Time, whose side are you on?

I don’t cry much, but when I do, it’s usually because a truck full of Cub Scouts just drove by in a 4th of July parade. It gets me every time.

I didn’t cry when Dad died. The tears appeared months later heading down the street to my doctor’s appointment at St. Thomas Hospital. I thought of the conversations Dad and I had on the way to visits with his primary care physician, and a hole bored through the middle of me. There’s no way to fill that kind of hole. It’s best to just let it scab over and scar.

Mom dreaded this appointment with the cardiologist. At her last visit six months ago, he’d told her to cut out salt entirely and lose some weight. Mama can’t stand for anybody to be unhappy with her. He was just doing his job when he told her to mend her behavior. She hadn’t seen him in a year, and she had suffered congestive heart failure while vacationing in California. He legitimately wanted to curb any fluid retention. She thought he would surely give her a talking-to this time since she hadn’t lost a pound, nor had she completely cut salt from her diet.

On the way to I-65, I tried to make light of Mom’s worry about her encounter about to happen. I told her, “Don’t let him rattle you, Ma. Just say, ‘uh-huh’ and ‘I’ll do better next time.'”

“Or,” I added, laughing, “when he says you didn’t lose any weight, you tell him, ‘Well, you didn’t, either!'” We’d noticed that last time he’d picked up about twenty pounds. He’s always been a natty dresser, and he still looked good in his yellow plaid jacket and blue pants, but we were sure he’d had to purchase some new ones.

St. Thomas is not known for the easiest parking arrangements. There was no space in the semi-convenient open-lot parking downstairs, where we would normally take an elevator up three floors and walk down a long hallway. We had to park in a multi-level garage across the street, walk down a long skybridge connecting the garage and hospital, then directly into the other end of the Heart Institute. In my mind, the distances are fairly equal. There is a small difference, though. That skybridge is ever-so-slightly uphill.

I offered Mom one of the hospital wheelchairs waiting just outside the skybridge doors.

“No, that was way too much trouble the last time we did that. I can do better with just my walker.”

“Okay,” I said. “We can rest along the way if you need to.”

She needed to rest several times. Fortunately, the hospital designers saw the need for padded benches built into the windows every twenty feet or so. The seats are chair-height, so I tried to get her to sit in her rolling walker. She wanted to sit on the bench. Getting up and off the bench to grip the walker’s handlebars was difficult and required assistance.

When we finally reached the entrance to the Heart Institute, the nurse screening for Covid-19 waved us into the large waiting room.

“Go ahead and get her seated up in the front,” she said. “Then you come back and I’ll check your temperature.”

Mom sat on her walker in a section of chairs near the registration desk. I had pre-registered the night before but was still expecting more paperwork, or tablet work, once we got there. To my surprise, there was nothing more to do.

I sat down beside Mom. She was spent and breathing too heavily to talk. She looked pitiful.

When the nurse called Mom’s name from the doorway to the exam rooms, I quickly stood and met her at the doorway to say, “She can hardly make it. This might take a minute.”

I turned back toward Mom. Deborah called out, “Did y’all just walk across the skybridge? Oh, God love her. Keep her right there. I’ll bring a wheelchair.”

“I’ve never seen her so exhausted.”

And right at that moment, I saw my usually lively little mama grey-faced, eyes drooping, and so short of breath that her mouth was halfway open. Maybe what shook me was some form of pre-grief. The Universe suddenly reminded me that I won’t have her with me always.

I know that in my head, but this knowing, this moment of sorrow, was a gnawing in that hole in my middle, maybe opened just enough to make me break. I could not let my mother see me crying.

Mom was relieved to scoot onto the wheelchair seat. The nurse quickly wheeled her to a room, helped her into a chair, and rolled the wheelchair into the hallway. The room is small. I stood just outside the door.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll take her back to the garage in this chair. I can come back and get her walker.”

She answered, “Honey, you just relax in here with her, and we’ll take care of the rest.”

The doctor arrived in about fifteen minutes. He seemed so happy! He began by cheering Mom’s blood pressure, her stable weight, and her obvious (to him) sparkle in her eyes. He directed a question to me.

“Don’t you think she’s doing well?”

I nodded. “But wait, what’s that on your mask?”

He answered, “I was just about to tell your mom that we have a new addition to the Blair family tree.” (His grandmother was a Blair in Texas, and he has always insisted we’re all related.)

He pulled his pictures up on his iPhone, turning it this way and that to make sure both Mom and I got a good look at this little six-month old in snazzy yellow plaid overalls, blue jacket. and a matching bowtie on his white shirt.

“Oh, what a cutie!”

“Isn’t he a handsome young man?”

He answered, “Oh, that little fellow has us all wrapped up in him. Oh, my.” He closed his eyes and moved his head from side to side. “His name is Walter.”

“Walter!” Mom said. “My husband’s Grandfather Blair was named Walter.”

After the baby talk, the doctor said, “You’re doing well. I think, and let’s see if you agree, that we should see you again next year. Of course, you can always call if you need us.”

“I guess I’m doing well for my age,” she said.

“You’re doing well for any age,” he answered.

Mom and I got the giggles when he left the room, bemused by the way Walter captivated this cardiologist-surgeon, and relieved that no one seemed unhappy today.

“He was just too enthralled with that new grandbaby to fuss at me,” she said.

The nurse appeared. “Diana, I’m going to take her to your car. You just bring the walker.”

I lifted the walker into the back of the van, backed out, and stopped at the elevator doors.

Mom thanked the nurse and closed the van door.

“Next time,” she tol me, “I’ll take that wheelchair at the beginning.”

We pulled out of the garage. “Ahhhhhh, sunshine!” I said.

“And thank God for Walter,” Mom answered.

***

And the moon…

I was one lonely pre-teen when we arrived at seminary housing in Mill Valley, California. We had taken Route 66, pulling a U-haul trailer behind our big old white Dodge with no air conditioner. Actually, I loved the trip to California. It was the settling in that caused my grief. It was late July, but San Francisco Bay seemed to fog in whatever the season. I lay in my twin bed in the living room of our two-bedroom apartment and soaked in the sadness of foghorn warnings wafting across the water from The City.

A song, “Stranger on the Shore,” was popular on the radio at the time. I identified with it, but if I sang it at all, it was very quiet or only to myself.

Here I stand, watching the tide go out, 
So all alone and blue, just dreaming dreams of you. 
I watched your ship as it sailed out to sea 
Taking all my dreams and taking all of me.

By the time I reached the ending question of the lyrics, I usually wept.

Why, oh why, must I go on like this? 
Shall I just be a lonely 
Stranger on the shore?"

I hear my mother singing a Hank Williams song in her apartment above the study where I write.

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly.
That midnight train is whining low.
I'm so lonesome I could cry. 

Mom can sing a sad song and not sound sorrowful. That’s because she never gets lonely, she told me. Mercy. I could cry right now just thinking of the rest of the lyrics.

I've never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by.
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry.

I’m sure Mom would be surprised if I told her now the depth of my sadness when I walked in to my first seventh-grade classroom. When all the students were seated, the teacher asked some personal questions like, “What elementary school did you attend?,” and “Is your father the ‘Doctor’ Fields?” The one directed to me was, “Where are you from?”

“Lebanon, Tennessee,” I said, “about thirty miles northeast of Nashville.”

She smiled, kids snickered, some even mimicking. I sank. After that moment, my conversation was limited to required responses for the four months I attended Mill Valley Junior High.

I remember talking to only one other student, a girl who ate lunch with me. Everyone brought lunch from home. We sat on benches in a courtyard outside unless it was raining, and then we ate in our classrooms. To this day, I wonder why that particular girl chose me. I don’t remember her name.

Teachers seemed unapproachable. When my math teacher found out I was leaving for another school during the Christmas break, she said, “That’s why I don’t like you seminary kids. You’re always leaving.”

***

Lately the moon has been spectacular. The December moon phases were brighter than usual, placed against that backdrop of a shade slightly deeper and more shimmering than Sherwin Williams’ Moscow Night.

One late December night, Dixie and I took to the front yard for the last potty opportunity before bed. The moon was full and far away. My pup padded around as far as the leash and a few of my steps would take her. I watched the moon.

A few lonesome spells always seem to hit me around the holidays. For some reason, I started humming Stranger on the Shore. I remembered that feeling of being disconnected and unwanted, a totally invalid emotion for all the joy and family around me.

Then I remembered a song the Mill Valley Junior High Chorus sang that December, one day before my last day at Mill Valley Junior High. We walked, in a group, from hall to hall. Our school had no cafeteria and no auditorium of any kind.

I loved chorus. No one talked about my Southern accent there. We just sang. Mr. Stahlmann, our director, asked me to sing one verse of our selection alone–a solo, a capella. My heart beat almost out of my chest as I wondered why he chose me for this part, but I knew I could sing well.

This song, No Candle Was There and No Fire, was old and strange. I researched two of the antique words of the song. Between kine and effulgence, effulgence was my favorite.

We hadn’t practiced in the halls and I was mesmerized by the echo of my own voice filling one long, lonely space.

But the moon gave a radiance divine, 
And the stars an effulgence bright. 
And the only sound to be heard 
Was the lowing of kine in the night 
And the sighing of wind in the trees, and the flapping of angel wings.

The next day, that last day before we moved from Mill Valley, kids in my home room whispered and looked at me. Finally, one boy asked from across several rows of desks, “Was that you, you know, singing real high?”

“Yes,” I said, not daring to meet his eyes for long.

“Well, it was real good,” he said.

One by one, ten or so of the other classmates joined in. “That was so pretty,” “I wish I could sing like that,” and “Man, you sounded like you were far away.”

The last girl to comment said, “But I could still hear your accent.”

I thought, “Yeah, and I was far away, but you can’t take this away from me– I was effulgence bright.”