November 10, 2006

November Is the Cruelest Month

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Matthew Arnold
Dover Beach

Not to belabor the point, but below is an account of what happened 35 years ago this month. Some things you just don't forget.

The shelter squats at the foot of these solemn blue ridges where the forest, long dominant and ungiving, is now slowly dying. The dirty, white, battered shell that serves as a house is one of many that dot the mountains like wood chips on a rumpled blue-brown-green carpet. It is the last building on the left before the road succumbs to the mud and dies at the edge of the woods. Rough planks and irregular support posts serve as a partial bridge over the nearly omnipresent moat of mud that at this time of year is the front yard. A green tar-paper roof and crumbling red brick chimney only slow the rain water and melting snow. The house was thrown together without insulation and the wind whistles through the white clapboard exterior. The only amenities are electricity and cold running water.

Inside are three rooms with old beds. A living room with a round woodstove, a sagging three cushion floral couch and a torn black chair. Another room has the cooking stove, a table, five chairs and a sink. The sixth room is outside to the left of the front opening, about twenty yards down the path.

It is the day for giving thanks in the bitter winter of 1971. The bleak night blanketed several inches of new snow onto the old froth of mud and snow, temporarily camouflaging the chaos with a cold purity. Dirty, low hanging cotton ball clouds threaten to drop more snow as the green-sweet smell of damp wood trying to burn chokes the air, trapped there by the low clouds and no wind.

The morning sputters in to replace the night. The fading moon illuminates two monstrous oaks anchored in the mud. They branch together, tangled in a headstone arch over the house. The air is chilled and quiet except for patches of snow diving from trees and power lines to meet their grounded companions in a muffled whisper of recognition.

The home. In the sleeping room closest to the left of the living room, a man and woman blow faint mushrooms of visible breath into the frigid air. The woman's unsleep is a thin skin of exhaustion over a churning drum of desperate fear. The stick thin man has slept long and deep in the stupor of disease and alcohol. They have long been partners in dying, like two leeches set upon one another, struggling, fighting, sucking out life and soul but unable or unwilling to pull away.

More mushrooms of breath rise into the air. Three boys in two beds in the one room and two girls sharing a bed in the back coldest room. Their short young lives have been long and desperate. The eldest son is proud and defiant. He hates the father for the sins of the past and for the mire of the present. The oldest sister is proud but not defiant. She has to try to mother while still a child. The Middle Child survives in a world of his own making because he cannot bear the pain of existence. His wall of non-reality keeps too much out and too much in. The youngest son is a wildman straining in the skin of a boy. His wildness is his pain brought forth and hurled back to/at its source. The youngest girl, and smallest sibling, is potent sarcasm. Too small to fight physically, she poisons with words. She is the brunt and the receptacle of the family's anger.

The time. Reluctantly the mother sluggishly slides into her cold, stiffened clothes. The trousers and blouse, coat, gloves and slippers slide on with the familiarity of long acquaintance. Once dressed, the mother ghosts steadily and easily through the tomb-dark house. A menthol non-filter cigarette, ignites a furious fit of coughing. Despite the healthy objection, her lungs greedily suck in the carcinogens.

The fire is nearly dead. She packs the stove full of Kroger bags and dry kindling. Then the now roaring mouth of the stove is crammed with the last of the wood from last night's stacking. The heat from the stove slowly fights off the biting, numbing cold.

The cold. The house and the woman fight the clinging cold and habitually meet the day. Poised on the fulcrum, she balances a delicate act between despair and grief, always tinged by both but not engulfed by either.

The rosy fingertips of dawn. Morning eternal. The time of waning light and strengthening morning, a limbo, a brief eternity between Luna and Sol as the timeless balance pauses between the endless rhythm of the heavens. The ebb and flow of day and night hold for a time and the essence of both is present in a state of calm flux. It is at this time, on this day, that the scythe cuts its inevitable, inescapable arc.

The father's lungs heave in a suffocating panic. Sleep is ripped from his unconsciousness. Through the fury of coughing, a tearing abdominal pain. He rises from the shroud of blankets out of the darkness, through the cloth door and into the warmth. The wife dismisses her cigarette as the husband emerges from the tomb cold room. He gropes through the room fighting for balance, passes through to the kitchen and uses the pot kept there for cold winter nights. The wife waits, hesitant, frightened as he slumps over the pot and nearly falls to the floor. In a motion of pure instinct, with his heart and brain dying from oxygen deprivation, the father lunges upward, back into the living and dying room. Oh my God.

The mother's scream, the essence of her pain, dragged the Middle Child from the panacea of sleep. At the open bedroom door they all witnessed the sight that haunted and scarred, the sight and the moment that defined their existence.

Their father's long, heavy body had fallen unto the mother, pinning her to the couch. His handsome face was horrible and red. Now only a battered shell, emaciated and gaunt outlined through the blood, phlegm, urine, sweat, and nicotine stained pajamas. His eyes and mouth were open, frozen in the last moment of ultimate reality, horrified by the abyss. Scarlet saliva escaped out of the corner of his mouth and left a dark spreading stain on her blouse. The oldest brother ran to the nearest sociable neighbor to phone for the rescue squad. They could only state the obvious and carry the once-father away.

The new day rose and merged with the old horror and grief of desolation and isolation. The noble, limping old gentleman, the ambassador of goodwill, brought a banquet of fresh food from the Salvation Army. He gave thanks, broke bread and brought hope. Then, the night settled again, and was long in lifting its cold hand from the hearts and lives of those who lived at the end of the road.

As the night lies down in the deepest darkness, the snow turns into rain.


King of Peace said...

"They have long been partners in dying, like two leeches set upon one another, struggling, fighting, sucking out life and soul but unable or unwilling to pull away."

Painful to read, yet all of it so well written that I linger on each phrase in story I would rather rush through and be done with. Instead I pause and savor. Thanks for setting this down.



DebD said...

This is part of a larger Akathist for those who have Fallen Alseep. I like it because it is not just for Orthodox people or for those who were even Christian at all:

Kontakon 3:
"We are to blame for the calamities of the world, for the sufferings and dumb creatures, and for the diseases and torments of innocent children, for through the fall of man the beatitude and beauty of all creation has been marred. O Christ our God, greatest of innocent Sufferers! Thou alone canst forgive all. Forgive, then, all and everything, and grant to the world its primordial prosperity, that the living and the dead may rejoice and cry: ALLELUIA.

Ikos 3:
"O Glad Light, Redeemer of the world, embracing the whole universe with Thy love: behold, Thy cry from the cross for Thy enemies is heard: "Father, forgive them." In the name of Thy all-forgiving love we make bold to pray to our Heavenly Father for the eternal repose of Thy enemies and ours. Forgive, O Lord, those who have shed innocent blood, those who have sown our path of life with sorrows, those who have waded to properity through the tears of their neighbors. Condemn not, O Lord, those who persecute us with slander and malice. Repay with mercy those whom we have wronged or offended through ignorance, and grant that our prayer for them may be holy through the sacrament of reconciliation. O Lord of unutterable Love, remember Thy servants who have fallen asleep."

God bless and give you peace.