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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) 105-114
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The universe is made of stories, not atoms.
The phone rings.
I've just come through the door hot and tired from an eight-hour remedial driving class called STOP, an option for speeders like me. The other option is a ticket and a huge fine. This one is a 50-dollar fine, no points deducted, no ticket, and only a full day of writing lost. (My younger son, Aaron, who is transsexual and lives across the country, is working hard with me on a book of essays we're writing together.) Because it's rush hour, I've walked to and from class. The burning sidewalks have softened the rubber soles of my running shoes. The telephone receiver is heavy as I pick up but maybe it's Aaron.
My husband, Dale, says, get ready for a road trip, he's on his way home. Vernon, his father, is in the hospital. I pack jeans and tee shirts for two, fill the cooler with sandwiches and cold grapes. We throw stuff in the car and, as we turn onto the highway, the dashboard thermometer reads 102 degrees. Then we drive very fast.
In three hours we're with the family in a second floor hospital waiting room—three sons, daughters-in-law, their children, grandchildren, and a baby great-great in his papa's arms. What's wrong with Vernon? Does he have meningitis? His neck is stiff, he has fever. Or a stroke? Who knows? We go see. Vernon is sleeping, mouth open without his teeth. He shakes, his fever rises. A nurse with a name tag, Babs, jars his shoulder, asks him a question. He opens his eyes, answers her. She looks at us. Correct, she asks? Correct, we say. All three sons are in the room. Babs asks Vernon how he feels. Tired, he says. Then he falls asleep for three days.
Vernon's doctor arrives. He went to high school with Dale, who is the oldest son here. The doctor walks on his toes like a bird. In his polyester [End Page 105] slacks, sport shirt, and stethoscope he seems to be decades older than Dale in his jeans. They walk straight to Vernon's bedside, no hesitation at the door. Dale touches his sleeping dad's arms, forehead, sits down in the green vinyl chair for the duration. The doctor says he doesn't know anything yet.
All day and into the night Dale sits, bends over the bed, moistens his father's open, empty mouth with green sponges on a stick. He wipes away brown saliva with a tissue. These transactions take place in silence, the family way. For hours Dale takes turns with his brothers in the chair next to the bed, holding their father's hands through his growing agitation, scenarios, visions. Vernon was a jeweler in his working life. Now he spills tiny diamonds on the linoleum floor, reaches high into the air to sweep them up. Then he's in jail. The boys, grown men now, cooperate to help their father as they can. They sleep fitfully in recliners. The daughters-in-law leave at night, taking along the kids. But everyone stays close. We're family. We have come far to be here. At last Vernon awakens, improves, and the family spreads out to interview nursing homes.
But in the middle of the third night of Vernon's crisis, in a motel bathroom, I fall desperately ill and am hospitalized the next day, two doors down from Vernon.
Nine entries to the body, seven matte bruises, seven IV sites, for support, seven veils of shiny mirage weaving their yellow leaves, paper pages I'm sorting, each swirl an event in the living world. The stories shift sleep to sleep, but always the dreamer is sorting pages, each a frame. Multitasking is a habit of mind, she figures, even as her body sleeps in its web of fluids. Pared down to the rinsed self, focus is perception: tears, wax...