by James Warren Boyd
Though the Laguna Beach hospital was familiar to me, the ICU was not. The entrance seemed like something out of a Cold War spy thriller, with its doubled-paned glass on thick doors, flat rectangle of steel covering the lock case, flashing lights, and wall-mounted phone. I picked up the handset, identified myself as the son of Eva Marie Boyd—so strange to use any name other than “Mother”—and was admitted with a loud buzz and the metallic thunk of the door being unbolted. The nurses’ station directed me to a room across from their administrative island. When I walked in, my Dad looked up me, his eyes puffy and swollen, and then back at my mother. I followed his gaze. A large tube, which stretched one corner of her half-opened mouth, jerked and hissed to initiate her chest’s rise and fall. I approached the bed and reached for her hand, getting tangled in the wire clipped to her forefinger.
“Don’t leave me; oh God, Mother, please don’t leave,” I said gently at first, and then half-shouting through hot blindness.
There was no reply. That first day, that entire week, she never emerged from her coma. The only time her body reacted was to grimace as they moved her around, and to open her eyes halfway when my older brother Chuck (not me, not my Dad, not the doctors or nurses—only her first born) called out “Mother.”
Nine years earlier, during my first autumn as a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland, my host father, Richard, died.
After attending a training conference over what was Thanksgiving weekend in the States, I returned to Radom where I had trained and been placed as a college instructor. It was the first time I had seen the large, industrial city under a fresh blanket of snow; frankly, the white covering the usual gritty grime was a vast improvement. When I got to my faculty dorm, I called my host family, with whom I had lived during my three months of training. Justyna, my host sister, answered the phone. She explained in a rush that her father had been having chest pains and had just been taken to the hospital. My host mother, Jadwiga, was with him and Justyna was going to leave shortly. I told her I would meet her and we would go over together.
After I got to the house, we walked to the flower shop and then the bus stop. The ice crunched under our boots as we walked quickly, softly singing Beatles songs we both knew, our way, perhaps, of whistling in the dark together. “Love, love me do, you know I love you….”
We arrived at the building, my first visit to a Polish hospital. Like so many things in Poland, it seemed simultaneously familiar and different, somehow through the looking glass. The reception area was devoid of warmth—no pictures, carpeting, plants—wholly industrial, just straight chairs on waxy tiles. Justyna led me through a maze of hallways, linoleum, and hinged doors. At the end of the final corridor, we saw Jadwiga, her back turned to us. I stopped where I was while Justyna walked toward her mother. They murmured in Polish and embraced. Then my host sister turned toward me, as my host mother covered her face with her hands, and said flatly, “James, my father is dead.” I looked through the glass encasing the room on our left and saw Richard’s body, cold and gray, his countenance taut, strained, and traumatized. I turned my eyes back toward Justyna, and stood in the fluorescent light while they held one another and wept.
The morning of my mother’s funeral it began to rain, droplets at first and then heavier and heavier until it was clear that the outdoor beach service which had been planned by my father would no longer be possible. Fortunately, my father’s neighbor Jaye, a petite gray-haired woman in her 60s, was the minister at a Presbyterian church nearby whose sanctuary was free that afternoon.
The church, which I had never seen, was bright inside despite the gray skies, lovely in its simplicity: tall rafters and long lean windows. My friends and I set about arranging pictures—large framed portraits we had snatched off the walls of my parents’ home just before the service—and flowers on the beige carpeted altar and steps. My father, brother, and I were alone in the front pew on the right. Strange, this tradition of separating family from friends at a time when it seems most appropriate for them to be seamlessly one. Jaye welcomed us all to the church, and after a brief sermon, invited the family members to speak.
Since she loved to watch David Letterman, I made a “Top 10 things I will miss about my Mother” list. I spoke of her charm, wit, and beauty. I gestured toward the framed portraits observing, “And she was indeed beautiful, which is a good thing since I look exactly like her in drag.” The deep, grateful laughter lowered my guard, and the rest of my words became increasingly choked in tears. I thanked everyone for coming and sat down. In the silence that followed, I could hear the rain pelting the windows with ferocity. Following a strong gust, everyone, it seemed, looked up to the upper windows of the church to see the storm whipping the palm trees about mercilessly and the rain pummeling the glass in rippling sheets.
My brother rose. Usually uncomfortable speaking in public and often guarded in his emotions and expressions of feelings, he now spoke evenly and tenderly of a time when he was ten and was run over by a bicycle in the parking lot at the Catholic school where my mother taught and we attended. He recounted that when my mother saw what happened, she came running over to him, scooped him up despite her 4’ 11” size, and ran with him in her arms as if he weighed nothing. He said he never had felt so safe, so sure that he would be taken care of.
When invited by the minister to speak, my father declined, shaking his head and returning the pastor’s gaze with glazed, pleading eyes. Jaye then invited others to share a remembrance. A former neighbor, Melanie, rose and shared that when she and her family moved from New Zealand into the house next door to my parents, my mother had brought over a box of Christmas decorations for them because Melanie had been lamenting not having hers in Laguna. She then spoke of my mother’s love for knitting, showing a scarf my mother had knit for her that past Christmas using special eyelash yarn. She said she noticed that other women at the service that afternoon had thought to wear their scarves from my mother as well. As if on cue, women dotted throughout the sanctuary reached up to the colorful handiwork around their necks, holding them out so that all might see.
As more mourners shared, I looked to my left. There, across the aisle, were a dozen of my friends, my dearest friends. It was so strange to see them all sitting together, these men and women from different times and places in my life, stranger still to see them so solemn, so serious, and so very adult.
In the days leading up to the funeral, everyone but me seemed to know what was expected. Justyna, who transformed from teenager to young adult in one week, was clearly in charge: collecting money, making phone calls, and receiving guests in their small, two-bedroom, Soviet-era apartment. Jadwiga seemed to be quietly going through the motions: cooking, ironing, drinking tea. At one point she turned to me when we were alone together in the living room—her eyes brimming with tears, her voice rising as she spoke from sorrow to an unnerving mix of anger, fear, and frustration—and asked “So teraz, James? So teraz?! [What now?!]” As she laid out Richard’s clothes, she asked me if I would shine the shoes he would be buried in. I polished them for an hour, spreading the shoe cream with a cloth, and buffing them with a boar’s hair brush in hard, strong strokes until I began to sweat. When I asked her if I should shine the soles as well, Jadwiga stopped, stared into my eyes as the color drained out of her face, nodded, and turned away.
The day of the funeral, the family and I, dressed in our long wool coats and carrying flowers, walked from the apartment to the small, wood-framed church nearby. Feeling simultaneously like family and not family, I was unsure of what to do or where to sit. Perhaps sensing this, Richard’s sister Ella, a now-retired fashion buyer who possessed an easy grace, began to periodically place her hand on my elbow to provide direction. After I walked up the church isle with the family, I began to place my flowers at the foot of the casket as I had seen others do. Ella gently took the wrist of my hand holding the bouquet and helped me place them on top of the casket with the rest of the family’s flowers.
After my mother’s memorial, taking the floral arrangements and enormous photos off the altar felt like striking a set, and with guests carrying flowers back to the house, more like leaving a wedding than a funeral. The storm was so strong that people stopped at the end of the church’s covered foyer, remarking, “Wow, it’s really coming down,” or “I’ve never seen it like this” as they stared out at the wall of rain. They stood there for a few moments, gently opening and closing their umbrellas as if to warm them up, before taking a breath and heading swiftly into the torrent.
My parents’ house in Laguna was an original beach cottage built in 1918. Behind the wall of hedges in the front was a secret garden of lush ferns, jade plants, and impatiens. A windy path of brick flowed from the entrance of the front garden, ending at the green-painted steps that led up to the front door of the A-framed house. When we arrived home, so deep was the flood in front of the house that the bricks were barely visible. People stood at the entrance to the front garden, not knowing how to get to the front door. Some tried walking along the side of the house, but the dirt path that way was muddy and slick. I went to the garage in the back of the house, took off my black corduroy blazer and began to grab things I thought I could throw down as stepping stones for people to walk on. I snatched two wooden square covers large as steel trash can lids that used to cover the coffee urns in my grandparents’ store in Fort Worth. I walked into the rain, wanting to get wet, wanting to feel washed clean. I placed the lids down, and spotted an old iron gate leaning against the house. I yanked it from the ground, ripping it away from the ivy that had grown on it. As I lifted the gate over my head, I could feel my now saturated shirt clinging to my torso. I hurled the twisted iron to the ground, causing a great wake of muddy water.
“You’re getting soaked,” someone said.
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” I mumbled, striding past her back to the backyard, the mud squishing around my shiny black shoes.
I grabbed two planks of wood left from rebuilding the fence. I could feel the heaviness of my wet wool trousers as I carried the planks to the front yard. I stepped on the lids, then the iron gate, and lay the planks down with a splash so they met the steps leading to the door. I walked back to the garage to retrieve my coat, stopping next to the tree on which my parents had mounted one side of their hammock in the summertime. I looked at the tree, then up at the sky, and let the rain fall on my face.
At the reception back at the apartment, Jadwiga and Justyna’s friends and relatives, sitting at a large U-shaped table topped with crisp white linen, were served course after course from the tiny kitchen. Justyna and I stood just outside the kitchen, waiting to be handed things to take to the table. I listened to the conversations, understanding a few isolated words and phrases in Polish: “heart…daughter…hospital…she called me…work…cigarettes…so quickly….” I could see Jadwiga begin to tell the tale of the past week to a small group of guests who listened and nodded. As she spoke, her spine began to straighten; there were still tears in her eyes, but the stunned fogginess had lifted. When dessert was ready to be served, she began moving around, stacking and taking plates to the kitchen, and offering tea. At one point, she and I crossed paths in the hallway. Jadwiga was carrying dirty dishes away while I was taking the plate of cookies I had made to the table. She passed her plates to someone else, stepped towards me, and took the cookies. She looked down at the plate and then up at me.
“Przykro mi [I’m sorry], Jadwiga,” I said, my eyes brimming with tears.
“Dziękuję [Thank you],” she said simply, returning my gaze. She squeezed my shoulder gently, turned, and strode toward the table. She moved the desserts that were on the top of a three-tiered server to the bottom, and replaced them with the cookies I had baked.
“These cookies,” she said in Polish as she continued to place them on the top tier, “were made by my American son, James.”
“Oh,” the guests murmured appreciatively as they reached for the top plate.
Jadwiga turned and looked at me with a slight smile that felt like sun.
A month later, I again stood near the tree in the Laguna yard, head tilted up and eyes closed, enjoying the feel on my face of the hot sun we so seldom get in San Francisco. I had come back to visit and help my father sort through my mother’s things, many of which had been damaged by flooding during the torrential rains. Among those wet things was a box in which, unbeknownst to me, my mother had kept almost every card I had ever made for her. I had taken these and spread them out over the back lawn to dry. When I opened my eyes to check their progress, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the decades of colorful cards I had made for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Easter. There, on the lawn drying in the bright sun was our relationship. Before long, I was sobbing in a way I could not control, blinded by a torrent of tears while the sound of my moans echoed in my head.
I cried until I couldn’t anymore. I stood there breathing in short gasps, like a child who has had a tantrum and has worn himself out. In my weary haze, I saw a butterfly in my parents’ herb garden on the other side of the lawn. As I looked, it flew toward me, and then began circling my body. My breath returned to normal and my eyes cleared as the butterfly fluttered around me again and again. Finally, it hovered above my shoulder for a brief moment. I could see a blur of wings out of the corner of my eye before it flew past the cards drying on the lawn, the garden, the gate, and away.
James Warren Boyd’s creative nonfiction stories have been published in literary journals Memoir, cream city review, Transfer, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Tusculum Review, and the online Superstition Review, Amarillo Bay, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. As a writer/performer, he has been featured in the Gay and Lesbian International Storytelling Festival, The San Francisco Theater Festival, and “Gay Writes!” at The Marsh. Boyd, who has master’s degrees in English and Communication Studies, is a Writing Center Coordinator and Lecturer at San Francisco State University and an Adjunct Professor at the University of San Francisco.