Songs Dead Men Sing

Guest Post Scott Warner headshotby Cathy Warner

In the backseat of our minivan I swig an individual serving of white zinfandel to numb myself from the terror that is I-5: long sweeping curves, cement barricades, and massive trucks pulling two and three trailers that sway and rattle.

When I’m in the passenger seat, my husband can’t help but react to my cringing, so we agree a sleeping pill and $1.49 bottle of wine are reasonable for the five-hour trip from Eugene, Oregon where our daughter attends college, home to Puget Sound.

Ten years ago, living in San Francisco’s Bay area, I tried therapy. “You’re afraid of death,” the counselor said as if I thought being plowed into by tons of steel would result in a chipped tooth. I wanted driving—and life—to be predictable and safe.

Tonight, when I awake after two drugged hours, my husband’s brother serenades us from the grave. Scott died eleven years ago yesterday of liver failure at age forty-five, the slow suicide of an alcoholic. [Read more...]

How to Talk to the Dying

10142094Since being diagnosed nearly seven years ago with a lethal cancer, I have backed my old friends and new acquaintances into a quandary. What do you say to a dying man?

Strangers don’t seem to have any difficulty. Now that chemo­therapy has reduced me to a tattered coat upon a stick, I am routinely praised, when out in public with my four young children, “Oh, isn’t that sweet, you’re spending the day with your grandkids.” Under the guise of being nice, Americans can be breathtakingly rude. After about the hundredth time I was called their grand­father, I tried out a new reply: “These are my children. I am dying of cancer. The disease has prematurely aged me.”

Am I being cruel? Or merely repaying a pretense of frankness with the reality of frankness? The late Christopher Hitchens warned those who were blunt with their questions about his esophageal cancer to expect blunt­ness in return. [Read more...]

Lavender and Pennies

Whenever you detect the mysterious smell of lavender in a house, it means a friendly spirit is passing through one of the nearby rooms. The fragrance has to come out of nowhere, I’m told, and it has to be strong. Otherwise, your mind is just playing tricks on you.

And if you see pennies lying around on tables and windowsills, that means the spirits have “been visiting” while you were out. Again, nothing to be alarmed over; just some of the everyday goings on in a world deeply infused with things from well beyond it.

All of this knowledge comes to me by way of a lady who’s worked for my family ever since I was a boy—call her May Iris—and has lived in the very same place since she was a girl. She knows all kinds of things like that, full of a wisdom that’s being lost at a rate too clichéd to remark upon.

For instance, she can distinguish, to the day, between blackberry winter, locust winter, and dogwood winter (in the South, important parts of spring; there’s a mesmerizing story by Robert Penn Warren called “Blackberry Winter”). [Read more...]

My Own Desert (Tortoise) Father

I didn’t spend enough time with Oscar this summer. For forty years I’ve believed time will never run out.

Visiting California, I took my annual walk through my childhood backyard of bougainvillea, crepe myrtle, and fruit. I picked some strawberries, paid homage to my name scratched in a concrete border in 1980, then wandered to the side yard to find Oscar.

I sat in the gravel as he gummed a piece of lettuce hanging in seaweedy strips. He’s always been a sloppy eater, clomping around the yard with leftover pollen or hibiscus petals sticking to his mouth. We exchanged eye contact briefly: aging gray meeting steady green sea-glass. I tapped his nose, just as I did as an annoying kid, and he snorted, yanking his head back in his shell.

My mother rescued the brooding desert tortoise when I was four. She found him lumbering across the street, a reptilian tank with no regard for traffic.  She grabbed the huffing beast and went door to door asking if he belonged to anyone. According to Mom lore, everyone laughed, exclaiming, “We don’t want that ugly tortoise!” and slammed the door. [Read more...]

Ovarian Cancer and a Circumcised Heart

Unemployment (1909), Kathe KollwitzCircumcise therefore the thickness about your hearts.
—Deuteronomy 10:16

 

Her dying and death circumcised my heart.

For weeks, I knew only this: she’s on a lot of pain medication; she’s hallucinating; she’s in the hospital; she’s home; she has a staph infection; she’s in the ICU; she’s doing better; she’s in rehab; she’s in the hospital; she’s coming home.

How did I know the little I knew? Mother. She conveyed what they, my brother and sister-in-law, wanted others to know.

We knew.

We thought we knew. [Read more...]


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