Along with children from my hospital-education days decades ago, whom I think and dream about routinely, three souls visit me most in my COVID-somnia. Two of them died years ago, another is in a coma. One is a dog. Instead of trying to figure out why they keep showing up or what their visits ‘mean,’ I try to fall back asleep. Since this doesn’t work, I swing my legs out of bed, and make coffee with one light on. I find myself checking work emails. They appear throughout the night during my deans’ various COVID-somnias. I know this is counter-productive in an especially counter-productive Era. Still, in my sleep-deprivation I let the caffeine and work take a sinuous edge off the anxiety over my sleep-deprivation. All three visitors will circle overhead and land again. One, the dog, is especially welcome.
My dog didn’t start out my dog. Caddy was nine years old by the time I met her, at my now-ex’s mother’s house. A mostly cocker-spaniel who retained her puppy facial features, she could leap over thick fallen logs with longer-than-cocker legs. Caddy Compson, named after a Faulkner character who “smells like trees” in a book titled from a speech in Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Soon after we met, Bob’s mother died and Caddy became ours, for almost nine more years. And since he worked out of town for months at a time, she and I pair-bonded, a surprise intimate for the other in mid-life.
Sometimes now when I wake up in a sweat, Caddy is trapped in a life-endangering crisis and I’m unable to save her. Sometimes she just wants to go to the woods with me, and I struggle to convey that I can’t take her because she’s dead. I wake up wondering why I didn’t just take her to the woods, since it was my own dream. Sometimes I watch her try to figure out my dancing (why does she do that? what is Mary’s problem?) in the living room. Or seize the moment when she realizes I have a secret restaurant bite stashed in a napkin in my pocket. Or remember how, whenever I would cover her small head with my hand, she’d fall – almost instantly – asleep.
Caddy was my first dog. When she died in 2007, I couldn’t imagine my heartbreak would let me bond with another one - one I’d leave alone all day. Commuting to work means 12-15 hours out of my house, and dog-walkers are out of my budget. When my campus closed in March, I thought ‘wouldn’t having a dog these days be great, for both of us.’ But I wasn’t sure when this telework would end and I’d have to leave that dog for 12-15 hours a day. Like everyone, I can’t see a timeline forward, a point where anything could ‘go back to before’ -- an illusion anyway. My night visitors aren’t from ‘before’ but my right-now psyche, when it tries to declutter its 2020 overload overnight. Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But it is, sir, and isn’t, at the same time. The past reorients, moment by present moment, as we live forward. An active Slinky, more than a flat loop of memory. Growing up, we kids would try to make a Slinky go up the stairs; it might climb one or two, but then loop around and take itself down.
Just shy of her 18th birthday, with a new diagnosis of lung cancer and inside a realm of dementia, Caddy made clear the very day she was ready to move on. Increasing shortness of breath after a leisurely, interested morning walk. Although Bob and I had split up by then, we gathered, gasped along with her, sobbed through a call to her lifelong vet. Dr. Lemke held the glass doors open as I carried Caddy through. She said, “Oh, she’s agonal breathing.” I stopped and asked, “What does that mean?” I’d heard only ‘agony.’
Her doc took a breath. “She’s trying to die.”
She’s trying to die. The greatest gift of phrasing possible. Okay got it.
We headed straight back through the animal hospital to a surgical table. My hand covered her small head, and Bob’s hand covered her curly-haired side, and we watched her suffering ease, then evaporate. Another great gift, to have been present. Spared the agony of knowing a loved one is suffering -- even trying to die -- without being able to visit, maybe in a COVID ward, like friends of mine. Several friends’ mothers have died from the virus in nursing homes or ICUs, after weeks or months without their family’s presence. One of my med-students attends all our virtual sessions with his 3-month-old infant in his arms. His wife is infected and quarantined, so he’s both a med-student and sole parent right now.
Via Zoom, I tell my amazing, overwhelmed staff at the end of each week, “Thank you. Please be kind to yourselves. None of this is easy.” We all sit there for a moment, feeling the uneasy, but at least together.
Sometimes I’m awakened with thoughts of my friend T., who had been working for me. She’s also a fellow union member. We followed Steve Carrell down some stairs in “Evan Almighty,” texted while I sat in my car as Angelina Jolie (well, her stunt-double) rode a motorcycle around me in “Salt.” T. works as a standardized/ trained patient for the curricula we now deliver by Zoom. She always jumps in first at O-dark-hundred to ask, “what can I do?” and there’s always something to do. In bits and pieces over the years, T. shared that her mother died suddenly when she (T.) was young, while she (T.’s mother) was at a party. A brain hemorrhage, if memory served. “Way to make the party, Mom,” she would joke. She indicated over time that she expected to die young, like her mother. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” she’d say, when I asked about her chronic insomnia. “Don’t make me get health insurance!” she insisted, when the Affordable Care Act took hold. T. refused to get insurance on some kind of principle. “What if you have an emergency, T., get hit by a car or something?” She’d shrug a shoulder and say, “Then they’ll just have to take care of me.” Whoever ‘they’ were I wasn’t sure. T. had also been clear that she was estranged from her family.
How our national culture fails, in support of health-care (not just very-sick-care) for everyone, and other essential dignities, like child-care for parents who work -- or go to med-school. (Why do we do that? What is our country’s problem?) “They,” nurses, doctors, MAs, are taking care of her, we trust, in Queens, New York. Took us a while to figure out what was happening.
T. hadn’t shown up for a Zoom training and med-student event, back in late-June. So unlike her. She wasn’t returning messages. Soon our colleagues at local med-schools asked if we’d heard from her. Eventually we learned: in the ICU, intubated, couldn’t talk. Although estranged, her family (by default) were in charge of communicating her status. And they were not communicating, even to T.’s closest friends. We didn’t know if her hospitalization was COVID-related. Most assumed so. New York had just begun a down-slide on its case graph. I didn’t want to assume, thinking of her mother’s sudden death. But one never knew, did one, these COVID-somnia days?
In late July I woke up before sunrise again thinking about T. A mutual friend had just managed to learn of her ‘brain damage.’ T. had had a brain aneurysm, like her mother, but hadn’t died. So, she hadn’t been alone … someone helped her get emergent care? From my bed a loud sound intruded from the street: mechanical, insistent, obnoxious. I didn’t get up to investigate. Would she talk again, be able to work again? Just bits and pieces, nuggets from friends who breached the estranged fortress. What does her ‘brain damage’ imply, when she has no advanced directive – thinking she would die suddenly? Maybe she talked to her closest friends, about how she would want to live, or try to die.
Could she hear? The last to go, they say. Should I send a card to the hospital with a note on the outside, “please read aloud to my friend, someone, please? thank you!” No idea where my stamps were hiding, even though my cottage is very small. I used to know things like where are the stamps, about my own house.
I remembered how to make coffee.
Tree-cutters, okay, making the noise. Right across the street. A giant oak that dropped limbs and nuts all night long. (This, according to the house’s former renters, now ensconced in their own townhouse and just in time, mid-March. I miss them.) A nerve-slaying chipper and chainsaw assault. Giant tree about to chunk to the ground, beyond my kitchen-sink window. The window is two yards from my Zoom tele-office (kitchen table). I should mention that whenever I see a tree being cut, even on TV, I feel a sharp pain across my own mid-section. Physical pain in my stomach. I can’t explain. This is not nothing, happening right across the street, barely daylight.
Soon, as each segment falls along its rope-line, I can see some cross-cuts. The wood looks alive and well. Oaks can live for hundreds of years. Don’t they shed lower limbs as natural acts of growth? My gut, cut through, tells me this giant was not trying to die. Just happens to live where houses, fences, sheds, decks, curbs, and cars intruded. I haven’t heard about sweeping, insistent infections like Dutch Elm disease, which decimated so many trees during my childhood in the Mid-west.
The third of my COVID-recurrent visitors, my MFA-program friend Jim, had been a tree-cutter in Michigan when I was a child in Chicago. A rough surgeon for Dutch Elm disease in young adulthood, Jim had swung high in the trees with the task of cutting them down to prevent further spread. (Their excision did not, in the end, spare other elms. Seems we have to relearn, recurringly, how the tiniest microbiota conduct their ancient exchanges without regard for us.) A short-story Jim wrote about that heightened, tree-borne time in his life [Dancing Ducks and Talking Anus - James Ferry] landed in the “1982 Best American Short Stories” anthology. I didn’t know about this achievement until after Jim died in 1999. He was a person who’d never mention such a win, even to his friends. Only after reading some of his later, unpublished writing did I understand he felt somewhat embarrassed he’d never again approached that early success. His very first, and only, published story made the Best of its year.
As a classmate and friend, Jim was my best reader and asker-of-questions – a kind editor. Most of the year we all lived and worked wherever we lived and worked, and only traveled to Montpelier, Vermont for intensive residencies in July and January. By email we recommended books, exchanged story drafts, watched some of the same shows, sent our writing packets off to our advisors. Jim, our friend Bryan, and I, for reasons inexplicable, were a fast trio from the start.
From Michigan, Jim addressed me as “Scully.” From Maryland I called him “Mulder.” Some of you will understand those references. He wanted to hear every detail from my on-set adventures as a recurring morgue-tech on “Homicide: Life on the Street” and other DC- or Baltimore-based film productions. He wanted to know the difference between the finished film and the protracted, populated production process, the long story behind the screening. That’s what interested me most about the work as well – watching the makers, especially the directors, writers and camera folk. He would have loved to hear about the set for “Hannibal” or “National Treasure” or “Minority Report.” (He would have laughed at the outrageously upswept and lacquered hairdo the crew gave all of us women in a climactic ballroom scene.) He’d want to stand with me, a few yards from Mr. Spielberg, when he knew he had a scene in one take -- and could move on. Other directors kept shooting twenty, twenty-five more takes, likely knowing they already had the one they needed. He said, “Cut, print. Moving on!” Happy. Playful. Dead serious. An artist.
Jim encouraged me to write more than email blasts about adventures on-set. (“How not to kill Martin Sheen as a (not really) Secret Service Driver on Pennsylvania Ave” when I kept almost killing Martin Sheen, driving in reverse ‘back to one’ over and over.) “Send some of this stuff out (to lit-mags) Scully.”
I’m sure I took a tree-cutting friend for granted, without ever knowing he’d swung through an elm canopy with a chainsaw. Although he died over 20 years ago – almost impossible – I can hear him kicking my ass to write more, do more of my art, music, step off a 12- to 15-hour work grind that pays less than local median-income and has convinced me I can’t rescue a dog. He would mean it, and be dogged about it.
Man up high, belted to a tree across the street, carving another wedge through a thick tree’s rings. Men below, pulling another hunk down with an audible, window-rattling thud. A neighbor just texted me “you feel that?!”
After our first of two years in the MFA program, Jim was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and took a leave of absence. He was already a full-time care-giver to his elderly mother, now challenged with his own pain and immobilities. He told me he felt even more isolated and trapped. When Bryan and I graduated in summer ’98, Jim still had a year to go. He made it back to Montpelier for the next winter residency. Email had gotten easier on-campus, and he sent daily soup reports from the cafeteria, run by NECI, a culinary institute. (“Butternut squash, your favorite, right?” We’d always eaten well.) He said almost all our classmates were gone, he knew mostly faculty. “What’s the day-rate for SAG extras, since no one will know me at graduation next summer?” I promised I’d make it up in July, no charge. My friend. I missed him. Bryan missed him.
Then something felt wrong, not hearing from him for almost two days. When my land-line rang, my gut said, “That’s Bryan. About Jim.” Just a known, unthought.
I checked myself – Why would I go so dark? What was my problem? – then answered the phone.
Bryan. Yes. Jim had died in his dorm room the day before. A brain aneurysm. He’d gotten a headache before lunch and gone straight to his room, where he put his head down at his desk. He’d tried to read a book by his new advisor, Bret, whose earlier novel Oprah had just chosen for her book-club; that call came the same day Jim died. (This, Bret told me later; by email we grieved our friend.) The school was in trauma. Bryan said, “I’m so sorry, Mary, I know you were friends.” We three were friends. I told him somehow I knew he was bringing this news, the second the phone rang. “And I know this wasn’t an easy call, Bryan. I’m glad it came from you.” During the previous winter residency, Bryan and his wife Jennifer had given birth to their oldest, Nathan, on my birthday. “We’re glad to have a child and all, but we’re really happy for you. You’re twins!” I still laugh, and get teary-eyed, about that. Nathan is halfway through college now. Probably via Zoom now. The past is past, while it isn’t.
My gut had known to go dark. Sometimes that happens, some knowing-beforehand, the future leaping out ahead of itself from somehow inside me, then landing true in the present. I try to trust the fore-knowns, and they’re not always dark.
As a kid, sometimes I would marry the coiled ends of a Slinky into a circular tube. Touching it, even lightly, would send vibrations around the whole. If I left it like that on a wooden floor, my own footsteps could cause it to start singing, chinging, ringing, almost in a whisper, long after I’d forgotten about it.
Decades later, Jim still pokes my shoulder, still reminds me I haven’t read the John McPhee opus he once mentioned. I still want to tell him about good books he has to read. Still regret we never got to talk about “Six Feet Under,” which premiered after he died. Or “The Wire.” For the season two finale, I landed the role of Mrs. Sobotka, the dockworker leader’s wife -- which scene landed on the cutting-room floor. Jim would have loved that show, and gotten a kick out of my scene with Pablo Schreiber, while hanging laundry in the backyard (zoned out on Percocet, according to ‘my son’ Ziggy). He would have been pissed that my scene was cut. But I agreed with the edit, both for pacing and since the scene belonged to Nick, ‘my nephew.’ Anyway I still want to tell Jim things, and this summer, to talk about the levels of strangeness, the churling leaf-and-dust devils all around our usual uncertainty.
T., who’d been with me on some of these sets, had survived the brain event that killed Jim. What now, when she hadn’t seemed to anticipate that possibility? Recently we heard, “doubt she will ever work again.” My rest-light brain wakes up wondering about her, wanting to reach her. And my little woodsy girl, Caddy Compson, leaper over fallen trees, gone but never gone from me. She was my first, my most, my intimate, my companion, my child, my sister, my bond. My touchstone, still. And, the reason I stayed with a man who was not right for me, for too long.
I wake up nights. Or take three hours to fall asleep. Full confession, it’s nothing new. As a child I shared a bedroom with two of my sisters. I would hear them snoring softly and wonder, “why am I not asleep yet? What is my problem?” I don’t remember thinking about particular things, worrying specifically. In a crowded house, maybe it was meaningful to me to have some waking moments alone. But I’d wish I could fall asleep just as fast. Then I’d wonder if, when I rolled over on my pillow in my sleep, I would crush my guardian angel. I’d been assured she hovered just behind my shoulder at all times, keeping me safe. The idea of rolling over on her was horrifying enough – asleep, I couldn’t keep her safe -- but also – without her – how would I be safe? Might as well stay awake and safe. My angel and I were small. I still remember feeling little, with heavy tree-trunk legs all around, a random and restless obstacle course.
Of all the kids I knew as a hospital teacher-aide in Charlottesville, VA, over summers in college and beyond, petite Claire has always visited me the most. I spent maybe one hour in her waif-like presence. Many other kids I knew over several years, watched them stretch from age 12 to 16, or 6 to 10 – giant leaps. But Claire.
An unexpected visitor on a Friday afternoon when I was cleaning up one of the classrooms, all other students gone. Jane, one of the special-ed teachers, asked, “could you spend some time with this girl while I talk to her mom?” Of course! My favorite job, one-on-one time with a kid. I was out of college by then but had no clue what path lay ahead. Thought I might take my guitar back to London and Paris, to play in the Tube / Metro stations. On PEOPLExpress airlines, you could get across the pond much cheaper than visiting a brother in San Diego. (Took my guitar the following fall. People threw money at me. Even people whose having pockets surprised me, like nuns.)
Meanwhile I had much to do:
Hold babies without innate reflexes, while they were assessed … run a summer-school unit on Our National Parks … sing or talk about my weekend to a child in a coma, strapped into a high-backed wheelchair, so an educator could catch up on paperwork … help a child with spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, spinal-cord injury, burns, or infectious disease keep up with their homework or a level of Reading … offer a choice: “clamp or toes?” to an 8-year-old who’d fallen into a corn auger and lost one, mangled arm to amputation while we waited weeks for his other arm, surgically reattached, to ‘take.’ (He would always pick toes, just stick out his foot for me to place the crayon or chalk. But I always gave him the choice; I figured he didn’t have many other choices to make. The boy I called Opie – red-haired, freckle-faced, actually from North Carolina – drew pictures with his feet better than most drew with their hands.) All powerful and meaningful and profoundly memorable small souls and poignant work. And, I was expected to ‘progress’ with a Master’s in Special Ed, but wasn’t sure about that path. Already I would be paying off my B.A. in English for years. Already I couldn’t afford a car for years. Already I felt like throwing up when someone said I had to buy a ‘good suit’ and ‘nice pair of pumps’ to get a ‘good job.’ Yet I’d learned – urged by Tom, another teacher, to check – that I made $8/month too much to qualify for food stamps. My path would wander; my favorite geophysical feature had always been the ‘meandering stream’ and I understood that was part of who I was. Meanwhile, I had the true privilege of asking “clamp or toes?” and of wiping ropes of drool as I leaned in to listen to a child born with cerebral palsy, of meeting an unexpected Friday-afternoon visitor.
Claire was a 10-year-old in a flowered hat shaped like a tulip. She stood, somewhat pale and uncertain, at the doorway with her mother and Jane. “Hi, Claire,” I called. “Come on in.” Almost weightless, she moved obediently toward the round table I was wiping down. A shy one. “My name’s Mary. I’m so glad you’re here. Should we sit down?” Claire nodded. “What do you like to do – draw, color, read out loud?” She didn’t think very long. “I like math.”
I pretended to fall over, out of my chair, my tongue lolling out. “Ma-ath!” I barely heard her giggle. On the bookshelf I found a book of math problems, and we had at it. “You’ll help me, okay?” I said. She nodded, even smiled. This girl was so, well, sweet, and content to figure out number questions. So capable, confident. She knew who she was. I just. Took to her. The hour went fast.
Her mother appeared with Jane at the doorway. “Did you have fun, honey?” Claire nodded quickly and turned around with a quiet grin as she floated to the door. I said, “Thanks for helping me with math today, Claire. See you Monday!”
At that, she stopped and looked at me with the most curious expression. I could not read it. What in the world did that face mean? The trio left and I finished cleaning up, but wondered about that look all weekend. On Sunday evening my roommates and I watched “60 Minutes.” One story featured a retired Navy mathematician named Grace Hopper, a pioneer in computer language, who found a literal “bug” in the system and taped the insect to her journals. I knew a certain 10-year-old who might like to hear about a famous lady who also loved math.
On Monday morning the classroom filled with in-house grade-schoolers, but I didn’t see her. In the teachers’ office I found Jane and asked, “Where’s Claire today?” Often a child would be off getting imaging or some other test.
“Oh, oh my gosh. Mary. Shut the door.”
I shut the door.
Jane took a breath. “Claire died over the weekend.” What?
I shook my head. “What are you saying?”
Jane explained that Claire had stomach cancer, “a tumor the size of a grapefruit.” Since they hadn’t been able to do more for her at Main, the docs suggested they come over to our rehab-center, to give her something to do. She hadn’t been expected to live much longer.
I couldn’t believe the girl I’d sat with, doing math problems quickly and with pleasure, had any-sized tumor in her stomach. And what on God’s green Earth would possibly benefit from a young girl getting stomach cancer?
“Couldn’t they cut it out?” I asked.
Jane just looked at me, unable to say more herself.
“But, you didn’t tell me. Even after they left! I can’t believe it. How come you didn’t tell me?”
“I’m sorry. I was focused on her mother, and then, I left early. We went to the beach.”
Okay, Claire’s mother. That, I understood. How would her mother get through today? What on Earth.
For much of that Monday I still felt resentful toward Jane, like she’d somehow tricked me. By the end of the day, I realized that decision (if it had been one) was better. Since I didn’t know this little girl was living her final hours, I talked to her like any other kid under our roof, whose ‘something-wrong-by-birth-disease-or-trauma-up-to-age-21’ had never intercepted my interest in who they were. We found something she liked to do, lived a bit of life alongside at a wooden table. A fun hour, working through – playing with -- reliable math. I felt grateful I hadn’t known she was dying. Otherwise I’m sure I would have betrayed some level of pity or sadness – the opposite of what Claire needed for a single blessed hour, late in life.
That look she gave me when I said, “See you Monday!” Oh, my. Even if she hadn’t been told explicitly about her condition, the child knew, from inside. She knew she would not see me Monday, because she would no longer be alive Monday. Claire, with inoperable, grapefruit-sized cancer in her tummy, had felt sorry and sad for me. I hadn’t understood the situation. She couldn’t explain from the doorway there. But I finally understood her deep known, that dear little face under a tulip-shaped hat.
Her death was only sudden to me. Now, in late-summer of 2020, I’m still grateful for not knowing beforehand. Most of the kids there made it home, to a newly configured life; many would return periodically. There was no premise or promise of ‘going back to how your life was before.’ Not only absurd, but how cruel that concept would have been for those with progressive-degenerative illnesses. That same summer, whenever the teachers left the schoolroom in my charge, kids would ask each other “why are you here?” or “how come you in a wheelchair?” (“’cause I can’t walk” … “you used to could walk” … “I know.”) Cruel for any of them, whose presence in that Center meant something had already changed. Everyone there, including a young teacher-aide, something in-between the under-21 patients and the special-ed Masters, was there to help them be who they might be right now, and going forward, with the past both past and alongside. I don’t Google the ones whose full names I remember. Medicine progresses, as does technology. How wonderful it would have been for ___ to have a ‘unicorn’ stick on a device that helped him communicate? I can hardly bear the lack of those sticks, back then, now.
I wonder about T. again, still unconscious. What her life will be like, going forward. What her chances of talking again might be, much less working. But I can find some damn stamps in my own small house. Mail something off and live with the uncertainty that a care-provider in Queens might ever read my care for her, to her. Such uncertainty, the rings of life itself.
I don’t know what our country, our planet, my overlapping communities, including future doctors, will be like even one month from now. Never did. Ironically, I can appreciate that reminder. Just last night, after writing about these visitors, I slept well.
Woke up stretching my legs straight up in the air. Noticed my legs moving across my bedroom, in the reflection of a mirror I’d never noticed could see me, in bed. I can wake up and welcome whatever time I have with these visitors (and others) at night, making their point that they’re never really gone; they’re all grown into me, like bark that accommodates a strike of lightning. They can hover behind my shoulder and I won’t kill them while I sleep. Grateful, grateful, grateful for the web of souls I’m part of, whatever our states of being.
Across the street, the oak tree came down in less than two hours, while my “now-normal” workday wheeled. My yard and its vegetables and flowers are covered in sawdust. After just one good rain, more morning light will be a joy. I’m looking forward to what might be able to grow, that couldn’t, before.
Please be kind to yourselves, all who gather in this Center. This isn’t easy. With gratitude to be among you,
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The analogy of a slinky. The writing itself. The author not only describes our very present relationship to the past; she proves it. Her writing helps us sense our non-linear relationship with time—aka death-and with those swept up before us by the Big Clock. There’s a ton of clarity in all that jumping around. Being in-the-moment does not necessarily mean forgetting. Later in the essay, she describes herself like tree bark, into which her past is woven. All language is suspect, including words like ; none of the author’s dead or dying friends is lost to her.
“She’s trying to die.” The author points out how instructive this phrase is. I’ve used it many times with patients, and it always seems to land. Most of us presume that dying is bad/wrong/undesired, but the truth is that bodies—and sometimes the people inhabiting them—are ready to die, even want to die, and, at the very least, are programmed to do so. Sometimes the best response is to assist in this vital process, or at least get out its way. What sounds impolite or unethical might actually be one of the most loving things we can do for each other.
The recurring motif of brain aneurysm. Any one illness or condition can play out in all sorts of ways. It seems obvious, but we should say that out loud. As the character, T, makes clear, assuming anything of the future is perilous, whatever our past experiences.
Caddy Compson. Dogs. Oh my, don’t get me started. Let’s just say that humans don’t have a lock on wonderfulness. They are more complex than many humans give them credit for; and many humans are simpler than they give themselves credit for. In truth, bonds formed with animals deserve all weight and reverence. Really, anything does. We humans need connections outside ourselves. Period. But, those connections don’t have to be with other humans.
-BJ Miller, MD