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…]

Grief and the Weight of Glory

ClotheslineThe wind whips through the quilts and sheets on our clothesline, cracking now and then like a benign thunderclap, tugging at the clothespins I inherited from my grandmother’s childhood farm. My daughter and I watch them as we swing together on the playset her father built a few seasons ago, before she was born.

This spring morning my father calls to tell me that his mother, my grandmother, who passed down those clothespins, has fallen asleep.

“Do you mean she died?” I say, knowing the answer but wanting him to say it clearly.

“Yes.”

We don’t say much after that. It’s not as if this was unexpected. She is ninety-three and has been dying slowly since her kidneys failed months ago. But there is a finality to it, my last grandparent, the last connection to another generation, as if slowly, my family, my history, my memories are being whittled down from top to bottom.

This is how it should be, I know. But it hits me in a way I’m not expecting. [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…]

Refugees Are People, Not a Crisis

APTOPIX-Hungary-Migra_HoroSometimes the horrors in the news are so overwhelming that I’m left speechless. This is how I feel now—have been feeling for months—about what is being called Europe’s “refugee crisis.”

Refugee crisis. Encapsulating massive human suffering in those two simple words strikes me as demeaning: a slap in the face of every refugee from the endless wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya….

I imagine a woman who was evicted from the French refugee camp at Calais, sleepless with worry over the sick toddler she holds in her arms. I imagine her staring at me in numb despair when I read her a news story about “the refugee crisis.” I hear her scream back, “I’m not your crisis; I’m a person, a person who is pouring all my energy and money into trying to save my family from the brutalities of war and the indignities of being classified as a low-class refugee.”

I have no answer for her. I share her pain—to the extent that it’s possible for a comfortable U.S. citizen to share the pain of a despairing country-less person. But I don’t have the words to express my sharing. [Read more…]

Finding My Inner Calamity Jane

Calamity JaneCalamity Jane lumbered around Deadwood in fringed buckskins, spitting, cursing, and waving her whiskey flask in the shadows of the Black Hills. And I want to be more like her.

Guns scare me, of course. Animal skins give me the willies, and more than a sip of hard liquor gets me coughing. Deadwood’s very existence on Sioux land, let alone its rampant gambling, prostitution and murder, screamed lawlessness. But crazy Jane loved. Not with a quiet, corseted, motherly love, but a fierce, table-flipping passion that even she didn’t seem aware of. Which, of course, makes it the best love of all.

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the Old West because often the fiction was the fact. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West, a show he refused to call a show, celebrated the “legend” of the West in real time with sharp shooting, staged robberies, and cowboy/Indian attacks. Calamity Jane joined the production later in life as a storyteller, exaggerating her tales with each performance.

Most historians say it’s hard to know what parts of her autobiographical pamphlet, The Life and Times of Calamity Jane, are true. But there is a general consensus that regardless of whom she shot or saved and when, and if, and whom she married and birthed, she wrestled gender expectations to the ground with her adventurous activities and attire and fought alcoholism to the grave. [Read more…]