Category Archives: Uncategorized

01 April 2017

Good morning,

It’s well into April Fool’s Day but I don’t need a special day to feel foolish.  That’s every day.  That’s today, and yesterday, and all the yesterdays stretching backwards to the day when I first became aware that my skin didn’t fit the bones across which it stretched.

I remember that day.

Stop reading now if you enjoy these Musings  because they bring you sweet stories of the life of a Missouri Mugwump.  Click the delete button with your mouse or on your keyboard, or on your tablet’s screen.  I’m out of precious stories at present.  This one rose from the murky waters this morning.

Forty-four years ago this September, I started high school.  I should have run screaming out of the building when my mother and I met with the administrator to enroll.  Your sister Ann was Valedictorian of her class, he reminded us.  Adrienne was editor of Panis Vitae — the literary magazine.  Joyce chaired the social services club, SOS. Students Offering Service.

He paused, then asked, Which sister will you take after?

I almost corrected his dangling preposition but my perceptive mother quelled me with a raised eyebrow.  I glanced at the sign on his desk which said, When in doubt, mumble.  So that’s how I responded, with a demure murmur of something vague.  He seemed to accept my remark as indicative of good intent, for he rose and welcomed me to Corpus Christi High School.

By the end of September, the pattern which would mark my four years there had been chiseled in stone.  The girls who welcomed me all had similar backgrounds and natures.  They came from families that could be considered lower middle class.  They were intelligent oddballs, living on the fringe in the all-girls Catholic high school across the parking lot from where I’d been  just the same in grade school.  You’d know me:  The girl with glasses, who walked funny and whom the boys all teased and the girls heckled.

That girl.  Not the “it” girl; not the popular girl; the side show.

I cried a lot in those days, maybe more than I realized.  I volunteered for everything — the literary magazine as well as the social services club and a whole lot more.  I took photos at the Father / Daughter dance because I had no desire to urge my father to get sober and attend with me.  He asked; I just looked at him and remarked, I’m the school photographer, I’ll be there taking pictures.  Children can be so cruel.

That night, I sat on the stairwell outside the gym listening to the music, the school’s camera idle on the step next to me.  Suddenly the door behind me opened and a girl came out.  I didn’t know her.  She sat down beside me and took a pack of cigarettes out of a little handbag that she carried, a pretty thing that matched her shoes.

She lit the cigarette and blew a long stream of smoke into the air.  I coughed a little and turned my head away.

You’re that freak in the freshman class, aren’t you, she said.  Your Dad’s not here either, is he.  

I shook my head and lifted the camera from the step.  You want me to take a picture of you and your father, I asked.  She shrugged and said, Sure, the old guy’d like that.  We went into the building.  I fussed with the composition then took several shots.  The man thanked me and asked if he could get a copy.  Sure, I said, echoing his daughter’s casual tone.  She rolled her eyes behind his back.

On the following Monday, I sat at lunch with the usual group.  Jeanne Chrismer, Marie Clark, a few others.   We talked about our weekends; about tests we had that week.  Marie told a story about horses, one of her obsessions.  Someone asked, So where is your Dad, and they looked at me.  I lowered my eyes and said, Oh, I don’t really know, he’s just around somewhere.

At home passed out, I didn’t say.  He wanted to come to that stupid dance but I wouldn’t let him, I thought but refrained from  mentioning.

Jeanne hugged me and Marie changed the subject.  Whoever had asked the question didn’t press for an explanation.  We finished lunch and hurried to our next class.

A few days later, I studied the pictures from the Father-Daughter dance to choose which ones would go in the Yearbook.  I spent a long time looking at the shot which I had taken of the girl who sat outside and smoked.  Her dad’s arm encircled her shoulders.  She looked adoringly at him.  I  laid in on the table and walked over to the windows, staring down on the garden which the biology teacher carefully cultivated.

Mother Biology, we called her.  Regina Marie, I think was her actual name.  She paid 5 points per weed pulled by any of her students.  Those points could be leveraged to a solid A regardless of how you scored on her exams.  I myself had filled many bags with dandelions.  She trusted your count.

The fall garden lay bare and brown beneath the window where I stood.  I felt the chill of autumn pressing against the glass.  I laid my forehead down on the marble sill and wept.

The dog’s persistent bark penetrates the reverie into which I’ve fallen.  I see a message from my hairdresser reminding me of an eleven o’clock appointment.  I  let the memories settle back into the dim recesses of my mind where they normally reside, the sweet and the silly; the sad and the sublime.  I know they will wait for another day, when I summon them to come and be examined.  For now I have more memories to make.  I reach to close the computer as the sounds of a spring morning drift into the room around me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

25 March 2017

Good morning,

Hours after the sun climbed above the eastern horizon, I wakened with a slight ache in the small of my back and thought, At which hostel am I?  But then I realized that my bi-annual pilgrimage to NorCAL had ended.  I opened my eyes to the sight of the 95-year-old knotty-pine-clad cathedral ceiling of the upstairs bedroom in my Brookside airplane bungalow.  Home.

I heard the old dog rustling around on the first floor.  She doesn’t make that tapping sound because Catherine, a better dog-sitter than I am a dog-owner, took her for a manicure.  Or a puppy-cure.  I grabbed my cell phone, which I’ve promised the two or three most worried of my loved ones will be my constant companion.  As I passed the upstairs alarm panel, I punched the code and heard the lady’s voice say, System disarmed.  Ready to arm.  A comfort, unlike the GPS lady who delights in driving me mad by depriving me of the chance to hate her when she gets me lost in the most beautiful places.  How can you hate someone who takes you to see breathtaking views that you didn’t know existed?

With the dog outside walking the perimeter checking for scents that indicate breaches of her territory, I started the kettle for boiling water and dumped some of the leftover ground coffee into the Bodum’s filter.  I bought the ground coffee for the trip to California.  With the  dainty single-serve French press, it served me well.  But at the last hostel, I had found myself drawn to the coffee bar overlooking the Bay.  I plunked down a couple of bucks morning and night for a hot drink to nurse beside the electric outlet for my laptop.  I sat in a red leather chair with a carved back, the only remnant of the hostel’s antique past in the modern Cafe at the end of the long tiled hallway.

On  my first night at HI Fisherman’s Wharf, I watched a Jenga game in the Cafe and then walked through the lounge, eyeing the travelers hunched over computers and cell phones.  When the power went out in the park, including the old hostel building, I slid my little black flashlight from its pocket in my computer bag and padded around the place introducing  myself to the other transients.  I found a little anteroom next door to my own sleeping quarters.  I took out my tablet, opening On Tyranny to finish its twenty warnings for 2017 gleaned from mistakes of the twentieth century.

On my last day in California, a man from Argentina by way of Austin and Los Angeles asked me what I hoped to gain by my travels.  We talked of my three failed marriages and his; my son and his; my medical issues and his.  After an hour or so, we felt like old friends trying to cram six decades of stories into the hour before I had to return the rental car.  He helped me clean out the trunk and laughed when his predictions of impending failure at sorting the jumbled clothes turned out wrong.  I’ve got mad packing skills, I said, with a hint of false modesty.

Now I watch the rain drip from the eaves of my house and wonder if my past has been so thoroughly documented that only the bones remain.  I’ve been writing these Musings since 2008 and have told all the charming stories.  The frightful ones wouldn’t make for lovely reading, though they’d probably explain a lot to anyone who cares to understand.  I think about the World War I poetry which started this crazy public babbling; on the list-serve that now exists only in archives and in the hearts of those who once communed there.

When my sister Ann turned sixty, she looked into her mirror with self-accepting eyes.  Then she took herself in hand and changed her life.  I wanted to follow suit.  I wanted to go into the last third of my life with intention.  I reckoned without the bludgeoning impact of events nearly out of my control.

Lately I have found myself re-examining the effect of those blows.

In my office, on a shelf, is a round rock about eight inches in diameter which a friend gave me in 1990.  He claimed that he swam ashore in Mexico while sailing off the coast and hauled the rock back to his boat.  He called it a geode.  I’ve never been tempted to crack it open to see.   But somebody recently asked me if I planned to do so.  She said it might be worth a lot of money.  She guessed that the inside would be stunning.  I smiled at her and said,  Now listen here, Missy, you leave my rock alone.

We had a good laugh.  After she’d left I went to my office to make sure that she hadn’t made good on her threats to crack the thing.  I held it in my hands, wondering if she had been right.  Then I gently rested the rock back where I keep it, on a shelf, beside my  other trinkets, its beauty still hidden and uncertain.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

HI Point Reyes hostel, Point Reyes Station CA

18 March 2017

Good morning,

It is 10:14 Pacific time, on a day tinged with grey and the sharp bite of a sea reminding us that she controls our existence here.  Yet the morning required only a jacket and a scarf around my neck.  I wore my blue hat but only because the wind would otherwise have made more of a mess of my curls than my careless attitude already has done.

I walked a short way down the road north of the hostel, thinking to sit on one of the benches overlooking the ocean.  I carried with me the Georges Simenon book which I purchased in Menlo Park yesterday and read  halfway through before sleeping.  A trio of photographers stood amidst the ice plants on the ocean side of the road with their long lenses pointed westward.  They talked quietly and occasionally gestured outward as though disagreeing about the timing of shots.  I could see the suggestion of whales in the distance.

At the breakfast table, a five-year-old German girl named Ada told me in the flawless English of her American father that all of the teachers at her school in California are ladies except one.  Her older brother shook his head slightly, as though wanting to set the record straight without upsetting anyone.  My math teacher is a man, he disclosed.  I told him that one of my brothers is a math teacher.  I asked him if he thought perhaps all math teachers were men.  I recognized that little head shake.  He relegated me to the same group as his sister, wrong but to be protected from our mistakes.

In fact, he told me that to be a big brother, he had to be careful.  You can’t use all of your strength, he explained. The other children are smaller.  I praised him.  His sister carefully rolled her pancake into a cylinder and munched it, watching me, not at all sure why I was allowed to sit at their table.

On  my walk, I encountered a slight incline which I admit compelled me to regret leaving my walking stick in the rental car.  I started down the hill, which might have been a total drop of two feet over three times that in distance.  I inched my way, remembering my Stanford neurologist explaining to his Fellow why they wanted to decrease what he gently called “the dropping of her foot”.  He demonstrated a fall, pitching forward.  Then he talked about the narrowness of my stance, while I shifted my weight, trying to look alert, endeavoring not to drool or say anything embarrassing.  I don’t understand why it’s necessary to speak of patients in the third person.  It’s a little rude.  But I fly all the way here because the skill of the doctors whom I see is nearly beyond compare.  I suppose I can tolerate a little arrogance.

I watched the ocean for a while after I finally got to the bench.  I could see a fisherman on a far point, and a few more photographers.  The beauty of the place tempts even people such as myself who carry our phones on the offchance that we’ll frame a photo which will sustain us when we get back home to our dreary, landlocked lives.

When I had finished the book, I reversed my path and discovered that I could not force myself to retrace my steps all the way to the road.  I tried, and for my troubles, I landed on my bottom in the mass of ice plants.  I said, to no one, to the black birds, A fine mess you’ve gotten us into now, and the black birds rewarded me by taking flight to another spot in the path where they could search for grubs without being disturbed.  I regarded the sky above me, feeling a bit like someone’s old aunt in my hat with its jaunty flower and my red jacket buttoned clear up to my neck.

Eventually I pulled myself back to my feet but the book remained on the ground, with Mssr. Simenon’s portrait gazing at me expectantly.  Finally a man came along and steadied me as I scooted over the last little hump.  Where is your car, he said, and I felt oddly comforted by the cadence of his accent.  Another German, I thought.  I thanked him.  I gestured toward the buildings clustered at the base of the lighthouse.  Ah, you’re a guest here, he said.  I nodded.  Then he got into a red Corvette parked at the side of the road and took off with the rapidity of the young.  I walked on to the hostel, with its warm kitchen, the pleasant chattering of the children staying in the Seal house, and whatever I would find to occupy the rest of my day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

11 March 2017

Good morning,

It’s five past the witching hour, but the dog and I awakened so early that the birds still slept in their tender nests of yesterday’s leaves and tiny twigs.  I heard the tap of the dog’s nails on the hardwood in the hallway and thought, Oh it’s Saturday, the Gas Company arrives at nine.  I stifled a grumble and pushed back the heavy wad of covers with which I surround myself like the cocoon of a larvae praying that she’s a Monarch.

For some reason, I have placed the laptop on a corner of the dining room table rather than my beautiful secretary.  To my left, a line of items staged for packing reminds me that I have only seventy-two hours before I have to be ready to fly.  California here I come.  Not the place from which I started but the place to which I’m drawn.

Lists play in my mind, Call Blue Cross, print out insurance card, wash some leggings, check the weather in Santa Rosa, press good black pants, order refills of the dog’s medicine for the house-sitter.  I’ve got a stack of one-dollar bills for all those eager hands who will push me down concourses in rickety wheelchairs.  I can walk in the Kansas City Airport but if I set that precedent, help will only reluctantly step forward.  I’ve learned, now, in my clever middle-age, that I do better if I start the trip without  having to make a dash for the gate.

Find and pack collapsible walking stick.  Add that to the list.

I like to travel but didn’t used to enjoy trips by myself.  In the last two years, I’ve grown resigned to my solitary journeys.  Phone charger; tablet; that portable thing Katrina gave me for when I don’t have access to power.  USB cable.  The list grows.

I watched a documentary on minimalism and thought about trying to take my small suitcase for this ten-day trip.  After all, I aspire to live in a 300-square foot tiny house.  I had a conversation with my mother once about belongings.  She had plenty:  mismatched china cups; wooden spindles that probably once stood above exploited immigrants in the garment district of New York; old pie tins from her grandmother’s kitchen.  I’ve got a lot of her things in my house.  I walk around this place wondering if my son will want them if I downsize.  He never knew his grandmother, which I consider a damn shame.

Make sure Jay’s pocket angel is in my handbag.  The little pocket angel from the bedside table of my favorite curmudgeon travels with me every place my lily-white spastic feet take me.

I lift the “I Love A Mystery” cup to my lips, and briefly lament that the bookstores which I once frequented on Saturdays have all closed.  I asked my friends on Facebook to recommend a book for my journey.  I got 48 suggestions, most of which I can purchase for less than fifteen bucks on Amazon and download to my Kindle app.  I swore that I would never abandon the feel of a hardback and crisply cut pages for the virtual reading experience.  A bout with blurred eyes which turned into a couple of years of madness catapulted me into modernity.  Even now with a wildly different and complex prescription which allows me to drive at night again, I still prefer reading on my tablet.  I take “real books” to sit above the ocean, but small volumes, which I can hold in my lap and abandon while I lose myself in the sunset.

Stash some poetry in the Barcelona bag.   I scrawl the addendum in my mental notebook and think about the blue-and-white bag which Sharon Lee brought back from an AIDS conference in 2003 and gave me.  Patrick and I stuffed that bag with our clothes for many weekend trips.  It converts from a shoulder bag to a backpack.  It holds as much as the carpet bag from which Mary Poppins drew her camp cot, the parrot umbrella, and the thermometer which gauged the temperaments of the Banks children and judged Mary herself to be “practically perfect in every way”.

I bought two new volumes of poetry at the last Art @ Suite 100 event, one from Timothy Pettet and one from David Arnold Hughes.  These will sustain me as the plane rises into the air, when the last lurch of the wheels parting from the runway startles me and I think, what the hell am I doing?  I can write a myriad of lists but none of them will tell me where I am going and what I will find when that impossibly graceful human-crafted bird touches down near the sea.

The sun has risen over Brookside.  The dog’s back asleep, under the table.  Occasionally she sighs.  I get that.  I understand.  For a brief second, I’m tempted to scramble back under the covers, burrowing, hiding, refusing to answer the door when the MGE contractor knocks at nine.  But the alarm keeps ringing, and the morning wind relentlessly whips the flags back and forth outside my window.  It’s time for breakfast.  I set my coffee cup on the table, and rise, to go into the kitchen and start my day for real this time.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

 

 

04 March 2017

Good morning,

Standing on one’s feet for four hours should be exhausting.  At the end of the Art @ Suite 100 opening last night, the fatigue lurked in one corner of my mind waiting to spring.  But Genevieve Casey walked me from the parking space we found a block from McCoy’s to the restaurant where one of the showing artists and her family waited to dine with us.  I could tell  my body had reached the limit of endurance.  The strength of Genevieve’s arm and the lingering glow from a successful event kept me walking, one foot in front of the other, all the way to where Lori Hooten Roller and her amazing daughter Kris Roller stood with outstretched arms.

But now my body chides me for forcing it to keep going, from 4:30 a.m. when the first alarm rang yesterday to nearly midnight when I finally stopped moving.

When I came downstairs this morning, I stood in the hallway looking at a piece of art done by my son half his life-time ago, in seventh or eighth grade.  The memory of my first sight of it overtook me.

The phone rang, the twentieth century kind, blaring from the table in the living room.  A voice said, “Mrs. Corley, I’m having trouble with your son.”  I collapsed into a chair.  The early teen years had bludgeoned Patrick, compounded by health issues that defied explanation despite countless tests and the combined wisdom of his local doctors.  Difficult times for us.  What now, what now? 

The woman identified herself as the art teacher.  Art?  Thanks to his aunt Penny Thieme, my son truly loved art.  I could not fathom how he would be difficult in art class.  But I listened.  “He won’t follow directions,” the teacher continued.  “He won’t do what I tell him.”  

At first, I assumed that I understood her complaint.  Patrick’s dark defiance had plagued me as well.  Though my philosophy of parenting encouraged free-thinking, Patrick crossed even my boundaries during that time.  Then the art teacher said that my son refused to fulfill the assignments.  

She had caught my attention.  “What do you mean,” I asked.

She coughed and harrumphed.  I waited.  Then she said, “He keeps drawing small things.”

Small things?  “What do you mean,” I repeated.  “And why is that a problem?”  I heard a ponderous sigh.  “I give him a whole piece of paper and he uses only a small corner of it, or draws a tiny scene right in the middle.  It’s wasteful.”

Even now, thirteen years later, the echo of my hysteria lingers in the living room where I sit to write.  “That’s the problem you have with my son?  You want him to fill the page?  You don’t like the size of the paintings  he makes in your class?”  Derision bubbled from my belly.  “Good God, ma’am, you are a teacher, not a drill sergeant.  An art teacher, not a supply clerk.  Art should have no limits, least of all those imposed by narrow-minded people.”  I slammed the phone onto its cradle.  The satisfying sound of that petulant act reverberated throughout the house.

I thought about my last argument with Patrick, about the dark moods which had driven a wedge between us.  I looked around the house at the detritus of the normal life which I had tried to construct for my fatherless son.  The laughter died on my lips.  My face sagged.

I did talk to Patrick.  I told him that the art teacher had a thing for not wasting paper, and what would he think about drawing bigger pictures.  He stared at me for an agonizing moment before responding.  “I know all about it,” he told me.  “She says my pictures don’t fulfill the assignments because I’m supposed to use the whole paper.  But aunt Penny says that art is personal, and I should draw what I want to draw.”

What could I say?  My worries in that era far surpassed the real estate utilized by an eighth grader in art class.  My son’s mysterious health problems defied diagnosis.   My own unexplained breathing issues sent me to the hospital once or twice a month.   My husband had taken yet another job out of town, leaving me to cope on my own with bills, my boy, and the sad state of my unattended house.  

I told my son that I thought he should try at least to get along with the teacher, and make sure that she had no room to criticize him other than his proclivity for tiny pictures.  He gave me that long reflective look which I had come to know so well.  He told me that he would try.  I left it at that.

A few days later, the teacher called me at work to tell me that she was worried about Patrick.  I asked if her concern involved wasting paper.  She fell silent and then snapped, “Well, see for yourself when he brings home what he did in class today.  I think he is very disturbed and I think you are neglecting him.”  She terminated the call.  I sat with the receiver in my hand listening to silence.

That night, my son brought his latest work to me, carefully rolled and secured with two paper clips, one at either end.  I stifled my trepidation as the piece unfurled.  I studied the piece without saying anything for a few minutes.  Finally, I met my son’s eyes.  We had no need for words, but I said the first thing that came to the surface on a jumble of competing responses.  “Well, Buddy,” I began.  “I see you learned to use the entire page.  Well done.”

And then laughter erupted.  Suddenly, the haunting fears gave way to a flash of understanding that maybe — just maybe — everything eventually would be all right.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Untitled, pastels on paper, Patrick Corley, c. 2004

25 February 2017

Good morning,

With a cup of dairy-free yogurt and a mug of coffee, I settle in front of the computer and think about my week.  I’m a little nauseous from reading the news.  I’ve got a lot to say when I write my political blog later today, but right now I’m just fighting that icky feeling you get from knowing too much about the lamentable state of the world.  Our national outlook carries nothing encouraging:  Cloudy with a chance of return to the dark period of unenlightenment, when intelligence and compassion gather dust and ugliness reigns.  It’s too much to contemplate before breakfast.

I find myself thinking about my father.

One Sunday years ago, a lady at church asked my five-year-old self what my father did.  I answered, He drinks.  I’m sure I didn’t know what it meant.  I had probably heard my mother use it as an excuse for her bruises.  A decade later, cynical at fifteen, I answered the same question with this gem:  “He’s an Irish Catholic alcoholic.”  I didn’t add, who beats his wife and children into submission, but I considered it.

Now at sixty-one, I strain to remember something redemptive about my father.  See?   He wasn’t so bad! He made stuff for his grandchildren, wooden toys and puzzles.  He played with them.  Grandpa Sport, my brother’s son Nick called him.

See?  He gave me his Shell gas card once, as I gathered my bags to drive back to Arkansas in a petulant rage, that Christmas when I visited and couldn’t get a word in edgewise at a sibling dinner party.  You don’t have to leave tonight, he urged.  Yes, I did.  I couldn’t bear staying in St. Louis with the stark reminder of my irrelevance to my brothers and sisters.  So Dad pulled out his wallet, slipped me forty bucks and the credit card, and told me to call him when I got to Jasper.

My last sight of him:  Near-bald head shaking, standing in the cold on the front porch in his shirt sleeves, one hand lifted in a salute to  his baby daughter.

1980, was it? Or 1981? when my brother Frank got married in Minnesota.  A gaggle of Corleys stood in the center of his new wife’s parents’ back yard, strangers all of us, knowing no one, our only common ground being their new son-in-law.  We huddled in a circle, telling inside jokes.  Once in a while, my mother ventured over to our host and hostess to say something friendly.

I wandered into the house, tired, struggling on high heels which I had no business wearing.  Paper-thin and nervous, I left my boyfriend talking with some old lady dressed in a polka-dot dress and sat down on a love-seat in a room that could have been a turn-of-the-century parlor.

A few minutes later, my father found me there.  We both had glasses of wine.  I spared a moment to fear that my dad’s ugly nature would emerge as he drained his glass.  He sat down next to me.  Neither of us spoke at first.  I sipped my wine.

Then my father said, Do you want me to show you how to hold a wine glass?

I suppressed the desire to remind him that I was nearly thirty — well, twenty-five, and had been drinking since high school.  Sure, Pops, I replied instead.  And for the next five minutes, he did just that.  He lifted his own hand, curled the tips of his fingers around the stem, and extended his pinky finger into the air.  I copied him and we raised our glasses in unison, just as the hired photographer came around the corner, lifted his camera and captured the moment.

Somewhere in the basement, in a moldy box, I have a copy of that picture.  Me in my size zero black flower-print dress, with blue eye shadow and black patent stiletto heels.  My dad in a grey suit, with a carnation in his lapel, florid skin, a small nick from a too-close shave just below his chin.

My father said, How’s law school treating you?  We talked for a few minutes about my part-time job on campus.  Early days, I remarked.  He nodded.  What kind of law do you think you’ll practice, he asked.  I replied that I had no idea.  Bleeding-heart liberal, probably, I conceded.  He turned slightly to study my face.  You should do criminal law, that’s where the money is, he advised.  We sat in silence.  The afternoon ebbed and flowed around us.  We finished our wine, and after a while, we rose, to go outside and join the rest of our family on the patio.  But before we exited that funny little room, I hugged my Dad, and thanked him for teaching me how to drink wine from a long-stemmed glass.

Something every girl needs to know.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

18 February 2017

Good morning,

I entered a Family Court courtroom yesterday filled with apprehension.  My anxiety arose because of a snippy exchange that I had with one of the attorneys involved in the case which had been entirely due to my using careless language in an e-mail with her.  Admittedly, she had bristled rather intensely in proportion to my statement, but still, I understood her reaction.  I had apologized; however, she had pointedly not forgiven me.

The presence of a judge rotated from across the street in Circuit Court eased my tension.  He greeted me with warmth.  He’s one of my favorites and I instantly felt the chilly air of the courtroom increase in temperature.  The attorney glared at me but the restorative work had already settled into my wonky heart and eased its rhythm.

The judge said, I heard you were wearing a heart monitor, Ms. Corley, and I cautioned that it might occasionally beep.  He asked if I were feeling better and I admitted that I was, thanks to a strong dose of antibiotics.  Then I said, But wait, it’s February 17th, 2017, right? He nodded.  So, nineteen years ago this week, a doctor gave me six months to live.  So I guess you could say that I’m happy to have beaten the odds.

I did not exaggerate.

I can see the doctor’s face so clearly.  The years fall away.  I sit, alone, on the sad side of the desk in his office.  He’s slouched in a large leather chair.  With florid skin, blonde hair, piercing eyes, he’s oozing arrogance and an attempt to charm me.  It’s not personal.  I’ve seen him do it with the nurses and other doctors.  He just does that.  He ropes people into his spell.  It seems to satisfy him.

He repeated his prognosis.  I’d give you maybe six months. Maybe.  He shifted his body inside his tailored lab coat and emphasized the possibility, making clear that it could be six weeks or a day.  Maybe longer.  But.

I felt my eyebrows draw together and my cheek twitch.  But why?  A twinge in my gut foretold the reawakening of a dormant bleeding ulcer.  Why am I sick?  Why am I going to die?

He shrugged.  From what the neuro doc told me, he’s always assumed your body would wear out.  I can’t find a cause for your fatigue, your aphasic episodes, and your breathing issues.  You are not responding to anything we do.  Between us, we think your body has just reached its natural limit.  It can’t keep up like this.  It’s tired.  He looked at me accusingly.  I almost apologized for expecting too much of my body.

But my son, I began.  My law practice.  My mortgage.  My son, Patrick, then just six years old.  No daddy waiting in the wings; I won’t speak ill of his father but suffice it to say, that Auntie Mona or Aunt Penny would be the ones to take my child.  Or one of my siblings — Ann or Frank, possibly.   Joyce, certainly.   Any of those folks would raise him as their own.  Eventually, he might forget his dying mother and the days she spent lying on the couch confused, exhausted, uncertain.

A few days later, another episode sent me to the hospital.  Brief black-outs followed by near-collapses.  In a bed at St. Luke’s Hospital, I listlessly played with the oxygen line that led to the breathing  machine.  Your lungs just can’t do their work any more, said the doctor, shaking his handsome head.  Have you made any arrangements?

Arrangements.  What might those be?  Always lousy with money, ever in debt, never able to work those long lawyer hours that bring a house in the suburbs and a new car every other year.  Not pretty enough for a husband who’d stand by me through thick and thin.  A wobbly walker with a bad attitude towards anything or anyone that threatened her child.  No, I forgot to make arrangements.  I did not live the Cinderella life at either end — I didn’t sweep the hearth with diligence, nor fall into the arms of everlasting happiness.

That was on Valentine’s Day, 1998.  A lawyer in Texas sent roses with a Get Well card.    I dropped the card and it slid to the floor, where no doubt a cleaning person eventually found it and discarded it in her trash barrel.

In the morning, machines beeped and patient attendants rattled bed pans and breakfast trays.  Whichever friend had taken Patrick for the night brought him for a visit.  Later in the week, they released me and I drove myself home.

When did the tide turn?  That March?  The next year?  I don’t remember.    But I lay in another bed in the same hospital and a radiant angel in a lab coat with Joseph BrewerM.D. embroidered on the left breast above a pocketful of pens came into the room and saved me.

Mrs. Corley, he chortled.  I saw your name on the admission list and thought, ‘Didn’t I have a patient named Corinne Corley a few years ago?'”  He shook my hand.  You look terrible! he said.  I thanked him with a rueful smile.  What happened to you?

What happened.  Good question.  I began my tale starting with the first collapse, going through the neuro doc’s opinion, the pulmonology tests, the cardiac exams.  Halfway through an account of 1998, Dr. Brewer’s head starting shaking.  He stopped me at “six months to live”.

No, no, no.  His voice held anger.  He sat down beside my bed in the plastic chair provided for my visitors.  He clasped one of my hands in both of his.  You might die but only from not being given the proper treatment, he told me.  You’re not wearing out.  You’re hypercoagulable.

Joe Brewer had been the one to tell me, with lab results to validate his theories, that my condition likely stemmed from a viral encephalitis in infancy.  He took the story of three Corley girls being sick at the same time and everything that had happened to me since, and sent me to the lab for testing.  That had been in 1988, but I had not seen him since his diagnosis of me.  The virus, HHV-6, had just been identified when I first met Joe Brewer.  In the intervening decade, a lot had been learned, he explained.

One fascinating effect of reactivated HHV-6 involved a change in the clotting time of blood.  Patients with reactivated HHV-6 developed a proclivity for fast clotting time, causing a hypercoagulable state.  If untreated, patients did not get adequate oxygen to vital organs — lungs, heart, brain, extremities.  Joe Brewer raised my hand into the light and showed me the flaky skin on my fingertips.  Your toes are like this too, he guessed.  I nodded.  Always.  He flashed a genuinely pleased smile.  And you pass out from time to time?  Yes.  And you can’t breathe?  Yes.

At that moment, the pulmonoligst came into the room.  What’s going on? he snapped.  Joe Brewer stood.  The pulmonologist said, What are you doing with my patient?  Dr. Brewer explained that I had once been his patient and that he had come to visit me.  I lay in my bed, tired, but with a kernel of hope growing in my breast.  The two of them argued for a few minutes.  Dr. Brewer tried to explain his theory.  The pulmonologist wanted nothing to do with it.   His voice grew louder and louder, until a nurse came from the hallway to investigate.  She stood helpless as the doctor on my right practically yelled at the doctor on my left, demanding that he get out of the room.

Finally I had had enough.  You, sir, I said, pointing to the red-faced pulmonologist.  You think I am dying.  I pointed to Joe Brewer.  He thinks he can save me.  Good God, why not let him try?

Because he’s a quack, the doctor snapped.  Dr. Brewer said nothing.

Maybe so, I replied.  But what can it hurt, a little Heparin?  Will it kill me?  According to you, I’m dying anyway.  I’ll take my chances.

He stomped out of the room.  A commotion ensued at the nurse’s desk.  In those days of paperwork without computers, I was discharged from the first doctor’s care and re-admitted as a patient of Dr. Joseph Brewer, infectious disease specialist.  He started me on IV Heparin.  I went home several days later, after getting lessons on pinching skin to administer shots of blood-thinner.  It would be weeks before I could work full-time, but eventually, the pink returned to my cheeks and my breathing eased.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Except for one note:  That pulmonologist dropped dead of a cardiac arrest several months after the altercation over my hospital bed.  I read his obituary with sorrow.  Two teen-aged sons.  A wife.  A host of loved ones left to mourn him.

And one former patient, alive, wondering whose future had actually been foretold when he looked into the reflective blue of my eyes.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

11 February 2017

Good morning,

As I survey my to-do list, the sun inches itself over the line of scraggly trees between the houses to the east of mine.  Day has not fully committed to my neighborhood.  The dog sleeps on the back porch, disinterested in the stuffy house, content to doze in the gentle morning air.

Inexplicably I find myself thinking about a seven-year-old boy named Brian who died in 1974.

On a warm September day in my first semester of college, my mother threw me out of the house.  Oh, I’m sure if she were here to defend herself, she’d cast it in a weaker light.  “If you’re not home by 5:00, don’t come home at all,” she growled into the phone.

So I didn’t.

I crashed that night in the apartment from which Young World Development planned its fundraisers.  The next day I missed my 8:00 lecture but got to my work-study job in the Office of Financial Aid close to my scheduled shift.

I found my boss and cried on her shoulder for a half an hour.  By noon she had adjusted my aid package to give me a dorm room and talked the Student Housing Office into cooperating.  My wailing painted my parents as heartless.  I cringed only a little and in secret, so Terri couldn’t see.  I shamelessly marginalized the truth in favor of the pity factor.

Terri and I became closer after that.  A plump clever woman, maybe a decade older than I, Terri had a gorgeous husband, deep dimples, and a Masters in educational administration.  She ran the office in the frequent absence of her boss who had great political aspirations and very little practical experience.  Terri rarely complained that he had the better parking place and higher salary.  Women still accepted such realities back then.  The feminist movement had not yet impacted Jesuit education.

Terri also had a little brother named Brian.

Terri never called Brian her “half-brother” though he had been born of a second marriage after her parents’ divorce.  Brian had the same dimples as his big sister, under straight light-brown hair cut in that classic little-boy style.  You could picture his bright red cheeks above a baseball jersey, the bill of his hat shading the gleaming eyes and the broad smile.  Brian had an indefinable quality about him that rendered anyone nearby hopelessly cheerful.  He showed nonstop enthusiasm for Cardinal baseball, trucks, frogs, and his beloved sister.

When they found bruising on Brian’s legs, the entire family went into a tailspin.  The doctors at Cardinal Glennon Hospital broke the news to the family and Terri missed work for a week straight.  Leukemia.

A few months into the ordeal, Brian had to have a spinal tap.  Terri came to work with red-rimmed eyes the next day.  They missed.  Those bastards missed, she whispered.  That goddamn needle hit something vital.  Now he has to spend the rest of his life paralyzed.  She put her head down on the desk.  The rest of his life, she repeated.  All four or five months of it.

A week or so before Brian died, some famous person came around the hospital with toys for the patients.  He sat on the edge of Brian’s bed while Brian unwrapped the gift allocated to him.  Brian’s eyes glowed.  Though he couldn’t move his legs, he could still tear at the paper, and it fell in shreds around him as the visitor lifted the toy to given Brian a better look.

Oh thank you so much! Brian exclaimed, as quoted the next day by his sister to her gathered staff.  He ran a finger around the contours of the helicopter, with its glistening silver blades.  He touched the remote control, watching the blades whirl, laughing at the sound of the tiny motor.

Then his eyes grew soft.  His hands fell back to the cover.  He looked again at the visitor and said, There’s a lot of sick kids here, sir.  I think you should give this to one of them.  It will make them so happy.  And I won’t need this where I’m going.

We fell silent as Terri reached the end of her account.  Someone hugged her.  The rest of us stood helplessly around her desk while Terri cried.  He’s so brave, she told us.  So so brave.  We nodded but no one spoke.  Nothing remained to be said.

Brian died a few weeks later and we all went to his service.  The church groaned under the weight of thousands of yellow flowers, reputedly Brian’s favorite color.  The family clustered at the front, arms around each other, listening to the priest talk about letting little children come unto Jesus.  I saw Terri close her eyes and shake her head a little.  I’m not sure she bought that line but it seemed to give Brian’s parents a little comfort.

Four decades later I pad around the house in my robe, with a bottle of Augmentin, a handful of Vitaman C, a package of Ricola, and my Northwestern mug full of hot coffee.  I try to shake the weariness from  my shoulders.  It seems as though I’ve been tired for my entire life.  I start to complain, but then for some reason, I remember Brian.  I smile, and I carry on.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

21 January 2017

Good morning,

A chill grips  my bones today.  When I opened the door to let the dog into the yard, tendrils  of grey crept into the house.   Perhaps the rising sun vanquished the fog but in those minutes near dawn, the air hung wet and heavy.  It clings to me, hours later, as I nibble on berries and drink yesterday’s coffee.

I feel a sort of kinship with the heavy air.  Standing in the doorway while the dog sniffed at the fence line took me back to the many hours which I’ve spent on the Pacific, with lighthouses rising above me guarding the cluster of buildings on the shore.  I  close my eyes and feel the wind from the sea, or the air moving off Lake Michigan when I visited my son in Chicago.

Last time I went to California for doctor visits, I drove as far north as I could ever have imagined driving, to the mouth of a bay burdened by the threat of an early winter.  I ate a small meal in the glassed terrace of a restaurant heated only by a gas torch.  The diners all wore their jackets and wrapped their hands around warm mugs of cider and coffee but did not complain.  The River’s End Restaurant and Inn, where the Russian River finds its weary way to the sea.

I ate fish although I am a vegetarian.  The waitress told me that the fish and chips had been made from the catch of the day — literally, up the coast a bit.  She might have been exaggerating but how could I refuse?  In my pescatarian days, my son and I had a fish-and-chips contest to see what restaurant had the best.  The tender, flaky fillets which I consumed that day outdid them all.

Afterwards, I stood at the deck rail gazing out towards the horizon.  I felt no loneliness.  Perhaps I’m drawn to the Pacific because no one knows me there.  My mistakes stay behind when I board the plane.  Lost love no longer clutches my heart.  Sixty years of bad poetry lies forgotten in notebooks stashed in the cupboard.

The manager came out and asked me if I needed anything.  Possibly he just wanted to clear my table or collect my tab.  He spoke in hushed tones, and I answered the same. I’m fine, I told him.  Just fine.  He surely had this conversation a dozen times a day, but he lingered at my side.

A lovely bay, isn’t it, he finally asked.  I turned to meet his gaze.  His eyes held kindness but also something else which I recognized.  Are you from here, I asked.  He shook his head and shrugged a little.  He did not say from where he had come, but suddenly I felt something close inside of him.  His eyes shuttered.  I turned back to the sea.  We’re all running from something.

I paid for my meal and left the restaurant.  In my rental car, I turned the heat to high.  I settled back against the seat and headed south on HIghway 1 to Pescadero.

In a few hours, I will stand in a rally at Union Station to show solidarity for the Women’s March on Washington.  So much uncertainty faces our country that my own floundering pales in the comparison.  Besides, I think I’ve found my true north.  I’m ruminating.  It has been a long time coming but the dawn draws near.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Looking northwest from the deck at the River’s End Restaurant.

 

14 January 2017

Good morning,

The ice storms have spared us so far.  A slight sheen winks at me from the back stairs but the old dog has no trouble navigating them.  I watch her go into the backyard and then start the coffee.

I’ve spent many days stuck in the house due to weather.  We got this dog as a rescue during the devastation of the city in ’01 or ’02, when the tree split in half and toppled onto on our porch.  The boys walked a mile or two towards the sound of a chain saw to bring back rescue.  I told them to say their parents were stuck in the house and had cash.  I made no mention of the 9mm safeguard against any who thought we could be played for fools.

Luckily the man who came turned out to live nearby and had once trimmed our tree.

Another time, when the boys were younger, Patrick and his two fast-friends Chris and Maher played Hot Wheels on the hardwood floors while I did laundry and fretted about missed work.  I stood in the kitchen listening to the sound of small wheels on a plastic track. Maher, always the ringleader, scolded Patrick and Chris whenever they failed to heed his instruction.  Eventually they tired of being bossed and grabbed their coats to run outside.

I watched them from the window, one dark head, one crown of curls, and my own son’s short straight hair.  I opened the door and called to them, Boys come put on your hats.  I looked again and laughed. And your gloves!  They trundled back across the snow to stand on the porch and sort out the mess of wool on the deacon’s bench by the front door.

In the kitchen, I took down the box mac and cheese favored by most kids under ten.   As I got their lunch ready, the radio blasted a dire prediction of more snow.  I made a mental note to call two mothers and assure them of the security of their boys.  Maher’s mother Mona would ask me in her lilting Lebanese voice, Are you sure? Do you want me to come get them?  I can feed them.  She worried that I’d be overborne.  Katrina would be slogging into work despite the storm and would bring whatever provisions she thought I might need.  I smiled and boiled the water, setting out bowls.

The boys lumbered through the front door and cast off coats and scarves.  They ran from one end of the house to the other, hollering about whatever game they had concocted.  I scooted closer to the counter as Chris flew by, no boundaries between himself and the rest of the world.  Eventually I cajoled them into the dining room, got them seated, served their lunch.  No fly-away children,  I told Maher, who scowled but took his bent legs down from the chair and sat with feet on the floor.

I left the dining room for mere seconds but when I came back, Chris stared at me with those innocent eyes.  On the floor behind his chair lay its Duncan-Phyfe-style fiddle back.  I stopped and returned his nervous gaze.  Chris, what happened here, I asked in the gentlest voice that I could manage.

Corinne, he started in reply, his own voice incredulous but scared.  I don’t know.  I was eating my mac-and-cheese and my foot flew up.

I felt a collective breath draw through three little boys — my son, my second son, my third son.  Only one born of my body but the other two so often in my home that I could not help but include them in the count.

Fortunately for Chris, the table was a reproduction, bought at a garage sale.  Not the real McCoy.   And even if it had been genuine, I could not be angry at one of these boys.   My three sons.  I laughed.  The boys relaxed.  And lunch went on, with my stir-crazy charges getting sillier and sillier.  Outside, the snow resumed its silent fall onto the frozen city, covering the grunge laid down by passing cars, painting a new and breath-taking scene outside our frosted windows.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

Snow Day, by Patrick Corley, 1997