You probably didn’t know Nancy W. Kappes, Paralegal, but your life would have been richer if you did. Nancy was a self-professed ‘bad mom,’ an impious Catholic, a lover of bad jokes and “Judy Garland trail mix” and one of the sweetest and most supportive and laugh-out-loud funny blog readers one could ever hope to have. We met when she sent Jenny and I an email about a post that I’d written at Jenny’s blog, an email in which she shared her own strategies for coping with family politics (“sit back with a trashy book, a tumbler of Grey Goose (when I’m flush-Seagram’s when I’m not) and my huge bottle of assorted pharmaceuticals. (My “Judy Garland Trail Mix.”)“) and colorfully described her ex-husband (“he made the baby Jesus cry.”) I laughed out loud, and saved her message. If emails were made of paper, hers – the hundreds sent over the two years that followed, and the hundreds read and reread and reread again – would have been dog-eared and creased and stained with tears of laughter. I might just have to print them all out, so that they can become exactly that.
She called me Mama Cat, and she had a knack for knowing exactly when I needed to laugh or be flattered or be sternly admonished for being too hard on myself. She rarely commented on the blog itself. She preferred to send long, funny discursions on whatever I had written about. Or, sometimes, on what she hoped I’d write about. Or on the Pope, and goats.
Nancy died this weekend. I feel like I’ve been kicked in the heart, and not by her awesome goat.
My dad wore Brut aftershave, the kind that comes in that opaque green bottle with the fake gold medallion. He didn’t wear it a lot, but it was the only aftershave that he used when he did use aftershave, and so it burned into my psyche – along with cigarette smoke (Players) and aged leather – as the smell of my dad. After he died, and I went to work cleaning out his home, I spotted a bottle of it in his bathroom, tucked at the back of a medicine cabinet, coated with dust. I thought, that bottle is probably fifteen years old, and then I shut the cabinet and went back to sorting through his things.
He had, as I’ve mentioned before, a lot of things. I hired a dumpster that remained parked in his driveway, and the process of cleaning out his home was one long cycle of sorting and deliberating and carting and tossing. Some things were easy to sort and toss – the ancient tins of soup and boxes of spice and broken furniture and old bedding that was too worn for Goodwill – but other things were more difficult, like the little plastic baggies filled with clover leaves – he was determined to find his four-leaf token of good fortune, it seemed – and I found myself, too many times, hanging over the edge of the dumpster, second-guessing something that had been thrown away. I didn’t get in, though. Not until I remembered the Brut.
I labored over a post about this, about this dark anniversary, about how this year has changed me, about how I still cry. But the words were confused, the sentences messy, the paragraphs long, the ideas incoherent, and it occurred to me that I do not need to struggle to put everything into words. That not everything can be captured in words.
It took me a while to figure why I was crying, why I kept bursting into tears at silly, random things, like an excess of dryer lint, or a dearth of toilet paper. I had just figured it to be hormones, or a passing mood, you know, the kind that you fall into when you’ve gone too many nights with too little sleep and then you open the cupboard and there’s not enough coffee for a full pot and you slump against the counter and you cry.
It wasn’t that. I wasn’t crying about coffee.
Every visit to the doctor, now, brings bad news. In the early days, there were reassurances and messages of hope – some boys make it out of their teens, there are ways to slow the deterioration of his muscles, he might stay mobile for a long time, he might still get to enjoy some of his boyhood in the ways that other boys take for granted – but now, there are only somber descriptions of what will happen next, of what needs to be done to make things easier, of what use can be made of his diminishing time.
They want to put rods in his spine, she tells me. So that he can stay upright for a bit longer.
Rods in his spine. He won’t be able to bend, I think, before remembering, he cannot bend now. Not in the real, active sense of bending, anyway: he slumps, he droops, he slides forward in his chair, unable to hold his own weight even while sitting, a Pinocchio without strings. His spine is collapsing under the weight of his body, his muscles having deteriorated beyond the point where they can provide any support. He’s like a doll now, a puppet. But he has no strings by which he might be pulled up. He has no Blue Fairy to wave a wand and make such strings unnecessary. He has only surgeons, and rods.
It is, of course, our greatest fear. It is the bogeyman in our closet, the monster under our bed. It is the shadow that lurks behind every tree in the wood, it is the crackle of every twig, it is the sudden silencing of birds, the darkening of the sky, the unexpected chill in the air, the thing that stops our breathing, that quickens the beat of our hearts. And we cannot tell ourselves that it isn’t there, that it is just the stuff of fairy tales and scary stories; we cannot shine the flashlight into the closet or under the bed or out toward the trees and reassure ourselves, because it is out there, it is, maybe just as a possibility, maybe just as the faintest possibility, but that possibility is what gives it air to breath and matter to take form.
We could lose our children. Some harm could come to them. They could be erased from the landscape of our lives and our hearts could, would, break, shatter into a million, billion, trillion pieces and we would never recover, not really.