When the oncology nurse calls, I’m eating a Pick Two at the Panera in Westmoreland Mall. I assume she’s going to tell me I’m fine, no worries, and I should go on making healthy choices, good day and goodbye.
I’ve already laid off red meat. I’m doing yoga on the daily, and when my husband hands me a vape pen filled with weed, I put up one hand like a traffic cop.
“It wards off Alzheimer’s,” he says.
“Too late,” I say. “Who are you again?” and squint.
I’ve cut back on coffee and given up Red Bull as some odd penance.
“Red Bull gives people strokes,” I say to my husband, who I call Newman, who everyone calls Newman except for his parents who sometimes call him David or Dave, when I catch him chugging a large cranberry Red Bull.
“But good strokes. The kind you stay awake for,” he says, and goes on chugging.
“I remember a time before energy drinks,” I say, all wistful-like.
My daughter Phelan, who’s 15, says, “You were born in the 1900s,” which sounds wrong, too old, then not.
“We used to do this thing called sleep,” I say.
Phelan says, “Okay Boomer,” and giggles.
“Gen X,” I say, a little tender about my age, always ready to make a joke. “Have you ever seen The Breakfast Club?”
Phelan says, “Was that something you did before school way back when?”
My daughter was born in 2004. She knows Winona Ryder from the series Stranger Things. She thinks Johnny Depp’s Wino tattoo is because he has a drinking problem, which Page Six says he does, who knows, not judging.
Stranger Things is set in the 1980s. The kids in the show ride bikes with banana seats and handlebar tassels, just like the bikes I knew growing up. This makes me feel younger, immortal maybe, the same way I feel whenever I hear Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” which the radio stations here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have been playing on repeat since forever, perpetual time machines.
“Did you eat eggs and talk about current events?” Phelan wants to know about The Breakfast Club. “Did you love toast?”
I remember a time when breakfast detention was a serious thing, though I was straight-edged and had to do time only once. I got caught selling oregano in a baggie to a girl in prep school who thought the oregano was some premium weed and made everyone call her Robert Plant because Led Zeppelin. But that’s another story.
Robert Plant would know the difference between oregano and premium weed.
We were talking about time.
I remember a time before schools were on the news, before shelter in place was a thing, before automatic weapons and metal detectors, before English teachers turned in students who wrote essays about madness, before anyone worried about active shooters or anything other than mean girls and bullies and what was in the mystery meat the cafeteria passed off as hamburgers, and where we’d sit on the bus, and who drew the dicks on the busses’ metal seat backs, and who was the artist who remembered to put wiry hairs on the dicks’ ball sacs, that attention to detail, genius really, but I don’t tell my daughter any of this.
About “The Breakfast Club,” I say, “We should watch it together.” I say, “I’ll make popcorn.”
Phelan says, “Okay, maybe,” like she’ll have her people call my people to maybe set a date somewhere around never.
These days my daughter has started kissing me on the top of my head, the way I kissed her when she was younger, a kiss that says there-there, a kiss that says “I love you,” a kiss that says, “Oh, sweetie, the things you don’t know.”
Some days I switch on WDVE, which is the most classic of classic Pittsburgh radio stations, and I’m back in the 1980s, which were the 1900s, nearly prehistoric in my daughter Phelan’s lovely Gen Z mind.
When I listen to ’DVE — no one in Pittsburgh uses the W, kind of like in New York when tourists pronounce Houston Street the same as that place in Texas and said tourists get spontaneously mugged — I’m back at Ardmore Roller Rink, All Skate, figure eights, backwards, forwards, pink pom-poms on my skates, disco lights flashing, the smell of burnt pizza and Super Pretzels and teenage sweat, all moldy grapefruit and Love’s Baby Soft, the snake-slither of a pink satin jacket over my arms, my long hair crimped and teased and Aqua-Netted big enough to have its own zip code, a strange boy’s blueberry-Icee’d tongue in my mouth after couple’s skate, ladies’ choice, everything possible, free as a bird now.
How can life seem so long and short all at once?
Einstein could explain it, maybe, but he’s been dead a long time.
First Ardmore Roller Rink became a gym, then a realty office, then nothing. It sits vacant now, the empty basement of a brown-bricked bank building.
“Time is a construct,” I say to my daughter, who rolls her lovely eyes.
I never wondered until this moment why Lynyrd Skynyrd’s name is spelled like that. I know the band took its name as a joke about Leonard Skinner, a gym teacher who hated long-haired boys.
But why all the Ys?
Weed, definitely. Something for kids to ponder while staring at album covers and smoking in their parents’ basement.
Remember album covers?
If you’re from the 1900s, you do.
I studied those covers — Led Zeppelin’s Zoso, an old man carrying a bundle of twigs, the meaning of which no one has ever deciphered; all those humans hidden in the lion on the cover of Santana’s debut album; the sweet faces of Lynyrd Skynyrd on the album that spelled their band name phonetically, those long-haired hippie freaks, the horror of gym teachers everywhere, those babies — Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines — who would be dead before I could love them like I would later in life when I quit trying to be cool.
I’m feeling philosophical these days, which is something that happens to everyone, maybe, when facing what could be a dire diagnosis.
I quote Camus a lot.
“The goal of all art,” Camus said, “is to gain access to the one or two images that first gained access to our hearts.”
All those album covers.
“When you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead,” my beloved John Prine used to say, but he was quoting his father.
John Prine’s album covers were often just a picture of John Prine, looking earnest and eternal in jeans and a work shirt.
John Prine thought his father was wrong about death. In one song, John Prine plans a party in the afterlife where he gets to say told-you-so to his dad.
I like that.
Newman has been reading as much as he can about medical marijuana. He says some people believe weed not only wards off dementia, but could also cure cancer.
Let’s deal with the thing at hand.
My husband is a practical man. He loves me nonetheless. I don’t know this yet, but a few months from now, when I have to sleep in a medical recliner because a bed won’t do, he’ll take a single mattress from our son’s bunkbed and place it by my side. The mattress will still be covered in Spiderman sheets, faded in the places where my sleeping son used to lie. Newman, built like the football player he was, will sleep on the floor on this tiny Spiderman mattress for weeks and weeks. He’ll reach up to hold my hand and his bad shoulder will lock up because he won’t let go of my hand.
But that comes later. For now, Newman keeps doing research. He keeps reading medical journals. He has two master’s degrees to my one, and six books to my five. Not that it’s a competition. I’m establishing him as a trusted source and trust for me is no easy thing. I love my husband. We’ve been married almost 20 years, but I want more.
Eternity. What an amazing word, the way it stretches the mouth, expanding like a universe of vowels and consonants.
How many years are enough years for a lifetime?
Whatever freedom used to mean to me, now I want the opposite. Grounding. Family. Love. Sex.
“Sit on my face,” Newman says at least three times a week.
Sorry if that sounds crass but being married for so long and having someone love you like that seems worth testimony.
When I do dishes, Newman sneaks up behind me and humps my ass. When I sleep naked because mid-life hot flashes make my blood feel like lava, he strokes my thighs.
Twenty years in and my husband still makes me feel beautiful and desired to the point where I have to tell him to knock it off.
He will reach up and hold my hand for weeks, months. The tiny Spiderman mattress will meld from the imprint of my son’s tiny body to my husband’s body.
Set us free from this mortal coil, someone said. William Blake, maybe.
No thank you. I’m good.
About Skynyrd, a band he loves, Newman says, “They were probably high and someone figured, hey, Ys are cool. Plus it might have kept them from being sued by gym-teacher Leonard.”
Imagine Leonard, a whistle around his rubbery sun-pocked neck, running kids around a track, ordering the long hairs to drop and give him 20, or worse, Leonard in boxer shorts and a stained t-shirt.
Leonard retired in his dank basement.
Leonard smelling of boiled hotdogs.
Leonard scratching his withered nuts.
Leonard listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd on the radio, those long-hairs making millions, Leonard, considering how little he knew about anything, Leonard who knew in the end he wasted his one and only life.
I feel like I should explain the Spiderman sheets. My son Locklin loved Spiderman because Spiderman told jokes and saved people. And Peter Parker was young and people thought he was weak, but he wasn’t.
When Locklin was in Kindergarten, he took a Sharpie to a red turtleneck and scrawled the letters H.S. on the chest.
H.S. for Human Spider.
“Not Spiderman?” I said, and Locklin looked at me like I blasphemed.
“Noooo,” he said. “Duh.”
H.S. was his own superhero.
“I’ll save you,” my son said as he swooped in and out of rooms, a flash of red, a blonde shock of hair, a whirlwind of salvation whooshing through our house.
Once, when I was volunteering at Trafford Elementary’s Fun Day, an annual thing where the school brings in huge inflatable bounce houses and magicians and clowns to celebrate the end of the school year, Locklin’s teacher, Mr. O, called me over.
It was almost 90 degrees and my job had been to hand out bottles of water and make sure the less athletic kids made it up and over the inflatable bounce-house wall without weeping.
“It’s Locklin,” Mr. O said. “He won’t take it off.”
“Take what off?” I said, and Mr. O said, “The turtleneck. I’m afraid he’s going to overheat.”
Locklin had snuck out of the house with his H.S. turtleneck in his backpack. He put it on in the school bathroom. He was on duty as H.S. and would not be daunted by weather or teachers. When I found my son, he was dripping sweat, perched on top of the school’s monkey bars, keeping watch.
“Sweetheart,” I said. “Come down. You don’t need to wear the shirt to be a hero.”
“But how will they know I’m a good guy?” he said.
“They’ll know you’re a good guy because you’re good,” I said, coaxing him to the ground, where I shuffled him off to the bathroom to change.
Spiderman was a deep thinker. With great power comes great responsibility and all that.
“All these years, I’ve done my best,” he tells Aunt May. “But no matter how hard I try, people die.”
“I’ll save you,” my son said, still says.
“Why would you bring a child into this world?” people liked to ask back in the 1900s.
Why would anyone ask such a thing?
“Hope is the thing with feathers –
that perches in the coul-
and sings the tune without the words –
and never stops — at all —”
That’s Emily Dickinson.
Emily Dickinson never had children. Emily Dickinson wrote beautiful poems, which are their own legacy of course.
I am, by title at least, a writer and college professor, but I had to look up the word coul.
It means a few things.
In this case I think Dickinson meant a chimney cover, though coul is also a term in fencing, as in swords.
Forget swords. For a flammable-feathered bird to perch in a chimney and risk flames is hope enough.
Birdbrain, people say, meaning stupid, but birds are some of the smartest animals on the planet. Ravens and crows, for instance, are both great at holding grudges, second only to humans. Don’t fuck with crows. They remember your face.
For seven years, I worked as a flight attendant for a major airline, where I learned a little about human/animal traits.
Did you know birds are designated support animals? But some birds and animals are more designated and acceptable than others.
Most airlines are cool with cockatoos. Most airlines are flexible with parrots because parrots talk back, maybe, which makes them seem more like human passengers, though most flight attendants dream of human passengers who don’t talk back unless those passengers have some kindness to give.
A little please.
A little thank you.
Be nice to your flight crew. Please and thank you.
Recently, United Airlines denied boarding to Brooklyn artist Ventiko who wanted to travel with her emotional support peacock, Dexter. Dexter hated the subway but was somehow cool with planes.
Ventiko put Dexter on a baggage trolley, where other passengers could admire him.
Ventiko offered to put Dexter through the x-ray scanner, because no peacock had ever been identified as a terrorist or a weapon.
Ventiko offered to buy Dexter his own seat on the plane, but United declined.
Have you ever heard a peacock scream?
It’s impressive. It goes on for days. The echo of that. It’s not something that would do well in the test-tube of an airplane cabin.
Anyway, Ventiko and Dexter eventually opted to drive, On the Road style, for the betterment of all human- and peacock-kind. Ventiko kept a log of their journeys and Dexter ended up with more than 17,000 followers on his Instagram.
“Peacocks represent infinity and immortality,” Ventiko told the LA Times.
Ventiko painted Dexter many times. He shows up in her work as Santo Dexter, Patron Saint of Companionship, and in a series about Dexter’s resistance to the Trump administration (Dexter was a progressive up until his unexpected and untimely death in July 2018).
There are so many other airline vs. animal stories – Gizmo the marmoset who was 86’d for pooping on board; Daniel Turducken Stinkerbutt, a duck who was beloved on his American Airlines’ flight; Coco the bunny, who earned a coveted upgrade to business class for his classy bow-tie; and Daisy the Squirrel, denied boarding because squirrel.
But the saddest and most interesting to me is Pebbles the hamster, who died an untimely death when her owner, a college student, tried to board a Spirit Airlines flight with Pebbles. The student was trying to get home to deal with a medical issue. Later she said someone from the airline told her she had two choices — she could set Pebbles free or flush him down the toilet.
No airline person I know, and I flew for seven years, would ever suggest killing an animal, though they may think of creative ways to hurt humans from time to time.
After trying for hours to find another way home, the student flushed Pebbles and got on the plane.
Spirit Airlines has denied ever offering the toilet option.
If your support animal is your support animal, how do you flush it?
How does anyone let go of the things that tether them to this life?
One time when I was still flying, a man tried to smuggle his Chihuahua on board.
TSA agents boarded the flight just before we were ready for takeoff.
“Excuse me sir,” one TSA agent, a loaf of white bread in a tight red blazer, said. “We know you have a dog in your pocket.”
The man, 38B, wore a leather jacket, zipped up tight.
This was July. In Orlando, Florida.
Florida, the punchline of so many jokes.
Florida, the birthplace of Dexter the peacock.
Florida, the place everyone I knew back home in Pittsburgh thought of as heaven – the place to go to retire, the place to go to die.
38B said, “What?”
He said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” and fiddled with his jacket zipper.
My parents built a house in Florida, but had to sell it when my mother, then my father got sick.
“Some goddamn joke,” my father said back then. “A real kick in the ass.”
The house was lovely, pink stucco, across the street from a canal filled with flying fish that seemed to leap out of fairytales. I remember shopping for furniture to fill the house. I remember buying silverware, extra sets of knives and forks and soup spoons, though who eats soup in Florida? I remember lizards, chameleons maybe, who’d latch onto the screen doors, their green skin glistening, their tails coiled into question marks, their long nails like hooks, holding on. I remember my parents fighting. Always that. I thought maybe, if they could have just made it to Florida to live, they’d stop fighting.
Florida’s official state slogan is, “In God We Trust.”
The unofficial slogans: The Sunshine State, God’s Waiting Room, America’s Wang.
“We know,” the TSA agent on the plane said, and jerked a thumb toward 38B’s jacket.
“We should have known,” my father said, meaning the world wasn’t a place designed for him and people like him to dream Florida dreams or have access to lives they weren’t born into.
“A place for everyone and everyone in their place,” my mother, who loved to mix metaphors and clichés, used to say.
“We saw the skeleton, sir,” the TSA agent on the plane said.
38B, in a moment of pure Florida-inspired genius and hope, had tucked his tiny dog into his leather jacket and sent it through the x-ray machine, figuring his jacket — thick, squeaky, probably not real leather at all — would block it some.
The Chihuahua, when 38B pulled it out, wriggled and squeaked. It was tiny, just a puppy.
38B looked guilty, apologetic, then just sad.
The TSA agent escorted 38B and his tiny dog off the flight and I felt bad about everything.
Having a support animal on board is expensive. Not everyone who needs a little help can afford the luxury. Some dreams are so small they seem within reach, even when they’re not.
The dog could fit in the palm of my hand.
He wouldn’t have hurt anything.
Maybe my parents would have been happy in Florida. Maybe they would have lived.
As for birds, sorry Dexter.
I’ve seen Hitchcock.
Those birds knew exactly what they were doing.
There are a lot of birds in Emily Dickinson’s poems, but even more Death.
Living with Death as a roommate in your brain may have made the thought of children unbearable to anyone, but even Emily Dickinson got lonely and adopted a dog. She named the dog Carlo and sometimes called him Baby.
Carlo lived for 16 years. Dickinson, that lover of death, was by all accounts devastated when Carlo died.
I love animals.
The loss of anything and anyone we love is an aberration.
“There is no such thing as a good death,” Simone DeBeauvoir wrote.
We were talking about animals.
Animals aren’t the same as people. Animals aren’t the same as children.
“When you have children, your pets become pets again,” Bruce Springsteen said.
When Locklin was a month old, he was very sick. He kept throwing up and ended up in the hospital. I sat beside his hospital bed for three nights, pumping milk from breasts he was too sick to suck while a nurse kept bringing me food I couldn’t eat.
“You have to try,” she said. “You need to keep the milk coming for when he’s better.”
Hope is the thing with feathers.
The nurse was lovely.
All nurses are lovely but some even more so. This nurse, whose name I don’t remember, such is the mind under stress, wore a smock with Elmo and Big Bird all over it. Her lips were pink satin. She wore designer clogs that had been painted with cardiograms, the visual rendering of live and beating hearts.
The nurse whose name I don’t remember brought me cartons of milk. She brought me hospital brownies. She brought me crackers and tea and grilled cheese sandwiches and Jello, that hospital staple that always made me gag.
“You have to eat,” she said.
She said, “Please.”
She said, “Try, Mom.”
When you’re a mother, everyone in the medical establishment calls you Mom. Your name, whatever that meant once, is over. Whoever you thought you were is finished. The body you thought was yours becomes not yours.
At first, I was angry about it. And then I was grateful.
There is nothing more honest.
Nothing in my life has ever felt more true.
My son looked so tiny in his bed, the hospital rails pulled up on both sides like a jail cell. I slid one hand through the bars and kept it on his chest to feel his breathing. He had a tiny clamp on his finger to track his oxygen. His finger was thin as an onion stem. The clamp looked like a toy, ET phone home. The oxygen meter glowed blue then red.
Blue, the color for oxygen. Red the color for blood.
Everything around us smelled like alcohol swabs and bleach and metal, sweat and breast milk.
My job as Mom was to watch and wait. Check the colors. Make sure my son kept breathing. Suction his nose and mouth as needed to keep his airway clear.
“Please,” the lovely nurse said.
My job was to pump and pump my breasts, which leaked and hurt and swelled. I expressed the milk. It leaked then sprayed, pale blue-ish white, the color of oysters, cataracts, thin as rain, sugar water, into tiny bottles the nurse gave me. I labeled them with my son’s name, just in case he could keep anything down. The nurse took the bottles like offerings back into a refrigerator filled with other bottles labeled with the names of other mothers’ children.
So many children were sick that year. There was a virus. There is often a virus, but once you have a child that word becomes more terrifying, maybe. The hospital hallways echoed with the sound of crying and the air felt heavy, as if worry has the power to shift gravity.
I think it does.
I don’t know what Einstein would think about that. I’m sure he worried some, the bomb and all.
He had so much regret in the end.
Lori Jakiela is the author of several books, most recently Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, a memoir which received the Saroyan Prize from Stanford University. She lives in Trafford, Pennsylvania, with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. Visit her author website at: lorijakiela.net.
This story was a finalist in our 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction.