After all these years, I find it hard to believe that these people don't exist in the real world.
The moment Bea saw her mother standing - no, leaning - at the top of the staircase, she knew something was off. Something was wrong. Her mother’s stance for one: Adriane had always possessed the best, most upright posture, like a dancer or yoga instructor, though she was neither; elegant and strong. But now she was clutching at the bannister with her right hand, listing toward it, her left hand hanging a little too absently at her side. Bea had no explanation for it, but this was clearly wrong and she felt it with a cold, insistent certainty that clutched at her.
“Bea.” Her mother’s knees folded and she sank slowly until she was sitting on the top step. Bea sprinted to her mother’s side.
“Are you alright?”
Adriane’s look was far away. Distant. “I don’t know.”
Some bit of information that Bea had read somewhere jumped to mind. She glanced at her mother’s too quiet left hand.
“Mom, this sounds silly maybe, but will you smile for me?”
Her mother turned her face toward Bea with a slightly puzzled expression, her eyes searching Bea’s for understanding. Then, she moved her lips, ever so tentatively, like she was trying a prosthetic for the first time. The right side of her mouth curled up in its familiar way. The left side was as still as her dangling hand.
“Shit.” Bea couldn’t stop herself from saying it out loud. She put her hand on her mother’s knee and put her face closer, looking intently into those too-distant eyes.
“Mom. Stay. Right. Here. Don’t move. I’ll be right back. I promise.” Her mother dipped her chin slightly (more to the right than the left, Bea noticed, feeling sick to her stomach), and she bolted down the stairs, found her purse on the table by the front door and frantically dug into it with one hand while looking back over her shoulder in time to see her mother trying to stand.
“No!” Bea shouted, thrusting her arm out toward her mother, fingers splayed, as though she could somehow hold her mother back from that distance with the gesture. “Just stay there.” Her mother, who had not gotten any real traction, sat down again, her left foot sliding off the stair, unnoticed and unchecked.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.” Bea muttered as she hurried back to her mother’s side, her thumb automatically finding the numbers on her phone.
She gave the address to the dispatcher and pleaded with them for speed.
” My mother is having a stroke.”
She put her free arm around her mother and held her, fighting back tears. “It’s going to be alright,” Bea said, talking to herself as much as to Adriane.
Bea wondered how they were going to get her mother down the stairs - it didn’t seem walking was an option.
The distant sound of a siren, urgent and high-pitched and certain, got rapidly louder and closer, and Bea felt a wave of relief wash over her.
“Stay here,” she whispered in her mother’s ear and squeezed her shoulder. She ran down the stairs and opened the front door just as three men dressed in matching navy-blue ambulance company logo jackets, their hands already in light blue latex gloves and one carrying some sort of medical tool box, stepped onto the porch. They exuded calm efficiency and Bea was in turn calmed.
“She’s at the top of the stairs. She’s having a stroke. I don’t think she can walk.” Bea stood to the side and pointed, her hand shaking. She closed the door but remained where she stood, both to be out of the way and because she was afraid of what they might be discovering - at the same agonizing moment wanting to go to her mother’s side, to not leave her alone with strangers when she was so vulnerable. Adriane wasn’t prone to fear or needless trepidation, but now with this, all bets were off and Bea felt there was nothing certain about her mother any more. But it was out of her hands and she hoped with all her might that the calmness of the men calmed her mother, too.
One of the medics came back down the stairs and opened the front door to wheel in the gurney that they had left on the porch. He stopped at the foot of the stairs and locked the wheel brake with one foot before rejoining the others. The fact that no one was paying any attention to Bea seemed to emphasize the seriousness of the situation.
The one who was sitting next to Bea’s mother was talking to her, shining a light in her eyes and directing her to lift a hand, raise her shoulders, make fists; asking her questions to determine how present in her life and surroundings she was. Bea couldn’t actually hear any of this, she could only surmise it from her mother’s body and the change of movement of their mouths, back and forth. Then the three medics spoke together, gestured, nodded, and then spoke again to Bea’s mother.
She looks like a frightened child, Bea though frantically. Or maybe I’m the one who’s afraid and she’s just confused. Bea saw the left side of her mother’s face start to droop slightly, almost as though to melt. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. She silently urged the men.
They were in truth moving swiftly, efficiently, and with great care. The sense of time was simply intangible in the way it becomes in times of crisis.
Following instructions, Adriane put her right arm around the neck of one man, and they scooted her forward. The two men then crossed their hands and grasped forearms under her thighs. With the help of the third man behind them on the landing, they gently lifted her onto the fireman’s chair carry, the man behind keeping her upright, since her left arm refused to participate. Slowly, carefully, like a multi-legged creature, they transported Bea’s mother down the stairs and placed her expertly on the waiting gurney, secured her with a blanket and straps. Bea exhaled then, realized she had been holding her breath.
“Okay, let’s go,.” The gurney was moved out of the house toward the waiting ambulance by two of the medics. The third, still carrying the box of equipment, stopped briefly in front of Bea.
“We’re taking your mother to Virginia Mason,” he told her. “You should get her I.D. and insurance information and check in at the Emergency Room desk.” He looked intently at her expression, as though to determine if she was up to this task.
“Yes. Thank you.” Bea hoped the certainty she tried to put in her voice could reassure both of them.
He gave her a small, quick nod, then hurried down the front steps to the ambulance, the motor already running, the flashing lights on, casting rhythmic bursts of red across the front door and foyer. “Like a heartbeat,” Bea thought absently, as she closed her eyes for a moment and leant her head against the cool wood. The ambulance pulled away from the house, siren clearing the way before them.
At the sound of the siren retreating into the distance, Bea was suddenly enveloped in silence. She looked up at the staircase, now empty. It was an emptiness that felt much larger than the mere absence of someone sitting on the top step. Feeling raw and panicked, Bea wanted to scream against the silence, but didn’t. She took a deep breath and went to her mother’s office. The quiet was even larger here, in the presence of her mother’s life and world: The full floor-to-ceiling bookshelf; the four-drawer file cabinet in the corner that held all her academic papers and household documents; the overstuffed chair and floor lamp in another corner, where her mother loved to read in the evenings with her feet tucked under her, a glass of wine on the small table and bathed in the soft golden light from the lamp.
What if she never comes back? The question to end all questions finally entered from the edges of Bea’s thinking.
Not now. Bea looked at the large wooden desk that dominated the room. Funny, she never forgot that her mother always put her purse in the bottom left-hand drawer of that desk. She didn’t even have to think twice about it, just went over, pulled open the drawer and saw the familiar brown leather shoulder bag. Seeing the bag there, suddenly left behind, Bea’s breath caught in her throat and she felt herself flush and her vision blur with tears. She clenched her teeth against her emotions, thrust her hand into the bag, retrieved the wallet, checked to make sure her mother’s driver’s license and insurance card were there, and took it with her back to the foyer and put it in her bag. She took the bag and her keys, locked the front door and turned the doorknob to be sure it was locked - the habit her mother had instilled in her since she was old enough to carry a house key - and ran to her dark blue Subaru. She backed out of the driveway and headed north.
The emergency room at Virginia Mason Hospital was relatively quiet; the few people who were there were occupying themselves reading magazines, watching a baseball game one the television high up on the wall or talking together barely above a whisper. She walked up to the desk. A woman in blue nurse’s scrubs looked up from a folder and smiled.
“How can I help you?”
“My mother was just brought here by ambulance - Adriane Smithson - I think she had a stroke.” Bea took the driver’s license and insurance card from the wallet and set them on the desk.
“Okay, let’s see.” The nurse turned toward her computer, typed and nodded. She gave the cards back to Bea, secured some papers in a clipboard and pushed it across the counter with a pen.
“They’re still running tests, so I’m afraid there’s nothing conclusive I can tell you yet,” said the nurse. “I assume you’re a relative?”
“I’m her daughter.”
“Okay then, can I get you to fill out these papers for me, so we can get her officially admitted?”
“I’d like to call my sister first, if that’s alright.”
“Of course,” said the nurse. “I’ll just leave the clipboard here. You don’t need to hurry; the tests will take a while.” She smiled again. Bea felt oddly comforted by the smile, the nurse’s gentleness. She must see so many frantic relatives…
Bea went outside, leaned against the welcome solidity of the brick building, took her phone from her purse, fingered it for a moment, staring. She hadn’t spoken to Alice for nearly three months, but she still had the phone number memorized.
After two rings the familiar voice came on in a recording: “Hi - sorry I can’t talk right now, but leave me a message and I’ll get back to you soon as I can. Ciao.”
“Hey Alice, it’s Bea. Mom’s in the hospital. I’m pretty sure she’s had a stroke. They’re running tests now, so I don’t know anything else, but I’ll call again when I hear something. Call me when you get this, would you? Thanks.”
Bea stood and stared at nothing for a while, before she turned back to the hospital and paperwork.
Sometimes our actions align themselves naturally with the progression of the seasons. Without intentional planning, we are aligned in sync with ancient markers of the year and its perpetual turning.
It is in part how we instinctively reach for salads and more fresh, raw food in the spring and summer, and likewise turn toward root vegetables and heavier, heartier foods in the fall and winter.
This photograph is of this week’s harvest of onions at my community garden plot. I pulled them up and set them out to cure in the heat of August 1st – which happens to also be the first day of Lammas, also known as Lughnasadh or Lughnasa (pronounced LOO-ne-se): an ancient Celtic cross-quarter-day holiday that celebrates — you guessed it — the First Harvest. Traditionally this first harvest was usually wheat, and one of the traditional rituals of the holiday is baking bread with flour made from the first wheat of the season.
A friend of mine, upon seeing this picture of my successful onion crop, wished me “Happy Lammas!” I had completely lost track of the date, barely noticing that it was the first of August, my attention having for a while been taken up with a variety of day-to-day activities and obligations to schedule as well as some stressful canine caregiving.
Just the kinds of things that take me away from some simple, grounded ritual – when I likely need it the most (isn’t that how it often works?) – yet it has been the garden that has given me solace, so how fitting that I would, albeit not consciously, celebrate Lammas by harvesting a healthy crop of onions that will carry me into the colder months?
In Celtic mythology, it was the celebration of the wedding of the Sun God Lugh to the Earth Goddess, symbolic of the ripening of crops. As the harvest commenced, it was looked upon as the closing of summer and anticipation of fall. Harvest also meant starting to prepare for storing food to get through the colder months ahead. But this holiday was a time for celebration and enjoying the fruits of the year’s labor.
Children and adults alike make “corn dollies” out of the long hollow stems of grain recently harvested (“corn” in modern English translates to “grain”), be it barley, wheat, rushes, oats; or the dried husks of corn. The dollies range from traditional to modern in design, simple to elaborate in execution; woven, braided or both, with or without other adornment. They are meant to be given as gifts, placed on home altars or above doorways, to thank the earth for her abundance and as symbols of fertility and good harvest.
photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
I am a fifth-generation Oregonian. A county in the rolling grassland, northeastern part of the state is named after my great-great grandfather. On a road trip with my son, we went to the Morrow family cemetery plot and stood under the massive pair of juniper trees that my ancestor planted.
I grew up in Portland, in a house with lots of bookshelves and creative projects. My parents read, between them, things from nearly every category of fiction and non-fiction (except maybe romance and westerns, but I’m not even sure about that). My love of reading got an early and well-supported start.
One day when I was in fifth grade, my mother took a story I had written to my teacher, to get her opinion. The teacher noted the influence of all the Nancy Drew books I had read (probably all of them), but also said that I was, indeed, a very good writer. My mother, my first champion, probably wouldn’t have told me had the news from my teacher been bad, but since the critique was positive, she used it to encourage me to persevere. Thanks, Mom.
When I was twelve I bought my first camera. It was a square, gray plastic Kodak that cost all of eight dollars, and it was my introduction to a lifelong love of photography.
Fast forward. A bachelor’s degree in Art, and then several years spent working in offices, with creativity on the side. The classic liberal arts education story.
Through the years that followed - jobs and relationships and motherhood - writing, photography and painting continued to be my creative companions, sometimes publicly, always privately.
In 2008, I wrote what became the fall cover story for Edible Portland Magazine. That was a pivotal moment: I had become uncertain about myself as a writer, and getting this recognition propelled me with both feet into writing. While turning my attention more thoroughly to the page, I continued to take photographs, sometimes as a daily practice.
Submitting, getting rejections and the occasional acceptance. Repeat.
These days, with a creative practice, my eyes and ears are continuously opened to stories and fleeting moments of connection that weaves the world together.
It is good here.
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