Between Two Yards
Alisa A. Gaston-Linn
The Montréal Review, March 2011
Summer Picture (1971-2) by
Euan Uglow,oil on canvas 43 x 43.5"
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Over the next year, I didn't see her much. In the fall, on a day when I must have been gone or deep into a web project in my writing room, Dana raked and bagged her leaves. I saw her empty yard and wondered why she hadn't called me about leaf-raking day. On a cold, grey day, I raked and bagged the overabundance of leaves on my own and thought about how Dana had stopped speaking to me. The holidays came and went, and for the first time, I stopped baking holiday cookies, and Dana left nothing for me on my porch, and I left nothing for her. I continued with my movie group, and dinner with friends, and art exhibits. But in a comfortable, familiar kind of way, I missed Dana. That summer, I ran into her at the grocery store. We stopped and exchanged polite salutations, but then I realized that I had known this woman for nine years, and pretending that everything was okay between us, when it obviously was not, was just crap.
"Dana, I just have to ask you. Have I done something to upset you?"
She looked down, shrugged a bit, shook her hair in that awkward way she always did. "No, no. Why?"
"Well, I've noticed that in the last year you just stopped speaking to me."
She looked at me. Her grocery cart a barrier between the two of us. She looked around at the stacked shelves and then finally back at me. "I quit talking to everyone."
"I just got tired of people telling me what to do about the cancer."
"Did I tell you what to do?"
"I always tried to be supportive, Dana, I really wanted to respect your choices."
"Yeah, you did. But I just needed some space. I was just sick of it all, so I just kind of hibernated. I haven't really talked to anyone."
"How are you doing?"
"Good, good, the cancer is gone."
And to that, a genuine relief. Aside from the fluctuating displeasure I felt toward Dana, I truly wanted her to be healthy. I happened to peer into her cart. Ice cream, cupcakes, chips, cookies, candy. She was still tiny. She must have seen a confused look on my face because she quickly piped in. "Lately I've been craving sweets!" We both laughed a bit.
After that, it was as if no silence had passed between us. No awkward moments in our yards, no tension. We called each other again and talked about the new restaurants all over our neighborhood. We talked about our jobs, our families. And I told her about the man I started dating in the spring, Ian. We also talked about our dogs who were both older women now, well into their fifties in people years. And Dana put on weight. She continued to put on weight, until she reached the size she had been when I met her that first day I moved in nine years ago. That fall, Ian helped me rake leaves. I asked Dana if she needed help, but she said she wasn't feeling well. I was still deep into school, and Ian and I spent most of our time together. But now, whenever Dana and I saw each other, we stopped and talked over the fence like we used to.
That winter, one weeknight at 11:30 p.m., I sat on the couch, reading about third-world sustainability and structural adjustment policies, and Dana phoned. She found a stray dog and wanted to know if I would go with her to the shelter. I immediately put on my shoes. As we drove in her SUV, the shepherd mix panted in the back seat. I talked to him in a soothing voice, and pet his matted hair. Dana drove to the Denver shelter that was closed.
"They told me to leave him in one of the kennels."
It was one of those deep black winter nights, no snow, but a bite that made us shake. We searched the grounds for the "kennel" and finally found three metal boxes with breathing holes poked in the sides.
I was concerned. "They want us to leave him in one of those?"
We opened all three boxes.
"They don't even have blankets," I complained.
Dana, the practical one. "Betty won't let me bring a dog home. Finbar probably wouldn't be too happy either."
We gently coaxed the dog into a box, said our "good-byes" and left. On the way home, Dana said, "I knew you would go with me. I knew you'd be up this late." Then Dana told me how she kept getting colds. Her kidney stints had been bothering her a lot. I asked her when they would take them out permanently, and she did not know.
Over the holidays, Ian and I spent a lot of time together. We went to the aquarium, the museum of nature and science, the IMAX, the planetarium. And I told Dana about each date. She listened and once in awhile, brought up Shane who had finished his community work, and was now paying damages to the family of the little girl, something he had volunteered to do from the beginning. Dana had still not talked to him, or rather, he had still not talked to her. But she found out about his life through his friends. I wanted to share my happiness about Ian, but at the same time, I wondered if I was being insensitive to Dana. She still wanted marriage and children. I knew she still wanted Shane. That Christmas, I placed a gift bag on her porch-Ian Frazier's book Family , and a bag of organic dog biscuits for Betty. Dana and I made plans to go to dinner when the weather warmed up.
In the spring, I was loaded down with homework and work, and making plans for a trip to the Grand Canyon with Ian. I noticed that Dana's mother and one of her sisters were spending a lot more time at her place. I also noticed Betty was gone. I asked Dana how she was.
"I'm good, except I keep getting the flu."
"What about the kidney stints?"
"Still there. They said they'll take them out as soon as I get over the flu."
"Where is Betty?"
"Well, I've just been so sick, and I've been missing a lot of work, so she's been staying with my sister. I didn't want her to get stressed out."
"And what about the cancer? How is everything with that?"
"I'm still cancer-free. Everything's good."
"When should we go to dinner?"
"Let's go to Bangs as soon as I'm feeling better."
I left a gift bag on Dana's porch-a bag of whole grain porridge, and a jar of homemade Russian tea. A few weeks later, I was working from home. From my window, I saw Dana's sister pull up in her white SUV. Moments later, Dana slowly walked toward the car. She did not look well. She moved in small steps, her body wavering, and every so often she stopped and seemed to take a breath. I watched her until the car left, and then went back to my laptop.
Another two weeks went by. I walked out into the spring sunshine of April to get my mail. With a stack in my hand, I talked to my neighbor Gary about the dead tree in his yard that the city forced him to cut down. Someone had complained. Dana's sister drove up. She looked at me and we smiled, and then I asked, "How is Dana doing?"
Her sister gave me a look of perplexity. "Dana passed away two weeks ago."
I dropped my mail, abruptly taken over by tears.
Gary said, "I'm sorry, I thought you knew."
"No, I didn't know." I sobbed now. "What happened?"
Dana's sister said, "The cancer took over."
My entire body moved into thickness. Thickness of pain and shock and anger. Dana's mother drove up. She and Dana's sister were there to prepare Dana's home to sell. I stood in Dana's yard, her mother and sister smoked cigarette after cigarette, and I wiped the never ending tears, trying to rein in my emotions while Dana's family showed none.
"I thought the cancer was gone."
Her mother was hard and crackly with a wrinkled, dragging face, and once in awhile she pushed up her oversized prescription glasses. She coughed up phlegm a lot and held a look of disgust, no matter what she talked about. "Yeah, so did we. Dana didn't tell anyone. Not her friends, not even us."
"What happened?" I asked in the faintest voice that I had ever heard come out of my mouth.
Her mother inhaled deeply and spewed out smoke. "We took her to the hospital because she wasn't feeling good, and the doctors kept her in. After a week I asked him what the hell was going on. He said, 'Dana is dying. The cancer has spread all over her upper body.' So he put her on morphine and a week later she was gone."
I trembled now, picturing Dana in a hospital bed, lost in a narcotic fog. "Was she alone when she died?"
"Yeah, she was alone, it was late at night. We'd been to see her earlier that day."
I wiped my drenched face, which did no good. "Was she in pain?"
"Oh god she was so drugged up by then she didn't feel a thing."
Again, I pictured Dana. Late at night, in a hospital bed. Quietness keeping her calm, and hopefully the morphine shutting out thoughts of her coming finality. I wondered if she felt her spirit guides would help her. And I wondered if she had been afraid. I could no longer repress the bellows of heartbreak pushing out of my body. I asked one more question before I walked away.
"What about Betty?"
Dana's sister took a drag from her cigarette. "I've had Betty since January. I'm keeping her."
They held Dana's memorial service in a large side room of a church. There must have been over 100 people there, all of us sitting at round tables, while a pastor gave a canned speech about Dana, fitting in bits of her where he could. Betty was there. As soon as I sat down with Ian, she saw me from across the room and trotted over to sit by me. I stroked her black fur with grey tints, looked into her old brown eyes, and told her Finbar and I missed her. I told her it was okay. And I swallowed that hard lump in my throat, forcing my tears back because I was angry. I wanted to know why Dana didn't tell any of us she was dying. Why she didn't try everything to stay alive instead of relying on psychic healers and vitamins. A nurse on our street had told Laura and me that cervical cancer is one of the most curable cancers a woman can get. That made me even angrier at Dana.
When Dana's mother and sister put the For Sale sign out in her yard, I cried with every ounce of my being. Ian comforted me, but I could not get out of my mess. How wasteful, how foolish, how could Dana be so pig-headed? A week later when Dana's mother and sister set up tables in Dana's front yard, and displayed all of her possessions for strangers to buy, the same hard crying hit me. Ian asked me if I wanted to go over. I barely pushed the words out and told him no. Then I thought about the book I had given her for Christmas and I wondered if she had read it. And if so, liked it. I asked Ian to go find the book in the boxes of books we could see from my window. He went, but the book was not there. I suddenly felt desperate to have something of Dana's. To have a segment, a portion, something to take with me and put into a safe place where I could feel that I had honored her. I looked out the window at the antique lamps that used to sit on the tables next to Dana's floral couch. I looked at her kitchen utensils. I looked at the clay sun that used to hang on her fence in the back yard. And I looked at her chimes. Summer nights were always backed up by the clinging of Dana's chimes. A representation of green smells, and lovely grass, and gardens rippling with reds, purples, and yellows. When I had stopped hearing the chimes, I knew Dana was really gone.
For the next several months, every night while lying in bed, I sent out good energy to Dana, asking that her spirit guides help her get to where she needed to go. I was still angry and unbelievably sad and distraught over her death. It seemed so unnecessary and I felt that she had refused traditional medicine just so that she could prove to all of us that holistic healing would cure her cancer. Just so that she could prove she was right. Just so that she could win.
In August, Finbar had her second knee surgery. She lay drugged up on her dog bed, her eyelids sagging down, whining noises coming from her now and again, and I placed a paper plate of wet dog food in front of her, trying to get something into her stomach. I left the room for a moment, heard a thump, and went back to the room. A grey field mouse was on his side, struggling, wheezing, and I realized that he had probably tried to get the food and Finbar hit him with her paw. I put on my garden gloves, and picked up the mouse. I carried him to the backyard and looked closely at his itty-bitty face. His grey eyes were half way closed, his miniature yellow buck teeth moved up and down with his gasping mouth. He was still struggling to breath and I cried. I had become a mush of tears over the summer, something I was neither used to nor easy with. I wondered what Dana would do. I stroked his little head and body, trying to pacify him, trying to distract him from the pain. But I could see his moments were coming down to none. And then he was dead. I buried his tiny body next to some miniature lilies in my garden that lay on the other side of the fence, the other side of Dana's rocks and bird houses, and hoped that Dana could see him, wherever she was.
Last night, after dark, after changing my flat tire on C-470 with trucks and cars shaking the pavement while I bent down in a skirt and silk blouse, jacked up my car, pulled off the filthy hubcap, and desperately tried to unscrew the bolts, not knowing that I was supposed to take off the bolts before I jacked up the car, and a man pulled over to use some sort of drill thing to take off the bolts for me-after I came home with my greasy hands, Ian poured me a glass of wine, grabbed me tightly, kissed me, and cooed at me until I calmed down. We sat on our back deck while I drank my wine and watched the full moon surrounded by orange spring fog throw its light on the calm waves of the lake. I could hear our neighbors' chimes. It has been a year since Dana's death, and I have thought about her every day. I am no longer angry with her, but I am still perplexed by her choices. With her death came a fear to an extreme that I have never known in my life. At one point, I began having panic attacks, mostly having to do with the possibility of Ian dying. Of Finbar dying. I temporarily saw a therapist who put me on a bout of serotonin uptake reinhibitors.
I think about Dana, and ask myself if that is what she was feeling. Not a competitiveness, not a controlling need, not a great desire to be right, but basic, simple fear. She knew she would never get married or have children. She knew Betty would go to someone else. She knew her life was done. Her mother had told me that shortly before Dana went into the hospital, on the first day of spring, she had sat on her front porch, and the sun was out, and it was warm, and Dana got to feel it. I wondered about the thoughts going through Dana's head, her knowing it was her last spring.
I am afraid that I was not a good friend. I am afraid that I did not help Dana with her own fears. I saw a woman who was antagonistic in her rivalry, who moved into other peoples' personas, who wanted to regulate her life by regulating others. But why did I not see a woman who was possibly just uncomfortable with herself.
We can now open the windows, even though snow is sure to come before spring is finally over. I hear the chimes every night, and when Ian wants to close the windows because the chimes are keeping him awake, I feel desperate when I plead with him to leave the windows open. I don't know if I will become close friends with my neighbors. I don't know if I will bake holiday cookies and exchange gift bags, or ever rake leaves with another neighbor again. But for now, I will sit and listen to the quiet, clinking, delicate chimes in my new neighborhood.
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