Colla forza d’amor si vince amore
“Love is vanquished by the strength of love.”
—Prince Ferdinando, son of Cosimo III
Green goo is on your chapped lips, staining your teeth and tongue. I stand over you with a warm hospital cloth dabbing your snoring mouth. I’m sniffing the cloth when the nurse enters. Looking for her nametag I’m picking up on Laffy Taffy Sour Apple? Watermelon Jelly Bellies?
“Hello, Josie. What do you think he’s been into?”
“Good question,” she sighs as she lifts your saggy arm, wraps a blood pressure cuff around it. You rouse and scowl at her with one droopy eye, one alert one.
“What were you eating, Mr. Hudson,” Josie says loudly, “that was so bright green?”
Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze the arm that used to hold me at night, the left one, the one that used to be so strong and tan. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze the arm so pale and skinny like a little girl’s, frighteningly pale and skinny in the black cuff.
“When you move one tweezer-rake, the other gets shady-down, just like shaving the barn, but that’s neither here nor there. What you’ve got is a whole course of mechanic sizzems,” you explain while flattening your hands on your belly and shuffling them like dirty feet on a mat, which makes it difficult for Josie to read the pressure and remove the cuff.
“One forty-five over ninety-five. Mr. Hudson we’re going to take your temperature now. Can you keep this under your tongue?”
You oblige, sitting patiently for Josie while now scowling at me. I manage to lift my eyebrows and smile reassuringly but I’m tired…Benny tired.
Benny walked the high school halls with his eyes closed, sat in the back of the class with his eyes closed. How he carried his tray through the cafeteria line and found a seat with his eyes closed I don’t know. The tray, it looked more like a playing card in his giant hands. Once seated, kids would venture close enough to the giant to play pick-up sticks with the French fries in his paper boat then snicker and snivel away. He wasn’t partially blind or retarded, what most students suspected; instead I suspect he reached the finish line on tired early and tenting was the only way to cope.
Tenting is when you close your eyes in areas of activity to create private space. It requires no caution tape or expensive security systems. You are a kid again lying on your back, covered entirely in blankets that come down from your mountaintop knees, breathing your own warm air, strangely isolated and irresponsible. You, only better. All you see is the negative-light image of the last scene you endured that begins to morph into the most beautiful kaleidoscope of quilt designs…pin heads of light are stars in an otherwise black universe…and isn’t that just what you needed, a little time among the stars…
“Mrs. Hudson?” Josie is standing beside a young Indian doctor.
“Mrs. Hudson, I’m Doctor Wijewickrama. I just spoke with the assisted living facility where your husband resides. The house manager tells me a few of the residents were assembling gift bags for families of the inmates at Buncombe County jail. Your husband was especially fond of the green apple Jolly Ranchers. He may have suffered a stroke, but he wasn’t poisoned from eating rat poison as you’d feared…and certainly not from eating green apple Jolly Ranchers.” A weak smile ripples from the doctor to Josie to me.
“I see in his chart he suffered a stroke in 2009?”
“Yes, that coincided with the dementia diagnosis.”
“The reports from 2009 showed significant atrophy to the brain. In all likelihood we are looking at another stroke. With your permission we will schedule your husband for an MRI and CT scan, compare the reports to see where we stand.”
“Yes, that’s fine, although he seems to have regained the use of his right hand and arm somewhat and his eye, it’s a little less dopey, see?”
You are asleep again, green apple mouth agape. Josie lowers the head of your bed while the doctor gingerly taps his tablet. Without looking at me he asks, “Will you be staying for the studies? I am afraid it will be at least two hours before we can get him in.”
In my tight dress and high heels I must look to the young doctor like I need to get back out there and pound the pavement. I’d been on an afternoon date with Paul when the facility called to tell me they’d called an ambulance. For the last few Saturdays, Sanity Saturdays, after visiting Carl in the morning, I’d spent my afternoons with Paul. Although I start out wondering if I can put one foot in front of the other, the bike rides, the hikes and today the east coast swing workshop leave me exhilarated, alive again, shaking my head at him when he isn’t looking. How does he know just what I need?
“Yes, I’ll stay,” I tell him while the roulette wheel of my thoughts stops on Paul. Better that he hadn’t stayed; this will take a while. It always does. He’d asked to stay by my side, for us to get through this together, to wait for me in the lobby if not come back to emergency with me, but I refused and asked him to pick me up when Carl was settled. I would call.
“Very good.” The doctor steps outside the door while screen-tapping and Josie follows, pulling the privacy curtain. Closing my eyes, I try to remember. I must remember because I am the steward of our house of memories. Isn’t my duty to remember? How else will others know you were so much more than a dementia patient gorging himself on Jolly Ranchers?
We were making one last visit to our hideout, our creekside trailer in Cruso, just outside Bethel at Laurel Bank Campground. The owner, Ms. Moody, had notified me earlier in the week they would be “winterizing” the trailers and we needed to pack our belongings and remove the canned goods which may burst in extreme temperatures.
Charlie was throwing stones in the creek, you were, thank goodness, taking care of bathroom tank details, and Little Sparrow (Jamie wouldn’t answer to anything but her Indian name) was occupying herself with the box of raisins I’d given her. It would take her at least ten minutes to painstakingly open the box, eat the raisins one by one. That would be more than enough time to empty the tiny kitchen’s cabinets into a few cardboard boxes.
All in close proximity we were, in our parallel play with the radio on: You’re my blue sky, you’re my sunny day. Lord, you know it makes me high when you turn your love my way…
In the time it took for my heart to have a water-surge sensation, I found Little Sparrow under the trailer’s miniature Waffle House booth, little fingers in her mouth. “You found a great hideout Little Sparrow.” I squatted, smiling. She frowned at me like always, no smile. Should I have said tee-pee? There near her little moccasined feet was a white Styrofoam bowl and when I reached for it she protested with beautiful, scowling eyes. Bringing the bowl from under the table into the retreating autumn sun, a Styrofoam bowl of…green gumdrops?
I tripped over boxes to where you, trailerside, were looking through your toolbox. “Carl, this-was-on-the-floor, Little-Sparrow-was-eating-them, is-this rat poison?”
Your face turning from contemplative detective to stricken fighter like a louvered billboard told me to run, run to the lodge. I held the poison bowl crunched in one hand. I saw all those familiar landmarks we so leisurely frequented speed past as if on a fast-playing, bumpy reel of someone else’s life: the swing set, Mona and George’s trailer, the little pond with its solitary rowboat, the showers, the flower bed, the lodge.
I leapt up the steps, pushing through the partly open door. There was Ms. Moody on the phone, snuffing a cigarette. “Honey, I’ll have to call you back.”
“I need that phone Ms. Moody,” I panted. “This is rat poison?” I pressed the bowl down on the desk. “Jamie was eating this.”
Ms. Moody handed the phone to me over the desk. “Honey, I thought y’uns had already been in, everything looked so…”
“9-1-1 what’s your emergency?”
“I need Poison Control immediately please.”
“Hold for Poison Control…”
“My daughter, she’s two, she’s eaten, Ms. Moody how many of these do you put in a bowl, rat poison, she’s so small, so small for her age.”
The voice on the line was most decisive. He must have been wearing a headset and referee’s attire while pointing with both arms in the direction of Waynesville’s Rite-Aid: “You’ve got fifteen minutes to get Syrup of Ipecac in her.”
“Fifteen minutes, Syrup of Ipecac, Ms. Moody, there’s no drugstore in Cruso or Bethel is there?” Ms. Moody was grimacing and hugging herself.
Dropping the phone, I reeled in place, pushed through the door and in one jump planted myself for a record sprint. “Fifteen minutes Carl!” I heard myself yelling as I ran. “Fif-teen minn-uhts!!!”
The flower bed: The chances, though, of getting to a drugstore…
The showers: Finding the Ipecac on the shelves…
The little pond with its solitary rowboat: Better to go straight to Haywood Regional Hospital…
Mona and George’s trailer: Yes go straight through the emergency room doors and let them…
The swing set: But fifteen minutes? To get from Cruso to Haywood Regional??
“Fifteen minutes to get to the hospital!” I yell as I near the car where you are holding Little Sparrow outside the open driver’s side door. I scoop her out of your arms, duck into the backseat and plunk her in the middle, her car seat. Sitting beside her, I begin to buckle her while registering, Charlie here too. Buckled.
You are behind the wheel and I dig my forehead into the back of your headrest pretending it is your chest, squeeze the sides of your seat pretending they are your arms and dare not look at Little Sparrow’s eyes so full of concern and, this time, rightly so.
God has doomed us, I’m thinking as I look up and stare wide-eyed at the crescent line of slow-moving cars all with their lights on. A funeral procession. I only looked up after an exhilarating race car ride out of the trailer park was followed by the car’s braking and a most interesting hodgepodge of expletives that came out as agonizingly slow as the funeral procession before us. A funeral procession on a two-lane curvy road in Cruso. It can’t be, but it is. Your cursing and the braking of the car tells me you see it too, it must be real.
God you can’t do this. You can’t take my sensitive brown-eyed beauty. Heap temper tantrums upon me, Lord. Perhaps I said I didn’t enjoy them but I really love temper tantrums. Don’t take this lovely person who rarely smiles away from me. I haven’t figured out, haven’t learned how to make her smile enough yet. The concern in her eyes, the ever-constant concern in her brown velvet eyes will haunt me, dear God, oh please.
The lurching, the maniacal braking and revving. You play chicken with the oncoming traffic then blow the horn to cut in line. Over and over you do this. More time is spent in the lane of oncoming traffic than our funeral procession lane. Before burying my head in your headrest again, close to giving up, I turn to look at Charlie whose long legs and arms are splayed in every direction, his head as high as he can get it, a suntanned starfish. Little Sparrow, I can’t look directly at her but can see peripherally she has the blanket that was in her car seat and is managing to suck her thumb.
You drive in the oncoming traffic lane as if you will not meet an oncoming car. How can you be such a careful maniac? Oh I love you so for doing everything you can to save our little girl. You curse, speed, blow the horn, I love you so.
I dare to turn my head to the window. Have we made it this far? The house with the unfinished gazebo? You might actually get us to Haywood Regional in fifteen minutes? You must love this girl. Really, really love her the way I do. You must love her in her brother’s hand-me-down corduroy pants and flannel as much as I do. This beautiful tomboy who refuses all things pink, sleeps every night in her big brother’s bed.
The procession, we passed it. There, there is Bethel school’s ball field, Bethel grocery. We are on the straightaway. I never knew what this Volvo could do! Oh how I love you, mighty, capable man with such reflexes and focus and a most impressive vocabulary of curse words. We are flying. How I love you. What drive.
In range now, I splay myself like starfish Charlie, fish for my cell phone and call the hospital emergency. “My two-year-old has eaten rat poison, we don’t know how much, we’re headed your way. We need Ipecac syrup immediately. Yes, two. Hudson, Carl and Ivy Hudson. Our daughter is Jamie…We’ll try.”
The hospital, it is no mirage. I feel my feet springing off its parking lot pavement for another sprint, this time holding Little Sparrow. I see the black mat, the finish-line doors opening. I see people in scrubs, the bed, Little Sparrow on the bed, the brown bottle of Ipecac. I see Charlie in the corner of the room watching it all with owl eyes. I see your large hand spanning two small legs of brown corduroy. I see Little Sparrow squirming under what is that a spork? A spoon vial of Ipecac. I see poor steering of the spoon vial over a squirming Little Sparrow. I see a temper tantrum coming in three, two…
I feel scrubs, I feel the spoon vial in my hands, I feel Little Sparrow’s cool cheeks, her hair, her head. I’m clutching her head, there are the frightened eyes. My thumb, it’s in her mouth, her tongue is tinged green, then bathed in brown. I hear okay baby, okay baby. I feel myself being seated in a chair. I feel the floor under my feet again, I feel scrubs in each hand, I see vomit, glorious gravy vomit in a pink hospital pan. Glorious vomit bespeckled with tiny pieces of bright green among pieces of dark brown, tiny monsters of green submerged and drowning in luxurious vomit. Nobody can produce Grade A vomit like my little girl.
I feel your arms, smell your cologne and your sweat, I feel you all around me and that’s just in time because I am one of those ghosts made out of two tissues: the one balled up is my head, the other one draped all over is my body and there’s a tiny, frayed rubber band around my neck doing nothing to keep my head upright. No one has yet given me two black magic marker eyes, I can’t see. I can only feel your sweat, my wet face. I can only smell you. I love your scent, my God, I have no feet. Hold me, hold me up, please, I am so tired. Hold me up and keep saying baby, shhhh baby, okay baby, shhhhhh…
“Mrs. Hudson? We’ll be taking your husband to MRI now.” Josie talks to me like she’s my tour guide. “Just through those doors, down the long hall to the elevator.
I snicker. The Long Haul.
“But before we go,” Josie announces, “we need to put on some fresh underpants.” Josie is reaching for your big wet diaper, pulling on its corner Velcro tab and you get a hold of her arm and squeeze with everything you’ve got like she’s the ugly girl who just knocked over your tower. Temper tantrum coming in three, two…
“Carl,” I hop-to and place my hand on your legs. “Let’s get dressed and go visit people.”
“Well that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” you chide, as if we’re all idiots and you are the only one in the room with a lick of sense, “but you never listen to me!”
You allow the diaper change with my help and with my hand on your legs we head off down the hall toward the elevator. The orderly, John, tattooed and ponytailed, great smile, pushes you on a gurney.
In the fluorescent light our wreckage-on-parade passes room after room of sickness, disease, trauma, and I want to run, run in my tight dress and high heels screaming “Fifteen minutes Paul, get me out of here and back in your arms in fif-teen minn-uuhtts! I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have refused when you wanted to wait for me, when you wanted to be by my side through this again and I refused. I want you now, I am tired and I need you now.”
God, I want to be held, forgive me. I want to have conversations that aren’t entirely nonsensical, eat in public across from Paul, read his hand-me-down paperbacks, take naps in his bed. Forgive me for tiring of diaper changes, for wanting to be free from medical bills I am sinking under, free from facilities in an increasingly larger radius that kick us out due to combative behavior, from burning up the highway to visit, only to leave tense and shattered, leaving less and less time for my kids and Paul. Forgive me for my ghost heart sinking lower and lower in synchronization with the sound of a dragging foot. Forgive me for even considering traveling to Florence with Paul but I’ve always wanted to visit Villa Medici of Pratolino. The Colossal Appennino, I want to walk through him, I don’t belong here, I belong with Paul in the secret room in Appennino’s head…
The elevator doors open to the tiny room. After we are all on board, John pushes the button with 4 on it. It illuminates and I can’t stop staring at it. Peripherally I see John is tucking your blanket up a little higher.
“You warm enough Mr. Hudson?”
“I’m chanty, I’m just about four lengths in, with this chaim and prod (you are laughing now, John’s buddy) it’s bullshit ya know. What’s your name?” John tells you, extending his hand.
“Good man,” you say, extending yours.
After the handshake you tug at my dress and say “Pssst! Pssst! Pretty lady, who are you?”
“Ivy Hudson, pleased to meet you.”
“This is my girlfriend,” you tell John, sharing a secret.
Three hours later, mercy sakes alive, waiting outside the glass, I see the large capsule you are entering, attended by technicians in lab coats. I would probably understand more of what is happening to you if someone sidled up to me, told me. “Look, this is a space station, your husband is entering a space module and after the countdown will be drifting ever-so-peacefully into orbit. Don’t worry, we have this.”
Or is it I who has been orbiting? Strangely distant from you as you slip away from me, from Paul because I am a married woman tied down in so many ways, from my kids because their mother is distracted and overwhelmed. I never feel grounded and I’m so very floatingly tired. The capsule, it spins around you…spinning…
Last Saturday afternoon after a visit with Carl it was a bike ride, black cows lying in green pastures on either side when Paul out-pedaled me again, reaching the roundabout well before I did. Lazily he pedaled, round and round as I approached. Observing him was transcendent. The greater bird of paradise he was, the only paradisaea apoda on an otherwise empty carousel. From a distance, his cinnamon and fawn spandex cycling suit was his plumage, the yellow and white of his Italian racing bike his flank display plumes, the silver helmet his iridescent crown. Circling, waiting, he was exquisite.
I’ve told him he doesn’t have to wait for me; I can never keep up and I know our destination is the coffee shop. Still, he waits. After a long stretch of mountain road, pedaling my mountain bike in drab gray T-shirt and shorts, I come upon a major crossroads or roundabout and there he is on his way in, sometimes stock straight pedaling steadily, no hands, having already traveled out farther and back again, the pioneer. How does he know how to time things perfectly?
“I’m not waiting, I’m riding,” he says.
What am I to do with him, a species like that? Admire him from a distance for his splendor and health, his gentlemanly and gracious ways? Or love him, really bond with him? That would require my becoming a greater bird of paradise myself and I feel more like a cracked egg. A scrambled egg. Sunny side where?
I want to fly with him between heaven and earth, never touching the ground, living on dew and sunshine. If I observe him long enough I may become like him: exceedingly confident, a sight to behold, larger than circumstances, larger than the past. Observing him circling, a question came across the cool air and clarity of carousel music: “With Paul in my life, what are my woes?”
“Mrs. Hudson?” Josie is standing beside a technician in scrubs. "Your husband did well, and will be heading to a room now with further studies another hour away. You look tired and there really isn’t any need to stay unless you wish to. We’ll get him settled with his meds and he should sleep a while. Dr. Wijewickrama will reach you when he’s had time to read the reports.”
“All right then, I’ll let you take it from here.” I am so tired. “Let me tell him goodbye.”
You’re back on the gurney, ready to roll. I click across the room, past two technicians, hover over you smiling, hands squeezing your sheeted shoulders.
“Where are your feet and who is standing beside you?”
Sometimes your questions are those of a sage.
I pat your shoulders and kiss your forehead. “Good question.”
Paul picks me up, literally. I’m hugged outside the automatic doors, turning in a close embrace that feels like I’m deep into plumes and feathers. Even as we walk he has me so snugged in beside his down jacket I feel like I’m wearing it.
In his car I recline my seat and stare at my hand in the neon light of a dashboard moon. It is a solitary wooden rowboat, oars long lost, and Paul’s hand under it is a summer pond in Villa Medici of Pratolino. I feel the seeping warmth through the cracks in the little boat’s frame. How can a boat with cracks in its frame continue to be buoyed? Lapped gently it is by the warm water.
Beside the pond, is that an aged pine or Benny, holding with immense limbs not a tray of fries but a tiny nest full of eggs? A mother bird keeps coming and going. Her weight each time upon returning is too much for him. He is breaking and she doesn’t know it. All of her work is in vain, for he cannot hold her treasure cup very long. This time she returns with one piece of straw and the ounces coming down cause him to spill the eggs through his network of pine limbs, limbs that do nothing to catch her tiny eggs but send them crashing, a disaster pinball machine. Mother bird alight only ounces of despair and the eggs afresh on the cool moss. It won’t be long before they seep into it, before they are no more. And can she wish it, the mother bird, in her panic, to be no more? I couldn’t warn her, I am only a mute and solitary rowboat and she only ounces of bird-worry and incessant work.
What is it, the earth we are afraid of? Is it the unexpectedness of it all that makes us so tired? Is it the crashing, the contact with the earth, the seconds of despair? Is it the bird-worry? Is it the leaning, the coming apart, the pain of the snap? Is it the fright of the mother bird? The soaking in, the covering of lichen, the gray-green coat? Is it the looking up and seeing what once was? The frantic feeling of knowing everything while the pine and the bird and the eggs knew nothing?
On the water, baptized and bobbing from the limbs falling in around me, I look up to search for the aged pine, for Benny, but I see instead the Colossal Appennino. Appennino who dropped his tray.
Fresh air is all around me and a faint bell is ringing. A tiny digital clock reads 7:05 p.m. Paul is sitting in the driver’s seat of the parked car leaning in on me, his door open, one long leg stretched well outside the door. We’re in a parking lot. Did we ever leave the hospital? Feathery beard kisses under my jaw line. I tilt my head up to better feel the kisses and see the sign: Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack.
Paul whispers, “Ready for some wings?”