In a Grain of Sand

Starry mum.jpg

The alarm chirps merrily. I roll over and smack it, and Mark throws off his blankets. Then no one moves. Time pauses—suspends, momentarily.

Then Mark sighs and rolls out of bed, unhooks the C-Pap and turns it off, and trudges off to the bathroom.

Wednesday morning: he is off to the gym before work. I drowse and wake.

“I should get up,” says the brash, panicky person who lives in my head, and I look at the insistent digital screen. 6:20 a.m.

“Or…” replies the calmer, mellower, mind-mate, “I could sleep for another ten minutes.”

I drift away, float into a tiny cloud of sleep, a dimple of time just big enough to let me slip back into dreams.

I wake up, and the clock face reads 6:29.

I am awake. That nine minutes was just long enough.


I pummel the bed into shape. Never one for matchy-matchy linens, I have a nicely woven white sheet on the mattress. I push pillows aside, pull that fitted sheet up, tuck it in firmly. Then I rotate around the bed, tucking in the sides and bottom, until it is satisfyingly taut. I smooth the top sheet—a faded, apple green and blue check—up over it. I bundle up the soft old comforter. I fold the sheet over its top and smooth it down.

I pluck the pillows, one by one, from the chair, and I plump them. Two are clad in cases that match the top sheet. Two are in fine old cases that I scored at a thrift store years ago; these cases are maroon and green, the plaid a lot like that in Catholic school uniforms. These cases always make me smile.

There is one more pillow, the odd one I slide behind my head when I am reading in bed. It is clad in crisp white linen. I center it on the plaid pillows, and step back, and a little something snicks into place.

I feel like Goldilocks. The bed, somehow, just seems right.


The coffee is brewing; my hair smells like apple blossom shampoo. It’s still almost dark out, and the house is quiet. I rummage in the cupboard for my morning pages binder, find my Pentel RSVP pen. I pull out two sheets of loose-leaf and settle in at the table.

“What’s today?” I ask my muddled self, and I slide my phone over and press the home button.

“Oh,” I think, when it lights up to tell me the date. October 10th. Dennis’s birthday.

How old would Dennis be? How long has he been gone? I pull open my letter-writing drawer and find my parents’ address book snugged in among post-its and address labels and packets of refills for long-forgotten ink pens. I flip to the back where my mother meticulously recorded birthdays and death days, anniversaries and the dates of hospital stays and surgeries.

Dennis, her Palmer method handwriting tells me, was born in 1946. He would have been 72 today.

He was 55 when he died. He was the biggest brother. Now all of us, even Sean, the youngest, are permanently older than Dennis will ever become.

Dennis called me not long after we moved to Ada, moved on our big adventure: Mark, at forty-somethin’-somethin’, was going to law school. Some people thought we were irresponsible to up and sell the house, to move into a trailer, to uproot Jim from school, to pursue Mark’s dream, which he had held to, fast and tight, over all the years.

“I wonder what Jim and Jean would have thought?” Dennis mused on the phone that night. He thought, he said, that we were ballsy and cool, but he hoped we wouldn’t drift away, geography trumping relationship. I heard real concern in his voice.

“Never happen!” I assured him, glibly, and he asked me if there was any place to camp near Ada.

We had just passed a neat little RV park that afternoon. Although it had a lake that we, growing up on the shores of Lake Erie, would scoff at and call a pond, it was neat and trim; it had all the amenities.

Dennis and Judy had just gotten a pop-up camper.

“I’ll send you the info,” I said, and Dennis said, “This Fall…”

But by Fall, he was dead, and we had buried him and returned to a life that was different from the one we’d known, and a life that would never, biggest brother missing, be quite the same.

Dennis was sweetly sincere and occasionally arrogant, tender and cynical, haunted and hope-filled. He was newly retired and just getting started, logging in surprising successes. Life was new, and he was out to embrace every possibility.

And then he died.

We didn’t have enough time, I think, smoothing the clean, blue-lined field of my loose-leaf. We didn’t have enough.

And what does THAT mean? answers the smart-ass voice in my head. Maybe you had enough time. Maybe you had plenty. And maybe you just wasted too much.


Before I remember the brother I miss in my morning pages, I put a little note on Facebook about his birthday. Sharon, a more-family-than-friend kind of person, replies almost immediately, and it warms me to know that memories are shared. I snap a photo of the address book page and text it to Shayne Dennise, whose birthday is recorded there, along with her father’s, in her grandma’s hand.  We text back and forth for a round or two, and I feel that satisfaction of connection being made.

And then I go out to get the newspaper. I stand on the brick front step and breathe in, deep; the weather is changing. There’s a shivering little breeze and acorns fall audibly. Two deer, chewing contentedly in Deirdre’s front lawn, glance at me without alarm. The mugginess is fading.

I bend to reach the newspaper, flung under a little gray chair that holds a pumpkin, and I see that a perfect, star-shaped leaf has wedged itself into the mum that is just beginning to bloom. It is a perfect image; it is, somehow, just the right image. I pull out my phone and take a photo.


I open a brand-new box of granola for breakfast; I pour it into a plaid ceramic bowl and float it in skim milk and enjoy the crunch and the sweetness. I read the morning paper and I do the word puzzles, and what’s jumbled becomes orderly; hidden meanings emerge.

I work through my email and I grade some papers—some stellar papers; sometimes, it’s a joy to grade papers. I happen on a brand-new recipe that will combine the peppers a friend gave me with exactly what’s waiting in my crisper and my freezer. I take things out to thaw for dinner, and I write a letter, and I make out a check and put it in an envelope to pay a bill. Then I walk the half-mile to the mailbox, and I slide the envelopes safely inside, and walk home, swinging my arms.

The weather is perfect, sun sliding out behind clouds, pleasant breeze, pavement drying after a night’s rain. I will, I think, get the Shark out and vacuum the furniture and the carpet on the stairs; I will grade a few more papers. I’ll make sure Jim is up in time to shower and eat before work; and I stop for a moment, thankful to the core that the boy has found work he loves and is taking courses that help him grow.

I round the corner and leaves are falling; Sandy’s tree always goes first, and she has a spreading gold stain in her side yard. Our sweet gum tree has begun to eject leaves; some float lazily, right now, down into the yard I just mowed. And more will meander off the tree and into the grass, but it will take them until December to be well and fully shed.

And, suddenly, almost physically, it strikes me that it’s enough. Today is enough. I know that there will be striving and discontentment and problems; I know that people will dissemble and back out of their promises, and that, sometimes, I will be one of those people. There will be disagreements.

Adjustments will need to be made.

But maybe it’s wisdom whispered from a brother speaking from another realm: this morning, the colors are true and the outline is clear and the picture is fully realized. Tomorrow (even, maybe, later today) I will enter the fray again. I will struggle with responding authentically to environmental warning, and I will try to determine my role in a political landscape that seems lunar in its strangeness. I will rail against responsibilities I undertook freely, and I will lament lack of time, lack of money, lack of understanding and ambition.

I know all that will happen, but this morning, kicking away the crisp leaves and the rubbery sweet gum pods as I walk back up the black-topped driveway, I feel as if everything has clicked neatly into place. For this one morning, this one moment, I realize: everything is in focus. This is, for right now, enough.

10 thoughts on “In a Grain of Sand

    1. Thank you so much, Jodi! Looking through my recipes this morning, I thought, “I ought to start a separate ‘McKinney’ file.” So many times you’ve posted just exactly what I was looking for. Love you right back…so glad to have connected through blogging!

  1. Sue

    ~a bit delayed in getting ‘on board’, but wanted to let you know I baked that Double Crunch Apple Crisp (Jodi’s?) recipe today:”YUM”~sorry about your emotional family memories, Pam~hopefully your beautifully-expressed thoughts proved cathartic…

  2. Kimberly Allen

    A lovely piece. Those moments when everything clicks into place are really special . Fun to hear or rather see someone else describe them. I am sorry for the loss of your brother. Did you go back to teaching?

Leave a Reply to Kimberly Allen Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.