White Flower

[An excerpt of old writing]

A white flower grows in the quietness. Let your tongue become that flower. –Rumi

            It is mid-autumn, October, and though there is no snow yet, the days are often gray and overcast.  My new room in on the third-floor of the apartment, and when I wake up in the morning, I roll over and stare out at the expanse of sky over the treetops.  The leaves are changing with brilliant color and my worn comforter is cozy; but somehow the days have a somber quality about them.  I lie on my side listening to the patter of rain on the rooftop or nestle into the soft sheets, cocooned in heavy bed-warmth; even when I am not sleeping, some deep-down part of me is resting, quiescent and contracted inward, letting lie the parts that have been raw and exposed for a long time.  I am quiet; I move slowly and say little.  A pile of books grows at my bedside and eventually makes its way into my bed; I sleep with my books, The Upanishads and Neruda’s Love Sonnets and collected works of Anne Sexton, and The New Jerusalem Bible.  I don’t read the books systematically.  I dip in and savor a line, a paragraph, a poem, a page.  I turn the words over and over in my mind.  Late at night, in the boat of myself.  Pale almonds of fingernails. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  Then I think of your tongue, half-ocean, half-chocolate… Some deep part of me is resting, and another deep part of me is stirring; the words are like water that gets to the roots.  I don’t think about what they mean, I simply drink them in.  Nor do I talk about these things.  It is not because I have nothing to say, but rather, because I cannot find the words for this deep, ocean-bottom place I am in, enormous and still and scintillating.   It is like the afternoons I spend with Nonno.  Most of the time I say very little to him; yet the space is as pregnant as if it were brimming with new life.

            I look across from him and think: In that body is a newborn, a schoolboy, a husband.  I think, those are the ears his mother nibbled, the fists that punched out bullies, the body that lay next to my grandmother.   I have always loved his hands, large and strong but somehow gentle; my mind travels years past, remembering those hands.  The feeling of his fingers, resting lightly on the back of my neck, when I was fourteen or fifteen: I was crying, and he was trying to comfort me.  Your father doesn’t mean it, that’s just the way he talks.  C’mon, Mel, cheer up.  ‘You know what’ll happen if I take my belt off,’ he would say, mimicking my father.  My pants will fall down.  C’mon, laugh.  The way he lightly held his shaving brush—the same way he holds a jelly donut, now: I would sit on the toilet cover in his basement bathroom—I was seven or eight—and raptly watch him shave.  He still used a wooden brush and shaving mug to mix up the cream and would dab the stuff systematically over his stubbly chin and cheeks, drawing his lips in to get it in the crevices under his nose; then he would hold the skin taut with one hand, and with the other, draw the razor down over his face and neck as delicately as if he were painting the ceiling of a church.

            I think of the afternoons we spent in his basement workroom, with its table saw and router and workbench, and pegboard covered with tools, and the piles of sawdust and scraps of wood.  Under a dangling light bulb and squinting through dusty, smudged glasses, with a burnt-down Marlboro stuck to his lower lip, Nonno would plane doors, cut molding, and measure two-by-fours for his next job.  I sat on a stool, watching, while he narrated in words that I didn’t understand—louvers and joists and mullions.  But I didn’t care: it was artistry.  When I was fifteen, he built me a dollhouse—simply because I asked him to.  He spent months laboring in the basement, but this was one project he didn’t let me see until it was finished.  It was a true labor of love: Plexiglas, four-paned windows; doors that opened on tiny hinges; and a chimney out of pressboard that was patterned and painted red, to look like real brick.  But there was more.  Nonno gave me a set of castoff tools—a jigsaw and a hacksaw and a hammer, and nails and glue and scraps of wood, so I could make my own furniture.  I took the tools home and set up a corner on my father’s workbench, and turned out tables and beds and old-fashioned dressers with drawers that really opened.  I knew how to do it—to use tools and measure wood and make things square: I had watched Nonno for years.

            Nonno was a carpenter until well into his seventies, and though he was never a big man, his body was strong and limber; he could ride a bicycle and stand on his head and climb a ladder with a pile of lumber on his shoulder.  And now, I see, that body is shrinking, the limbs as withered as old sticks.  The head looks too heavy for the neck and the hands look too large for the arms.  He is all elbows and knees and gums; sometimes it seems the bones are trying to poke through his delicate skin.  He grimaces when touched.  The eyes are sunken and clouded over, seeming to look inward, recognizing nothing and no one.  Sometimes he wails and bangs his fists in frustration; his hands are scraped and mottled with bruises from green to blue to black.  Still, he is not allowed to stay in bed; the nurses dress him in his flannel shirts and pants and baseball cap and park him in the recreation room.  I am glad when I find him asleep.  More often I find him crying, crossing and uncrossing his legs and rocking in his chair, in room with ten other sick, old people but no one to hear his pain.  I cannot bear the thought that he should suffer alone.  I cannot bear the thought that he is afraid.

            I wonder if he knows that he is dying.

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