Posts Tagged ‘memories’

The nice folks at Two Hawks Quarterly have published my story Madagascar, my first attempt this year to send out something else besides Poetry. (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With Poetry). I sent it out on a lark just to gauge what would happen– what happened next was a huge surprise to me. It was encouraging at least. I’m digging like a badger through old journals for more salvageable stories. Hope you enjoy.

raging-fire-from-charcoal-barbecue-grill
In two days time, there will be an office memorial for a coworker who died the weekend of my birthday.

I came back from my personal 3 day weekend and a secretary passed my desk, stopped and told me how over the weekend Linda had died suddenly. I’d worked with her about seven years and was surprised nearly to tears to hear that news. The story I’d gotten was how she was on the street (in the neighborhood of the office? during lunch?) talking on the phone and passed out. She spent the next day on life support and the day after she was gone.

I immediately thought a couple of things. First: how another co-worker of ours went to Emergency with her all of two months prior just after work one night and Second: how despite her being incredibly warm and chatty (ok, a motor-mouth) she NEVER talked about how ill she was, nor that she had cancer.

That I learned from the other coworker in question. A month ago, I went downstairs to visit him and Linda had sat across from him telling him a long, drawn out story. Her voice was light, animated, engaged. He kept mumbling Uh-huh, Yeah, I See, into his chest as if he were on punishment and continued to type while she talked and talked. I felt sorry for him.

And then, after hearing the news about her, I felt something different. I felt connected.

The other coworker told me that there were plans to have her cremated, but he also said her ashes were not going to be sent to back east where we all assumed she had family. Her ashes were going to be kept by a mutual coworker and friend. There was no family for her ashes to go to.

In that case, she and I were the same. Her hallway joke that I treat her like she was my mother, was but vaguely true. My heart recognized something in her I could never say aloud. I saw and understood her loneliness. I felt it in my own experience as much if not more than she did in hers.

This is probably why I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I found myself taking a break from the office and walking over to the library for my brief writing slash study session. Its a break I take on the regular, every other day if I can. And if just for an hour: to grab a book of poems and sit and read and try to work something out. On this particular day, I returned to the library for my session, but didn’t write anything. I felt like I was waiting for a call or text that never came.

After a few minutes sitting quietly, doing nothing, I got up as to leave But suddenly as when touching a doorknob gives an unexpected electric jolt, words occurred to me and I started writing. I balanced my notebook on the dusty window sill and expecting to write a sentence or two of notes, I instead wrote three pages. It was a mad scribble of words and ideas about death and loneliness and processing what I’d been told and I remembered about Linda and her predilection for telling spontaneously long stories.

I never expected to write a poem. But one immediately took shape and rattled me for its clarity, its specificity and demand to be born. I didn’t write it — rather, it wrote me. This sounds cloying and twee, but in truth it felt all but channeled. I came into the library with no intent or agenda and was just as happy to be out of the office communing with books. Then Suddenly…

And should Suddenly occur to you, will you be open for it?

I typed up the notes. Something began forming like an image though a slowly lifting fog. I thought of Linda, hyper friendly, eternal smile, and how often I was short with her to the point of appearing rude. Not always and not unfriendly, mind you. But once I realized she talked to people as if it were a condition that couldn’t be helped, and how warmly she accepted my lack of patience for her habit (I know you hate my stories, Cagney, but…) I sometimes playfully wouldn’t wait for her to finish talking. I stayed gleefully defiant to the social custom of patient listening.

While re-typing my notes for a poem inspired by her, I was also struck with a crazy idea.

Last July, I began writing a poem about BBQ ribs and how I bought an entire slab at the farmer’s market that I ultimately ate by myself. Here’s an excerpt from the original draft:

days of picnics, families having ended
A lineage of rhyming names remains having dissolved like sugar
Only the patrolling sun remains insistent to the point of hostility

There is you, the rottiserie truck and 30 dollars
rubbing in your pocket like fly legs–
You watch this man lay a rack of
blackened ribs on a running carpet
of aluminum sheeting then swaddle the whole thing
like a newborn. This youngster in a baseball cap and
apron blackened with sweet animal fat
handled the slab
ceremonially folding the crisp edges down sharp as an envelope

The poem had some cool lines, but I couldn’t get wholly engaged with it because… well, frankly it was irrelevant. All vegans, vegetarians had no entry point for it nor would they appreciate the language because, for them, its language wasted about meat and intended for meat eaters. I even dared opening the poem with the kinda humorous if off-putting lines:

Damn every vegetarian
and their anemic families
And their portable pulpit of entitlement

But all of us, myself as author included, were wrong. The poem was NOT about meat, but about loneliness. Its about my own isolation, which at first I couldn’t clearly see. It wasn’t about the purchase or even eating, but rather how in the poem, the purchase wasn’t shared. Couldn’t be shared. It wasn’t about greed, it was about a ‘need’ that the meat itself wasn’t going to fill.

So the poem sat idle for a while, until I found myself working through the poem for/about Linda. It occurred to me that I could take lines from the BBQ poem I fancied, and fold them whole into the Linda poem. The great irony being how Linda herself would NEVER participate in office lunches and gatherings, them being much too social (wink).

I allowed the narrative of her poem to run long and then… get off the subject, by having this other poem appear. It was weird, and perfect. The first poem about her was intentionally chatty. I thought of the security guard at the same library who’d always stop me to talk, then worked in conversational phrases people always say: …I’ll be short, I hate to cut you off, Let me tell you this one thing…

I wrote and re-wrote the poem a good four or five times over and was surprised how solid it felt, running a hefty three pages– too long for most open mics, but perfect for itself just the same.

Linda would sometimes side-eye me and say, You know, I was probably your mother in a former life. And for that reason, my mother cameos in the poem. The cameo is unflattering because its a memory of my mother perhaps a month before she passed away, and a memory I’ve referenced in another piece. But it also feels perfect. Because, like Linda apparently, I didn’t realize how important she was to me until she was gone.

I don’t know if I have it in me to share that poem at Linda’s memorial. Its pretty much sermon length. I’ll print it and keep it with me and hope the spirit… does with me what it usually does. Take over and drive me to a very unexpected but most appropriate place.

writingpoems
SPOILER: I don’t. They write me.

I woke up in time to catch CBS Sunday Morning and the moment it was over, I clicked off the television, already annoyed by the Sunday morning crew newscast, and started getting myself dressed and my stuff together.

Four notebooks, some print outs of articles and Other People’s Poetry I found the previous week at work, two pens, one pencil. Some books I didn’t open.

I’m a morning person, obviously. If I can get out of the house before 8:30 I feel like I’m accomplishing something and there’s hope. I like it early when the streets begin to aspirate gently. What people there are move slowly. By rights I should walk, but the arthritis in my knees and my unreliable feet make that downhill mile more daunting than I’d like. I don’t wait long for the bus. From there, its a two block walk past the children’s playground to my preferred café. The other name cafe’s you’d recognize, with better coffee and pastries, have tables that are much too small. In their large communal rooms, only a couple of tables are appropriate, both at the window and against the brick wall (one inside, one out). Those tables usually go first to students staring into their laptops or seniors leisurely combing over newspapers. I found one café with strong coffee and kinda miserable Costco pastries and huge tables with bay windows overlooking the lake that’s dreamlike for me. Its owned by an Ethiopian family. And part of my effort to get here early is for a prime window seat. Both tables were taken by the time I arrived, but I found a large table, centered against the wall, a couple of arms length away from the window where a woman sat talking on her phone with her laptop yawned open. On my other side, a younger Asian male finished a breakfast burrito and stirred the white pages on his desk.

I took out a yellow legal pad and a pencil and wrote three pages. Those were pages of therapy. Cleansing out whatever stray detritus floated in my head. Last nights dream, my insecurity, shame, wishes for what I’d rather be doing, what I did the day before and what I didn’t do. I wrote without stopping, as if sitting across a therapist and free associating. Until finally I ran out. I sipped coffee, I pinched off a chunk of muffin.

In one of my notebooks I made a bullet list: What goals did I want to accomplish, Right Now, while sitting here? I wrote three sentences. My intent was to write about Prince, via three specific experiences. Friday morning, I wrote a page of stray inconsequential notes and phrases. I gazed at them again, then took up the essay I’d found on line the previous week. Then read a poem. If writing my head clear with a pencil is one thing, this act of reading harmonizes my brain. Pointing my imagination to a goal, a direction.

Reading was a way to jump start the conversation in my head. Where and how do writers begin– how do they track their feelings on the subject, in this case Prince. How are they successful and how do they disappoint me? The poem I read started with a truly lovely idea and image, but it kinda devolved into sugary gibberish as it reached its end. The essay I read was better: strong, beautiful, admirable and personal. He’d write a far better version of whatever it is I’m sitting here hoping will emerge.

I reminded myself there were three memories I wanted to try to capture. I took up another notebook and free-wrote thru one memory at a time. I couldn’t stop. It was like automatic writing. I watched the images in my head and like a journalist made notes on what I was seeing, thinking, feeling. Because it was a poem, I pushed the boundaries of what I remembered and attempted to add things, images, elements that didn’t happen but could have. I wrote quickly, almost trembling in effort to write faster.

I stopped and looked up. A half dozen spandexed joggers had come in and sat down. A dude with a very runny nose sat next to me, also with a notebook so I quietly wished him luck. I took up my second memory and turned it over in my mind. Hadn’t thought of it in years. Then picked up a pen and ran with it; When I couldn’t remember something, I made it absurd. Surreal. Sometimes its not just what the Thing is, its what else it is. I wrote quickly, choreographing all manner of insane things into a memory which was more like a GIF file stored in my brain. Same with that third memory. Crazy write, I think is the phrase.

I left my laptop at home. On purpose. Hand writing is like sculpting. Creating directly from the heart. Because you’re writing by hand, you work slower and become more specific in your word choice — or crazy in your word choice once you realize you can’t stop and check a thesaurus for an alternative. To stop and check something is to stop, period. I only found myself stopping and looking up across the room from time to time as if I were listening to someone on the phone and they just put me on hold. It was swimming a few strokes and coming up for air. Right now, the goal isn’t to get anything right, its just to Write: to dump out of my mind every crumb of imagery that wants to come up while turning something specific over in my head.

Consequently, to initiate something on the computer– as I’m doing now– is creating something directly from ego. The effort is faster, which isn’t to say better, more muscular and from a seat of certainty, knowing. Ego. I can end this, scan it for errors, and publish it quickly. Instead of being the best it could be, it’ll just be Done. Last week I found a quote attributed to Dylan Thomas: “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flush, or thunder in.” I think handwriting leaves holes that allows for conversation to happen later once you re-approach the page. What I’m writing now, this blog, will be finished in a few paragraphs and never thought of again.

But yesterday… I left the café to go to a bakery for cookies. Then I returned home, put on Oscar Peterson, Art Blakely then a recording of Langston Hughes The Weary Blues. I cleaned up the kitchen, smoked half a joint, then typed up all the notes from earlier this morning. The typing showed me a lot of holes and clichés. How many different words can there be for heart? How many different ways can I say galaxy? Being high I made editing choices that were raw and interesting (and brief. High-James is not a great writer, but he’s a solid typist and edits well enough).

Those notes are marinating now. I finished and mailed them to myself for today, to print and go back over tonight when I leave work and to review ‘what happened’. I printed those pages blindly without looking, then slipped them into my notebook. To marinate your work seems most essential in writing– even more important than whether you type or hand-write. My brain is, even as I type this, very curious as to what happened in those notes. But forcing myself to wait while thinking other things, to let the words congeal on the page without me, allows me to approach my own work again, but with fresh eyes, a different face and new outlook. To read my own work as if I were a friend or critic of myself.

ME: Hey!! I wrote seven pages yesterday!
NEW ME: Are any of them worth reading?
ME: Hater!

gin and juice

By mid-day Sunday, Taqueria San Jose was packed. The gorgeous restaurant feels air lifted from Mexico and is bigger than you’re currently imagining, with an outdoor fountain on the rarely used and kind of small brick patio. I ordered lunch and armed myself with chips and salsa. As I hit the door to leave, right at that moment, Kevin is walking up the street and passing the entrance, calls my name. He’s so close to me at first I don’t see him. But we fall into a warm greeting. And quite frankly, as quiet as my weekend had been, I was open to greeting anybody.

Kevin is fair skinned with huge searchlight brown eyes. His beard quickly shadows his cookie complexion. His lashes are so pronounced and dark it appears if he’s wearing a touch of mascara, but really his eyes betray some Middle Eastern or Indian ancestor. His hair, which I remembered to be naturally wavy as if his mother drank curl activator while she was pregnant, was covered with a knit cap pushed back high on his crown. A bulging jacket sloppily dripped off his shoulders. Beneath was a V-neck T-shirt opened nearly to his liver, revealing long black and white gray hairs blossoming wildly across his narrow chest. Damn, we’re all getting old, I thought. A black liquor store bag hung from his fingers while he took steady shots from a huge bottle of grapefruit juice.

I told him I was just getting lunch then going home. He told me he was on his way to visit his mom who was staying in some elder hospital ‘down the street’. I clearly remembered his mom, and naturally thought of my own and how I knew several people who once stayed at that senior facility he vaguely pointed to. He was quick to complain about the staff, about the conditions of some of his mom’s hording neighbors. He talked and talked then stopped and said: Am I keeping you from somewhere.

I was just going to catch my bus, I said.

He agreed to walk with me, dumping stories and complaints I knew well about senior care, about nurses, about smells and ‘I better not see no damn rat in my mom’s room’ until we stopped a full block away from my bus to talk more. When a ghost cloud of marijuana passed between us, he surprised me by quickly getting away from there and asking again where I was going.

Somehow, it occurred to me to ask if he remembered Dru, with whom we both went to grade and middle school with and who’d just called me two days prior. Years ago, Dru sat with me on my front porch the afternoon of my mom’s funeral. As a child, I remember alternating my after-school afternoons between Kevin and Dru, but Kevin didn’t seem to remember the only white kid in our class. Dru, in comparison, doesn’t forget anything or anyone.

And we kept talking, though what we talked of wasn’t worth tracking. Flash cards as conversation. I remember and regret the last time I saw Kevin. It was lunch hour in S.F. and I was coming from the pizza place with a very good friend, and looked up to see Kevin approach in a wifebeater. Kevin, without question, would wear a wifebeater. As he approached, I regret whispering to my friend that I didn’t want to dwell with Kevin, didn’t want to be stuck in conversation. I regret dismissively telling my friend, Kevin’s crazy, because I wasn’t sure he was. I kind of regret, many years before this while I was in high school, asking class president Harold about Kevin– because they had the same last name. Turned out, they were cousins. I regretted asking Harold about Kevin because his answer was a distinct non answer. A shaking of his head, a defeat as if I’d just caught him doing something awful and he couldn’t lie and get out of it. I don’t remember what Harold said, only that I immediately regretted asking and I never asked again. I asked Harold a question and in turn Harold gave me a puzzle piece and clamped his mouth shut.

Kevin walked me over to the bus stop, having successfully filled my 25 minute wait for the next one. He asked me about movies, the last one I saw. I couldn’t remember. I hadn’t even seen Spectre yet. I remember many years ago going to see Prince’s Under The Cherry Moon when it came out. When I got to the theater, Kevin was already there and told me he was planning to stay the day and watch every showing, which he did. I told him Denzel is in the new remake of The Magnificent Seven and he nearly holy ghost danced. I told him Don Cheadle is doing Miles Davis and he almost fainted. (Not spilling even a drop of juice in the process, though)

We passed in front of a bus shelter where a Mexican woman sat with two small children climbing over her. We walked down to the stop I needed. Kevin’s eyes had swollen and glazed over from the woman. Though she’d been seated, he began describing her black pants. Ohh, boy. He said she knew he was looking and he stopped seeing me for whatever he was seeing in his mind. Ohh boy. He licked his lips and smiled knowingly… though I didn’t know. How did he see so much from a woman sitting down, children tumbling from her arms. He saw her and only her and stood facing me and describing her pants and body for a solid minute. Swig of juice. Smile. Kevin is not ugly, yet there is so much ugliness around him. The woman was first to get on the bus, lifting her kids onto it with the diligence of a marine. We looked at the same woman and saw two different people and two different things.

When I remember Kevin, beyond the vest and striped shirt and bow tie he wore in our class picture, I remember him alone. We didn’t spend a lot of time together as kids, but enough. We were friendly without the burden of ever being close. Our mothers knew one another and would talk from time to time, though I never knew about what. His mother, I’m sure, had her hair done a few times by mine. As I got older, I would see Kevin at random, on a bus or on the street, downtown Oakland or downtown San Francisco. He was usually armed with a complaint about wherever he was staying– for a while, a resident hotel near the Tenderloin on Market. But what to make of the story he told me about some woman who’d once seriously, specifically cut him, nearing cutting IT off? What to make even of his life? His reticent family? What does he do day to day? Has he ever worked? How is his mom, really? He’s never had any kids. I don’t believe he’s ever been married, even but for a month.

We kinda said goodbye, finally. Exchanging a quick pound or whatever. But mostly I remember climbing onto the bus, turning and seeing him still talking and quizzing the day and what else it wanted to bring him. The black bag pendulum swinging from his fingers. He kissed juice out of the bottle.

Who is he really? I’ve known him more than 30 years. I still don’t know.

Nickie-Terry
There were several strikes against this poetry event having any audience at all.  The first was it being scheduled on a Saturday afternoon at 3, when other even main event readings I’ve attended don’t begin filling up until after sundown, irrespective of the day of the week.  Second: beyond being asked by the events organizer a week prior, I saw no advertisements or announcements.  Third: they were asking $15 per ticket.  Fourth: it turned out to be the first warm spring day of the year.  Who exactly wants to be indoors listening to poetry on a Saturday afternoon?  Besides me, I guess.

Since these readings never start on time, I killed time in a new bookstore across the street, empty of any life, including the behind the counter staff who could barely keep their eyes open.  When I made it to the venue, I was incredibly surprised.

There were about 20 or 30 people, mostly middle aged women, already seated in the arc of folding chairs along the right side of the room.  The stage was just the carpeted floor crowned with four large speakers on risers, and five abstract paintings aligned on the wall.  There was a vinyl poster advertising related events on its own stand on the floor. A comically large orange wingback chair on stage and a mic.  I immediately recognized the woman I’d been talking with over the phone who came over to me, “we’ve been waiting on you,” grabbed my wrist and led me deeper into the far side of the room where a jewelry case was open, across from  three folding tables aligned with an assortment of food, sandwiches and cake and a cooler of juice and water.

I was introduced to one young woman poet, then another.  I knew the third woman and fell immediately into her arms, having not seen her for years.  While still embracing and admiring one another– her seemingly a foot taller and more muscular than I– I heard my name screeched, turned and saw the only woman I will name here, Nedra.

Nedra’s gravitational pull drew me away from the other woman mid-sentence, where she held me and surprisingly kept saying the words, My Baby, as I lay in her arms.  She reminded me of every aunt I’ve known and loved, with long curly hair waterfalling her shoulders.  A oceanic blue dress hung over her bubbling frame like a choir’s robe.  She propped herself on a single crutch which clattered to the ground as she turned and recognized me.  I immediately picked it up and faced her.  I made sure to introduce both women, even though they knew one another.  I’ve known the first, taller woman from poetry events since the mid 90’s.  Nedra and I though, went to high school together.

I distinctly remember her, though we never spent any time together as friends.  I remember, if you want my honesty, her looking at me from the height of an insurmountable crush.  A crush I could never awaken for and return.  We had no classes together and neither am I sure we were in the same grade.  We would pass one another in the hall and could recognize each other.  She was not someone who caught my attention. But until now, had we ever really had a conversation?  Her words surprised and comforted me and I emerged from the embrace and she swept over 30 years in a breath, moving to New Orleans for a while then back here to California where she’d gotten married (she but briefly pointed to the side of the room where her husband sat).  My own 30 years I kept silent about.  Its too much, too much to exchange in passing as one would business cards.

The show started quickly.  I’d say, before 3:15 everyone was asked to take their seats and they did and we started.  The show was hosted by Percy Mae of whom a couple of things need to be said.  First: she was introduced to me slightly bent over a walking stick.  Her hair was short and cloud silver.  She wore a blue housedress and simple house-boots, these soft, cottony black moccasins.  A modernized, remixed Moms Mabley, the huge orange chair was for her.  She would host the show and introduce performers, spit jokes and keep the audience engaged between acts.  A superb hostess really.  But she couldn’t be real.  To look in her face, however black cracks or not, to see how she’s dressed amidst these other wopmen dressed as if for church, Percy Mae is someone in performance.  That performance is extraordinary with her never breaking character, nor revealing even a crumb of artifice. Only if she’d snatched off her wig and revealed a cancerously ravaged scalp would I even begin to wonder if she was real.  Even then I’d compliment her genius for taking it that far, cutting her own hair down for ‘effect’.  Her performance, hands down — real or not– was the greatest of the night.

Otherwise, the afternoon was poetry as theater; taking the words and imagery of poetry and performing it, staging it, like mini-one act plays.  I was continually asked if I had music-cues, which confused me.  I just wanted to be heard.  The first young woman recited strong, confident poems about woman-hood and pride.  The second performer was also a playwright.  She was fun, using several instrumentals on cd and dancing in chorus with herself.  Using a gold butterfly cape with an immense wingspan.  Her poems stood from a confident place of femininity and were in character as a woman in the club flirting and being flirted with.

I was introduced as the evenings hunk– Percy’s words, not mine.  I was the only male poet. I read three poems to an attentive room of primarily women and the poems felt good to do and were received well. The woman organizer who closed the event’s poetry section, used props as well as music. Bringing out a couple of towels (one for Percy Mae) and shower caps and doing a poem about being a bathroom superstar.

There was a break for food and most of the people stood and lined up at the tables across from me. I didn’t eat and didn’t get in line. But Nedra came over to me, said I should get some bread pudding since she made all the deserts. I didn’t move; I wasn’t hungry or felt like snacking. But I looked up and Nedra brought me a bowl of banana pudding with a blue plastic knife in it, no more forks. How long has it been since a woman brought me… Anything. I took the bowl and added to it, slicing a chunk of cake she’d also made while she watched me, then sat down and ate as she made her way back across the room to her seat and the second half of the show started.

An older man put down his walking cane and expertly covered The Four Tops and the Temptations to a CD of instrumentals. A young girl, a teenager, rapped some original pieces while her mom circled around her as paparazzi and filmed her set. Both were superb. Another young woman, mostly huge Diana Ross hair and a matchstick body sang gospel. Also wonderful.

And I began to feel antsy, wanting to leave. I enjoyed the music even as my heart compelled me to escape, to return to my nothing at home. From where I sat in the room, I’d have to cross between performers and audience. I’d have to await courage and the right moment. I wanted to say goodbye and be polite since everyone was nice and loving to me. But more than that I felt nervous and anxious. I don’t know why. The Event Organizer cleaned up the food area, stuffing the garbage can. I watched as Nedra stacked three desert containers and carry them across the gallery then hand them to her husband who turned and walked outside with them. The Event Organizer wiped down the food table and as she crossed the room returning to her seat near the sound system, I followed her, letting her lead me to the exit.

The gospel singer with the hair began to sing a Janet Jackson song, Let’s Wait Awhile. Nedra turned her head away from me. Curly hair fell before her face in a veil. I spun on my heels and went outside.

Unlike the hundreds of times I’ve ghosted a poetry reading or event, this was the only time I was ever followed out.

I made it half a block before my name rose behind me. I turned and in the middle of the sidewalk, in flowing blue fabric, stood Nedra. Obediantly, I lowered my head and fast strolled back to her, hearing my name a second time. Not from Nedra, but from another woman standing across from her leaned against a parked car– who helped her shout my name down the street, and who smiled and nodded and ‘uh-huhed’ as I came back.

We stood and hugged and promised to keep in touch. Her mascara matching her dress, but unable to hide everything beneath the surface of her expression. I asked her to friend me on Facebook, wanting her to write me, to exchange stories over the last 20 years. She looked at me with what I could only describe as tenderness and said she enjoyed my poetry. To say: my last sight of her had to’ve been in 1986, a couple of lifetimes away from both of us. Between us was a gigantic What If. Did the woman standing beside the car see it? All the decisions neither of us ever made. Could I have used her friendship when my mother died, when my identity was shattering? Could she have used mine? She was a strange alternative life I never got to know. The babies, the memories, the friendship that never happened and we never knew spun around us in the wind, all empty and lifeless like ashes or leaves. She said she’ll be in touch. She’s always throwing parties or bbq’s, she said. And I never attend any, as I’m always alone, as I was the rest of that night and weekend. I couldn’t imagine travelling all the way out to where she said she lived, attending one of her gatherings, dateless and car-less, pretending to be normal and sociable. She promised she would look me up. I told her I’d appreciate that and how it was good to see her in person. After all these years. I touched her arm, exchanged a few words like you’d take specific coins from someone’s palm, turned and walked off into the sunset.

amityvilleIn the mid 90’s, after my mother died, my house was haunted.

The only house I’d ever known, The only place I’d felt safe and loved. But at the time there had been a series of deaths– not in the house, not violent, but all familial, all relatives. My father’s death surprised me. And I’m sure he expected to walk out of the hospital after his last visit. But after he died, I’m not sure if I

A) Really saw him looking at me from my bedroom doorway, which was weird because I thought he looked healthier than when he was in hospital
B) Really wanted to see him and talk with him one last time and apologize because I was an adolescent ass to him his last few months.
C) Was Really Dreaming, or Really Tripping

Several odd occurrances happened in the years between my father’s death and my mothers. But after my mom died, the weirdness increased.

I generally did think there were rats in the walls of that house, agitatedly chewing wood behind the wall. But I never asked myself: Why only my bedroom did that scratching occur? Why in one specific place– behind where I usually sat to watch tv, just behind the headboard of my bed? Because I thought it was animals, it annoyed me– it didn’t scare me. The deep crunching noise would begin and I would pound the wall in response to frighten whatever it was away. It would. For a while. I wanted to crawl beneath the house and find that sweet piece of lumber and see what teeth marks on it or evidence of an animal. I never did.

And skeptics call it sleep paralysis. Where you’re in bed, paralyzed, hovering between sleep and wakefulness. You’ll dismiss the sounds I’d sometimes hear laying in bed early mornings; a sound like a cocktail party in the next room where everone is speaking at once. A moderate conversational buzzing noise, all english, but I couldn’t pick out any words. Until after my mom died and deep within that noise I heard her voice. Not exactly what she said, but I could hear her, as you could pick out any familiar voice or laugh mixed in with others. The stew of voices usually scared me and I’d pull myself awake urgently, not understanding or wanting to listen. But my mom was my last close relative. I didn’t expect her to die either and without her I was desperately alone. When I heard her voice, I was no longer afraid or intimidated. I knew she wouldn’t hurt me. I kept saying to the voice, Help. Help. And since you don’t believe any of this, you also won’t believe I once heard her say in a huge, controlled whisper– as if she were using everything to speak– the words: One Whole Week.

I waited a week. I don’t recall what happened. But it must’ve been positive, helpful. I lived, and I’m still here living, Thank God, writing this now.

I recently went through old journals that kept me sane during those years. I was surprised to read and remember how after my mom died, she returned, and was a bit pissed off how the house was in disarray without her. In my sleep, I heard her in the kitchen say something about not having any laundry or dish soap. I was not with my mom when she died– her doctor called before sunrise one morning and told me. But I also journalled about having this ‘weird dream/sensation’ that I ‘met’ my mom in some kind of void, where I could see nothing except her and we hugged. The background was unpainted walls or smoke. All I saw/felt was her. She wordlessly approached, I felt her in my arms, and that was that. Maybe you’re a skeptic and you easily label it a dream and walk away.

My mom collected figurines, decorative plates and tea sets from all 50 states. At her funeral, many relatives took, claimed, stole, and asked for those plates. She had two wax candle figures of a little Quaker boy in a top hat, and a little Quaker girl in a blue dress. The girl was sculpted in a prayer position with her palms together, at her lips. One afternoon of depression and failing to find a job, I took the Quaker boy and lit his candle, then stood him center of a small plate. Only an inch high, he burned down to a grey puddle in less than an hour. Then, I took the little praying girl, placed her in the hardening puddle on the plate, and lit her.

She burned for about 12 hours. The flame went down to the tiniest yellow/blue seed in a small melted wax crater in the plate. By this time, I had roommates so I took the candle, and its flame and put it in my room to let it burn out naturally. The afternoon became night and I went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I awoke and saw that the flame had grown hotter and rose about 6 or 7 inches high, and had gotten so hot the plate it was on cracked. I watched it, and waited until the next day when it finally extinguished itself.

Coincidence, I guess. Huh? Bolstered by the wax of the first candle, the second thrived and burned the whole night through. Just science. Nothing weird, right?

If sleep paralysis includes the sensations of someone sitting on the edge of your bed, then why haven’t i felt that in more than 10 years? At the house, for several weeks on a regular basis, I would feel the edge of my bed sink as if someone had placed a suitcase near me or, more precisely, just sat the fuck down. I kept thinking, if I could just move and look I’d see someone sitting Right There. I remember this happening maybe twice after leaving the house, then no more. Guess I’m all better now, huh?

What happens to us at death? Any senior citizen will tell you truthfully, they don’t feel their age. Their body may be 70, 80, 100… But inside, they say, they don’t feel old or like they think they should feel. What happens to that feeling, that awareness after the body dies? Do you expect it to dissolve like water vapor? Bad simile: water vapor never dissolves, it rather becomes something different. What do we become? Maybe you don’t believe in ghosts, and you doubt the black cut out I saw one morning was ever a real person, but instead a play of shadows, a sleep induced hallucination. I won’t bore you with the part of the story where others in the room saw it and spoke of it before I ever said anything. Because I was a child then, and no one would believe a child anyways. They’re all active imagination.

But I’ve told the story of meeting my grandmother before she died several times. I’ve talked before about the dream I had and how she woke me from it, her warm hand on my cheek before finally dissolving into the ether and never to be felt again. But what I’ve rarely shared is this: that years after that incident, I finally sat and spoke with my biological sister. I’d only met my grandmother 2 or 3 times after I found out I was adopted and just before she died. I’m still don’t clearly remember her name. I told my sister about that strange weekend; how I couldnt go to the funeral but dreamed I did. How the funeral was on a roof in my dream and there were flowers and an open casket and a lot of empty chairs, all stand ins for the relatives I’ve never known. I mentioned how the dream stopped and I felt a hand, but I couldn’t move until the hand raised off me and how that scared me and sent me to pray it away, even as I knew deep in my heart exactly who it was. Somehow I felt comfortable enough to tell my sister that weird story, okay if she just laughed it away or called me crazy or whatever.

Instead, she said. Yeah, that’s granny. She was always very touchy feely.

The Stranger

Posted: November 13, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

thestranger

In the last poem I wrote about my mother, in which I tell a story about one of my last hospital visits with her, there briefly appears a woman named Theresa. Theresa was my mom’s closest friend in the last decade or so of her life. Theresa’s oldest daughter and I are Facebook friends. And when she posted on her timeline that her mom had died and that the service would be that following Friday– well, I had to go. Even as I’d sworn off attending any more funerals, there was no question about paying respects to her.

I wore a shirt and tie, looking better than I would for work and scored random Hello’s from white women(!) on the street, as well a Hard Cheese this female security guard gave me, strolling past the bank parking lot.

The church was one I’d passed for years, blocks away from where I once attended Jr high school. I arrived early enough, among people steadily climbing the steps. I signed the guest book and had to sneak up on an Usher who was busy talking to grab a huge, full color program.

I hadn’t seen Theresa in years and my heart sunk, seeing photographs and reading her obituary and remembering her laugh and Oh yeah; I played catch with one son and tried showing him Akira when he was way too young to see it. (He made me turn it off) And I remembered another son when he was all Afro and freckles, and the oldest daughter getting her hair pressed in my kitchen.

But those memories were antiques. I didn’t look at them often enough. And I didn’t know anybody any longer. Which one was the one I played catch with? Who had the freckles and afro?? And my facebook friend… um, is THAT her?? The room stood as the family marched in. Two sheriff’s deputies stood against the back wall. The row of women ushers at the door… I couldn’t directly look at them without thinking of/missing my mom.

The mocha colored casket sat closed beneath an awning of flowers. A line of 10 people assembled to share memories of Theresa or be encouraging to the family. I thought of doing the same, but my mind was so quiet. I couldn’t remember a story. For a moment, I didn’t think I could be encouraging and positive– no one had been encouraging to me. I didn’t know what that was.

The people who spoke were all brief. An older woman and church member since the 1970’s who considered herself everyone’s mother. A man told a story that made the room laugh (Theresa, he said to many Amens, should have been a comedianne).

One of those to speak was a member of Theresa’s daughter’s sorority. The woman, in red, asked the members of her group to stand. They did, all huddled together in matching colors as if they were a choir. The woman on the mic spoke soft, but was grounded and sounded used to having people Obey her. She turned to the family and said if you need anything, we are here. They stood like gorgeous soldiers, and I knew at that moment they would do anything for the family. Anything. Without question.

I couldn’t help think: Did anyone ever offered that to me? Looking around at the rows of family Theresa left behind, the sons and daughters and grandkids… It occured to me how alone I was. How when my mom died, there wasn’t anyone who had my back. No one stood with me. Ealier this year, when my friend from back east came to cremate his mom, he arrived with his girlfriend and while sitting on my sofa, squeezed her hand and said how she kept him on track, how he couldn’t imagine getting through this without her. I sat quietly listening and wondered how exactly I made it, having no one offer me much of anything. What happened?

I was adopted. After my mom died, I was laid off from family. I still feel that way. The day before the memorial, I called my aunt in los angeles, my mom’s only sister, to tell her about Theresa whom she knew, but there was no answer.

At the end of the service, there was no viewing. The family marched out, the casket was removed and we quietly walked out to the street. A pool of people swirled. I stood against the church gate.

My mom was the end of family as I knew it. And since then, I’ve been and felt less than anything. Standing there amidst all these people, I wanted to be here, but had no reason. I didn’t know anyone. Well– turns out there was one person, a mutual family friend, whom I knew and we hugged. But besides her, I’d been away too long… I didn’t know anybody any more. Even those I remembered, I didn’t remember. I stopped myself from getting in line to hug anybody. And just stood there, watching. Slowly, people wandered off to their cars and one of the members of the family began rallying people to move on to the cemetery. I had no car and was meeting others later that afternoon. I stop here. But something else within me had apparently stopped years before…

I felt clumsy and dumb. I’d forgotten what it meant to be in church, forgotten what it meant to be part of a family. I’d mourned so much and for so long, I nearly felt out of sympathy for others. Unseen, I tore myself away from the church gate, navigated through the crowd and was gone.

Less an hour later, downtown, I bought my second cup of coffee. I sat on a bench, thinking about the service and how much support my Facebook friend had gotten. I bought no flowers or card. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I just showed up with love and broken memories and still felt I’d done something wrong. Like I hadn’t done a chunk of homework I didn’t even know was due. I took out my phone and sent her a message:

I wanted to extend my love to you and your family. I loved and honored your mother especially because of the friendship and love she extended to my mom. What I’ve learned in the years since my own mom was laid to rest, is that family is everything. I pray for love to heal and keep you guys together and may your faith sustain you. You will never get over the loss. But may her memory and the knowledge that she has touched so many lives in such a positive and beautiful way sustain you. My heart extends to you now and always..Lovingly, James

She wrote back, sooner than expected, thankful and brief. Yes, we had great mothers. She remembered how her mother adored mine. She promised to exchange prayers.

That night I cleared my head in the company of friends whom I’ll be with for Thanksgiving. We snuck gourmet sandwiches in the theater to see Thor. Me still in a shirt and tie. Him in a Mustang t-shirt. “Job interview?” He asked. “Funeral,” I said.

Days later, I’d get a text message that another older person in my life had died. I deleted it. The memorial was scheduled exactly seven days after Theresa’s. I couldn’t cash out two bereavement requests off work, both within a week of each other. Its true, even as it sounds suspicious. And besides: what is there left for me to pour out? How empty can any thing get… and still exist?