Tuesday, March 30, 2010

pray for us now, and at the hour of our death

There is no sound with the memory this time. It starts with looking at my hand pushing the half-open door the rest of the way. My eyes scan over the grey colored tile on the wall, and there is a dull, rushing, pulsating roar that builds and fades away over intermittent cycles. I see feet on the floor, and Dr. Spedden with her hand over her mouth. I go up the feet and see legs in jeans, small jeans, and the rest of a body. There is puke on the floor nearby, and then I can’t help myself. I look into her huge saucer eyes and see nothing and truth there. A huge squeezing overtakes me and I bolt upright in bed, blinking into the darkness.


I remember wearing that cobalt blue t-shirt my grandmother gave me, the one that said “Feelin’ Groovy” on it, and had a small embroidered red Volkswagen beetle in the center at the top. It was spring, mid-March; I was wearing a jacket, but not now in class. It was the second semester of World Masterpieces, taught by W. Todd Martin, a man with tendencies towards throat-clearing and utilizing his excellent French pronunciations. He was married to a French woman, named Brigitte, and they had two little French girls. This W. Todd, however, was an American, and obviously proud of the fact that he got to bed a Frenchwoman every night. It was obvious in the way he said Flaubert.

I drew a peacock on the edge of my notebook, with a word bubble coming out of the side of its mouth. The peacock was saying, “BOVARY!” and had the desired effect on the student sitting next to me, which was a stifled cough/grunt, with a painful facial expression. W. Todd cleared his throat directly at us and kept steamrolling on into the oblivion of French Literature. I turned to a fresh page in my notebook and wrote a poem about holding hands; I was planning on giving it to a girl I was having a nonsexual fling with, whom I would see in my next class, which was Spanish 212. I always date my work, but for some reason I felt the need to put the time on this one as well. I looked up at the ominous red-on-black digital clock at the front of the classroom, which read 2:38. I put my initials on the bottom along with the date and time, folded the note up, and put it in my back pocket for safekeeping.

There were no bells in college, so the professor could keep us over time by his own whim, if he so desired. The only thing that announced the passing of time was the old bell tower that looked over the campus, tolling off each fifteen minute mark from 8am to 8pm, daily. There were no real bells in it, but huge speakers and a CD player with bells discs, announcing not only the time but also playing long selections of various hymns, and at Christmastime, carols. These musical selections were only played at 8am, noon, and five, and the bells were always about a minute and a half late; you knew if you heard them while you were walking to class, you could count on a tardy. Some students I knew always talked about high-jacking the speaker system to blare out continuous AC/DC, but as long as I knew them it remained only talk.

On my way to my next class, I saw a variety of people that I knew, and many more that I didn’t know, who somehow miraculously knew my name. In all actuality, there was no miracle- I was the editor for the college newspaper at the time, so everyone knew my face as well as my opinions, or so they thought. People would smile at me as I passed on the sidewalk, casually say hello and my name, as nonchalantly as they might talk about what fast food restaurant they were going to. To this I would usually respond with, “How’s it going?” or “What have you been up to?” or the ever popular, “Hey hey!” never revealing, that of course, I knew none of them. To the friends I knew, I would stop and toss the latest around in rapid conversation, leaving with two fingers upraised and a goodbye along the lines of “Peace in the Middle East”.

I only had to walk a short distance to the building that my next class was in- the oldest building on campus, non-air conditioned, with temperamental radiator heating in winter. There were huge windows at desk level, left open in moderate and hot weather, that were deliciously inviting for stray balls of paper to find their way out of. There was a wonderful urban legend about a professor that had one time leaned on an overhead projector, which had been resting on a table next to one of these open windows, and promptly pushed it out into the cool air, from the third story. I had, in one of my classes in the same building during the previous year, been witness to a stray bat which flew into the room. Gallant young bible scholars quickly stunned the mammal, trapped it in a trash can, and threw the whole business out the window, after quickly checking for pedestrians some twenty feet below.

I was now in a classroom across the hall from the bat-toss adventure, rocking back in my chair, trying to balance it on its rear legs, all the while trying to balance the understanding of the preterite tense in my mind. Brought back to earth by the gentle but reprimanding, “Cecilia” from Señora, the legs of the chair hit the floor, followed by my own. I tried to converse vaguely in Spanish, but to no avail. I amused the class by being able to debase myself in another language, and so was able to divert attention from my inability to properly communicate. The instructor moved on, and I took the opportunity to slip the pocketed poem from the previous class over to the blonde girl sitting behind me and to my right. She smiled eagerly at me as she flipped the paper open and slipped it into her notebook, where it could be read unobtrusively. I gave a glance back at the clock as long as I was turned around; it read 3:27.

The girl I had just gone back in time to junior high with was named Kate; she was fabulous and I was in love with being around her. It was that wonderful stage of the friendship where everything about her is exciting. She made me feel more creative, at times smarter, and at times dumber. She was older than I by two years, and ahead of me in school by one. She was a music major, French horn to be precise, and was taking Spanish largely because I was. Besides playing horn, she played keyboard and sang; I myself was a guitarist and songwriter, and we enjoyed jamming around together as well as booking occasional gigs at local coffeehouses. She also lived across from me in the dorm, a decision she made after learning I lived there, which was possible because I was an RA and got my room assignment first. Everything about her was flattering to me, and I enjoyed the fact that people knew we were friends.
She smiled at me, and mouthed “thank you,” my indication that she had read my small paper offering. In my excitement I pushed off from the table again and resumed my teetering, sticking my left hand out the window for balance. She and I would leave class in about ten minutes, earlier than everyone else. We would literally run across campus to the arts building, where choir had begun at three o’clock, to sing for the last half of the 90 minute class. This was my favorite part of the day. At 3:39 I put on my jacket and stuffed el libro de español into my satchel, and throwing an adios over my shoulder, began to jump down the stairs, two at a time. Kate was a gangly, six foot tall girl with the lower four feet of her body being legs. Though she had left the class behind me, she quickly caught up and we cantered along, the thoroughbred and the carthorse, laughing that our differences in gait and breeding mattered so little.

We got to the arts building and made ourselves walk once inside the set of double doors, trying to catch our breath before we had to sing. It was easy to hear the ensemble from the hallway approaching- we would be up on risers today, I thought. I grabbed a drink as I passed the bathrooms and fountains, a mere 15 feet away from the room the choir was singing in. Kate opened the door for me, and we scooped up our music folders from the cabinet near the door, swinging our bags down and to the floor before finding our place amongst the ensemble. The choir would leave for tour in a mere five days, and we would be gone for about nine days total. This is why we were practicing on the risers, and also why the director was auditioning soloists for all the numbers on that day; we had to get things like placement and featured singers nailed down during these last couple of rehearsals before we left.


My memory fails me on who was singing when we came in. Kate later said she remembered it was Katie, a good friend who lived on the same floor that she and I did. Though some things about that day remain clear to me, what was happening when we entered the room is a blur. I remember looking at the clock later, at about 4:05, so the ball must have got rolling at about 4:00. I remember being aware of a spot open on the riser next to me, where someone should have been standing. I remember this because I shifted over, to have a better “window,” a better place to see the director’s face and hands from in between my classmates.

I never consciously wondered about the absence of the person next to me, or made a realization at the moment that they left. I do remember the riser to my left was open to the end of the row, and that it felt vaguely wrong. We were doing the same couple of songs several times in a row, with people auditioning for the solos, taking short turns by themselves against the accompaniment of the piano and the rest of the choir. We were singing at a place where there was no solo, and it was the entire choir fortissimo-ing along at full gusto, the diminuitive accompanist pounding her frame into the piano for the crescendo of the phrase. The conductor had a smile on his lips and a look in his eye that was asking us for more, as his hands inched further up towards the ceiling.

It was that moment, that freeze-frame second of time, where things suddenly become piercingly clear to me. Everything is stopped, yet still in motion; his hands are still going up, and up… The phrase swells, everything is silence. Back it up, play it again; cut to where the conductor’s hands are in the air, reaching up. He is wearing a bright blue shirt with a collar. It has a pocket on the chest, with a button in the middle of it. Something is written on the board at the front of the room, something with times on it, most likely about the upcoming tour. I can see my jacket and my bag lying on the floor, near the piano; Kate’s things are near mine. The pianist is wearing sandals, a first time for her this year, as the weather is just now warming up. I feel like something is naked next to me, something is not right about this space off to my left. I shouldn’t have this big of a window. Something is not right about this space. I feel like I should look to my left.
My attention is suddenly focused on the conductor’s hands reaching up, always reaching up, and everything slams into fast forward. One of the double doors leading into the room we are in swings open rapidly. There is a woman, wearing a dress, with gray hair- she is saying something. We have no idea what she is saying; those merciless hands continue to reach up, then cut off as we all notice the interruption. He doesn’t see her; his back is to her. We see her, and our faces change, and he sees us see her. We all stop, in a clumsy, pinched sort of way, and we realize she is screaming. This comes like a thief in the night, this screaming, we were just singing and standing on the risers and I was feeling vaguely uncomfortable and then this woman, who is the Music department secretary, comes in and I realize she is screaming that she needs someone who knows CPR.

The conductor’s hands still hang suspended, his head turned as he looks over his left shoulder. Everything is stopped in time, everyone is immobile. The woman blinks- the eyelid slides down and moistens the eye, the eyelashes brush the air all around. Inside the chests of the singers, each to their own rhythm, the great cardiac muscles contract and relax, sending the double-beat of blood to the bodies of each. The sustain pedal is lifted, and the decay of the piano is abruptly cut short; the silence is deafening. A riser squeaks as someone catches their balance. Time resumes again when I see movement out of the corner of my eye; a soprano is moving. She is running down off of the riser. I realize I’m not breathing, and then I discover why; I know CPR. I was certified through RA training. A tenor moves out from the crowd and follows the soprano. They are both running towards the door, towards the secretary, toward what is beyond. I rock back for a split second. My hands come up to meet one another, in front of my chest. I force them back down and rock forward again, and step off the riser.


We are directed by the screaming secretary the few steps down the hallway to the girls’ restroom; the door is still gaping open for me when I get there, pushed back by those who had gone ahead of me. It’s Julie, I realize, and my friend Dan, who left before I did. This gives me some confidence as I remember Julie is a lifeguard. She’ll know what she’s doing, whatever that may be. My body, moving so slowly, comes into full view of the bathroom. I am immediately arrested where I stand. Lying on her side, eyes big as saucers, is Katie from my floor, staring at me with a look I still can’t get out of my mind. She looked so small and foreign to me, and I couldn’t move. I saw Julie rushing to her, and Dan hovering behind her, trying to see if he could help. I couldn’t move out of her gaze; the power of her eyes was terrifying to me.

I couldn’t go to her. I just stood there, in the doorway, caught between eternity and seconds. My body quavered beneath me; I wanted to run back to the room where the singers would still be singing under suspended hands. I wanted to go to Katie, to help her, just lying there like a de-hooked fish. From the time I was in sixth grade, I had thought about a moment like this, where I could help someone. It was at that point in my life that I first started watching “Rescue 911” and became captivated with emergency response. I remember being glued to the television for an hour every night at nine when the program would come on. Somebody would find a kid in a pool, or a schoolbus would run somebody over, and somebody else would step out of the crowd and save their life. I always got angry while I watched at those people who just stood around the periphery of the accident scene like gaping animals. I had taken CPR in high school, and had recently been re-certified as part of my RA training. I remember joking with other trainees that night we had those plastic torsos with us for practicing. I told them to get out of the way so I could blow on the doll.

I just continued to stand there, not really thinking about anything, just staring at her eyes. I remember feeling like I was trapped- her eyes staring at me wouldn’t let me run away, like I longed to so badly. I’m sure I looked terrified to her; the way she was looking at me, though, I couldn’t really tell if she saw me. I couldn’t look at anything else, and she just bored right through me with those huge eyes, with that expression I had never seen before on anyone’s face. And she was moaning. Not the type of moan that people make; something else indescribable. The closest thing I had ever heard to that was when a guy had a seizure in one of my classes the previous semester. He had just laid there, after convulsing for several minutes, and made this moaning sound, with each breath, and spewed saliva and blood from where he’d bitten his tongue. Back then, I had held an I.V. drip for one of the EMTs that responded to the scene.

Julie moved in front of Katie’s face, breaking the gaze that had just held me transfixed for what seemed like years. I took a quick look around the rest of the bathroom, where Katie was lying on the floor. Her feet were near one of the stalls, with the rest of her body coming out into the middle of the room. She looked so small. There was vomit on the floor near her, a small, pinkish amount. I don’t remember being at all disgusted by it. It was just there, like the mirror and the sinks and the toilet and this girl lying on the floor. I looked beyond Julie and Katie and saw Maria, a freshman music major who was also in choir. She didn’t run out with us; I realized she must have been here before. Dan was over with her, with his arms around her, they were both just staring, too. I looked to my left, there was Mrs. Barnes, the secretary, along with the very frail and constantly unstrung Dr. Neddeps, who was the faculty for piano performance majors. She looked like the sort of woman who could (and might) snap at half at any moment of her own accord. Dr. Neddeps appeared like she might have a nervous breakdown at any moment. I feel like she was crying, although I don’t have clear memories of tears from her, just a gaping mouth and a look of horror on her face.

There was a movement just behind me and to my right, and I saw another alto, a girl who usually was way above my annoyance threshold. She was a very charismatic-pentacostal person, always talking dreamily of the Holy Spirit and doing weird praise dances on choir trips in parking lots, earphones clapped to her head. I vaguely wondered what she was doing here, but I was just glad to have more people in this small room. I wanted a lot more people to be here, people that could do something, because nobody could really do anything. I had a wild thought flash through my mind, that I was watching somebody die right in front of me, and there wasn’t going to be a damn thing I could do to stop it.

. . .

I thought back to the point in time when I had been watching TV on the morning of Sept. 11th, 2001, almost a year and a half ago. I had been on my way out for a morning run, with headphones in hand and legs freshly stretched, when I had been stopped by a cleaning lady in my dormitory. She had been standing still, running vacuum cleaner in hand, staring at a television for the entire time that I approached her and walked past her. I looked at her with slight puzzlement, but proceeded; I was almost out the door when I felt her tug at the back of my shirt. I turned around, she was saying something that I couldn’t hear over the sound of the vacuum. I looked at her stupidly and shook my head, pointing to the vacuum. She turned it off and shouted, forgetting that I could now hear, that somebody had bombed the pentagon. Thinking she was crazy, I went to the TV and saw smoke and fire indeed coming from CIA headquarters. I went back up to my own floor and turned on the TV and watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center, and the events that followed.

I remembered that same feeling of helplessness, watching one tower fall, and then another. The reporter was just talking into the camera about nothing and all of the sudden the first tower started to crumble behind her. The angle they had the camera at showed the whole building, in order to show the plane in the upper part, so I just watched it start to come down. I was all alone in the student lounge that morning, watching it happen, but I still jumped up and pointed at the screen, shouting out “There it goes!,” and the reporter didn’t notice until after I did. It just started to come down and she was talking about nothing and then she turned and saw it. And then they started running, the reporter and the camera and then these huge clouds of dust engulfed everything. People were jumping out of those buildings and everyone knew what was going to happen to the second tower after the first fell, but there was nothing anyone could do. People were dying all around and there was nothing anyone could do. I remember the feeling of defeat later that day as hundreds of kids were jammed into the student union building, watching Peter Jennings say to us, with shirt collar open and sleeves rolled up, that we were all trying to figure out what the hell had happened.

The infallibility of death changed me that day, and now I was staring it in the face, staring at Katie’s face, and I knew I was watching someone die. Inside me there was a girl jumping up in ratty jogging clothes and pointing, “There it goes!” and even though I knew it, as I knew anything, knowing it did nothing. I did nothing. I stood there stupidly and stared, and listened to Julie asking Katie to open her mouth. Julie had her hands on Katie’s face, and was trying to get her mouth open. Her jaw was locked, and the pink edges of her tongue stuck out between her teeth. I felt like her mouth wasn’t big for her tongue, and that it was swelling down the inside of her throat and filling up her body. I wanted to tell someone that she wasn’t getting air, I wanted to make sure they understood. There wasn’t anybody to tell.

I continued to stand there, until Dr. Neddeps, who had gone to the pile of vomit, yelled at me to get her some paper toweling. I remember her yelling, because I didn’t hear her the first time, because I wasn’t listening to anything but Julie asking Katie to open her mouth. Grateful for a task after the excruciating 30 seconds that had just passed, I grabbed handfuls of the white loose-leaf towel from the dispensers near the sinks. The thin woman deftly cleaned up the mess, and I have no idea what she did with it after that, as I started staring at Katie again. The same girl, Emily, was hovering over my shoulder still. I wheeled around to face her and commanded, “Pray. Out loud.” I grabbed her hands and kept my eyes open, staring at her face as she started off with the customary “Holy Spirit….” If Katie could still hear us, I wanted her to hear prayer. I felt like it would calm her, maybe her body would relax. Maybe Julie would be able to get her mouth open. Julie had started doing CPR anyway, trying to get any air in her she could. I heard her say at one point that initially she had a pulse, but not any longer.


The paramedics came up from behind me. The prayer just broke off when they showed up- I dropped Emily’s hands quickly and looked at them with searching eyes. I remember feeling so relieved that someone was there that could do something- anything. I quickly got out of the bathroom, and felt grateful to be surrounded by the walls of a different space. I thought about what I should do next. I wanted to start over. I went back to the choir room- everyone there was praying, sitting down silently on the risers. I went in and sat down on the bottom step. I remember feeling like everything was shaking, but on further reflection I noticed that it was myself. The threads hanging down from my worn green pants were vibrating in the air. I looked around at those surrounding me with darting eyes; they were all earnestly seeking God. Eyes closed, they had arms about one another, comforting each other. In the middle of my friends, I felt isolated- I was the only one watching this unfold. I was the only one paying attention to what was going on around me.

I felt smothered by the choir room and the soft mumbling in my ears. I got back up and went out into the hallway. Thinking that there must be something I could do, I went to the phone and called the Resident Director of our buildings, Jesse Brown. I notified him of the situation, and he told me he would be right there. I walked back over to the choir room and looked in through the now propped-open door, and saw Kate pacing around in the background. I motioned to her to come to me. I wanted to feel someone next to me, someone that wasn’t dying; I wanted to feel like I wasn’t alone. She just looked back at me with a blank expression and kept pacing; I left her alone, knowing I couldn’t go back into that room. I heard someone asking from the bathroom if Katie took any medication. I tried to call her room, but the line was busy- her roommate, Colleen, was a computer major and I knew that she was probably connected to the internet. I shouted that I was going to go find out about the medication, and took off through the downstairs doors of the MCA, glad to be running away from the building for whatever reason.

After running to my dorm and up three flights of stairs, I reached Colleen and Katie’s room, to find Colleen connected to the internet and happily chatting on the phone. No wonder I hadn’t been able to get through. She quickly hung up as I explained to her that something was wrong, and told me there wasn’t anything that Katie was taking except multivitamins. The concern on her face grew as she learned Katie was still unconscious in the MCA bathroom; she grabbed a jacket and followed me out of the room. Perhaps ten or twelve minutes had gone by since Katie had left the choir room; Colleen and I ran back across the campus and up the hill towards the arts building.

We went around to the front of the building this time, and entered through the top level, not being sure if they were putting her on the ambulance out front yet. It was sitting there, silent and empty. I was beginning to lose steam, and had to slow to a trot as we went through the front doors. As we went through the lobby and down the stairs to where the women’s bathroom was, we passed a handful of people who stared at us, unmoving and unspeaking. I couldn’t get over how impotent everyone was. On the stairs I brushed shoulders with a girl I knew and didn’t get along with. As I stared into her eyes, even as she didn’t realize what was happening, I wished there could be some kind of connection.

I was past her now, and rounding the corner to see Jesse Brown there, holding the door open for the paramedics to have as much room as possible in the cramped space. I peered in. They were leaning over Katie, and had a pump with a face mask over her mouth. There was an I.V. running, and they had removed her shirt. She was so tiny, so very small- her little stomach and bra looked as though they might belong to an adolescent, not a college senior. The paramedics weren’t talking to her, or each other. It seemed too quiet to me, and I realized that Katie was no longer moaning, but laying quite still. Jesse looked at me from the doorway with impassive eyes, and seemed to resist the questioning look on my face.

I turned back to Colleen, who had her hand over her mouth, trying to suppress the squealing noises that came out anyway. I tried to talk to her, to get her to focus on something else; I asked her how we could get in touch with Katie’s mom. I realized as I was asking Colleen that Katie’s mom lived in Connecticut. I also suddenly remembered that Katie’s dad had died, almost a year ago. I knew I didn’t want to be the one who made the call. It was at that moment that I saw Mrs. Barnes, the secretary, coming around the corner from the stairwell. She told us that she had been trying to reach Nancy, Katie’s mom, but that she couldn’t get through. Colleen seemed glad to be involved in something else, and suggested that we try to use Katie’s cell phone, which was in her backpack. She said she thought that Nancy had caller ID so she probably woudldn’t answer an unexpected call unless it was from her daughter’s cell phone. Colleen went into the choir room to get Katie’s bag.
I followed behind her, and caught up with Kate for the first time since everything had happened; I got her off by myself and told her that it didn’t look good. The reality of the situation overtook me and I started to feel the iron fist in my chest, squeezing my heart painfully. I looked up at the clock as Kate turned away from me to go sit down with the others. Almost 4:30. I turned around and found my choir director sitting on the piano bench, arms folded and head down upon the instrument. I put my hand on his shoulder but did not say anything. He did not respond to me.
I went back out of the room; people were now milling about in the choir room and in the hallway. Small clumps of students talked to one another in hushed voices, occasionally turning to glance at the now closed bathroom door. I walked over to the phone yet again, to call Katie’s best friend, Emmy Lou. I liked Emmy a lot, and had her number memorized from frequent calls. She and Katie were to be roommates next year, and were hoping to go to Africa together for the fall semester. I called her room, but she wasn’t there. I left a message, and told her to come to the MCA as soon as she got in. I made a mental note of her cell phone number, and hung up in time to hear commotion by the elevator.

One of the paramedics emerged with a stretcher on wheels. I walked behind him back towards the restroom. Jesse was once again holding the door open, and I avoided looking inside, afraid of what kind of condition Katie was in by now. The paramedic called for us all to clear the hallway, to give Katie privacy. They would use the elevator to get the stretcher back up, as well, as the stairs were narrow and twisted several times. They were finally going to take her to the hospital. I ran back inside the choir room, and told Kate and a few others that we were going. I stuffed my jacket into my bag and handed her the bundle, telling her I was going to get my car and she could find three more people to ride with us. Others in the room started to catch on, and I soon discovered that we would have a caravan traveling over, almost everyone wanted to go. I bolted up the stairs, taking Colleen with me. We stood in the front lobby, watching the paramedics wheel by us with the stretcher. Mrs. Barnes and Dr. Neddeps stood opposite us, near the doors of the music department offices. I looked at Colleen, and noticed that she was wearing a white knit cap, in a sort of beanie style. I knew that Katie’s mom had made it for her for Christmas that year, when Colleen’s mom had failed to send any presents to school. She looked back at me, near hysterics.

“They’re breathing for her,” she said. I didn’t say anything back to her. “She hasn’t been doing anything for herself this whole time. They’re the ones breathing for her and pumping her heart. She can’t do it herself. She can’t even do it!”

I was cold but I didn’t care. It wasn’t like I was numb, I could definitely feel the cold, but I liked it. I wanted something rough to be happening to me physically that could eclipse this April nightmare. I popped the Neon into drive and pulled a sharp turn out of the parking lot, up towards the MCA where the ambulance still sat. Slamming the transmission into park, I left the engine running and opened all four doors. I grabbed a couple of loose papers and a shirt from the backseat and quickly threw them in the trunk. It was a small car, but we would want to be close anyway. I saw Kate coming through the main doors of the arts building, with several girls with her. One of them, I noticed, was Dana, a freshman with whom Katie had spent a lot of time recently.

“Get in,” I said softly, to all of them. I held Kate’s gaze a second longer than everyone else’s. She got in the back, and Dana rode up front with me. I stood there a second, looking at the gray day, looking at the ambulance in front of us. The sirens were turned off, but the lights were going. I looked at their reflection in the double glass doors and paneling on the front of the MCA. I looked at myself, standing next to my small, red car, with my blue t-shirt and green pants on. I opened the door to my car, dropped down, and shut the door behind me.
We sat there for a few moments before the ambulance took off. I had that post-adrenaline rush going on, where you feel clumsy and coordinated and strong and flushed all at once. Back in drive, I followed the ambulance over to the hospital. I knew the drive well, I drove past the hospital all the time. It was on the way to the main drag from the college. It seemed to take forever, though. I don’t remember if we talked in the car on the way over or not, but it doesn’t seem like we did. That same dull rushing sat in the back of my brain, threatening to take me over if I let it. My stomach churned. I knew in my heart that Katie was dead. We were pulling up to the hospital, and I was looking at the red “Emergency” sign at the top of the hospital directory at the entrance, and I knew she was dead.

I dropped everyone off at the main entrance and then went out to park my car and try and get my hands to stop shaking. There were a lot of other cars from the college pulling up. I left my jacket in the car on purpose and pinched my face up a little against the cold. I was going to get no good news, of this I was sure. I didn’t want to face anyone else, for fear that they would see in my eyes what I was trying to hide. I don’t know what was more frightening to me, the knowledge that she was gone, or coming to grips with my own cowardice. I was going to walk in there and pretend to be a comforter, let people think whatever they wanted about my dash to the bathroom, and I knew what I was underneath. I was a person that watched other people die.


Not long after we got to the hospital, I went into a small room off of the main waiting area where there were a couple of courtesy phones. I tried to call Emmy again, this time on her cell, but only got voicemail again. Then a sudden urge gripped me, and I called my mom. I wanted to hear a voice I had heard all my life. I wanted someone to lie to me and tell me everything was going to be all right. She filled one of my desires at least, and told me she would be praying. She had met Katie at various choir functions and merely by visiting the college. I thought about Katie’s mom again. I wondered if anyone had gotten in touch with her yet. Reluctantly, I got off the phone and went back out to the waiting room, trying my best to take long, deep breaths and figure out what to do.

Emmy was in the waiting area when I came back out. I went to her and hugged her, and felt the peace come right out of her and into me. We pulled back from one another, and though her eyes were quite serious, there was a slight smile on her face that was totally genuine. I hugged her again, just to feel that peace once more. Then I let go of her to survey the scene. Though I was only twenty, younger than most around me, my various campus leadership positions made me a sort of natural authority figure. I turned to see that Bill Fisher, the campus pastor, had arrived on the scene. He caught my gaze and came over to me, with sadness in his eyes and a slight smile- though his was forced, unlike Emmy’s.

“Elizabeth,” he said, laying a hand on my shoulder. The finality with which he said my name, like it was a question and a statement all at the same time, proved to me that my fears were well founded. “Do you think you could round up everybody and head down the hall? There is a small chapel down there that we can wait in for news without disturbing anyone.”

“Bill,” I said candidly, leaving out any sort of formal address. “What do you know?”
He merely smiled that same smile and shook his head and said, “Nothing,” I took in a deep breath and turned to the approximately 50 students that now were gathered in the small area, spilling off of couches, sitting on the floor, milling around distractedly.

“Ok, everybody,” I said vaguely, addressing everyone at once. All movement ceased, and I looked at them for what they were, just sheep looking to anyone with a voice, anyone that would tell them what to do or where to go so they wouldn’t feel so lost. I knew I was just like them, but propped up here, pretending to be a shepherd. I bleated in my mind, echoing what I saw before me. “Let’s go down to this chapel at the end of the hall to wait.”

I gesticulated in the general direction that I thought was right, and everyone immediately and efficiently started moving in that direction. I scanned the faces of my fellow students, finding everything there. There were the sobbers, the mumblers, those who were clinging to each other, those who were ignoring everything around them, staring straight ahead with a sort of frightening, unshakable intensity. Some had backpacks, most had jackets, many held hands. They moved down the hallway in small groups, like a slow motion stampede with numbness ahead of them and death at their heels. I held behind momentarily and saw the dean of students come in and join Jesse and Bill at the front desk. I went over to the three men.

“Really,” I said, “what do you know?” A glance over my shoulder showed that most students were already a good ways down the hallway.

“Elizabeth,” Jesse began, but he was interrupted by Bill, who still had Katie’s cell phone and had finally reached her mother. All he got out was that we were at the hospital and Katie had collapsed, and there was such shrieking coming out of the phone that I could hear it from across the span of the room. I looked back at Jesse and he merely shook his head. He told me that nothing definitive had been said yet, but that something should have been by now. I looked at my watch, 5 p.m. I looked Jesse in the eyes again and turned to follow the others down the hallway, gazing at the finely stuffed chairs in the waiting area and the huge windows and the squeaky clean floor tile along the way. I found myself shaking my head without even realizing it; it all seemed so ridiculous in the face of what I could feel creeping up on me, creeping up on us all. Death was upon us.

Monday, March 8, 2010

night flight

(originally posted Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 8:39am. but I love this one.)

I FEEL like a techno-flapper.

My ridiculous hair is what caused it- think old lady 'do only in dark brown instead of white, and you're tracking with me. My fro' is a perfect imitation, close curls exploding from my scalp in all directions. And I know what awaits- this mess doesn't grow out, just down. Sorry, Navy. I'm gonna look like a clown for a while.

So the partner in crime for this jazz-era throwback is the Energizer head lantern I'm sporting, cascading a tunnel of red light down onto my binder as I record Hobbs and Tach times, check my fuel tanks, and sump the front line. December in the panhandle is like perfect fall weather, all the time. I'm hustling around the wingspan checking Nav lights in one of my favorite sweaters, a thick butternut squash number from J. Crew that I undoubtedly found at some thrift store in Colorado. The leaves are at full turn now. Driving to the midwest in a mere ten days is going to be a seasonal shock to the system, but one that I'm looking forward to.

I made a pumpkin pie last week because I enjoy making them; I brought a healthy slice of it to my instructor because he enjoys eating them. In return, tonight out on the tarmac by the light of the beacon and the hangar lights and the moon, he payed me back with a backflip. Dawn and I showed him a few OCS RPT exercises in return, doing six-90's in perfect unison, heads off the deck. My adrenaline was already primed, and the exercise (haha... I can hear in my head, a very familiar voice.... all too-geh-ther, EXERCISE!) pushed it through my system.

I've been up on a couple of night flights before with Dave, another ensign who was in our ground school, but got ahead of me because of a ridiculous medical hold for allergies. (Honestly. I'm sure clearing your ears isn't THAT important.) I already know I love being up there in the dark, the lights spread off to the north like some great Christmas tree, knocked to its side, rope after rope of twinkles glistening. We take runway 14 and glide up and out, over condos cast in weird relief by gaudy, colored illumination. It's impossible to tell where the sky meets the water as we head south of the coastline. The gulf stretches out in front of us like a soft dark mouth opened wide enough to swallow the whole world.

We get to Panama City quickly, and the runway I'm supposed to use dumps directly out into the bay. I'm serious, the threshold starts and before that it is just water, reflecting the markers back at me like a blackened mirror. Not to mention, I'm on a three-mile final per the tower's instruction. You always feel like you're low at night anyway, and that doesn't help particularly. My right hand, pinky and butt-of-the-palm slung over the throttle, and thumb and forefinger on the trim, never gets a break. Aileron, aileron, rudder, rudder, pitch speed power ground effect flare dip TOUCH and I keep the elevator back and dump the carb heat because you know, this is supposed to be a soft field landing. We stop on the runway completely and flaps go to ten, brakes are in and full power, rotate at fifty for short field.

Long after we've left the pattern at PFN, when we're tracking Destin on the Garmin and toying with the edge of the shining skirt-hem of the emerald coast, it comes to me. I'm sitting slightly on my left hip, weight cocked over to that elbow, left hand held by relaxed fingertips on the yoke. My right hand never leaves sentry, but it too is near-limp, familiar with what it holds. Dane and Dawn are both quiet, the air is a near-perfect headwind, the engine hums and we admire Mars and Venus out the port window. I find myself comfortable. Like being in a car at night, fingers entwined loosely with a sleeping passenger's, lightly beating the rhythm of the soft background music on the back of their hand. Knowing there's just the journey ahead of you, and the stars above you, and the wheels and the road... only now it's the wings and the air. But the feeling is just the same. Just the same.

We land short-field, Dane asks me where my aiming point was again and I say, "Back there." We laugh together as we taxi. I know I won't be up again at night for months, and I can't even find it in myself to be resentful at the old bucket-of-bolts that I'm attempting to steer with burnt-out taxi lights. Later, when I'm out with the old girl on my own again, replacing the pitot-heat cover and tying down the wings and tail with snug hitches, I can't stop thinking about how lucky I am. This is my job. I switch my head lantern to white and leave the Cessna behind.

(apologies for lack of tense-agreement. it's sort of on purpose, mostly by design.)


I never realized how much I would miss hearing you say my name with excitement in your voice.

The sustain pedal is lifted, and the decay of the piano is abruptly cut short; the silence is deafening.

It felt right to be with her, walking along in silence.

Once again, in the middle of everything else distracting, life breaks through.

The first time you hear it, you’re never prepared.

you don’t understand—
i get tired so easy
just waiting around

There’s something about tapered-leg jeans that serves as a kind of unspoken warning sign.

I wanted that balance, between books and people, knowledge and experience.

I keep waking up and it’s still today.

I can’t stop thinking about Nick Berg.

She would not disappoint.

It’s like you’re gone when we’re talking.

weren’t talking to talk, really-
we were just talking to be talking
to be talking.

Nothing but this
No words but this
No sound
No sound
No sound

I don’t generally like to wake up.

“Dirty,” he says, nodding his head backward.

I got a lot of questions starting out.

You just keep moving on and it becomes a part of you.

I am not afraid of hard work.

Perspective, a great and cruel teacher, has taught me that the world won’t stop if I don’t join in the fun and games.

We’ve still got some leftover Halloween stuff, and I was eating you know those “Fun Size” butterfingers the other day. Fun Size. What is that, really? When does eating candy ever evolve into the “not fun” realm? I’ll tell you what is fun size, is like a butterfinger the size of my thigh. The little ones, they are like, joke size. Fun would be eating candy the size of your head.

“You know,” I commented to Becky as we stepped across the rubberized pad, “it’s kind of like a rollercoaster.”

I think I stand a chance of getting something. Besides a letter that says, “You suck.”

The Officer is always, whether knowingly or no, an ambassador for the Navy and the United States. This may be considered part of the burden of taking up the role of “Officer,” but the rewards, in my opinion, render this weight negligible.

Fortunately, she was already grinning, so her amusement was easy to hide.

It was, after all, March in Rhode Island.

Everything was still.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Colorado Haiku

Kerouac at dusk
-spit cherry pits off the porch-
the west is calling

Pick up zucchini,
yellow squash and romas, please
while getting oil changed.

Dogs bark in the night.
Cool, dry blackness stealing down
over darker peaks

Heat in the kitchen.
Sweat, slithering down my back
smile: we are busy

leftover nachos
make for excellent noon snacks-
Thank you, table nine.

We all compare our
Ideal ways to get killed.
Crushed by breasts wins.

Frog tells a joke.
Why only 239 beans?
One more: too farty.

old stuff

I haven't been posting.

Here's some old stuff, found recently.

late June. (written June 2001)

summer sweat makes my shirt stick to my back
Actually, it's not my shirt.
it's yours.
the secret of you makes me smile---

I go on sweating for the sheer pleasure of it
letting your loose cotton drift about me
in this summer's midnight dream