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death, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Bernoulli’s Heart

April 9, 2021
By Marco Etheridge

The coffin was in the ground and clods of earth had drummed on the hollow box. Retreating to the home of the newly departed, the mourners pour out liberal libations. Murmurs move through the sprawling house; quiet lamentation mixed with dashes of muffled laughter.

Some of the bereaved gather under the shaded cloister, chic in veils and tailored suits of black. Sunlight spills over the red earthen tiles of the courtyard. Four tables stand in the sunlight, four umbrellas furled. All of the wrought iron chairs are empty save for one.

The woman’s face is hidden under a wide-brimmed black hat. Her legs are bent to one side, ankles crossed, the black-stockinged calves of a woman younger than five decades. On the table beside her is an almost empty wine glass rimmed with ghost kisses from crimson lips.

A man appears from the shadow of the cloister. He strides across the courtyard, a full glass of wine in one hand, a tumbler of scotch in the other. The woman tilts back her head, watches his progress from beneath the brim of her hat.

The man stops beside her table, still holding the two glasses. He smiles at the woman with that singular smile that is reserved for old lovers. She returns his smile in kind while adding up the years since she last saw him in the flesh.

— John Staffen, as I live and breathe.

— Hello Yvette. Bit of a redundant expression, especially for a wake.

— What’s more redundant than a wake?

— Too true, in a sad sort of way. I saw your glass was empty. I had to guess on the wine.

— You always were a gentleman. If the wine is red, and in a glass, it’s perfect.

John Staffen flourishes the wine and places it on the table with a mock bow. Raising himself, he gestures to an empty seat. Yvette awards him a regal nod. He unbuttons his black suit coat and sits. He looks long over the rim of his whisky and Yvette Martin lets him look. Crystal scrapes the glass tabletop as he sets it down.

— My brain is telling me fifteen years, but my eyes don’t agree. You look damn good, Yvette.

— Thank you, John, it’s been sixteen, but who’s counting? You look good as well.

Staffen snorts, shakes his head.

— I look like death on a cracker and you know it. Not as bad as our dearly departed Harry, of course.

— Don’t be a drama queen, John. You’re not on stage right now. A little grey at the temples, some craggy lines; you’re a handsome middle-aged devil.

He waves a dismissive hand.

— Are you living here in the old alma mater?

— That’s right, still living at the scene of our crimes. I’ve got a cute condo with a view of the Charles, walking distance from my lab and the lecture hall. I’m all settled down like a real grownup. I assume you’re here just long enough to pay your last respects.

— I’m watching a friend’s place for a few weeks, then I’m off to Seattle for rehearsals and a six-week run of Uncle Vanya. I’m cast as the Old Professor, something that happens more often these days. Not that it matters.

— I’ll bet the script girls still swoon.

She gives him a long look but not without a smile. It is a look he remembers well. He thinks better of it and retreats.

— Do you mind if I smoke? It’s been a long morning.

— By all means. I look forward to the waves of disapproval.

Staffen glances to the figures in black strung along the shadowed borders of the courtyard.

— Piss on them. A murder of crows.

He removes a small cigar from a pocket, clips it, and flicks a lighter. The flame hovers beneath the tip of the cigar. He leans back in his chair as a cloud of smoke rises and swirls into the sunlight. A half smile breaks across his face as he speaks.

— Sixteen years gone and our paths cross here. I think Harry would get a chuckle out of that.

— I hope so. Were you two still close?

— No, not since he became the rich and famous Henry Grimes. We’d see each other now and again, whenever he felt like slumming with his old pals. I played Falstaff to his young prince, even though he had a decade on me. When was the last time you saw him?

— It’s been five years. We had a bit of a falling out. Bitter words, expectations not met, that sort of thing.

— Wait, were you two a thing? I had no idea.

— Why would you? Harry kept all his lives in separate compartments. Not the sort of man to spill his secrets while swilling drinks with you. What would he say? Oh, by the way John, I’ve bedded the former love of your life. Lovely Girl, I don’t know why you ever let her slip away. That was never Harry’s style and you know it.

Staffen smokes in silence, taking this in. Harry would have been right to say it. Why did he let her slip away? More of a push than a letting slip, truth be told.

— Anyway, it ended badly, as we both knew it would. But here I am, mourning the beloved dead.

Yvette takes a long drink of wine. She smiles at her former lover, the edges of her teeth stained bloody red.

— Don’t be shocked, John, and don’t pout. I always hated that. Harry was a charming man in his own way, until he wasn’t.

— I’m not shocked, just a bit surprised. You know it’s true, the part about you being the love of my life.

— I know.

— Do you mind if I change the subject?

— Please do.

Staffen contemplates his cigar before speaking.

— How many funerals have you been to this year?

— That’s a morbid question.

— Humor me, you used to be good at it.

— Don’t be catty, it doesn’t suit you. How many funerals this year? Three, if we’re counting today. Why?

He nods, as if having something confirmed.

— This makes four for me. There’s been a subtle shift in my social schedule. It happened sometime after I turned forty. I used to suffer through more weddings than funerals. Now it’s the opposite. The change is weighing on my mind, or rather on my heart.

— You’re being serious. That’s not like you. What do you mean, weighing on your heart?

— When I review the owner’s manual for my life, I can’t find a single chapter where it states that death will become a regular event. The bastards who wrote it lied to me, at least by omission.

— There’s an owner’s manual? I guess I never got my copy.

— Sure you did; we all did. It’s that compendium of expectations that we learned as kids. Childhood, school, meeting that special someone, children of our own, then a happy life into our dotage. But the balance tilts along the way. Not everyone gets their allotted four-score years. A car crash, an OD, a cancer diagnosis, and before you know it your heart is filled with dead people elbowing for space. My heart is getting crowded.

Yvette swirls the wine in her glass, thinks better of it, returns the glass to the table. She leans closer to John before she speaks.

— Your metaphorical heart is running out of space?

— Ever the scientific mind, Yvette.

— That’s one of the perils of being a scientist.

— Yes, I’m talking about the poet’s heart, not the muscle in my chest that races every time I see you.

— John Staffen, that is a very odd and sweet thing to say. Setting that weird compliment aside, my scientific mind tells me that you’re talking about accumulated grief. But on another level, I think I understand what you mean. I lost my mother, then my sister, both to breast cancer. Dead friends, people you don’t know, some younger than me. And now Harry, of course.

— There’s that as well, the quick assessment of my own mortality. When I read someone’s obit, the first thing I do is compare my age to theirs. Were they younger than me? The math gets less pretty as the years pass.

Yvette shakes her head, raises one hand as if to ward off the thought.

— No obituaries for me, thanks. I’m fifty years old, not some crazy old cat lady. A girl has limits. And no mortality discussions at a wake; We’re supposed to be celebrating Harry’s life, remember?

— Right, and now I have to make room for Harry. Except as I’m saying this out loud, I think it’s a question of weight rather than space. The dead weigh more than the living. Does that make any sense?

Staffen reaches for his whisky, eyes on Yvette over the rim of his tumbler. He is surprised to see her chuckle and responds with a questioning shrug which she answers.

— Sorry, science and grief colliding.

— Which one of them is funny?

— It’s the collision that’s funny, at least to me. Do you remember Bernoulli’s principal?

— You are the strangest woman I’ve ever met. You know that, right?

— Says the man who almost married me. Are you stalling for time?

— No, Bernoulli, I remember. That’s what allows planes to fly and shower curtains to be annoying, right?

— Yes, and more to my point, why straws collapse when you try to suck up that last bit of milkshake. Fluid dynamics; as the speed of flow increases, the pressure decreases. Less pressure inside the straw than outside it, so the milkshake squishes the straw.

— I’m being serious and you’re making fun.

— No, I’ve been struggling with this same sense of loss, more than just today. You talk about grief in terms of weight and space and my brain searches for a scientific principle to corroborate or deny. It’s how my mind works. You know that.

— Then would you care to explain how Bernoulli equates to the weight of grief?

— This is not an equation; it’s an analogy that banged into my head on top of, um, three glasses of wine. Which doesn’t make it untrue, just a little tangled. First, we need a baseline. Have you ever dated a widow?

— No widows, no orphans. Why?

— You always were a smart man. It’s very difficult to compete with a dead lover. Once they’re dead, they don’t make mistakes. The dead don’t forget birthdays, or anniversaries, and they are always there. Unlike the living, who tend to fuck things up and are often absent when they should be present.

— Is this from first-hand experience?

— Trust me, John, just say no. You can bitch about someone’s Ex, but you slander their dear departed at your own peril. Which is the opening to my hypothesis: the dead are immobile, hence denser. The living are different. We hold them in our hearts, but not like lumps of lead. They move around, sometimes they annoy the hell out of us. Their relative weight in our heart changes. What I’m saying is that their presence is not a constant.

Staffen shakes his head in wonder. Yvette talking a mile a minute, an idea clenched firmly between her teeth. And no subject was ever too weird for her. A woman unlike any other he had ever known.

— The living are annoying, so they weigh less in my heart? That’s your theory?

— It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and yes. Poor old Harry is dead and laid to rest. I can tell you about his less than charming traits, but I suspect that in a month all I will remember is the Harry that I loved, minus the annoying bits.

Staffen swirls the ice in his glass. Don’t say it; don’t be an idiot. Then the whisky does the talking.

— What about me? How much do I weigh in your heart?

He expects a thrown wineglass or a scowl. Instead, Yvette rewards him with a long loud laugh. The sound of it echoes across the courtyard and draws scowls from the margins. Her laughter fades from everything but her eyes as she gives him an appraising stare.

— You’ve still got balls, John. You always did. But you’re not dead yet, so how can I answer your question? I could give your ego a good stroke and say that I pine for you every day, but that’s not true. We had some amazing years, you and I, until you started indulging in script girls.

— Something I’ll always be sorry about.

She waves it away like a mosquito, somehow keeping the smile on her face.

— Water under the bridge, the bridge has fallen in the river, and always is too long for anyone.

— I’m a good swimmer; better now than I used to be.

Yvette says nothing, turns her head to scan the milling shadows at the edge of the courtyard. John sees Yvette in profile and his heart shakes off two decades as they have no weight or consequence. His brain struggles to keep up.

She turns her head and catches him staring, her eyes grey and serious.

— It’s a good turnout for Harry. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?

— Sure, a life measured by the column inches of his obit and how many mourners showed up for the free booze.

Staffen smokes, blows a small cloud above his head, watches it drift across the empty courtyard. He remembers when he and Harry were lean and poor and always dreaming up the next great idea. Old dead Henry Grimes might enjoy this memorial, but young Harry would’ve walked out of any party this boring.

C’mon, John, this place is deader than dead. Grab that good-looker and let’s get outta here. He hears the dead man’s voice in his head and laughs out loud. Yvette arches an eyebrow from under the shadow of her mourning hat.

— I was just thinking how Harry would have hated all of this empty ritual. It’s no wonder the dead want to clutter up my heart. Where the hell else would they go? Certainly not here, not with all this quiet, carefully modulated grief. It’s not even mourning, it’s grief-lite. Easier on the mascara and the neighbors don’t complain about the keening.

Then Yvette’s hand is on his and the rising tirade of his words falls to nothing. When she speaks, her voice is quiet.

— I remember walking through a graveyard in Greece. The tombstones had photographs set into them. They looked like old-fashioned cameos; black-and-white images printed on porcelain ovals. Harry was with me on that trip. He said the photos were ghoulish. I suppose they were, but I also thought they were a good idea. The dead person is fixed in place, bound to their grave by their own image. The loved ones go to visit, light the candles, tidy up, and then leave the dead behind when they go home.

— They leave the dead behind, but they don’t forget.

— I suppose that’s right. It’s as if we’ve lost the rituals that hold the dead in place. When I go to an old cemetery, I feel the presence of all those departed souls. Not very scientific, I know, but I do love an old cemetery.

— As if I could forget the two of us wandering around Père Lachaise in Paris.

— Yes, it was dismal and rainy and cold. You wanted to find Oscar Wilde and I was looking for Edith Piaf.

There was a stir and murmur amongst the black suits and dresses. Staffen turns to look over his shoulder.

— It looks like they’re closing the bar. Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?

— No thanks, three glasses of red on an empty stomach. If I stop now, I’ll remember what happens next.

He turns back and is trapped by her grey eyes. Fear and longing mix and swirl in his chest, pushing away the warmth of the whisky. Then his heart elbows aside the fear and makes room for the longing.

— What does happen next?

— I think we bid Harry a fond farewell and find a taxi.

Yvette rises from her chair and John is quick to do the same. She slides a black shawl across her shoulders, looks at him and smiles. He crooks an elbow. She slips her arm through his and speaks to the sun and sky.

Au Revoir, Harry. Bon voyage.

He feels the pressure of her hand on his wrist and finds his own words.

Adios, Harry. Vaya con Dios.

He looks into Yvette’s eyes and two decades fly past him and swirl away into the sunlight. A long moment passes before he is able to move.

Then Yvette and John are walking across the red earthen tiles of the courtyard, arm in arm as a couple. When they reach the shaded cloister, the murder of chic crows parts to allow them passage.

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available now. Learn more about Marco at https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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death, Grief, Guest Posts

Breathwork

December 1, 2019
breathe breath

By Nicole Cooley

Now I say mom and I float to the ceiling.

Meaning “ability to breathe,” hence “life” is from c. 1300. Meaning “a single act of breathing” is from late 15c.; sense of “the duration of a breath, a moment, a short time” is from early 13c. Meaning “a breeze, a movement of free air” is from late 14c.

Five months ago in New Orleans my mother stopped breathing.

Now at yoga class in the final pose—savansana— pose I struggle with most because I must sink into stillness– I know it’s wrong but I imagine a lit cigarette between my fingers.

My mother was the first person to teach me to leave my body. She taught me well and carefully and with gifts. In high school, she bought me cigarettes so I would not eat, left cartons each week on my bed.

Breath: Old English bræð “odor, scent, stink, exhalation, vapor” Old English word for “air exhaled from the lungs,”

Now I mourn my mother through breath. Each morning I lie on a mat in a hot room and squeeze my eyes shut and breathe her in. Or breathe her out. Yes, breath is supposed to anchor me in my body but I use it to exit my body, just as my mother taught me. I rise to the celling of the yoga room, alone and untethered.

I lie on the levee in the dirt and gravel. I lie on the sticky mat miles away from the house where she died.

Drown smoke suffocate. What is the difference?

I close my eyes and in my dream my mother is drowning in the river two blocks from her house.

In the dream I shake my mother awake. I ask her, with frustration, if she will go on being dead.

I only practice hot yoga, infrared heat that spills from vents and warms the floor. I love the punishing heat. And the intense heat echoes a New Orleans levee walk, all stifling humidity. I lower my body into plank, crush my breasts to the ground. Think of my mother’s body,

Breath from Proto-Germanic *bræthaz “smell, exhalation” (source also of Old High German bradam, German Brodem “breath, steam).

As a teenager, I’d come home from school to find a carton of Benson and Hedges on my white bedspread. My mother saran-wrapped and labeled all my food with calorie counts. 25. 50. 75. I stood in the refrigerator’s wedge of light and counted. I unwrapped a pack of cigarettes. It will keep you from being hungry, my mother explained. Celery. Grapefruit. Diet bread thin as dress fabric. A silver lighter she pressed into my hands.

Breath: an act of breathing: fought to the last breath

Yoga reminds me of the geometry of the body, the shape the body makes—So then what shape did my mother’s body make on the living room floor? What shape was her mouth when my father pressed his mouth to hers to perform useless CPR? What shape was she under the sheet on the stretcher at the Veterans Highway Funeral Home– who knew a funeral home has a stretcher but if you don’t pay for a coffin you get that? — when she looked so small and thin and what shape was she—altered?—when my sister and my father and I ran back to her to kiss her for a final time?

Drown suffocate smoke.

The irony is that after my mother dies, in the days after, in New Orleans, we eat. My father, my sister and me. And we eat very good food. Friends bring platters and trays and Tupperware, and it is delicious. The kind of meals I would not normally allow myself. The kind of food my mother would have forbidden me. Red beans and rice and sausage. Baked ziti. Cheesecake. Doughnuts. A half-bottle of wine.

Now at yoga class I fill my lungs with imaginary smoke. I imagine I flick a cigarette lighter over and over on and off till my thumb scrapes with ache.

Breath: opportunity or time to breathe; respite. Also, a slight breeze

I’m lying on the mat. I am under the heat vent. I am under the spell of yoga. Or I am just under— as grief’s water closes over my head.

My teenage daughters think the stories about my mother telling me to smoke are very strange. This was the eighties—a different time, I say.

Three days after she is dead, my sister and I clean out my mother’s closet and find 72 cartons of Salem 100s hidden – in boxes labeled “Taxes 2003” and “Family Medical 2010.” And yet my mother often told me, when we were alone: “I’ll never stop smoking.” Then why did she hide her cigarettes like contraband?

Breath—

Mother’s Day yoga is — as I know it would be — the worst. Why did I go? The teacher suggests we dedicate our practice to “your mother or a mother figure in your life” and I feel tears leaking out the sides of my eyes. Later she returns to it: “Think of the mother or mother figure and focus on a happy memory.” I want to ban this language. I want to run from the room. So instead I still just work hard as I can to no imagine it: the crematorium, my mother’s body on a shelf, flames, body who once housed my body, turning to nothing.

For so long I longed for another body—is this my mother’s fault? What could I tell you about my relationship to my body and my mother? What could she tell me now?

A different time, I tell my daughters.

Missing my mother is pain that though it can’t possibly be feels bone deep. My wrists are splintering. My hips lock shut. My jawbone burns.

My mother’s legacy: how I don’t want my daughters to long for another body.

After my mother dies, predictably, all I want is to smoke. Though I have not had a cigarette in more than twenty years. In my mother’s room, I suck on one of her old cigarette butts in the ashtray, set my mouth where hers imprinted, while my sister watches, alarmed.

I want to ban this language.

Putting my mouth where her mouth once was—

Do you want to go in and say goodbye to her feel free to take all the time you need to say goodbye to her—

What could my mother tell me now?

What can I tell my daughters?

Once, I remember my mother taking a photograph of me after a bad break up when I stopped eating, a photo at the edge of a pool while I posed in a blue striped bikini. As my sister and I finish cleaning out our mother’s study, I think about this bikini photo, and my sister and I toss the cigarette cartons in the trash, aware of the waste of money yet not wanting others to have them.

Breath: a spoken sound: utterance. Also, spirit, animation.

Nicole Cooly is the author of six books of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press 2017). Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, Feminist Wire and the Rumpus.

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aging, death, Guest Posts

Threshold

May 17, 2018
assisted

By Deborah Sosin

“It’s a funny thing. You’re just not prepared for how the mind goes. It’s not something they ever tell you about.” Eda says this every time I visit her, in the same way, with the same inflection—more revelatory than bitter or sad.

Eda, who is ninety-four, is tired of waiting to die. Every night, she prays she won’t wake up in the morning. “I have no purpose. How am I contributing to society? I’ve had my life.”

When her husband, Howard, died a few years ago, after sixty-six years of marriage, Eda moved to a retirement village near Boston to be closer to her daughter. Growing up, I knew the Goldmans—another erudite, witty Jewish couple in my parents’ large circle of friends. My father and Howard had met at the Navy’s Japanese Language School, right after Pearl Harbor.

At first, Eda lived in one of the independent townhouses, a charming two-bedroom dwelling facing a wooded patch of land. I’d visit every month or so, gifts in hand—Hershey Kisses or daisies for her; tuna Whiskas for her tiger cat, Beau. I often brought her to my choral concerts until she could no longer hear the music. Sometimes we’d get lunch—“off campus,” we’d joke—but mostly we’d grab a bite in the facility’s café or formal dining room. “They cook for the aged people,” she’d say. “No salt and no flavor!” Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, healing

Dance of the Not Dead

April 18, 2018
funerals

By Elizabeth Fournier

As long as I can remember, I was always dancing around the house. Mom and I were fans of Donny & Marie, so I always got up and danced when they came on TV. My mother would be lying on the couch because she was always sick, but my dancing would make her smile. I danced my heart out for her.

One time, I shook, shook, shook my booty and Mom’s smile disappeared for a moment.

“Good girls don’t do that,” she warned.

What! It seemed so natural to move my butt when I was dancing. Why not? I tried not to do that move any more, but it was hard.

My formal dance training in tap, jazz, and ballet started at age four. Dance class was super fun because I had a natural talent for it. When the music started, most of the girls hung back, uncertain. Not me; I pushed to the front, eager to perform. Having practiced all week, I could execute every move with confidence. Continue Reading…

Anxiety, death, Guest Posts

Bugs

September 6, 2017
bugs

By Katie Guinn

I work at home, alone, with lots of bugs.

As lively as these insects are, various sizes and luster, many frighten me. I admire them. But mostly they remind me of death. But that’s because most things remind me of the inevitable ending. No one knows exactly when, but “if” doesn’t exist when it comes to death. I love my life so hard that death would be such a buzz-kill if it robbed me at an early age. Or if it took my precious daughter. Or my husband, or his daughter, and from there, well, this is just a sampling of how my wicked brain works against me.

Does death taste like kerosene? Like the sharp, bitter flavor of ants that crawl around my computer desk, dancing gleefully around the rim of my boring water glass? The very ants that if absent from the peony plants, their blossoms would not emerge.

Sitting at this desk I often hear shrill screams echoing from the school one block over. The school my daughter attends. The screams shock me into visuals of terror, of guns, of attacks, of my daughter falling victim with other unlucky children to a madman’s unattended rage.

“It’s happened to other children. It could happen to us,” I tell my therapist.

“Yes, but it isn’t happening to you right now,” she says.

They’re only playful excited screams, I have to remind myself. Children still know how to shriek with absolute elation when released from their studies, the endless direction to be quiet, to stand in line and not talk, touch, or move. To sit at their desks and shut up. These screams signify their freedom. It’s OK.

Is this what death sounds like? The same as ultrapure happiness?

The ants keep me company at my computer desk. Not that I invite them. In fact I’m constantly trying to kill them.

I’m a driven career woman, tackling many facets of creative work. The corner desk handmade by my lover, stained deep red, solid wood, this is where I attend to my various computer tasks.

It sits so perfectly in front of the window, so when I stop for a second to think about things, I can peer out on to the street. I see my neighbors coming and going. My role as “head of neighborhood watch” is just an excuse to spy on them without seeming creepy. Often I see houseless humans pushing carts, scoping for cans and bottles left alone in driveways. Some appear to be on the edge of death themselves, holes in their shoes exposing black rotting toes, 5 months of dirt piled on their winter coats, skin so weathered it’s sunken in and wrinkled well beyond their years. Some of them twitch and gnaw at their toothless jaws, gums deteriorated by white poison. We housed one of these humans once.

I often see fellow parents hurrying off after collecting their children from the school we share, paying no mind to ones who live and play on this block, as their cars race down our wide side-street. This triggers visions of my child being run-over as she mistakenly goes in the street without looking.

The ants play death with me as they find their way into my bra, biting my tits for escape. Their only solace is to escape breathing as I smash them furiously and call them mother-fuckers for biting my beautiful fleshy orbs of life. I’ve tasted the bitter death of more than 10 of these tiny soldiers as I blindly put the rim of the glass to my mouth and drink naively. It doesn’t take much to smash their tiny bodies between the tongue and bumpy roof of the mouth.

What happens when you go hunting for scraps of bacon in my house, little ant? Death. It’s waiting for you everywhere here.

These same ants give life to the precious peonies in my yard. They will not bloom if the ants refuse to slowly pull them apart, allowing them to live.

Does death smell like musty basements? Times a million? My grandparents’ dirt-walled  cellar seemed close. My basement is semi-finished and hosts my sewing studio. This is where the real big gnarly siders dwell, along with the centipedes who are furiously faster and eat the spiders.

On a gloomy, rainy day, I was sitting at my machine stitching away and listening to an interview with my first favorite woman author, Monica Drake, when I saw it, It ran so fast up on to my machine that I screamed loud and jumped. That centipede was the swiftest runner I’d ever seen and it was barreling straight toward me! It slid across the fabric barely missing my hand and flew at me as I jumped up and back. It was as if it had been an arrow released from a bow aimed at my body.  It landed at my feet and I fumbled, heart thumping, I chased it trying to squash it, but it found a hidey hole and stayed there. Its long flat brown body carried into hiding by its 28 feathery legs.  I was done sewing for the day.

The week before that when I got up to take a lunch break from my sewing, I felt a light tug on my head and a tickle. I looked in the adjacent mirror to find a spider had woven an entire web from the ceiling beams to my hair and I didn’t even notice as I sat there for a half an hour.  I screamed and maniacally tore at my hair as I rushed my head to the bathtub faucet. These stealthy little assholes can crawl in your ear at night and nest, they can find your mouth and tunnel down your throat to squat inside your body. They can bite you as you roll over on them or hunt for your neck, looking for a bloody snack. The amount of days I’ve woken with a swollen neck and face, a pussy wound, itchy and bruised from God knows what is more than I can count. Every time I truly believe I’m going to die.

Spiders are beautiful creatures, yet freakishly ugly, maternal yet ruthless, scared yet brave. I love garden orb spiders because they stay outside and live off the bugs that eat my beloved plants. I cannot technically claim to have a “spirit animal” because I’m a Scandinavian white girl from north Portland, but I am deeply connected to garden orb spiders. They can carefully dismantle and re-build a web in one day, acting as nature’s artists. They collect the nasty afids and mosquitos that eat us and our roses. Their markings are like a piece of delicate art. I love to admire them as they sit so gracefully on their prized homes. They protect their eggs as furiously as a black bear, willing to splay their vulnerable, smashable bodies over their unborn babies. I too, would do anything to protect my daughter from death or pain.

I had a year of panic attacks that created a cycle of living on the edge of death. Or so it felt.

It all starts here. I’m in the car, my husband is driving. We’re taking our kid to her grandparents’ house so we can go to his company picnic. A tight sharp pain grabs my chest and holds tight for a few seconds and stops my breath. I’m having a heart attack is what I tell myself. No you’re not, you’re fine I say. No, it could have been a small one. No, if it was you’d be passed out or dead or whatever. My heart is pounding so hard, so fast, and my body starts to constrict. I cannot escape my body, it’s all I want and the last thing I want.

I pace the premises once we get to the parents’ and I decide I need to go to the ER to ascertain I did not have a heart attack and that I won’t.

Since this incident I imagine the worst things happening while in the car. Like my body awakened this panic beast that won’t settle with chest grabs. We fly off the Banfield Loop ramp, straight in to the murky Willamette below. Intersections are where cars run red lights and blast straight into our car, forcing us to crash all around and die. A delivery truck loses control and lurks over the yellow line on a highway destroying us on impact, head on. The east wind shoves over a semi just as we pass on I-84 crushing the metal roof, then us. I once was T-boned by a bicyclist on Burnside. She pedaled past the stop sign and straight into my ‘65 Galaxie, toppled over the roof and fell off the back. So of course every bike that comes out of nowhere takes a few beats off my heart and sends it to straight to my barbed-wire stomach. I’ve always had an over-active imagination, but these visions, these moving pictures that play in my mind’s eye while I’m driving have escalated, they ensue panic so deep I often have to pull over.

In the several months following the original panic war, I had 6 more of these episodes with 3 full weeks of constant panic. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The looming cloud that hung around me, inside me and through my body controlled my every second of being. I had pains that convinced me I was about to die, and the stress was so hard on my body that it agreed I was to die, and therefore more pains arose. The cyclical manipulation of that bully called anxiety is infuriating. The power of panic. Like your body acting as its own worst enemy, no escape. Heightened awareness, yet lost conversations and interactions; the complete inability to perform basic tasks like unloading the dishwasher or reading to your child before bed.

Is this what the ants experience as they risk seeking crumbs for their Queen in my breasts, on the counter, in my water. Do they have a split-second of panic right before my lips squish their tiny bodies and release that bitter taste of their being? Do centipedes go through their entire lives panicked and running? Are their legs a vehicle to save their over-active bug brains? Do spiders’ hearts beat quicker and louder when a predator appears near their spawn? Do we live on a mile wide ant hill, that’s slowly deteriorating from their cave trails, and one day we’ll just sink down and be eaten by the ants? That would be a hilarious reversal of fate, and I’d deserve it. They do all that work to unleash lacy pink petals of the peony and I make sure to eradicate every one before I bring the stems in the house.

I was convinced for that year that I was going to die and my child would grow up without a mother. I was convinced that my husband was going to die on his way to work or on his way home so I made him tell me when he arrived at work and when he left. I was convinced that my daughter was going to be run over in the street, shot by a mad kid who had access to a gun or kidnapped from the playground. These fears ruled my every breath, my every step and every tear. This is the worst way to live in fact, morning and night being afraid of death while simultaneously killing small helpless creatures. Being afraid that this wonderful happiness will be taken away because I don’t deserve it is a dangerous way to exist. My fear of sudden or too-soon death bullied my life for a couple of years until I started painting again. Getting that nasty shit out of my body through the process of art saved me. I started writing poetry and dancing again.

I still have these thoughts on a daily basis and some bugs still make me believe they’re out to kill me. I feel genuinely guilty for killing each one that harasses me, but sometimes I can’t sleep otherwise. I take the less swift spiders outside. I still have visions of horrific events occurring. Planes overhead will never stop that rise in my chest and wide-eyed fear. Being in a car will always give me visions of what could happen. But for now that bully that tries to ruin my life by teasing me with death every god damn second can fuck off. I’m fine now. I’m living now and so is my family. “I see you.” I say, “but you can’t have me today.” I have too much love to give, too many clouds and forests to admire, too much art to make, too many flowers to attend to and too many ants to kill.

 

Katie is an artist, mother of blood and non-blood children, designer and writer, wifey, flower gardener, art teacher and lover of the beautiful, of the female brainwaves and form. She’s spent time as a contributing freelance writer for the Portland Mercury. She’s part of the corporeal writing tribe, which has changed her artist self significantly, bringing about work that’s been hiding in her lungs, liver and heart for years. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, daughter and cat.

An excerpt from this essay first appeared in Nailed Magazine in June, 2017. This is her first published personal piece.

Katie is a fourth generation North Portlander, and Columbia Gorge wanderer.

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. Sep 8-15, 2018.. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

 

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

death, Guest Posts

Silent Witnesses: A Night at the Morgue

April 26, 2017
chair

By Nina B. Lichtenstein

There is a beautiful and ancient Jewish tradition of reciting Psalms while watching over a deceased person until burial. A few of us had decided to take turns sitting with our friend Philip’s body overnight. Philip was a handicapped man in our synagogue who was loved and admired by all. When Philip recently died, his death, as his life, brought some unexpected gifts for those close to him.

It was almost 12:30am and the air was thick with the humidity of balmy summer nights. After an eternity of banging on all the windows and doors of the seemingly empty funeral home, which also functioned as the Jewish morgue in town, I suddenly saw lights turn on inside. The door swung open and out stepped a bushy-bearded and bespectacled man with a sweatshirt hood covering his head. Not young, not old, wearing a pair of baggie, well worn, beige Dickies, he stood tall, like me, and cocked his head slightly to one side. Standing in the dim light, he said, “Yes? How can I help you?” gazing quizzically at me from under a knit hat, the kind fishermen wear. It was pulled down on his forehead, resting on a set of overgrown, gray eyebrows. He didn’t’ exactly look your clean cut funeral-home guy, but instead more like a version of the troubled poet John Berryman, or worse, Charles Manson. He was the night guard, or the shomer.  Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, Young Voices

And Then I Remember What You Said, a Letter to My Brother

December 31, 2016
lucky

Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.

CW: This piece discusses the aftermath of suicide.

By Emma Tait

December 31, 2016

Dear Ollie,

I know you know this holiday season is hard for me. But still, I need to tell you how I’m feeling, how I’m feeling about how the holidays this year, the third year since you have been gone. Please don’t take this the wrong way, I know you are looking out for me, in the good big brother kind of way.

I am always catching glimpses of you out of the corner of my eye, seeing men that look just like you, sometimes I even hear your voice. Every time this happens my breath catches in my throat and for a split second I glance around hopefully, as if I live in a different world where there is a possibility of us running in to each other on the street on our ways home from work. In a parallel reality this would be our life. You would have lived. You would have stayed in Vancouver and we’d see each other all the time. This parallel reality still lives in my head, and sometimes when I “see” you I pretend with all my hear that it is so. Continue Reading…

Child Birth, death, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

A Wave of Light

December 23, 2016
light

tw: infant loss

By Alison Baron

I am 1 in 8.  I am 1 in 4.  I share a badge with two clubs.  Two clubs that no one should have to be a member of.  Infertility brings feelings of defeat and grief.  Infant loss brings a whole new meaning to bereavement and grief.  Each October is Infant Loss and Remembrance month.  In honor of all the mamas who are unfortunate to be a part of this club I would like to share my story.

Santiago Jose Perez-Barron was born on July 7 at 8:36 a.m., weighing an adorable 7 pounds and measuring 21 inches in length.  He had chubby cheeks and his mother’s nose.  And although he struggled a bit right out of the gate, he persevered like a champ, made huge improvements in his first 24 hours of life, and was even breastfeeding well during his first day. Continue Reading…

death, Family, Guest Posts

Frosty Mauve

August 14, 2016
mother

By Kim Derby

The silence hits me in the face when I walk in. Free of beeping and flashing bright lights, her hospital room is nothing like what you see on TV, the monotonous drone of machines sprouting tubes, blaring alarms. Instead it’s stillness, and the creak of the door as it closes behind me. Daylight streams through a window across the room, lights up her face. I move toward the bed, cautious as if she had a virus I might catch.    

Hi Mom. It’s your daughter. I’m here.”

Her mouth is open, slightly ajar. A lip-gloss sits on the table next to her. Someone must have applied it recently because her lips glisten. I touch her cheek with the back of my hand. Ice. And I pull the blanket up around her neck. Hold her hand, I tell myself, but she’s tucked tight under the bedding. Swaddled. I hate myself for being too freaked out to reach under and take her hand. I reach for her cheek again, rub it softly with the back of my hand. Her 76-year-old face is bare, free of mascara or makeup. It glows, smooth like un-worry, free of wrinkles, contempt or scorn.

“Mom, your skin looks really good.” I think she’d like to know.

Saliva collects under my tongue and I’m glad I haven’t eaten in three hours. I step back from the bed, swallow. I think I’m going to be sick.  Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts

A Choice of Wood

April 25, 2016
death

By Whitney Fleming

“I can’t do it. I can’t go into the room with all the caskets. I can’t do it again,” she told me.

“It’s okay, Mom. I’ll take care of everything,” I stated easily, as I knew that my father wanted to be cremated, which reduced the decision-making burden. Although I was the youngest in my family, the responsibility would be mine. My brother and sister had their children to manage, and I was the most involved when it came to my dad’s care.

“Just do what you think is right. I just need you to take care of it.”

My mom wasn’t much older than I was when she buried her own mother, along with three teenage siblings. They died in a fire started from bad electrical wiring in their dilapidated Ohio farm house. As the oldest of eight, she managed the burial arrangements, and selected the caskets for her teenage brothers and sister. The act of selecting small coffins for young people yet to reach their prime crushed her to the core. It was a weight she carried around with her each day.

She was the strongest woman I knew, but even she had her limits. Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts

Letting Go

April 22, 2016
pet

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

I get the news moments before my 21 year old autistic son Mickey gets home. The biopsy is back: our fourteen year old cat Fudge has lymphoma.

I still manage to greet Mickey cheerfully when he walks through the door. But he knows me too well. “Do you have sad news for me? Is Fudge dead?”

So much for the myth that people with autism have no empathy.

We try a course of chemo. She responds better than we expect. But late one Sunday night, Fudge suddenly pees on the carpet. She has never done this. She staggers, and looks spacey. Something is very, very wrong. When I pick her up, she is limp.

“Is Fudge dying?” Mickey asks. Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, Young Voices

On Saying Goodbye And Eating Chips

March 9, 2016
death

Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.

By Haley Jakobson

On the day your grandmother is dying you will eat a bagel with cream cheese and salmon and the guy behind the counter will misunderstand your impatience for rudeness. He doesn’t know you have to go home and kiss her cheek. You cry in the bodega and you take an Uber all the way to Westchester because your Dad says you should.

You get there and you climb into bed with her and all the fear you had before is gone because you need to take care of the woman that is the reason you exist. You hold her and press your face into her back and you put a cold wash cloth on her forehead and you don’t hide from her dying anymore. You cry into her pajamas and you feel how warm her body is, like a child, and you just keep pressing your hands into her. Every time she opens her eyes, wide and blue and scared, you tell her that you are there and when you listen to your own voice it sounds so strong and resilient and there is no fear.

You love her and she loves you and this will not go away even when she is not there. Her eyes are so blue, like this cleansing force of beauty, a color of simple beginnings and quiet endings and still water in between. Every time she realizes it’s you she says hi and you say “I love you” and she says it back. It’s all love. And when she cries out in pain you don’t deny it, you affirm it, you affirm her and everything she is going through. This is real, and it has been so elusive, this cancer, for so long.

She asks to put her head on your leg and you let her, and you help her sit up and stand up even though you know she’ll want to lay down straight away. Put the blankets on, take them off. The nurse says the pain is internal, it won’t go away from switching from her left to her right. You know she’s speaking your language now. The sickness has turned to violence inside her, like demons and monsters and bad, bad energy. The medicine is poison and life is leaving her. Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, Truth

Some Thoughts On The Day John Lennon Died

December 8, 2015

By Jonathan Jones

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Whenever I think of the opening line to De Maurier’s  Rebecca, I’m aware of a telling gap, not only in my reading, but also my own memory. It has always managed to evoke, even echo a thought I often had as a child on waking, that it was still dark outside.  A news report coming in, confused by static. Maybe a radio in another room, light downstairs.  It was like at first, nothing had happened, a recurring dream that spoke with a voice both present and at the same time absent. My father told me once that the name he initially thought he heard when he turned on the news was “Lenin.” Apparently it took him a few moments to realize, it wasn’t the Tsar’s Winter Palace going up in flames. All that chaos and violence and shooting and the promise of a new world waiting at the end. I sometimes wonder if he remembers telling me that story, waking up one winter morning to a different name, the definitive end of another era.

The first picture I remember seeing of John Lennon was the Double Fantasy album cover. It’s an image that seems to float around my childhood with a vengeance. The day Lennon died I must have gone to school, although I don’t recall any special announcement at assembly, or anything that stands out to tell me I was present that particular day.  All I know is at some point I was in bed and I knew it was still too early to get up, because it was still dark outside. Beyond that, only my parents movements below me and the front door closing, as my father left for work. It was years before I realized what had happened and by then it was a memory fashioned by snippets of TV and the film footage, flaky in its original transmission. But a memory nevertheless, which had nothing to do with the real memory of my dad closing the door, as he left the house that day.

I was five years old at the time and to be honest can’t say for sure, what my own feelings were on the subject. It’s all too easy to suggest our earliest memories reveal some telling inner glimpse into the adults we grow into. Yet when I think back, the years between my fifth and fifteenth birthday rarely found a clearer point of reference.  The Eighties were too bright, too colorful  by comparison to that  day in December. T.V. that brought us up on game shows and  cheap nostalgia.  Back then trying to teach myself to whistle Jealous Guy, I knew the tune was how I felt for a long time, a permanent angst for the same city he came from. It was a post-lapsarian landscape I remember as a kid, muddy brown, tarmac cracked, whole streets abandoned and boarded up. The docks still so majestic and so tragic in their derelict hollows. A city I only knew from a distance, with its accent and its humor and its tough working intellect. Continue Reading…

Compassion, death, Grief, Guest Posts

Out of Death, Something

November 22, 2015

By Mark Liebenow

In late April we gather our dead and cry. For some it has been a year since our lives were ripped apart, for others barely a month. Emotions are on edge.

We are the families of those who died and donated their organs, and we have gathered at Chabot College in Northern California to honor our loved ones. My mother-in-law Marjorie has come with me. She is doing better after burying Evelyn, her youngest child and my wife, and is back to running the office of her retirement community.

I think of Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. He went to college here at Chabot, and there is a life-sized cutout of him in the lobby. He plays a man who struggles to survive physically and emotionally after his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. In one scene, before learning how to make a fire, he eats a raw, gelatinous fish. The look in his eyes as he chews is of a person wondering what’s the point when it’s unlikely he will ever be rescued. I know that look. When he gets back home years later, his wife has remarried, so he begins a new life with what he has left. I sense he will be happy, and wish that life was like it is in the movies.

Reg Green is the main speaker and talks about the desperate need for organ donations. The wife of my friend John was one of those who died waiting. In 1994, robbers killed Green’s seven-year-old son, Nicholas, when the family was vacationing in Italy. He and his wife donated their son’s organs to seven Italians. Because of their selfless act, the organ transplant movement finally took hold in that country. Donations doubled and thousands of people are alive because of them. A movie was made about it, Nicholas’ Gift, which starred Alan Bates and Jamie Lee Curtis. “Each year in the U.S.,” Green says, illustrating how often even the very young die, “five thousand families donate the organs of a child.”

After his speech, the smiling face of each donor in a time of happiness fills the large theater screen, and a hush settles over us. Music fills the auditorium as image after image bring back the childhood joy of Danielle, age fifteen, red bandana on her head; Dexter, two years old; forty-eight-year-old Bill with a Fu Manchu moustache; Maribel, a young mother dead at twenty-six; three-year-old Eddrick in his new sweater; nine-month-old Alexandre in knitted cap; and the photos and names of one hundred and forty others, including Evelyn’s, her face shining with hope.

Ev died in her forties of an unknown heart problem, and I think of the dreams we had for our future that now lie in ruins. In the memorial booklet I read the words I wrote that begin: “Evelyn’s soul was sweet like dawn in the Sierra Nevada. She was intoxicating like alpine air. The light in her eyes illuminated the dark paths through the forest of my heart….” Continue Reading…