Witness to the Razing

The sky is screensaver perfect, and the trees are just beginning to blush out of their summer greens–paintbox golds and oranges and scarlets tinge the trees that line the roadways.  Dell is heading north to see her young friend Peter who is dying of AIDs.

Peter is a rascally, impassioned, deep-feeling, determined young man–young in Dell’s terms anyway, at 37. He has been HIV positive since he was very young, and he has had full-blown AIDs for at least 15 years…long enough that they all decided it was a chronic disease and not a deadly one.

Ah, life and its little tricks. Now the clock is loudly ticking.

Dell has a disposable pan of still warm brownies in the backseat and a plastic jug of lemonade, two things she knows will tempt Peter. And, since he is a long, attenuated bag of bones, she feels eating anything will be hopeful.  A little energy, a little bulk.  Has to help.

Right?

She has a mini scrapbook of clippings she has saved for him, articles about things he cares about–drama programs for disenfranchised youth; meals for street people; how libraries are supporting people with disabilities.  Before Peter got so sick he had to stop working, he and Dell butted heads at the Linnville Library, where Dell ran programming and Peter volunteered.  Dell did a great deal on a tiny, grant-funded budget; Peter wanted her to do a great deal more.

He dragged her into the realm of dreaming; she kept him grounded.  Along the way, Peter’s family being loudly absent, Dell had–together with fifteen or so other motherly people of a certain age–unofficially adopted the boy.

And then Dell had moved seventy miles away with her family–new opportunity for Martin, better services for Jack: a no-brainer.  But there were strong cords attaching her, still, to Linnville, and Peter was one of those cords.  She wrote every week, and he often wrote back, or he texted jokes, or emailed photos of things happening at the library where he had, for a year or so, filled her old position. And once a month she tried to get back for a visit, but her old friends recommended she try a little harder and a little more often this Fall.  This Fall, Peter’s medical options had run out.

********
There is no expressway to Linnville, and Dell enjoys the curving country roadways. They dip into Amish country, and she must, often, slow down to safely pass big buggies led by horses with hooves so sturdy they remind her of Clydesdales.  On the country roads, too, it’s good to be mindful–Amish valley or no–that the chickens are generally free-range.  The deer are, too.

She crests the hill toward her turn-off and brakes in dismay; the route she usually takes, an orange sign announces, is closed due to construction, and the detour will take her around and through a little industrial city and then on ten extra miles of  country roads.  She will be late.

She messages Peter and plunges on.

Traffic, at least, is not too bad, and she settles in to the unfamiliar route, enjoying the rural sights.  There is a paddock with fat sheep guarded by vigilant llamas.  Around a broad, sweeping curve, there is an enclosed meadow with goats–tiny goats standing on little structures and peering at the woods beyond, at each other.  At her as she passes by.

The goats remind her of a photo she has of Peter, from a library outing.  Not a country boy at all, but the teens cajoled him, anyway, into visiting a farm after they’d had a discussion about local food. The farm had goats, and one of the girls–Tabby, who was plump and insecure and worshiped Peter–insisted he come and pet them with her.

“Oh, no WAY,” said Peter, but Tabby was inexorable, and finally he stepped gingerly through the gate, his shiny loafers squinching in the warm muck of a post-rain goat yard.

And he fell in love.  The little goats gamboled around him, came up to investigate him, clustered around Tabby, to her vast delight.  Peter capitulated completely to the charm of the goats, and Dell has a photo of him from that day.  As stick-like as Ichabod Crane, he is bent with one hand extended, his improbably brassy blond hair falling over his forehead.  Little goats jump all around him, all except for one that has stopped, facing Peter, staring straight into his eyes. Peter’s grin is joyous, boyish, and surprised.

“The Goat Whisperer,”  Dell dubbed him, and Peter scoffed it off, but he was secretly pleased, she could tell, to have crossed a barrier into a land he’d never thought to inhabit.

She drives around Burton, the little industrial city with its gray towers and billboards for bank loans and the benefits of breastfeeding.

After a long stretch of country, she hits another little town and recognizes it as Crete, famous for its family-owned chocolate factory.  She passes the factory heading into town, rolling down the window to enjoy the rich scent of warm chocolate.

In the town itself, she stops at the one light–red, of course–and looks over at a beautiful little white church.  It is polished and welcoming and, she thinks, getting a repair job.  The yard is full of construction equipment, and a crew seems to be just assembling. The windows are empty, gaping holes, and Dell thinks they must be putting in new.  She imagines beautiful stained glass, black-leaded, fitting snugly into those apertures.

The pretty little church, somehow, warms her heart.  She finishes the trip to Linnville with some kind of undefined hope bubbling.

********

But it is not a good day; Peter feels terrible.  He can’t eat the brownies, although he says, a little snarkily, that he is sure the visiting nurses will help him out there.  He drinks a little lemonade.  They talk about the elephant in the room.  Peter tells Dell he is deeply, intrinsically weary, and not at all afraid.  He asks her to read a poem at his memorial, and she does not even try to pretend it’s not looming.

Peter lays down but can’t settle, so she reads to him from his current book, a  Wallace Berry, and by the time she is done with a chapter, he is snoring lightly, and the nurse has arrived, eyes lighting at the tray of brownies.  Dell gathers up her purse and keys and phone, asks questions the nurse can’t really answer, and heads home.

**********

Clouds clutter the sky now–not screensaver clouds, but ominous ones, and most of the animals on the roadside have gone in to shelter.  It’s a grimmer ride; she turns on NPR and listens to war talk, talk of pain and devastation, and she forces herself not to shut the radio off.

And then she pulls into Crete, where, again, she hits the the red-light, and she is shocked.

The pristine church is gone, flattened: a pile of wooden rubble.

She makes it to the chocolate factory parking lot before she has to pull over. It is thirty minutes before she is fit, again, to drive.

**********

Peter dies that Sunday, at 9:30 in the morning, with three good friends–one of them his beloved minister–at his side. None of his family made the trip.

They lay him out at the church, and the family finally does show up; they’re staggered by the lines of people waiting to say goodbye.  Regret begins to seep through their anger and their guilt.  It is a rough and ragged viewing.

The memorial service, in that conservative small town, has very little room of any kind left, standing or otherwise. Peter is eulogized by a wide and wacky range of people, from Tabby to Sister Camille from the Catholic church to the bank president. Some homeless folks talk about his presence at the library, and a few urban friends from his younger years tell tear-stained stories.  Roy, the minister, is eloquently angry at the useless disease that stole away an essential life.  Dell reads her poem without crying.

They all file once more past the open casket.  When it is Dell’s turn, she slides the picture of Peter, grinning joyously at the little goat, into a space between his chest and his arm, pats his cold hand, and goes downstairs to help pour coffee.

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Donna B. Randolph

Fiction, written after reading the morning news, thinking about how little the obituary really tells about us…

 

Earnstville: Donna Beth Randolph, 72, passed away Wednesday, August 27, at Renaissance Hospice.
[She fooled the doctors several times; when they found the cancer, they told her they would try some things but gave her no big chances. Well, she said, she wasn’t going to die a cancer patient. She was going to be Donna Beth Randolph till the day she died.

So she kept up her reading, going to the library on Wednesdays, and she met the girls for lunch every Friday–even when she didn’t feel like eating. She wrote to the kids and grandkids every Sunday, and talked with them on the phone once a month.

She painted her bedroom yellow because she loved its sunny lightness. Jeffrey had always liked a darker room to sleep in, but he was gone, and really, she figured, would there be another chance?
Against all wisdom, she accepted the little terrier, Mitzi, who cowered in the corner of Bethany’s old Caddy. A rescue dog, Bethany said, it had been beaten and abused.

“I can’t,“ she said to Bethany. “You know I’m sick.”

At the sound of Donna’s voice, the little dog slithered over to the open door and licked her hand, a feeble, hopeful lick. And Donna sighed and picked it up.

“I guess I’ll call her Mitzi,” she told Bethany. “She looks like a Mitzi.” After a pause, she asked, hopefully, “It IS a girl, isn’t it?”
That was the first bout. Before she knew it, a year had passed. Mitzi—who was indeed a ‘girl’– had grown sleek and sassy, and Donna felt pretty good for someone with a death sentence hovering around her. She went to the doctor, and he told her something wonderful: the cancer hadn’t gone, he said, but it seemed almost to be at rest. It wasn’t growing the way they usually saw it grow, invade, conquer.
She had two good years then; she traveled all over the country, visiting the kids and grandkids. Mindi’s late in life twins took a special shine to Mitzi, and Mindi had promised that, when Gran died, the dog could come home with them. That put Donna’s mind at rest.
The cancer came back, but again, she wasn’t going to make it her focus. Kind of like a spoiled child, she thought, when it got no attention, it went and hid in a corner, pouting. Another year of treatments; another reprieve–three years this time.
But the last time it came back, she knew it wasn’t messing around, and she made her peace; and it settled in, making up in voraciousness for its lack of growth in other visits.]

She was born November 7, 1941, to Bart and Mira (Lincoln) Tophers in Buffalo, New York.
[Mira was old to be a mother for the first time, old at 34; the nurse clucked over her, tsk-tsk-ing. Mira was scared half to death, and when labor dragged on for 36 excruciating hours, she was pretty well convinced she was going to die of it. But then Donna Beth was finally born, at 12:41 AM, and the nurse whisked her away, hidden in a blanket, to be cleaned and checked over.

Bart brought the little, mewling bundle back in; he proudly laid the baby in Mira’s tired arms. Mira lifted the blanket and gasped. The baby’s head was cone-shaped; her skin was chapped and angry looking. Mira began to cry. ‘An ugly baby!’ she thought. ‘My Donna Beth is an ugly baby!’

But two days later, the baby’s head had settled into roundness and her skin smelled sweet, and Mira was thoroughly smitten.]

Donna Beth was a beloved wife and mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.
[Jeffrey, Sr., always treated her with the honor and respect with which he’d courted her. He was not a man for saying, “I love you,” at the drop of a hat; he told her that the day he married her, when each of the kids were born, and the day he had the first huge heart attack. But she knew. He always came home after work; she was his favorite bowling partner; and he often mentioned how sorry he felt for other men, whose wives were lazy or mean.
The kids, too, were always so sweet to her; she felt their love even though they were not a huggy, smoochy family. Jeffrey Jr was the oldest; from the time he was four he always held the door for her and wanted to carry the groceries. Mindi, who was big-eyed and solemn, never gave her a moment’s worry.

Donna Beth kept waiting for those rebellious years, but they never came. They were both kids who liked to read and study; they did well in school, had nice friends, and were helpful at home.
How did I get so lucky? Donna Beth often wondered, after they’d finished their schooling and made their solid marriages and still kept her in their lives, respected and loved by her daughter-in-law and son-in-law, too.
Donna Beth loosened up just a little with the grandkids. What a treat grandkids were; they loved her silly games and old songs, and they were constantly giving her wet baby kisses, sending her X-s and O-s in the mail. She loved her children; but until her grandchildren, she had never known pure, unadulterated joy.]

She is survived by her son, Jeffrey Randolph, Jr.; Daughter, Mindi (Leonard Coggins) [Mindi decided not to change her name when she married Leonard, a professor with a big hearty laugh. Donna Beth was a little shocked at first, and worried that, when kids came along, they’d have those horrible hyphenated names.

But Mindi had no problem with the children having Leonard’s name. “I had Dad’s, after all,” she said. “All of our names started with a man; they may as well come from a man who loves you dearly.”

After a while, Donna Beth kind of secretly loved it that Mindi had that little independent streak. Leonard was always big and hearty; Mindi was always calm and composed. They had, Donna Beth could tell, a good life.]; grandchildren, Sandy Smith; Leonard Coggins, Jr.; and Jimmy and Julie Coggins; six great-grandchildren; and her beloved dog, Mitzi.

In addition to her parents, Donna is preceded in death by her husband, Jeffrey Randolph, Sr., whom she married in June, 1962 [Married before she even turned 21! What did she know about marriage, except that girls were supposed to find a good man and do it?

Jeffrey was a serious, good looking man, 25 to her 20. Her parents thought he would take good care of her. She did not love him the day she married him; but she came to, over the years. Respect and, truth be told, a little fear, grew into gentle passion and liking, slowly flamed into a full-blown, lifelong love affair. The day came when she realized she could not imagine life without him.
He was a kind and creative father; he built doll houses and played baseball, went in swimming, and taught the kids to drive. Every Sunday night, Jeffrey took Jeff Jr and Mindi out for ice cream, giving Donna an hour of peace and quiet.

He was not a man for big dramatic splashes, not Jeffrey. But by the time he died, in 2005, of heart troubles, Donna knew she had been well and truly loved]; brother Joseph Tophers, [Oh, Joey! Just the thought of him, his splashy smile, his contagious laugh,–well, she still got tears, right up until the end.

Joey was born when Bart and Mira were 40; Donna was already six, and she treated him like a little dollbaby. Joey was always yelling at her, “I can do it! I can do it myself!” And that’s what he was doing when he died, doing it himself, driving his buddy Bob’s motorcycle, which he had no right to be on.

He was drunk, for one; he’d never in his life driven a motorcycle, for another. And he was grandstanding for Hattie Ketcher, with whom he was desperately smitten; he zoomed by her, turned his whole body to wave and veered at a very high speed into the viaduct.

The sergeant who investigated said he had never seen–best unsaid. Never mind. But…Joey. The pure laughter, the liquid electricity of him.]; grandson, Stephen Randolph; and daughter-in-law, Jenny Randolph [Babies don’t die in childbirth anymore; isn’t that what we believe? And mommies don’t die from complications of a difficult birth. We thought.

Worse than your own pain is having to see your son suffer. He was a wonderful dad to Sandy. He nurtured that girl right up until the day she married Wally Smith, handed her over with tears in his eyes. Welcomed her little Bobby into the world the year after. Told them both they could stay as long as they liked after Wally took a long, one-way walk.

That was the year Bobby was four; they stayed with Jeffrey until Bobby was ten. Sandy got a teaching job and saved up and bought a house. Jeffrey was sure lonely after that, but he was proud, too, that Sandy had built a life for herself.

It looks like Jeffrey might finally be seeing someone, that Spilker girl he went to high school with. Her husband had been no better than he needed to be. She thought she’d died and gone to heaven when Jeffrey called her up.]

Memorial service will be Friday, September 5, from 6 PM until 9 PM at the Laurel Lake Inn, 2093 Independence Drive, Earnstville. Mrs. Randolph requested cremation. The family will choose a later date to inter her ashes.

[She had turned her back on church the day the pastor told her mother Joey’s death was meant to be. Meant to be? Meant to be WHAT? That was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard.

She knew there was a God. She saw God in the kindness around her, in her children’s grief over their father’s death, in the fluid, expansive joy her grandchildren showered on her when she visited, in the trusting, tail-wagging enthusiasm with which her little dog greeted her every time she returned home. She never went back to church, but she prayed every day.

In her last years, she started to think the feminists were right–maybe God really was a She, a great big loving Mother. “Why not?” she thought. But she didn’t talk to anyone about that idea; she kept it close by, and it comforted her.
Her dear friend Bethany’s family owned the Laurel Lake, and one day they talked, her and Bethany, and decided between them the service would be at the Inn. There were a couple of songs Donna liked, and three of her friends would speak, and of course the kids might want to share some memories.

Really, just comfort for those she loved, that was all Donna wanted to think there’d be. She herself wouldn’t be in need of any attention by the time that day rolled around.]

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the public library–or to a charity dear to you–in Donna’s name.