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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

07 January 2017

Good morning,

I stumble around the house with wild hair and a rueful grin.  Eight o’frickin’ clock, I mutter.  I spy an e-mail from Pat Reynolds and shoot one back:  Remind me not to eat gluten again.  Rough night.

With a timid motion, I sidle down the stairs.  The dog emerges from her domain, wiggles past me and scurries into the kitchen.   I slowly follow, opening the backdoor, shuddering with the onslaught of frigid air.  Have at it,  I tell her.  When she’s navigated the icy stairs down to the yard, I turn to heat a cup of coffee.  A few minutes later, she mirrors my ungainly pace in reverse route.  I hasten to open the door, promising her that I’ll salt the steps today.  As though she understands English, I laugh to myself.  But the way she eyes me, I think she might.  It seems to me she knows that I should have already tended to the clearing of her route.

I let myself eat pasta last night.  Real pasta. With butter sauce and sauteed mushrooms at a restaurant in Liberty.  I savored each slurp.  I’ve been weaning myself from gluten because of its inflammatory properties, sort of like the fabled MS diet only I don’t have MS.  I do have jangled nerves from my actual condition and truth told, they fare far better unglutenized.

You’d love my diagnosis.  Neuro-transmission deficit associated with infantile onset of a post-viral-encephalitic condition.  When I first got this mouth of marbles, the “post-viral encephalitic” part had not been added.  Instead, the St. Louis neurologist called it “early onset of a condition of unknown etiology”.

They did so much for my young vocabulary, those doctors.

My mother stared at him when he described the findings resulting from a week’s hospitalization and a couple of botched spinal taps which left me shaking and numb.  She turned to study her twelve-year old daughter, sixth of eight, as though she might see something in my eyes or the smattering of freckles across my nose.

She repeated what he’d intoned.  Neuro-transmission deficit, she began.  Associated with infantile onset.  She stopped there and switched her gaze back to Dr. Burke.  Her look hardened into a glare.  She was sick when she was a baby.  Three of my girls were sick at the same time but this one, she was the worst.  I told them. I told them it meant something.  I told them.  She buried her face in her hands.  The doctor didn’t move but I  leaned over and patted her arm.

It’s okay, Mom.  I don’t mind, I whispered.  The doctor closed my chart and stood.  He had nothing more to say.  But my mother had  questions and as she hammered him with them, he lowered his body back into the enormous leather chair and straightened his tie.

She had a hundred questions but he had only one answer:  We don’t know.  I thought about my brothers.  I could hear them so clearly chortling:  “We?  We?  What’s this ‘we’? You got a mouse in your pocket?”  My mother would be helpless to restrain them.  First it would be funny.  Then we’d all stop laughing and turn in the doctor’s direction with one solid accusatory stare.  Who’s this ‘we’?  And why don’t they have any answers?

Mother gathered herself at last, and lifted her pocketbook from the floor.  We both stood.  This time the doctor remained seated, slumped in his chair.  Its luxury could not save him from his failure.  I avoided his eyes.

Mother worked her arm around my back and guided me to the door.  She thanked him, then, backwards over her shoulder, her head twisted as she tried to get us away.   Her voice sounded hollow and unsure.  He finally rose and made his way around the desk, one hand outstretched as though to do something.  Shake hers?  Touch me?  He had not even examined me in the hospital. He had not sullied his slim fingers. He’d left everything to minions — interns, and externs, and patient aides.   I did not know any of them, nor did they know me.  I skittered away from whatever he planned to do with that hand and ducked under my mother’s arm.

Later, at home, my mother talked in low tones to someone on the phone.  Her sister, maybe; her father.  Her mother.  I never knew.  I took myself to my bed and pretended to read, while the light  faded, the evening ended, and my brothers played touch football in the backyard outside my window.

Here in Kansas City, in the present, the sixty-one year old version of that child listens to the garbage truck go down the street.  I didn’t get my trash out or my recycle to the curb.  Some things escape me.  I tell myself, it’s okay, that mound of cardboard can be flattened and wait another week.  I lift the coffee cup and laugh out loud.  Remind me never to eat gluten again, I tell the dog.  This time, I’m sure she has no clue what I’m saying.  She yawns, and walks away.  I realize that I’m on my own.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Me and my brother Steve, Christmas, 1992 or 1993.

Submitted for your consideration:  My wilder carefree self.