Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 4

 

 The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Psalms 68:11

      Chapter 4

Two weeks after surgery she climbed the dozen steps to her studio behind the house.  Agonizingly slow in her ascent, she thought of those lumbering Galapagos turtles inching forward onto the beach, big as Volkswagons and wrinkled under scarred, cryptographic shells.  Her staples had been removed, but she was still nervous about tearing open the pink incision scar.

She paused halfway.  The midmorning air was cool and moist from the bay, the sky gessoed with pastel clouds.  She hated feeling old and not herself, as if she had come out of the hospital in someone else's body, with an elderly woman's legs mapped in thick, purple veins, her skin doughy and loose where it used to be firm.  She had awakened to find herself grown unexpectedly old, overnight, it seemed -- under a witch's spell.

In her mind she was still a girl, fresh as a  ripe peach, exhuberant and curious and eager.  She vowed to herself she would begin walking daily to tone up, maybe plot a jogging course, even train for a marathon -- at least the Independence Day 10K along the lake shore -- and become as lithe as when she was in college.  Why not?  She could re-sculpt her body with exercise, commit to improving her diet, drink bottled water.  She had seen women on the Oprah Show who looked fabulous at 60 or 70 by following a strict regimen. 

Her art studio was nestled among northern hardwoods which were just beginning to leaf out with heart-shaped, glossy leaves: sugar maple, beech and dwarf hemlock, a white birch near the door with silvery bark.  She loved the postcard vista from here above the fishing boat-bobbing, emerald water of Ellison Bay, the limestone bluffs, the Cape Cod houses and craft shops and harbor dock.  It reminded her of a Winslow Homer tableau.


She wrestled open two of the storm windows for cross-ventilation. The breeze swirled about like an uncaged spirit, fluttering the handmade papers on the drying racks and scenting the musty workroom with balsam, lavender, and wild apple which had just begin to bud across the hillside..

She surveyed the stacked canvases and shelves of tempra, acrylics, Windsor & Newton tubes, her student easels with half-finished paintings -- a bobcat emerging from foilage, an eagle scooping a fish from a woodland stream, a unicorn drawn by one of  her moody, teenaged girl who never said anything to anyone.  In another week, perhaps, she could resume her Saturday classes.  She offered an adult class and a children's class, but she preferred the children who were generally more teachable.

Her own work, mostly evocative landscapes, with an occasional still life or portrait, she painted on weekdays when no one disturbed her, no phones, faxes, beepers, nothing but the wind sighing through her light-washed aerie.  She was rich in solitude.

She had to sit on a wooden stool, weakened from the climb. The sewn-cover of the book she was making was nicely pressed, the binding glue dry.  She smoothed the pages between her hands, examining the heavy texture of pulped bark fibers, the paper an exotic, mustard color. She had used loomed Malay burlap on the backing boards for a tactile cover, but the paper she had made herself in wooden tubs behind the studio.

She liked its rough feel and planned to make each page unique and iconic with text and graphics, her illuminated daybook she would begin this day, May 16, anno domini.  She took down a calligraphy pen, twisted on an italic nib, and carefully lettered the first page, her title page, The Book of My Life.  She blew lightly on the drying ink.


    She had contemplated this project for some time, an artist's book of miniature watercolors, of musings and journal entries, memories, stray thoughts, a private book she hoped her daughter would discover someday after she had died. Her daughter would think to herself, so this is my mother whom I never really knew.

As a mother she had tried to foster a supportive, open relationship, and for a few years, the elementary school years, they had been close, at least she had thought so.  But by junior high Julie had begun to drift away, to change into someone neither she nor her husband hardly recognized anymore.  And now they seemed more like intimate strangers who bore the same last name, a few physical characteristics and little more..

She turned to the second page and wrote in precise script, Where I Lived and What I Lived For.  With a charcoal pencil, she began to sketch the town against the bay.

 

Three days later she gazed out at the pristine sky and wrote:


Daybook, May 19

The spring orchestra along the path

drew me from my studio this honeygold morning:

the red-headed concertmaster in his treetop perch

hammered for attention, but the unruly musicians

were far into their first movement --

beebalm swung their medieval bells,

trillium, pink sopranos of the woods trilled,

morning glories lifted their delicate scarlet trumpets,

and the columbine, graceful heads downcast, long-tongued,

received vagrant bees into their shaded parlours,

lake iris fiddled their curled stems, yellow lady's slipper

 awaited the prince, the great chorus of spring thistle,

with upswept, pompadored hair and sweet nectar

enticed the butterflies who flitted about like schoolgirls

on the dance floor.  Such a profusion! the woodland wild

with flowers.  Oh my spring beauties in your prom dresses,

coquettish, long-limbed, twirling in the wind, the silver webs

of the grass spider hold their globes of dew to the light,

even the homely girls, the step-sisters, arrayed in green chiffon

and pale taffeta with blue bows, all of them now bend

toward me and curtsey as I pass, regal, this coronation morning,

the May princess, guardian of this buttercup and sweet william realm.

I love you!  I love you! and to you, my lost son,  my twenty-third psalm

today, anniversary of your birth, my tender boy, Jeffrey David Hall,

forgive me, my joy and my sadness.

 

Her husband rearranged his schedule on Monday of the next week so he could drive her down to Green Bay, fifty miles south, to St. Vincent's Hospital for her first chemo treatment.  She read aloud from a brochure so they would know what to expect.


Because of their systemic effects on normal as well as malignant cells, she read, the patient taking chemotherapeutic agents  may experience nausea, vomiting, altered taste, diarrhea and hair loss.

Well, you wanted to lose weight anyway, he quipped   They had previously discussed hair loss, but she hadn't felt like shopping for a wig.  She would crop her hair, if necessary, which was stylish on Vogue models, she told him, but she didn't want a Dolly Parton wig with its puffy, synthetic curls.  It was not her.

Nutritional and electrolyte disturbance is also common, she continued, with irritation of the gastrointestinal tract, further threatening the patient's nutritional and fluid status.  Suppression of the bone marrow and immune system is common and serves as a guide in determining appropriate dosage.  However, this effect also increases the risk of anemia, infection and bleeding disorders.  Therefore, careful monitoring of white blood cell/ platelet count is essential.

I can have blood drawn weekly at our medical clinic,  she said, as he impatiently shot around a slow-moving farm truck on the two-lane highway.  I probably won't need you to drive me.  They hadn't discussed how her treatments would disrupt his business schedule, but she wanted to minimize the vague, nascent tension she felt in the center of her chest.  He hadn't complained yet, not to her, anyway.

When they arrived, the doctor reiterated what she had read in the brochure, but she nodded politely, told him she was ready for anything, and like a compliant, concentration camp patient about to undergo her first experiment, silently removed her clothes and put on the shapeless, beige gown the nurse handed her.  She arranged herself on the padded table, tissue paper crackling underneath, and waited for the intravenous agents to flow along her body's secret passageways  and hunt down the rogue cells and exterminate them.


According to the nurse, who was more loquacious than her doctor, she would be administered an antitumor antibiotic, along with cell-cycle nonspecific hormonals, probably a miniscule combination of antiestrogens and steroids.  And we mix in phenothiazine to reduce nausea and vomiting, she told Ava.  We have the best bartender in the business, she said, smiling so as to put Ava at ease..

She tried to calm herself, but her breathing became rapid and shallow and when the first flush of heat surged through her, she sighed aloud.

You all right, Mrs. Hall?  the nurse asked.

Just a hot flash, she said, squinting against the light.

You're doing fine -- try to relax and take deep breaths..

She inhaled through her mouth and tried to consciously still her revving heart.  This was manageable, she told herself.  I can do this.  In a few minutes it would be over.  And then it was.

Someone wheeled her into the corridor where a rush of cooler air brought her back, alert, and aware of  where the needle had pierced her.  She felt light-headed, as if they had pumped her full of ozone.  The chemo was on its mission, guerilla warfare at the molecular level, incredible, this new technology, she thought.

She experienced only mild nausea on the drive home.  David stopped in Sturgeon Bay for a couple tacos at a fastfood restaurant and the aroma which clung to him when he got back in the car seemed to make her queasy, but she lowered the window and let the air splash against her face as he began to drive again.

Not as bad as you thought, he said, glancing over at her.

How do you know what I thought, she wanted to say, but she swallowed down the words before they formed in her mouth.


The next day Julie came home for a week between the spring and summer semesters.  Her car's backseat was packed with her winter wardrobe.  I need to make room in my closet, she told her mother, who offered to help carry clothes into the house, but Julie said in her annoying and slightly patronizing way, oh, no, no, no, you're still recuperating.

Don't treat me like I'm helpless, Ava said, but to avoid starting an argument in the first five minutes of seeing her daughter, she stood back, out of the way and watched as Julie carried in  several armloads of sweaters, jeans on hangers and in plastic bags, a ski jacket, navy and plum-colored wool blazers, ski boots, a Marshall-Field  bag stuffed with sweatshirts, a suede-and-fur vest she dropped on the ground, more jeans -- clothes her mother had never seen before.  Julie had a part-time job, but her father sent a monthly check to supplement her needs.

Have you lost weight, you look like you've lost weight, Julie said, breathless, after she had flopped the last armload down on her bed.  She stared at her mother in the doorway.  You look a little pale.  This must be really difficult for you.

I'm fine.  And I don't think I've lost weight yet, but thank you for saying so.  Let me phone your father to tell him you're home.

They agreed to meet for dinner at the Swedish Restaurant and Bakery up the coast road.  She wanted to ask Julie about school and her job to avoid the C-subject, but Julie was on the phone for almost an hour to one of her friends who hadn't gone away to college.

David was waiting for them when they arrived at the blue and white, scalloped trimmed,  restaurant popular with locals for its home-style menu. 

Fish boil tonight, Julie, were his first words to her as they embraced, but the hug was stiff and awkward for both of them.  When they were seated and the waitress had delivered glasses of water and menus, David's cel-phone chirped.

I'm sorry, he said, rising from the table. I should have told the office not to phone me.  Be right back, he added over his shoulder.  They watched him go out the door to the parking lot.

I guess some things never change, Julie said.

He's having his best business year ever, which is amazing when you consider the price of real estate.  You can't imagine what people will pay for a run-down bungalow on the water.  And he has a new condominium project underway in Sister Bay, 40 units, right on a 9-hole golf course.  He wants to develop a boutique and gallery on property he owns in Bailey's Harbor, across from the marina.

Really? A gallery?  For my talented mother's work?

He has a client, but maybe she'll take some of my paintings and probably other local artists.  You know I don't like selling my own work.

When David returned they ordered the fish boil, a peninsula speciality, all-you-could-eat bowls of steaming white fish, potatoes and onions cooked in deep pots over an open fire.  After two spoonfuls, Ava felt her appetite drain away.

I've got a new quote for you, David said to Julie.

Are you still working on that book, Dad?

Your mother's not the only creative genius in the family.  Someday when I'm on the Today Show hawking my bestseller, you will wish you had shown me more respect.

Julie feigned a laugh.  The portable?-- 

No, no, he said, interrupting her.  The Quotable Misanthrope.  Quotable, as in quotes.  Try to guess this one.  He took a small, leatherbound notebook out of his pocket.  Okay, you ready?



They had played his game of guess who said this?for years.  David would read a quote -- usually something cynical tinged with irony and overstatement-- and ask them to guess who uttered it.  He assured them he was annotating his collection and would someday publish all 900 pages.

Deep is the world,  And deeper than in the day's thoughts.  Deep is its sorrow--  Pleasure-- deeper still than suffering: Sorrow says: perish!  But every pleasure wants eternity--  wants deep, deep eternity.    He glanced up at them, expectant.

Julie closed her eyes, pained, and with mock solemnity said, that's very. . . very. . . deep.

You like it?

I agree -- it's too deep for me, Ava said.

Give us a hint, Julie said. Is it poetry?

Yes, poetry, he said.  By a German.

Julie turned to consort with her mother.  Name a German poet, mother.

My family was Austrian, Ava replied. Something about his attitude of I know this and you don't always irritated her when they played his game because she and Julie were dunces if they didn't know and he inevitably had to tell them the correct answer and thus he proved again how he was widely read and erudite.  But the truth, she knew, was he simply fished for quirky quotes like others fished for walleye.  He might impress his clients or associates in a cocktail lounge, but she knew why he did this and she refused to play along.

A German poet? Julie asked.  The guy who wrote about the Valkyries?

Wagner? he asked.   

She perked up.  Yes, Wagner.

No, he was a composer.

But he was German.  Okay, okay.  Who else?

Rilke?  Hesse? he said, offering names she shook her head to as if she had never heard of them.  Kurt Weill?  Henrich Himmler?

He grinned at Ava, his goofy, gap-toothed and smug grin.  He wasn't malicious, she thought, just supercilious -- was that the right word?.

Give up?

I guess, Julie said.  I don't know any German poets.

Now that's where you made an incorrect assumption, he said. You assumed the man was a poet.  I only told you he was German. In actuality he was the philosopher Frederich Nietzsche.

Never heard of him, Julie said.

What? Mein Gott!  Nietzsche?  Thus Spake Zarathustra?  What are they teaching you  in college?

I'm a Public Relations major.

You don't study Humanities?  The great ideas of Western man?  The pillars of wisdom?

Let her eat in peace, David.  You know she's an excellent student.

Ava rarely charged in on Julie's behalf, but if she let David launch into one of his homilies he could easily become over-bearing and she didn't want their family time together spent in the midst of this annoying banter.  Because, truth be told, Julie could be just as irritating as David once they got to pecking away at each other.

   Julie tore a slice of dark rye bread in half and took a bite.  I've got a quote for you, she said, chewing, suddenly thoughtful.

You know I'm the master of quotes, David said.  Let's hear it.

Father, father, why hast thou forsaken me?

Jesus on the cross, David replied promptly.

Julie shook her head, then laid her hand melodramatically over her heart.  Nope, she said.   I,  your beloved daughter spoke those words when you refused to help me attend the summer school session in Costa Rica.

Are we back to this again? David said.

But I really need to go. My professor said a summer in Latin America is the best way to become bi-lingual in Spanish.  What have I done that you refuse to help me?

They had pummeled away at each other over Costa Rica during spring break, just before Julie went to Colorado on a ski trip with her sorority.  And obviously the issue was still unsettled in Julie's mind.

We are not categorically opposed to helping you, David said.  But your definition of help is to have your parents pay for the entire trip.  What about your apartment?And utility and phone bills?  And cable bill? They don't magically stop coming.  And those, young lady, are your responsibility.

I hate it when you call me young lady, she snapped back at him. Young lady always squashes me under your thumb.  It means, do what I say!  When are you going to let me grow up and do what I want to do?

They sat in silence for a long moment, uncomfortable at Julie's outburst and expecting  the usual impassioned rebuttal from David.  He, however, turned to his wife and asked softly, if she was not hungry?  You haven't touched your soup.


            His phone went off again before she could reply, an angry insect whine.  He snatched it up and glanced at the dial pad, then switched it off and slid it into his coatpocket.

Julie continued to eat in silence, her face tight with simmering insolence.  Ava now realized that bringing the winter clothes home had been a pretext for her real motive, the summer study trip.  It was worth six semester credits, but was outrageously expensive, not that they couldn't afford to send her.  David, though, could be more stubborn and was unlikely to budge.  He knew and Julie knew that he was holding all the credit cards.  On this matter, there was no direction to move him.  For all his faults as a husband, he had instinctive qualities as a father she found admirable, even if it meant the next couple days Julie would exude a cold, stoic resentment.

 

She went to her studio at sunrise the next morning.  Even the robins which usually fluted about at first light seemed to be sleeping in.  The lingering groundfog made the timbered steps slick.  She cautiously pulled herself upward, chilled and stiff, but grateful for the early silence.  For her dawn was the most productive time of the day.

When she opened the door she was greeted by a gray squirrel who was standing on his hind legs chattering at her.  He spun about, scrambled up and across one of the long tables, then vanished through the hole he had chewed in the window screen. Momentarily startled, Ava went over and surveyed the fist-sized damage.  She never had to deal with an intruder before, other than wasps which spun their intricately combed spheres under her eaves every summer.


He was a brazen, mouthy trespasser, wasn't he, she thought. What had emboldened the squirrel?  He had spent some time gnawing through the metal screening.  Other than her coffee and juice drinks in the small refrigerator, there was no food.  She wondered what he had said -- his  squirrel-speech sounded a little Gaelic, his ratta-tat cadence seemed almost a pronouncement of sorts.  Maybe he was an emissary from the forest world and had come to inform her that anarchy had broken out overnight -- haha, yes, the revolution had begun.  She could now hear the first warblers calling the others to arms.  Mankind would be overthrown in a bloodless coup, and who? who? if not the owls had seized power.  Yes, and what else?  Horses are running free in the streets and dogs and cats everywhere will forsake domestication to escape their drab lives.  She could see tiny paratroopers pinwheeling down from the Linden tree, settling onto her roof.  This May morning was D-Day, and she wouldn't mind at all if the animals seized back the kingdom.  It was not a bad idea, she thought, as she ladled a tablespoon of Kenyan beans into her coffee grinder.  Fanciful, yes, but not a bad idea.

Acres and acres of  untrammeled stretches of Door County were daily being gobbled by developers until you couldn't hike anywhere without stumbling into power poles and cleared forest.  But writing  her environmental polemic would have to wait.  She  intended to finish a canvas she had begun months before of an autumn millpond surrounded by oaks and elms, a berry thicket awash with speckled, airy light, a luminescent scene she carried already finished in her mind..

For her, painting was not creating, but re-creating the emotional texture of a memory, either real or imagined.  Though she had never actually seen the millpond, if she were to ever come upon it at four or five on an October day, it would appear to her exactly as she saw it on her mental easel.  Almost.  She needed to work the background a bit more with her palette knife.

She sipped her coffee in a mug she had made years ago, long since abandoned to the burnt sienna stains of the coffee.  She had fired it with an Oriental glaze, had etched a scrimshaw pattern that reminded her of the waterlillies drifting across her millpond.  What did her work say about her to a careful observer?

Not strictly representational, she borrowed technique from the Impressionists, like Monet's blunt, fragmented brushstrokes, Manet's vibrant images and colors -- what she was attempting to do in her floating tree shadows with French ultramarine and cinnabar and viridian.  She still needed to warm the light with yellow ochre, some raw umber, but she wanted that subtle, translucent, fractured light of Pissaro, Renoir, Van Gogh.  She would never master their skill.

What Julie had said at dinner, about her selling her work in a gallery, made her uneasy.  Her husband had brought up the idea before, bewildered as to why she painted and painted, yet rarely let anyone see her work.  Why all this time spent alone, all these paintings, for what reason, he had asked, almost demanding she justify what she did, an impossibility for someone so right-brained as she.  She hadn't answered at the time, but she had gradually been constructing a rationale.

Because, she would tell him, would tell the both of them, for her to paint was, in her own, imperfect way to validate who she was. . .  no.  That explained nothing.  She still needed to find the right words.

She lightly scraped the canvas, then mixed a daub of yellow ochre with several drops of linseed oil, thinning the paint to the right consistency.  Not satisfied, she added a touch of titanium white and smeared the gruel with her finger.


When she took up the brush, the thought occured to her that she painted because she could impose order into her two-dimensional world in ways she could not in her other life, the real one, which was controlled by all the quotidian details: grocery shopping when she was tired, picking up David's dry cleaning, running to the post office to mail this or that to Julie, cleaning, gardening, teaching her classes. One student, a woman about her age who taught music at the elementary school in Ephraim, remarked once that Ava's was the work of an optimist, always bright and buoyant with idealism.  It seemed an ironic comment now that she thought about it..

 

Daybook, May 25

Dear Mother and Father,

    On this late Sunday, the eve before our Memorial Day of the Dead, under a prismatic sunset, I am here, on this slab of limestone, above the bay which is so placid the water looks like mylar  I'm  thinking of you.  As much as I want, I cannot reconstruct your faces in my thoughts, nor much else about you.  How tragic, when even memory fades.  How sad I cannot recall the sound of your voices which read me to sleep at night, which sang away my fevers, your voices like rain falling in a faraway desert.

How empty I am thinking of you now.    And how have you been, both journeying these long years into the vast, glacial darkness that lies beyond?  Father, when you died in 1976 in Ascuncion, I did not know for months.  I am sorry to have missed your funeral.  I am sorry to have not said goodbye a final time.  That is unfinished between us.

So much I do not know, and now, I cannot ask.  I forgive you, father, for letting us leave.  And I forgive you, mother, for my pain at being seven years old and watching my father, my brother, and the world I had known shrink away on an airport tarmac, that humid October day in 1952.  The air, like water, you could not breath, the insects gave you nightmares, and the secret truth between you and father, what drove you apart, you never told me.


Ten years this June 16, mother, since your departure, your perfect health so perfect except for the one trickle in your heart the doctors could have patched, like duct tape on a garden hose, so simple, if they had known.  If I had known.  All the cuts and scrapes and wounds you kissed away on me, when I was that lonely girl in southeastern Wisconsin so long ago -- I never kissed back.

Forgive my being sentimental.  I know this ache has no place outside my thoughts, but between us, mother and father, my scrapbook parents, if I could place these two, all-too human hands to your faces once more, father's stubbly cheek against my right palm, and mother, your peach-smooth face lightly against my left, I swear to God above, like these raucous gulls, I would burst into flight.

 

Ava went alone to Mount of Olives Cemetery early the next morning before the Memorial Day pilgrims brought their silk floral arrangements and plastic roses, before they would reminisce in quiet voices over the marble headstones.  She didn't want to share the manicured grounds with anyone except the birds and squirrels.

An attendant placing small American flags on the veterans' graves was the only other living person among the community of several thousand.  Nineteenth century residents slumbered under their grass-roofed plots alongside infants and war heroes, victims of the smallpox and influenza plagues of 1918, whole families laid side by side, discussing eternity, she thought.  And here, she thought, here as she approached her son's grave, was laid into this rich soil, the little, three-year-old body in a purple velvet-lined casket.  She could not stiffle the impluse to speak aloud.

Another year come and gone, sweet child, another year.  I've brought you fresh picked wildflowers.  They'll wither before midday, but now they smell fresh and sticky with sap -- see, it's still on my hands.

She set the glass vase on the gray monument and swept away cut-grass stems with her hand.


A year gone past, a long, frigid winter this last one.  I wrote a letter to your grandparents last night, but I'm sure you know them better than I do now.  Say hello from me.

What can I tell you of this world?  What news?    I'm fearful, Jeffrey.  I'm afraid to die. You must know that about the living, our fear of what lies ahead.  But I'm weary of this life.  I'm tired and sad, more and more.  You were my joy, sometimes my only joy.  I feel so distant from your father amd I don't know what happened or why.  I don't.  I really don't.  And now this ache inside has metastasized.  I think I have been dying a long time.  So if my voice quavers a little, you'll understand.

God, I hate to be so melancholy this radiant morning.  Let's change the subject.

She knelt down to rearrange the flowers.   I've dreamed about you all grown up, taller than me, your sweet, almond eyes like chocolate drops, your laugh still infectuous.  By now you've graduated from college and have become an architect -- we knew that from your knack with Leggo blocks -- and now you're dropping off your firstborn, a toddler, with a moppet of dark hair, so you can take your lovely wife off to Chamber's Island and rekindle the romance you think will never die when you're twenty-three.  I'm sorry.  That makes me even more melancholy.

She sighed and brushed her hair back from her face.  Several cars had entered the cemetery, cruising slowly, as if sightseeing.  Her eyes were watery.  The sun was cresting a stand of pine trees, causing her to blink against the blinding glare.

Well, I'd better go, she said with resignation. Your sister is home, a rare occasion, and I promised her blueberry pancakes for breakfast.  So for now, my little man, sleep with the angels.

On the way home, she wished she could have cried for some relief, but she didn't.

 


That evening, with Julie and her father gone for frozen yoghurt and the house so quiet she felt uneasy, she put on an Ella Fitzgerald CD.

The first song was a Gershwin favorite of hers, "Someone to Watch Over Me," vintage Ella, rich as Cappucino.  The resonant orchestration filled the living room.


            There's a somebody I'm longing to see,

I hope that he turns out to be 

someone who'll watch over me.