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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Living in the Nut House

by Richard Ault

For five weeks last winter, I walked a half mile each morning from the "nut house" to my cancer treatments.

Munson Manor sits at the border of the campus of the Munson Medical Center and the old Michigan State Mental Hospital campus in Traverse City. When the mental hospital officially closed down in 1989, after years of slow decline, it was designated an historic site and preservation efforts resulted in what is currently known as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Munson Manor, now a gracious "guest house" for hospital outpatients and their families, was originally just plain "Building 27", built in 1903 for female mental patients.

Although we live only about an hour away, what with the vagaries of a Michigan winter and the potential for hazardous driving, my wife Pennie and I decided we would rather remain near the hospital for the five weeks of my chemo/radiation treatments and chose to stay at the Manor House.

Traverse City is the heart of one of the most beautiful regions on the planet, situated in northwest lower Michigan at the base of Grand Traverse Bay off Lake Michigan and surrounded by beautiful inland lakes and idyllic towns and villages—a tourist mecca and increasingly a magnet for retirees. Among these retirees, my wife Pennie and I live nearby on pristine Torch Lake. However, as a kid growing up in the 1940s about three hours south in Saginaw, I and most of my friends knew Traverse City simply as the "nut house." As the location of one of the three state "mental asylums," it was where they sent the crazy people. "You should be in Traverse," was an insult we used when one of us said or did something we thought a little wacky.
But that was just the beginning of my long experience with this place.

As an undergraduate at Central Michigan University in the late fifties, I was a double major in English and Psychology, taking a class in Abnormal Psych as a junior and Clinical Psych as a senior. Each year the combined classes took the two-hour bus trip from our Mt. Pleasant campus to the mental hospital in Traverse. We first met in a large conference room and were introduced to a few of the "milder" neurotic patients, who were interviewed by hospital staff and then took questions from our group—sometimes fascinating but fairly tame stuff for the most part. But then came the real horrors of the place. We toured some of the most disturbed wards and witnessed firsthand every form of psychoses imaginable—a scene reminiscent of the infamous Bedlam asylum in London. My gut churned. My mind swam. I concluded that I would rather be dead that suffer serious mental disease.

And then came my dad.

Several years after those field trips, my mother and father, both in their late sixties, were stricken with serious cases of the flu and had to be hospitalized in Saginaw. My mother emerged without further issues. But not my dad. Mentally he was completely fried and put in the Saginaw County Home. Soon I received a call in Kalamazoo, where I was living at the time, from my brother Chuck to come to the Saginaw facility for a "family meeting." We never had "family meetings", so I knew it was serious.

It was the first I had seen Dad since before his bout with the flu and it was awful. He was completely incontinent, wearing diapers, and hallucinating. We, his five sons, were told he was violent and uncontrollable and would not be allowed to stay there. He had never received a formal diagnosis to explain his condition.  The five of us discussed his options. My four older brothers carried most of the conversation, not a surprise as I look back now given that I was ten years younger than my next closest brother. Finally, we voted reluctantly but unanimously that the State Mental Hospital in Traverse City was our only option. Though my brain was flooded with the haunting scenes I had witnessed there as an undergraduate, I fully respected and agreed with my brothers' conclusions.

I only got up from Kalamazoo to visit Dad twice. The first time I rode from Saginaw to Traverse with my oldest brother Jack. We sat with Dad briefly in his ward, a scene much like I had seen in my previous student field trips—scary but perhaps not quite so extreme—or maybe I was just witnessing the place through less innocent eyes. Jack then arranged for us to take Dad out for a short car ride. Along the way, we stopped for ice cream cones and then parked to enjoy them near a beach with a nice view of East Grand Traverse Bay. Dad was in the passenger seat while I was in the back. Jack—who was so much better at this sort of thing than I was—tried to engage Dad in conversation about old times, old relatives, and other normally familiar themes. Dad seldom said anything, and when he did, his comments were not very responsive. Then suddenly he opened the car door and tried to take off. We got him back in the car but the ride was over. Back to the mental hospital.

The second and last time I saw my father, Pennie (my wife to be) and I drove up from
Kalamazoo for the weekend. On Saturday, I met my brother Jim and his wife Arlene at the hospital and the three of us sat with Dad on an enclosed porch adjacent to his ward. I remember little of what we talked about except that several times he complained that someone had been hurting him physically, maybe an orderly. Given his state of mind, we did not know whether to believe him or not. How could we know—he was crazy after all. At one point, out of the blue, he got up from his chair and stood over me. He stared down with a menacing glare as though ready to punch me. Did he take me for his tormentor? Although I had been on the receiving end of his anger more than once as I grew up and remained afraid of him at that moment, I didn't flinch. I stared back directly into his hate-filled eyes. Thankfully, he backed off and returned to his chair. We took no action on his complaints about physical

The weekend was salvaged when on Sunday I took Pennie for a drive around Torch Lake. She fell in love with the shades of turquoise on Torch that day, and though it would take years to make it happen, we had found our future home. Soon after our Traverse visit Pennie and I were married and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where about a year later we received the call that my dad had died.

My niece, Connie Ault Kinnaman, has become a passionate family historian, our own genealogist. She made the unfortunate discovery that it was not just my father who died from an extreme case of dementia, but so too did my great grandfather, my grandfather, and a grand uncle, all at the Traverse City State Mental Hospital. In those days, the disease was most often known as senility or hardening of the arteries. We can’t know  for sure if it was Alzheimer's. As knowledge about the disease has advanced in more recent history, however, we do now know that three of my four brothers were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, as well as three cousins from my dad's side of the family.

While only a small percentage of Alzheimer's cases are thought to be genetic, with my family history I am not comforted by those odds. Until my very recent journey with cancer, the Alzheimer's specter loomed as my only serious health concern as I have aged. I was known to boast that I was the youngest seventy-nine- year old on the planet—at least that I felt that way, leading an active life with no frequent aging issues such as heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure.

Despite my claims to good health and fitness, though, I have had a long, rather unfriendly, relationship with my gut, routinely suffering heartburn before new medications virtually eliminated that problem. However, I continued to have frequent night time bouts of acid reflux. That led me some years ago to get an endoscopy, which revealed that I had a condition known as "Barrett's esophagus," in which the lining of the esophagus changes to tissue which is more like the lining of the intestine. About ten percent of us with chronic GERD symptoms develop Barrrett's, and, while it does increase the chances of developing esophageal cancer, my doctors assured me that less than one percent of people with Barrett's esophagus develop esophageal adenocarcinoma.

Nevertheless, I continued to get regular routine endoscopies every three years with no signs of cancer. Until, that is, in November 2015, when my doctor found a tumor near the juncture of my esophagus and my stomach—esophageal adenocarcinoma. So much for those odds. As my doctor attempted to inform me what I now faced by way of a treatment plan, I could scarcely hear, let alone understand, what he was telling me. My brain and my stomach were swirling. The good news was that the cancer was diagnosed early, before I had experienced any of the usual symptoms such as difficulty in swallowing or unintended rapid weight loss.

The first thing I did when I got home was call Max. Dr. Max Wicha was the founding Director of the University of Michigan Cancer Center and is now Director Emeritus. He and his wife Sheila were once our summer neighbors on Torch Lake, owning the cottage next to ours. Max, a world-renowned authority on breast cancer, is also one of the nicest guys I know, and I have long said that, heaven forbid, if I or anyone close to me would ever develop cancer, Max would be the first person I would call. And I did. He told me that their center had one of the best esophageal cancer groups in the country, headed by Dr. Susan Urba. The next day, I received a call from Dr. Urba, a most informative but gently reassuring call. She arranged for me to meet the next week with her and a surgeon, Dr. Rishindra Reddy, to discuss my options.

On December 29, 2015, after a few weeks of tests and further consultations, I had all but the top inch or two of my esophagus removed by Dr. Reddy at the University of Michigan. The procedure also involved stretching and pulling my stomach up to my neck to be reattached to the little bit of remaining esophagus, permanently and radically changing the way I must eat. The surgery was a success and we "celebrated" by spending New Year’s recovering in the hospital. As is standard practice, seven days later I was given a barium swallow test to determine if there were any leaks in the new attachments. I passed with flying colors. No leaks. Normally that would mean hospital discharge and going home the next day; however, the surgical team that appeared at my bedside early each morning noticed that the dressing on my neck incision showed more dampness than they were happy with, a likely indication of some minor leakage. They tried to find a leak by observing me take a drink of grape juice or water each of the next three mornings. No leak. Then, on my soft food diet, one morning I had some yogurt and soft slices of mandarin oranges. When I followed that by drinking some water, my incision let loose and I began to spray through and around my cervical dressing. When I asked Dr. Reddy how it was that I developed a leak despite passing the barium swallow test, he told me it happened about five percent of the time. Those were the odds.

The good news was at least they had determined what the situation was. The bad news was that I had to go home with a feeding tube, able to take nothing in by mouth. Pennie was quickly trained on how to change the dressing twice per day and to provide my medications and nutrition through the tube. We went home the next day with an IV pole and pumps and boxes full of my "formula." In a few weeks, my untrained but loving nurse Pennie got me through. The incision leak healed, and we were ready to move on to the next stage: chemo/radiation at the new Cowell Family Cancer Center at Munson hospital in Traverse City. Just prior to starting chemo I was given a new CAT scan, which showed that I had no signs of cancer anywhere—no lymph nodes, and no other organs. We celebrated by going out for pancakes.

Soon I began five weeks of treatments—chemo each Monday and radiation Monday through Friday of each week. I feared the worst based on stories I had heard about the possible side effects of those treatments. Why, I asked my medical advisors, if my tests showed no cancer, should I go through such an onerous ordeal? Their answer? To increase the odds—the odds of being and remaining cancer free based on probabilities from statistical studies.

So, for five weeks, five days a week, through March and early April 2016, I walked the half mile from Munson Manor to the new Cancer Center across the street from the Munson Hospital: radiation at 8:30 Monday through Friday and a chemo infusion on Mondays.

Thus, I found myself back in the nut house. That is, each of five Sunday evenings we voluntarily checked-in to the old "Building 27", now rechristened Munson Manor, until the following Friday. We slept there and ate our daily breakfasts and other meals there. Beth and Char, the day and night managers respectively, and the rest of the staff could not have been more gracious, professional, and accommodating. The elegant furnishings and quiet halls created a restful atmosphere perfect for patients' families. Because we all fixed our meals in the same kitchen and ate in the same dining room, and because the only televisions were in the public lounge on each floor, we met and got to know other guests.

Richard, with colon cancer, and Bill, with rectal cancer, were there, like me, for chemo and radiation treatments. Women with husbands and men with wives who were in for back or colon surgery. Two new mom's whose premature babies were still in the hospital, breast pumps sitting in the hallway outside their rooms so that they could continue to nourish their little ones. Another mom whose full-term baby was still in the hospital because he was born with pneumonia. Then there was the family of a teenage girl, a high school senior, who was brain injured when, worn out from her day in school and her full-time job, she fell asleep at the wheel of her car and crashed into a tree. Part of her frontal lobe had been removed to relieve pressure and she was put into an induced coma. After a few days, she was taken out of the coma briefly each day and her mother told us how exciting it was the day her daughter first squeezed her hand. The family could not afford the thirty dollars per night to stay long term at Munson Manor, and we and other guests quietly helped them financially as much as we could. The girl's young sister proudly told us how she enlisted several churches in their small town in offering prayers for her big sister.

Each morning I walked from the Manor to the beautiful new cancer center, and, because it was still winter in March and early April, most days I took the short cut through the hospital. As I walked the long main hall, I always mindfully noted the painting at its end—a portrait of James Decker Munson, the first superintendent of the "Northern Michigan Asylum" from 1885 to 1924. He also donated, in 1915, a boarding house to be used as a community hospital, now grown into the regional Munson Medical Center. Every day but Monday, I showed up a few minutes before my 8:30 a.m. radiation appointment. I was in and out in five minutes or so, free for the rest of the day. On Mondays, I hung around for the next few hours for my weekly chemo infusion with Tina, my pretty, funny, and caring infusion nurse. I was usually finished by about noon when Pennie and I went out for lunch. No signs of nausea. No other side effects. Not so lucky to get cancer in the first place, I was, despite my worst fears, very lucky with my treatments.

Each afternoon I took a mile or two walk around the grounds of what once was the asylum, now The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

My first time back at that place after my father's death was several years ago when Pennie and I tried out Trattoria Stella, then a relatively new upscale Italian restaurant in the old Building 50, which was the central building of the old mental hospital and, which is still called Building 50 in its current incarnation. The restaurant is in a lower level, almost like a rathskeller, in what was once the place where they did lobotomies. As we walked from the parking lot to the restaurant, I looked up at the tall windows of the old building, the one I visited in my undergrad psych class days and the one in which I'm quite sure my father died. My mind was haunted by the horrors I had seen there and what had happened there. My stomach churned all over again. I told Pennie I wasn't sure I could eat at all. But I did. And it was good. Since then, Stella has become one of our go-to spots for special occasion dinners such as birthdays and anniversaries.  

In 2008, I took Pennie to Building 50 for her foot doctor appointment and, as I sat in the waiting room, I tried to stream Tiger Woods in the Monday play-off for the US Open that he won playing on one leg. Building 50 these days also houses the Mercato shops, art galleries, and other offices. We have been to Traverse City Film Festival parties there, on the lawn, in the building, and under large party tents. There is also a yoga studio, a bakery, and other eateries. Nearby buildings have been renovated and made into upscale apartments and assisted living facilities. New buildings have sprung up.

Obviously, my feelings about the place have eased. As I went through those five weeks of treatments and daily walks around those grounds, I consciously tried to look at those buildings through a new lens. Epictetus may have said if first—"It is not what happens to you, but how your react to it that matters," but today that bit of wisdom is even shared by football coaches and golf pros. I decided I would try to put a new, less- haunted frame on my vision: this was no longer Bedlam but a setting for growth, for renewal, for living. Sad to say, I was only partially successful in my reframing.

For me, when I looked up at the Disney-like spires, I still often saw the past. Looking up at those tall windows in which the bars have been replaced by mullions, I still often saw the bars. Despite all the best efforts at transformation I frankly still found it a bit creepy. I will grant renewal—important enough in itself—but not transformation.

The same might be said of me, of course. My life has been changed by cancer, by the drastic reconfiguration of my digestive tract resulting in a radical change in my eating habits that will last the rest of my life. All observable evidence shows that I am now cancer free. For five weeks, we treated a disease we no longer knew I even had. I had now done everything that I could do, my doctors did everything they can do, and together we did everything that medical science says we should have done to ensure that I am and will remain cancer free for life. But there are no guarantees—despite the odds.

So, things are different for me. I must adjust, they say, to "a new normal." But am I, myself, different? I am grateful, of course, that I no longer have cancer, grateful that I am still alive. I am grateful for the doctors and nurses and technicians who provided such superb professional care. On the other hand, I was already mindfully grateful for my life before any of this happened—for my family and friends, for a creative and meaningful work life, for all the fun and satisfaction I have experienced along the way. It was not new for me that I am in love with life—not just my life but with life itself—with the very idea of life. I want stay around to continue to savor life in all of its manifestations as long as I can. I am grateful that my recent journey will enable me to do that for a while longer.

But am I transformed? Not really, I think. Will I, as I know I should, live each day to its fullest? Probably not. Will I spend more time than a sane man should practicing my golf game against all odds of improvement? Probably. Will I waste too much time on Facebook and watching television? Likely. As I try to savor the present moment, I drag all of my past along with me, for better and for worse. The same might be said of the The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Perhaps transformation is just the wrong metaphor. A better notion might be "transition" or "a work in progress." We, these old grounds and my old self, are not what we were and we are not what we are going to be. We don't even know what that is. Buddha taught that all is impermanence.

So, I find myself with a strange, almost ineffable connection with this old place. I also find it a hopeful one. We are both changing for the better, I hope. We are both, in a way, healing. Nearing the end of my chemo treatments, while sitting in my infusion chair, I read an old Time magazine cover story, "The Alzheimer's Pill: A Radical New Drug Could Change Old Age." Maybe Alzheimer's itself will not be with us permanently. This much I know: unlike some of those of my lineage, I was not "sent to Traverse" to die. I went there so that I could go on living

I lost track of Richard, the colon cancer patient I came to know at Munson Manor, but I have spoken by phone a few times with Bill: his rectal cancer is gone but he must wear both colostomy and urinary bags for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, he expressed happiness that he is cancer free. All the babies who were hospitalized came through healthy and well. The high school senior with the brain damage graduated with her class in June.

One May morning about a month after all my treatments were over and I was feeling fully recovered from my winter's troubled journey, I took my place in "easy seat" on my yoga mat to begin my regular class. Without a thought, without a moment's warning, I began to tear up. It snuck up on me from just below the surface. Pure emotion. Pure sensation. No words attached in that instant, but as the moment passed I realized it was some combination of joy and relief.

I was still alive, and what a wondrous thing that is.

Richard Ault has been a participant-observer in the practice of changing the culture of large organizational systems for most of his working life. Previously he was a teacher and principal at the secondary school level and taught both undergraduate and graduate level courses at the university level. He was principal author of a book on change management called What Works and has published articles, poetry, and short fiction. Consistent with his life's passion for change, he is currently working on a novel about reinventing our political and governance systems. He and his wife Pennie live on Torch Lake in northern lower Michigan. Dick is convinced that he is the youngest eighty-year old, minus an esophagus, on the planet.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Witch

by Miriam Mandel Levi

The only other person I knew who feared darkness as I did, was my grandfather. He grew up in a village in Lithuania where ghosts, draped in prayer shawls, prayed upside down in the synagogue and invited unsuspecting boys to join their minyan, while others in the study hall rattled the windows on winter nights.
For me, nights brought the witch. She would tap on my window pane with her long, curled nail, her tattered black cape flapping in the moonlight. Where her eyes should have been were black-holed sockets. Her teeth, she had three, were pointed and razor sharp. I trembled under my ruffled yellow bedspread. As her silhouette loomed larger and larger, I would leap from my bed and sprint headlong through the darkness to my parents’ room. There I crawled between their sleeping forms on the wire-veined electric blanket, safe. Too soon though, my father would awake. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he would say, “There’s no such thing as witches,” and he would carry me back to my room.
My grandfather braved the darkness every night on his way home from cheder. “We started out in a pack, lit up with lanterns,” he told me, in Yiddish- accented English. The autumn sun lit the sky amber, and my grandfather and I walked side by side, crunching leaves with our boots. “One by one, though, my friends dropped off to their houses, until I was left alone.” Then he whispered, “I ran past the cemetery as fast as my legs would carry me, so the demons wouldn’t get me.” He pulled me to his thick wool coat, as if to reassure me, or perhaps himself.  
“Were there witches?” I asked.
“No witches,” he replied, “Poles.”
After World War One, Ulkenik fell under Polish control. The Poles rode through the village on horses, shooting in the air and robbing its inhabitants. They caught young Jewish boys and put them to work, cutting and hauling wood in the bush, from which they never returned. “They killed Jews on the streets … for nothing,” my grandfather said, his lips curling in revulsion.  I tugged his gloved hand with my mitt and he turned to me.
“But those bad people aren’t in Ottawa, right?”
“Right,” he said, and the warm breath of his words met the warm breath of mine in a white cloud.

  I spent many weekends playing with cousins in my grandparents’ basement amidst several frightening relics. There were musty old books, a broken gramophone, and an out-of-tune upright piano with several broken keys. But the scariest item was a painting. In the painting was a large pile of rubble, as if moments earlier the buildings which stood in that place had collapsed. In the midst of the wreckage stood a woman in a tattered dress, holding a cinder block over her head. Years later, I discovered that the painting was a depiction of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. As a child, though, all I saw was a woman’s desperation, for she had lost all she had. She told me, in a parched, cracked voice, that any life could turn to rubble like hers, and I thought of how much I stood to lose. She was the only reminder in my everyday life of the six million about whom I learned at Hillel Academy.
Every spring on Holocaust Remembrance Day the pupils of Hillel Academy gathered in the basement of the school and sat cross-legged on the cold cement floor. A white canvas screen, perched on spindly tripod legs, stood in the far corner. Silent black and white movies, with jumpy, snowy footage, flashed across the screen, recalling a world of evil and devastation that somehow spared our families and us. Nazis in impeccable uniforms taunted Jews; Jewish families huddled together with battered suitcases; children with big yellow stars and frightened faces stared out at us. We sat, hands in our laps, in uncomprehending silence. Then we filed back to our classrooms for the spelling bee and hot spaghetti lunch. None of my teachers explained what hardships the people in the movie had faced. No one reassured me that whatever happened to them would not happen to me one day.
          I tried to make sense of it. They had old, gray clothes. I had a fluffy white muff to keep my hands warm in winter. They were hungry. I had pancakes with maple syrup. They had nothing. I had tickets to the Ice Capades. Nobody I knew got sick or died or was murdered. Nobody I knew was angry or sad. I only knew one mean person and that was my principal, Mr. Heilman, who even at his most vexed would not likely have killed me.

When I was nine, though, someone I knew was singled out by the witch’s long, curled nail, for misfortune.
Uncle Hymie, my father’s uncle, had his left forearm amputated. When he came for dinner one evening, on a rare visit from London, I saw how the shirt sleeve, where his arm should have been, was pressed flat, its cuff fastened with a safety pin.
“What happened to his arm?” I asked my mother in the kitchen.
“An accident,” she answered, placing a row of salad plates along the counter.
“What kind of accident?” I asked in a loud whisper.
She didn’t answer.
“What does his arm look like?”
“Like yours, but without the part from the elbow down.” She placed a lettuce leaf and piece of fish on each plate.
“Where is his arm?”
“What arm?”
“The missing arm,” I said too loudly.
“Sshh,” she said swiveling to hand me two plates. “Can you put these on the table?”
 As I sat across from Uncle Hymie at dinner, I imagined the empty space beneath his shirt, his knobby elbow, and the missing arm strewn somewhere in a field where I might come across it one day while picking dandelions. At that prospect, I bolted upstairs to my room, sat on the floor next to the door, hugged my knees, and pressed my ear to the wood. “Miriam,” my mother called, “Will you be coming down to join us?”
Uncle Hymie, the black and white Holocaust Jews, the woman in the rubble, and the witch peopled my darkness. Each of them told me, in a different way, that I wasn’t safe. Not really.

          If I were a child today, someone might have explained to me just how Uncle Hymie came to lose his arm, and reassure me that he managed just fine without it. I doubt I’d be exposed to Holocaust movies in primary school. But, if I had asked a question about the woman in the rubble, I would have learned that bad things happened during the war and that she was brave and resilient and that, remarkably, so was I. My parents would have been counseled to acknowledge my fear and talk about it because when fears are not addressed, they grow out of all proportion. My fear of the dark might have even merited a diagnosis, nyctophobia. I would have liked that word.
          I don’t blame anyone. It was commonplace for parents in the Sixties to believe that they could shield their children from misfortune. The world was a safer place. Ottawa, in particular, was a provincial city with virtually no violent crime. Nobody had to “street proof” me to be wary of strangers. Strangers carried my bike home when I got a flat tire and returned my lost balls from their yards. If there was upheaval in the world at large—war, revolution—I didn’t know it. Terrorist attacks and natural disasters didn’t flash across my T.V. screen. My safety depended on Elmer the Elephant, who told me to look both ways before I crossed the street, “Use your eyes, use your ears, and then you use your feet.”

          As an adolescent, I pretended to be brave. With my heart in my mouth, I went down to the basement alone to get the laundry, then took the steps three at a time on my way back up. I watched movie thrillers squinting between my index and middle finger. But my fears would not relent. In fact, the more time passed, the more I felt time was running out, that at some point God would catch on that, in doling out misfortune, He had overlooked me. Then, realizing his omission, he’d send me packing to the darkest, dankest place He could find.
He hasn't yet. Over the past twenty-four years, I've mothered three children with all the hair-raising experiences involved in parenting. I have lived in Israel, with war and terrorism. I’ve lain in bed wondering where, on this dark night, my sons in the I.D.F. are patrolling. Surely, my red badge of courage is long overdue. And yet, after all these years, I’m still scared. I can’t shake the thought that at any turn, I might come across Uncle Hymie’s arm in a field.
There is, perhaps, one difference between the scared of then and the scared of now. Today, my fear makes me hold things dear: reading side by side in bed with my husband, our heads touching on the shared pillow; hearing my eighty-two year old father’s enthusiastic voice on the phone when I call Canada, “Sheila, quick, pick up the phone, it’s Mir;” dancing wildly in the living room with my daughter to “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls, spinning and gyrating and laughing; coming across an unforgettable sentence in a book: “the tender light of the moon, when it hung like an eyelash and the tree trunks shone like bones.”; the chirping of the swallows in the trees at sunset; a bowl of French onion soup.
On a recent trip to Prague, I bought a hand-painted wood marionette. Of the hundreds of marionettes hanging from the ceiling and walls of the workshop—kings, queens, jesters, maidens, goblins, and wizards—I chose a witch. When I brought her home and hung her in the living room, my children protested, “She’s ugly … she’s creepy." With her sunken black eyes, jagged chin, and bony sharp-nailed fingers, she is indeed.
The witch watches from her post on the wall. Sometimes I meet her glare head on and a chill runs up my spine, but most of the time, I pay her little heed. I know she’s wreaking havoc out there.
 For many years I had hoped the witch tapping at the window would take flight. Instead, I’ve let her in. We've struck an uneasy alliance.

Miriam Mandel Levi's essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction's anthology, Same Time Next Week, Brain Child, Literary Mama, Under the Sun, Poetica, Sleet and Tablet. She lives in Israel.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Furry Felonies

Furry Felonies
by Atticus Benight

          During my first year in AA baseball, the team’s marketing director, Rob, beckoned me into his office just after the start of a game. His shelves were lined with limited edition memorabilia—bobble heads, signed balls, and souvenir bats—all products of his tenure with the organization. On the opposite wall, life-sized posters hung depicting some of the team’s most promising prospects from the past several years—Kenny Baugh and Max St. Pierre.
          I occupied a corner stool, the only seat capable of accommodating my tail. As he closed the door, he lowered himself into the vinyl office chair across his desk. He scooted close to the desk and leaned in. As he did so, I noticed an odd resemblance to a young Mickey Rooney—round face topped with red hair, and a lip full of tobacco.
          “I need a straight answer,” he began with a minty tone of mock sinistry. “What are you willing to do for this club? Any limitations, tell me know.”
          “Depends on what you had in mind,” I answered with a hint of hesitation.
          “Well,” Rob continued. “Would you be willing to ‘apprehend’ a few of our competitors—put them out of commission ahead of this next road trip? You know—get the bad juju going for their team?”
          “You’re suggesting?”
          “Kidnapping,” Rob said. “More precisely—kidnapping Steamer and Diesel Dawg.”
          Comprehension dawning at last, I nodded. After considerable thought, I did what any self-respecting employee might do when their boss asked them to commit a felony—I asked for an advance.
          “I’ll need rope, perhaps some duct tape, a couple of burlap bags—I mean, you gotta have head bags,” I said ticking off my grocery list of abduction supplies, as if I had done this before. “Oh, and gas. I’ll need gas.”
          “Gas?” Rob raised an eyebrow.
          “For the drive,” I said, “and maybe fire. Mostly for the drive though.”

A few days later, I found myself outside of the Blair County Ballpark in Altoona, PA, lugging an oversized blue and purple bag through the crowd gathering at the front gates and into the stadium. Along the way, plastered all over the ticket windows, front gates, and support columns were wanted posters from the Altoona Police Department. According to the brief narrative, a six-foot tall wolf had accosted two of the most “beloved” mascots in minor league baseball over the prior weekend, and that Steamer and Diesel Dawg had not been seen around the ballpark since. One local television studio claimed to have the “treacherous crime” on video, and a few television screens near the concessions were looping the grainy footage of two over-sized, awkward—perhaps drunken—Muppet-like creatures, bumbling around the empty parking lot. Then, from out of nowhere, a white van screams into view and a fuzzy, gray, four-fingered paw hoists them inside and speeds away. The prime suspect of it all—the diabolical, sinister, no-good mascot— C. Wolf.
Little did I know that at a news conference earlier that day a young boy named Conner was recruited to get to the bottom of this “crime.” He was declared a special deputy of the Altoona Police Department and presented his badge, but the Chief of Police was at a loss. No resources that they possessed would be a match for an anthropomorphic six-foot-tall, baseball-playing wolf. But then, as though called into action by hopeless circumstance, the blue and yellow Power Rangers arrived to provide backup. Conner donned the red ranger’s jumpsuit and mask, and was charged by the Chief of Police to lead a special investigation to pursue and capture the diabolical fugitive known only as C. Wolf.
I was later briefed on these facts by a mole that we had positioned within the front office of the Altoona Curve—named Zee. She was a slender, sexy woman, with long twisted blonde hair and smelled perpetually of peppermint—the top mint aroma in my opinion.
“In something like this,” Zee began with a Cheshire grin that exposed every one of her white teeth, “there are no rules. Your goal is to evade—until the 7th inning. Then, you’re needed here.”
She opened a map and indicated a small area behind the outfield wall.
“That’s where we’ll stash Steamer and Diesel Dawg. There’s a trap door there that you can come through—we usually send a dancer out onto the field when there’s a homerun. Anyway, you’ll go through there, and the Power Rangers will be on your heels.”
I accepted my instructions and thanked Zee. In return, she pulled me in tight for what I found to be an invigorating embrace.
“You’re really great for doing this,” Zee said.
“Ah, it’s nothing,” I told her.
“No, no,” Zee insisted, unwilling to relinquish her hug—not that I was complaining. “You’re a real hero.”
“Well, thanks,” I answered as she released her grip on me.
I gathered my gear and breezed past her, through a sea of cubicles, and into a meeting room where I slipped more easily into character. When I emerged from the room, Zee brushed up against me and offered two half pats, half gropes on either side of my tail, punctuated by a subtle squeeze.
“You know,” Zee said, “I don’t often get the chance to meet another wolf.”
“Oh,” she said. “I thought Rob told you. I’m a wolf too—deep—deep down.”
After several moments, Zee revealed that she was a furry. She was self-described wolf and considered that her primary criteria for selecting a potential mate. If you were not a wolf, she would not be interested. Half curious, half frightened, I stepped from the office, slid on the giant wolf head, and readied myself for what I imagined would be the most hostile crowd I would ever face.
          When I first emerged onto the concourse, the jeers that I had expected did not materialize. In fact, children were lining up waiting their turn for a high five or a hug. One little girl, three-years old with blonde curls and wearing a t-shirt with Steamer on it, even beckoned me to bend down, and she kissed the eye patch over C. Wolf’s left eye—the one that legend says was knocked out by a rogue foul ball hit by Jose Guillen back in 1995—before the decision was made to install a higher and wider net as a backstop behind home plate.
          “Boo boo all better?” she asked in a voice that could melt any heart. I nodded.
          Before the game, I ran about the stadium—occupying random seats, offering a handspring or two in the infield, and harassing anyone who crossed my path in an Altoona Curve baseball cap or jersey.  After all, with Steamer and Diesel Dawg incapacitated, this was my house, regardless of what any of the wanted posters might imply. Even my team was wearing their home whites, while the Curve sported dingy gray uniforms. Oddly enough, the sentiment that this was my house seemed to be echoed by the fans themselves. The more I taunted, jeered, and harassed them, the more they cheered.
          Finally, when the game was about to begin, I sought refuge in the bouncy houses along the first base line as Conner and the two Mighty Morphin Power Rangers took to the third base dugout. As someone who grew up with the first generation Power Rangers, something immediately seemed off. There was a long ponytail flowing from beneath the blue ranger’s helmet, and the spandex costume was stretched to the max, barely accommodating the form of what was clearly a rather hippy, full-breasted, plus-sized woman. The uniform of the yellow ranger was similarly taxed to its limits, but with a very different, husky beer-bellied form. The stitches, straps, and buttons of bib-overalls were clearly visible through the thin yellow fabric—even at this distance. Perhaps Billy and Trini (the original blue and yellow rangers) had each undergone hormone therapy, or maybe they had mixed up their power coins before teleporting to the Blair County Ballpark. In either case, I could not help but think that post Power Ranger fame must have been really unkind.
          After the crowd was informed of the kidnapping of Steamer and Diesel Dawg, Conner and the other rangers began their pursuit. I remembered Zee’s instructions—to evade until the 7th inning, so I did just that. I bounced with a few kids in the bouncy house with a giant likeness of Steamer on top of it. That is until I saw the blue and yellow rangers enter the kid zone. Immediately I hopped out, waggled my fingers at the tip of my long, wolfy snout, and sprinted toward the fence just as a final out was made and the outfielders began trotting into their dugout. I leapt the fence, and ran to my team’s dugout where the “power punks” could not follow. It was as if I was Goldar, and the dugout was Rita Repulsa’s moon base. Once there, the rangers would not—or perhaps could not—pursue.
          I hunkered down there for a bit, until I noticed one of the players exit the stadium through a door in the dugout. At Jerry Uht Park, my home stadium, there were no doors. The clubhouse was located in the Erie Civic Center, and getting there involved a long walk across the outfield. But here, a door in the back of the dugout led to a network of concrete hallways. It was getting hot, and I needed a break, so I followed this player through the door, removed my head, and ambled through the underbelly of the stadium.
          Eventually I stumbled upon the laundry and sat in there for a few moments chatting up one of the grounds crew while guzzling a Gatorade. Just then, a yellow body flashed in front of an open door and I saw my nemesis sneaking down the hallway, glancing side-to-side. Luckily, he hadn’t looked up and didn’t see me, headless, straight ahead. I tossed the giant head back onto my shoulders and ran in toward the open door and slipped behind it, pinning myself in the corner against the wall.
          Conner entered the laundry, two drenched, foul-smelling power rangers slinking along behind him. The member of grounds crew that I had been speaking with started to grin. Just as they cleared the doorway, I slipped out and backed into the hallway. I made an exaggerated tiptoeing motion, as if I were a cartoon rabbit evading the hunter by walking in his own footprints. At that point, the grounds crewman lost all composure and I rounded the corner to a booming laugh.
          The ballgame progressed quickly and before I knew it, I was called behind the outfield wall. By the time I arrived, members of the front office staff were already wrapping clothesline around Steamer and Diesel Dawg and positioning them next to a large box that contained the transformer that powered the score board. With a boost from Zee, I scurried up on top and struck a menacing pose.
          When Conner came into view, he made a bee line straight for my prisoners and began unwrapping the rope from around their chests. Just then the other Rangers noticed me.
          “Look out,” one of them shouted
          Conner assumed a karate-like pose just as cheers erupted inside the stadium from the final out. I looked down at Zee, who was poised at a small hatch in the outfield wall. That was my cue to take the battle onto the field so that the fans could witness the conclusion. I jumped down on the far side of the transformer and waited for Conner to catch up to me. He grabbed me by the arm and flung me through the hatch and I tumbled onto the outfield just as a convoy of police cars roared onto the warning track through a gate in right field—lights flashing, sirens wailing.
          From out of nowhere, Conner emerged with a giant dog catcher’s net and he flung it over my head, knocking me to the ground. As I fell, I felt my foot connect with something and when I looked down, to my horror, it was Conner. I had just kicked the Make-A-Wish kid. For a long moment my heart plummeted and I wondered if we had taken this thing too far, but when he finally rolled back to his feet, he struck another pose for the audience, two police officers lifted me up and tossed me into the back of an SUV. The door slammed behind me.
          I removed my head and stared out of the tinted glass as this convoy began moving once more. Conner was in one of the patrol units, waiving at the crowd, and Steamer and Diesel Dawg bobbled on the back of a golf cart, finally free after a weekend of “torment.” The convoy rolled out of the stadium and onto a narrow service road that connected with the parking lot. One of the police officers opened the rear hatch and I replaced my head for the last time that day.
          When I rolled out, Conner was waiting and I knelt beside him. He stared at me with serious look on his face.
          “I love you C. Wolf,” he said. “But you’re a bad doggy.”
          The police officer grabbed one of my arms and locked a pair of handcuffs around my wrist. With my free arm, I covered C. Wolf’s eye and cowered in the most pitiful position I could. Conner motioned toward Steamer and Diesel Dawg, still poised, smiling unblinkingly on their golf cart.
          “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said with a pirate-like growl.
          Conner looked up at the policeman and said “It’s ok, he’s sorry. You can let him go.”
          “Are you sure,” the officer said. “We can run him downtown.”
          “No, he learned his lesson.”
          And with that, the police officer removed my cuff and I knelt down to offer Conner a long hug of appreciation.
          This was Conner’s wish. He suffered from a seizure disorder—though I can’t recall specifically what it was—and the Make-A-Wish Foundation offered him the chance to live out his dream of fighting crime with the Power Rangers. As I left the ballpark that day, Conner, Steamer, Diesel Dawg, and a few of the police officers were riding up the white hill of the wooden roller coaster that over looked Blair County Ballpark. I watched them teeter over the crest and rattle their way along the rickety track. And that was the last I ever saw of him. Though I think of him often, I never learned what happened to him. I’d like to picture him as a teenager now, sitting atop the Appalachian foothills in central Pennsylvania, wondering occasionally who I was—the man who played a wolf one afternoon so he could have a childhood dream come true. Perhaps he’ll read this account of that day and think to himself—“Hey, I think that’s me,” and maybe, just maybe, he’ll kick his five-year old self for wasting his wish on me.

Atticus Benight is an emerging “undercover writer of words.” His creative works have appeared most recently in The MacGuffin and Sediments Literary-Arts Journal. A native of western Pennsylvania, Atticus currently lives and writes near St. Paul, MN. You may connect with him @AtticusBenight via Twitter or Facebook. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017


by Amy Kathleen Ryan

I was on the subway. It was Sunday evening, but the train was crowded. A family got on at Union Square. The woman was tall and heavy, with an open face and thick russet hair. She had round trusting eyes. She had her little boy sit in the empty seat next to me while she sat across the aisle. Her little girl, in a stroller, she arranged in front of her knees, while her portly husband stood over them all, in the center of the aisle where he could see everyone. I made eye contact with the woman and asked if she would like to switch seats with me so that she could sit next to her little boy. She smiled and shook her head no, that wasn't necessary, thank you.
I felt trusted.
I rode a few stops with the family, and I watched the little girl. She had her mother's round eyes and lovely pale tan skin. I stole glances at the little boy. He was so small, and I felt quite large sitting next to him. He was such a little person, complete unto himself.
Again, I made eye contact with the mother and smiled at her. In New York, you do not smile at the children themselves, you smile at the parents to give them the intended compliment. Your children are beautiful. She smiled back at me. Thank you.
I had the impulse to tell her something very personal. I wanted to tell her, "I lost my baby two months ago. It died inside of me, and I'll never know why." Of course I said nothing.
The train stopped at Graham Avenue, and I got off. I didn't look back at them.

It's a tired cliché, but it really does feel like a miracle. Suddenly your body kicks into a state unlike any you've known before. You're so tired, and your breasts get huge, and you're starving all the time. Your hair gets thicker and your skin oilier. Sometimes you want to be left alone, but sometimes you want your mate so much you can't wait to tear his clothes off. You're angry one moment, crying the next, and by supper you're laughing wildly at a Seinfeld episode you've seen five times already.
Through it all you're so happy. You surf the internet for baby names, and cribs, and you learn new words like 'layette' and 'areola.' You know you shouldn't, but you tell your father because he made you promise. And he's so happy when you tell him, it becomes like a drug. You tell your mother, and her voice hits a register you hadn't heard since you were a little girl. You need another fix so you tell your best friend, and then your other best friend. Suddenly you're walking up to other pregnant women and saying things like, "Do you ever feel cramps in your lower abdomen?" and you point to the side, just near your hip-bone, and they roll their eyes and they say, "Just wait. It gets worse." And you both pretend to be tired of the nastier symptoms, but the truth is every new ache makes you a little happier because every day you're getting closer to your baby.

For our first prenatal visit I was nervous. My doctor, a warm Italian woman with a ready smile squinted at the monitor as she moved the wand over my stomach. "This screen is so…" she muttered.
I didn't watch the screen. I watched her face. If there was something wrong, I knew her face would tell me, and then I wouldn't have to hear it out loud. I looked at my husband, whose brown eyes were trained on the screen. He was trying not to show how nervous he was, but I could feel his hand sweating as he held mine. I tried to smile at him, but then my doctor said, "Ah! There it is! Just what we want to see!"
She pointed at a tiny moving dot on the screen. Just a tiny little fluttering motion. The heart.
Rich and I stared.
I'd imagined this moment so many times. I thought we'd laugh, or cry, or both. But we didn't. We didn't move; we just stared. We were perfectly quiet. We were in awe.

I had a lot of rules.
Don't buy any clothes for the baby until after the second prenatal appointment.
If you feel tired, just lie down. It's not a race.
Only one small cup of coffee a day.
Don't care about the acne. Just ignore it. It doesn't matter.
Don't buy any maternity clothes until you absolutely need them.
Only buy unisex clothes so the second baby can have hand-me-downs.
Work out four times a week. Labor is like a marathon, after all.
Don't talk about baby names with anyone.
Don't worry about things you can't control.
Enjoy this.

I imagined this child at different ages, all different ways.
If I imagined a teenager, it was a girl. She had glossy brown hair and long legs. She was rebellious, but I didn't worry too much because she had a good head on her shoulders. She loved me, but she thought I was boring. If she only knew.
If I imagined a toddler, it was always a boy. He and I played in the backyard of the house we would buy. First, I'd roll the ball at him until he felt confident enough, and then we'd toss the ball back and forth. When he fell down, he'd get right back up. He was a solemn child, and thoughtful, but he was happy.
If I imagined a baby, she was a girl again. I imagined how she'd feel in my arms, soft and pliant, so warm. She'd lay her head on my breast as she slept, and I'd curl my hand under her leg to make sure I didn't drop her. Her steady breathing would be my favorite sound in the world.

I finally understood the women who would say, "I loved being pregnant." Before, I had always found this puzzling because the process seemed so miserable. Stretch marks and flatulence, morning sickness, mood swings, weight gain, exhaustion—what's to love?
Now I know. What they love is the state of mind. Something happens to your hormones, and suddenly life becomes simpler. After decades of insomnia, you sleep like a rock. You have beautiful dreams about swimming with whales. You don't worry, not even about the baby. You're suddenly the even keel, steady person you've always wanted to be. And you're happy. Life takes on a new sheen, and things make sense. It's a difficult world, and there's violence and terrible problems, but life is beautiful. It really is.

We went on a hike in Connecticut in a little state park that we enjoy. It's full of trees and growing things. The air smells green and florid. I was very tired, but I wanted to keep going. I wanted to get to the top. Rich and I would stop every twenty feet or so while I caught my breath.
We had decided we weren't going to talk about the baby. We didn't want to discuss names anymore, or our plans to leave the city. We just wanted to enjoy the day. But I couldn't help thinking that this was baby's first hike, and I wished we'd brought the camera.
After a grueling two hours, we finally made it to the top. We looked out over a large green valley as we sat on top of a mossy rock eating bananas and granola bars. In the sky were three hawks, all of them hovering over the trees, their beaks pointed down as they looked for movement. One of them flew quite close to us, and Rich yelled out. After a while they gave up and soared toward the pastures at the bottom of the valley. I imagined what it would be like to be one of them.
When the sun hung low, we decided to head home. Though I'd been exhausted on the climb up, I was positively bouncing down the hillside. I felt like a fawn jumping from rock to rock. I felt young again, and I remember thinking that I wasn't that old after all. Thirty-six, and we finally had proof that I was still fertile. I'd begun to doubt after a year of trying, but it was all going to be okay. I felt great, and we were only days away from the second prenatal visit.
We might even be able to learn the sex of the child.

It was almost clear at first. I thought I was imagining things. It looked slightly colored, that's all. There'd been plenty of fluid, it's quite normal. It was probably nothing.
The next day there was more. Brownish, though. They say you should only worry if it's pink. I read about it in my big pregnancy book. It's called "old blood". The uterus stretches, and old menstrual blood comes loose. It happens in about forty percent of pregnancies.
The next day there was quite a lot. I called my mother. "I'm spotting."
"That can be normal."
"I've been feeling these cramps."
"Oh, I felt cramps all through my pregnancy."
          "I'm scared."
"Then call your doctor. But I'm sure it's nothing, honey."
          My husband picked me up after work. We drove through Central Park on our way back to Brooklyn. I tried not to panic. He tried, too.
At home, I called the emergency number, and ten minutes later the on-call doctor returned my call. My husband listened as I listed my symptoms. "I'm spotting. The blood is brown. My breasts feel less tender." And then I told her the symptom that had frightened me even more than the blood: "My vulva is no longer swollen."
"Oh, well. Your vulva shouldn't be swollen until the third trimester."
I didn't know what to say to this.
"It doesn't sound serious," she told me. She sounded so certain. "It's probably old blood."
Old blood. It sounded made up, like something you tell a child who has asked why the sky is blue. Because blue is a prettier color than red, you might say. You say that because you know they wouldn’t understand the real answer.
"Don't worry,” the doctor told me. “You have your second prenatal appointment on Monday. We'll take a look then."
I hung up. I looked at my husband. He rubbed my leg, kissed my cheek. “Try not to worry, honey.”
I decided I was being paranoid.
I should try to calm down.

The internet.
Chat rooms.
Dozens of miscarriage stories.
Dozens of stories from women with identical symptoms who were now proud parents.
It's old blood.
It can be normal.
The worst thing you can do is worry.
I kept remembering that hike.
The way I'd bounced down the hill.

"Are you nervous?" I asked him.
He was driving, and he didn't answer right away. The sunlight seemed particularly bright. I don't know if I just remember it that way, or if it really was unusually bright that day. It hurt my eyes.
"We're late," he said. "I'm never going to find a parking space."
I laughed at him. Trying to act normal.
I went up while he parked the car. I filled out some papers. A woman came in. She was pretty and hugely pregnant. She had a little boy with her. She asked the nurse if she spoke French, and the nurse said no. I said I spoke a little, and I tried to help her fill out the form. She got to the box that asked for the father's name. I didn't know the word for husband. I said, "L'homme?"
She shook her head at me, her lips pursed. She did not look at me.
The nurse thanked me for my help.
I hadn't been any help at all. I'd only embarrassed her.
The next moment, my tall handsome husband breezed in and sat next to me. He kissed me. Then Rich started flipping through a magazine, and I watched the woman's little boy. He had black eyes, and very short black hair. He was beautiful, and perfect. I imagined my son would be similar to him, cheerful and quiet, a little shy.
I smiled at his mother.
She glared at me.

First a technician looked. My eyes were fastened to the screen. Rich held my hand. We watched while she moved the sensor over my abdomen, again and again.
On the screen there was an empty black cone. "Is that my uterus?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
"That's not normal, is it?"
"I'm really not a doctor."
She left.
I remembered the hawks we'd seen in Connecticut. I remembered bouncing down the hillside. Two days after seeing them the blood had started.
After five minutes a doctor came back with the technician. Not my doctor. Someone I didn't know. She looked for it too. She looked and looked. She turned off the machine. She put her hand on my arm. "I have bad news," she said.
"I know,” I said. I curled up. She left Rich and I
alone.                                                         “Chairs at Rest” by John Chavers
Old blood.
Now I know what bullshit that is.

Two days later, I was teaching my writing class about a beautiful novel called Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata in which a teenager dies, and I pointed out a brilliant scene that depicts how the family members react to her death. They look for her hairs on the bathroom floor. They search through the garbage for the newspaper that would help them remember what happened on the day their beloved died. Suddenly my students were talking about how they coped with their deepest, most painful losses. One woman went to work the day after her son killed himself. Another woman couldn't understand how her mother still cooked meals after her sister was killed in a car crash.
I thought about how I'd reacted to my loss.
I realized I didn't remember anything after the appointment.
The whole day had vanished.
Like my baby.

If nothing happened in a week, I needed a procedure. Dilation and curettage. It's just like an abortion, but the baby is already dead.
But what if the baby wasn't dead? What if there'd been something wrong with the ultrasound machine? I must call and ask that question before the day of the surgery.
But I didn't call.
I couldn't make myself.
A couple days before the surgery, the doctor’s office left a message on my answering machine telling me where to go and what to do. Go to the fourth floor, room M as in Mother. She actually said that. Don't eat or drink after midnight. Bring your insurance card. Someone will have to accompany you home.
I had questions, and I left some of them on the nurse's answering machine:
Will you knock me out?
Will it hurt too much for me to teach my classes?
Will you do an ultrasound to check for the baby's heartbeat, one last time, just to make sure?
I had other questions I did not ask:
Is it wrong that I don't think of my baby as a person?
Am I terrible that I have begun to hate it?
This death inside of me that I’m still carrying around. I can feel it.
I have found a way to stop loving it, but my body can't let go.
Is that normal?

I had a terrible headache. The nurse took my blood pressure, and I told her I was dehydrated. I hadn't eaten or drunk anything since before midnight. I was worried being dehydrated would affect me. I was worried I wouldn't wake up from the anesthesia. I was worried I’d never be able to bear a child.
“Will they give me a saline drip during the procedure,” I asked the nurse as I rubbed my temple.
For the first time she looked at my face. She stopped. She said, "You really are in pain, aren't you?"
She meant my headache.

Dressed in a thin cotton nightgown and some borrowed socks, with a shower cap covering my hair, I was made to sit in a hallway with half a dozen other strangers dressed exactly the same way. It was absurd. Suddenly I had lost my identity, and had joined a temporary society: the sick ones.
There was no chit chat.
I wished I could have some water. My head hurt terribly.
I kept thinking of my husband. He was just on the other side of the door. Just ten feet away from me.
The nurse got me and led me into a large room full of hospital beds and sick people, all in the same gowns, all in plain view. Even after the absurd hallway, I was shocked at the lack of privacy. The nurse began to lead me to a desk in the center of the room, but suddenly my doctor was there, and she said, "Let's bring her in here." I was unbearably glad to see her, a familiar face in this alien, terrifying place. She led me to a small room, and she sat in front of me and said, "Do you have any questions?"
There were two women standing off to the side. They were wearing scrubs. Trainees, I could tell. I didn't care about them. "Are you going to knock me out?"
"How do you know—" I began, choked. "How do you know you aren't killing a living baby?"
One of the trainees gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. I did not look at her, but I felt cared for. To this person, I was not routine.
My doctor's voice softened. "Your baby stopped growing at eight weeks. There was no heartbeat. Believe me, we're sure."
Eight weeks.
My baby had been dead for over a month.
My baby was already dead the day we went hiking, the day I'd seen the hawks. The day I'd bounced down the hillside so happily. Baby's first hike.
I hadn't killed my baby after all.
They left me alone for ten minutes while I cried.

My doctor walked with me down a long hallway. "Why is it so cold?" I asked her. "Is that to help the blood clot?"
"It's to quell the spread of infection."
I felt grateful that she was wearing scrubs and a shower cap over her hair.
Her clothes were as humble as mine.
The room was full of people. Six of them. I lay down on the table, and they descended on me. Professional, I remember thinking.
The anesthesiologist tapped my arm. Shot me full of something. I looked at him. He could not have treated me more like a piece of steak.
"Is that the anesthesia?" I asked him.
"Yes." He seemed surprised I was taking an interest in what was happening to me.
The operating table I lay on was shaped like a cross. As they spread my arms and strapped them down, I thought how very much like Christ's position was my own. I wanted to laugh.
My doctor told me, "Go to sleep."
It seemed like a good idea.
And now someone is pulling on something in my mouth. "Open your mouth. Open your mouth. Open your mouth," she yells.
Something is pulled from between my teeth.
Two hours have passed, to the rest of the world. To me, it was about five minutes.
“What was in my mouth?” I ask the shape standing over me.
          “It was keeping your airway open,” she tells me.
I'm in one of the beds in that large room I'd found so shocking before. I'm one of the people lined against the wall. No privacy.
I don't care about that anymore.
As I waken, my middle slowly fills with a deep, horrible ache. Oh. It hurts. I writhe. I cannot stop my legs from squirming, as if the movement could help me avoid the pain. Do I tell the nurse it hurts? For some reason, I want to be brave.
The nurse comes over and says, "Do you want Ibuprofen or a Vicodin?"
"What is that? Is it an opiate?" I ask to prove that she can use medical words when she talks to me. I don't want her baby talk.
"I don’t know if it’s an opiate," she tells me.
"I doubt I need it," I say, though it hurts. It really hurts.
The nurse looks at my writhing legs and says, "I'll get you the Vicodin."
I have to wait. As the anesthesia wears off, the pain grows deeper and harder, but then finally, oh thank god, the Vicodin kicks in. And it's amazing. The pain is gone.
"My husband," I say to the nurse.
"What is his name?" she asks.
I sleep until he comes, and he holds my hand and says, "See? It wasn't that bad, right?"
He needs to believe I’m okay, but I want to say, "Oh, fuck you." Instead I say, "It wasn't so bad." I want to be brave.
He holds my hand. He knows when to stop talking. He knows I just need him to be there.
The nurse makes him leave after only five minutes.
After a couple hours recovery time, they let me go home. We take a cab. We watch the city go by. The view from the Williamsburg Bridge is so beautiful.
At home I camp out in the recliner and watch The Third Man.
The worst is over, I tell myself.
It’s finally out of me.

Slowly the vanished day has come back to me. The day we found out.
Calling my dad. That was the hardest. He'd wailed in agony, yelled to my brother in the next room, "Mike, the baby didn't make it."
My mother said things about God and heaven.
I think I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
But mostly Rich and I just lay in bed. Rich held my head to his chest and he kept saying, "Don't worry. We'll try again. Don't worry. It will be okay."
I was numb.
I wasn't in my body.
That's why I hardly remember it.

Months later, I asked Rich: “Do you ever think about it?”
“The miscarriage? Not as much anymore,” he says. But he says it sadly.
We are folding laundry and putting it away. We are quiet for a while, but soon I realize that wasn’t really the question.
“Do you ever think about the baby?”
“Well, I had that dream, remember? About our son?”
“I remember.”
He’d dreamed that he and I were walking down the sidewalk, holding the hands of a toddler who was stumbling along between us.
He shrugged. “I used to be sad thinking about it, but then I realized that dream wasn’t about the baby we lost. It was about the baby we’re going to have.”

The leaves all fell off the trees. Then winter, and then spring. It was a warm spring this year, and the trees were full again so soon.
My due date came and went.
This morning I was walking to work, and I smelled autumn—that wet leaf smell right after a rain. And I thought how beautiful it is. It really is.
I can think about the baby again. The baby I’d held in my dreams. The pliant, beautiful little creature that slept against me, she trusted me so. I remember how soft she felt in my arms. I remember how she smelled of shampoo and lotion and baby powder.
I remember sitting next to her crib, on the floor, watching her sleep.
I remember my favorite sound in the world: the sound of her breathing.
I remember all the things I’d planned to tell her, about the world. About life.      I'm sorry, I tell her now. I couldn’t hold you. I had to let you go.
Something in the way I can notice the birds singing helps me know: I am forgiven.

Amy Kathleen Ryan is the author of six young adult novels, most notably The Sky Chasers series from St. Martin's Press. She lives in Jackson, WY with her husband and three beautiful daughters.