Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I thrill to go back to the deep South still, 30 years after I moved hundreds of miles from home. There are so many reasons for this. Family of course. And the friends, some I've stayed close to since we were 5 years old.

But there is a visceral pull from the South that I do not experience anywhere else. It is a palpable, physical force. I feel it as I approach the airport, circling the vast farms that have survived development in the Tennessee River Valley. I love feeling the force from a train, but I get to do that only rarely.

So, my favorite way to re-enter the South is from a car. It gives me time to adjust. I'm never the one driving, of course. I love him for doing this, taking me there, 13 long, hard hours from Northern Virginia for Christmas.

We are old hands at it now, the three of us. This was no easy thing with a baby, a toddler, a whiny overly active boy under the age of 10. But now that D. is a teenager he sleeps a lot and just deals the rest of the way.

After a night in Chattanooga with old friends, C. and S., we get up and head out early. We laugh at the huge mega-stores selling fireworks at the Alabama-Tennessee border. And then they both just leave me be. We don't even discuss it, they both know.

Because with each mile inside Alabama, I become quieter. I relax, sink deeper into my seat. I stop hearing the radio. I don't hear my family talking to me or to each other. I am gone to them.

The hills are gentler over the border in Alabama. The old-growth trees stretch for miles. The grass glistens in the morning dew. And the water. Ponds, lakes, rivers stretching in every direction. North Alabama is covered in bodies of water.

The landscape draws in my eyes first, mile after mile. My body is so calm and so still that I lose the ability to speak. My eyes fill with tears. And then, unseen by others, my soul lifts from the seat. It slips from the car and drifts through the glass. I'm out.

I am floating, over glassy sheets of water that exist nowhere else on earth. Water that visits me in my dreams, lapping at the base of trees I knew so well in childhood. I am flying on the fingertips of clean, cold wind.

Alive again, kicking and running through the air, free. I am home. Thank you. I am home.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

She Left Us Stories

Cyn had reason to be skeptical of my schemes. When we were little, the small, blue-eyed blonde was the no-nonsense one, fierce. And I was full of fancy.

In fifth grade, R. tore up my class picture and handed it back to me, announcing he "liked" Cyn instead. He then asked for her photo. Forget it, she said, get lost. Plus, she told the stringbean boy, "I hate your fat guts and always will." Then, she jumped on the playground swing, leaving him standing literally in the dust, speechless.

So I remember preparing carefully when she came to my house not long after that. We had been spending most of our time together at Cyn's, where we were free to roam. But sometimes Mother insisted.

I decided we would go fishing in one of the ponds in the woods. I had seen Miss A., who babysat us and did a bit of ironing for Mother, carrying a huge terrapin down the old road along the woods line. She and her husband smiled and laughed as they told my father about their catch from the pond that day. They said they were making turtle soup that night.

Mother wouldn't let Daddy give me any gear. I was 10 or so and prone to drama, excessive grieving over dead bait in fishing pails. And during my one and only fishing trip, I screamed every time I caught a fish, which was frequently. I don't know why the fish were ignoring my uncle and father, who were in the same boat. They spent the day baiting my hooks and taking off the fish because I would go limp and refuse.

But seeing Miss A. and the terrapin had seized my imagination. Cyn had been peevish. So I asked for fish hooks and bait because Cyn had talked about fishing. Mother gave us things she and her brothers used when they were children. I was unsure, but she was adamant, so I packed everything up and inserted bullwhip and hunting knife into my elastic waistband, hand-me-downs from my brother. Then I tied a black satin cape around my neck. This last item was, well, fashion.

So, off we went, jumping over the grassy ditch spanned by my father's wooden footbridges, running past the huge oak with the rope swings and the barking bird dogs. We ran past their pens with bamboo poles flailing, a black-haired girl and a blonde, and one black cape floating in our loud, laughing wake.

I will never forget the path to that pond. Through the clearing with the old tree houses, we moved past the gnarled tree where we stole honeycomb when the bees were quiet. Then a quick bounding run through the strange bright light and eerie quiet in the middle of the woods. The spooky place that didn't make sense because the leaves were so thick overhead that I never understood where that light was coming from. But soon we were out of the ghostly light, climbing the old fence, careful of the rusting barbed wire with traces of old blood left by the careless, the unsuspecting, the clumsy.

Because at the top of the barbed wire, stretching high and balancing, we could see the water of that pond flashing in the sun, the touchstone of my childhood. Yes! Just there! And I would run for that pond, fast, feet nearly soundless on the dirt banks, taking me to the tree with the big long limb that soared over the water.

With Cyn that day, we set up our fishing gear. It looked strange. My mother had given us safety pins to tie on the end of string for the bamboo poles. And for the bait? Raw bacon. Mother insisted she and her brothers had actually caught fish using these. And I believed her.

Cyn didn't. She had three brothers and knew if there were fish in that pond they weren't going to be snagged by bacon and safety pins. But we climbed into that tree and threw the lines in anyway. I stretched out on my favorite limb, the black cape fluttering in the breeze.

Cyn was irritated, argumentative. She thought she was going to be bringing home fish. But she was stuck in the woods with an idiot who thought safety pins were fish hooks. She made fun of them. I defended. I made up stories about the buckets of fish my uncles had caught.

Then she started in on the pond. She didn't see any fish. "This is an old cow pond," I think she said. And then the cape. Why was I wearing that thing? What if people saw us? They would think we were stupid. They would think WE WERE JUST GIRLS!!! A frequent argument.

I dismissed her claims. Cyn and I were not easy-going children. But she got me, finally, on one point. I was lying on the tree limb with the black cape tied tightly around my neck. It was flowing down toward the ground. The sun was beating down. She kept talking to me, but I acted like I was about to fall asleep.

"You are going to fall off that tree limb and that cape is going to break your neck, Glimmer." I remember her words, clearly, to this day.

She was afraid. It took me years to comprehend that. But I remember taking the cape off and dropping from the limb. The girl who told off my young heart's first assassin was uncomfortable. So, forget the cape.

For the rest of the day, we played in and around the pond like the children we were, little wiggling snakes and all. Cyn's unease dissolved in the sun and the water.

Because she had been an ordinary girl, like me, just one year before. Then catastrophe struck. Her father took her brothers to a football game and never came home. His heart failed him.

Cyn understood, in a way I did not, that disaster unspools in the blink of an eye. That even a child must watch and be careful. Or those you love will vanish. So Cyn watched and controlled and fretted. Because she could not bear another hard loss.

But her good nature won out over the years. She turned the hard and the fanciful into stories. She worked with flowers and lightened her tales with laughter, drawing people to her along the way, so many people. Through her illness, we returned to the stories time and time again, the fishing, her "Tromper" in the woods, flaming boats sent down the creek into luminous southern nights.

And now she's gone on ahead. So I am the holder of the stories. I do not have her deep voice or the bright smile that framed the words lilting from her lips like a song. But I know them, nearly word for word. They glow like the candle I light when I put down the tales and pass them on.

She watched over us for nearly half a century. So the words are something. They are something.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lightening Up, For Now

No more somber posts for the rest of the month. That's how I am getting myself out of trouble. If anyone is strong enough to penetrate the veil from the other side, it would be Cyn. I can hear her. Sort of. She is saying, "Okay, you stop that right now. I mean it. Lighten up, dude."

So, I have a candle burning beside me. And I'm ready to chat.

I want to tell you that after I heard Cyn was terribly ill, I talked to an old friend, LC, a doctor of naturopathic medicine. We had just gotten back in touch after years of not hearing from each other. Naturopaths treat by utilizing the body's inherent ability to heal. They go to medical schools just like doctors, but study ways to tap the body's immunity using alternative methods instead of drugs.

LC immediately offered to present Cyn's situation to his naturopathic medical school, have the institution take her on as a case. Cyn was polite. But she declined. I had left her information, printouts, etc., on alternative healing. But she was hard-headed.

Or maybe she just remembered some of the things she heard me say about the people I ran around with after I moved to D.C. from Alabama, back in the day. When I worked for a company that pretended to hire actual grownups to work there.

I met LC back then, when he was just a boy, really. He was in college, a friend of a man I worked with I'll call V. V. wore black suits and had a stern expression that made him seem as though he was glaring at everyone all the time. He worked with the company's Latin American desk, it was called. After I got to know him, he said he didn't like to take vacations because "we are Latins, you know, if we leave the country, we will be overthrown."

And he wasn't stern at all. He was the least stern man I've ever known. Someone introduced me to V. one day and told me he covered the Lima, Peru nightclub scene when he was so young he wasn't even supposed to be in the clubs. He simply bluffed his way into them.

He continued that style when he went to college, in Boston. One holiday season, he was trying to rent a car with a couple of other Peruvian students and didn't possess something they needed (a credit card, I think). So V. decided to tell the rental agency clerks that the female student with them was "Miss Peru. And we urgently need to drive her to California for the Miss Universe pageant."

V. and his cohorts stomped around the office, going outside to pretend to use the pay phone, conferring in Spanish and calling each other fake names like "Che" in fake deep voices. They thought somehow this would help their case. The bluff didn't work. They never made it to California.

The kidding continued past college. After I had known him for a while, I heard V. was telling people I was a "black widow." That I claimed to be married, but no one had actually met my husband. I ignored this. I hadn't been an editor on the foreign desk long and still was laboring under the misinformation that I was to help save the world.

Then one day I accepted an invite to have coffee with E., who had just transferred to the foreign desk. He was a Tennessee gentleman who had an impressive background as a foreign correspondent. We went down to the deli in the first floor of the building, run by some very intense men, one of whom had barked forcefully at me when I asked him where he was from: "Palestine!"

E. sat with his back to the Deli counter, across from me. We sipped coffee and chatted. E. was telling me about his time in South America when I looked up and saw Mr. "Palestine" holding up a knife with a huge, scary blade, glittering in the sun through the plate glass window.

He pointed to the murderous looking weapon, then mouthed, "You want?" I frowned. What in the world? He gestured to the knife again. This time, he pointed the tip of the blade in the direction of E.'s back. Then he used his free hand to make a quick slashing motion across his neck. "You want to borrow?" he mouthed again, with emphasis. Oh. My. God. I remembered V.'s craziness about the black widow thing. He was obviously bored and had been down there acting up.

And then, E., the lovely man I had just met, saw that I was no longer paying attention to him. So he started turning around to see why. And "Palestine" pretended to be filing his nails with the saber. I had to tell him what V. was up to, and E. laughed like the good sport he was and is, but I swear he was nervous around me for a good long while.

And "Palestine" continued to offer me murder weapon loaners whenever I went in, which ended up being not such a bad thing. Because I always was waited on tout de suite, and given extra items, no charge, after being identified as a possible serial husband killer. I mean, respect in the big city is hard to come by. I had to take mine where I could get it. I was, after all, very busy pretending to believe I was saving the world.

It was V. who introduced me to LC and his brother, French-Nicaraguan college students in D.C. They had worked with their mother, a network television news fixer in Managua and that's how V knew them. LC was funny and sweet and fell in with our group of friends immediately.

LC and I were such good friends that he was one of the first people I told when I split up with the husband no one ever much saw. Yes, readers, I allowed him to live. But LC graduated and went to medical school in the upper northwest. I remarried and had a child and we simply lost touch. When I heard about Cyn I had just found LC on Facebook. When I told him about her plight in passing, he immediately wanted to help.

We talked on the phone. It was wonderful to hear his voice. It was as though only a few weeks had gone by instead of years. We laughed and caught up and conspired to "fix" Cyn. It would be hard. She would need to change everything. Lifestyle, diet, emotional, spiritual, everything would need to be tapped.

But she couldn't be persuaded to try that route. She didn't say why and I knew I couldn't make her. Especially a Cyn, whose will was mammoth.

I don't understand why she had to leave. But I am learning to look at what she brought to us. As Spellbound said in a comment, "I have to believe she accomplished what she came here for."

So I am looking at what she did manage, at least in my life, the micro view I guess. She brought LC back into my life, for one. And I am hearing from people from my hometown I've been out of touch with for decades. I mean, my classmates have always been quick to plan a reunion. If no one was interested in a big one, we had a small gathering, at a restaurant or a home. Cyn was a big part of that, she loved a get-together, wouldn't miss one. But I am amazed at the people I am hearing from now.

Because each day brings another person, someone I knew as a little girl or met as I edged toward womanhood. All of them I thought had been lost to time.

So one by one we open the circle, extending a hand and bringing in another person here, another one there. Then we grasp hands again, making a larger circle, holding on tight and closing in and moving toward and around a tiny figure in the middle, someone we can no longer see but know is there. Because she is drawing us in, her pull unfathomable but, now, seemingly without limit.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Big, Great Heart, Gone

Cyn, my wild tomboy friend, died at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Her body gave out. The body that made so many childhood journeys with mine. The ones I was fortunate to have and knew it even then.

Slipping from our houses into the glowing summer nights of the deep south. Sinking, knees first, into grass and mud to launch burning shoebox boats from the creek bank, watching them float in flames into tree-lined blackness, with only stars to light the way. All for the simple joy of it (August entry, Wild Gratitude).

Later, we were spirited young teenagers who had the idea that we were the physical equals of our athletic older brothers. So we played pickup football and baseball with them. Then we fished and played tennis nearly everyday in the summer. In our minds, we were excellent natural athletes in no need of lessons. Or tennis shoes even. An old Polaroid shows Cyn in loafers on the tennis court. All we needed, we felt, were old rackets. And cute outfits.

We knew we would live forever.

Which is why I did not write in August about Cyn being sick. My husband says we knew this was coming. But I didn't, really I didn't, despite everything.

At Christmas two years ago, Cyn came to my son's birthday dinner in Alabama. We were hosting it there during a holiday visit. Already thin, Cyn was losing weight and doctors couldn't say why. "Stress," they suggested. A few months later we caught up at my niece's Alabama wedding, where Cyn, a self-employed florist, had done the flowers. No expense was spared on this wedding. My sister-in-law wanted Cyn and nobody else would do. As usual, the arrangements were the most striking thing in the rooms. Cyn, who taught herself to play the piano by ear as a child, was, simply put, an artist.

At the reception, we sat outside on a wall ledge and Cyn talked. She was still losing weight and exhausted, drawn. Doctors still said they couldn't find anything wrong. "I just feel there is something wrong. I know it somehow." But then she put on her usual cheerful facade. She would not fret for very long in front of others.

A short time later, she had a medical crisis. She was diagnosed in the E.R. as having this, then that. After a series of unnecessary treatments they removed her gallbladder. Then they decided none of that was the matter. That she had a faulty heart valve and COPD -- inherited. The same thing that killed her father before he was 40 and her older brother, my brother's friend. They sent her home with portable oxygen tanks.

Even more horrifying was the fact she did not have health insurance. Pre-existing health issues, a husband who left her, etc. The lung doctor kept telling her she was the heart doctor's problem and the heart doctor repeatedly shuffled her off to the lung man, saying surgery was impossible with her lungs in such poor shape. Cyn wasn't supposed to live this long. But the last time I saw her she looked so good I was amazed. She sounded good. She stuck around, defying the odds. She even went several times to Tunica, Miss., to gamble with friends and family. I thought she was going to make it.

But the past few weeks, she went downhill. Something happened during the weekend. Another crisis, then a seizure. And her body gave out.

She was a fighter. Although she would give away her last quarter if someone asked.
And although her life seemed straight out of Jerry Springer at times, with two marriages and some nightmarish betrayals, she stayed one of the most optimistic people I've ever known. That's what people loved most about her.

Which is why I cried on and off most of the day. And why my oldest friend J., who unfortunately got the call at school where she teaches, broke down too. J. is an Auburn graduate who has pulled for Alabama for two years because the Crimson Tide's bid for a national championship was giving Cyn such joy during her bad times. If you know anything at all about Auburn-Alabama football rivalry, you will understand this sacrifice J. made out of love.

Because Cyn turned her sadness into laughter, even after being told repeatedly by doctors that they couldn't help her. "You won't believe what happened next..." and then she would laugh a deep-throated laugh and start the tale. What others cried about, Cyn turned into material to laugh at.

She was one of a kind.

So I'm distraught. And I'm angry. I'm wondering what could have been done to change this outcome even though that is futile now. I can't focus on that right now.

I'm thinking instead about something an Irish musician/artist/poet told me a few months ago, Lucy, Lucy has a knack for words that take the heart and flood them with light. So it wasn't a surprise when she suggested a radio program that talked about an experiment by a Massachusetts area doctor who sought to measure the mass purportedly lost by a human body when the soul departed the body upon death (Radiolab, Sept. 18, 2009).

In 1907, Dr. Duncan MacDougall weighed six patients while they were in the process of dying. The entire bed was placed on an industrial-sized scale. And when the patients died, MacDougall found that the bodies lost on average of 21 grams within a short time. He suggested this was the weight of the soul.

So I am sitting here, not 24 hours after Cyn's soul left her body, and I'm looking out the window at the cold, dark, rainy night. And I keep wondering, "Where is she?" Because a soul that big, that generous, someone that expansive and full of life cannot just be gone.

I really do want to know. Cyn and I were friends for half a century -- little girls who were already friends when her father died much too early, partners in a foursome of girls who sang in talent shows. We refused to enroll in home economics in high school, taking science instead with a classroom of boys. After I graduated from college and took a newspaper job in a new town, Cyn showed up at my empty apartment on move-in day with my mother, having filled the truck bed with second-hand furnishings and the like from her home and shop. She knew I wouldn't bother.

And now I can't accept that she's gone. I need more time. There are journeys ahead and where is she? We thought we'd live forever. I need a little more time. With my bare feet in the mud of that creek bank beside Cyn's house. Little wild girls streaked with mud, twirling and dancing by the water under the moon, cheering the fire we had set in makeshift boats and in our hearts.

I want her back. I need a little more time. Please. I need her back.