Shards: A Relationship

Shards: A Relationship

Shards: A Relationship 500 375 Jane Hammons

“Pretend you are me,” Kath says.

She is 16. I am 14. We couldn’t be more different.

Kath: curvy with large breasts, Breck girl hair, a perfect smile. She excels at math and wins science awards at a time when girls are considered ill suited to such pursuits. Kath is proud of every prize, every report card, and she eagerly takes on any challenger at chess and Risk—games played mostly by men and boys in the 1960s and 70s. Not modest, she crows when she wins.

Me: a late-bloomer in every sense of the word. Unlike most of my friends, I haven’t even started my period. Skinny and flat-chested, I don’t envy Kath’s body. The way she attracts catcalls and stares from men and boys frightens me. I’m happy to play Twiggy in braces and glasses to her Raquel Welch. I get good enough grades but excel at nothing. I’m generally considered the nice sister, easy to get along with. I don’t challenge anyone’s notions of what a girl should do or how she should behave. I’m timid, a pleaser—traits often found in siblings of children with chronic illnesses or disabilities.

Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1957 at age six when her pancreas stopped making the hormone insulin, Kath struggles with the things most hormonal teenagers struggle with, but her weight fluctuates more radically, her skin breaks out erratically, she is plagued with yeast infections and her mood swings are vicious due to fluctuations in her blood sugar. While diabetes is largely an invisible disability an episode of low blood sugar can render it highly visible.

Kath’s happen quickly and hit her hard.

Picture the “Shelby drink your juice scene” in the movie Steel Magnolias. Sally Field begs a shivering, drooling, resistant Julia Roberts to drink from the glass of orange juice she holds at her daughter’s lips. Before seeing this movie in 1989, I’d never seen anyone act the way Kath did when her blood sugar was low. Growling and lashing out, she’d throw glasses of juice to the floor, clamp her mouth shut so that it had to be forced open and then chocolate bars or juice shoved or dribbled in, slowly enough so that she didn’t choke, but also quickly to take effect. I was relieved to learn that she was not some kind of freak, ashamed that the word freak was even in my sister vocabulary.

 

“Pretend you are me.”

It’s 1967 and Kath has been waiting all day for a call from a boy named John. But Mom has told her to fill the car with gas. She must drive a mile from the house to the pumps at the other end of the farm where trucks and tractors fill up. This is not a gas station quality pump, gallons ticking by in accordance with the pressure applied to the handle. It’s a white fuel storage tank elevated on a stand about ten feet off the ground. The padlock holding the hose and nozzle in place is sticky with grime that resists the twist of the tiny gold key. It takes a lot of strength to make the gasoline chug through the hose and into the car’s tank. If farmhands are filling the large tank of a truck or tractor the wait can be long, and by the time they are finished, the gas level might be low. The lower the level, the slower it flows.

“All you have to do is answer the phone. When he asks you out, say yes. Get the time. Make sure you know where we are going, so I know how to dress.” Kath can be in two places at once. Problem solved.

The phone rings just as she speeds out of the gravel driveway in a cloud of dust.

One ring. I weigh the consequences of not answering. If it’s John, will he call back? Two rings. How angry will Kath be if Mom beats me to the phone? On the third ring, I answer and when the boy on the other end of the line asks to speak to Kathy, I say in an overly formal tone, “This is she.”

The boy sounds doubtful. “Kathy?”

“Who is this?” I don’t hear how rude that sounds until the words are out of my mouth.

“Who is this?” The caller returns my question.

“Is this John?”

“Is this Kathy?”

“Yes.” I giggle because I’m nervous not because I am amused.

“This is Mark,” the boy finally says. “Who are you?”

“Janie.”

“Well, Janie,” says Mark. “Tell Kathy I called to see if she wants to go to a movie tonight. I’ll call back in a little while. Tell her I’m sorry I’m not John.”

“Okay. I’ll tell her . . . you called . . . not that you’re sorry . . . ” I don’t know how to finish the sentence. “You’re not John.”

“I know.” Mark has a soft friendly laugh. “And you’re not Kathy.”

John never calls. But when Mark calls back, Kath answers, and they make a date for the movies. She begins her pre-date ritual: trying on various outfits; painting finger and toenails; washing and curling her hair.

When Mark arrives, I answer the door. He has a beautiful smile. His dark blonde hair is long for boys living in Roswell, New Mexico, at the time. He is wearing jeans and a t-shirt, not the usual button-down shirts with collars most boys wear. I’m glad he’s not John. “Hi, Kathy,” he says and winks at me.

Before I have a chance to say anything, Kath brushes me aside. “Hi, Mark.” And off they go.

 

Seven years pass before I open the door for Mark again—this time for our first date. His sister and I have been best friends since high school. Mark and I have been flirting off and on for years when we cross paths at his parents’ house. We go to see Bob Dylan play a character named Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid at the drive-in, only a couple of miles from John Chisum’s Jinglebob Ranch, where the real Billy the Kid frequently roamed.  We drink Miller beer out of tiny bottles and smoke pot in Mark’s custom van carpeted in shag.

Six months later, Mark goes out that door for the last time when he drops me off after a weekend we’ve spent together in Santa Fe where we attended a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band concert. He tells me that he loves me. I’m surprised. I also don’t believe him. Mark’s relationships with women are notorious: hard breakups, multiple girlfriends at the same time and a long-standing relationship with a woman I suspect he is still seeing. None of this bothers me. I’m ready to begin my senior year of college and think more about getting a job or going to grad school than I do about whether I want a serious relationship with Mark or anyone else. Instead of trying to find words to express how I feel, I tell him that saying he loves me is unnecessary.

He laughs. “But it’s okay if I do, right?”

“Sure.” I remain casual, noncommittal. This is our last conversation.

“Why don’t you come out to the ranch,” he says. “I get lonely out there.”

It is an hour-long drive from my mother’s farm to Sitting Bull Falls, the turnoff for his father’s ranch. And another hour past the Falls where the highway ends and ranch roads split into Ys that force a decision. Regardless of the path chosen, the caliche roads blend into the surrounding landscape, the only landmarks are piles of rock, clumps of mesquite and a dry lake that just looks like another stretch of dirt to me. At night the landmarks vanish in the darkness, and only from about a mile is the mercury-vapor lamp that illuminates Mark’s trailer visible.

I tell him I can’t. “Summer school starts in a couple of days. I need to get back to Albuquerque and find a place to live.”

“If you change your mind, just come on out. The door’s always open,” he says.

His open-door policy gets him killed two nights later when three convicts escape from the Eddy County jail and flee to the mountains outside Carlsbad. They follow that mercury-vapor shine to his door, and when he opens it, one of them shoots him in the heart. The killers take the shag-carpetted van. In just a few hours, as I’m driving back to Albuquerque along U.S. 285, I’m listening to the radio and hear news of a statewide manhunt for the killers of an Eddy County rancher, name withheld. A friend who is staying with her parents in Albuquerque for the summer has offered to put me up for a few days while I look for an apartment. I haven’t been there long when her mother calls me to the phone, and in the most surreal moment of my life, I take the receiver and hear my mother’s voice while at the same time, on a small kitchen TV, Mark’s high school graduation photo appears on the screen under the headline, Eddy County Rancher: Murdered.

After the funeral, I clip the stories of Mark’s murder from The Roswell Daily Record and mail them to Kath who is living in Michigan with her fiancée. We are not in the habit of talking on the telephone. When she receives the news, she calls. We talk about the funeral and friends from high school who were there.

“I didn’t know you were dating. Were you in love with him?” she asks.

I wondered in the days following his death if he was someone I could have fallen in love with. We liked getting high, listening to music. Sex. A future together, had he not been murdered, seems unlikely, but I can smell the scent of his skin. His laugh rings in my ears. His smile is one I will never forget. The honest response to my sister’s question is No. But to say it aloud, to deny love to a murdered boyfriend, seems brutal.

She clarifies. “Were you sleeping with him?”

Easy answer: yes. Then I ask her if she remembers the time she told me to pretend to be her on the telephone and how that led to her date with him. She says, “I went out with him more than once.”

I don’t know how to respond. We hang up. I’m not competing with her for the affection of a dead man.

 

When she is thirty-five—the age at which we all begin to lose some kidney function—Kath is hospitalized with kidney failure. Her doctor sends out requests for immediate family to undergo tests, but for a variety of reasons having to do with either the age or health complications of my parents and siblings, I am the only one who takes them. At this time most hospitals in the United States only accept donors who are directly related to the recipient, so there are no friends or colleagues or National Kidney Registry to turn to. We are a near-perfect match. One of my kidneys becomes Kath’s.

Not long after the transplant in 1986, we consider writing a play together. While she has worked as an accountant all her life, Kath is interested in acting and takes roles in community theater and makes a few local television commercials. I had been writing and publishing poetry and fiction for several years. I teach writing at UC Berkeley and suggest we begin the process by brainstorming an image I have from a story Kath told me about finding a beautiful piece of pottery after a difficult breakup with a boyfriend. While walking along the banks of the Rio Grande River, not far from her house in Albuquerque, she saw the shard sticking up in the moist red earth. She found it symbolic. And comforting. The remains of something once whole, it was merely a piece of a larger landscape—a riverbank, the mesa, the northernmost part of the great Chihuahua Desert.

I propose Shards as a possible title for the play, or at least a word that while concrete is also layered and complex enough to inspire us as we began. Kath said it didn’t help her think about growing up as a Type 1 diabetic. I had imagined that as one element of the play, but not necessarily the focus.

Shortly after our discussion, Kath sends me a prospectus that induces writer’s block.

Brainstorm smaller pieces, I suggest—characters, scenes—rather than trying to craft the whole play in a linear fashion.

She tells me to stop treating her like a student.

I tell her to stop managing me like a client.

We can’t find the relationship between the things that are important to us.

 

In the decade before her death in 2012, Kath’s health declined rapidly, and she was hospitalized numerous times, but the kidney was still functioning at about twenty percent, well enough to keep her off dialysis. As my sisters and I cleaned out her condo and prepared it for sale, we moved personal items too difficult to make decisions about into a corner of her office. Going through them was the final chore. My sisters returned to Oregon and Texas, and I sat alone with her high school yearbooks, bags of patterns and yarn, photo albums, boxes of letters, various certificates of accomplishment and her journals. I opened them and began to skim. In her journals, she was emotional—sentimental, even—and vulnerable. She wrote simple rhyming poems about magic and dragons, fanciful things that many who knew her would be surprised by. There were notes about our attempts to write the play. Brief mention of gifts she’d bought her nieces and nephews, descriptions of family events at our mother’s house, and one that catches my eye because it is dated March 30 (my birthday), 1991.

 

I dreamed about Mark last night. He was so real. I dreamed we were making love in a twin bed at my grandmother’s house in Carlsbad. Mama came in to stop us, but I covered him with a bedspread and talked to her while he continued to make love to me under the covers. I haven’t thought about Mark in so long. It was an early morning dream. I woke up and told myself he was dead—then I went back to sleep and continued the dream. Mama had left by then. I don’t remember a resolution to the dream. It just faded. When I woke up I had a strong feeling he should be with me in bed. We were happy together in the dream. We were smiling and gentle and making love. I have had this sense of his presence all day and now I’m feeling his loss. We never had together what I was dreaming about, although we had some fun moments. Why Mark? I so seldom remember any dreams. My heart aches and I don’t know why.

 

My heart aches, too. But I know why.

My dream about Mark is recurring. I had it the first time less than a year after he died, and at least once a year since then.

 

I am sitting with many friends at a large table in Denny’s at the intersection of Second and Main Street in Roswell. I see Mark’s blue truck approach and stop at the red light. I get up from the table and rush to the glass door, afraid I won’t get there before the light changes. Just as I push it open, the light turns green, and Mark rolls down the window of his truck, leans out and flashes his beautiful smile. “It’s all right, Janie,” he says and drives away.

 

In her dreams of Mark, Kath desires sex; I seek forgiveness.

 

Years after our failed attempt at playwriting, we are both living in California. We are at the beach, and my youngest son, diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a few days after his first birthday, tells me he is having a lowbee. He is three, and this is his word for low blood sugar. I pull him into my lap and from a bag of supplies I always have on hand, I give him a juice box, which he downs in a couple of eager gulps. Kath begins peeling a cheese stick from its plastic wrapper and breaking it into small bite sized pieces for him. Maybe because of his temperament or perhaps because we are all experienced with Type 1 diabetes, we never reenact the low-blood sugar scenes from our childhood. He munches on cheese and other snacks to help his blood sugar rise. After he feels well enough to play, Kath helps him gather buckets and shovels and tells my other son it’s time to build sandcastles, something they love doing together. As she sends the boys ahead of her, down to where the sand is wetter and easier to shape into stable form, she turns to me and says, “I get it. Shards. Pieces of a whole.”

 

We never write the play.

She dies.

I continue to unearth fragments. Some fit smoothly into the mosaic of our lives. Others resist.

Corners sharp. Edges jagged.

They draw blood.

I ink the story.

Header photo © Joanna C. Valente.

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