a screw, add glue, give Minerva a fused spine.  

My other sister comes over.  Am I okay?  I tell her I don’t have feelings anymore.  This is usually true, though, blessedly, at my aunt’s funeral, I cried and cried.  

I sit in the parking lot outside the grocery store, with a pint of ice cream melting in the back seat.  It’s okay.  I like my ice cream almost milkshake.

I have an extra half hour before visiting hours.

Murle made my father feed his baby sister in the middle of the night.  When he broke a bottle, she came downstairs and slapped him.

I’m wandering the Goodwill ten minutes from the hospital, realizing for the first time that the smell of a thrift store is disgusting.  I love thrift stores.  I love used things.  I love the discarded.

My mother is calling me.  We have a sippy confused conversation because that’s how people talk when someone is in the hospital on suicide watch during the third incarnation of the world’s first truly international, deep-dug-in pandemic.  I walk through the book annex of the thrift store, and snap that I will be at the hospital.

Murle is our “biological grandmother.”

I stop for gas.  There are three stickers on the pump.  Two are of President Biden, pointing his finger and saying, “I did that,” which doesn’t offend me.  I mean, he has done things.  But one says, “TR*MP WON,” and has a picture of that man.  I am at it with my fingernails.  Peeling.  I get it in small shreds.  I get it.  I take my keys and start scraping at the gas pump.  Will someone come out and ask why am I defacing the gas pump?  Did the cashier inside put them on the pump?  Will he come out and get belligerent?  I get enough of the letters of the name off that the name isn’t there anymore, and the gas pump pops and I pull it out and get in and close the door and turn the key.

My cousin is back for my aunt’s funeral and makes a joke in Tr*mp’s voice and something inside me is still alive enough to shiver, not with fear or anger, just recoil.  

Someone who is ill is sometimes herself, sometimes you can see the through line to the entire life you have shared with the person, sometimes the cord has been cut. 

I’ve brought a plant with a cardinal stuck to the top.  “Is it in a plastic container?” the receptionist asks.  Yes.  “Does it have a pokey thing?” the receptionist asks.  “Oh, shoot.”  I was trying to pass mental illness caregiving with an A- (my favorite grade), leaving my phone in the car, but I forgot the code that will let you into the locked unit, and I forgot and brought a plant with a stabby thing in it.  “It’s fine,” I said.  “I’ll break it off.”  “No, no, don’t do that,” the receptionist says, but I have already broken the bird clean off.  I set him on top of the plant, where he nests naturally.  “It’s fine,” I said.  I definitely don’t have fucks left to give about birds being secured to potted plants or not.

Today I walked to get coffee, then walked with my coffee in the neighborhood.  I live near three (yes) Ronald McDonald houses, and the children’s hospital.  It’s hard to feel all that sorry for yourself when you’re in the garden between the homes for sick children’s families.  Sick children being sick during (yes) the third round of the world’s first cohesive, no escape pandemic.  The garden has a figure 8ish path, dead plants, the last living flowers, who are purple, and pinwheels that are stuck there, man made flowers, winter-proof flowers.

I guess I should some time go to my aunt’s grave and pour out a whole chocolate milkshake.  Turns out, the last time I sat patiently with her, holding the cold plastic cup so she could sip it, that was her last food or drink.  The next time I saw her, she was dead, and I sat next to my uncle and held his hand.  I didn’t want to hold his hand, but sometimes you’re in a place where someone clearly needs their hand held, so probably Jesus held his hand, remote-style, through me, and I sat the way you sit with a dead body, a body you have smoothed face cream into, a body you kissed goodbye, on the cheek, a body you helped into and out of bras when bras became a problem.

It is part of women’s life-exit strategies to have some confrontation with bras.  In my experience.

You get angry with all these people who die or collapse because there isn’t time for that.  There isn’t room for it.  There isn’t anything more.  

Murle did all this, see, abused my father, my aunts, and I never got to ask her why she was a villain, or if she might have been otherwise, or if she knew she would haunt her grandchildren, even the ones she never met.  

At the hospital, they do puzzles in the evening.  “You’re not missing anything out there,” I tell my sister.  It is warm.  Sometimes we have warm winters in Kansas City.  Not usually this warm.  Sixty.  Almost seventy.  December.  Snow often waits for January to open her heard and dump on us.  It’s warm.  Omicron variant, which as a dummy who took ancient Greek in college, I know is the lame little brother of omega.  Why omicron?  What did it do?  But what did the Katrina I knew do?  What of my elementary school friend whose birthday was, and still is, September 11th?  

In the dementia unit, I did puzzles with my aunt.  To be honest, when we began, she was barely able to help, even with puzzles that had 24 pieces, or 36.  Then I definitely did them myself, completely, while chattering on to her.  I don’t like puzzles.  I just think, why did you cut this picture up to begin with?

I grind deep enough into Minera’s neck, and the base it will sit on. Glue into both wells, half a screw in one half, and set her head back on its pedestal. She sits there to dry.

Animals

My life is animals now. An orca dragging a seal to its waiting baby. Dolphins and sharks. Gills and lungs. I’m teaching ESL, level 1, and the common denominator, the thing that we can all lower down to connect on, is animals. Do animals matter? Do my students need to know what an elephant is? Definitely not. We start there anyway.

I have brought two stuffed animals to my classroom, a black and white chihuahua and a fox. They were both supposed to be just decoration, but I realized quickly that making them characters would be a great help. So when I needed to demonstrate how to talk about a book you had read, I spoke quietly and seriously about my book, and then it was chihuahua’s turn. He spoke in his own language first (barks), and then in English. This gag was helpful.

I always begin ESL class with asking how everyone is doing, partly because they are all refugees and have each and every one been through some kind of capital-T trauma, and because a couple of years ago, the world burned down, and now every human is experienced in fear.

They sit in a horseshoe, and we always begin at the same end. “How are you?” I say. “One to ten?”

If someone says “one,” or “zero,” I take Chihuahua to that person’s desk and set him down.

If another person says “one,” or “zero,” I take Fox and put him on that person’s desk.

If a third person says this, I’m shit out of luck.

They are optimists, though, new Americans. They have either survived or won a lottery. They think things will improve.

My aunt died last week. She had dementia for about five years. She sang, she slept, she smiled when a dog visited and jumped in her lap, and she drank chocolate milkshakes. She survived covid. She did not get bed sores. Her brain got so clogged up, swallowing was too hard.

I was the last one to give her nourishment, I think. A venti Starbucks chocolate frappucino with no coffee. Really an absurd order. I sat on her bed and guided the straw to her mouth. This reflex, to root out the straw, and then to suck something sweet and calorie rich, this reflex remained almost to the end.

I got the call she had died at 6 AM Sunday morning. I was discombobulated and couldn’t figure out what to wear, or if I should stop and get food for the people I would meet.

We sat with her body for a couple of hours.

Her husband was there. Everyone wished he wasn’t. He has only a few topics of conversation: animals he has shot, the stolen election, and cooking. Sometimes you get really lucky and he will talk about his black eyed peas.

He stopped visiting his wife years ago. He was not involved in her care. But then, I don’t think he’s been involved in anyone’s care. Maybe he was raised wrong, in a big dysfunctional family in Florida. Maybe he was raised a 20th century white guy, who was not raised to constantly wrack his brain to think, is everyone okay? What should I do? How can I make them okay? Maybe he was let down by a society where joining up to endure violent trauma was much easier than getting an advanced education. Maybe he and my aunt had come together in a sort of secret pact to never discuss their traumas, and bicker.

I sit next to him and take his hand.

He starts to talk about memories, of funny times with his wife, and of her illness.

I can’t remember any time the two of them did something together that they both liked. I’ve spent my entire life wondering why they were married to each other.

That night we all have dinner and he says, “Did you hear they are closing down all the Walgreens in San Francisco because of the looters?”

I mean, if only they would close half of the Walgreens in big cities!

“And they’re on the Plaza, too!” he says, referencing a shopping area nearby that did get a bit roughed up during Black Lives Matter activism.

I thought to myself, “Not today, Satan,” and even though I was on the wrong side of a long, long table, I stood up, prepared to push furniture to get out.

Many of us at the table drive by the Plaza regularly. Some of us were at the Black Lives Matter protest.

I remember when a distant relative insisted to me that the protesters in New York were paid. I was there, I said. I wasn’t paid. I was there.

I touch my aunt’s hand before the funeral home people take her away.

I touch her hand when she lays in the casket. Still cold, but now heavy, too, like she is made of blocks of wet clay.

I didn’t tell my students any of this. For one thing, we have limited vocabulary to communicate. For another, I was at work to not think about my aunt dying.

There was so much hand-holding. My brother holding mine, my sister holding mine. We are regular huggers, sure, but at the funeral I am constantly holding someone, or holding a hand, or snuggled up next to someone.

When my aunt first moved into the nursing home, her face was dry and chapped. Someone else brought some face cream, and I would put it on her forehead. “There, that’s good,” I said, the way you say things to encourage a human vibe.

I wasn’t really angry about her illness until she died. Maybe because though she was sick, there was something I could do for her. And something I could do for myself, when I was out of hope, or out of patience. I could visit her, and sing a song, and hold her hand.

Once she died, there wasn’t shit I could do for her.

I know, I could love on those she left behind. And I did.

Death makes me so angry.

Today two of my students were sniffling and putting their heads down, and both of them returned to class with notes that said they had called their parents to pick them up.

I had intended to take Chihuahua and Fox home to wash them.

Two sick students made me remember.

My laundry room is down two flights of stairs, so I thought, wait, I could give them a bath, like real animals.

I ran the water, and drizzled Chihuahua and Fox with shampoo. It’s kind of nice shampoo, color-treated hair shampoo. That’s just because my stepmom buys it for me. If it were up to me, I’d probably try to wash my hair with ivory soap.

Shampoo strips oils, cleans deeper than body wash or soap. So I chose shampoo.

I scrubbed each animal. Chihuahua’s eyes were suddenly clear of fur, and he stared me down. When I dunked Fox, I realized it looked like I was drowning him, and I flipped him over so he could float on his back, snout up.

The animals are soaking. I guess I will towel dry them and blow dry them.

Next week we learn elephants, cheetahs, and wolves.

What’s Up

When I drive to school every morning, I pass an abandoned building that has been spray painted, with an X and then one stroke of a second X, and I wonder, is that fifteen?

Yesterday I chatted for a moment with an old man. I have done this a million times, and had lovely conversations about art, politics, families. This time I asked about his book, and he said, “It’s good, but it makes me kind of dizzy. Not as dizzy as the Clintons make me, though.”

And things deteriorated further as I tried to keep a neutral face, and consider that if he had a patient listener, he might not send anthrax in the mail or some such.

With a group of teachers, we drove around and delivered some swag to students. A bit of happy surprise for them, on a day they were not at school.

On one street, two rather bedraggled white people conducted their deal as if the director had told them, “The audience needs to SEE the baggie AND the drugs.”

I talked with a man from Zimbabwe this week. He said he wished he could take my English out of my head and install it in his, and looking back, I think, it sounds wonderful to have some of my brain removed.

I am teaching English as a second, third, fourth, or fifth language. We’ve had some comedy about the difference between pronouncing “peach” and “bitch,” including me trying to explain that you can only say “bitch” at a dog show, which is, admittedly, a rare language usage occasion, one I haven’t experienced… ever.

A week or so later, a kid wrote a word on his palm and showed it to me. “Yeah, you can’t say that, either,” I told him.

Something about turning 45 has caused me to consider all the things I thought would be cool to have in my house, around the age of 8. So now I browse grandfather clocks, although I don’t really want to own a clock. At least I am staying strong on not having a bubble gum machine.

What Is

I’ve taken some hiata before. I wish it was “hiata.”

There has been less to say.

But: I made all the boxes, left and came home to my disassembled home, hauled the boxes, profusely thanked the people who helped me move the boxes. I moved into my mom’s living room. I moved into my friend’s upstairs. He made nice cocktails and had other guests who could talk about science. We sat outside. “I know people don’t want to talk about it,” the guest said. “I want to talk about it.”

This was when the pandemic was theoretically over.

I went to a dinner party. To some extent, we had forgotten how to talk to each other. To some extent, no one wanted to talk about covid, but then, what else was there to talk about? Covid had run our lives for a year.

I politely drank some bubbly white wine, though I dislike white wine, and I hate bubbles.

I met new people, people who had been to Spain or once had an elderly dog or knew the former mayor well. I wore a new dress and no one said, “What a lovely dress,” which I didn’t take personally, at all, but noted as part of the hollow tin soldier way we were trying to go about things. We were noting who was plumper (me) and who was older (some), but also who looked mysteriously fresh (how do they do it).

People kept asking if I had found a job, and I kept telling them that I was sure I would soon, but thinking that I never would, that this was the world telling me my time and talents were useless, both as a woman over 40 and a human being who disliked the excesses of capitalism.

Around this time it turned out the pandemic was just taking a break. I was at my summer graduate class when the announcement was released for the United States: masks on. I will forever be grateful to have been in a room with other disappointed humans at that moment. We were crushed, but crushed together.

Then I had two interviews.

I got two job offers.

Both seemed like okay jobs. But while one was teaching English to ninth graders, an endeavor I had already accomplished three times, an endeavor that directly sucked life force out of my skin suit, the other was teaching English to kids who don’t know English.

My students, when they natter on to each other, are saying things I don’t understand. The cognitive load on me, to consider how to intervene, what to say, if the kids are all right… it’s gone. Their asides are opaque.

This is a perk.

Is someone speaking ill of a sexual orientation? Is someone referencing the female boy inappropriately? I just don’t know, and I can’t know.

I took the job.

I miss the light.

I lived in a light box, and now I live in a place like other people live.

But I love my bathtub.

I feel safer as an ESL teacher. I imagine some people might show up to my new class and say, “Jesus, they are learning the word ‘pirate’? They are still practicing ‘sometimes’ and ‘always’?” How do you communicate with them? YOU MIME?!?”

And then they might slink away, like, I don’t even know, man.

Lately: I try to figure out what is “safe”: masks, people, outings.

The virus will have its way with us. People keep testing their strength against it, and losing.

Nothing is okay. Some things are lovely. Some things are nice.

On a few occasions I find myself taking Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: “Every so often, say to yourself, if this isn’t nice, what is?” My porch is nice, getting coffee down the block is nice, having my cats back together with me is lovely, starting to make little art projects again is nice. I took a little bookshelf and assembled some of my treasures and then sat down with letters to turn it into the Museum of Small. It’s nice.