Episode 4: Donna Quixote

The key under the planter had rust stains, little splotches like the liver spots on the backs of her hands. She tried to brush them off with her fingers to no avail. She’d clean it when she got inside the house. She scanned the vacant street behind her. The quiet abandonment of workdays and school days meant she was alone for the moment. She felt free from the eyes of the neighborhood.

The door knob popped when she turned the key. As she stepped through the door, her foot hit something solid. The package. The EMTs must have placed it inside her door when they took her away. She bent down slowly to pick it up and cradled it in her arm as she walked to her kitchen. She sat it next to the other package on her counter. Like that package it had no return address, but she could tell they were from the same person because the handwritten labels were very similar.

As she took her medicines and chased them with cold, unexpired water from her refrigerator, she stared at the packages. She wondered who sent them and why. Once the blood pressure cup released her arm and she had written the reading down in her log, she returned her attention to the packages. She tore open the first one.

Inside was an old Folgers coffee can, not the new plastic ones, but an old tin one with scrapes and dents. The color was more burgundy than red with gold writing across the face. She imagined she had seen this before, but she couldn’t recall where. She had stopped drinking coffee years ago. Something rattled in the can when she pulled it from the box. She removed the plastic lid, which had been so stretched over the years that it almost fell off unforced.

Pictures and letters were stuffed the inside of the can, so many that she almost couldn’t get her hand inside to pull them out. She pinched the edge of one of the letters and pulled it from the can. She recognized her writing and the address right away. Her heart beat in her throat and her eyes welled. She had to sit down.

She cradled the can in her arms as she sat down in the recliner. The letter had been addressed to her ex-husband, one of many she had sent to him after he had left and taken her children away. She peeled back the flap of the yellowed envelope and removed the folded paper. This letter had been a short one, only two pages. She flipped open the letter, which was dated October 5, 1979.

As she read the letter, the old feelings returned. The sense of loss overwhelmed her. The words on the page wailed at her much like she had mourned the absence of her husband and her two daughters. She only read the first paragraph before she folded the letter again and shoved it back into the envelope. She stuffed it into the rattling can. She shook the can again and peered into it trying to determine what was bouncing around in the bottom. She turned it upside down and shook it until a sparkle of gold tumbled from its lip. The ring landed in her lap. She pinched it between her fingers and took a close look at it. A moment passed before she realized she held her ex-husband’s wedding ring – the one he had worn when they were married.

The plain, gold band had scuffs and scratches on its surface, but it still gleamed in the light like a twinkling star in the night. She rolled it between her fingers. A flood of emotions pushed her back into the squeaky recliner. She stared at the ring a bit longer before she dropped it back into the can and replaced the flimsy, plastic lid. She sat, breathless and bewildered, wondering why her ex-husband would send her these things.

Donna retrieved the other package from the counter, but before she opened it, she examined the handwriting. It didn’t look like her ex-husband’s writing. He could barely write the way it was. If she remembered correctly, his handwriting was bulky and shaky like that of a child’s. The writing on the package was rounded and decidedly feminine like hers would have been had she ever focused on such things.

She tore open the package carefully as if she were afraid of what she might find. Her fingers slid along the edge of one of the box flaps as she opened it, and she winced in pain at the paper cut opened on her index finger. At first, it was just a slice of skin on the side of her finger, but then, blood flushed the superficial wound. Pain radiated through her hand. She put the finger to her lips and held it there until the pain subsided. She put the package aside and ambled into the kitchen to attend to the wound.

With a fresh bandage on the cut, she returned to the package and opened the flaps. Another letter, not ancient like the others, sat on top of several wooden picture frames. She ignored the letter for a moment and pulled the pictures from the box. The first one showed her and her husband on their wedding day on August 5, 1971. She stared at it in disbelief. A tear trickled down her cheek.

She peered into the box at the next framed photo, which was her with her two daughters, Emily and Ann. They were still little girls then. The picture had been taken in the backyard just beyond the wall in front of her. She looked that way as if she could peer back in time and see them playing on the tire swing that hung on the big oak for so many years even after they were gone.

The last photo in the box was a family portrait taken just before her husband left with the girls. Donna looked at the pained expression on her face. She remembered that day well. She put the pictures back in the box and pulled the letter toward her face. She squinted at the swooping words on the page as she slowly read it. Her heart thrummed in her chest and her breath hitched until a sob escaped. She crumpled the letter in her fist and crammed it back into the box before she pushed it to the floor at her feet. She sat back in the recliner as tears rolled down her cheeks. The refrigerator purred to life filling the anguished silence for a moment. Her ex-husband had died.

Living, Not Existing

My daughter and I had a great discussion this weekend, one of many that we’ve had over the years. I sometimes forget she’s only 13 until I put her and her brother in the same room. It started with an article about the 76-year-old who recently completed the Western States 100 trail race in under 30 hours becoming the oldest finisher of the grueling race. It’s a feat when a young person completes the race, but for a septuagenarian it’s downright miraculous. I can only admire the man and his determination, but mostly, I respect that he’s living life vs. simply existing.

This gets the crux of the conversation that I had with my budding philosophic teenager. One of the my favorite aphorisms that I’m constantly repeating to the kids is that if you’re not challenging yourself, you’re not growing. There’s a corollary to this that I don’t share, and that’s if you’re not growing, you might as well be dead. I save that morose offshoot for myself because, let’s face it, I don’t want to depress the kids; I just want them to make the most of their talents (and move out and get off the parental dole), but there’s a whole lot of truth to that corollary.

I see it all the time – people who are just there floating in space like a jellyfish waiting for something to happen to them rather than making things happen for themselves. They’re quick to bemoan the perception that they’re a victim of some unseen force and slow (if ever) to see how their lives are a collection of their own decisions. This gets to another aphorism that I push onto my kids: you are the result of your own decisions. Don’t blame anyone or anything else; it just makes you look dumb. It’s safe to say I don’t adopt the jellyfish persona.

During our conversation about the oldest finisher in Western States history, my daughter said, “that sounds like something you’ll be doing when you’re that age in a few years.” I forgave her for conflating 30 years into such a short time frame. While I don’t know if I’ll ever want to attempt the Western States, I do know that I will never get to the point of sitting around and waiting to die, and that’s really all simply existing is. I don’t understand that mentality. As long as I wake up each morning, I’m going to make the most of it. I’m certainly not going to waste time doing pointless things, staring into space without a meaningful thought in my head, or imagining all of the terrible things that could happen should I try to live my life.

If my kids are clear on anything, it’s that my wife and I intend to make the most of the the years ahead. They’ll be lucky if they can keep up with us. We’ll become a veritable game of Where’s Waldo once they move out. I have no intention of allowing the moss to grow under us. Life must be lived. Simply existing isn’t an option for me. Now, about that Western States race…

 

Mr. Big Nose

Several years ago, my family and I lived in China for a while. A job opportunity landed us in Beijing as I had taken an expatriate assignment with my employer at the time. There’s nothing more challenging from a personal and professional perspective than plopping yourself in the middle of a very different culture, especially if you don’t speak the language. The trials and tribulations of everyday life felt overwhelming at first, but gradually, we adjusted. You can’t grow if you don’t challenge yourself, so it’s safe to say, we grew a lot those three years. I learned a lot about myself, the most of important of which is that I have a big nose.

I’d never really regarded my nose as particularly large. Growing up, when I looked around me, everyone had similar-sized noses, so I never ascribed much stature to my nose. Sure, I saw some people who were considered to have rather large noses that were described as hawk-like, maybe in an admirable way, or elephantine, in an unkind way, but these folks were the exceptions rather than the rule. My nose was rather pedestrian. I could easily see around it, and in fact, I had to angle my eyes inward quite a bit to even see it without looking in a mirror. When I did use a mirror, I often looked straight on into it rather than at a profile, so I didn’t pay particular attention to my out-sized snout.

Just as it’s hard to see crutch words (can you find them in this post?) in your writing, it’s difficult to see aberrant personal features when you’re surrounded by similar people. Drop yourself into a different culture and suddenly those features stand out like a black sheep in a flock of white ones. In China, my prodigious beak looked like I could audition for the main role in Pinocchio. It became readily apparent, oddly enough, when my time there was nearly finished. As a goodbye gift, I received a caricature statue of my family from my coworkers. As is common with caricatures, they exaggerate the most prominent features of their subjects. The tiny statues of my wife and kids looked pretty normal, but when I saw mine, I was struck by how it looked like a tiny person attached to a giant nose.

It’s easy to laugh at the statue as an overwrought exaggeration of a heretofore unknown physical abnormality, but it also drives home the importance of perspective, which is something that makes writing (and reading for that matter) so interesting and enjoyable. As a writer, I get to step into someone else’s perspective and try it on for size. I attempt to see the world through his or her eyes. It doesn’t mean I get it right, but for once, I step outside my own view of the world and look at it in a different way, and much like the challenge of adapting to a very different culture, it helps me grow, and hopefully, it helps my readers grow. That’s the true value in a good story. It expands the mind beyond what is merely possible by being who and where you are. That’s the kind of growth I like, the kind unrelated to my snout.

Postscript: Only my wife can call me Big Nose. To everyone else, it’s Mr. Big Nose.