Went to see my orthopedic surgeon today, in search of relief for my aching feet (double foot surgery last summer, osteoarthritis, blahblahblah). As usual, things went swimmingly. Standing in the absolute center of a morning-packed elevator, I suppressed an urge to cough. Out of nowhere and into complete silence, I wound up doing one of those horrifyingly violent, wet, involuntary spasm coughs that happen when your drink goes down the wrong pipe. Aside from a few nearly imperceptible shudders and subtle leanings away, everyone ridiculously pretended they hadn’t noticed and stared straight ahead. So then I felt compelled to fill the awkward silence with a description no one wanted of what had just transpired: “Oh my GOD! Sorry about that, y’all!!! I was trying to hold back a cough and then it choked me up and I kind of spazzed and did that thing where it just surprises…so I…sorry about that…” Total silence. For a second I thought maybe I was invisible, but then from behind me a young woman in scrubs and an elaborate perm quietly squeaked, “That happened to me once. During the SATs.” I nodded gratefully as we all filed out, except I was on the wrong floor and had to ride all the way back down to the lobby so I could look at the board to figure out my doctor’s office was four floors above the place I’d exited the first time.
Signing in late, the receptionist began to organize forms in a manner that made me feel like I should ask permission, in a voice that came out louder than I intended, to pee: “I have to go to the bathroom, okay? I’ll be right back. Is that okay?” She gave one of those heavy-lidded, bureaucratic stares, clipboard suspended just out of reach for a beat too long, and said, “That will be fine.”
So they took me back and I’m waiting and waiting and getting that nervous freezing-cold-but-sweaty feeling I always get in exam rooms and finally it got so bad I decided to take a stiff paper towel from the stack on the counter next to me and really quickly stick it under my shirt to pat my underarms dry and of course at that very moment the doctor doesn’t even do the little cursory knock thing but just walks right in and I act like a kid caught masturbating, pulling the towel out of my shirt and balling it up and talking excitedly all at once to try and cover up what I perceived as our mutual embarrassment.
He does the x-rays and checks my feet and I lose the genetic lottery, turning out to be the 1 in 10 for whom surgery doesn’t wind up helping but actually accelerates the arthritis, or maybe I don’t have that exactly right because I can never take in but about 1/2 of what the doctor says because I’m so busy trying to nod in all the right places and frown to communicate solemn understanding that I can’t actually concentrate and figure I’ll just google it later. He suggests cortisone shots, but says he’ll only do one foot because “it really hurts.” He asks which foot I’d prefer.
Me: Mmmm, no. Can’t do one. Gotta do both.
Dr: I won’t do both. Too painful. Just pick one.
Me: Um, no. Nope. No, ‘cause then it’ll just make the one you didn’t do feel like it hurts worse and then I’ll just be all mad that one feels good and the other one hurts and I’m still limping around and what’s the point. We’re gonna do both.” I nod, as if encouraging a reluctant child, the matter settled.
Dr: Well, look, most people can’t—”
Me: HONEY, I CAN TAKE it!!!! Just DO IT!!!!
Dr: […] Okay. We’ll do both.
He leaves to get the shots and I begin to process that I’ve just screamed “Honey I can take it! Just do it!” to an impressively pedigreed specialist with years of experience under his professional belt.
So he comes back in, knocking first and pausing behind the cracked door this time, and I’m leaned back on the exam table and warning him I’m going to talk a lot to distract myself from the pain, and the assistant asks if I want to hold her hand and I say “No. I don’t want to do that.” a little more aggressively than I mean to, and as the needle pierces my right toe joint, the doctor muses to himself as he tries to wiggle it in that there sure is a lot of scar tissue in there, and he tells me to let him know if I can’t take it anymore and suddenly I hear myself yelling “I’ve had FOUR BABIES NATURALLY, I can certainly DO THIS!!!” and I breathe through my nose as the burning lava flushes up my leg and then recedes, adding, “I mean, sorry, I’m good though, thanks.”
Then I’m back at the front desk, doing my co-pay, and I’m signing the credit card receipt when the ball point pen inexplicably leaps out of my hand and flies over the receptionist’s head so she has to scoot her rolling chair around and back and lean down under the counter so far her shirt comes up as she retrieves it, and I notice she seems miffed, as if I’ve said something to offend her, when she returns the pen to my hand.
“‘Kay then, thanks. See y’all in two weeks.” I mutter. She stares before answering, one eyebrow cocked, tamping down the disheveled pile of papers against her desk until they form a neat stack. ”That will be fine.” she says to my retreating back, as I hobble away to the elevators.
I can’t stop thinking about this guy’s face. If you’re local, you’ve probably seen him at that busy intersection of Ponce and Highland near the Majestic. He’s not young but not old, milk-coffee-complexioned, professorial in glasses and an old-fashioned navy cloth windbreaker. He uses his long legs to propel his wheelchair backwards, tippy-toeing hard into the ground while looking back over his shoulder, sometimes down the sidewalk, sometimes nerve-rackingly across the street. It looks exhausting, but from the set of his mouth and furrow of his brow you can tell he’s determined to make it happen. I always wonder about him, about his disability, where he lives and if anyone helps.
Today I was stopped at the light, idly staring at the blind woman from the checkout line at Publix, still in her uniform and waiting to use the crosswalk. I chat with her sometimes when she’s bagging my groceries, but the truth is I avoid her if I see her before choosing a lane, because she takes forever to do the job, reaching out and patting the receiving area off the conveyer belt, assessing items, searching for bags and so on. I never know how much to help, if I should say, “You missed some fruit over there to your right — no, down a little!” or “Watch your hand, here comes a big bag of dog food!” or if maybe that’s insulting and I should just leave her be. But I worry she’ll smush the bread or spill the cleaners, and I imagine us as a bad SNL skit, the inept bagger and the horrified housewife (I’m usually Aykroyd in drag). I want to laugh and then feel terrible and silently vow to purposely seek out her lane next time, my intention already fading as I remind myself I’m really in a hurry, even as my heart recognizes I’d just rather not deal.
She was standing on the corner with her cane, waiting for the light to change, and her normally pulled-back brown hair was loose and flapping over her face in the wind, wavy where she’d taken out the ponytail holder then trailing off into long split ends. I noticed her skin for the first time, pale with angry red tulips creeping up the sides of her cheeks. She probably lived in that high-rise across the street, an old brick building with depressing florescent hallways and dented metal doors that secreted the melancholy cheer of daytime tv and the boiled turnip smell of the perpetually homebound.
I’d been there before, long ago, delivering boxed meals to AIDs patients during a lost post-college year, between jobs and before children, nights disappearing in swirls of smoke and bourbon, days stretched long with consuming self-doubt and aimless future angst. AIDs was still pretty much a death sentence then, and I’d wanted to help somehow, imagining grateful Hepburn eyes protruding from sharp-boned faces, maybe the clasping of one veiny roped hand over mine, a stoic nod confirming I’d done all I could. Instead, I stumbled into pill-cluttered tabletops and added more boxes to styrofoam-filled refrigerators, tripped over gnarled webs of extension cords and weaved around wheeled tanks, smiling and discreetly holding my breath, the stench of leaking urine and lurking death bleakly terrifying. The appreciative charges of my imagination turned out to be indifferent or sometimes openly hostile to my breezy comings and goings. There were grouchy directives from dank couches; resentful, hollowed-out stares in response to my phonily cheerful greetings; mocking half-smiles, gazes trained on TVs, as I brightly asked if they needed anything else. What they needed was everything else. They refused to indulge my little charade because they already knew my sad secret: I wanted to get the hell away from them as fast as my limbs could run.
I snapped back into focus as the man’s chair scuttled into my peripheral vision, tail-end first and weirdly crablike. He did a kind of parallel park move next to the blind Publix lady, and sat for a second, breathing heavily, glancing around and recomposing himself. Sensing another presence, he tilted his chin up and to the right, taking her in. And in that moment his entire face seemed to collapse at once and then soften, emotions shadowing across it with the intensity of a Broadway star playing to the back row. From across the street, I swear I witnessed the record of his life, the story of hers. I saw pity and love, sorrow and recognition, and such a deep-bone tiredness it felt as if his whole body sighed. I knew there was no “not dealing” for them, no running away, no running anywhere, ever. His face hardened again before he turned back to the flashing crosswalk sign, staring vacantly until the light changed. And I drove away, lying to myself I’d do better, as they tapped and toed into the intersection, out of my rearview mirror.
Two days now, “Romeo & Juliet” has been in my head. Yeah, not the play, the treacly theme song from the old movie version. It’s true I’ve never seen the film; I guess it could be wonderful, but I have to tell you the stills don’t look all that promising. Anyway, I heard the muzak rendition (of the remarkably close-to-muzak original) in a ski lodge restroom, struggling to pull down then back up two layers of sweaty long johns and astronaut-bloated ski pants. The waterfall piano bit cascaded so many times through my brain I finally gave up and checked online to see if I was remembering it right. Yep, “Romeo & Juliet”, 1968. That puts me at barely a year old, so how could I possibly know every inch of this song, down to the obligatory part where the men’s choir comes in and goes “Ah-AH-ah-AAAAAHHHH…”?
Then it hit me: Barbour Drug. Barbour Drug, the small town drug store I rode my purple Schwinn ten-speed to a hundred, maybe a thousand times growing up. The kind of drug store that no longer exists, with muzak speakers playing “Romeo & Juliet” and a lunch counter in the back with grilled chicken salad sandwiches and a big metal citrus press and not a single person you didn’t know or at least recognize from school or church or another store that was the only one of its kind in town.
Barbour Drug, where I picked out a Shaun Cassidy heart pendant, debated over rock candy or Reese’s peanut butter cups; where I bought my first razor (the shell kind that was supposedly easier, one foot hop-balancing, the other awkwardly prehensile grasping the bottom of a lethally slippery bathroom sink) from a terrifyingly popular high school cheerleader working the weekend register, a girl who threw her head back cackling while my oldest brother doubled over laughing, watching me try and fail to casually toss the razor on the counter unnoticed among the deodorant and shampoo already there, then run mortified out the door now that everyone surely knew I’d never before shaved and Steve May had recently called me Gorilla Legs on the monkey bars just beneath Fattis Gattis’s 6th grade classroom window. Barbour Drug, where I bought my first box of tampons, my mother’s station wagon idling, the desperate desire to go swimming with friends finally trumping the overwhelming embarrassment of standing there, pink with humiliation, as the male salesclerk thumbed through a metal box containing notecards of family purchases to be billed later, pausing to obliviously lick an index finger as the line swelled behind me, finally reaching the “W”s and recording “Tampax” in painstaking, glacial print as I shrunk into myself, eyes down in silent prayer no boys would be there when I at last turned around, terrified and 13, the same as Juliet when she died.
My daughter and I sat at the kitchen table, reading aloud from To Kill a Mockingbird. We were nearing the book’s end, and I’d grown accustomed to speaking in the different townspeople’s voices, varying accent and pitch, sometimes saying deplorable things in character. I, a “Christian” lady over teacakes, was remarking how “darkies” were getting awfully full of themselves, when my daughter slammed her hands on the table, halting me mid sentence: “Mom, STOP it!!! This is making me feel terrible!”
I dogeared the page and looked up, assuming she was objecting to the racist language, to me using it. And she was — just not in the way I’d expected. Anxious and teary, she shook her head: “I don’t know what to do! This is awful. You’re reading those terrible words, words that I would feel so bad if any of my African American friends — and I’ve gotten USED to them! I’m not even HEARING them anymore! Do you see what I MEAN? That’s not who I am, and I feel so bad, because I’m not even really NOTICING anymore when you say them! Why is that HAPPENING to me?”
I was surprised, and a little impressed. My daughter was offended that the offending language no longer offended. We’d both winced at Harper Lee’s honest, plain-spoken dialogue in the beginning, the hateful words dribbling in apologetic trails from my mouth, but at some point I’d stopped offering long-winded, explanatory asides and begun to let the characters speak for themselves, accepting them within the context of time and story.
We had grown used to the language, acclimatized to the name-calling, listening until we could distinguish the venomous from the merely misguided. Some comments were borne of hate, but just as many from ignorance. I felt anew the power of derogatory words, their mundanity, the insidious power granted by their very everydayness. Lee is careful not to restrict thoughtless racist remarks to the “bad” characters in her novel, ascribing them even to our 8-year-old heroine, Scout, literally too innocent to know better. Because discrimination relies on societal inattention for survival, hate masquerading as habit. It thrives on routine, flourishes with repetition, unnoticed as kudzu strangling the garden. In Lee’s world, as in our own, there are those who exist beyond salvation, but there are always others for whom growth is conceivable, once vines are stripped away and light streams in.
Still, my daughter felt stuck, indicted by anything linking her to those trapped by tradition, molded by heritage, governed by prejudice. Her voice carried the panic of a swimmer recognizing the undertow too late. She thrashed against the words, terrified of drowning in them. So we turned to Atticus’s words, and tried to stand in others’ shoes, really walk around in them, before rushing to judgment. We talked about the deep roots of hatred and fear in the South, the motivations behind action and inaction, the layers of civility undermining change. We tried not to condemn, but to make sense of it. Because searching for humanity, even in people’s most repugnant moments, does not necessitate being sucked out to sea with them. Empathy isn’t weakness; it’s the only thing keeping us afloat.
I don’t want my children growing up ashamed of being Southern. I do want them to understand the South’s sometimes shameful past. And the reality of dehumanizing words like “nigger” and “darky” are critical to this understanding. The sting of casual usage, even on the tongues of “good” characters, highlighted racism’s pervasiveness for my daughter in a way mere vilification never could.
Words can do real harm, but by properly respecting them, it is possible to confine their power to the page, to history, to reduce them once again in our own lives to a collection of letters. My daughter, despite her initial panic, was deeply impacted by the lines I read, the story they told. She understood the tide’s dark pull, and she swam, parallel to the horizon, summoning all she knew of love and courage and decency, until she felt her body release back into the surf. Then she righted herself, exhilarated, and picked her way back through the sinking sand to shore.
Woke up with an aching spot just below my belly button, my lower right abdomen tellingly tender to the touch. This was it. I was done for. I suffered from appendicitis, various fatal diseases, mysterious blood clots throughout the day. Google grimly confirmed my worst suspicions. I called my husband to complain, composed mind letters to my family, assigned friends key roles in the mentorship of my children. Floyd knew, I could tell by his open-mouthed smile, his patient insistence that I stroke his fur. No one could argue I deserved this last, stoic glass of wine, Russell Crowe in a tricorn hat, going down with the ship.
Two sips in, it came back to me, glancing sideways at the kitchen sink. Here. Yesterday. Vigorously cutting through thick stems, bouquet braced against my stomach, struggling to shorten lovely birthday flowers brought to the door by a dear friend. Sadie, bottom on the countertop, throwing out annoying observations: “It says you should cut them diagonally, Mommy.” “Maybe you should try a different pair of scissors.” “I think you should probably wait for Daddy, Mommy.”
One last, Herculean effort, triumphant, eyes trailing stems’ arcs into the sink, brain processing sharp, inexplicable abdominal pain. I looked down, realizing I’d captured a hunk of malleable, residual baby-gut in the clipper handles, just as I squeezed down with all my might to slice the flower stalks.
The dread I’d felt all day turned to sheepish annoyance. I suddenly longed for my fictional hospital bed, the sympathetic cards and encouraging balloons, the smell of still-warm, dropped-by homemade lasagna filling the air as I recovered, frail but cozy beneath seas of soft blankets on the living room couch.
Two days into my 46th year, and I’ve already become my grandmother, whose hypochondriac tendencies caused death to remain imminent for 80 of her 95 years. I still share her conviction in the lethal potential harbored by each new cramp or twinge, her slight disappointment when a burp or stretch resolves the matter. But I also share her inclination to stay alive, and during more objective moments, even I have to admit this ship still feels reasonably solid. With a bit of good luck, I might be standing on this deck for 50 more years before submerging. Either way, I suppose a small refill’s in order, maybe a song or two from the band while I wait at the railing, ever-vigilant, scouring the horizon for icebergs.
We fought all the way to dinner. By the time we spotted the sushi restaurant, on our second crawl through the night’s third uninspired suburban strip mall parking lot, I was mentally filing for divorce. How had we missed it, sandwiched between a Kroger and an “Irish Pub”, its windows generously bedecked in pink neon cursive and Liberace curtains? I silently vowed to ruin our night at all costs. I wanted the meal to suck, hoped we’d get food poisoning and die so he’d see how awful he was, dragging us 20 miles up the highway to some “authentic” shithole for my one night out of the house, my chance to be pampered, my time to be alone with this person I currently loathed.
We argued as the hostess brought menus, traded eye daggers as we placed our drink order, sneered straight-backed and cross-armed as we listened to the night’s specials. He threatened to walk out, so I rolled my eyes and gestured theatrically toward the door, maintaining a newly-settled-on monastic silence. It seemed to irritate him most. I declined to participate in dinner selection, pretending I didn’t care while raising a hostile eyebrow to every suggestion.
The first dish arrived, and to my extreme dismay, it was perfect. My husband became annoyingly animated, enthusing smugly over each bite. I did my best to remain dignified, struggling to maintain a flat affect as each flavor-melding, tongue-melting mouthful hit my palate. I vainly hoped the dish was a fluke, but when the second course arrived I knew I was beat. I was going to inhale every dish around me and then beg, drooling, for more. My plan was in shambles. I hadn’t come here to have fun, goddammit.
It’s true that marriage is filled with loads of seething rage, impotent threats and called-out bluffs. At a certain point, you know one another inside-out, which makes it a lot harder to fuck with each other. I mean, what good is a dramatic storm-out-of-the-restaurant moment when both of you know you’ll wind up sheepishly heading back in the same car, to the same house, to the same room, the same bed? And how can you sustain an icy silence with four kids at home, demanding to be fed and clothed, helped with homework and hollered at?
Marriage is forced teamwork, character-building in the manner of a middle school group science project, where you resentfully assume no one else is doing their fair share while simultaneously schluffing off as much work as possible. It’s being paired up even as you try mightily to avoid each other, the square dancing partner you keep getting twirled off to in 7th grade gym class.
But teamwork has its rewards. As the saké begins to works its magic, I feel my shoulders loosening slightly, my body shifting forward a little in my seat before I think too much about it. My husband uses his utensils to buttress the tiny green chili that keeps sliding out of my grasp, and finally I manage to pick it up, our chopsticks crossing companionably over the plate. We continue in silence as I dollop a little wasabi onto my dish, checking to see if he needs more before setting it back down. I notice he’s eating around the pieces he thinks I’ll like best, even though I know he likes them too.
A heavily-perfumed woman, with overdone makeup and underdone clothing, makes a big production of getting situated beside us, and my husband facetiously widens his eyes and purses his lips at me. It’s a cheap target, but we’re on the same side again. He squeezes my hand and laughs as I remind him he’s still an asshole. The waiter looks relieved as he steps in to refill our saké glasses. Might as well have fun, goddammit.
My father died with sugar in the bottom of his coffee cup. I can’t remember how I know this - who would’ve told me? - but some details just stay with you.
The day it happened, like every other day, he walked up the driveway in his robe and slippers and retrieved the daily paper. It was his habit to heat the sugar and milk in his mug before adding coffee, but on this particular day, he didn’t get that far. Instead he wound up on the hardwood floor, gently correcting my frantic mother for placing the wrong kind of aspirin on his tongue. Baby aspirin, it turns out, is easier to swallow during a heart attack.
My father was a gifted doctor, and we all marveled at his ability to diagnose any ailment with spare, well-placed questions, even over the phone. He surely knew what was happening to his body that nondescript January morning, and I find it comforting, imagining him issuing directives to my mother from the ground. Perhaps it calmed him, treating himself, the illusion of control enough to begin relinquishing it. As a doctor, maybe he simply recognized a patient who couldn’t be saved.
From the days surrounding his death, I recall nothing and everything. The world splintered into silence and noise, color and shadow, fog and lucidity. My father was alive, making coffee, and then he wasn’t.
The second call came as I waited in line at the airport, trying to get home. My brother’s voice broke over the line: “He didn’t make it. He just didn’t make it.” I felt myself stumble around roped-off plastic poles, faces melding as I pushed my way back to the curb and collapsed onto my bag. I put my face between my knees and pulled my coat up over my head, yearning for darkness, smallness, nothingness. It felt safer to feel alone. Eventually I became aware of a hand prodding my shoulder. Still and focused as a shuttered horse, I tested the words, words my heart screamed were lies, on the nervously hovering Delta employee: “My father is dead.” I stared with wet, stony eyes as her stern face crumbled, glad to wound someone, anyone.
The rest comes in snippets. In the middle seat on the plane, cutting off an affable fellow mid-sentence by putting on headphones, unable or unwilling to share the truth with a new stranger. Stepping onto the escalator, an involuntary snort escaping my nose and lungs as I heard my oldest brother say into the phone, “I’ve got you. I’m here. I see you.” The silver-haired gentleman watching us embrace, eyes telegraphing compassion, face reflecting experiential knowledge. My brother and I, talking over each other in the rental car, laughing with giddy urgency, as if any remaining joy had to be crammed into these moments before arriving home, before grief swallowed us whole.
Once, about a year later, my dead father came to me. I wasn’t asleep. I’d just turned off the lamp and taken off my glasses, and was curling up sideways in bed. The bathroom door was cracked, and light streamed around the doorframe, dusty like rays from an old school projector. For no reason, I knew in my bones it was him.
He just stayed like that, inanimate, a door. But whatever made Dad “Dad” originated and emanated from the wood, transforming it into something soft and light and malleable. I thought maybe I should get up, but something about the whole experience made me feel so peaceful I just stayed where I was. When I was little, afraid of shadows in the night, I’d reach behind my headboard, banging on the wall separating our rooms until he came to soothe me back to sleep. He’d sit on my bed, waiting until I calmed down, and then he’d leave again. The next time I opened my eyes, the door was just a door.
A wall, a door, a death. Who’s to know if what separates us is permanent. I once saw a photograph of a bicyclist, moments after a fatal crash. It was grainy newspaper print, black and white. The rider was curled up fetus-style, the surrounding pavement darker and wetter and somehow warmer, for all the world like a womb. He looked pure - untroubled and untouchable. It made me think of space and time, but not of death. Years later, I came across the photo again, this time in color, and saw that the road was actually smeared thick with blood. All of the beauty had vanished.
The girl who answered the door looked to be around 10 or 11 - not quite old enough to be awkward in her skin, but past the age of being completely unselfconscious. She was beautiful (and surely knew it by now), yet remained impervious to this fact. Her unbrushed brown hair surged in dense cables to just beneath her shoulders, and magnificently thick eyebrows sat atop her dark, mischievous eyes. You could see right away that the girl liked to have fun - to laugh - maybe to tease - he’d bet money she loved to place herself in the thick of things. She possessed a kind of captivatingly old-fashioned charm, not in appearance, really, but in the incongruity between her natural elegance and (what he sensed to be) a slightly goofy, madcap disposition. A modern-day Myrna Loy?
Her skin was luminescent, as if underlit with gold, and there was just the slightest sprinkling of freckles across her nose. But it was the lips that were most unsettling - such perfectly plumped pillows as to make a plastic surgeon weep, their flush of color so rich they seemed the very elucidation of youth. He felt a wash of relief when her mother appeared behind her in the doorframe - he knelt down and feigned interest in the family dog until the girl wandered away to join her friends singing karaoke in the adjoining room.