All night we watched from our window as waves of fire curled and broke over the hills around our valley in California and foamed in crooked lines into the dark. A combination of fear and fascination kept us watching as the flames fed on grasses that eddied and billowed in the constant wind like sheets on a clothesline. The crests of the blaze surged and fountained against clumps of chaparral, laced among yucca, sage, and scrub oak, and reached for houses firemen were trying to fence from the bright tide with slender wires of water.
It was gloriously beautiful for a few hours, but in the morning the hills were charred carcasses with rocky bones sticking through. I grieved over the remains until someone told me that these fiery floods every few years dissolve old wood into fertilizer and cause seeds that have waited dormant, impervious to rain and sun, to germinate. Searing signals them to sprout.
The seed in me has waited eighty-seven years for the old wood to blaze. Tiny fires burn silent in my cells, slow flames called carcinoma. I’m glad I’m dying.
I’ve waited for death as I used to wait pregnant for labor to start. By the end of nine months, I felt so heavy, lame, and bloated, the body I’d lent was so busy and abused, I’d be willing to face anything to have it back again. “Did anyone ever just pop open?” I asked the doctor. He thought I was afraid, but I just wanted to know.
I wanted, too, to know about the cancer, but he offered empty words and pain killers.
Why does he hide the miracle of what is happening to me? Many times I’ve marveled in my morning mirror as time molded and mined my face and veined my hair with grey. I’ve often sighed in my evening prayers, “I’m glad I don’t have to live this day over again,” but I wouldn’t have traded it for rubies.
Waiting is the hardest part. When I was pregnant, time would swell and stretch like my stomach, growing taut, until—well, I didn’t pop, after all. Something silently switched on the ignition. Beyond my willing, contractions slowly gripped and eased, gradually accelerating the pace and pressure as if I were part of a machine going automatically through the cycles. The constant now of pain erased past and future, and I forgot what I was suffering for as the grinding pulse consumed existence until everything but pain was shadow.
Hardly anyone nowadays has a baby at home. I had three before they made me hurry to the hospital to let the doctor catch the baby in orthodox fashion after I’d done the labor. “Twilight sleep,” they offered, once, to dull the pain, but I wouldn’t let them rob me. I’d rather earn the joy of seeing the child’s wet triumph, hearing the angry yowling. The victory was in letting the mechanism use me until I could use it. I didn’t even need the doctor for six babies. But Eddy wedged sideways.
“I think I’ve broken his arm,” the doctor said.
“I can’t. I can’t do it!” I was helpless with terror.
“You can,” he said. And I did. “Here’s just a little problem with club feet, but an operation will take care of that,” he cheered me.
I lived through that time and others when it seemed I could not live. Even when Eddy died. In the long wait while he withered, we picked armfuls of laughter, even in the living tomb of the hospital. We put goldfish in the water pitcher and held a wheelchair rodeo in the hall.
We giggled until even the giggle was gone. I wanted to die too. No, not to die, to cease to exist. I wanted to dissolve. Eddy had been woven into the fabric of my life, and when death tore him out, it left a raveled web, impossible to patch or darn. I knew he was safe, but my heart wanted a letter from him that I could fold and keep in my pocket.
After he was buried, I would think about him in heaven, wonder whether he was behaving, saying, “Yes, Sir,” to the Lord, still eleven years old to me, even though I knew he wasn’t a boy there. Even now the healed-over hurt is lumpy and touch-tender. Eddy’s image, faded with the bleach and suds of many Mondays, keeps coming to the surface like a nail under the linoleum.
I couldn’t heal, couldn’t grow back together when Dan died because a knife had neatly sliced me in half. For fifty-three years we were like the thumb and first finger on a hand. At first we dropped a few things, but we gradually learned to turn the pages and pick up pins.
My hair has puffed into sparse white fluff now, but then—a spring-silly race across the pasture, lifting my long skirts a bit to leap across the irrigation ditch, and my carefully combed and pinned-up hairdo collapsed in a cascade of brown floss. I knelt breathless on the edge of the stream, harvesting hairpins and trying to make a mirror of the water that ran between us.
Dan laughed at me in great gusts.
“You fix it, then,” I snapped, knowing that each vinegar-rinsed strand caught fire in the sunlight.
He knelt and washed his hands and wrists in it. “The most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen,” he said, leaning across the running water to kiss me, in broad daylight, with the sun falling heavy on us and spreading itself out in a pond of dandelions.
The yellow flowers we made wreaths of went to weeds when Dan turned that pasture for a truck garden. We planted our marriage and our first son with the parsnips and pumpkins. Dandelions will cheer an empty lot or make a spring salad; we put them in our root beer and tonics; but they’re the dickens to get out of the garden. If you hack them off too short, they grow back, and if you let even one fuzzy button sneak up next to a tomato plant, the wind will scatter silky parachutes to grow and hoe for years to come.
Between the rows of potatoes, Polly slowly unbent her back and leaned on her hoe to ask, “Mama, how does it feel to fall in love?”
“I don’t know. Between planting and harvesting, there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s easy to plant, but you’d better want to plow and prune with someone when you let yourself love. Your father and I didn’t fall in it; we grew it.” Like an apple tree—with a bumper crop every other year. And I nursed, half dozing, in the night.
Irrigated with laughter, love grew tall and green on composted sorrow and hard times. It was more good than bad, but I’m glad I’ll never have to hoe weeds again. No more canker sores, flies in the house, plucking and gutting chickens, prying frozen stiff overalls off the line with numb fingers, and watching when I switch on the light in the cellar for the scuttle of roaches to tell me to put out poison. Dan’s snoring used to bother me, too, but I learned to sleep through it. “I don’t snore; I just sleep loud,” he’d tell us.
The night the snoring stopped, I called the doctor, but I knew the net of tubes and tapes they put him in wouldn’t hold him long. Just long enough for sons to circle him, arms like spokes around the hub of his head, and daughters to reflect his radiance in their tears. Dan performed his dying with enjoyment, an Abraham bestowing blessings on the bouquet gathered from his scattered seed.
“Shall I treat him like a young man?” the doctor asked.
“And make a mere rehearsal of his death?” I cried. “He’d never forgive you.”
Eddy had to struggle out of life like a chick from its shell, but Dan’s flame went out in a gentle puff. And now it’s my turn.
This soul has kicked and bumped inside me all my life, and now when I’d like to hurry to heaven and let the Lord catch my spirit, it’s wedged sideways. In this, my last labor, Lord, deliver me!