11-17-18: Breathe deeply at the Butte County Fairgrounds this weekend and you will smell a mixture of despair and hope, of gratitude and anguish. In Paradise Lost, as reporters are now calling the Northern California town that burned to the ground, whether you are at the fairgrounds or the Chico Walmart, you’ll find unparalleled need mixed with unparalleled generosity.
My husband and I took a huge stack of $50 gift cards to both places, following a suggestion made by a guest at Bible Study on Wednesday. Those who were not to numb to realize what was happening were mostly shocked when they read the amount. I’m sure many had lost cash, wallets, and bank cards, though many can access an ATM with a cell phone.
But what if you have no ATM to access? What if you spend your weekly pay check to keep up with the rent and your cutie kids outrageous appetites? What if you didn’t have enough surplus to buy insurance and now you don’t have enough cash to buy socks or a tank of gas? Admittedly $50 won’t go very far, but you wouldn’t know that from the original reaction.
Eventually my husband started asking people, hanging out under a smoke-filled sky, if they were burned out by the fire or were already homeless. People answered honestly, and it didn’t matter to him. He gave to both, and those who were hanging out at either place because they are chronically homeless will have a few days of food and socks and giveaway sweat pants, but they’ll also have company and advice and free hugs and the chance to share their street smarts with the newly homeless. Who knows? Some of them might find jobs when the clean up starts. We talked to a man who had worked three days for Carl’s Junior. He was chronically homeless but starting a new life.
Kudos to the volunteers working directly with the displaced people, whether they’re delivering the take-out donated by local restaurants, supplying hygiene products, or simply listening to those who have not heard from a relative who lived in the fire area. So many people were serving their fellow man/woman-kind. These are community members who care and have the energy to do something about it. One volunteer was a special ed teacher. Another was his fourteen-year-old daughter. The schools up there are closed until the second week in December. The schools down here—over 100 miles away—were closed on Friday because of poor air quality. Other volunteers came to donate whatever they could—even if it was moral support.
We can’t fix the air or clean up from the flame retardant that’s soaking into the houses that are still standing. But we can give a moment of heartfelt gratitude and disbelief to people we’ve never seen before and will probably never see again. None of this would have been possible without the generous donations of members of the church my husband pastors.
Today is the first day of the rest of all of our lives.
I heard it’s the negative ions which makes dogs and people so happy while at the beach. No wonder why Sydney the wonder dog went from sleeping in the dirty clothes laundry basket crashed out because I accidentally gave her too much medicine last night to trotting down the beach so fast I literally had to run after her! She really did look like Falcour the luck dragon from the movie Never Ending Story with her ears flapping in the wind as she ran. This is an eight pound doggie with liver cancer. She’s known as a miracle dog at the Lincoln city vet clinic. They said end of August max. Sydney the wonder dog has proven them all wrong. Most of the time I just forget she has it. I do keep giving her the special medicine, RSO oil, and feed her good stuff. I take her to the beach and let her run free. She goes up and down the stairs by herself whenever I take her out. And as long as she’s happy, all is well. I know the day will come when the big decision will loom and a couple of times Megan and I thought for sure this was it. But suddenly Sydney bounced back and let us know under no uncertain terms that she was not ready to go yet. She will go on her terms. Not ours.
There has to be a way. She repeated this to herself over and over as the blue- green circle of sky and trees above her darkened, and the dirt and rocks around her, already cold from their depth below the surface grew colder. She grew colder. The walls of earth were closing in. No. She could not allow these thoughts. There has to be a way.
After assessing her condition, her left ankle sprained or broken, bruises-a-plenty, she had tried to climb, naturally, to find footholds and handholds in the packed earth, ignoring the pain as she forced herself to put weight on the injured leg. The sides of the ditch were vertical and just far apart enough that she was unable to spider crawl up, even if the foot wasn’t searing with pain. It must have been man-dug and abandoned, she theorized, perhaps drilled for water or oil or ore that was not to be found. Not to be found. She did her best to keep panic buried, as it were. Action helped. Or had been helping. There has to be a way.
There was no service on her cell, ironic as she had taken the hike to “unplug,” orienteering being something she always thought she’d like to try. She had only looked up for seconds to see the osprey squealing overhead, walked only a few steps before the world disappeared beneath her feet. Though she told herself not to, she replayed the scene in her head over and over, trying to take a different path, to look down in time, to reach an alternate ending, as if this were just a bad dream. She shivered.
There has to be a way. Come on, Darby, think. She had already yelled for help until her throat was raw, then called out in intervals. She had dug rocks out of the packed dirt, her fingernails caked, and thrown them up out of the hole, straining her arm. Some dropped back down on her head in a cynical rain. She had listened carefully for human conversation or footfalls. But she was off-trail. Only the muffled rustle of leaves answered her wishes. Periodically, she moved, did knee lifts, circled her hips, wiggled toes and fingers, made circles with the good foot then each arm, a sort of condensed Hokey Pokey. Anything to stay warm, keep moving. Breathe. And think about anything but the walls and depth, the loneliness and desperation of her situation. There has to be a way.
Now, without water for hours, she was starting to feel like nothing but dust and paste and crackle, barely human. Even small motions were becoming harder, her tongue dry, a menacing presence in her mouth. Her body, unquenched, threatened in its heaviness, its fragile machinery. No. Don’t think about that. Think past the physical self. Think out of this ditch. She turned on her phone and turned the light up to the surface. “Help! Somebody. Help,” she cried, only she couldn’t seem to generate a voice anymore. One step. It had been one step without looking, before falling longer than a person should, bumping from wall to wall on the way down.
It only takes an instant for life to change direction. One incident. One small move. She knew this. But how many times would it happen to her? Her life had already derailed. When Jordan walked off that curb and the Volvo driver, looking at his cell phone, drove through the red light. And through Jordan. One small move. Instead of his huge presence in her life, a wedding, the future they talked about with kids, there was shock and mourning, questions and anger and inertia and pity. Then there were boot straps to pull up and standing straight for the sake of onlookers. Then true survival, baby steps to moving on. Because you can’t go back after something like that. No matter how hard you try. Synapses in her brain had changed. Her eyes saw differently. Ladybugs were bigger, sunsets brighter. At the same time, morning commuters looked gray and robotic. Jordan was everywhere and nowhere. Her HR job bored her. Lacing up running shoes was laborious, but the run itself, endorphins released, brought feverish gratitude.
She flashed and waved the light of her phone upwards while doing a weak march in place. Battery was at 40%. Come on. Anybody.
What was she saying? Yes, there has to be a way. Oh but she was tired. So tired. She admonished herself now for the wasted energy of the panic attack that had finally broken through earlier. When she still had tears. It had taken ages to breathe and cry it out. She couldn’t get that energy back now. Once again, she longed for her backpack, which she had slipped off and placed on a boulder in order to find a place to pee. In it was water and food and a jacket. So cold. So tired. So dry.
Death. No, that was one word she would not allow. No. But the word invaded, like a parasite multiplying. Death. Death. Death. She might die tonight. Of dehydration, hypothermia. If she perished there, people would probably say she committed suicide because of Jordan, wandered into the woods alone to die. Yep. They’d shake their heads. It was a broken heart, they’d say. But that wasn’t her. Despite his absence, she was just starting to feel like she could move on. It was her liveliness that Jordan fell in love with first, he had told her. She was full of life. And so young. They’d say that too. Death.
No, no, no. There has to be…Optimism was getting harder to fabricate, resignation so close. But she didn’t want that. She didn’t want to die.
It’s just a damn hole! Think. There has to… She stared at the phone, willing it to find service, to sing her the answer. Music. Worth a try. She looked into her music library. Old AC/DC, Highway to Hell. It was the loudest thing she could think of. She turned it on, reaching her arm up with the phone as far as she could, though it hardly made a difference. It wasn’t loud enough. How strange the music sounded, heart beats and youthful rebellion down here in the dark and cold, the drums flashing out memories of laughter and friends, a party somewhere, that road trip to Anaheim. The battery power was going fast. She knew it. Please. Please.
Not that song again! I reach to turn the radio dial, but his hands are quicker, covering the controls while his other thumb finds the volume and cracks it way up. He grins at me, impishly, teasing, and I marvel again at his white, straight (from years of braces—he tells me sometimes how mercilessly he was teased for these and his mouthguard during basketball season) teeth, his amber eyes, the way that with a single look, he can disarm me completely, even after eight months.
He starts waggling his torso in time with the music, tapping the steering wheel, the car swerving ever so slightly without leaving the lane. He tries to take my hand, proffering his with palm up, lifeline long, as if asking for this dance. I giggle until he grabs it, swinging it and trying to twirl me in my seat.
Watch the road!I call, keeping my voice light while in truth, I hate this song. It has been overplayed on all the major radio stations for the past three weeks and it’s become his favorite to put on with his evening beer or two…or ten. He would belt it out, slurring, grabbing my hand to dance, though it was midnight and we both had to work the next morning. He’d offer his hand, palm up, clammy with his beer of choice (Budweiser most of the time) pouring out of every pore. He’d try to bow chivalrously, One dance, m’lady, but the effort would send him stumbling with heavy laughter as his left leg almost gave out and he gripped my arm for balance instead of dance.
But today, his hair is perfectly set and his maroon cardigan (that I gave him for Christmas last winter) makes his eyes pop. I can’t believe my fortune. He is gorgeous. His smile is genuine even if his singing is off key. It’s Saturday and we are meeting our best friends for a hike and dinner. It’s sunny with just the right amount of clouds to keep it from being too hot. Nothing should spoil the day. (Will I have to fight him for his keys tonight?)
I pull my sleeve over the greenish spot that hasn’t quite faded on my wrist and smile, bowing back to him. Play it again. I believe I missed my dance.
Sensual rhythms pulsated through his body. He needed sex. His wife was dead below the neck. At least that’s what she claimed. Apparently, that’s what she wanted to be.
He didn’t understand. He hadn’t changed his technique in thirty years and he only had to look in the mirror to know he was as handsome as ever. What was his wife’s problem?
Sure, if they were sitting in a restaurant he looked at other women. Looking wasn’t the same as touching. He even pointed out the styles of clothing, hair, make up, and shoes that he liked. Did she take the hint? No. So what was her problem? Why was middle age getting her down?
He’d recently gotten a promotion at work and he used the extra money to buy an RV so they could go traveling around the country three weeks a year. “Whatever you say dear, “ was all she said. No opinion. No reaction. No praise. No resistance.
While it was nice to have a compliant wife, he didn’t want a dead one. If she didn’t have a little spirit, what was the point in his being the head of the household? Who wants to head up an organization when there’s no one to influence? She was gone. Like a ghost. She did what he expected but her heart wasn’t in it. Neither was her mind. What did she want, anyway?
Why don’t you ask her, said the voice that lived in his head. He gave an involuntary shudder, just like she sometimes did when she lay under him.
Maybe I don’t want to know what’s wrong. Maybe I just want my old wife back.
Compliant Lily has grown up, the voice told him. Maybe it’s something she read or saw on TV. Maybe she’s been talking to the neighbors or following some women’s blog.
So? She still loves me.
Does she? People change. Have you checked in with her lately? Maybe she’s showing you something she can’t say in words.
I don’t want my life to change.
You’re half of a partnership and I know you want what’s right for both of you. Couples negotiate all the time. Give it a try and see what happens, okay? Maybe she’ll find that as sensual as your gyrations in the bedroom used to be.
I missed the moment of Lisa’s death by 9 hours. I had decided I wanted to be there with her as she transitioned into whatever came next, if anything. I thought, even if she was medicated to the rafters, even if her brain was 90 percent fentanyl, that she might feel a little less alone crossing over if I was there holding her hand.
The day started off as good as one could expect, knowing that your loved one would not be alive 24 hours later. The entire family squeezed into Lisa’s ICU room: me, my wife Karen, Mom, Dad, Aunt Arlene and Lisa’s partner Keith, who had never left the hospital for days. Lisa’s closest friends, Debbie, Brenda and Brandi arrived around noon. We convinced the nurse to hook up a bluetooth speaker to the computer dispensing Lisa’s meds. It had Pandora installed and we created a Pat Benatar station, which played the hits of the 80s and early 90s, albeit at a low volume. Debbie tacked a large white paper to the wall for us to write down words and phrases that reminded us of Lisa. I wrote “uninhibited.” It was the right atmosphere. I think Lisa would have approved of the company and the tunes.
The docs needed to first wean Lisa off the paralytic that they’d had her on for a few days, as she had been very agitated and was ripping at her tubes. Or that’s the reason I’m writing down because I never really understood why she was forcibly paralyzed. Then the staff needed to make sure Lisa didn’t appear agitated afterward, and then they would up her fentanyl and take off her ventilator. We were told the whole process could take between 2-4 hours. They began the steps around 3:30 or 4pm. At 6:30 no one had come to check to see if Lisa could be taken off the ventilator. We kept calling the nurses, but they said they needed to wait, that the paralytic was still measuring in her system. They finally took Lisa off the ventilator around 7:30 and when they hooked up the tube that would guide her breathing, Lisa would make a gurgling sound. Every 15 minutes or so they had to come up and suck up blood and gunk from the tube that had been be fed down her trach hole. This way Lisa’s gasping breaths would be more quiet but still clearly labored.
Dad and Karen left way before this. Dad couldn’t handle watching any of the medical procedures at all. Never could in all Lisa’s many hospitalizations. So they were gone by 3pm. Brandi needed to pick up her son at 5 and she left. Brenda and Debbie tried to stick around but they both split around 8. I was responsible for mom and Aunt Arlene and they both said they were happy to stay. But watching Lisa struggle for breath while a team of nurses tubed out blood like clockwork was depressing and felt like an unnecessary torture. At around 10:30, the three of us left to head home. Keith was the only one who stayed. I would have stayed if I wasn’t responsible for my Mom/Aunt but, my wanting to stay was more symbolic and based on some misguided notion of duty. There was guilt too. I hadn’t seen Lisa since her double lung transplant in March and it was now October. I could have spent more time with her the intervening months. But I didn’t. The least I could do was stay a few extra hours.
A few extra hours became 13 extra hours. I got the text from Keith at 8:30am. Lisa had just taken her last breath. It can seem like a cliche to say that a loved-one who passes is in a better place, but with Lisa, I have to believe that’s the truth. She’d been tethered to tubes and wires and drugged to the gills for almost a year straight. Her body had been ravaged, used up. It was time for her spirit to be released and set free to explore unknown realms of existence.