Monday, November 29, 2010

A Quick Thanksgiving in Memphis

It was a little after midnight when we pulled into the dark driveway. Six hours on the road had left Mary and I glassy-eyed and sore. As we opened the back hatch on the car to start unloading, the porch light came on and Mom stuck her head out the back door. They’d waited up for us. They’d both been excited that we were coming to stay with them for Thanksgiving this year. Mom had been cleaning since August when I’d told her we were coming.

We usually stay with Mary’s parents when we go to Memphis, which is becoming an increasingly rare trip due to our work schedules. It’s not an intentional slam against my parents by staying with Mary’s; it’s just where we usually end up. But this year things would be different. Just how different we were yet to discover. Mom and Dad are in their late seventies, and it takes them a little longer to do things.

For instance, one of the first mornings we were there, as I was on my way to the shower, Mom told me that Dad wanted me to take a look at the showerhead. “He said it’s leaking water all over the back of the wall. If you have time today, take a look at it,” she said. I told her I had plenty of time and I’d check it out. When I went into the bathroom, Dad was waiting for me. I turned on the shower, and as it ran, one single bead of water brimmed up over the lip of the handheld fixture and ran down the hose.

“See that leak?” Dad said. “I was thinking we could put some of that, um…” he trailed off. Dad forgets his words sometimes and it takes him a while to express a thought, so I tried to help.

“Teflon tape?” I offered.

“No, uh, we need to put some, uh…oh, you know…” then he walked off midsentence. I felt bad. He couldn’t think of the word he needed and was too embarrassed to continue. Moments later, though, he returned with a caulk gun.

“Caulk!” he announced.

“You want me to caulk the showerhead?”

“No, I want you to caulk the top of the knob fixture so water doesn’t run in behind it.”

Never mind the fact that it already has a rubber backing on it to protect it because it’s in a shower; I caulked it. Poorly. (Sadly, I’ve never been much of a caulker.)

Later, Mom told me she wanted me to show her how to make the asparagus dish I had made last time they visited us, asparagus, red onion, and mushroom sautéed together with butter and herbs. Sure, no sweat. I mentioned picking up some asparagus, and she said she already had some — in a can. I must have made a face when she said “can” because she added, “Well, I don’t know how to cook the fresh kind!” How do you get to be seventy-seven and not know how to cook fresh asparagus? I told her it was super-easy. She wanted to know how long it would need to cook. Would it need more than a half hour or so? I explained that it would only take about ten minutes.

“Ten minutes?” she asked, wrinkling up her face. “Will it get done?”

“Yes. It’s asparagus, Mom, not raw chicken.” Why do they think it takes so long? Then I remembered the broccoli they prepared in my childhood — cooked until it was limp and gray.

Then she said she would be cooking a ham. She had bought one of those big spiral-sliced jobs that come fully cooked. All you have to do is heat it and add the packaged glaze that comes with it. Mary and I went out for a while to run some errands. When we returned later that afternoon, the ham was resting on the counter. I lifted the foil, expecting to find succulent pink meat. Instead, the ham was bone dry, reduced to an almost jerky-like state.

Mom called from her chair in the living room, “That ham may be a little dry. I cooked it like it said, but it dried out.”

“How long did you cook it?” I asked, flicking a crusty spiral-sliced flap.

“Two and a half hours,” she replied.

What?! Mary and I looked at each other in alarm, with that look that says both, “Oh my God!” and “Don’t speak!” all in one. Two and a half hours? It was an eight-pound fully cooked ham. It had languished, uncovered, in my mother’s oven for more than twice the amount of time it needed. And now it lay on her counter, charred and withered, like a tiny little burn victim.

One of several things she wanted me to do while I was there was clean the light fixture that hangs over their kitchen table. “It shouldn’t take more than an hour,” she reassured me. An hour? In what atmospheric conditions? We’re cleaning a light fixture in your kitchen, not repairing a damaged rocket booster during a spacewalk.

“An hour?” I asked.

“Well, don’t we need to take the fixture down?” she said.

“No,” I said with a shrug. “We’ll just wipe it with a damp rag.”

“Oh,” she said. She sounded almost disappointed. “I guess that’ll work, too.”

I wrung out a wet rag and wiped the fixture, the globes, and the base, replacing the dust with shiny polished brass. It took about ten minutes.

It was a good visit. I enjoyed getting to spend time with Mom and Dad, talking about the old days and reminiscing about family. But unlike all the other things that week, it didn’t take nearly as long as I would have liked.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Memoir Excerpt – Dead in the Street

It was only a few weeks after providing medical treatment at a wreck that I drove up on an accident that had just happened on my street. I saw a girl lying in the road and a crowd forming at the curb. I pulled over and hopped out of the truck. I had been on a high since helping out at the first wreck, and I expected to swagger up and be the hero again. As I got closer I spoke to a crossing guard, an older woman who had come over to keep the onlookers back.

“I’m a medic in the Army. What happened?” I asked in a very official tone.

“She got hit by a car.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “She’s dead. You can’t do anything for her, honey.”

I kneeled over her body, and the gravity of the situation was like a vacuum, sucking every thought out of my head, every word out of my mouth. She was already dead and there was nothing I could do. A wide trail of bright red blood, still wet and glistening, painted the path in the street where her body had slid after the impact.

“How did it happen?” I asked quietly.

She was thirteen, a seventh-grader at the local high school, a dingy white building just two blocks from where her lifeless body now lay in full view of the horde of students that peeked over and around each other to get a good look at the only dead body some of them would ever see outside of a funeral home. She had gotten out of school only moments earlier and was walking with her friends when she spotted the car of an older friend coming and decided to play a prank on him, something she would never live to regret.

As he approached, she crouched between two cars parked on the side of the street, waiting until he was only twenty or thirty feet from her before leaping in front of it, arms flailing, a move that she had hoped would scare him and make him swerve wildly, but he couldn't swerve — or stop — in time. Now she lay in the street, her petite body buckled, eyes open and staring at nothing, textbooks and notebooks strewn about, a thin river of blood trailing from her head and pooling at the base of the curb.

I went home, got in the shower, and cried. I squatted down in the tub and as the water ran over me I cried deep, hard sobs that forced the air out of my lungs until I was almost heaving. It was the oddest time to notice that I was actually thin enough now to squat sideways in the shower, and I laughed through my tears for a moment. Then her ashen face came back to me and I sank again and wept for a girl I had never met.