March 29, 2012 § 2 Comments
When the green dust covers the cars, there’s no denying it. My eyes, ears, and nose can’t ignore the change. I see the first redbuds on my street. The one I bought years ago for Jeff must have grown tall in our old yard by now, and I think of the mountains. I think of the old Louvin brothers song: Kentucky, you are the dearest land outside of Heaven to me. Kentucky, your laurels and your red bud trees. This is the time when the hills are still a mix of brown and pale green, only dots of pink and white can be seen in the woods and on the edge of the crumbling highways; the mountains are only just trying to come back. This is the place I feel spring fighting hardest.
Spring is not for cities, at least not for me. They have the steamy summer, heat rising off the pavement. Winter belongs to the concrete. Spring is half dead, half alive. It comes on slow, then bursts into a blanket of kudzu over the rock. It happens in the mountains, where my family began and ended.
Jeff and I fell in love with coonhounds in Kentucky when one wandered onto a trail near a friend’s house and went home with us as if she had always known us. That was Ruby. Now, in Durham, we have a crazy hound dog, named Annie. After eight years, she has finally learned to come home when she gets loose. She wedges her head through our iron gate, then slinks her body through somehow, like a snake, whenever she can’t fight her desire. For years, she would bark and run all around the neighborhood. She still does sometimes. The neighbors know her. Some will never forgive us. I always forgive her.
I used to live on Kingdom Come Creek, a place that really exists. It is the realest place. Here, dogs run until they stop, and people stay close to creeks and rivers, close enough to touch the hillsides sometimes. I had a huge garden there, where my cat brought her kittens into the young bean plants to hunt a baby rabbit. I learned to make movies there too, where words and pictures might change the world.
My twenties are in Kentucky, along with a lot of people who don’t even age when I see them. My friend Katie still lives there. She used to do advertisements for the radio station I worked at, WMMT. She says Chevrolet in a way that sounds like Kentucky to me. I hear it when spring comes, when the Louvin brothers fade back in after the ad: Kentucky, I will be coming soon
March 21, 2012 § 5 Comments
The first sound–after we exit the bus with the woman obnoxiously insisting that the driver let us off, since the other bus is letting its people off–is the swish of bird wings. At least this is in my memory. It is only 5:30 am after all, and I have been up since four, in order to get to the marathon start on time. Bird wings, which pass quickly: it is spring already. Then a dull rumble of nervous voices lined up outside the porta-potties grows in volume. Kathy and I talk, wonder what the hell possessed us, if we can keep our pace, how many times we will have to use the bathroom before the race starts. Music starts. What is this song? Kathy asks. I can’t believe you’ve never heard this I say and I sing to her, Whoop, there it is! We find Chris, our pace leader, whose constant chatter is actually soothing, rather than annoying. Kathy calls it a patter. We cannot abide the women, usually, who talk incessantly about work, families, anything in a high-pitched tone. Once we’ve started running, we don’t say much to each other. This is understood.
Mile 3, the pounding of neon running shoes has set the rhythm. We have turned onto the trail and no longer have to be aware of traffic, or the 3,000 or so runners who turn left to our right. I run for a while and my knee says nothing. This is a huge relief. We follow Patter, who is faster than the pace sign he carries on a stick with red balloons. I let him go and hear only breathing, footfalls, and the occasional, what’d we run that last mile in? Garmins chirp like a flock of strange birds as we approach mile markers.
The first voice to show up in my head is Kimowan. He is my husband’s beautiful friend, the truest artist I have met, dead since August of a brain tumor. He has appeared in my head at races since before he died. I see him out of his chair, amused with me, but also encouraging. I think of his famous line once he couldn’t walk well and had to use the chair–that he saw the world ass high. He could find the good. I was looking for it.
My friend Katie’s parents show up next. Of course, her father Jack doesn’t bother with hello. You look gorgeous, he says. I think this is the only way he has ever greeted me. The world would be lucky to have another Jack. Then Cute, his wife, shows up. She is concerned with my well-being, my hydration. Of course she is. The ladies next to me, especially Purple shorts, who is built stringy like a runner, says Chris is faster than the pace card he carries. No shit, I think. Finally, late of course, at mile six or seven, my mother shows up. She makes a lot of noise. No surprise. Still, she is there, calling to my dad to hurry up. It’s a long race, he says. He always took his time, though he created a legend that he once ran a four-minute mile. I realize this is highly unlikely, but my son who favors him runs a 4:45, so maybe he never lied, just stretched the truth. Now I have a crowd. Kimowan finds this funny. I am kept busy trying to sort the living voices from the dead, trying to ignore my body, as it starts to complain.
I stay in this world until mile 13, half way. I am anticipating Cole and Jeff and Jack Henry, planted to exchange the now empty water bottles I carry on my fuel belt with fresh ones. The voices in my head recede. I find, to my joy, the Ziploc baggie with ibubrofen that I dropped on the way out. I take it to quiet my knee. Go mom, Go mom, You got this! Cole screams. Hi Mama, Jack Henry says. Jeff says, One water, right? I nod yes, take the belt back, give Cole a high five. Your family is lovely, a woman next to me says. The next few miles are quiet. The truth comes out after mile 17. This is where the elite runners lap me. That’s ok. My neighbor runs by. Hi Stephanie! He says. By the time he has passed, I realize who he is and how I know him. I am sinking back into my head. Kimowan comes back, stands and watches me. His black hair has grown back down to his waist. My mother attempts to cheer, gets distracted. My dad has finally made it to the sidelines. I told you there was plenty of time, he says. Now that I am finally at the turn around, mile 19, he is watching. I see Kathy. We wave. Mile 20 or so, there is a car with music blasting, some sort of techno that grates on the inside of my skull. I plug my ears as I run past. At this point, I cannot let outside noises in. There is a kid in tall green St. Patrick’s Day hat, clanging an incessant cowbell. I want to kill him, even though he is maybe ten, and clearly enthusiastic. I plug my ears again, plead Please stop! aloud. His dad quiets the bell, puts his arm around the kid. I must have a crazy look in my eyes. The ibuprofen is long gone, but I think, I only have six miles to go. There is no such thing. Six miles is forever. Cute is there. You can do it, honey, she says. Jack grins at me. He is still trouble. My dad has decided to get involved. My mom is distracted by all the colors, the music, how fast the elites whoosh by. My knee is screaming. Just a little bit more, I tell it. Then I promise it I won’t run for six weeks after this. Apparently, we have a deal. I slow as I near 24 miles. Jeff and the boys are there, full of energy, almost hoarse with cheering every. single. runner. Cole would take my place at this point, he is so into it. I would love to let him. I grab another water bottle from Jeff and turn toward the finish. The swish of cars now. I focus on the Indian girl with the fuschia shirt tied around her waist. She is just ahead of me. I can catch her if I try. Maybe I will try. A man, slick with stinky sweat brushes me on the arm as he passes. Watch it! I snap. I am no longer capable of being polite. Mile 25, music again, but bearable. A man says 1.2 miles to go! He says it as if that’s a good thing. It sounds impossible. What would happen if I walk now? I think. I decide that if I stop, I may not start back up. I keep going. Get up and go anyway, a preacher’s voice calls from a sermon years back. I go. Now, the thump of music that is supposed to get people moving, and names called over the loud speaker as they cross the finish line. I only want to hear one thing out of the announcer’s mouth, my name: Stephanie Whetstone. Finally, the footfalls stop and I look around, searching for the faces I know. I am wrapped in a silver blanket.
March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Once you hear the thwack of the other shoe dropping heavily to the floor, the unmistakable finality of the long dreaded thing actually happening, the knot in your stomach dissolves. It is replaced, no doubt, with emptiness, with grief too, but the fear is gone. Sometimes I feel guilty for thinking this, but my parents’ deaths, in a way, freed me. Not that I don’t miss them or love them; I love them and miss them with the fearless abandon I never could in life.
First, there was something like missing limb syndrome, where you still feel pain in a limb that no longer exists as part of your body. It was physical. Sometimes it still is. My insides are like a David Byrne costume in the eighties–a skinny man in a suit way too big, too structured, swimming in fabric. I have finally realized what is supposed to go in there. This never occurred to me before.
When you live up next to someone else’s addiction, life is fear of fucking up. I shot for perfection, as I am told many people in my situation do. I can spot you, by the way, I know who you are by the way you catch every heirloom tea cup before it falls, like the girl ninja in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. I’m your kind. I too, am very good at anticipating what other people want and need. I spend my life thinking what people might say next, what they might do, and how I would answer, if in fact someone chooses route A. I am ready for route B, too. This is sometimes wearying, sometimes a party trick. I am sure there is a name for it in self-help books, but I am not interested in reading them.
I am not so good at anticipating anything about myself. That is the very small good of all this: focusing shamelessly on myself, on anything, without regard to how my desires might ignite chaos. Hence, I guess, a blog. Don’t think that this is cathartic, though. Not in the sense that it could fix me. I just finally have the time to sit still long enough to process what feels like a hundred years of thoughts. No teacups are falling.
March 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
Finally, I have decided to do my hair. By this, I mean that I am going to try to style it. Like, with a brush and some product. I usually go into the stylist with Tomboy instructions: No bangs, not too many layers, and make sure it will go back into a ponytail. Oh, and I won’t use a hair dryer, either. Now, make me look like Marion Cotillard. I feel for the people who have tried to make me look presentable.
You would think with four sisters, and a mother and grandmother with beautician licenses, I would learn something. Anything. But, the year of hot rollers in tenth grade notwithstanding, I’m too lazy to make a real effort, even though my mother always reminded me that beauty knows no pain. Forget about makeup. When I try the smoky eye, it looks like I’ve got a shiner. I tried foundation recently, smeared it all over my face like a kindergartener in fingerpaints. It was fun! Jeff’s immediate reaction? “What did you do to your face? You might want to wash that off.”
Well intentioned people say I don’t need makeup, that no one does. To that, I call bullshit. You are the same people who tell a nine-month pregnant woman she looks gorgeous. Birth is a beautiful thing, but at that point everything–your belly, your ankles, even your nose, begins to spread. You are in the middle of a transformation.
When I was nine months pregnant with my first son, a friend who can’t help it said, “You look like a science experiment.” I suppose I did at that moment. I’m sure I looked at him like a nuclear bomb.
Last year at this time, I wanted to make people look at me as I really felt. I refused to wear makeup at all, and didn’t care that I wore the same two or three outfits to work, alternating, for most of the semester. I wanted people to think something was wrong. Something was wrong. I could not bring myself to answer the dumbest question in the world: are you ok? This question is designed to make the asker feel better. If you say no, I’m not ok at all, it shakes people. They go away quickly.
Jews have it right. Tear your clothes, wear black, drape the mirrors. Sit at home with relatives for several days. Wear no makeup. This makes sense. This forces people look at you uncovered and unraveled. You notice who doesn’t look away.
I put myself back together over the summer. I started caring about how I look, at least a little. I look older. Loss shows in the eyes and around them. There’s no denying it, but I don’t think I want to. I do, however, want to look a little more alive now.
I’ve bought creams recently to boost and lift and give shimmer to my skin. I got a haircut and bought a diffuser. That’s the magic trick, my stylist said, the diffuser. I need some magic. I bought some eyeshadow, a new shade of lipstick. I will probably never wear it all. I am like my mother that way. It is more the idea of the beauty trick than the practice of it that makes me feel better. But, after a year of wanting to fade into the background, of wanting my face to show exactly what I felt to anyone who would look, I want to show up in some mysterious disguise, like everyone else.
March 3, 2012 § 4 Comments
When a body lies on the floor of, say, an apartment for several hours before it’s discovered, blood pools. “You might want a scarf,” the mortician says, but my mother hasn’t worn a scarf since 1979, since she flew in an air race with Kaye Combs Moore Bohannon. Kaye is a woman who wears a scarf well. She’s a dental hygienist, for God’s sake. Her hair has been in a perfect blonde bouffant since I can remember. It was even that way at my mom’s funeral. My mom, and I, for that matter, look like stewardesses in scarves. Who wants to look like a stewardess when you’re a pilot? Still, blood pools.
I go to T. J. Maxx., of course. That’s where my mom would have gone. It’s where I bought the shirt we buried my dad in. You don’t suddenly start shopping at Nordstrom’s when somebody dies. You don’t think you’ll have to shop. But she needed a scarf. There’s only so much you can do with makeup.
I picked a coral one and a turquoise one, her two colors. The turquoise had a little sparkle, and was longer, so it covered more when wrapped around her neck. We chose it for those merits. I never actually saw how it went with the black suit. I refused to look at the open casket up close. I do not think it would have, as some suggested, given me closure. I stayed at the entrance to the church, where I could tell it must be her, and I sent Jeff to make sure. He confirmed it.
This is where my parents’ funerals merge. They were in the same church, ten weeks apart, after all. I remember Jan, the priest, and a few specific details from each, but as my mom confused the memories of our five baby girl births, unable to distinguish one fateful day from another, I cannot truly separate my parents’ funerals in my head. Jan was there. Thank God. She was the one who convinced us that my mother would want the pall. “All Episcopalians want the pall,” she said. This is the cross laden cloth that covers the casket and matches the priests’ robes and the altar cloth. “You don’t need a spray,” she said. Jan could be practical at this time and not seem crass. She said the right thing on every single occasion. There were so many ways she could have screwed up, but she never did. That must be what grace is.
Another person I remember with great affection is Bob Sayre, the man who suggested the scarf. When we were making arrangements for my dad’s funeral, my mom wanted to set my sister up with Bob. Too bad he’s married. He was anticipatory. He thought of everything before we knew we wanted it. In the bitter December ice storm of my Dad’s funeral, he brought blankets to cover us in the car. Like, that thoughtful. He deals with the mute, moaning, and emotionally impaired on a daily basis. I get the feeling he must be good with animals too. I love him for all of that, and we’ve only met twice.
I think of the scarf sometimes, and the military cut pantsuit my mother favored, with the gold buttons up the front and the mandarin collar. I think of the fact that the dead don’t wear shoes. This is probably driving my dad crazy, but not my mom. She tolerated shoes, hated socks, and really preferred to be barefoot.
I think of all this, and “Amazing Grace,” and my childhood come back to life, but aged, in the faces in the pews. And I think of ritual, the up and down of Episcopalians that has always confounded Jeff, the liturgy, the Our Fathers, and the fact that through all of it, you don’t have to think, but you feel in the end that something important has been done. I think of this all tonight, when a year, and almost nothing else, has passed.