Poison Ivy and the Path of Grief

Though its fruit should’ve been in season, too many harsh Midwest winters left the leaves of the apple tree to wither. At the time of harvest, very little fruit hung from its branches.

But my daughter climbed anyway, her arms wrapped around the low-hanging branches, her feet bouncing against the trunk so she could swing herself up. She climbed all over it, picking the seconds, tossing them into the buckets circling the tree.

I was travelling to Texas while she climbed, so it was later that my friend told me that poison ivy crept along the trunk of the apple tree and into the branches.

All the while, I was at lunch in Texas with my ill father, laughing at the dark jokes of grief with my mother and sisters, and making lists of the things people should not say to someone with cancer, things like “my aunt had the same kind of cancer and it was awful. She died very painfully,” or “don’t you know how many poisonous chemicals they put in chemo?” [Read more…]

The Neglected Garden, Part II

14374480496_991ff96353_zContinued from yesterday.

The dollhouse my father was building for me was still unfinished when he draped a boat tarpaulin over the top, to protect it against the summer rain. The doctor had told my parents that there was a tumor in his lung. He was being sent to the M.D. Anderson hospital in Houston, along with my mother.

My oldest, married, sister was coming home to take care of me temporarily, along with my 22-year-older brother, who had bottomed out back home after a period of college-dropout wandering. Together, they cobbled together a backyard party for my eighth birthday, and in the now-faded, garish color of the Kodachrome prints, the unfinished, covered dollhouse is visible.

Four months later, my father was dead. It was the coldest winter there had been in my lifetime. For the first time, a crust of sugar snow dusted the brown pecan leaves that had scattered, unraked, across the yard. [Read more…]

The Neglected Garden, Part I

6362028091_2d4a7eb81a_zWhen my father built the house where I was born, the land was flat and there was little vegetation on it.

It had once been the Curran family’s cotton plantation, my mother later told me—sold and subdivided for a row of little Cape Cods and ranch houses, all arrayed in pastel asbestos siding. Including the one that, in late 1954, became my family’s home.

I was born in 1968.

There were no trees, I see in the silent drone of 36 millimeter “home movies” my father shot during the bright summers of the middle 1950s—ten years before I was born. It surprised me as a child, but shouldn’t have: The town where we lived was on the very seam of the Mississippi Delta, where wooded hills careened suddenly downward to hit flat land for a hundred miles. [Read more…]

The Long Regretful Wait

By Tony Woodlief

PhoneMy mother’s quavering voicemail was right: I hadn’t called in a long time. I justified my neglect with the assurance that I’d called on her birthday, I’d called on Mother’s Day, I’d made my dutiful calls even though I suspected she was mad at me. I made them and she didn’t answer.

I hadn’t called in a long time, but goddammit, neither had she.

My mother’s tears always put a knot in my gut. Once as a boy I fell asleep on her bed, and woke to her weeping. On the television were men, some in brown uniforms, some wearing white sheets. They stood shouting in the parking lot of our local library. The next day Mama put a letter in our mailbox, and the newspaper published it.

A week later, angry people were calling our house. Mama argued with some, hung up quickly on others. I beat her to the phone once, and a woman asked: “Just what is your mama’s problem with the Klan?”

Only God knows what my mother would have done to that woman, had she possessed the power to reach through the phone. [Read more…]

The Wounds of Resurrection

Doubting ThomasAs my husband prepared for an Easter sermon a few weeks ago, our dinnertime conversations during Lent turned to Jesus’s appearance to the disciples after his resurrection, to the episode where poor Thomas is saddled with his unfortunate moniker. Carravaggio painted a terribly potent picture of Thomas probing Jesus’s wounds, his lord’s flesh curving over the doubter’s finger.

With its emphasis on suffering, broken bodies, deprivation, and wounds, Lent’s focus isn’t far from the realities since my father’s cancer diagnosis a year ago: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, the failure of his natural killer cells.

When you have a loved one with cancer, you enter the cloud of unknowing, or perhaps it’s a club of unknowing, a society of those wedged in the grief and emotional confusion that a non-linear illness brings to all who are involved. In this club you might become more familiar with the less famed side effects of chemo like neuropathy and a sensitivity to hot or cold, with the comments people make in an effort at sympathy, or with the ebb and flow of sadness, guilt, and normal life.

Lent puts us in mind of those wounds and scars, of bodies failing, of death. But when Easter comes, and we celebrate resurrection, it sometimes feels like those wounds are mended too quickly. Or perhaps they were never really healed. [Read more…]