On the bus last night, doing outreach to homeless people in our town, bundling up hot meals in plastic bags, forgetting sometimes to include a fork because I always make at least one error when I am doing this work, I loved my colleagues for their matter-of-factness about life and situations, ours and theirs, and their distilling compassion into tangibles like underwear and bug spray, and I follow one of them deep into the woods where a man is sitting waiting, his speakers blaring rock music that has him mesmerized, so loud it is that I stand back by the trees and wave to him, his friendly visitor who asks no questions until we are on the path back and then the answers are spare because that’s not how we do things, we wait for information to find us not the other way around and back in the bus my friends talk about how they loved New Kids on the Block when they were younger and how their bedrooms were plastered with posters and I remembered but didn’t tell them about Elvis and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and because those things felt like artifacts from a hundred years ago so I just sat and listened which was just as well.
I have cataracts, just like my old dogs who are dead now but not from cataracts, from other things that happen at the same time like extreme old age which I don’t have yet but I’m working on it, the cataracts giving me a hint of what is to come, the blurring of everything valuable into one big colorful stew like the lights on the San Diego freeway a few days ago where I resolved to drive like I lived there so I punched the gas going down the ramp and merged like a Las Vegas dealer hides the Ace of Hearts in a deck of cards he’s shuffling for tourists from Des Moines, the turn signal on my rented red car clicking like a timer, there is only so much time, I tell myself, make the most of it.
It was my first time. I’d never had anyone fuss with my face, shape my eyebrows, those were things other women did, not me.
I lay back on the table and she put a pillow under my knees. As she studied my face, she pulled a bright light down to help her get a closer look like a dentist might do looking for an especially subtle cavity.
After she was done with my eyebrows, the waxing and tweezing, I asked her a question I’d been wanting to ask somebody for a long time. “Do you think anything can be done about my face?” I was sixty then and had long vertical creases in my cheeks, lines across my forehead, and branches of worry on the side of each eye.
She studied me for a long moment and then stood back, returning the examination lamp back to its place.“No,” she said, “I can’t do anything. Maybe a doctor could.” She seemed repelled somehow like she wished she could roll her eyes but it would be unseemly, not appropriate in front of a paying customer, especially one so seemingly unaware, unlearned, so naive. She turned away and then she said this.
“I bet you wash your face with soap.”
The creases in my mother’s face had been even deeper than mine, so deep that it seemed that her skin had been borrowed from a much larger person and hung on her head by mistake. I remember when the creases in her face were made. I watched from a window in the kitchen while she lay on a lawn chair in the backyard.
She wore a tiny halter top, one with no straps, just elastic top and bottom. It was white and maybe just three inches wide, just enough to cover her mastectomy scars. Running from the center of the halter top to the top of her shorts was a long thin scar where surgeons had removed her gallbladder or appendix or had explored. She had had several exploratory surgeries which I envisioned as doctors hunting for something to make real her complaints of illness. There had to be something the matter. We kept asking but she said, “No, nothing’s the matter.” As a child, I probably asked her that question 10,000 times.
She would wait until noon,when it was hottest, to go in the backyard. And then she would lay, first on her back and then on her stomach, always in her white halter top and her blackshorts, the rest of her body bare, offered up to the heat and the sun. She would lie flat on the lawn chair, perfectly flat, until the sun began to set. She didn’t read or converse unless I spoke to her, asked if I could go to my friend’s house or whether I should start dinner. She just baked herself until she became brown, my fair, freckled mother became as brown as the table next to me as I write this. Not mahogany, lighter, but just barely as I remember. But I was a child.
My mother was lovely and soft, not hard, her toughened brown skin notwithstanding, and she was very gentle, all the time gentle, and melancholy, this last thing being what I remember most. She gave me her wisdom as much as she could and one important thing was this, “You don’t have to be pretty as long as you’re neat and clean.”
“I bet you wash your face with soap.”
I was in the bathtub one night. I remember this so clearly because I was concerned about one of my toes and thinking I should ask my mother if something was wrong with my toe and then I heard sirens. The sirens came right at me, right at our house, and I waited for them to pass and go to the house across the street where the dad sometimes hit the mom and then she would come running to our door and my dad would let her in and go talk to the dad and then say he calmed everyone down. But instead the sirens stopped and doors started slamming.
I stood in my pajamas, wet and dripping because I’d jumped out of the bathtub and dressed so fast, wanting to see what was the matter. The firemen were in the living room and my mother was on the couch. She was breathing into a brown paper bag and one of the firemen was patting her on the back. “Just breathe, ma’am, just breathe.” And she did just breathe while the revolving lights of the fire truck flashed through the window and I realized the truck was on our lawn, not even on the street. It was such a terrible thing, I thought, that they had to drive on the lawn and not even use the driveway.
The next morning, I took my Girl Scout sash and my new badges into my mom’s bedroom. It was dark in there, she was still sleeping although my dad had left hours before to go to work. I wanted her to sew my badges on, she sewed everything, drew patterns for dresses on newspaper, and made curtains out of old skirts. But she said I should find some safety pins to fasten my badges because she couldn’t sew them now. That would have to do, she said. And so I went downstairs to her sewing table and found safety pins but I couldn’t make the badges look like they’d been sewn on because they hadn’t.
“I bet you wash your face with soap.”
When I got older, I understood why my mother had roasted in the sun day after scorching day, why she sometimes lay on the couch, facing the wall, for hours on end, so long sometimes I would stop what I was doing to watch her breathing. Was she still breathing, I would wonder, sometimes sitting on the slimmest edge of the couch to rub her shoulder and ask if she wanted me to turn on the television or make her some tea. She always said no, she was fine. But she was not fine, she was never fine, but eventually I left home and I didn’t think about it all the time.
The lines in my face deepened every year. They weren’t as extreme as my mother’s, no, but the time I’d spent in the sun, the afternoons swimming in lakes and then lying still on a towel, so pleased to feel the sun on my face, all those times added up to a time and sun-worn face so dramatic that only a doctor’s intervention could repair the damage. I considered that, I thought about plastic surgery and Botox shots, wondered what might be possible to restore my face to an earlier version and I emailed my daughter in California and told her of my thinking.
I told her how my face was bothering me and I thought I should try to fix it and what she wrote back made me decide to do nothing. She wrote, “Your face, your beautiful face.”
I still wash my face with soap. I stand in the shower with the hot water streaming and I lather up and wash myself, my arms and legs and chest, and then my face and I let the water run on my face like it is rain falling on grass that has been parched by the sun.
I fell. I fell on a boat ramp that had jagged rows of bumpy concrete intended to prevent falling. I gripped the end of the kayak in my right hand, faced up the ramp like I had done so often before, and waited for my husband, Howard, to give the signal that he was lifting the other end and we should walk the kayak up the ramp. He signaled, I pulled hard, and then I fell.
We had been kayaking along the shore of Islamorada in a double-seat, heavy plastic sea kayak. We started from the old resort where we had stayed nearly every year for thirty years. There was just the two of us now, our kids were grown, so we stayed in the resort’s smallest room, in the back near busy U.S. 1, the only highway in the Florida Keys. I missed the old days when we drove from Wisconsin over spring break with our carload of children. Then we stayed in the front unit, a cabin with a sliding glass door across the entire side facing the Florida Bay. After our first day there, the concrete stoop by the cabin door would be littered with snorkel gear, swim fins, and fishing poles with tangled lines. Our kids ran in and out of the ocean like they’d been born there.
Our family’s history in this place is long and deep. Howard had stayed in the same cabin with his family when he was a child and had told the story a dozen times of breaking his arm falling off the roof of the adjoining building playing tag with the owner’s kids. His grandmother, an immigrant from Ukraine, made gefilte fish from their daily catch. Her name was Bertha, but Howard called her Moy. When we stayed in the same cabin years later, I could imagine Moy latching an old cast iron meat grinder to the side of the kitchen counter and grinding snapper and yellowtail into the paste that is gefilte fish. All of this history, his and ours, made this small, old-fashioned Florida Keys resort a beloved place for me, a place I yearned for quietly nearly all the time but visited only every couple of years now that it was just the two of us.
The kayaking before the fall was smooth and almost effortless. It was hot, though, and I wished I’d brought a water bottle. The water was still except for soft lobs from the powerful wakes of speeding fishing boats far out in the bay. We paddled past old Keys houses and new mansions, sometimes a dog would run to the end of a dock to bark at us. We looked for the parrot fish and barracuda that we often saw when we snorkeled, but the water seemed empty, like everything had left to find deeper, cooler places.
We watched a helicopter hovering over houses on shore. It was so close to earth that I worried it would crash. I thought maybe there was an escaped criminal. The copter’s blade- slapping roar alarmed me, maybe because it was all I could hear. Knowing we would be on the water, I’d taken off my hearing aid and the receiver for my cochlear implant Without them, I was deaf except for the helicopter noise which rattled me with its loudness.
We turned around about two miles down the shore. We paddled back, next to the resort’s dock and then to the base of the boat ramp. I got out in waist deep water and steadied the kayak for Howard to negotiate getting out. We positioned the kayak to hoist out of the water, so we could put it back in its storage place along the bamboo fence.
And then I fell. It hurt. It hurt in the shocking, painful way that it hurt when I fell off my bike as a kid skidding around a corner on the dirt road near our house, the scrapes on my elbows and knees thick with gravel. Falling stunned me like I had suddenly become infirm, unable to do the simple thing of bringing a kayak out of the water. I gathered myself, stood up, and looked over my shoulder at Howard, “It’s just too heavy for me.” He nodded, shrugged as if to say, “no big deal.”
Two young men who had been watching came to help him with the kayak. Still dazed, I walked across the boat ramp, up a small hill, and sat in a white plastic chair at the resort’s little tiki hut where I’d sat a hundred times reading The Miami Herald and drinking Bustelo, watching my kids fishing or swimming. Sitting there felt like sitting in my living room, it was that familiar. Except now it wasn’t.
I sat still with my hands folded in my lap like I was at church waiting for the homily. Howard walked by taking the life preservers and paddles back to the resort office. He disappeared, and I imagined him having a nice chat with the lady at the desk. Maybe he was telling her about the helicopter. I put my head on the table.
A man and a woman on their way to the dock looked at me concerned, they mouthed the words “Are you alright?” and I nodded yes, I was fine, and put my head back down on the table, looking at the door of the resort office, praying that it would open soon, and Howard would come back. I couldn’t talk to anyone else. They would ask me questions I couldn’t answer. He was the only person I could understand when I didn’t have my hearing equipment, when I was deaf. We had our own language, hand signals and lip reading. I could tell him I was in trouble with just my eyes if he would only come back.
When Howard finally returned, he suggested we move to better lounge chairs for a while and enjoy the sun. He doesn’t know I’m hurt, I thought. “No, no. I’m really sick,” I mouthed, not wanting anyone to hear me. Somehow, it was important for only him to know. He looked at me, baffled, and then called out for someone to call 911. Later, he said I was gurgling when I talked, and my eyes were glazed and seeming to roll up in my head. I remember it being strange that he was so concerned but trying hard to look nonchalant, gesturing to other resort guests to move them to action but keeping his eyes on me all the while. I sank into the chair and surrendered myself to his care. Everything would be all right now that he was here.
From nowhere, a young, handsome Latino man took my wrist and felt my pulse. He decided I should lie down on a lounge chair and he and Howard pulled one over. Then he put his arms around my waist and hoisted me from my plastic chair to the lounge chair and felt my pulse again. “Her blood pressure is very low,” he said. I heard him although I didn’t; his lips were easy to read. He smoothed my hair off my forehead. He looked in my eyes and stroked my face, first one cheek with the palm of his hand, then the other with the back of his hand. He smiled at me, nodded gently, and kept stroking my face. I felt like his dying mother, his beloved mother, his touch was so tender. Later, I learned he was a pharmacist from Peru. Did he learn to be so kind in pharmacy school, so reassuring and gentle or had his mother taught him before she died? Of course, I didn’t know if his mother had died. I was only guessing from his touch that she might have.
The EMTs came with their boxes. One with a full sleeve of tattoos took my blood pressure and inspected my left arm which by then was throbbing. It wasn’t broken but it hurt in a powerful way and seemed to be swelling while I watched. The EMTs had me drink water and stand up, then shepherded me to our tiny room where I lie on the white comforter and looked out the window, a plastic bag full of ice on my elbow. They never said what was wrong with me, just that I needed to rest, and I’d be okay.
When I got up after a few hours, there were tiny drops of blood on the sheets, but I felt better, dreamy, though, like a person feels after an accident, delicate, fragile, adrift. Old and unwell but still living. I missed being robust, missed being a person who could haul a kayak out of the water.
Hours later, we decided to go for a drive. Traveling up and down U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys is what people do. It’s about seeing both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, the weightlessness of speeding over bridges, white fishing boats below, making out dolphins in the distance, the possibility and freedom of it all. The drive would be a healing thing, I knew that from experience.
Before we left, we saw a group of people near the resort office. On his knees trying to entice a squirrel with small pieces of bread was the pharmacist. I wanted to thank him, so we moved near the group to watch and as we did, the squirrel started to eat out of the pharmacist’s hand. A woman, maybe his girlfriend, took pictures on her phone. The squirrel was perched in the bougainvillea, red flowers framing his tiny, knowing face. It was entrancing, and I wondered if it was the pharmacist’s magic or the squirrel’s habit that brought them so close together.
“Sir,” Howard said. The pharmacist looked up, then recognized me as the woman with the weak pulse. He reached out and I hugged him. “Thank you for being so kind,” I said, remembering how he had stroked my face when I was so ill. He asked how I was feeling and for the first time I heard his soft Spanish accent. I told him my arm ached a little and he took my arm in both hands and stroked it softly like it was a bundle of orchids that would wilt with too harsh a touch.
We said goodbye and got in our car for our drive down the Keys. In the rear-view mirror, I saw the pharmacist walking with his friends down to the dock. They were laughing and chatting, luckiness and gladness dancing around them like fireflies.
My dog has a dent in her head about two inches long and an inch wide and I never saw it before the vet pointed it out this morning.
“She has partial facial paralysis,” he said, adding that was why her left eye was red and oozing. She couldn’t completely close her eye so it was dry and irritated. The facial paralysis meant that the unused muscle on the left side of her face had atrophied, hence the dent.
I’ve lived with this dog for 14 years. She lies near me pretty much wherever I am. I talk to her, I pet her beautiful head, I hold her face in my hands. I never saw her dent.
Is this how it happens?
You think everything is fine, life is okay, adequate, maybe not spectacular, but fine, and you meet up with someone who hasn’t seen you for a long time and they right away notice the massive dent in your head?
I’m afraid to go out.
I went to Sallie’s funeral today.
It was in a very old Episcopal church downtown, the kind where you need to leave your coat on because the heat, what there is of it, will rise to the very top of the vaulted ceiling and leave you there like you are sitting on a park bench.
The hymnals were from 1984 which is fine, really, because how many hymns change? Hymnals are timeless, I guess, it’s only the bindings and the pages that wear out. I didn’t sing from the hymnal but I held it open against my chest, held it close to me as if it was very dear.
The man at the door handed out programs along with a small card with a picture of my friend as she looked recently – 84 years old – long white hair pulled back – and the slightest of smiles like she’d just gotten done shaking her head about something – the border, the war in Syria, homelessness. On the back was a photo of her as a beautiful young woman wearing a dancing outfit with a lot of flounce and fluff. She could sew, Sallie could, and I bet she made that outfit.
Two pews ahead of me was a young woman holding a baby. The baby was a little girl, maybe six or seven months old, and she peered over her mom’s shoulder at me and other folks and you could feel the pings of envy from everyone – wishing they had a baby or were still a baby. She had bright blue eyes and a soft open mouth that sometimes looked smiling. She grabbed the gray hair of the woman next to her whom I figured to be her grandmother mostly because of her indulgence and lack of aggravation like she had waited years to have that tiny hand pull her hair.
Sallie would have been pleased that a baby was the focus of my attention. She would have liked the other babies letting out accidental yells; she would have enjoyed the squirming of toddlers, the dad standing up to hold his one-year old daughter dressed in a fancy white dress with what we used to call crinolines underneath, she looked like a doll from the Civil War she was that grand. All of it -the jostling and moving about -Sallie would shake her head and smile and then move the chairs back so the babies could have the center of the room.
I used to spend time with Sallie but that was long ago. I sat in her kitchen many times while she cooked and talked about revolution. For a time, I picked her up before dawn to stand against anti-abortion protesters bused in from out of town to harass local clinics. I remember standing with her one morning, our arms linked with others in a long line with a protester just a few feet away yelling, “Baby killers!” at us and Sallie, looking him right in the eye and saying, “Why don’t you just shut up?” I loved her for that and for standing for choice even though she would never, ever make that choice herself. She just believed in people’s freedom was all.
Sallie and I weren’t close but we had shared history, too complicated to explain, so it was important to me that she died, that she wouldn’t be on the earth anymore. That she was gone made me think about everything while I watched the baby and I was filled with sadness and melancholy about my entire life. The people I know are dying. And the relentlessness of age and passing made me want to zip my coat up and go outside in the driving rain. The wind nearly turned my umbrella inside out.
I feel my bravado weakening.
Last night, lying in bed with my husband, I told him that unless I killed myself in the next 45 minutes I was going to become a 70-year woman at midnight. And then I went to sleep.
This morning he asked me if all the reflection about my birthday was over. And it occurred to me that all my writing and posting about turning 70 had started to become narcissistic. After all, people get older all the time. People turn 70 all the time. They don’t feel compelled to pull their friends and relatives through endless pep talks and gratitude prayers which is sort of what I’ve done. But, of course, I realize I was the real audience.
Turning 70 seems preposterous to me. It is such a forbidding, large number, an unbelievable number applied to me although I feel I have lived plenty long. I’m not one of those who thinks her life has sped by. Much of it plodded by and, at times, stood still, the times of misery in particular seemed endless and timeless. Big events, catastrophic things, like assassinations and wars, hang on me like a vintage scarf. Watching a documentary about John Kennedy’s funeral the other night made me want to cover my eyes, my feelings about it so close to the surface even after fifty-five years. And so I go places with all these old things hanging on me, the bad events but also the music and the things I did when I was young and I look like an old woman but I am really a thousand scarves.
The whole thing makes me want to cry but it doesn’t make me sad.
I watched the news reports of Barbara Bush’s death. Film clips of her as a young woman, a mom, a First Lady. The most recent clips are of her in a walker; she seems smaller, reduced from her robust self, and the commentator notes that she was on oxygen in her last years. My favorite picture of her shows the deep wrinkles in her tanned face, she is smiling like she just came in from a walk on the bluffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. She reminds me of a favorite aunt, the one always dressed to the nines who smoked Chesterfields and drank what I always considered to be ‘man-drinks.’ You wouldn’t catch my aunt drinking a glass of wine, she’d kick off her heels, lean against the kitchen counter, and have a Scotch on the rocks. I bet Barbara Bush was like my aunt. I don’t think either of them was afraid of what would come next.
When my daughter and I did a long distance charity walk in a very hilly city, I quickly learned to keep my eyes focused on the steps right in front of me. Nothing was gained by looking up and seeing the hill we faced; it was better not to know how big it was or how long it would take. Just appreciate the steps of the people in front of you, I’d tell myself. Watch your own strong legs take the next step and then the next. Don’t let the dread of the hill make you weak. That makes a lot of sense to me.
“I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” — Joan Didion