Tuesday, December 31, 2019

What Happened on 12/21/19: Sarah Barnett, Scott Russell Morris, Cindy Bradley, Peta Murray, Jill Hill

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


First thing this morning I tried to finish the last fifty pages of the novel I'd been reading. But I came to a line that stopped me cold.
     The narrator reminisced about a pet alligator he and his brother had as kids. The man can't remember how big it was or how long the family had kept it. "I wished I could call my brother up and ask him. That was the worst thing about everyone being dead."
     I spent a sizable portion of the rest of the day thinking of the people I'd lost recently, the people I couldn't call. My parents are long gone, but more recently I've lost my daughter, my brother, my former husband, to whom I was married for thirty years. Friends disappeared from my life—a best friend from high school, a man from my writing group whom I'd known for ten years. My list included people I'd known casually and people who were friends of friends and well-known people I didn't know but admired—Toni Morrison, Elijah Cummings, Cokie Roberts.
     I didn't know what to do with all this loss. Had I reached that age where I knew more people who were dead than alive?
     On my afternoon walk with the dog I saw a large flock of snow geese rise up from the cornfield where they'd been resting. Hundreds of pairs of flapping wings produced a loud humming, a whistling motor-like racket that rose and fell as the geese flew first one way and then another. I wanted to phone my daughter when I returned home. I just saw the most amazing thing. A bird ballet.
     Around three o'clock I decided to make latkes to bring to a family Hanukah/Christmas celebration later this week. Making potato pancakes is a three- hour, messy undertaking involving peeling potatoes, shredding and soaking them, making a batter of eggs, flour, onions, potatoes, frying the pancakes in sizzling, spattering peanut oil, spreading them on layers of paper towels to drain and finally, wrapping and storing the finished product. Add an hour for wiping grease from countertops, mopping floor and washing assorted dishes and utensils.
     My daughter and I used to make latkes together in her kitchen, so I talked to her in my head as I worked. Is five eggs enough? I decided to add another. The potatoes didn't drain enough; they seem too wet. I attacked the shredded potatoes with paper towels to wring more water out of them. Then I remembered Michele's laid-back attitude. "They'll be fine," she'd say. I stopped worrying and began frying.
     They were fine, as I discovered when I sat at the kitchen table with a plate of two latkes, one spread with applesauce, the other topped with a dollop of sour cream. For once I'd been a patient fryer, allowing the pancakes to brown completely on one side before flipping them. The outsides were brown and crispy, the insides soft and savory. I was grateful I'd remembered to light candles before the frying stage. The kitchen's lingering scent of fried food was softened with hints of vanilla. 
     Today's winter solstice marked the shift from days of growing darkness to days of growing light. During Hanukkah, Jews light a candle on the first night and add a candle each night of the eight-day celebration. The holiday celebrates liberation from oppression. I like to think of the growing, glowing lights each night as symbols of survival. 

Before retiring and discovering the joys of writing creatively, Sarah Barnett had careers as teacher, librarian and lawyer—a period she refers to as "killing herself by degrees." She enjoys leading Free Writes, teaching writing classes and composing essays and short fiction while walking her dog on the beach.  Her work has appeared in Delaware Beach Life, Delmarva Review, and other publications.


Dec 21 / A Catalogue of Things We’re Recovering From

Artistic Deprivation

It isn’t until 1:00 pm  that I find a moment to myself to do my morning pages. I only started Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way yesterday, though I’d meant to start the moment grades, five days ago. As I write the pages, Cal watches cartoons on the Kindle, the baby is asleep, and Kirsten is off trying to get a part for our broken vacuum.
     I tell myself—literally, I write it into the morning pages—that as soon as I am done with morning pages, I will start writing something. I’ll continue the novel I’ve been slowly engaging with, or work on my essay manuscript. But instead, I play Hearthstone, an online rip-off of Magic the Gathering, negating my own creative drive. It is the same at the end of every semester: Though I rarely play computer or video games, I become mildly addicted to one for a few weeks. I hope to kick the habit by New Year’s so that I’ll have a clear head for my month of time away from students.

Cal’s Birthday Party

His party for his school friends was on Tuesday, several days early so we’d be able to catch people before they left for the winter. We’d assumed we’d have all day Wednesday to clean up. But on Wednesday, Cal woke with a fever and cough, so we couldn’t send him to school and we’ve spent most of the days since convincing him to rest while also balancing the grump he becomes when he watches too much TV. Instead of cleaning, his craft projects accumulated, so that on Saturday, a precariously leaning tower of used party supplies mingled with take-out containers and boxes from home-delivery groceries.

Cultural Adjustment

Around 3pm, I walk across the street to the high-end mall, the only shopping center easily accessible to the university campus where we live. It is snowing as I walk out, and the sidewalks are slushy. I am, nominally, looking for Christmas sprinkles, candy canes, and/or slippers for the baby’s stocking. I don’t have much hope—Christmas is barely a thing here in Korea. Two hours later, I return with a pint of strawberries and a box of tangerines, but none of the things on the list.


Cameron suggests a recovering artist is one who has lost their alliance with the Great Creator (God, god, the universe, inner strength, whatever). I suppose I relate to that. Since moving to Korea eighteen months ago, I’ve felt my creative energy slipping and with it my connection to God. This slipping has come mostly in the kitchen, where I often think of Brian Doyle’s dry humor from his essay “What Am I Doing Here?” He answers: The dishes, mostly.

An Eating Disorder

At 8am, my phone beeps with a reminder to log my breakfast. I put in a pancake, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and citron tea.
     This week, Kirsten and I re-started Noom, a food-health program we’d started when we first moved to Korea about 18 months ago. We’d both lost a bit of weight, but more importantly, we regained a healthier awareness of our eating habits. I finally felt I’d gained control of the compulsive eating disorder that had plagued me since our first child was born, but a stressful summer and then the busiest semester yet of our professional lives (let alone our personal ones) and we regained a bit of that weight and felt relationship to food slipping.

Falling off the Bike

The snow starts while Kirsten is out looking for vacuum parts in the early afternoon. The baby cries in the background, not quite settled in for her post-lunch nap, as I stare out our thirteenth-story window watching flakes accumulate on the abandoned museum construction site across the street and the mall next to it. I am still looking out the window when Kirsten calls to give me an update on the search. The store doesn’t have what we need, and the service center is closed on the weekend, but even then, there’s no guarantee they’ll have the part. I tell her to be careful on the snow, and she says it was beautiful riding the bike during the flurry.
     When she got home, she admitted that our little electric bike had, indeed, slid on out from under her in a wet patch. Her back, already troubled, begins to hurt all the more.


Perhaps because it is Saturday and we always do chores on Saturday morning, we finally muster the energy to accomplish something like cleaning. Five loads of laundry (one going in our small washer, and then four simultaneously in the student dorm building next door). Several consecutive loads in the dishwasher. The floors swept and mopped, the family room vacuumed as much as was possible with a vacuum held together with Duct tape.

Daily Responsibilities

It is, despite the season, a rather normal Saturday. Breakfast, chores, lunch, relaxing & errands, dinner, bedtime. But somehow, I can’t keep up on it. I sweep the kitchen three or four times. As soon as I finish cleaning up from one meal, it seems it is time to begin cooking the next.


Reviewing the first chapter of The Artist’s Way I mark an item on Cameron’s list of common creative recovery fears: “I will abandon my friends and family.” Rationally, I know family responsibilities and creative endeavors need not be exclusive, but scanning the room, I still see laundry on the drying rack, a pile on the floor, dishes in the sink. Even having been cleaning all morning, it is hard to convince myself that this is my time to write.

The Flu

Cal, five-years-old as of yesterday, wakes us at six in the morning with his hacking cough and a moan signifying his usual up-first-in-the-morning loneliness, amplified by his fever. Kirsten placates him with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the new reboot of The Magic School Bus. Thankfully, he hasn’t woken his sister, and Kirsten returns to bed.

Holiday Procrastination

After dinner, I get the kids ready for bed—stories, pajamas, potty tries—while Kirsten wraps presents. Or, at least, what presents we have. There are more we haven’t checked off the list, several Kirsten ordered online for me that are stuck in customs. Once she finishes wrapping, the kids watch more TV while she does her puzzle and I wrap a few presents myself, until the kids are too grumpy to not be put to bed.
     We plan the food for next week’s festivities, dreary through the outlook seems. Considering the coughing and fevers, we cancel the ugly Christmas sweater party we were going to host in order to preserve our energy. We decide we’ll still make soft pretzels, our ugly-sweater tradition, but only for ourselves. We’ll do a roast for Christmas Eve, beating out ssambap (Korean lettuce wraps) or roasted chicken. We will homemake the rolls. We will make a pie. We will still invite our guests, but we will warn them about the state of things.


There was a time, before this last semester hit full swing, that we regularly read the Bible each night and said a family prayer during the bedtime routine. Lately, we’re lucky if we remember even once a week, but during bedtime, Cal surprises me by asking to read scriptures. From his illustrated New Testament, I read the story of the Annunciation, asking him how he would feel if an angel appeared to him with a special purpose like Mary’s. Cal just giggles and, too tired to press the question, I send him to bed. But Mary’s response, keeping “all these things in her heart,” stays with me.

Lying to Kirsten

Kirsten calls while I am out, tells me to bring home dinner. She is craving hamburgers. I make vegetable stew for dinner, saying the hamburger place’s wait was too long. I serve up portions for everyone, but leave very little for myself. When Kirsten questions my small portion, I say there were so many dumpling free samples at the mall.

Lying To Myself

As I am out shopping, I make my usual route through the mall’s food court, where free samples abound, trying all the usual offerings: croissants, garlic bread, cranberry bread, fatty ham with sweet chili sauce, fried chicken in a sweet-spicy barbecue sauce, pork jerky, donuts made of soy flour, puffed rice snacks, sweet potato chips glazed in sugar. And then, at the grocery story, three different dumpling sample stations, some with multiple varieties, and a double shot of spicy ramen. As I wander the vendors, I buy a pizza-stuffed pastry reminiscent of Pizza Bites and a fruitcake cookie dusted in powdered sugar. I record none of this in the Noom app, telling myself I’ll do better tomorrow.

Last Night’s Dinner

There are still dishes in the sink from Cal’s birthday dinner—whole wheat banana pancakes—when I wake at eight to the sounds of Jo, the 20-month-old baby, crying. She has a fever now, too. Luckily, I had thought to put the leftover pancakes in a Tupperware so as not to dry out. I hand her a pancake and plop her on the couch next to her brother, who is still clutching a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich, his eyes glued to The Magic School Bus’s lesson on eyesight, the bus transformed into an eagle, the children all butterflies experiencing ultraviolet vision. I begin unloading the dishwasher.

Mild Depression

Kirsten ran out of her anti-depressants several days ago, and while she is at the appliance store trying to get the vacuum replaced, the doctor finally returns her call to say she can refill her prescription. But she’d already been thinking about going off of the medication, which she’d started taking after our stressful summer with family in the US. She decides definitively then, while she is on the phone at a mall looking for vacuum parts, that she’ll look for a councilor and go off the meds, recognizing that the recovery she needs will be better suited with that choice.

Resistance, Futile

After lunch, while the baby is sleeping, I beg Cal to take a nap, telling him it is the best way to get well. He violently refuses, and too tired to argue, I let him sit with the Kindle on our bed. Eventually, while I am in the front room playing Hearthstone, he mumbles something about being tired and curls into a ball on the one comfy chair we own. I lift him out of his contorted sleep and lay him out on the couch with a blanket. He is hot to the touch.

Resistance, Internal

I eventually get to my writing after Kirsten and the kids are all abed, but only after I order Christmas presents for our parents on Amazon and play Hearthstone for another hour or so. When I do write, I crank out a chapter of a fantasy novel about a family struggling to reveal their personal insecurities while defending their rural farm from a blood-witch. Only after writing, finishing around eleven, do I remember that I’d promised Kirsten I’d take care of the dishes, too. I load the dishwasher, leaving the larger pots for tomorrow.

A Sore Back

Before going to bed, Kirsten positions herself in front of the couch, removes her shirt, and I apply lavender oil to her shoulders and neck, searching out the knots, smoothing with my thumbs and palms the sore and tender parts.

Scott Russell Morris is an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Utah Asia Campus in Incheon, Korea. He loves essays, bakes for fun, and is rather fond of squirrels. Find him online at www.skoticus.com


Winter Song

Waking up at 7:28am I open the blinds, hoping to see something resembling the blue sky of the past few days. Instead the sky is a limited palette of muted gray, the usual color for Fresno winters. Gray days, foggy days, – with maybe a few hours break of sunny skies in the afternoon, and maybe not – can stretch for days and weeks during the winter in this stretch of Central California.

I’ve got a cold. Which isn’t surprising, considering the bug has done a pretty good job of making the rounds through everyone else in the family: my daughter, her three girls, my oldest son, my youngest son and his son and daughter. Even my sister twenty miles north has come down with, for her, a rare cold. So, most of my plans for today, or at least this morning, are scrapped in favor of the couch, a box of Kleenex, and Christmas movies, alternating between the television networks, streaming providers, and maybe a DVD or two.

Nine o’clock, two cups of coffee in, tucked under my soft, poinsettia throw, and all I can think about is how much I still need to do in the next four days. Buying those last couple of Christmas gifts, grocery shopping, wrapping presents. I tell myself that if all I manage today is wrapping a few presents I’ll feel semi-productive.

The stray and feral cats have gathered outside my kitchen sliding glass door. It’s 2:15pm, and I’m up after a (rare, for me) four-hour nap. I’m hungry, and decide on toast and soft-boiled eggs, childhood comfort food. A little over a year ago a neighbor moved out of our four-plex, leaving behind a mama cat and her two babies, one black and one orange. The mama didn’t hang around long and it didn’t take the kitties long to find someone willing to feed them. Fast forward fifteen months and two litters later, I now have ten cats of various sizes and ages using my backyard as their home base. I know something needs to be done, it’s just too many cats, and I’m getting attached.

Every winter, especially near the solstice, I play “Winter Song” on loop. I’ve been listening to it so much this year, I’m just about listened out. I go to YouTube and pull up my Winter Songs/Holiday Song compilation, and “Winter Song” is right there at the top of the list. The video is whimsical and sweet,—Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson cartoon friends with matching pink heart shaped cheeks who get through winter’s dreary days with each other by their side,  waiting for spring’s inevitable arrival—but doused in a melancholy that feels all so familiar. Anything that rolls in from the sea feels tinged with melancholy. Anything with “carries you to me” aches. Anything that asks, over and over, “is love alive” is afraid it isn’t.

Rounding a corner that leads to Save Mart later in the afternoon, in pursuit of that one last gift card, I spot a lone seagull flying above. He’s bright white against the gray sky. No sun today. Whenever I see a seagull in Fresno I get a pang. We’re one hundred and fifty miles from the ocean. He’s a long way from home. I watch as he glides and circles and I imagine he’s looking for something recognizable, something that reminds him of home. I imagine his habits are still sea habits. His squawk is so plaintive, it penetrates my skin. I’ve heard that while most seagulls have built-in barometers and move inland to avoid oncoming storms, others are trapped when the storm hits, carried along by inclement weather. That’s the course I imagine with this gull. He’s rolled in from the sea. I know how he feels. Who hasn’t been tossed around in one storm or another, found themselves led astray, searching for anything familiar, and who hasn’t clutched remnants of all they know and love, while leaving traces of themselves far behind. Looking for and recreating home everywhere they go.

Saturday nights I usually go to my daughter’s house. I’ve been back and forth all day on whether or not to go, but as I’m feeling better and as all of my kids and grandkids will be there, I decide to go and stay for a little while. This has been a rough year for our family, so getting everyone together is something none of us take for granted or want to miss. She’s baking gingerbread men for the kids to decorate. The night before, everyone walked Candy Cane Lane, but I missed it, choosing to stay home. Candy Cane Lane, or Cindy Lane, is a neighborhood in neighboring Clovis that goes all out with their Christmas lights, decorations, and displays. You can either drive or walk the participating blocks, and there are stands scattered throughout that sell or give things away, like churros or donuts or hot chocolate. I knew it would be cold outside, and sat this one out, with requests to take pictures, which the kids did, and they were adorable.

On my way to my car I spot a penny. It’s next to my parking space, barely shining in the early evening mist. I think of the one I burned for, and I remember how when he’d detach I’d go round and round with a penny flip, – two out of three, three out of five – do I call, don’t I call – and I remember how I’d keep flipping in an attempt to manufacture the outcome I wanted, which may or may not have resulted in a successful phone call. I remember the pit in my stomach. And I remember the longing. I pick the penny up from the asphalt. It’s tails, my preference. It slips from my fingers. I pick it up again and it’s heads, so I figure I’m covered either way. Once I start the car James Taylor’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas” comes on the radio. It’s the part right before “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”, and I think, not for the first time, just what a great word muddle is. It covers so much, and you know without knowing how you know, exactly what it means. I think muddle needs to make comeback, and I tell myself, not for the first time, that I need to do my part in making that happen.

Nearing my daughter’s street and taking in the blinking and bright Christmas lights, a house with traditional multi-colored lights strung across the roof like so many others comes into view. As I get closer, I notice thin white lights flowing down in a trickling effect, like tears. We all arrive within minutes of each other, the kids play while the cookies are baking in the oven. Every time they get together it’s like making up for all the time they’re not together, and it’s a rush of toys, blocks, books, singing, and dancing. After some serious cookie decorating and eating, three-year-old Siena pats her full tummy and tells us she has a “food baby”. I look over at my daughter, and she’s laughing. Six-months pregnant with her first boy, I know where Siena learned the phrase. Two hours go by so quickly.

Goodbyes said, hugs dispensed, I’m back out the door and in my car, easing out of the driveway. It’s 9:00pm, not late, but the streets are deserted so it feels much later. I press Spotify and “River” begins to play.  I think about being hard to handle. I think about the ones who make us weak in the knees. I think about those who have passed through our lives or have passed on. I think about missing someone fiercely. I know the answer is yes, love is alive, it can’t die, not really, not if it’s really love. I drive on. I look at the houses with lights, and I notice the ones without. The equinoxes are a time of balance, of all things being equal; the solstices are not. I’m suddenly aware of a deep stillness. It occurs to me that even with all the busyness surrounding us this time of year, the lists and shopping and fretting and baking and working and the getting by, a stillness hums beneath it all. Solstice stillness carries me home. 

Cindy Bradley received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. She is an assistant nonfiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Her essays have appeared in 45th Parallel, Front Porch Journal, and Under the Sun, among others. Visit cindybradley.weebly.com or follow @cindysea429.


21 December, 2019

It is 4.45 am on 22nd when I start to write this. I have a cup of black tea. I can hear a TV show through the wall, and I am hoping that its noise, the canned laughter, and the sound of my fingers on these keys, and the blue light of this screen will not disturb my dying father. I am wearing the same clothes I wore all day on 21 December, and that I slept in, on a crash mat, on the floor of his room for a few hours. Slept? Dozed. Listened, breathed with and against the rise and fall of his breath, still steady, but short and shallow. There are breaks to the rhythm, moments when I hold my own breath, wondering. Is that it? Was that it?

I have been in this room on and off since my arrival yesterday morning, 21 December, at about 11am. I’d had a fitful night before, listening out for a niece, late home, staying in our loft room; then the text messages from the aged care facility coming in at 4 am that startled me awake. I wondered if I should get dressed and go back over there but did not. I stayed put, saw the niece off to work, got myself showered and breakfasted and prepared. As I did so, I realised I was packing for more than a visit, I was packing for a vigil. I had gone beyond the phone charger and the portable speaker and the pureed rhubarb I had thought to bring. I found I was packing extra clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, my meds, deodorant, a change of underwear. I found myself cooking a piece of salmon to put with the last of the pilaf from the other night. I found myself putting a bottle of rosé in the freezer alongside a blue plastic icebrick. I found myself pouring a small quantity of whiskey into my souvenir hip flask from Glenfiddich.

Once I saw what I was doing, I commit. There was no reason not to. My partner and the dogs were away, the day was cool, the garden watered after the scorching weather we had had, whenever that was. I secured the house, and drove to the Aged Care place, the facility, the place that is now the room that is now my father’s world.

It was an easy drive, even pleasant, in the car that I am soon to sell. I was less nervous about what awaited me. I had a system, too, with the electronic pass key I must use at a particularly tricky angle to swipe myself into the underground car park. I drove slowly, behind someone else’s relative, down, down into the concrete basement of this building. I got the same, good park, I had had the day before, and this too, pleased me.

There is a resident outside now, yelling. She has dementia and roams the halls at night, it seems.

My father breathes on.

When I got up to his floor there was music playing from his room. One of the new carers, the weekend staff, had been thoughtful enough to put some on. It was the right CD, just the kind of music to soothe him. I know most of the songs, even though they date back to the 30s and 40s, before my father’s heyday. He was born in 1932, on 29 February, a leap year boy, so he is actually only 22 or something. I am terrible with numbers but what I am trying to say is that although he is actually 87 he has had far fewer proper birthdays. He will not have any more, and it’s likely he will not see Christmas, either, still some days away. Even if we bring it forward, as we may well do.

The resident is quiet now, but I can hear movement in the corridor, and the clanking of a metal trolley as one of the night staff goes from room to room, doing obs. No one has been in here for a while now. I can smell the strawberries I bought.

To reconstruct the morning is not what I mean to do. The changing of the guard, of the continence pads. But when my sister arrived he accepted a few teaspoons of the rhubarb puree I had brought from home after blitzing it in the Nutribullet. It will be the last thing he tastes, and now I watch him being repositioned in the bed, and the gentleness with which the staff speak to him as they resettle him, and swab his dry tongue in his open mouth, and I can no longer smell the strawberries.

In his later years, before he came here, before we brought him here, with his consent, before we put him here, he lived alone. For several years he lived well, content in his own company most of the time, with his daily rites and rituals - a slice of lemon in warm water on rising, his home made yoghurt at breakfast, and the special rhubarb that he cooked for himself, and for his older sister, and drove down to her, over an hour in each direction, from time to time, and miraculously, without incident, delivered to the aged care facility in which she too resides. And lingers, still, as I write this, keeping to herself, just as he has, too shy, or proud, or anxious to mingle with the others.

And so we fed him rhubarb, and the occasional spoonful of thickened apple juice, and changed the music and through the morning we saw his agitation grow, his pain increase, his effort to get to the bathroom one last time, by himself, defeated. I do not want to report  on the interventions tried. We heard his bowels rumbling, saw the distress when it was clear he could not “void” as they describe it in facilities like these.

The morning was tough, so tough. We tried to comfort and reassure him, and waited for the nursing staff to handover and make good on the pall care nurse’s directions to increase this and increase that. The orally-administered pain medication was no longer “holding” him, so it was good when a cannula was inserted and delivery could be increased in a more efficient way. He settled then, relaxed, and fell asleep, and my sister and I said yes, that’s his snore, we’d know it anywhere, he always slept like that, snoring like that, with his mouth open. And we told some funny stories, and remembered that time some of the grandkids were staying with him, and there was the incident of the jumping and the falling from the bed, and when the other niece arrived we told more stories like that, and we even played some Dolly Parton for a while, but that didn’t quite work for me, so we went back to the crooners via some good old New Orleans jazz. And somehow the afternoon kept ticking by, and that niece left and another one came to say her goodbyes, and that was the only time I left the building all day.

To give her space, I went outside, into the street and walked the same flat path up the road to the village. I passed the library he used to frequent when he first moved here, and all the little restaurants and coffee shops, and then some houses. One house had giant lime green ribbons on its hedge, and thin strings of Christmas lights running from the front gate to the porch. I realised this was a thing, in this suburb - the application of the bows - making Christmas presents of fences and trees. Less tacky, perhaps, than the inflatable Santas and the Styrofoam deer? Who knows? I don’t much like Christmas. Never have.

On my way I bought chips and strawberries, the ones that smelled sweet before the room was overtaken by other odours that have yet to clear. For a minute there we thought we could open the window, but it’s locked. I walked back, and for a good stretch of the way there was a little Border Terrier trotting ahead of me on a lead and it could have been our Loretta and it made me smile. I sat under the plane trees and made a phone call, and sure enough I started to cough because of their pollen, so I headed back to the place.

Upstairs, my sister, my weeping niece, my snoring father. These girls have their Certificate Four in Dying Grandparents, we’d joked earlier. They’ve been here before, but even so, nothing quite prepares you for the shock of that gaunt face, those protruding cheek bones, the strange folds of the ears, that sharp nose, and that sound, the rattling gurgle in the throat, the straining for each hard-won breath.

We rinsed the strawberries, we opened the crisps, we poured the rosé, because it’s wine o’clock, somewhere, surely. We sat around to chat and then that niece left and somehow, in and around all of this, though I have not recorded it here, we made a plan for tomorrow, and we other plans for the aftercare, and the removal and the disposal, and in my newly found forthright manner I found myself having forceful words with a member of the staff about our demand for a late check out, should it come to that. I tapped into my death literate network, and before we knew it we had one of the carers filling ice trays and procuring zip-lock bags, to put ice in, and pillowcases to put the bags in, should we need to place icepacks behind our father’s neck and on his tummy, if he departed this life before the others got here in the morning. And we engaged a maverick funeral company to give us the support we will need to do things our way and as naturally as possible, and in ways that feel right for the man he was. Is.

He breathes on.

Night fell. I ate the rest of the pilaf and the fish. My sister went for more wine. We drank a little more and changed the music again, and talked to him from time to time, telling him what we were up to, who would be coming tomorrow – another daughter, a son – and that we didn’t expect him to hang around if he didn’t want to. If he’s ready. He still heard us, we knew. But he seemed comfortable, and calm, and if he was waiting for something, we’ll never know what it was.

My sister left, then came back, thinking she had left her spectacles behind. They were in her pocket. We were both getting a bit like that and it wasn’t just the wine, it was the accumulating fatigue after this big week. It’s all happened so fast. And on that day, December 21st, it accelerated again and we’ll be surprised if he lasts the night, which is why I put the crash mat on the floor, and borrowed a pillow, and after I’d cleaned my teeth, I lay down on the carpet in my father’s room, and try to sleep. And maybe I did, a little, as the night staff came and went, and my father lay still, breathing on, in the bed just there, with his feet sticking out of the sheet until the date changes and now it’s Sunday 22 December in Australia, and it will be his last Sunday, most likely his last day, by any name, and we will all gather in this room with cake and bubbly and maybe even a bottle of Grange, and we will call it Christmas.

Peta Murray is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne, where she deploys theatre, installation and live art to make performable essays and bespoke w/rites as works of activism. She dabbles in a bit of nonfiction on the side. Peta’s best-known plays are Wallflowering, Salt, and The Keys to the Animal Room. Critical writing includes articles for TEXT,  New Writing, and a co-authored work for Fourth Genre.


THE SHORTEST DAYDecember 2019—Picton Ontario
I look out the window of our Toronto pied a terre and am cheered to find the sun shining and though there is a bit of snow on the ground, the streets seem to be clear. I step briefly on to the narrow balcony—yes, wintry but not horribly cold. A busy day lies ahead.

The first bit of unwelcome news is that my 81 year old husband John is not feeling at all well. He has had a bad autumn altogether with several ailments, some well known and some still a mystery not only to us, but to his myriad doctors. So, he reluctantly tells me, he won’t be accompanying me on the first rendez vous of the day: the annual lunch of what we have been calling the Three Amigos.

We are three old friends from high school—we graduated in 1959! After a long hiatus we met up again about 10 years ago and found we still had a great deal in common. Recently we expanded our group to include my University room-mate who taught with one of the others.  She has always been single, the other two married, one of them widowed last year. Husbands have always attended—very good sports all of them.

So I set out alone this year, waving my handy Presto card at the little machine on the brand new street car, the 504A which will take me painlessly right across town. We country bumpkins know a good thing when we see it. I am someone who actually enjoys public transit—such a wonderful mix of people, especially in a city like this. Now with my white hair, younger people actually get out of their seats for me, and I graciously accept.

I find the address of this year’s hostess, a friend from Eastern Canada who rents a place for the holidays each year. Her instructions are to go around to the back through a wooden gate. I go down a few steps to a door which looks just like any old cellar door but, that’s what she said so I knock briskly, once and then again. No response. I go around again to the front, and ring both doorbells. Nada! Back to the back and go through some large wooden gates to find myself in a back alley. No luck. Back to the front again and search the street, peer into passing cars hoping one of the other two guests will appear and put me straight. I traipse up and down the street wondering if I have got the number wrong. Half an hour passes. Maybe it’s the wrong day! I check my little green Moleskin—21st written firmly.

Now you are wondering. Why the hell didn’t she phone? Good question, because I actually own a fairly fancy cell phone, given to me (in desperation) by one of my sons. But here’s the thing: I hate cell phones. I hate the way they interrupt you and you have to stop what you are doing to attend to them. I hate the way old ladies, like me, forget to turn them off at the opera, the movies , the lectures. I hate the way my friends are peering away at theirs when we are at lunch. And frankly, I hate them because I have refused to learn how to use the darn thing. And then it dawns on me, not only do I not have a phone with me, I don’t know my friend’s cell number.

I walk the long walk out to the main street and look around for a phone booth. None to be found of course. I thought I might phone John to see if my girlfriends had phoned the loft to see where the heck I was.

I give up, feeling that this is a sad note on which to end this frustrating year.

The beautiful 504A going East comes my way, and glumly I get on.  Defeat does not become me. Until, passing through one of the scruffier neighbourhoods the street car stops in front of a budget supermarket and I spy a phone booth! I hop off, well not so much hopping any more, more like clambering.

A few phone calls, assurance that this is the right day and the right address and I am back on the next 504A, heading West again.  This time the door is opened, apologies all round, they didn’t hear me, why didn’t I call, they thought they saw me but because I was alone they didn’t think it was me, my hat confused them….

And then, the magic of talking to old friends, who have known you since the year dot, who laugh at all the old jokes, who sympathize, who have strong opinions, at least some of them coinciding with yours, who actually knew your mother and why you still have such ambivalent feelings about her.
My old room-mate rode back with me as far as the subway and thanked me for introducing her—a long time Torontonian-- to the joys of the 504—and I suspect we entertained the entire car with loud reminiscences (I am hard of hearing and she used to be an authoritative school principal).

The rest of the day unfolded—my middle son’s family birthday, my two young grand-daughters, 6 & 3 and their creative dance performance in their living room which combined, so far as I could see, elements of ballet, jazz , tap and wrestling all performed to music from the Nutcracker. I took home leftovers from the dinner to cheer up my poor spouse who was still lounging around in bed trying to get better for the holidays.

Like many days, this short one was a mixture of joys and sorrows. I slept on the sofa so as not to disturb my husband and when I opened my eyes from time to time in the night, I could see through the floor to ceiling windows the big city, lit up late with Christmas lights in the tall buildings.  Sometimes I heard a distant siren taking someone to hospital, chasing a stolen car, hastening to a fire. I imagined that rich life bubbling around us unknown, unknowable, mysterious and yet familiar. It was the shortest day, but a full one.

Jill Reville Hill, former owner of Travellers’ Tales Books, fine used and rare books, Bed & Breakfast operator, member of Writers Unblocked memoir group and nearly 30 year resident of Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will

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