December 13, 2019 § 18 Comments
By Karen Lynne Traub
With a “here goes nothing,” I submit my critical thesis, then pack the car with my vacuum, mop bucket and cleaning supplies and head to the cabin that is our vacation home and Airbnb rental. I walk through the house picking up towels and appraising the general condition, the floors, the bathrooms, how full are the trash and recycling bins. I relax into the routine, every moment taking me further from the brain wrenching work of writing and deeper into the comforting physical satisfaction of cleaning.
When the upstairs is done and the laundry going, I grab my phone and an ice cold can of Coke which I don’t normally drink but can’t let go to waste when left by a guest. I step out the back door, closing the screen slider behind me with my bare right foot, put the Coke on the glass table, sit down and see the subject line from my advisor Bernadette Murphy. “Reading your thesis; want to chat today?” I glance at the squirrel who is peeking up from the edge of the deck and think, “Uh oh Chippy, this can’t be good.”
I flashback to high school freshman English when my teacher Miss Thompson had written “See me!” on my homework. I had started the term with straight “A’s” but got bored and lazy and began to write my vocabulary sentences while watching Gilligan’s Island reruns. Miss Thompson says I can do better. She asks if I would like to help a boy in class who struggles with reading by writing stories and poems for him. I do and my grades improve.
Bernadette Murphy is a similarly astute, flexible and caring teacher. We talk by phone. She is kind. She is consoling. She is sorry. She says what I submitted might be shaped into a fine personal essay but it is not a critical thesis for an MFA program. I listen. I question. I try arguing a little. I tell her as an adult learner I am too old to go through the motions of a pointless exercise. She agrees. We end the conversation agreeing to think it over, she will check in with the program Director Ann Hood and we’ll talk again later. I go back to scrubbing the toilets, vigorously enough to splash toilet water. I shake out the rugs like they’re full of fire ants. I am vacuuming my way out the front door — my least favorite job saved for the last — when a voice bubbles up from somewhere “you don’t have to do this Kar, you can ditch the Newport MFA and move on to something else. It’s ok. You don’t have to be good at everything.”
Listening to NPR on the drive home I hear about the stream of migrants. I am annoyed they don’t call them what they are, which is refugees fleeing for their lives. I turn off the radio when I hear the president’s voice. I am starting to feel pretty shitty and the world is going to hell too.
When I get home, Frank is chopping zucchini — he’s on a diet that involves a lot of zucchini. Today the zucchini annoys me. I know that is not rational. I drop my backpack on the dining room chair and glance out the back windows at the darkening day. The mossy path and grass are still green but the ferns and bushes are turning red and yellow. Winter is coming. Days are getting short. Everything is dying. I go into the kitchen and pull a rat out of the freezer. Usually I wait until Frank is not around because he doesn’t relish seeing the rats I keep in the freezer to feed my snake, but today I don’t care. I grab the rat by its frozen tail and slam the freezer shut with my knee as I tell Frank about my conversation with Bernadette, how I’ll probably have to start over after all that work.
“Why are you so upset? You said you were handing in nineteen pages of crap.” Frank is my Prince Charming but he needs to go back to the chapter in the husband handbook that says “NEVER, ever, let the words ‘but you said,’ pass your lips.”
While we fight, I glance at my inbox and there’s a message from Ann Hood. I flush with the warmth I felt when my mom would put a kiss and a band aid on my scraped knee. Bernadette and I talk again. My voice shakes a little but I am too big to cry. I know she is right. She tells me I can do this and she will help me. It will be OK. With Ann and Bernadette behind me I feel my mom is with me too. When she still had hopes I would learn to love baseball as much as she did, she would say, in response to my wild swings at bad pitches, “shake it off batter, get back in there.”
The rat is defrosted so I wiggle it around with the barbecue tongs and Chloe grabs it voraciously and by instinct wraps it in her coils. I feel sad she was born in captivity, never learned to hunt and has to eat dead rats, then I go to bed.
I wake up after a surprising good night of sleep to the glorious gentle clink of the coffee cup on my bedside table delivered by Frank. I sit up, open my laptop and begin an email to Ann Hood:
“Dear Ann, If you could throw 400 pages of your first novel The Betrayal of Sam Pepper into the dumpster, then I can kill my rambling, overambitious darling and start over with a more manageable topic.”
With some ideas and a cup of coffee I set to work.
Karen Lynne Traub is a snake-charming belly dancer in the Quabbin region of Western Massachusetts. A student in the inaugural class of the Newport MFA at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, she is writing a memoir about her local public library.
February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Emily Webber
In the summer of 2012, I attended the Tin House Summer Workshop where Ann Hood read from, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, her memoir about her daughter’s sudden death at age five. It was a hot summer night and people fidgeted endlessly to get comfortable. Hood’s words, so full of sadness but a testimony to love and hope, hushed the crowd. In the opening pages of Comfort, Hood provides rebuttals to all the well-meaning things people say to help someone deal with grief. Her friends give her other stories of loss and Hood says: “But none of them lost Grace. They do not know what it is to lose Grace.” Hood understands the power of telling one’s own story. Her new imprint, Gracie Belle, from Akashic Books focuses on stories of grief, loss, and recovery. The debut book, Catharine H. Murray’s memoir Now You See the Sky, delivers a gorgeously written memoir that burrows deep into the heart.
From the start, the reader knows that this family will suffer the loss of a child. However, the opening part of the book is about how Murray ends up in Thailand, finds love, and builds a life there. The beginning pages are filled with marriage, births, jobs worked, houses built, meals shared, prayers and rituals performed, leaving the reader feeling safe with the idea that we have complete control over our lives. Then there’s the diagnosis that Murray’s son, Chan, has terminal leukemia. It hits harder, just having read about all the life that has been conducted, and it serves as a powerful reminder that everything can change in a moment.
This is not an easy book, and not just because it concerns the death of a child, but entire sections spare no detail on the suffering and mental anguish that comes with cancer. Murray puts everything on the page—the physical suffering, the exhaustion of being a caregiver, the frustration of not knowing what to do, the ways in which siblings sacrifice, the emotional burden. It is one of the most open, honest, and raw accounts I have read, and Murray offers us her thoughts uncensored:
Because I was holding a small, crying skeleton of a boy all day, the healthy, happy boys were a double delight to me, if not to Chan, who cried when he watched little Than run joyfully as fast as his thick legs could carry him. And in some terrible way, they offered me a kind of assurance. Well, if Chan dies, I will be left with these very healthy boys.
The reality is that there is no clear, direct path when making decisions about the fate of another person, especially a child. Murray brings these struggles to light with no sugar coating. She agonizes over whether she should tell Chan that he is dying. She wonders if she should have given in to the treatment plan prescribed by the hospitals, which is to say his goodbyes and go on morphine until he dies. Murray’s courage in taking care of her child away from doctors and hospitals is tremendous. She does this to give him a chance at living with his family, on the land he loves, and to leave open the door that there is a possibility he can also heal:
Fresh, tender fiddleheads gathered from the edge of the stream below her sprawling garden; wild pennywort, glossy green faces like giant shamrocks, the plant we pressed to make the bitter juice that Chan had learned to swallow, believing what we hoped, that it might beat back the cancer; balls of sweetened sticky rice stuffed with black bean paste and coated with flakes of coconut, all raised and harvested by Tong and Cam from the land they worked and loved.
Coming from a western sensibility of how we handle terminal illness and death, there are parts of this book that initially were hard to understand. In the United States, elderly go into nursing homes, the sick go to die in hospitals and doctors oversee their last days, our funerals are structured and packaged affairs that seem to try to distance us from death. Chan dies at home in the arms of both parents. The family gathers and stays with the body for days, moving to the temple for cremation. Then they collect some of Chan’s ashes and pieces of small bones. There is a communion with the body and spirit, and intimacy with death and a recognition of what has passed that forms a natural pathway to acceptance and healing.
Dtaw and I untied the plain cotton cloth that held the ashes, poured the bone shards from the jar onto them, and covered it all with the flower petals. Cody and Tahn and Jew helped Dtaw and Cam and me lift the bundle over the side to tilt the last tangible elements of their brother into the swirling brown water. The gray dust of his ashes floated and shimmered in the sun on the surface before the water swallowed them.
Even readers who have been fortunate enough not to suffer a devastating loss like Murray will still learn much from her story. After reading, I revisited my thoughts on what is a good death, how we treat the dying, and the importance of our memories. I also learned about a sweet, little boy who lived in the mountains of Thailand and loved horses. Chan’s mother still feels his presence and remembers him. This reader now carries Chan’s story too, and it is an honor. I’m thankful that Catharine H. Murray had the courage to tell her powerful and illuminating story and that Ann Hood gave it a way to reach others.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she currently lives with her husband and son. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Writer, Five Points, Maudlin House, Fourth & Sycamore, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.