Monday, February 28, 2011

The house looks the same.

We help Mom up the four steps to the porch, and Becky unlocks the door. Inside, light filters through lace curtains into the hall's dim cave. It smells the same.

I start to bring in bags from the car. Part of me wants to run upstairs and see my old room. But I'll have time.

"Mom, I want to go see the kids, and then I'll stop by with some groceries later."

"I can go get something."

"No, it's okay. I have a car."

The screen door shuts behind her. It isn't that warm, so I close the door.

"Let's find some sweaters and sit outside," Mom says. I hadn't thought about how she might be feeling cooped up, hadn't thought about her flower beds or her garden--way behind by now, a season lost.

I gather wraps from closets and drawers, and pick up some blankets, too. We settle into the chairs on the front porch.

"It's good to be back home."

I assent silently.

"How long will you be here?"

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Moving day again. We're bringing Mom back to South Bend. She's finished her treatments, and the doctors think she's doing well. Her screens are clear.

This is the first time I've been home in seven years. We get all the bags into the car, and it isn't really that much.

"Mom, where do you want to sit?"

She's going to give me the front seat, and I'm going to decline. I get into the back of the little blue car, and she settles into the front, and Becky's all business.

Traffic is heavy and fierce as we drive the highway south toward Tacoma. We pass the car lots and body-repair shops, the malls and the malls and the malls. I've enjoyed my stay in the city, and now I'm remembering the less picturesque parts of normal life.

The cars thin out down toward Olympia, and then we turn off--head north to go west--into the woods.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

It's been a month. We're close to May, and Mom is no close to better.

Letters come and go. I stay.

Becky and I are at the hospital, waiting to drive Mom back after her appointment.

"You don't have to stay."

"What do you mean? I want to stay."

"But you want to go."

I hear guilt. I don't know if that's what she means, but that's what I hear.

"I do, and I don't. I want to be here with you and Mom."

Her silence means, But you left us before, and I know that I will not be forgiven.

I stay. I knit and I stay.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Dear Misha,

This is bigger than a postcard. What can we say to each other? We've barely known each other for a few days--in person, at least. But I want to know.

Thank you for sending me your new mail address. I don't know how long it takes a letter to reach the States, but I hope this finds you well. And I hope that your mother is doing better.

That sounds very formal. I don't know what to say to you. We barely know each other, and yet I feel like I've known you for a hundred years. Now I sound--corny, I think that's the word. I will work on my english, but you must work on your spanish. Now I sound--bossy is the word I think. I'm not trying to be bossy.

I could tell you about autumn, or how much I'd like to see you again, and how crazy that sounds, and where? Really, I'd rather hear about you and your mother and your sister, about the light in Seattle and all the fish.

Please, if you get a chance, write to me. Let me read your voice.

With felicitations,


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Next, I pick up Lydia's envelope. It's thick, and when I open it, I find a handful of photographs.

The day balls up in my chest. A few deep breaths, and I'm able to look through them, reminders of home--my little house, the store, the harbor, a picture of Lydia and Alex, and one of a puppy. Hmmm…

Lydia's letter fills in some of the details. Alex has moved in with her, and they've gotten a puppy named Loki. Her story starts out so sweetly, and then she becomes Lydia, detailing the whining through the night, and the walking and the housebreaking, and pretty soon it will be chewing, and why did they name him Loki--what were they thinking? It's still sweet, but it's in Lydia's familiar way.

She asks how my mother is doing, and what it's like being home, or sort of home, or used-to-be home.

None of us ever really goes home to visit our families. I suppose it's the money, and the fact that we feel we need this cycle--a kind of desperation not to leave.

We're not a cult, but I guess some days we look like one.

She fills the pages with some more news.

Nilsa is keeping the store for you, although no one comes yet.

This is good. I don't know why I didn't think to ask Nilsa before I left. She helps me sometimes at the height of the season. If only I had enough business to keep her on all the time.

Not to the bakery, either. In the middle of summer, we tire of the tourists, but you know how slow this time of year goes.

I rest my hands in my lap, still holding the letter, and feel so lucky for everything I have.

The sun will sink below the buildings soon. I pick up Sevario's letter.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Henry's handwriting jumps to me from the page. His voice, as I know it.

How are you? It seems strange to think of you not in our house--to think of you somewhere I've never been. Sometimes, I forget that we've had lives before this.

He does not mention coming to see me. I thought he might, since we've both been saving money. I need to stop thinking.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

It's a bright moment--a sunbreak as we say here--and I take a walk, look for a little park to sit. It's warm enough, as though fickle Spring has brought her bags and intends to stay. A day for feeling good.

And I have letters, a bonanza of letters--one from Lydia, one from Henry, and one from Sevario.

I open Lydia's first, and she talks of Kirkenes. It's still early for tourists, but she's enjoying the quiet and trying out a few new pastry tricks. She asks when I'll be coming back.

I feel so far away, as though I've traveled to a different life. I guess I have.

Next envelope, please.

Dear Misha,

Saturday, February 19, 2011

We move Mom out on a Monday, day after the equinox. We don't any of us have a lot of stuff--except for the medications. And a mountain of paperwork.

All night the March wind roared. I lay awake listening to the wind and thinking about my friends and their journeys--Lydia and the rest moving back up to Norway, Henry heading south. Soon, maybe right now, he'll find my letter in the cookie jar. I want to be there, back at my little store--although, for daylight, I'm probably better off here. I still feel like a stranger here, but I also feel like it's right. I sit with Mom, both of us half-listening while Becky gets more discharge instructions from the nurse.

The wind is still gusting. Plum petals fly like stray snowflakes and stick to the sidewalks in small drifts.

It's hard to see my mother in a wheelchair, but it's the rules and she still looks weak, so we roll her out to the car and drive the five blocks to our new home--a one-bedroom apartment. We'll put Mom in the living room, and Becky and I will share the bedroom. We debated this.

"She'll need her rest," Becky argued.

"But we don't want her to feel isolated--shoved aside."

We finally decided to try it this way and then switch if it doesn't work.

After we settle Mom in, Becky heads out to the store for groceries.

"I can go, if you want."

"When is the last time you drove a car? And I want something besides beans."

The door closes, and suddenly this is even stranger than the hospital.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mom is still woozy. Later, they tell us, she'll have some pain. I feel like we're in a torture chamber, and all I can do is watch.

I keep waiting for her self to arrive in her face.

She rests lightly. We breathe carefully. We do not speak.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The nurse is rushed but friendly and directs me to a station on the fifth floor. I walk the hallways to the elevator banks, passing the art and the directions and all the confusing signs that make this look like home and not home, an ordinary office and not an office, a hive humming with its own community and a last stop.

I haven't been good at asking for things, any kind of things, but here I tell myself that people are here to help people like us.

And they do.

I return to Mom's room with a list of nearby buildings that rent furnished apartments, month-to-month, and I'm feeling a little good about taking the initiative. I did something! Becky's as surprise as I am--it's a step she'd usually take, and it makes me realize how crushed and busy she's been, stretched between Mom and the illness and her family and then me gone so far away.

"We can take a look maybe tomorrow," I add.

"We'll have to see how Mom's doing--although they tend to boot you out so fast these days, we may need a place right away."

We each pick up our needles again. The clock does not compromise.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I think about my new email account, wonder if any messages have come in. This is new for me. I didn't need it before. I love the mail. But having taken transience to a new level, I want to stay in touch with something.

And yet I'm here with my family. How much more in touch can I be? Who can be more important than that?

It's only been a couple of hours. We have a ways to go.

I think about the crew preparing to move north. I miss Lydia. She's like my other sister, someone to chide me and comfort me. And the Chief is like a replacement father. I moved away and gathered a new family to rely on. I've floated along on the current and let them steer me. I guess it's one way to live. But it's starting to feel lonely.

I set down my needles.

"I'm just going to walk down the hall."

"What do you need?"

"I just want to ask a question."


"I'll be right back."

I'm lonely and I want to be alone. Yes, I'm a mess, but I'm walking down the corridor.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I take some knitting out of my bag. Hospital time is like elevator time--its own physics.

Breakfast was something of a joke--we each got a bagel, took a few bites, and then looked at it. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to taste the cream cheese, taste the dried onions and garlic and the seeds.

"We should probably wrap them up and take them with us," Becky suggested.

"And eat them when?"

"You're right."

Even though we were raised not to waste things--especially not to waste food--we pitched the mostly uneaten bagels and walked back to the hospital.

"Should we wait in the room? Where do we wait?"

"I don't know," Becky said. She stopped at the nurses' station and asked.

"She said we'd probably be more comfortable in the room. They'll let us know when Mom's out of surgery."

So here we are, and the hours stretch like bum on the bottom of a shoe.

"I have some more needles, if you want something to do."

"Sure," Becky says with relief.

We share a few moments digging through the yarn, and then we both settle into our chairs, needles clicking. This is better.

But now, with no worries about my sister and big worries about my mother and needles working their meditative way, I start to think about Sevario and Henry. While I'm knitting a sweater, my thoughts unravel.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The wheel sounds fade as the gurney goes down the hallway.

"We should get something to eat," Becky says.

"But you want to wait. I want to wait."


Sunlight lands in improbable places, playing with the sterility.

"Not the cafeteria. Have you found anything good close by?"

"I haven't been out much, but there's a bagel place, maybe some other stuff."

I don't want to admit that I'm starving. Or my stomach is twisting from nerves. Probably that, but I also haven't eaten since a different time zone.

"Let's just run out quickly. Keep our strength up."

We stare at the splotch-pattern floor, and then we both stand up. An agreement. We want to be quick, but we move as though we're walking through water.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I miss the hotel's wake-up call, and I have 10 minutes to throw on some clothes and rush to the hospital before they wheel Mom off to surgery.


I pull on yesterday's jeans and slide into a T-shirt and a sweater. The beauty of not having a lot of stuff is that I don't have many decisions to make. I wish these were cleaner.

By the time I reach the elevator bank at the hospital, I'm sweating anyway and gasping and my legs ache. It's only a few blocks, but I don't run much, and running isn't the same as walking.

Elevator time has its own physics, and I'm out of practice. It takes forever for a car to arrive. After people flow in, almost every button is lit. I don't have a watch, so I don't know how much longer I have, or whether I'm too late.

The hallway looks familiar and I skitter toward the room.

They both look up.

"I made it!"

"Just barely," Becky points out. Thanks, Becky. This is starting to feel more normal, in a weird way.

"How are you?" I ask Mom.

"As ready as I'm going to be," she says, and I hope she isn't scared. How can she not be scared? It's been one long, frightening tunnel. Or maybe I'm projecting. That's silly. She must be scared. I take her hand.

"What have you girls decided to do with your time today?"

"Mom, we'll be waiting for you," Becky says.

"Well, get something to eat, at least--something good."

Someone in a uniform comes in, and Becky and I shrink toward the walls. She checks Mom's chart and asks, "Are you ready?" She sounds like Yes is the only answer, and like this happens every day.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

I'm at a loss without a mailbox.

As long as I can remember, I've waited for the hour--or the day--the mail was delivered. Not that I often received anything. But this, to me, has been the definition of hope. Something good could be on its way even now.

But I have no forwarding address, and I don't know how long I'll be here. So I know that no mail is coming to me.

The hospital is temporary--we hope. Becky's been staying here, but three of us in a room is tight. I'm not accustomed to luxury, but I also find it hard to sleep in a chair. I suggest getting a hotel room, but that would be temporary, too.

"But an apartment will take time to look for, and deposits, and maybe a lease…" I sound like the whiny sister.

In the end, we agree that I'll try to get a room at the chain place a few blocks down the street. Becky will stay with mom until she goes into surgery. I'll come back in the morning, and we'll take it from there.

It's a pain to be negotiating all these annoying details, but it's a relief, too. Something concrete to think about, to do.

And the hotel has a business center, so I can send email to the internet café in Puerto Williams, let the Chief know my address. Maybe I can send mail to Sevario, too. This is all new to me.

All of it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"They say my prognosis is pretty good."

I don't want to disagree with her. I've read the statistics, but if she can find a bright side to look on, I can, too.

"I worry about the kids, though."

"Mom, they'll be okay. I'm sure they just miss you."

Now the air hangs between us.

"So tell me, are you seeing anyone? How about that Alex?"

"That didn't really happen." It didn't happen at all. Hopes are being scrapped. "He and Lydia are together now."

"Ah, the Vixen," Becky says as she walks back into the room.

"Vixen? She isn't a Vixen. She's my best friend."

"I thought the Ghost Man was your best friend."

"The Ghost Man?"

"Relax, Honey. Your sister has nicknames for all your friends."

"The ones we know about…"

"So, the Ghost Man?"

"I think his name is Henry," my mother explains, and I start to blush.

"No!" Becky exclaims. "You can't be having a thing with the Ghost Man."

I am so transparent.

"You two can't live in the same place at the same time."

"I'm not 'having a thing' with Henry," and I'm still blushing. "He's a friend. Why are we scrutinizing my love life?"

Vixen? Ghost Man? None of us is a great correspondent, and our letters tend to be formal--and quick. Little notes to check in. I'm not used to this much joshing, or how much I've told them about my life. It's uncomfortable, like being naked, and it's wonderful, a kind of belonging.

"It's kind of relief not to talk about cancer for five minutes," my mother says.

Wait until I tell them about Sevario.

Monday, February 7, 2011

She looks small in her bed. I guess hospital beds do that to everyone. But I can see her smile when we open the door.


I rush over to her, and then I worry--how to hold her.

"Come here! I'm still breathin'."

I fold my arms around her carefully.

On the drive in, Becky explained that they've admitted her for surgery. Somehow, that timing worked out--they're in town right when I arrive.

"And the surgery isn't dangerous," Becky had added. "It's routine--I mean, as much as this gets."

After the surgery, Mom will have chemo, so it makes sense to stay in town for a while.

"What about a hospital closer to home--Olympia, or Vancouver?" I'd asked.

"These guys are the best," Becky declared. I couldn't argue with that.

Now my sister went out in the hallway to call her family, and I had time to really sit with my mother, to look at her and to try to see how she'd changed since her trip to Oslo.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

We land in the drizzle, the mist. The sky would be gray if it weren't already dark. Familiar, just as the SeaTac airport is familiar, even though everything has changed.

I follow the stream of travelers to the baggage claim. I didn't bring much, but that's where Becky will be waiting.

And now I can see her, and I almost shatter--it's been so long, so much too long.

"Hi," and we practically fall together hugging. I brush the back of my hand across my eyes, and my stomach is in my throat.

"Let's get your bags."

"This is all I brought."

She tries not to look concerned.

"Then let's go."

The windshield wipers make a metronome as we pull onto the highway.

"Mom's still here in town, and I'm with her, looking for a place to rent. If it's a while, I'm thinking of bringing the kids."

I want to ask if that's such a good idea, breaking up their routine--but I have no kid-raising expertise.

"I just want to help out however I can."

"The first thing is to see Mom."

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Turbulence. In some ways, it's a comfort--the outside world, the air holding this plane, feels just as crazy as I do.

When I called Becky, she was in full take-charge mode, while I was trying not to fall into pieces. I guess that's what people do. They act first, do what needs to be done, and feel it all crash on them later.

I think about those years, my father swinging in and out of our lives, my mother steady, standing at the kitchen counter shelling peas after a day of work, and then going out in the evenings to weed the garden. I think about her sitting on the porch when my father was home, sipping a beer and watching the evening settle like moths around us, winged and feathered.

The plane shudders and bucks a little. Juice sloshes in my cup.

The memories arrive like postcards. I want to write on the back of each one, save it safe in a drawer.

I want more.

Friday, February 4, 2011


The loudspeaker fades with a dry crackle. Boarding has been delayed.

I swivel the postcard rack. Nothing looks quite right.

And it's hard to believe that I'm in Santiago--in the airport, anyway--and I had no way to reach Sevario, to let him know.

Don't be silly, I remind myself. He has a job.

But would a postcard be good? Something to pass the time. My sweater feels hot and itchy.

I hate to travel. I hate to travel alone. And I'm alone.