I didn't even know it existed...
Isn't life about looking for a way to make the truth more palatable? Maybe, maybe not; but creative nonfiction is the answer to a question I didn't even know I was asking. Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that skates along the lines truth allowing a bit more detail. Take heed: it is not permission to embellish the truth - that is fiction. Creative nonfiction puts the truth in a box and wraps it with emotions and memories, finally tying the knot of the bow with a sucker punch of relationship between the writer and the reader.
She could tell you to go hell in such a way that you would look forward to the trip. Petite and primped, she was never without lipstick, mascara, and a bit of rouge. Today is her birthday; she is 76, and she is gone. I miss her presence in this world, not just my world, but THE world, because she could form it, deconstruct it and make it make sense to me. And now, I keep her in a box in a trunk that I made for her when I went through my repurposing phase. Now I am old enough, mature enough to understand that not everything old should be made new again. Some things do not deserve second chances. But Mom, she got more than just a second chance. She got the chance to live through death.
We checked her into the hospital on Oct.14, 2014; 10 days later, she was gone. Cancer of unknown origin had eaten her body; her brain, her bones, her liver, her breasts, her lungs, her kidneys, were just a breath away from becoming the blight at her love feast. And she had never exhibited any symptoms until that morning when she called me and said she couldn’t get out of bed. I lived an hour from her and called the ambulance. I met them at the hospital. She didn’t have on lipstick, there was no mascara, and there was no rouge. She was definitely sick.
They admitted her, and the Procession of Doctors began. She had survived four heart attacks and being hit by a semi. She was the human equivalent of a cockroach. And she had at least nine types of cancer that had never presented any symptoms. While the PET scan showed strands of black, indicating the disease, in every part of her body so that it looked more like a Rorschach test than a diagnostic tool, her bloodwork was fine. Typical for Mom: show off, the center of attention, the loudest person in the room, though she couldn’t say a word.
I was relieved when she died. To sit beside a dying woman for 10 days reminding her how full of life she once was is a horrible thing to do, both for her and for me. For a long time, I was afraid to say it, fearful of sounding cold and callous. My mother was never one to beat around the bush; being honest about how I felt about her death was my personal tribute to her. She would have supernaturally kicked my ass if I had thrown a big funeral with funeral flowers and funeral music and funeral food. She wanted a celebration of life, and that’s what we gave her. That little church in Shelbyville was properly pew-packed, the music was loud and very Southern Gospel, and when I spoke, I spoke the truth: she owned over 104 lipsticks, all of them a shade of brown. She never found the perfect shade of brown. She had salvaged plastic silverware from the church women’s banquet because she thought it was pretty. She had 30 purses, and in each one, she had a wad of Kleenex and at least 10 packets of Sweet ‘n Low. She had a crush on Keifer Sutherland, which she wrote about extensively in her TV journal. Behind the sofa, she hid Christmas decorations, in the dishwasher, Christmas decorations, under her bathroom sink, Christmas decorations. I was left with the job of dissecting her life.
There were medical professionals simultaneously dissecting her in death. She was in an anatomical research laboratory at a university. That was what she wanted. She wanted people to study her. “I will have value in death, I know they can learn from all of this,” she would say and sweep her hand over her small frame. When I called to ask if they would take her, they were iffy until they found out her indications. I could hear them drooling over the phone.
The research facility picked up the body and transported it. I paid the $750 cremation fee, and they told me they would send Mom back to me when they were done. Over the next 18 months, I received letters or phone calls letting me know that Mom’s tissues were being sent to China for a study on heart disease, that she was participating in a research study in Israel on the use of CBD and THC to treat cancer growth. Her corneas went to a six-year-old girl who had never been able to see. Some of her breast tissue went to France. That woman saw more international travel dead than when she was alive.
And then they sent her back to me in a box via FedEx with a thank-you note. One of the doctors had scribbled a note: “Your mother was an amazing specimen in death; I only wish I’d known her in life.” Yeah, well, she would have hated you, I thought. She hated doctors. She called it “white coat syndrome.” Mom was slow to trust someone coming at her with a needle and telling her not to be scared. “That’s a sure sign you need to be scared, Jame.”
I remember picking up the box of her for the first time, how heavy it was, and how silent. It didn’t make any noise; I shook it just to see. She wanted her ashes spread over the Painted Desert. I think she knew that would be difficult for me to accomplish and so she cremains in the red trunk until I can gather the time and the money to properly expend what is left of her to the universe. So far, there have been no supernatural ass-kickings to speak of, at least none that I can blame specifically on her. I know that at some point in time, I will go to the Painted Desert and open the box of her and let the wind take her where it will. I will probably get arrested for doing it, but it would be totally worth it. Mom would tuck her chin, screw her mouth to the right and say “Jami Paige…” as if I should be repentant about following her last wishes. But in the end, she would smile and laugh and shake her head. “You are just something else altogether, Jame, something else.”
Not Really Remorse...
I would love to taste again the breathless, forceful, confused heat of a first kiss. You know the one; we all know the one. It is that person who has somehow risen from the level playing field of detached curiosity onto your radar as a person of interest. This person of interest has laid waste to your benchwarmers, those who were in the running for your pulsating affinity but have now been decimated by full-blown curious wanton for knowledge of this one particular dark horse. So aware and readied are you for this to happen, that the hair on your arms rises like high-frequency soundwave whenever you are near to this oddity.
This is not to say that I am not happily married. My husband, James, and I have been together for 25 years, married 20 this year. We are not stale, which reads with more of a distaste than it writes, and we are not THAT couple, struggling and striving to reignite our passion for one another with role play, swinging, swings or any of that other cliché stereotypical middle-aged sitcom fodder. I refuse to say that we are happy, because that immediately indicates that we are not, so I will simply say this: James and I can sit together on the bed, me writing or working, and he utilizing his medical marijuana card and watching conspiracy theory documentaries, commenting and communicating every now and then, and feel perfectly comfortable and satisfied. We have done what all couples hope to do on that most important of days when they say vows they truly believe and promise things they are truly incapable of achieving. We have weathered the storms that result from the universe challenging them: we have been sick, healthy, poor, wealthy, and nearly dead a couple of times apiece. James and I are in it to win it.
Loving someone, which I do, and being faithful, which I have, requires a sacrifice that one does not understand when one is wearing a princess dress, standing in front of a preacher, holding the hands of the man that will be her companion for the rest of her life, and exchanging her huge and somewhat grotesque bouquet for a simple ring. One does not understand that, if one is doing it right and forever, one has only one. As a bride, as the bride, a woman wears all of her dreams in her shoes, which will soon begin to cause her feet to hurt and which she will exchange for a cute pair of rhinestone tennis shoes or flip flops when the time comes to drink in excess and dance to early 90’s hip hop songs in celebration of the vows not yet cold on her tongue. I was that bride, nearly 20 years ago. Now I am a wife. A bride for a night, a wife for life; it is the fairy tale which, at some point, will become the fairy stale.
I just realized this two weeks ago as I celebrated my birthday. James had planned a surprise dinner party for me with two other couples. This was grossly outside of James’ wheelhouse and so I pulled the wife of James’ best friend since kindergarten aside and asked how it came about. Her reply made me swallow a lump of self-pity that had been forming in my throat for two years. He told us that you deserve to be celebrated and he wanted to celebrate you, not necessarily your birthday, just you. James? My James said that? Even now, as I look over at him scrolling through products at the dispensary and making a wish list, I am shocked that James had it in him. Life has not been particularly kind to us; our marriage was more of a cautionary tale for the first 15 years. But there was never a time, even in those glass-cracking, floor-trembling arguments when I considered quitting him. I assumed he felt the same about me, but I never asked, and he never told.
There could be first kisses, heart flutters, moans that signal a sweet giving in. My co-workers talk about their open marriages… and then bemoan their divorces. There is always a corner in a woman’s heart that belongs to some phantom lover, someone from the past who was never real, not in the way that sleeping on a hard, cold hospital floor when I was sick and pregnant was real. Not in the way that screaming my name until I came to in a field of Missouri wildflowers after we were hit by a truck was real. Not the way that sex is more of a hostage negotiation than a passionate throwdown is real. And yes, I sometimes long for and miss the taste of a first kiss. But I’d much rather miss that than miss out on all of this life we have lived together
Terra Beau Pieta
Günter Förg is Dead
She was leaning, casually and perhaps a bit haphazardly, against the wall of a former Presbyterian church turned Catholic church turned winery. Red brick, atop a steep green slope that turns into a blacktop, a classic Missouri blacktop with no shoulder, the juxtaposition of the green against the black in summer, the white against the black in winter, and beige yellow of the grass in the undefinable seasons in between tells a story, like blood on money tells a story.
The Sacred Virgin, the Madonna, had, at some point, been attached to a mealy concrete platform. Somewhere along the blacktop timeline that is the Missouri of the past, the church lost its religion. Is Mary still the Sacred Virgin if she has been toppled by fermented grapes, a cheap big-box wooden wishing well placed where once she stood to cover up the rough, ridged hill of broken rock that kept her the upstanding icon that she is?
Or rather, that she was because now she is leaning against the red brick of the church. I wonder if this coincidence runs parallel to the miracle of Jesus turning the water into wine. I wonder if the human race now considers itself its own Messiah, turning the house of the Lord into a winery. And Mary, now cast aside to lean against the rough, red brick of a winery. She was never precious to anyone; it seems as weeds have nearly over-grown her casted robe. She was molded for durability, not carved from anything valuable or eternal. Rough concrete, poured into a cast cut from a dye, and sold at a roadside statuary store. But the elements have been kind, maybe out of reverence. Her face is sharp, her profile perfected, still the gray and beige mixture, a complexion like a dusty wheat field.
And her arms still end in those upturned hands, palms to the sky as if she is waiting for God to drop His son back down to earth. She is half of a pieta, an unwanted hostess of the Terre Beau Winery, still serene, still willing to receive any who will come to her as she leans, waiting, against the red brick wall.
It shows up as a rectangular bar of bright yellow. The doctor scrolls through the three-dimensional image of my brother’s body, vivid on the computer screen, a Picasso of pain, a Dali of devastation. I understand that soon we will again be practicing the art of creating an abstract over concrete for my brother, John.
Dr. R. is using the little zip wheel on the top of the mouse. He is talking to me, his lilting Indian accent musical in the worst ways. He is composing funeral dirges and premature goodbyes as he asks, after words that are not questions, “okay?” I have mentally evacuated my brain for a moment; I have my hand on the mouse, finger on the zip wheel. I depart, leaving the talking voice behind me as I zip wheel to the top of my brother’s three-dimensional image and sneak into his body.
PET CT scans, modern forms of ancient truth-sayers, are not passive machines. They are hunters that come out only after the scouts have reported back to the tribe with the possibility of a kill. I am transfixed as I scroll through my brother’s brain, full of autism and developmental delays that do not show up as yellow. Cancer is yellow. The brain is gray. What color, I wonder, is the autism that made him an anomaly in public education in the 70s and 80s? The brain is gray. The brain is a Bastidas.
I am traveling from the brain to a cluster of tissue in the throat. There is no yellow, just strangely asymmetrical fruit slices. Dr. R. does not stop me. Dr. R. has done this with us before; he is accustomed to my refusal to accept until I see for myself. The PET CT is not an invasion of privacy; none of the organs will cry foul as I zip through them. The throat is a first-year-art student abstract of a fruit bowl.
I move to John’s heart, deep red, a stone inside of his chest. It is not beating, this one-moment-in-time, all-encompassing still-life. The slices of his heart hold a myriad of blue and pink lines, a glass bead, tall and dense, veined in the heat to press it. The heart is a Pollack, wild with confusion, a fractal defined by its lack of definition.
And then the yellow, floating arrogantly in a void. Everything else in the pelvis, all the colored objects, were removed in a 13-hour artistic excision two years ago. Robust, finite, bold, yellow sits attached to the shadow of bowels; the mass white-knuckles onto the pubic symphysis; it owns this part of my brother’s body. Yellow, five inches across, three inches deep. Brightly modern and contemporary when juxtaposed against the blackness. The artist is trying to say something with this piece, choosing a color of joy, sunlight, party dresses to represent death. Cancer is Günter Förg.
Günter Förg is dead. I stop scrolling.