This is no Sierra Club outing.
It’s just me in the basement at 5 a.m.
Pulling on my boots and mittens,
Checking my references in the New York Times, 3 days gray:
…slightly north of due east at 3:55,
and tomorrow at 3:44…
well above the horizon by five…”
Off to see a comet.
In memory of you, Daddy, I set
the brain-attack for five.
If you were alive,
We’d all be out: a regiment in sagging pajamas,
Comatose comedy act.
And now it’s just me,
Invading the night.
I unlock myself out of the house,
And take to the street-lights, bat-blind.
Not hopeful, I check behind them in the sky
To see what’s up.
It’s really there.
Silent, clearly visible, above and to the right of Venus,
A small, mild-mannered comet
In discreet pin-striped tail.
Comet West, rising in the east.
Parrying the street-lights for position,
Blasée, but somehow charmed,
I stand out there in front of the house,
How now? I’ve seen it.
Do I go back in to bed?
In a disciplined moment of Methodist ethic
(homage to you, too, lovey)
I vote no, unanimous for once,
And wonder at the difference between me
You (a clue) are taught to stretch,
And I, to coil.
It’s getting to be a late spring.
Slouching magus, I
Contemplate the blood horizon.
Bleached to acid,
Leached from Prussic blue.
Oh. It’s gone.
That dainty little comet just slipped away
While I was watching.
Evanescent like the rest of us.
A fan belt screams in a sleeping back yard.
A streetlight’s out — a skymark.
That dark visibility lets the comet reappear.
I hear my scraping neighbor drive away
And wish I had someone I could show and tell
My minor, mid-March achievement to.
There are ashes between my feet.
Mindfall from an interior eclipse.
Shutter-click across my heart…
The sick are sickest and hope to die
In the hours just before day.
Oh God, Daddy, you too died screaming into the
Red rim of dawn.
I’ll Phoenix out of that ambivalent fire
Up the dawn hill I lope
Easily toward that red edge –
Considering the primitive visions of men
Wondering about new evidence for saviors –
This time the comet fades for good.
Cresting with the morning, I’d turn back,
But hate to leave the nascent.
Still, half-way down the far side I grow
Listless with the graying, day-etched houses,
And exercising my woman’s prerogative,
Steal back away into the street-light night,
Back up the middle of the road,
Back to the midnight of my bed.
A brief exit.
I am a wisewoman, now.
Stealing your ways, wisemen.
I have seen the star,
And found it out.
© Julia Frey 2010
THE FIRST NIGHT
I hung up the phone and sat back down,
bare legs dangling over the foot of the sofa-bed,
bare feet cold from the linoleum,
gritty with New York,
my back to Ron.
And the first thing I thought was:
in the morning I’ll explain to Caroline
that there really was a reason
for the call after midnight
when she had to be at work at seven.
Not just bad guests with nocturnal callers.
You see they put Hank in the hospital.
They found out he’s going to die.
And there isn’t any hope at all.
“Ron,” I said finally.
I turned to him, sitting behind in the open bed waiting.
“Ron, can we make love?”
Humiliation no. 1 August
Flat out in the gutter.
Not what you’d expect in that neighborhood.
The cut on his forehead took ten stitches.
His mother-in law in the lawn chair, defensive.
Nobody thought he was that drunk.
Maybe it was the weed.
Humiliation no. 2 December
He passed out in a restaurant.
Out with the boys.
This time they didn’t even call the doctor.
He passes out sometimes, they said to each other.
And didn’t tell his wife.
He drove himself home.
Humiliation no. 3 March
He lost his job.
He should have quit. Everybody knew he hated it.
Though Kathy was pregnant, he took a few months off,
By the time Claire was born he had pneumonia.
At least he lost all that weight he’d put on.
And Kathy brought the baby in the Snuggli
to play on a blanket on the hospital floor,
by the oxygen tanks.
And they said he’d take a year to recover, so she wasn’t surprised
he didn’t look for a job.
It was only much later that she found the letters.
Thirty letters begging for a job.
Some sent. Some not.
Humiliation no. 4 October
He passed out at the wheel,
going to pick up Lee at school.
The car bumped the car ahead.
And when the police got there he was vomiting and confused.
So they handcuffed him. DWI.
And two cops took him to the emergency room
for the cut on his head
and two cops went to the school to say
Lee’s daddy wasn’t coming
He was drunk.
And one cop called his sister Kay, an hour’s drive away,
to say Hank was in jail and Lee was missing.
Kathy drove down a one-way street the wrong way
trying to get to the hospital.
And later everybody said how lucky the girls weren’t with him.
THE SECOND NIGHT
They made a map of his brain and there in the middle,
like a huge new continent,
Claws and tentacles in all directions, gray, massive, pulsing, pushing.
Sent him home with this thing growing in his head.
A monster taking over, pushing him aside.
And then the second phone call. A saviour came.
He said he’d kill the evil,
open up Hank’s head and let out the black spirits.
White knight, white mask.
A risk, of course …
The slightest hope. Everything is different.
THE FIRST SURGERY
When the plane landed from New York, it was Sunday lunch.
Hank’s brother Jim met me. Clammy, shaky.
“Kathy said you’d want to come right to the hospital.
We’re all there.”
The beads of sweat on his forehead.
Speeding. Then he got lost.
The hospital was five minutes away, but he missed it.
It took blocks to go back.
He was a danger on the highway and I didn’t understand.
Until we got inside and Kathy told me
they had to decide.
Hank’s brain hadn’t liked being poked.
It was swelling.
And if the swelling didn’t stop these were the choices:
Let him die.
Let him be a vegetable.
Kathy was very pale, and very calm.
Jim’s hands kept shaking.
“Hank wouldn’t want that,” he said.
No code, no core. God willing.
Taking turns sleeping.
I took Kathy home at midnight.
When I came back in the cold at three, Hank’s sister
wrapped in a blanket
on the slippery plastic waiting-room couch.
Jim came in at seven.
At the house it was Monday, breakfast.
Kathy getting the kids ready for school,
and the call from the hospital. Stabilized.
His parents got in that night. Nobody dared tell them they almost missed him.
Humiliation no. 5
You’d think it would be over.
Now that we know why.
Knowing he’s not a loser. Just losing.
But it doesn’t work that way. Now he’s bald.
With a scar in his skull.
And staples in his head.
And can’t remember.
And his eyes are funny.
Though sometimes he slips out of this foreign body
and talks to us for a minute.
Humiliation no. 6
Hank killed his watch.
In the kitchen, with a knife.
He couldn’t count on it, he said, so it had to die.
Kathy was frightened and made him promise he would never
strike her or the children.
Later he sat at the kitchen table holding the watch.
Holding his head.
Humiliation no. 7
They went out to dinner.
The elegant mother, the two pretty daughters, dressed up.
Hank trudging, his hat on.
Slow, slow, unsteady to the table.
He had to go to the bathroom.
Got lost, didn’t know where he was.
A waiter came to get her.
February 19, the half-way point, five months in, exactly, is
We all gather around the table: roast beef, cake.
Kathy cuts his meat like a child.
Hank gets irritable and says he can do it himself.
But he can’t.
Joking, presents. Helpless signs of love.
We give him a fedora to cover his bald head.
The treatments have made him pretty thin.
And there’s this problem.
This other problem, I mean.
His family, his other family I mean, not mine,
won’t admit he’s going to die.
We use two different lingos.
In the living room they’re talking about improvement
and getting well.
In the kitchen we’re talking about no life insurance
and when is his suffering too much to take?
And when do we tell the girls he’s going to die?
After dinner Hank and Kathy walk together
into the living room.
Slowly, Kathy holding him up, helping him steer.
They sit beside each other on the couch, holding hands.
“They look like two lost children,” Ron says later.
How can we leave?
But we leave.
IN THE BASEMENT
“Where’s Claire? She’s got to get ready for preschool.”
I search the house, finally look in the basement, in Hank’s study.
Knock, peek in.
He’s sound asleep on the plaid couch.
And Claire, now two, is curled on his chest, with her blanket.
“Claire, it’s time for school,” I say.
“Not yet,” she says. “Daddy holding me.”
I’m not kidding.
I don’t care.
I won’t be afraid.
No one will notice.
Me for him.
His kids need him.
Through me meet his needs.
AT THE KITCHEN TABLE
It’s late at night.
Hank is always better late at night.
We sit at the kitchen table, talking.
“I’m so worried,” he says.
“I’m trying to decide. Should I have this operation?
How sick will I be? Will I be better?”
I sit there anguished.
I think it’s a mistake.
I know it won’t change anything.
Except he’ll maybe live a bit longer, a lot sicker.
But he hasn’t asked, “How long?”
He’s never asked.
And Kathy decided he must not want to have to know,
or he would have to ask.
So I can’t say, “It’s a mistake Hank
because you’re going to die anyway
so why make yourself suffer?
Maybe if you don’t have it you’ll go out softly, quickly.”
Hank doesn’t ask me that.
He asks me, “How are you, anyway?
How is your book going?
Are you happy with Ron?”
I am I admit. The past two years have been happy.
He leans his head on his hands for a minute.
“It seems unbelievable,” he says in a low voice,
“To think that somebody can be happy.”
THE HOT SPRINGS
Symbolic acts. One brother visits. The other doesn’t.
Our mother doesn’t.
They live so far away. No one will be able
to fly out more than once.
“And then, what do you say to someone who’s doomed?”
A trip to the mountains to bathe in the hot springs–
Lie in the sunshine, the steaming water, snow all around.
The girls squeal in the showers and race on the sidewalks.
Rooms in the grand hotel.
Dinner and breakfast in the grand dining room.
Except Hank can’t walk that far.
So everybody goes out to dinner except me and Hank.
Me babysitting Hank, so he won’t be alone.
He sits in a straight-back chair with his eyes closed,
and won’t lie down.
A cigarette burns between his fingers
and then goes out.
The ash falls on the rug.
And when the carry-out comes back he won’t eat.
And everybody sits around and tries to pretend life is normal.
Jim tells me it’ll be a few months before Hank’s going to get well.
Then, slowly, like a reanimated robot, Hank gets up.
And before he can shuffle away from the chair, he topples.
Three frantic people catch him in unison.
I burst into tears and leave the room,
Call Ron on the phone because my denial just broke down.
My denial that I was in denial.
Why do I go to a psychic?
In a hopeless case, any insight will do.
“You can go,” she says, “but be ready to come back.”
The third week in Venice, I come home, on instinct.
And the night I get home, Kathy calls.
“Can you come now? I can’t handle this alone.
Hank can’t remember how to sit down.”
As I walk through the door, she is angry:
“Hank, if you won’t do what I say, I can’t keep you here.
You’ll have to go to the hospital.”
“Don’t send me to the hospital, Kathy.
I want to stay here with the girls.”
But he can’t move and the two of us can’t help him, he’s too big.
Call Larry. Call Jim.
At midnight, they move him slowly,
one under each arm, like a staggering statue,
a step at a time through the yard to the car.
“You’re doing great Hank, just one more step.
You’re doing great, Hank, now turn around.
Great Hank, now just sit down, sit down, sit down.”
“If I’m doing so great, how come I can’t figure out how to sit down?”
We take turns.
I take care of the kids.
Kathy goes to work.
Jim takes Hank to chemotherapy.
Kay goes to the grocery.
I go to the grocery.
Jim reads the girls stories.
Kay stays at the hospital.
Kathy fills out the insurance forms.
I cook dinner.
Kathy spends some time alone with Hank.
The girls watch TV.
Jim sits in the kitchen.
Kay drives back and forth from the mountains.
Kathy keeps trying to stay normal.
A cop stops her for speeding. She’s late to work.
She bursts into tears. “My husband’s dying,” she tells him.
He lets her off.
We all go to the hospital.
The girls don’t want to go into the room.
Hank slumped in a wheelchair.
Hank unconscious in bed.
“I used to talk about a quality life,” says Kathy.
“I used to say I didn’t want Hank to live if he couldn’t live well.
Now I don’t care.
I don’t care if he can’t talk.
I just want him alive.
I just want him to still be there.”
Hank died while Kay and Gene were out.
Getting a sandwich.
Kathy sat and looked at his waxy skin.
When they got back, Kay cried and cried.
Cried because she wasn’t there.
She put her head on Gene’s chest and he comforted her.
Kathy put her head on Hank’s chest.
One last time.
© Julia Frey 2010