When I am an old woman, will I know what to do with all this pain? Will I finally have come to some wisdom, some way of soaking it up or shedding it off? We went to the Blackhills and to the Badlands. Over and over the weathered faces of Native Americans stared back at me, wrinkles lay in deep folds across eyelids and cheeks bones, faces that seemed to know, to know sorrows I don’t even have images for, only a deep guttural wailing that binds my broken heart to theirs. Did they ever discover how to bear up under the weight of loss, of stripping and breaking, their beings required to take up less and less space in a vast land that once was theirs?
All of a sudden, in what seemed a common moment, there comes piercing in, a blade that cuts afresh, that causes the blood to ooze and bead. Trekking out into the complex array of layers stacked, striations of brown and talc and orange, we explored the Badlands, a place of ever-changing, evolving erosion, a land of perpetual loss. Over the course of days, our skin unknowingly soaked in the sun and we took on burn and tan. As Solveig noted the darkening of her arms the conversation turned to her “olive” skin that she must have gotten from her dad, for I am an Irish lass, covered in freckles and prone to burning. And Allistaire? Well, she had been declared “white on white” by her first oncologist, this apparently being considered a good thing, indicative of a greater likelihood of having a bone-marrow match should there ever be need.
And just like that, there it was. The sudden knowing of a man who I had so loved, loved early and loved long. His arms turned olive in the summer, the hair in turn changing to blonde. I would bring his wrists to my cheek and feel the softness there and admire this warming of color brought by heat and light. And the blade twists and I want to gag. What do I do with all this pain? Where do I put these memories, these small intimacies, these wee jewels of love of knowing another? How now do I look at them, how ought I to categorize them?
Tonight it was the grits. Leaving work feeling deflated, feeling that in spite of my efforts, I had yet again tripped up and found myself in a mire, my heart dragged. To the grocery store we went. I can always buy milk but beyond that the question of dinner loomed, so deafeningly complex, so much to consider. What can I cook that won’t take too long, won’t make too much of a mess, won’t be an unhealthy mess of chemicals from pre-packaged easy prep foods, and won’t be pricey. Breakfast dinner, that’s what I would do, an old standby from childhood and always surprisingly satisfying. As we checked out I told Solveig to go get a different box of graham crackers as this one was bashed in and I thought this might be a sign of crumbled crackers. “Still poison,” the boy behind me in line mutters under his breath.
I can’t seem to catch a break. I’m fairly aware of poison. Pretty keenly aware that my child died of cancer and I don’t know why. I’m the one that had to watch her gray lips move like a dying fish on the shore after her chest ceased to rise. “Do you not think I want to avoid poison with every fiber of my being?” I want to bellow back. But I have another daughter, see. She’s the one the crackers are for, to bring her and her school friends joy to celebrate the end of another school year with a sleepover and s’mores.
At home we sit quiet, bellies filling, finding satiation in our sausage, eggs, toast and grits. Grits. We haven’t had those in a long time, sort of forget about ’em. They are a food representative of my childhood. Daughter of two native Georgians, pork tenderloin, fried eggs, biscuits and grits have been core to my growing up. It brings an odd joy to watch my own child, far from the south, relishing grits. Shrimp and grits come to mind and prompts me to dig up an old recipe I vaguely remember making once.
And just like that, there it is. The memory floods back. Still early in my role as wife, trying to bring joy to my husband by preparing tasty, healthy food, I would peruse the Cooking Light Annual Recipes books for new tasty dishes to try. There it was, the green salad with avocado and grape tomatoes and southern style shrimp and grits. 2005 the spine of the book tells me. Just four years in to what would end up being a 15 year marriage. I try to remember those days. Try to squint and see, who was that girl just turned 30, and that boy early in his career? Were we happy then? What were our woes? How were we already laying down patterns of relating that would burn and cut and blind us to one another.
I wish I could go back. Inhabit her flesh. See the world through wiser eyes and try again. Could I make the ending turn out differently? How much was within my grasp and what never was?
But I can’t. I can’t go back and I can’t change a thing. And now I must simply learn to live with this living breathing loss. I remember talking to Marla. Marla is the director of Side-by-Side, the ministry that pairs volunteers with sick kids at Seattle Children’s. Allistaire’s own Side-by-Side volunteer, Kaley, was one of her dearest friends. I never knew how she did it. Kaley could play with Allistaire for three hours straight and come away with nails garishly painted a whole array of colors. Her stamina for princesses and sick dolphins or sea horses or any other creature in desperate need of magical potion to make them well, never flagged. Marla was a key part of this equally magic pairing of Kaley with Allistaire. And then her own love fell ill to cancer. Her husband died in less than a year from a brain tumor.
“I’m learning to carry it,” she said over the phone when I called her about a Bozeman family who might need to head to Seattle Children’s.
I’m learning to carry it. Her words echo in my mind.
You would think that Allistaire’s death would be both pinnacle and end of the enormous, unrelenting strain. Somehow nothing could ever compare to that degree of blinding, burning pain of being severed from my little beloved, of having to witness the incomprehensible, an utterly still child who had once been unable to not dance at the slightest hint of music. And yet, like strata laid down over eons, like those hills brown and talc and orange, the sorrow cements layer upon layer, an ever mounting enormity of pain, each era marked in color and grit and brevity or length by the sorrows at hand.
And erosion? Is it gift? Is the wearing down of the layers over time as the rain bears down in heavy sheets, and the wind whips away fragments of rock, does this loss of loss equal gain, get assigned the tag of “good?” It doesn’t feel that way. I already struggle to remember her voice, I strain to catch the look in her eye. I come back again and again to a handful of the same memories, desperate to not lose more of her. I see her in the early hours of the mornings at Ron Don. I would wake her up to use the bathroom. She might look like a baby girl with her bald head, but she was a 6-year-old girl, fully aware that she should be beyond diapers. And yet, for the love of her kidneys, we were always forcing down massive fluids which made it hard to make it through the night dry. So I would wake her up at 5 when I got up. She would sit on the toilet, her little legs dangling, panties encircled at her ankles. Panties with purple Bat-Girl symbols or blue panties with the yellow and red emblazoned W of Wonder Woman. Sometimes, right there on the floor in front of her, I would hug her as she peed. Then off she would go, back to bed for a few more hours.
I see her over and over, facing away from me as she headed into her room. Little round bald head, jammy shirt, her little bottom in panties and skinny legs on tip-toe. She walked tip-toe all the time despite my constant admonitions to walk on the soles of her feet. This “heel-drop” was a vestige of so many months living in a hospital, hours upon hours sitting and laying in bed, heels back causing the Achilles to tighten over time. I see her tip-toeing back to bed, her little tubies swinging side to side. How I long somehow to transport through time and greet her in the dim light of morning.
I don’t want to lose what brings the pain. I close my eyes and remember what it was to kiss him on the cheek just at that place where his razor went no higher and I could glimpse faint peach fuzz. The memory is just there. I don’t conjure it up, it simply rises to the surface unexpected, uninvited. And so are all my days, pricked with scores of cuts, memories breaking through the surface of the moment. Blood bright along the cut.
I look back at those weathered faces, at the eyes unblinking. Did they ever learn to carry the pain?
The Badlands have their beauty. The shear accumulation of time, layer upon layer was necessary. So too is the cutting away, the erosion that lays bear the history of that land. Sometimes my life feels like a wasteland. I wonder at the landscape that will one day be seen.