Monday, December 26, 2016

BROKEN BEADS BLUE SKY

The beads had broken and scattered over the backstage floor. They had been her mother’s—four strands, with a tiny crystal between each rose-colored iridescent bead, and a silver filigree clasp. She remembered gazing at them, touching them, rolling them in her small fingers, as she sat on her mother’s lap. That was so many years ago.
When she was 21, her mother said, “Don’t marry that man,” but she did. On her wedding day, only a few months after her mother had died from an aggressive cancer, she had begged her father, “Don’t let that woman sit next to you where Mom was supposed to be,” but he did.
On her honeymoon, under a clear blue sky on an island beach, she lay on her tie-dyed scarf, the sun. She called to her husband as he walked along the waves. “Don’t be long,” but he was. She waited until the sun was going down—alone, with wind off the ocean chilling her to the bone. The once-clear blue sky seemed to resembled her transparent scarf, now wrapped around her shoulders—fading blue, streaked with gray and yellow, which made her cry. 
     Since then, he had been “disappearing,” leaving her to wonder and worry: Where does he go? How long will it be until he returns? Does he even realize he is missed, or even that he is expected back at all? Doesn’t he remember that he intended to finish fixing that door, that he was supposed to meet me for lunch, that he will miss dinner with the family—again? Whenever she tried to figure out the how and why of it all, her thoughts raced to a vanishing point, and she told herself it didn’t matter after all.
What worried her most was her husband's patients showing up for their appointments when, more often than not, he wasn’t there to receive them. One day the few remaining appointments were cancelled, and he “retired” from a dwindling career. Later they learned there was good reason for her husband’s seemingly inconsiderate antics.    Finding the reason did not change things much, even with medication and therapy. It could not be fixed; it only remained to adjust to the new reality—a struggle to transform denial into acceptance, impatience into tolerance, and resentment into understanding—the contraries!

These were the random thoughts that arose in her as she looked for and collected scattered beads. She would have it repaired, put the beads back on their strands like new. What was wrong with that girl anyway, pulling them off like that? She had brought in some of her mother’s jewelry for the carefree, high school girls to wear in their roles as aristocratic, Victorian ladies: the beads, broaches and earrings. One of the girls carelessly tugged at those strands of memories, sending them into the shadows behind the stage curtains.
She liked finding use for items she had salvaged from her childhood home in a forlorn, upstate New York town. Besides the jewelry, she had a yellow Bakelite clock in the shape of a teapot hanging above her stove, and six ruby red wine glasses, a set of dishes, a few hand-painted Italian bowls—all kept in the glass cabinet in the dining room. Most cherished were old letters and cards she had found in her mother’s desk after the funeral. All were touchable memories to take in her hand, hold to her heart, to take comfort in when she could not be accepting, tolerant or understanding.
Driving home this night, she kept thinking, Things are breaking, coming apart, irreparable. That very morning, as she dressed for the long day, she had brushed against and dislodged the small plate hanging on the wall—the one her mother had given her before entering the hospital for the last time. On the sky-blue and white memento, written in silvery script was: “Baby Christina Marie born November 10, 1974, 7 pounds 3 ounces.” She left it shattered on the floor.
Almost home now, she loosened her fingers on the wheel as she drove down the tree-lined street. She recalled that sense of freedom she once had felt, driving along the Massachusetts Turnpike to her uncharted life—to all that was still ahead her, singing to herself, “Boston, you’re my home.” Later, she found herself having to get away from her new home when, one too many times, her husband didn’t show up for dinner, or she had to make excuses to angry patients, or he had forgotten to call for heating oil, and she came home to a frigid house. 
     Then there were those maddening, one-sided conversations—he constantly interrupting her with unrelated questions and non-sequitur comments, until she had to laugh or go insane. Who am I living with anyway, Salvatore Dali? She usually laughed, but when she could not, it was time to flee.
She would pack up the car and head west with her two small children to visit her father, but that also meant she had see the woman he married—the one who had seen fit without consideration to take her “rightful” place as new wife next to Christina’s father in the church pew—the one who ever-after resented the futile request of the motherless bride.
Once, during one of those spontaneous trips, that awful woman had called Christina selfish and disrespectful when simply said, “I’d like the children to eat before Dad gets home from work. They usually are in bed before 7:00, and it’s been a long day with the drive and all.”
“Well, your father won’t be here ’til 8:30, so they will just have to wait. It won’t kill them to not get their way for once!”
Christina had already laid a crisp white cloth, as her mother always had done. She began to set the table with the dishes she found pushed to the back of the cabinet. It was the set her mother had used for family meals—pure white plates with a border of green ivy. “I don’t think he would mind if the children ate early, Charlotte,” she tried to reason. She called the children to come to the table, but before she had the words out, there was the sharp sting of Charlotte’s hand across her cheek.
“You never could show respect. Well, you don’t get your selfish way around here anymore.”
Christina dropped the plate she was holding, put her hand up to her face and blinked back the hot tears welling up, so the children wouldn’t see, but they heard Charlotte’s harsh words. They saw the broken plate and their mother lean over to pick up the pieces.
Charlotte quickly grabbed the shards from Christina’s trembling hands and tossed them into the trash can, then went to the cabinet. “I’ve been meaning to throw those old things out for the longest time.” She went to the cabinet, pulled out a set of drab brown dishes and held them out to Christina. She pointed to mismatched glasses on the shelf: a Coke glass, one with Peter Pan and the Darling children flying away, and three painted with watermelon slices.  
     “Now, finish the job, and we’ll wait for your father to come home!”
Christina mechanically made her way around the table with dishes and glasses. She took solace in thinking of her mother’s thin-stemmed, ruby-red glasses the cabinet at home. Can people be replaced like broken china? In the quiet of that night, she returned to the kitchen, took the plates out of the trash and put them in her suitcase, intending to mend the broken ones when she got home.
     She loved her father deeply, despite his betrayal and “o’er hasty marriage” where,” the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables,” lines she had quoted from Hamlet to her husband on the day of what she had referred to as the “unholy union.”

Memories of that incident lingered as she parked the car, and she shuddered at the them. Hurtful as it was, she also remembered her that, when her did get back that evening,he smiled, hugged her and said he was glad she had “come home.” It never felt like home again without her mother. Home…is it a place or a feeling?
She was glad it was day’s end. She gathered up the bags in the back seat and looked up the front steps with a sigh. The chestnut tree at the curb’s edge rustled its leaves—a welcome in the balmy night air. She was worn out and on edge, she felt at least one weight had lifted with her director duties over for the year. 
    With great effort she climbed the steps to the front door, and up the staircase to the second floor landing. She stood facing two doors—one to the living room, the other to the shadowy office; the streetlights cast dark reflections of branches and leaves dancing on the ceiling and walls, like a crazy light show in the abandoned room. 
     She pushed open the other door with her foot and dropped the plastic bags containing a plaid smoking jacket, a blue chiffon dress, brown suede heels, a silver cigarette case, a blonde wig, a straw handbag, a bunch of yellow paper roses, a wooden box with jewelry and a pink satin bag containing the broken beads.
She had intended to go straight to bed, but the sofa looked inviting, and besides, she was too tired to walk the extra few feet. She flopped down, grabbed the remote and found an old movie. Staring at the TV screen, her mind drifted to the worst day of her life and her meeting with her friend the week before. As they walked their favorite beach, the tide rolling in over the deserted, narrow shore, her friend had said, “If we could see things from the highest perspective, it would all be good.”
It was thoughtless and rude to say that. Hadn’t she just heard the bad news? For many years, the women had confided in each other, pondering whether life had any meaning, and, if so, what could it be? They would look at each other and say, “It is what it is; it will be what it will be.” But now it was all different. She knew what was to be.
  They had read about karma and considered it a more sensible alternative to heaven/hell, or nothingness. They neither entirely believed, nor disbelieved that humans chose the circumstances of their existence before birth—ones that would provide the context to live out their karma.     They agreed that everyone appeared to have an a life theme with recurring questions, challenges, and an individual destiny, but also there were choices to be made, hopefully informed by increasing self-knowledge.
Still, Christina thought for her friend to have suggested that anything was anything good about the diagnosis was just wrong. Is this my destiny? Did I choose it? Can I change it, fix it, get well? Is the highest perspective heaven? And why do I have to sink so low to get there? As thoughts crowded in, she looked around at the cluttered room. She didn’t know what to believe.
Just then her husband shuffled in and stood in front of her. He hardly ever greeted her when she came home late. Sometimes he was on the sofa asleep. After twenty years of marriage, there was no predicting what she could count on him for, yet he loved her and she loved him—that was never in question. He was not unfaithful. He was not unkind, and he always wandered back home to her. It had just taken a lifetime of adjusting and lowering expectations to realize that she could depend on him only for the things he was able to do, and not always for those she wished for or needed. Is that part of my karma, or his? Her mind fogged over with the mystery of it all. She was happy to see him and grateful for those things he could manage.
“How’d it go?”
“Oh, the kids did a great job. We packed the house, and they loved it, but I’m glad it’s over.” Though she was still upset about the broken beads, she didn’t have the energy to tell him about it.
“Want something to drink? There’s some leftover pizza.”
“No, I’m fine. Hey, are you coming with me tomorrow?”
“Ehh…what time?”
“My appointment is at 2:00. I’ll be home around 1:00.”
“I’ll go with you,” he said, padding back into the kitchen then came back with a glass of cranberry juice and a cold piece of pizza.
“I…I don’t think I can eat….”
“I’m going back to bed,” he interrupted, and walked away.
“Okay…I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she called back, wondering if he in fact would be around to go with her the next day, or if he would be AWOL, as the family referred to his absences.
She leaned back against the soft cushions to focus on the movie. She closed her eyes, listening to banter between Tracey and Hepburn. When she opened them again she saw “THE END” in big white letters on a grainy black background. She roused herself, and, though exhausted, she dreaded another sleepless night. She sat up staring at the bags on the floor, thinking again about high perspectives, low places, broken beads and dishes, karma and cancer treatments.
She undressed slowly, put on her favorite nightgown, looked down at the shattered plate scattered on the floor, then eased into bed as quietly as she could. She stretched out and edged her back toward her husband, as was her habit. Tomorrow is another day, but not an ordinary one, she thought, closing her eyes.
Images of her children’s faces appeared. It was the hardest thing telling her family—seeing their sadness and their apprehension of grief. There had been a long silence. Her daughter was in tears, and her son said, “I want you to get well.” Her husband just put his head down. The oncologist had told her she would not get well. At the very least, she would be in treatment for whatever time she had left. 
     Since then the family talked only of practical matters: treatment options, medical appointments, the details of “getting things in order.” She shielded her son and daughter from most of it, taking on the burden of their pain as well as her own.
Still, she had hope; she had the will to live, if not the strength to face whatever she had to endure in order to even get the chance to live—however long or short a time. She wasn’t sure how miracles fit into her life’s theme, her free will or her destiny, but she believed in prayer and miracles.
It was all new to her—being caught between hope and despair.
“Out of everyone I’ve ever known,” her friend had said to her, “you are the bravest, strongest, most positive person.” Funny though, she didn’t feel strong, positive or even like a person—but rather like a shadow of the self she tried to build and sustain in this lifetime. She felt parts of herself were missing, wavering, like the quivering branches on the ceiling of the abandoned room at the top of the stairs--a shadow of something real, but not real.
“You love life and live life,” her friend had said, as if    Christina needed a reminder, especially now, and “it’s not over until it’s over.” She closed her eyes, listening to her husband’s quiet breathing, as random thoughts, feelings and images of the day swirled in her mind, until they faded into the dark future and then into sleep.
Sitting in the hospital waiting area the next day, she gazed out the window at the vast, clear blue and cloudless sky.
“Christina,” a nurse called and came over to stand in front of her— blocking out the blue. “We’re ready for you; come on back.”
She stood up, looked at her husband—lost child—not even pretending to be strong for her. He smiled and lifted his hand. She carried his smile with her down the long corridor and into the sterile room.
The nurse got her settled on a bed turned up to a sitting position and prepared an IV drip of a bright red liquid. Christina was grateful to be opposite a window with a view of blue sky. In the closed palm of her hand, she lovingly held one of the rose-colored beads. She felt its smoothness. It had nothing to do with the rest of the beads now. It was beautiful and perfect all on its own.

She closed her eyes and imagined being bathed in the soft glow of its color and felt herself to be looking down from a very high place—a place where she could see everything exactly as it was.

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