Saturday, October 25, 2008

Public Reading

In the car, riding back from GG's 80th birthday party, I leaned my head against the cool glass of the window. All I wanted to do was sleep. But it struck me that tonight was the public reading of work inspired by our backpacking trip, an event I had been anticipating for weeks. And I had nothing written. Oh, of course I had tried. Four times I had tried to write something and each time the attempt had fizzled and died. The muse had not descended. I considered leaning my head against the window again and going to sleep, apologizing tonight, and then going on with my life. I wanted to do that.

I guess the thing that made me pull out my laptop was the thought of my friends, nine strangers-no-longer with whom I had hiked, shared a tent and memories and vistas. I did not want to come empty-handed to them. I wanted something good.

Something good. That's why I didn't have anything. Nothing was good enough. I respect these women so much that I wanted something worthy of reading to them. But I also needed it to be something from within myself, something I could read to an empty room and still be proud of it. I didn't know if I could write such a piece.

But somehow as I turned on my laptop in the car and began to type, everything came together, all of the ideas that had been percolating in my brain since the hike. I wrote like a maniac, pausing once in a while to correct a typo, sometimes stopping to find exactly the correct synonym.

Then I was done and gave the laptop to my daughter who was demanding to watch Thomas the Train on it. This is what I read tonight, however good or not it was:

Night Vigil


“Weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.” Psalms 30:5

Last night was a long night. Stuck in a hotel in Hermiston, Oregon, the last place on earth I desired to be [with sick kids], I fought to open my eyes when once again one of my children woke and cried. They both have colds so one or the other was awake every hour all night long. Head aching, I lay thinking about the different nights in my life that seemed even longer than this one.

The feeling of cold hits me first, bone-penetrating cold that chills even the memory of the night at Swamp Lake, six weeks ago. I lay huddled in a borrowed sleeping bag, its unfamiliar contours limp against my shivering body. Fumbling with numb fingers, I pull the drawstring tighter around my face in a vain attempt to construct a better barrier between myself and the freezing night air. The rain begins. I hear it hitting the tarp above my face, the sound like tiny dancing feet, the sound of the rain on the roof of the old trailer I slept in as I snuggled my week-old daughter on the couch all night, holding her body against my chest, my body heat the only thing keeping her tiny frame warm. Those raindrops danced above my head.

They danced on the roof of a tiny rental in Fresno the night I lay waiting for news that my mom had died.

I was eleven, my new baby sister but three weeks old. The long hoped-for and prayed-for baby lay in her laundry-basket crib because the new cradle was not yet done. How my mother hated placing her new tiny treasure in a laundry basket. And now she was dying. Her face had gone gray after dinner and she had gone to lie down. That was hours ago. And I lay still in the dark in bed waiting for the phone to ring.

The dark presses on my open eyes, staring up at the unseen silver underbelly of the red tarp. Not my tarp. Someone gave me the tarp for the night to keep the freezing rain off my sleeping bag and I had stretched it tight hoping its shelter would keep me warm that night. I am not warm. I am shivering with the deep, gut tightening clenching that makes me wish I had not eaten any of the green soup I cooked for dinner. That soup churns in my shivering gut. Take my mind away. With the rain comes tears. My own rain, the tears are the wetness that the tarp cannot stop and they coat the inside of the limp sleeping bag. I cry for my babies whom I miss desperately. I cry for the man I love who is far, far away. I cry for the loathing of the weakness that has once again betrayed me on the trail. I cannot stop the tears. This time.

As I lay in the dark long ago I did not cry. I lay awake listening to the baby in her laundry basket breathing softly, waiting. Waiting without tears. Waiting for her to wake again, waiting for the phone to ring. Waiting and trying not to see in my mind the face of my mother drained of color, of her fainting, slumped against the wall, of my dad's strong hands lifting her and her unsteady steps to the car. Of his hurried and jumbled words telling me nothing, of the words hospital and don't know and call you. Grandma will take care of you. I will call. I lay flat in the dark and waited. I lay on my back.

Usually I sleep on my stomach. In a clinging cold bag I cannot lay on my stomach and let the cocoon of sleep roll over me so I lay on my back, my eyes open, staring at the cold as if it is something I can actually see instead of something I feel on my wet eyeballs. I lay on the ground, hard and cold and flat under my tarp. The red tarp in the dark that is not mine. I lay and wait for morning to come, for my salvation from the gut-churning cold and the missing my family. I lay and count the miles between me and home. Home and warm. Home and soft and arms enfolding me and small hands holding mine. So many miles. Hundreds of miles. One mile for every minute of that interminable night.

The minutes ticked by in the dark and still the phone did not ring. I counted the miles, following in my mind the car as it drove to the hospital, wherever that was. The strong hands against my mother and the brightly lit windows of the emergency room pouring their garish florescence out into the quiet night. The grayness of her face. The scratching of a pen against paper. More minutes crept by as I lay in the dark on my top bunk three weeks after my eleventh birthday listening to my sister breathe.

The red tarp seems to breathe. Air sucks it in and out above me and I watch it in my mind, in and out, concave, convex, concave. Dancing footprints of rain have gone away and in their place stillness. Quiet, the quiet of outdoors where lurks the noises of small animals, the sound of space, the sound of the cold which is everywhere, not just in touch but also in sound. The sounds ought to bring fear but instead they bring comfort. In a world where sight is blurry and unpredictable, sound is my lifeline. And prayer is my lifeline. Counting the miles between myself and the ones I love I know that God is with both and the thought brings comfort. I know that my prayers, whispered between shivering lips, still salty with a coating of tears will reach them via the One who loves them even more than I.

Many a night my prayers have been sent heavenward but never so despairingly as the night I waited for my mother to die. As I waited for a phone call. As I waited to know what was wrong. I prayed. I did not believe that the fervency of my prayers would make any difference to a God who already knew the answer to the questions in my heart but it did not stop me from praying them. I trusted God with the unshakable faith of an eleven-year-old child but even then I did not expect the answer to necessarily be yes. I hoped, oh yes, how I begged God, but I knew it often is no. I knew even then that God gives us no's and I was preparing my heart, protecting my heart from what I knew might be coming.

The phone call never came but at last morning did. Light crept into the room; the baby woke and needed to be fed. My dad, the sort of person who does not call unless he has something to say never called. Grandma and I fed the baby. We still waited to know.

Dawn creeps in slowly after a cold night. It seems stiff and creaky like an old cat who stretches herself upon waking, long and slow, working each muscle in turn. I wait, knowing there were still hours to endure before breakfast and a fire. Light comes into my tarp reluctantly, heat comes even more slowly. At last, voices. Someone is awake. I lay still, listening.

Every sound made me look up, ears unconsciously waiting for news, for my dad, for a neighbor, something, anything. Without warning, the door opened and my dad came in. Tired. He wanted the baby, he said. He needed to take the baby to the hospital to mom. No, mom had not died in the night. No, they did not know what was wrong. The doctors were running tests. He needed the baby. He needed her clothes and diapers and a car seat. He looked tired.

I have to force stiff limbs to move. Tears still hover close and I don't want to take them down to the camp fire where voices drift up to me on the blue haze of woodsmoke. I push back the limp and slimy bag, halfheartedly extricating my aching legs, my numb feet. I am now that cat, moving each stiff muscle as if I am swimming in syrup, thick and sticky and dragging at my body. I trudge a meandering path toward the voices.

Voices hovered around me as I walked down the gray-carpeted hallway of the hospital. Hushed voices trickled from rooms beside me, breezy voices from behind me on the left where we had passed a nurse's station. I carried the three-week-old baby in my arms, her fiery red hair tousled against my shoulder, her warm limpness sinking into the crook of my elbow. Walking beside my towering father, I carried her carefully, looking up only when an old man passed us. That your baby? He asked. I shook my head no in wonderment and disgust. I was only eleven. I still needed a mother myself; I was not the mother to the tiny bundle I carried. We arrived at her room. She lay in bed, on her back like I had been while I waited. I did not cry as I handed the baby to her. I had not cried from fear and I did not cry from relief now. She was alive and would live, she wasn't going to die, she explained to me. She'd almost died. There were blood clots in her legs, she said. She'd almost died when the ER doctor wanted to run a scope. But he hadn't done it. She'd almost died when the circulation had been completely cut off to both her legs. But she hadn't. She would still have years of pain ahead, of therapy, of not being able to nurse my sister because of the blood thinners, of chronic fatigue from no circulation in her ruined veins, but she would live. She would live to watch my sister grow and to guide me through the turmoil of high school. A deep gratitude punctuated my prayers that night, knowing that God did not have to let her live.

In the moment gratitude feels as heartfelt for smaller things as it does years later for the larger. As I stand next to the fire at Swamp Lake, a gratitude fills me for the simple life-sustaining warmth of sun, of fire, of people. Frost coats the slippery surface of rocks and the steep side of my red tarp. But it doesn't matter now, every minute the sun reaches more of it, melting it away and warming the patches of grass. I still feel numb, outside and in, dreading the day's work ahead after a sleepless night, yet knowing that once I warm up a kind of euphoria will hit, a triumph. It is over. The long, long night is over and I made it. The long trek out looms ahead of me but I know I will make it through that also. I am a different person than I was when I went to bed the previous evening, stronger and more vulnerable.

This morning came all too quickly, my son with his little nose running and his little whine unending climbed up on the hotel bed next to me. I asked and was informed that it was nearly seven; I knew in spite of my fuzzy brain that I needed to rise and begin my day, giving up hope of having any sleep. There was a family birthday party to attend, a four-hour drive ahead with these same cranky children and an evening event. No matter. It was morning and whatever else the day held, it meant the long night was over.

I received some warm comments, much to my pleasure, and frankly I am glad the reading is over. Still, it was wonderful to see the ladies again and to hear their amazing pieces. Every one of them is such a good writer, each in her own style, her unique voice. I loved them all, the humorous, the heartfelt, the reminiscent.

Our pieces will (hopefully) soon be published on the trip website, so please check there in a week or two to enjoy some of the wonderful writing inspired by our women's backpacking trip.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Great story. You are an amazing writer.

    ReplyDelete