Monday, March 29, 2010
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
I think I may be posting this because it's officially December now, and December always makes me feel a certain way. Miss you, Nana.
Missteps in a Sousa March
I can see the movement of the heartbeat in her throat, despite the difficult laughter—Mary Kinzie, in a poem to her daughter.
In 1998’s late August, my mother, sister and I watched television shows about guardian angels on Sunday nights at eight. We cried softly in our beds when we thought everyone was asleep, woke up and ate big breakfasts. We did this, hoping that Marie Gay wasn’t underneath the grass and dirt, entombed in cherry wood. Instead, she was up one busy street, dusting fan blades in her and my grandfather’s one story home. I don’t remember when our days became less routine, how long my sister and I slept together in her room, using memories of our grandmother as bedtime stories. I don’t remember how much time passed before my mother was no longer using toilet paper to dry her eyes in the bathroom, shouting “Mama, Mama” and wailing, sometimes as resonant as a hand bell.
When I think of the night she died, after so many years, I see our family, all four of us, lying or sitting on my sister’s double bed. We are holding hands with tears all over us. We are all wet from each other’s tears. My mother tells my sister and me that she doesn’t know the cause of death, but Nana had defects inside of her chest, that her heart was not a normal one. It was the kind of heart that beat too quickly or forgot to beat.
“Our hearts don’t do that, do they?” I asked her.
She told me they did not, and cocooned herself in blankets.
If my grandmother had died this year, rather than during my adolescence, my mother would have told me that what my grandmother died of, heart arrhythmia, sounds more severe when you speak of it scientifically. What I mean is: we suppose our bodies are automatic until someone we know stops inhaling and exhaling. Then we remember, until we forget again, that our bodies are not slabs of skin and hair, but amalgamations.
This year, on the first of November, I go with my mother to see her brother, Bill, in my hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina. We drive fifteen minutes to his country home, and before we go inside he shows us the solar powered lamps he has in his garden, tells us how nice it is to see his plants light up after the sun goes down. He is wearing plaid pajama pants and a pocketed t-shirt the color of sandstone.
Inside we sit on leather couches in the living room. On each table, there are lamps that used to belong in my grandmother’s house on Thirty-Sixth Street.
My uncle says, “Lindsey, do you see the peace lilies on the floor in the kitchen?”
I tilt my head back and look upside down at the plants underneath the window.
“I got them from your Nana and Granddaddy’s funerals.”
“They’re artificial, then?”
“No, they’re real. I’ve taken care of them all of these years.”
I tell him the plants look healthy and my mother remarks how impossible it seems that a plant can live ten years. My uncle nods his head.
I ask him if he was aware his mother had an irregular heartbeat. He is sitting in the corner of a couch, legs crossed at the ankles.
“Mama didn’t like the idea of a hospital. She knew how bad her health was, but, I guess just thought, ‘I’m going to die of something.”
“Yeah,” my mother says, “She’d keep right on going no matter how bad she felt. She used to tell me she hoped Bill and I didn’t inherit her health problems.”
It is the idea that you will continue grocery shopping and planting flowers and wrapping Christmas presents with no effort of your own to maintain the machinery of your interior self. It is the idea that sometimes the bodies we depend on are as noiseless as a church.
“To me,” my uncle says, uncrossing his ankles, “everything seemed fine. I talked to her the Saturday she died. We were going to Aunt Jean’s house two and a half hours away in Morehead City. Mama was telling me what a beautiful house Aunt Jean had; I told her that I loved her. At Aunt Jean’s, we went and had a good meal, came back and had a message on the answering machine. Daddy said, ‘Bill, look, something has happened to your mother. Come home. Don’t drive fast.’ I knew there wasn’t anything good about it. And, we got in that ’94 Honda and I put it in the wind on that two lane highway all the way home. I didn’t ever get it under eighty miles per hour. By the time I got to the hospital, she only had forty percent brain activity.”
My uncle is shifting on leather. It sounds squeaky and plastic like a pool float. In between answering my questions, he is pulling adhesive off of an envelope, then showing my mother pamphlets about a new dietary supplement he ordered last week. After a while, he turns to me and says he never thought his mother’s heart would be the thing that killed her--was sure she’d die of a stroke. I nod, but I’m thinking of something else—visions of myself and my grandmother at her kitchen table. When we ate together, she’d ask me to pace myself, chew my food until I could hear my teeth knocking together, and then swallow, because she had what she referred to as “stomach problems” and it was because she ate too quickly when she was younger. I thought if she ever died, it would be because she wasn’t following her own advice at dinnertime, and when the coroners opened her body, they’d find an entire apple in her stomach. She never mentioned her heartbeat.
Every year, during the Christmas season, my mother fills hollowed eggs with a mixture of Miracle Whip and mashed yokes, her mother’s recipe. Sometimes she sheds tears onto the monogrammed ornaments we hang on the branches of the Christmas tree, wiping her face, whispering, “Mama always loved Christmastime.” I notice that in those moments, she stays very still. I wonder how her heart reacts in accordance to her memories.
Every year on August 4th—the day my grandmother died, my mother makes a phone call to her brother, Bill, and the two of them buy artificial flowers, go and sit in front of her tombstone. Meanwhile, I am at our family home, wading in bathwater up to my shins. I am calling her back to memory; wanting to remember what her body looked like in motion. Then, I see a fuzzy version of my younger self, like the static of a television, in a baptismal pool in the front of a sanctuary. She is sitting a couple of rows from the front of the church on the red velvet cushion of a pew. She is smiling and nodding. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, and then I arch my back into the sacred water. When I come up for air, she is crying and smiling and nodding and as I trudge to the stairs of the tub, my white robe billowing around me, the congregation begins to sing the Doxology.
On an August night in 1998, my grandfather drives two streets down to his friend, Herbert Dowless’ house, for a Sunday school book. When he returns home, he expects to begin preparing tomorrow’s lesson for a class of sixty-somethings. Retrieving the book from Herbert takes ten minutes. When he arrives at home, he greets my grandmother from the kitchen door as he steps over the threshold. He will not notice how silent the house is until he speaks to her again and again. He calls her name and when she does not answer, he looks from the kitchen into the living room and sees his wife in the same chair he left her in, only now she is not breathing. Her dinner plate is placed in front of the chair. No food is spilled. Months later, in something like an afterthought, he tells his children their mother did not look distressed when he found her. He imagined she felt something funny in her chest and placed her plate on the ground, so as not to spill it.
Years after her death, I will play percussion instruments in my Junior High Symphonic Band. After months of additional after school practice, I will discover, because of my lack of innate rhythm, I am not able to play Sousa marches on the snare drum. When asked to perform rudiments, I will be surrounded by boys my age whose hands accelerate in 4/4 time and then move slowly, almost like underwater tentacles, in retrogression. Despite my fervent effort, I will never be able to find my rhythm. It is then that I think of her—her heart as a metronome irreparable before birth