by Maya Jewell Zeller
in memory of Ed George, December 24, 1924-August 27, 2012
After my husband’s grandfather dies, I buy our three-year-old daughter “Frida Kahlo’s Frocks & Smocks,” a magnetic dress-up paper doll with clothing and accessories: monkeys and parrots, a paintbrush along with skeleton shirt and pants, onerous scarves and bracelets. Our daughter drapes these accessories in the wrong places: a bracelet on Frida’s head, her monkey gripping the paintbrush and standing by Frida’s easel, which also sports the disembodied head of Diego Rivera. Children, of course, are intuitive: this disarray is as Frida would have it if she herself could rise and drag her own floppy body across the coffee table, saying what Zoey does: I like art and you like art, let’s dance.
Then Zoey assumes a deep voice, sticks the stereo to the canvas, sings I AM Frida Kahlo! in the kitchen to the cats while I fold her baby brother’s pants, roll his tiny socks together.
At the funeral last Thursday, our son was seven weeks old, and we stood near my husband’s grandmother’s grave in Osburn. When the baby fussed I would walk away from the small crowd into the headstones and watch the green mountains of North Idaho shrug into the sky above us. This is where Ed worked as an electrician for Hecla Mining, the company that hauls silver up out of the earth, plugs the creek with lead and mercury. Hecla Mining, where my husband’s father also worked, filling his lungs with airborne particles, using his body to put his wife through nursing school.
This is part of our children’s legacy. On the Hecla Mining company website, I find a rotating banner of photographs: one with a tractor scooping rock and mineral matter into a truck, one with a long tube used to ferry minerals up to the tower, one with four men and one woman standing in a row, all looking at the camera, all wearing hard hats and head lamps, mining coats against a backdrop of what looks like fractured rock spilling from a crack in a retaining wall.
I have tried to imagine this life, the life of my husband’s family in Wallace, Idaho, in the heart of the Silver Valley where his ancestors migrated from North Dakota. I have tried to imagine his grandfather, who did not think about the term social responsibility but who was of the generation in which everyone had such a sense of personal responsibility that Ed himself hoarded his money and his belongings for years, knowing their use and their potential for disappearing, never to be reclaimed through any amount of hard work.
We have been teaching our daughter about death all summer. We have been walking in that Spokane cemetery high above the river where we read aloud whose grave is whose, talk about what our spirits might do when our bodies stop breathing, until our daughter loses interest, runs across the grass to find another pinwheel, those bright circles of light and wind. She counts how many, keeps track of colors. The last one was purple and pink, she says. I bet Papa Ed will like living with another man. She means he was lonely watching his television all alone in the retirement home, and she means Jesus or maybe a stranger whose head is floating in her mind, along with Diego Rivera’s embroidered hat and the plate of watermelon and the large red heart you can imagine pumping blood, then suddenly not pumping blood.
When we used to visit Grandpa Ed at Northpointe Senior Living, I walked the hallways with Zoey, who was afraid of Ed and his small apartment, his wheelchair and his loud voice and blaring television. Zoey and I went looking for Cindy the dog who usually wandered upstairs. We’d find her lying by a fake plant or in another patient’s room, like the room of the woman who kept a bag of dog treats and a crocheted blanket on her couch. Cindy would be sitting obediently at the woman’s feet. When we walked by, the woman called out, “come on in!” and Zoey, not quite three, obliged, plopping down on the couch and engaging in conversation like we knew everyone in the home. She had no boundaries between family and acquaintance, no reason to think we shouldn’t walk right in. The door was open.
Back in Ed’s room, my husband and his grandfather talked about the weather, the news station, the conspiracies Ed intimated were afoot in the assisted living facility. He’d shout his stories, and my husband would laugh and ask a question which Ed wouldn’t hear, and he’d keep telling my husband about the nurses and how they would come at night and poke his arms, take his blood. I always wondered why he didn’t want to open his blinds: he kept them shut tight, so the main light came from the television. But Ed knew things, and I imagine how rich his life was in physical detail. But I can’t speak to those details. I wasn’t listening.
My mother-in-law washed all of her father’s clothes and made nearly daily trips to visit him. He had not been a good father. This is something she and I share: fathers who were never emotionally available, who in many ways took for granted the care they received from women. But my mother-in-law seems to be more forgiving than I, and dutifully transported Ed to his dialysis appointments, went back again and again to a horologist who fixed Ed’s watch and fixed it again. It was made of Black Hills Gold, with a leaf design around the face. I wonder if he liked it because of the value, or because of the leaves, or if he only wanted it fixed so many times to give my mother-in-law a sense of purpose. I know she loved him; I also know that during this time of caring for him she chewed her cuticles until they bled.
During my last visit to Ed, I was in the last trimester of pregnancy with my second child, our son. I do not remember what remarks Ed made, or what I said in response.
I’d had a good pregnancy. Our daughter had been born via Caesarean Section after a relaxed natural labor, eight hours of pushing, and a transverse head which kept her from descending fully through the pelvis. I had a team of midwives for my first pregnancy, and this time I had a doctor with a good rate for VBACs (Vaginal Births After Cesarean). Still, when I arrived at the hospital already in transition, and the nurses placed the monitor around my abdomen, my son’s heartbeat was pretty flat, so I was rushed to surgery. It’s a common story: when it comes to childbirth, things don’t often go as planned.
Oxygen deprivation during labor turned my son’s body blue, and he was limp when they pulled him out of me. They called it birth asphyxia, and he spent a week and a half in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, tended by nurses and wrung through pricks and scans and X-rays, given lipids through a tube and hooked to monitors, surrounded by beeping screens and other babies whose mothers’ bodies had betrayed them. Who felt it was their fault. Who maybe, like me, imagined their child dying there in the plastic box the hospital called a bed, wrapped in standard-issue blankets, pink or blue.
Once when I went for Canyon’s care time, the nurse had him dressed in a little monkey-adorned onesie. He looked so much like a baby does in the world outside these sterile walls. He looked so . . . real. I felt so angry, betrayed even: who was she to decide what his first clothing would be? And where did she get this outfit? It wasn’t among the few things I’d put in his bed: my milk on cloths by his head so he’d know my smell, photos of my face and his father’s face taped to the sides of his crib and the nursing pillow I kept behind the computer to pull down into my lap while I sat in those uncomfortable chairs and tried to get him to latch and suck without aspirating so he wouldn’t have to get his milk through a gavash tube in his nose.
But finally Canyon left the hospital to come home, and the doctors suggested we limit his contact with other people, especially those with compromised immune systems. That meant Grandpa Ed, and so we didn’t go to visit him. Ed never met his great-grandson.
We didn’t go much of anywhere—the grocery store, the doctor’s office, all contaminated with living organisms that could land our son back in the hospital. But we did go to the cemetery in Spokane. We went back sometimes two days in a row, and we continue to go there, even now. The cemetery seems safe. We like the cemetery for its tall trees and cool grass, the scant amount of people who visit. And, I find comfort in cemeteries during this time—they are green even during July and August, when much of our city turns brown and withers, and when people fill the streets with their cheap flip-flops and cigarettes and sad eyes.
We visit the cemetery, and a park or two, and keep Canyon out of the sun, away from too many people and germs. People are loud, even the birds swooping seem to be diving at my head. I like the trees—they are still, quiet.
When Ed died we went to Idaho to that small plot on a hill where I wondered again what sorts of things Ed knew that he could tell me now. I wanted to ask about keeping his blinds closed in the nursing home. Maybe the pavement outside his window was too gray and flat after decades of the pine and larch-covered earth, slanted to sky. Maybe he was thinking of electricity, how it is a transfer of energy into a form we can use to make things tick and go. And maybe, in the end, before his spirit left Spokane it stopped to see Canyon in his bassinet next to my bed.
I keep thinking about mining—how we extract mineral from rock. A rock is made up of two or more minerals, as a baby is a combination of DNA. Mineral from rock becomes part of the daily workings of our lives—televisions, cell phones, hangers to put our clothes on when we’re not wearing them, when they hang like a memory of the day we may have lived in them. A memory like energy, something which cannot be created or destroyed. Can a memory be created, or is it just a transfer of experience—based in the physical world—into our brains? Can a memory be destroyed? My thinking is confused: it mixes myth-making and physics; it mixes my thoughts of death with my feelings of motherhood. My brain fails me. I want back the rawness of the not-knowing, of patterns of the sensory and mental worlds still a broken kaleidoscope, still a pile of magnetic clothes you can arrange however you like.
Back in the cemetery, it is evening, and the stones throw long dark columns across the grass. Zoey says The earth turns away; the sun goes down. She knows the science, but she is still figuring out the language. Or maybe she knows the language and not the science. Maybe she knows things like Ed knows them, or Canyon, being closer to the beginning or end, with less to muddle her relationship to light and shadow.
She runs through the gravestones like they are trees. She does not think of the bodies beneath us, of the soil and rocks and their other lives. She does not think of the other grandfather buried here. She might be thinking of her skin, the way the wind feels against it. She might be thinking of the butterscotch scent of these tall pines. She might be thinking of Frida Kahlo. I don’t know. I think, when I die, I would like to be cremated, my complex cellular matter made into a simple substance. Maybe put in a river where the fish will swim in and out of my body, my body will swim in and out of them. The sky is turning now, and I am nursing the baby on the ridge where the wind picks up voices from down below. The wind lifts them like seeds or spiders, carries them to us where we sit waiting.
MAYA JEWELL ZELLER is the author of the poetry collections Rust Fish (Lost Horse Press, 2011) and Yesterday, the Bees (Floating Bridge Press, 2015). Her essays and poems appear in recent issues of Pleiades, Tahoma Literary Review, High Desert Journal, and James Franco Review. Maya teaches writing at Gonzaga University, serves as Fiction Editor for Crab Creek Review, and co-directs the Beacon Hill Reading Series. She lives in Spokane.