Monday, September 1, 2014

Reposting Gustav

Hurricane season in south Louisiana is always a time of nagging worry that weather patterns will align and a path will open up through the Gulf of Mexico, sending a storm of destruction that changes people’s lives. Hurricane Gustav in 2008 was one such storm, six years ago today.

All day the Sunday of that last storm, in that longtime home in Baton Rouge, the wind and rain bands moved inland and in the dark of early Monday the wind began to gust at alarming speeds. He lost electricity mid-morning and still the winds were building to velocities that were downright scary. Thinking the brick fireplace down into the house was a strong point and because it was close the to walk-in kitchen pantry with walls all around, he sat on the raised edge of the hearth for long moments, hearing and feeling the distinctive crack and ground-shaking thuds of falling trees, each time backing into the pantry doorway, waiting for a time before venturing back out into the house proper.

Peering out of rain-streaked window panes in the bedroom, the huge oak at the end of the driveway came crashing down along Seven Oaks, taking all the poles and previously-dead power lines with it. Amazing how fast it came down, earth-quaking up his 8" thick driveway into slabs as big as kitchen tables. Venturing to the large picture window in the kitchen, not standing too close because of the possibility of the glass exploding inward, he watched the large oak across the driveway, on the other side of his fence, crashing toward the house, the treetop splitting the tall Bradford pear tree next to the koi pond, crushing plants and tied down patio furniture and smaller trees and shattering lantern-like patio lights on supposedly immovable iron posts, the top branches finally crashing into the roof. Still, all around, the crack and ground-compressing whoomp of falling trees felt in the chest. Like standing next to a speaker at a rock concert when he was young, the vibrations like a cello bow being drawn across his ribs. It went on for hours and hours, the feeling of helplessness building endlessly with each minute, what it felt like when he was in the middle of a battle. Two more trees from across the driveway came crashing down, one of them hitting the corner of the house, enough so it was being helpless in battle again because his first thought was, I got hit that time.

And it went on and on.

When the worse of it passed, but still the gusts scary enough to walk with his back flattened against the outside walls of the house, it was emerging into a battlefield. Nothing was left untouched. It was like wartime views in Vietnam he saw from bombers dropping so many close-patterned bombs, carpet bombing, and then the view up close, at ground level. Even after going through actual war and now seeing a small portion of the storm through rain-streaked windows, it was still difficult to wrap his mind around what had happened.

Later, reports stated it was the worse storm ever for Baton Rouge—with gusts of 90 mph with sustained hurricane force winds for nearly 5 hours, the result of Gustav's eye coming close to the city, putting it on the northeast quadrant, the strongest area of destruction. In every neighborhood it was the same: 20% of the trees in Baton Rouge down, every third or fourth house with a tree on it or in it, streets blocked by huge oaks, trunks as big around as cars, street signs found miles away from the actual streets.

There was a long week of no power. He moved everything from refrigerator into the freezer, eating sandwiches, Shredded Wheat before the milk went bad. Trees across the driveway blocked his automobile, but there were no stores open even if he could have gotten to them. No streetlights or traffic signals were working in the entire city. At night it was like being at the cabin in the country: no ambient light from any source. There was the sound of a few generators running, powering someone's refrigerator, a fan, radio, a lamp. It was eerily similar to the end-of-the-world movies. For the first two days the wind continued to blow, bands of rain falling, the weather cool enough to get some exhausted sleep. It was Wednesday before an out of town crew was hired to cut a path through the trees across the driveway, those crews like Carpetbaggers after the Civil War, from North Carolina, Alabama, Ocean Springs, all seeking work in the devastation. Thursday the sun came out, the humidity rising and the nights miserable; he would sit in the dark with as few clothes on as possible, candles in every room, hurricane lamps aglow, reading (because there was nothing else to do) by booklight and flashlight, finishing three books in as many days. Every day, he started by burying two or three koi he and his wife had raised, ten-pounders and bigger, each floating in the water pitch black from the undissolved oxygen, beautiful fish, raised from thumb-sized specimens. It was like burying pets each day.

When the lightless nights were becoming the norm, when it was second nature to light candles and lamps at dusk to keep from entering totally dark rooms, the lights came on a week later at Sunday dusk, the light over the kitchen sink suddenly lighting a small area on the patio, the sound of the pond pump with its first surge of water through the hose into the waterfall basin. Finally back to teaching classes after that week off, he would come home into air conditioning, watching off-air TV because the cable was still out, and feeling for weeks to come somehow still disconnected, disgruntled, discovering it was the aftermath shock of driving home along a street no longer the same, a stranger street, not the same neighborhood of so many years before.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Warren Eyster / Writer & Teacher

   My writing resume usually starts with the fact that I studied writing at LSU with Walker Percy and Vance Bourjaily, both known to interested folks as two great writers. I list them for just that reason, to have someone think, Wow, two fine writers and this unknown studied with them so let’s pay attention to his work because he must have some talent. If that has ever been the case it is surely talent by association. But as well-known as those two writers are, there was another writer and teacher at LSU who influenced me more than Percy and Bourjaily.
   Merely scratching the surface, here are a few facts about Warren Eyster, my old undergraduate creative writing teacher.
   He was born in Steelton, Pennsylvania, in 1925, and after high school, Eyster became a hydraulic repairman in the Army Air Corps and, in 1942, joined the Navy. His experience in the navy was to be the basis for his novel Far from the Customary Skies, set on a navy destroyer operating in the Far East during World War II.  While in graduate school at the University of Virginia, he wrote half of that first novel as short stories, and after leaving Charlottesville he devoted himself entirely to writing. Audrey Wood, primarily a theatrical agent, with clients like Tennessee Williams and William Inge, nearly succeeded in persuading Little Brown to publish his first novel. Instead, David McDowell at Random House became his editor and with support from Bob Haas and Bennett Cerf, Eyster became acquainted with a number of writers, including James Agee, Robert Penn Warren, Mario Puzo, William Carlos Williams, Budd Schulberg, and William F. Buckley. In 1954 he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to work with aspiring Mexican writers at El Centro Mexicano de Escritores in Mexico City. Finishing a second novel, No Country For Old Men, Eyster started to write a novel about a Mexican revolution. He also translated the first three chapters of a Carlos Fuentes novel, Where the Air Is Clear, and  was instrumental in getting it published. The movie, The Old Gringo, was based on conversations Eyster had with Carlos about Ambrose Bierce and his determination to bring about his own death by becoming a spy for Pancho Villa.
   In 1970 Warren Eyster came to Louisiana State University and became coordinator of the undergraduate writing program, teaching courses in writing short stories, novels and plays. Since it bolstered decreasing enrollment in English—even future journalists and law students particularly interested in creative writing courses—the writing program became more acceptable to the English department, allowing students like John Ed Bradley, James Colburn, and Valerie Martin to take more than 20 hours of undergraduate writing classes.
   In the early ‘70’s, he reminded me of Columbo, the television detective played brilliantly by Peter Falk. Short, a little stocky, clothes always giving the wrinkled-at-the-end-of-the-day appearance, even first thing in the morning, like Columbo he seemed forgetful, his desk always piled high with stacks of short stories and plays and novel excerpts, all in danger of sliding off of his desk at any moment and some doing so occasionally. Always open to talking to any student who came to his office—official office hours or not—he often discussed books and films and then suddenly realized he was late for class, grabbing one stack from his desk and hurrying off and muttering a line from literature, I’m late, I’m late. The thing was, often hurrying behind him to the same class, I was always amazed he had read every story and had jotted down succinct notes that always pointed to improvement in the narrative. Like Columbo, his appearance was deceiving, like the character’s seemingly faltering style, the sudden remembered question to ask, Eyster’s comments on each student’s work were never less than concrete clues that led to the solution of a story. Like Columbo as played by Peter Falk, at the end of each episode, there is a realization of being fooled by appearance. Warren Eyster was never less than a brilliant teacher in disguise, kind and caring of his student’s success, and always willing to impart everything he knew about the craft of writing.
   Thank you, Mr. Eyster.
   Any writing achievement is from the association with you.
   In recognition of your accomplishments, your name will always be mentioned.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Value of Illness: Love Again

     I wish I could say my daughter’s almost deadly battle with encephalitis brought quick changes, an appreciation of living in the moment, magically the nearness of death immediately forging Dee and me back together as loving husband and wife. But, in fact, Jennifer’s long rehabilitation brought more paranoia—Jen asking in the early months if she was dead—all of us expecting the next foundation brick to loosen and slip out, bringing another crisis of health for Jen, for any of us. The months rolling along were just chaos with familiar faces: Jen’s continuing recovery, how far she could come back, and the fallout from all the expenses the insurance didn’t cover. The simplest decisions took effort, the movement forward weighted down with the feeling that little mattered, that daily concerns were just battles contested with slight gain and little reward.
     It was much later that Dee and I realized our daughter’s illness did reveal within us strengths and weaknesses and concern and care and love that both of us had forgotten in the other.

    We dated in junior high, high school, the usual breakups, one so bad we went our separate ways to college, and Dee got married, eventually divorcing, and we came back together a few years later, her pregnancy happily bonding us for life.
    The marriage dynamic started like most marriages do: loving, caring, the sense of great adventures to come, and eventually the gift of children, Laurie and Jennifer, and a love for them that brought a welcomed understanding that they were the most important people in the world, suddenly shifting self-interest to a lower rung—at least for a long period of time, until those wizard-hiding curtains began falling for us, revealing a Raymond and Dee neither one of us really knew.
We separated, tried again, separated, me staying away from Dee and the girls for weeks at a time. A year or two of this until Dee finally announced she was tired of ping pong and had rented an apartment. I was an angry man, knowing I hadn’t given her my best but feeling like I had, telling her, fine, go on, get the hell out if that’s what you want.
She went.
The girls stayed.
In her usual quick decision way, oldest daughter Laurie said she was not moving out of the house since her friends were all nearby. Still following our old edict of treating them like an equal member of the family early on, Dee reluctantly swallowed the hurt and allowed Laurie’s decision to become law. Oh, yes, I should have been the one to move out of the house but my anger was hard resolve not to make it any easier for my wife. Jen told Dee privately that she couldn’t move out of the house because someone had to look after me. Nothing said could convince Jen that taking care of her father was not her job. So the positions were fixed.
Dee became the self-imposed outcast, and I saw the pain she attempted to hide every time she came by the house to pick the girls up for shopping or eating out, the pain of simply not being with her daughters on a daily basis. I smothered my pain with anger and alcohol and my sense that everything put together does eventually fall apart.

Routine did settle in, the anger veiled by common courtesy and consideration for the girls, the years rolling along in this city on the river, a time when Laurie viewed me with suspicion, knowing something else might change again and interrupt the delicate balance of her life. Jen was more concerned with everyday issues, school, getting together with friends, even shopping with me at the grocery store and quickly planting herself in front of the cooler with ten pound packs of legs and thighs, throwing her arms wide open and saying, No, Dad, no more chicken, please, no more chicken for a while. Without anything being said about it, Dee and I always attended any function the girls asked us to, showing up as a united front as their parents. Repeated over the next several years, our continuing association and long history together did smooth over those initial reactions when we first separated, the anger that was sometimes directed at each other by deficiencies within ourselves, our lives as a broken family now accommodated somehow.

     So we went through Jennifer’s illness united in battle.
   Starting with fever and terrible headaches, the trip to the emergency room, negative drug test, Jennifer was more and more out of touch, not knowing what was real. The Behavioral Unit, walking around barefooted, talking incoherently to imaginary people, pulling her hair out, coming back suddenly for a moment of clarity.
     Two weeks, no control, and finally a spinal tap.
     An inflammation of the brain due to an infection, a virus.
   After being transferred to the critical care wing, I walked into the room, expecting a calmer Jen, sedated perhaps, but seeing her attempting to sit up, eyes closed, straining violently against the cloth restraints, instinctively fighting what was happening to her, my soul plunged along with my daughter during that long night, Jen descending into a coma, Dee constantly yanking her up to sitting positions, yelling at her, Breath, Jennifer!

    Even those days became routine: carrying on and dealing with the constant monitoring of machines and infections and bodily functions (or lack of them), Dee and I making an effort at small talk, at being interested in matters outside of the hospital, most times the effort of reading a newspaper or book or watching the TV high up on the wall too much to overcome, walking the halls when the need to escape the room was high, peering into other sick rooms when doing so, making eye contact with other vigilant people, the heaviness of waiting etched always in expectant looks, wondering at other stories of illnesses, nodding at the thin young man in his robe wasting away from AIDS, wondering at his thoughts as he stood at the end of the corridor looking out the window, knowing (unlike Jen) just how ill he was, knowing the prognosis was dim, dealing with it the only way any of us could, one moment at a time, one after the other, then again and again, moments rushing together so quickly but strung out so endlessly that the fabric of time finally stretches and slows down.

     After a year of rehabilitation in Texas, the lowest moment of the entire ordeal came a couple of days after Christmas
     It was also the moment, looking into Dee’s eyes, I realized how much I still loved her.
   When Jennifer was between her junior and senior years in high school, she was one of 19 girls chosen to attend the Women in Science Program at Harvard University. Math, science, it all came easily for her, rarely cracking books in high school where she ended up as Salutatorian, the girl as a fearless child with a fistful of earthworms approaching the house and dumping them on the steps for study.
     Jen was home from rehab in Texas until after the first of the New Year. Dee and I were standing in the kitchen when Jen came back from checking the mail. She opened a questionnaire from the Summer Science Program at Harvard, flipping to the information about the girls she was there with in 1989. Her eyes rounded slightly as she read about their accomplishments, those doing scientific research, those working as doctors in major hospitals, and Jen broke down, crying, trying to talk while sobbing.
      I am never going to be a doctor.
     Dee and I encircled her in our arms, the three of us standing there, hugging and trying to comfort each other.
     Jen wailed and said, It is so hard when dreams die.
    My heart literally changed at that moment, the ache unlike anything I have ever felt in that one moment I had dreaded for all of the last year, watching her confronting the realization that her life had spun out of her control, hearing her admit that her dreams were no longer valid, seeing the pain of the last year made visible on her face, looking into Dee’s eyes and seeing her pain also, all driving home the random injustice of serious illness, the dark chaos always circling that will someday claim us all, realizing in that moment we have but one weapon.

     Months later, coming up out of sleep because of the rolling thunder and the constant lightning, alone since Jennifer was spending the night at a friend’s house, I was in the dining area off the kitchen, looking out of the rain-smeared bank of floor-to-ceiling windows when a huge tree came crashing down across the roof, almost slicing the house in half, exploding into the book-lined den with limbs as big around as my waist and legs, and it felt like a tank at full speed had run into the house, the impact of it surely like the first huge shock of a California earthquake, the floor shifting suddenly once, equilibrium suddenly suspect. Waterfalls with leaves and twigs and pieces of wooden roof and tar paper and bits of insulation and black shingles poured down to the parquet floors, splashing walls and running into other rooms torqued out of plumb.

     I called Dee and plugged the coffee pot in, knowing the electricity would be turned off for safety reasons when the firemen arrived. Surprisingly, a miracle to me, the books in the den, some ruined, yes, but I found the tightly shelved ones with only wet spines on the dust jackets.
A reluctant but accommodating Dee welcomed me, providing the last puzzle piece, reshaping our relational landscape.
     Refusing to leave the neighborhood after the destruction, her illness now dictating the notion that she had to be close to the destroyed house, to her actual possessions, Jen stayed for weeks with a good friend across the street, and from the front yard Jen watched the tree being removed, so large it had to be cut in desk-sized segments in order to be lifted by the crane, watching and wondering in her post traumatic stress phase what use the tree could now serve, knowing—with the help of her therapist—and laughing softly after she realized the tree was a symbol of herself: a once strong entity felled, the usefulness of it changed in a moment in another direction, lasting forever.
     Slowly, that morning storm brought Dee and me together again, me lacking resources to rent another place, back to living under one roof, an effort of graciousness on her part, me the grateful guest. Discovering the comfort of company while sitting across the table from each other, good food on the table between us, conversation was a forgotten joy revealed again in the talk of everyday news and the shared history of raising children, seeing one through a terrible illness along the way. Never mind that certain subjects were skirted and some events were off the radar for now, never mind the wariness flashing for a moment in the eyes, in the bodily shift on the kitchen chair, never mind all that. For the talk was a courtship again, the good parts history between us a starting point to begin again, to see if eventual openness came and the bad parts version could be discussed and accommodations made to lay it all to rest.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Heart Attack Friday

   According to one of the cardiologists, I had a “big” heart attack on Friday. It actually began Thursday evening with discomfort behind the sternum, from stress I thought from financial concerns in retirement and because my wife was ill. Took aspirin and meds for my arthritis and went to bed. Awoke at 4:30 Friday morning with the same discomfort and knew that was unusual but went back to sleep for a while, always the best way to escape. Inclined as most are when it comes to doctors and hospital, I put off doing anything, aware of the discomfort and now some pain on the back of my left bicep—something felt plenty of times from arthritic pain in that shoulder. For short periods of time, the discomfort and bicep pain were joined by slight pain along the jawline and all three were with me until early afternoon Friday.

   My father died over forty years ago of a heart attack at the age of 58, and I had experienced sympathetic chest pains for months after the funeral. Despite being profoundly scared and knowing from that experience the symptoms of a failing heart, I was still surprised I so willingly drove myself to the hospital. The pain was hardly severe, not at all like the pain radiating across my father’s back that had made him sick to his stomach. What I was thinking in going to the hospital was not being in annoying discomfort for the weekend. I had books to read and writing to be done.

   If you ever want to immediately get admitted to the emergency room, do as I did. Tell them, “I know this may sound dramatic, but I need to see if I’m having a heart attack.” From the moment of uttering those words until I was on the gurney in an operating room, naked except for a gown until one of the men put a warmed blanket on me, in that span of an early quick EKG and a doctor asking if I knew I was in atrial fibrillation and had high blood pressure (no to the first, never ever had the second), from the moment of being on a gurney amid a gathering heart team and racing down a hall, from that first utterance about checking to see if I was having a heart attack to having a line installed from groin to heart along mysterious pathways and three stents installed in an artery with 99% blockage, in that time, maybe, maybe, maybe far less than one hour had raced by.

   I was never in a great deal of pain, feeling only flushed warmth during the procedure. There was some pain from two IVs, some slight pain from the shaved pubic start of the pathway to the heart. The endless blood gathering always hurt and bruised, but the most pain came from countless sticky contact pads for always awkward and tangled lifelines connected to them. Despite shaving various hairy areas, the worst pain was the removal of two hand-sized sticky pads stuck to chest and all the hairs upon it in case I needed some shock therapy other than to the head. After just one was yanked off I was ready to confess all the bad things I had ever done.

   I believe there is always a value to serious illness. After my daughter’s almost deadly battle with encephalitis, it was learning not to sweat the countless and ultimately meaningless small stuff that makes up so much of life. Her illness also brought an appreciation of living in the moment. True of all serious illness, I guess. But I learned something entirely different from having a heart attack.

   Dreading it despite knowing it is mostly an infinitesimal part of living, I have always been afraid of the actual act of dying since I was old enough to understand the process. Somehow, lying there on the table before snaking a line up to my heart and installing three stents to save my life, despite knowing I could go into a full-flown attack and die, I felt no great fear, and part of that may have been the speed of the process from when I first spoke to the lady at the ER window. It was a feeling that one of the shoes had dropped, that finally the end process had become visible. Not that I wanted it or welcomed it, but it was a dance with the actual end game that binds all humans most strongly to each other.

   I am not sure what the lack of fear during that dance with mortality means ultimately. Maybe I’ll be a better person. Wife and children would have welcomed that early on. If it means I’ll appreciate even more the time I have left, that will be grand. I will enjoy my family and watching my granddaughters grow into beautifully brilliant young women. So far though other fears are creeping in, no doubt to balance my earlier lack of fear when I was having the heart attack, small daily concerns now: the blood thinner that has created problems already; no leafy greens in the diet because they cancel out another medicine; and being told not to miss taking another drug because I now have foreign bodies in my artery and the body loves to clot around anything not its own. Perhaps another lesson for me from my illness: sometimes you do have to sweat the small stuff.
  I’m just glad I’m still in the classroom.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Reelin' in the Years

   After my husband passed away, oh, several days later, a nice man took me in.
   My mother has compressed time, my father dead of a heart attack 43 years ago, and the man is my older brother, Willie, who a year earlier brought her to live with him and his wife.
   I am the youngest son standing, bringing my mother for weekend visits where she perseverates like a sad Abbott and Costello routine, the same litany over and over, wondering when her family is going to pick her up.
   Oh, I don’t know what to do.
   What do you have to do, Mama?
   I thought somebody would come for me.
   You’re living with Willie now, your oldest son. You're visiting me, Raymond, your youngest son.
   Her mouth rounds in momentary understanding.
   Pause, rewind, repeat.
   My Mama will spank my butt ‘cause I didn’t come home.
   Her memories are a collapsing star, my grandmother gone almost six decades.

   Sometimes she can be diverted briefly.
   After a supper of fried chicken, I lean over and say she must have eaten a lot of fried chicken growing up on the farm in Mississippi.
   You raised chickens, right?
   Oh, Lord, yes.
   So you must have eaten plenty of them.
   Oh, yes. And eggs.
   And your Daddy had a smokehouse, didn’t he?
   He did.
   She nods once, the memory sharp for a moment of the smokehouse some distance away from the farmhouse.
   Meat was cured there, right, Mama?
   Another nod.
   Probably butchered hogs and calves, maybe some venison.
   There was a garden also.
   Oh, yes.
   A nod, chores growing up: picking butter beans and string beans and peas, potatoes and okra.
   You ate good things on the farm.
   A nod, less decisive, looking down at her hands, rubbing them.
   Your hands hurt, Mama?
   Old and wrinkled, she says softly.
   That’s okay. All of our hands are getting old and wrinkled.
   My Mama is gonna whip my butt.