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Penumbra

Gail Waldstein

Before the birds or garbage trucks begin––before anyone separates from sleep, the sun splinters through dark drapes, startles me, although I know dawn’s growth is gradual. A shadow hangs, like a half-mast eyelid or a baseball cap whose bill is tipped too low. I crick my neck, hear little boney protests from my cervical vertebrae––nothing else creases the silence. My heart beats loud in my ears. I stop breathing, full attention now on the high black-out: an eclipse cutting vision. The room, brighter by a few minutes is normal, except there’s no ceiling. My bird mobile, overhead fan are gone. The warm sheets, soft pillow, bed-side stand with books and writing journal are no longer of comfort. I think how rectangular the bed is, the shape of a coffin. How half a universe is not the same. How I never liked shadows. How much I hate the dark.

 

I shut my eyes and will myself to breathe, inhale, exhale, slow, long, like I’ve been taught in yoga, but the heart heats up, keeps pace with the sun’s ascension. I study the alarm clock, glad for the expanse of retirement––I no longer set the damned thing––calculate time-zones, additions, subtractions for my three far-flung children, my sister. Who will be awake, not hassling kids, who will be en route or in meetings. Then I give up, roll over to speak with my friend, Maggie, only a year gone.

 

Remember how you reassured me I wasn’t having a heart attack the first time I heard my heart pound? When was that? ’91 I think, because I was suddenly alone after thirty years. No child, neither husband, no one.

 

Of course I remember, darlin’. And I’ve missed you, missed speaking with you. It’s a treachery, all this distance––all these distractions, life-matters between us. How are you?

 

That’s what I’m calling about. Not so great. I have a scimitar cutting my vision.

 

Oh, did you decide to have those eyelids done then, darlin’? Is that what this is about?

 

No, no. Only now it would be my neck and the corduroy upper lip…but this isn’t about plastic anything.

 

Well explain it to me, slowly darlin’. And louder, I can hardly hear you.

 

Ohmygod, are we fading too? I couldn’t bear that. The news you weren’t on the planet––never mind how far apart we lived, how infrequently we spoke––flattened me for a long, long time. In fact, that’s what I feel now, pancake-flat.    I elbow upright, back against headboard, knees tucked tight to my chest. I wrap both arms around my legs. There’s no one to nudge awake when I’m scared or when a minor catastrophe hits at midnight or dawn. Oh, I have friends and children; I have people who love and care about me, but…

 

Darlin’? I can’t hear you at all now.

 

Sorry, sorry. There’s a shade cutting my sight in half. I don’t even know if it’s real. You remember I’m a doc, so I know visual fields, aging eye problems, but this doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s hysteria. Too much solitude.      But wait. Whenever we speak it’s always about me. Tell me, what’s it like where you are. Are you with Wayne? Are you happy?

There’s a long silence; my knees grow cold.  I’m sorry I monopolize our conversations so, always worried about my children, delighted with the grands, fretting over transient lovers––they never seem to last. Maybe this won’t last. I don’t ask enough about you. I assume dead is dead. Maybe not.

 

Well, darlin’, there’s way less to worry about now. But it’s not that restful, not like you’d imagine. Here now, all these folks, friends, relatives, lovers, people you hardly knew, asking for things, for favors.      A new baby or their dog to get well. They want their husband to stop running around. Intercede for me with Jesus, won’t you?

They want, they want. They want to know if their life matters.     And I say, god in heaven, pull yourself together. There’s enough splendor and marvels that you should be drinkin’ it in––revelin’ in it––it’s over all too soon.

Now I can’t hear my heart. Has it stopped? Is this how it ends, a shade bisecting the world, then pulled all the way down? No drama? My knees are icy cold. I scrunch below the covers, squeeze my eyes tight. I wish I were holding a receiver to my ear.

 

So, what are you thinkin’ now, darlin’?

 

I think I will faint if the cut-off is still there when I look, but I don’t say anything, cup my right hand over that eye, open the left, and see half of what I should. I switch eyes, stop breathing––ohmygod. I’m sobbing.

 

Are you all right then, darlin’?

 

Is this a 911 moment? Maybe I haven’t taken good enough care of myself. Maybe I haven’t been careful about the pre-diabetes, and have gone on, like the bulk of America, to full blown disease.        Maybe I’m being punished for all those years doing autopsies on children and babies. Pediatric pathology. Really, what kind of a life-choice was that? Maybe I’m going blind, just when I’m starting to learn the delicacy of truth, the value of love and kindness. Maybe it’s karma.    I’m afraid I’m being punished…

 

Woah, slow down. Who would be punishing you?

 

God? My parents? Me? I don’t know. The ex’s I’ve bad-mouthed?

Hold up, darlin’. Let’s change subjects, something a little brighter shall we? Tell me about the children and their children. What are they like, your new generation?

 

I think of the thirty years Maggie taught high school in Florida’s panhandle. How she couldn’t have children of her own and dedicated her life to hundreds of students who worshipped her honesty and tenderness, appreciated all that encouragement. How she cheered me, from the first day I met her at a poetry open mic in Port St. Joe. Me, a Yankee stranger, first reader, knees buckling because the poem was so raw with lust. She interrupted the meager applause, asked where I was published.

 

Oh nowhere. This is the first poem I’ve written since grade school.

 

Oh darlin’ never you mind. Y’all be in print soon, you will.

 

I start to talk about each grandchild, and my breathing slows of its own accord. I close my eyes against whatever is really happening. I stretch long in the bed, and whisper, Hello, hello? There’s nothing now except silence and an ache where Maggie’s drawl belongs, beside my ear.

 

Today is her death-anniversary I realize slowly. This variant of blindness, vivid and actual as any physical pain, is technically called superior bilateral hemianopsia. It’s a rare visual field deficit caused by a stroke or Herpes Zooster, the Chicken Pox-Shingles virus. I’m finally thinking medical again as I swing my legs over the side of the bed, press my feet into the rug and stand in tadasana, mountain pose, my eyes sealed against every eventuality.

 

Maggie had bad diabetes her final decade, suffered a stroke, heart failure, lost vision in one eye. She too, must’ve seen half a world. Am I simply mimicking her symptoms because I didn’t get to say goodbye in person? Am I creating a twisted metaphor, a koan?

 

I inhale slowly, pull her vowel-rich voice into the bedroom.

 

A person judges life like a cup: half empty, half full. Pessimist, optimist, we’re taught darlin’, but all y’all speak of is an emptiness, the upper half vacant, unknowable, and blind as the future.

1 Comment

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  1. Julie Beck says:

    Gail Waldstein’s poetry flows with sentiment, memoir, reflection, almost
    a novella. I want to read more, get to know her life story more. I am moved
    and touched so.

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