From Wikipedia: Creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Forms within this genre include biography, autobiography, memoir, diary, travel writing, food writing, literary journalism, chronicle, personal essays and other hybridized essays. According to Vivian Gornick, "A memoir is a tale taken from life—that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences—related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story: to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader."
A Fear of February (a tale taken from life).
I’m standing in the hall in front of the ICU at a local Catholic hospital waiting to see a friend, whose chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer has put her pancreas in life-threatening mutiny. Only one visitor is allowed in at a time. A crucified Jesus sculpture rests on the wall next to me. His open wounds seem wrong in this place where blood-borne pathogen safety is sacred. I resist the urge to put Band-Aids over the plaster Jesus’ stigmata. February approaches, and I am uneasy standing in the hallway waiting.
I am suspicious of February.
All in all, I’d have to say I lead a more charmed life than most, but Saint Valentine’s month has been a long-standing host of tragic misfortunes and hassles for my friends and family. If each calendar year could be thought of as a chance at bat in our lives, then February would be the dreaded change-up or insurmountable knuckle-ball in my pitch count. February shifts the ball deep into its glove, rubs in a little hidden Vaseline curse, and delivers its goods looking like Roger Clemens going for a bean ball.
I know, you’re thinking it can’t be so scary if I know when the pitcher will toss that pitch I’m not going to like. But what if you only knew it was going to be a bad pitch, that you couldn’t hit the ball in play no matter what, and that the umpire was always going to call that pitch a strike? Psychologists say that knowing something bad is going to happen is worse than being oblivious to it when you have no control over the situation – fear paralyzes you when you might otherwise walk on ignorantly unscathed.
I was in a different hospital hallway twenty years ago, when February pitched its first really convincing twister.
It really all started with a dog and a cat.
My first dog, a Brittany Spaniel, named Cocoa, was two years old when I came into the family. Her tail had not been docked like most Brittany Spaniels, so it stood up like a big white willowy feather wherever she went and announced where I could find her. Her soft chocolate and bright white fur was like a cup of Swiss mocha with marshmallows to a kid. When I was a toddler, she followed me everywhere, even along the beaches of Galveston. She didn’t like the booming surf and gritty sand much, but she went into the long crashing tide line when I did. She hauled me away from trouble and deep waters by barking and tugging at my socks or diaper until I fell away or gave up on dangerous intentions. As I grew, she was my pillow when we watched Saturday morning cartoons, and she was the weight holding my feet sure to the ground whenever I sat around reading fairy tales. In the February of my twelfth year, Cocoa got old and tired and quietly died. I felt the life go out of her body as I held her, my tear salty face buried in the familiar fur of her shoulders.
The cat belonged to my older brother. We called the cat Easy, because he could easily fall asleep anywhere instantly. Easy was at a loss in the days after Cocoa died. I think he missed antagonizing Cocoa by kamikaze sleeping in whatever spot she wanted first. He slept on the sidewalk in front of the house the first few days after Cocoa died, as if she was just walking around the block beyond his domain and he had decided to wait. A few mornings later, before school, a neighbor brought Easy’s lifeless body back to our door as I went out to catch the bus. Easy had fallen asleep in the street and had been run over by a car. Dad called my brother at college. I stared blindly at the spot at my feet where my guardian dog should have been and listened in as my brother, my hero, softly cried on the phone over our losses. February was just warming up.
The real breaking ball came the next year. I was thirteen, gangly and awkward in the eighth grade, but a seventh grader named Jennifer thought I was heroically cool. She mimicked my volleyball serve, my three-point jump shot, the way I tilted my batting helmet, my affinity for reading books in the bleachers, and my crushes on outsider boys. She found me after basketball practice in early February, when I was feeling as dejected and worthless as my cheap generic tennis shoes, plugging balls at the basket in an empty gym. I was too young and self-centered to know what she wanted and so I didn’t invite her to shoot too. I quit to give her the gym and as I picked up my ball and smiled on my way out, she waved and shouted, “Hey, you know you’re my hero?”
Like anyone without self-confidence, I shrugged off her praise with a self-disparaging retort.
The next day Jennifer and two of my other softball teammates went to a high school basketball game. I’d planned to ride with them, but I was running a fever after school and feeling crummy so I opted out. I spent the evening curled up in a blanket in a lawn chair on the deck, drifting in and out of sleep. The cool humid air felt good on my feverish skin and I felt better outside listening to the rustle of leaves. Eventually Mom came out to force me inside. Clouds had covered the sky and they were lit a strong strange orange. We listened as sirens and a helicopter sounded in the distance, not knowing February was winding up real malice.
The next morning, our coach called to say Saturday practice was canceled. Jennifer, Jill, and Karen’s car had been hit from behind by a drunk driver on the way home from the game. Jennifer was thrown through the car windshield. Every bone in her body had been broken. Mom could only say that Jennifer had held on until about an hour ago, but Jill and Karen were still in critical condition, as if that was at least some consolation. No one prepares parents for telling their children these sorts of things.
I rode along to the hospital with Jill’s older sister. She said that doing nothing would probably feel better as long as we were near enough to do something if needed. We stood in that hospital hallway until Karen’s sister Mary walked out of ICU and saw us. She’d been feeling sick too last night and hadn’t gone to the game either. I stood there as she cried in my arms, our escape guilt an implicit mutual ingredient in our shock. The ocean of hospital sounds moved on around us.
Tuesday was the funeral. I sat between Mary and Alice among a tight school of bodies drifting dumb through the waters of ceremony. I made none of my characteristic side comments, for which Alice had nick-named me after SE Hinton’s Two-bit. So Alice and I placed red carnations on the casket. I remembered how Jennifer had told us about reading somewhere that carnations were considered roses for peasants. Jennifer’s mom wailed and sputtered denials as reality came back to her at random intervals. A vise squeezed my hearts each time, but I choked back my own sobs as somehow too inferior to show next to a mother’s anguish. I felt stunned in the same way a batter looks blustery and bluff the first time an umpire makes a really bad call.
By the February of my sophomore year of high school, Dad and I had been driving to Austin every weekend for three months to give my Grandma a break watching my Grandpa. Grandpa had a stroke that paralyzed his whole left side. Many days he cried with embarrassment as Dad helped the nurse shift his lean farmer’s body to change a diaper. Dad said nothing, but held his Dad’s hand, and asked me for small things (a coffee, a napkin) in smooth tones with his other big hand on my shoulder and his eyes on the wall. His stoic manners were familiar and comfortable to me, but then, the last weekend we would see Grandpa alive, Dad lost it. We got in the van to drive four hours’ home from the hospital on Sunday evening. My Gibraltar-rock Daddy, put his face in his hands and wept uncontrollably over losing his Daddy, over having to watch his proud father deteriorate cumbersomely against his own will, and over all the things he’d never said to his Dad. I did all a helpless daughter could do. I sat, waited, listened, and let his tears flow without showing him how much it scared me to know the world was as big and absurd to him as it seemed to me. The following week Grandpa had another stroke and died. Our next trip to Austin was in the stiff somber clothes of a family in mourning. I was starting to see a correlation in the timing, getting to know when my pitcher most liked to throw the nasty stuff, and I was learning to fear.
The February of my senior year I had a dream, a nightmare. I was deep in a boreal forest near the kinds of rocks and creeks and twisty trails I love, camping. But hordes of menacing black spiders covered the ground, harbored in the trees, dominated rocks, and swarmed at me. I ran for the tent, aiming for at least a fabric barrier that could shelter me. In the tent, my mother’s father sat on a camp chair in an appealing empty void of spiders and green light. He smiled at my tripped-up harried entrance, the same proud grin I’d seen play over him for as long as I could remember. He handed me his old whittling pocket knife and told me he didn’t need it anymore, but I would.
When my alarm clock went off, I got out of bed, and wandered down the hall to brush my teeth. I heard the phone ring as I rinsed my mouth. As I washed the sink out, Dad knocked on the bathroom door to give me the news. Mom’s dad had a massive stroke and died earlier that morning. The man who taught me to play checkers so well that I still haven’t lost a match almost forty years later was gone. The man who taught Mom and I both to learn anything and everything by reading was no more with us. Mom is a Daddy’s girl. I slipped into my parents bed room and held Mom has she cried and told me how weird it felt to know your biggest fan, your most unconditional support in the world, was not with you anymore. A few days later, after the funeral, I opened a small box of stuff Grandma had sent home with Mom for me to keep to remember Grandpa. I touched the smooth worn handle of his whittling pocket knife like touching his hand again. I began to think I could plot a way to bat through February, maybe learn to get way ahead in the count and then just take the rotten pitch without striking out or letting my teammates down.
Years later I was interning at NASA in a lab. I was impressed by the astronauts who came in to participate in an experiment on a neuro-vestibular platform that was supposed to help them readjust their balance to earth more quickly after flight. KC was a first of her kind astronaut. I accidentally copied her on an email about a brown-bag lunch for our lab while she was buried in training for a mission. She showed up to the lunch anyway and told me how glad she was I’d copied her and how much she liked our lab’s work. The launch of the mission in January was flawless. Over the course of the mission KC and the rest of the crew got more science objectives accomplished than anyone expected.
When February 1, 2003 rolled out, I was feeling relaxed and hopeful. That Saturday was blue, clear and mild. Morning sun shone through my windows with real warmth as I got dressed to go to a rugby match. The whole day would be spent playing this screwball game with friends and I was savoring the diversion from sitting face first at a PC monitor at school and work. I was desperately trying to remember what a flanker, the position I was to play, was supposed to do when the phone rang. Mom told me I’d better turn on the news because they were saying the shuttle exploded on landing. The radio clarified that the shuttle, with KC, had disintegrated in a fiery streak over Texas during descent.
February hasn’t always pitched death. Sometimes it just pitched out screwball punishment. But every February brought an attack of some sort in the place I am most vulnerable: my friends, family and loved ones. There was the February my first serious boyfriend proposed to me, way before I was ready to even consider marriage, and I had to watch my words of refusal cut his world into bite-sized ribbons of uncertainty. There was the February my Aunt was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The February my spunky great grandmother died weeks before her 100th birthday. The February I told my parents I was in love with a woman and watched them cry about the social hazards of lesbianism. The February my first real love, the one I thought I would marry, walked out on me for someone else—who was really bad for her. The February my dissertation chair bailed out on me and prolonged my dissertation by 18 months of crying struggle that exacted a toll on all my friends and family. The February my mentor had a quadruple bypass. The February another girlfriend had an affair with a histrionic psychopath while I paid all the bills and tried to keep step-parenting well. Sometimes there was something I could do to help clean up the inning, but usually all I could do was watch Valentine’s tawdry month break bats and chew up rally hats.
Usually all I could do was persist.
So here I am, in that Catholic hospital hallway, waiting to see what it looks like this year.
Kate exits the ICU doors and it is my turn to go see Darla. Darla is a strong woman with a sharp wit. She is a black woman who grew up in inner-city LA and propelled herself through medical school back when women, let alone, minorities were not so easily admitted. She has sat in my office’s visitor chair and shared coffee and wisdom with me for the last year. We’ve shared reference books and plotted practical jokes on co-workers together. We’ve empathized over the folks we couldn’t help with our different brands of psychological training. Darla has three teenage children and she is her husband’s true partner. I swallow and try to keep my composure as I think all of this and look at Kate. She gauges the look on my face as just cool concern for Darla alone, squeezes my arm, and smiles at me. I smile back, and then put on my game face, the one I know Darla needs to see.
“You’re so quick to care and slow to panic.” Kate reassures me as I hand her my cell phone and walk in.
Am I? Fear is thick swaddled about me, but maybe Kate is right. I have no panic, just careful fear. What will February bring this year? Who will it take out of my life? How far down in the count am I? On one hand, I want to scream at the stupid mother -fucker to bring it on. Maybe blazing resistance will buy us all some peace by fooling February into throwing one in the actual strike zone. On the other hand, I’d like to reason with February for a minute or two—like Babe Ruth reasoned with Charlie Root after that second strike. I mean I’ve been here year after year, mucking through the tears and clawing my way to a better appreciation of life’s beauty every time. My hands and my heart only open more each year, so why should February keep bothering?
I’m not just going to give up and strike out. I will get on base.
I think back and remember the six months following Jennifer’s death. Our softball team was short three of its starting players the whole season. No one expected our team to make playoffs that way, let alone go to Nationals. My older brother stepped in that May, home from college, to help coach for the first time. We scrapped our way through eight games in the losers’ bracket at the state playoffs in July with just one pitcher on our roster. Five of us batted better than a seven hundred average for the tournament. We were one run ahead in the last inning of the championship game with one out and a runner on third when the batter hit a deep fly to right field. Alice made the catch and came up gunning for home plate with all her might as the runner on third tagged up and busted toward home plate. I snagged Alice's throw, gripping it tight in my glove, and tagged the runner mid-slide for the final out.
The whole field went wild. I jumped up and down, and threw off my helmet and mask. Before I could remove any more of my gear, my brother raced across the field, threw me in the air and twirled me around with my leg guards clanking joyfully.
That following August would have been, should have been, and in some way was, Jennifer’s first time to play at Nationals. We stepped on the field for our first game at Nationals, and the unknown crowds cheered our infamous under-dog team. The whole day smelled of clean grass, sweet dirt, salt sweat, and old leather in the sun. Crickets joined the chorus of crowd swells underneath the haloed lights as we played through the night. I could taste hope.
When I walk out of the hospital, after seeing Darla, it is raining cold, clean, fat drops of fragrant, life-renewing rain. Somewhere in the darkness a distant radio plays Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Texas Flood. I walk on, my fear forging my hope new again.