Saturday, January 11, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Martha Petersen, Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell, Hannah Rego, Stephanie Wilson, Morgan Riedl

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.


December 21


Streetlight edges the room’s vinyl curtains. Erik, my twenty-five-year-old son, lies cocooned in the bed next to mine, while my husband puffs away on his CPAP. They sleep. I am awake. The bedside clock reads 3:25, two hours before genuine light and sunrise, which according to Google will happen at 7:22. Today I will bury my father.

The Quality Inn in Pinetop offers a complimentary breakfast—egg-like fluff, a kind of meat, stale mini bagels, waffle batter.
     “Pigs are as smart as dogs,” Erik tells me, as I bite into what looks to be a boiled piece of sausage.
     Yesterday, at my father’s funeral, I learned he had once owned pigs. He had bought them to grow and to slaughter. But he’d talked with them and named them, and when he’d let them slurp his Coca-cola and called one “feller,” those plans were done.
     “Could be,” I say. “But I need the protein.”
     “We should leave the smart animals alone and just eat the dumb ones.” He smears cheese spread on his half-burnt bagel. Last night, he found my insulin pen. He asked what it was and what it did. I explained how to screw in the needle and inject under the skin.
     “Do you really poke yourself every night?” he asks.
     “I have for years.”
     “I could never do that.”
     “You could,” I say. I’ve forgotten my post-it notes in the room, so I write on the back of a paper plate: “Gum stuck on wall. Toilet unflushable. Quality Inn?”

Andrew, my husband, is always looking out for strangers. When he finds a few long roofing nails in the Quality Inn parking lot, he searches for more. He gathers up a handful and tosses them in a garbage can. “We wouldn’t want anyone to have a flat tire,” he says.
     My father built structures all his life. He worked with nails and bricks and mortar, and also with fire at the Kennecott copper smelter. When I was a child, his hands were calloused and dirty. I thought they would always be that way. But yesterday, I held his waxed-together fingers in mine, and his skin was smooth and his nails were filed. His skin was no longer blackened by copper furnaces, but my fingertips are scarred by needlesticks and my nails are bitten short, evidence of the anxious, sleepless person I have become.
     Yesterday, I ran my hands over my father’s body, over his arms and his shoulders. I touched each finger. He’d cut himself on the first finger of the left hand. I wondered how that had happened. The cut was fresh, just clotted over.


From the outside, my childhood home is a red brick square. Inside, there are two long rooms and bedrooms on either end. When my parents were considering selling, they replaced the block around the wood stove with flagstone, and they laid Pergo flooring over the indoor-outdoor carpeting. They never fixed the dripping faucets. Now, the house is sold and is in the process of becoming an AirBnb.
We are parked near the clearing where my mother tried to grow grass and flowers. The flowers grew, the grass failed.
     “The problem is the pine trees,” my husband tells Erik. “They suck the nutrients from the soil. The roots take over and then nothing else can grow.”
     From the car, I watch my aunt gather pine cones. She digs up an iris bulb, which my mother planted years ago. “This is still our house,” she says.
     Last summer, I yanked out a patch of failing tomato plants from my desert garden. I rubbed the dirt from the lumped roots—evidence of nematodes, microscopic worms that had curled each entire plant, roots to leaves, into tight, leathery knots. Until I baked the soil under black plastic, nothing else would grow. Nematodes would clot any roots trying to spread, making them useless for carrying nutrients.

My mother is buried in the wrong place. The last funeral director, in league with the man in charge of Lakeside Cemetery, buried her next to where my father now waits in his casket. We wanted her resting next to her baby, our brother, but now, my father will lie between them.
     We siblings, six of us, stand next to the casket. It could be made of steel, appropriate for an ice-cutter, a furnace bricker, a home builder. Our spouses, friends, and other relatives stand behind.
     The funeral director lowers the casket into the rectangle hole, past curling pine roots, earthworms, cinder rock, down into the heavy odor of clayed earth.
     We hold each other. We do cry. We promise to remember my father’s voice, to be like our parents, to be our parents’ children. We say these things. But our grandmother is buried here in this cemetery, along with other pioneers who settled this mountain, yet her house down the road was bulldozed to make room for modular homes. Our childhood home will be broken down when its new owner, or the owner after that, decides it should fit the design of the day. Those who live in the town that has grown around this place know nothing about its past. They will never cut ice from Rainbow Lake. They will never dig a trench for water pipes or wells. Neither will we.
     We say goodbye to our father, our mother, and our brother. The headstone inscriptions fit—unwavering faith, angel mother, little lamb. A crush of brown-blue birds scatters above us just as my father is settled at the bottom of his grave.
     “What kind of birds are they?” my sister asks me later, over tacos.
     Even though I invite them to my back yard in the desert, I do not know these White Mountain birds.
     “No idea,” I tell her.


The Beeline Highway snakes its way from the White Mountains to the desert floor. We leave just after 3:00. Sunset will come at 5:14. Heat and relentless sun make the desert a generally hostile place for me. But as the sunlight fades to darkness, the landscape becomes a vision—swelling hills hold buildings with windows like yellow paper cut- outs, the glazed orange sky outlines mountain jags in the distance.
     Before we drop our son at Sky Harbor airport, we eat soup together. He tries talking to me, but every detail I am supposed to know is stuck somewhere I can’t find.
     “I’m glad you are in therapy,” he says, “but ever since you’ve started, you’ve been impossible to talk to.”
     I stir my soup. I think about crackers and a soda refill, about my father and my mother, about growing up in Pinetop and living in Tucson. I can’t explain any of this. I don’t try.
     At the airport, my son apologizes. I tell him all is fine, all is just fine. I bring him to me in a long hug. I feel his face. I touch his shoulders. He looks like my father, with the same blond-blond hair, a strong chin, a great smile, but his body feels different. Erik is still strong. I kiss him. I tell him we’ll see him soon.
     Back in the car, we head toward the I-10, which will take us, finally, to our home in Tucson. Last week, we bought a Christmas tree from the Tucson Boys Chorus. My husband cut the end off to allow an uptake of water and steadied it in its stand. The tree waits for us in our living room, lightless.
     “2019’s been a bitch,” he says.

Martha Petersen writes from the prickly Sonoran desert of Tucson, Arizona. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her short stories and essays have appeared in various literary journals. Her work is usually about sadness, but at the suggestion of her family and friends, she has made a New Year resolution to write about happy things.


Last night my husband and I watched part of Apocalypse Now. I have been reading Viet Thanh
Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War and considering the industries of
memory and machines of war. Nguyen references Apocalypse Now and other films depicting the
war, and I wanted to see how his reading of the film could inform my own writings about war.
Mainly, I worry about how to write war responsibly and ethically. I went to bed long after midnight
before even finishing it, leaving my husband asleep on the couch. Apocalypse Now is way more
brutal than I remembered it, or I’ve just become a hell of a lot less tolerant of brutality than I was in
my early twenties.

This morning I take the family to see Star Wars. I had purchased the tickets early last month. I’m not
sure people actually think about war when they see Star Wars, even if the entire franchise has the
word itself in the title. I have never served in the military, yet it seems to be the only thing I can
think about lately as the daughter of a veteran whose service-related chronic illness killed him and
as the spouse of a veteran whose future service-related ailments could very well be lying dormant.

I’m not a superfan of Star Wars. I like the movies well enough, but you would not want me on your
trivia team. I retain very little knowledge of that universe itself. We are smack dab in the middle of
the movie theatre, a challenge to my very small bladder to sit still during a long movie without an
intermission. Any movie over two hours with thirty minutes of previews should have an
intermission, especially now that many movie theaters serve beer.

After the movie, we go to a mostly empty bowling alley on the northwest side of Tucson. My
husband and our children are watching a group of men race drones around a dark room. I head to
the bar where I write and I think about drones and hobbies. I consider the many intersections
between leisure and defense, the play of war in the construction of its machines. On my twitter feed,
I happen across some lines from a poem by Nichollas Spengler in Ghost City Press:
We keep the volume turned low
When watching films about war
Or families falling apart
So everything sounds far away
I am writing this day and I am remembering that my sisters, our mom, and I had planned on
December 22 to scatter dad’s ashes at Port Aransas, into the Gulf of Mexico, where he loved to fish,
where, when I was in grad school at the University of Texas, we would take a big fishing boat during
UT-OU weekend.

He has been dead thirteen months.

It is a fifteen-hour drive from Tucson to Port Aransas. All the way east on I-10, changing to I-37 in
San Antonio. We could stay overnight in Fort Stockton or Balmorhea. If we had left on Friday, we
would have made it to my cousin’s house by noon on Saturday (today). In the bowling alley bar, I sip my beer and realize I could be sipping on a different beer in Texas, in a parallel universe where
my sisters, mom, and I gather around dad, all broken bits of bone and ash in a blue and silver vase.

It was just too hard to get us all down there this year, especially after last year’s post-Thanksgiving,
two-weeks stay in Texas involving my dad’s funeral and all the busyness death creates. At one
point, my mom and my sisters and I made fudge and trash (what Texans call homemade party mix)
for all of dad’s medical specialists. (I make the same two items every year for the kids’ teachers and
did so again this year.)

Around this time last year, we drove 45 miles from Plainview to Lubbock to deliver our gratitude:
the dialysis office, the infusion clinic, the cardiologist. Like we were mourning elves or some such
shit. I talked with his nutritionist about her garden, something my dad would have mentioned. I
wanted to continue the conversation he had always had with her, I guess. But this is about this
shortest day and not about last year and certainly not about the shortest and last day of my dad’s

Besides that, who wants to commemorate death two holidays in a row? When we were making
plans for this dumping of the ashes in the Gulf of Mexico on December 22, my mom and sisters
asked me, “Wouldn’t it be sad for you to do this on your wedding anniversary?”

I said no. No, it wouldn’t.

We have two wedding anniversaries, something that came in handy for a military family in the first
decade of our marriage during deployments and all the other orders for training and school that
took him away from home with a frequency that stuns me now. How did I take care of two very
small humans without family around amid my own debilitating depression? Now, he continues in
the reserves and is an airline pilot, work still taking him away from us but in different frequencies,
for different purposes. A spare anniversary still comes in handy. And wouldn’t dumping dad’s ashes
nullify our spare when there is still a need for one?

Maybe so.

In any case, loss can exist alongside celebration. My dad loves (loved?) my husband. Verb tense
continues to be a problem. But I can leave the love in present tense. Love is the residue of death, it’s
what we don’t quite know what to do with when someone dies. This is what grief is.

Besides, tomorrow will be known, at least this year, as the day we had originally scheduled to
spread my dad’s ashes. He will not travel down to the coast either or get put it in. He’ll stay put in
that blue vase on my parents’/my mom’s mantel. My parents vs. My mom. Theirs vs. Hers.

Today I ask my husband when I’ll stop writing about war. He who has been to war chuckles, “One
day you too will get to write about kittens and puppies. Once you get all the war stuff our of your

He stares at the books beside me: Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnivich’s The
Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, and The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and the Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk.

He shakes his head and mutters, “Jesus Christ, Lee Anne. Really? Merry Christmas.”

I am not the easiest person to be married to at the moment. Never doubt the power of grief to make
a partner understandably jealous of it.

Out of nowhere, I wonder how my grandfather made the trip from Texas to California to Burma and
back during World War II. I could have asked my dad this, but I didn’t think of it in time. I am
writing an essay about my grandfather, a man who died when my dad was nineteen, before my dad
went to war, about a decade before I was born. My dad told me all he knew of a very quiet man, one
who had just started to open up before his coronary arteries snapped shut.

Were there better questions I should have asked?

But, maybe there wasn’t much else. Maybe some memories my dad held on to because telling them
would be like giving them away. Maybe at the very end, he wanted his daddy there with him and for
a memory that strong to return it would have to go untold.

I sometimes wonder why some of these “better questions” are occurring to me now. Maybe it’s
enough that I could ask my dad any question while he was alive and that he answered them with
such candor, humor, and love. He gave me all he knew (or thought I needed) every time I asked.
Every single time. Maybe it’s enough that the questions keep coming, that I still long for his
answers, that the conversation continues even if his days don’t.

We return home where I nap off my beers. The kids go to bed. Tim and I watch Eddie Murphy on
Saturday Night Live, memories activated of my sisters, my parents, and I watching Best of Eddie
Murphy SNL on VHS. We end the night rewatching the parts of Apocalypse Now my husband missed, especially the iconic beach scene, Robert Duvall unflappable as mortars rain down. He is constant movement and yet unmoved by the chaos around him. My husband falls asleep again, the soundtrack of the Huey a gruesome lullaby. The Huey: What my dad flew in Vietnam.

So I end the day much as I began it.

Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell's essays and poems can be found in Bat City Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and, among others. Her essay, “Debridement,” was chosen as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2019. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Arizona. 


I’m at my parents’ house in Louisville, Kentucky. The sun rises late, it’s 8:30 and the rising is ending and it’s in my eyes where I sit on the couch. I guess I never realized that our house faces the east, I say. My dad says it’s southeast and we bicker mildly. I’m saying the suns’ up, it’s in my eyes. I nurse a coffee that’s already a few hours old.

My parents always insist on making me new coffee once it’s sat in the pot for an hour. My mom asks if the coffee is already dead but they don’t understand that I’m trying not to waste anything or bother anyone, even them, who I feel like I’m bothering by being there, but this is never true. Old shame. It can’t die in this house.

I meet Maddie for coffee at my favorite spot, right by where she lived alone for a couple of years. She parked across the street from her old house, which felt weird for her. As she talks she twirls the end of the white strings on her maroon hoodie. We chat mostly about movies.

I sip a cafe miel, which I always get unless it’s summer and they have a rosemary latte. Today the miel doesn’t taste like honey at all, and I miss it before I finish it. I look through the storefront, all-window, and write: 14 candles in the windows, 2 lit candy canes, 1 big red bow. My memory is bad. My mind’s eye is even worse. I wrote this down, but can’t envision anything.

The coffee shop is the same as always, though it isn’t Sunday and you aren’t here. Just my hand on the wood grain. The men playing chess, the man reading the newspaper, the guy strung out, they’re not here, not here.  I buy a bag of whole bean coffee. Costa Rica, good choice, the barista says. The art is worse than ever, I don’t recognize the band names on the ugly flyers, I count 7 people with glasses but you aren’t here.

Maddie talks about being at the movies, people whisper fighting through the whole movie. A movie about chemicals, Maddie saying I just hate *sniff sniff* corporations. She says every living being has teflons in their blood now, the film took her back to her job as a videographer, when she had to work for lawyers defending corporations. We both worked for the court reporting firm my mom manages, printing off transcripts of lawyers fighting for and against the estates of men killed slowly by asbestos.

Maddie drives us to a thrift store near my old neighborhood and I notice for the first time a sign by the train tracks, rusted arrows pointing to Schnitzelburg and Germantown. A train comes and Maddie turns, going the long way to avoid it. She says Lydia’s friend was hit by a train, lived, got away with a punctured lung. We drive parallel to the train, following it or following it in reverse. Everything is the same, the old houses as beautiful as ever. My memory is bad, and my mind’s eye even worse. I can’t envision it. So when I’m home—even when I lived there—every walk, every day, the old streets fresh to me, something new to see, always. A warehouse converted into markets, another bad mural, the old white steeple, men walking slowly in coats along the road. Seidenfadens in the daylight looks like nothing—I never noticed in all the 3am dance breaks for a cigarette the old sign that says Seidenfaden Cafe, suddenly the diner booths flanking the dance floor make more sense. I never had a need for landmarks, knew every place by the backseat of friends’ cars. When Maddie dropped me off and drove away I was sad.

Even noticing I forget to write (which is to notice). I wrote: In the mild winter every grandmother feigns a smile.

In the rock shop I do as told (dip the tips of my fingers into the bowl of polished stones to feel the calming effects). The rock shop guy says If you have any questions I’ll do my best to make something up, and I didn’t hear as I was looking at the rocks, and I say What? and he says If you have any questions I’ll do my best to make something up, but I realize I’d heard what he’d said the first time right before he says it again and I can’t believe he repeated it exactly the same, like it was a joke, even a really good one. The amethyst is gray and everything is overpriced. I want to pocket lapis pebbles but leave instead. I may or may not steal something somewhere else… I wrote: If I have to write in a season of buying, at least it’s local, at least I stole.

I sit on a concrete bench until my brother and Theresa wave from the car. Theresa says people who want to study law, a lot of them are petty. She says she’s learning how to think and read really well, realizing she loves documents. Max says that since his meditation retreat in Hawaii he has a new mortgage on life, which disturbs me. (A hawk circles, I point through the windshield, the hawk flaps its wings). It’s not even a lease, he says, it’s a whole mortgage. The metaphor is too appropriate and I want to say YOU’RE RICH but it’s Christmas and I say I’m really happy for you, which is also true. Max says everyone in Hawaii is from San Francisco, except one woman he met who is Russian. But she lives in San Francisco. In our neighborhood, we marvel at a big squirrel someone carved out of a tree trunk, sitting on the rest of the stump, wearing a red-and-white striped scarf.

My mom talks about the cryo lounge she subscribed to. A -120 degree room she pays to stand in for 3 minutes. Last time she got frost bite on her forearms but she went back anyway. She wore socks on her arms today. She says I always feel like I’m going to the gynecologist! It never feels right no matter how many times you go! On TV someone cracks an egg, a third yolk in a clear bowl.  I suddenly remember the news this morning- a woman yelling out of her window at a man stealing a package off a neighbor’s porch. He puts it back. The effort we reward…

Rub Rub Rub Rub Rub my mom says, talking about dry ice treatments she got for acne as a kid. Theresa just got a chemical peel. I never knew about Mom, and my face blistering from accutane makes more sense. She always acts on her own experience, sometimes more so if it hurt.

My brother mentions a guy handing him a full pizza on the street in Maui, then taking it to his hostel to share with whoever was around. I was like, God is Real, he says. He talks more about this post-psychedelic retreat, the walking meditations, seeing people’s souls and his feeling seen. They did eye work, two people looking only into each other for three full minutes.

(Three minutes in the eyes / Three minutes in the freezer)

Max’s noticeable calmness is a reality of unattachment. Theresa and Max kick up their legs in the kitchen, exercising or not. My mom shows me a Christmas card I made in 2000—glued class photos of my brother and I on either side of a poorly drawn snowman.

My mom shows everyone photos of Katie’s baby and I remember how once my dad told me that when he was born or when I was born Pops could hold him or me in one hand and how as a kid I imagined a baby fitting perfectly in his palm, like a miniature. My mom mentions how in 2nd grade I said You never let me do what I wanna do with my hair, so it was cut up to my ears. I remember wanting that, I wanted it cut up to my ears, a bizarre bob for my first Communion. I remember that wanting. I was a kid desperate for something. My brother says remember the year I put up flyers to rake leaves?

We eat sushi with the family and old friends who are also family and then my brother and Theresa and Bobby and Megan and I pile in to Bobby’s new van and head to McDonalds for hot cocoa, then all around the suburbs to look at Christmas lights. The hot cocoa machine is broken and we pull forward to wait. We all clasp hands, trying each to connect one hand to the other but somehow Theresa is clasping two hands in one and Megan’s left hand is left out. The guy who works at McDonalds says Sorry that machine is awful and his arm extends with three cups through the dark.

Onward to see the lights. I blow vapor into my coat then everyone asks oh, can I hit that? We stop for a bottle of wine that me and Theresa take turns swigging in the backseat. We pick all the wrong neighborhoods, seeing mostly dark porches, then the best display: a large sculpture of a human head covered in lights. We’re headed toward the river Theresa says, and then we’re at the river.

Hannah Rego is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. They're an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arizona and a founding editor of ctrl+v, a journal of collage. Their work appears in Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, Lambda Literary, Ninth Letter, BOOTH, and elsewhere.


What Happened on December 21st?

I wake at five. At five thirty, six; time passes. Too weary to rise and confined by the thoughts of the night before, chest tight, teeth clenched, in this respect a morning like any other - the cycle of anxiety, as it is, in ascendency.

The shortest day! In my former life, when I finally divined a strategy to tough out unending English winters, this became a focal point. I’d bathed in the long light of midsummer nights until nine o’clock, ten (—vigilant to the downward run thereafter but trying not to think that way because for Pete’s sake, don’t be so bloody negative); balked, come October, at the daylight receding too fast, all the way until this, the darkest of days. One morning, walking the crisp earth of the South Downs’ hills and valleys under a low December sky, I grasped the transformative potential of a simple re-framing: from here on in things could be viewed as getting better, not months more bleak and gloom. How had I not seen this before? A reckless freedom could be found in the upward curve; no need for dread of fading light when from here, without imminent privation, we’re a good five months out from the best days to come!

Today is the birthday of my younger child: in three hours, at 9.33am, he’ll be twelve years old. This time then, I was picking my way from house to car in the icy black, as Jane, my closest friend, no longer living, arrived to perform my daughter’s morning routine: prepare and take her to school, watch her as “Christmas Star No.4” in her kindergarten play. I hadn’t slept for days, a banshee of my own preparation—Christmas to be organized in advance, gifts from Santa in their distinct wrapping, from us, the tree, the lights, all kinds of decorations, the food; refrigerator stuffed, and freezer, cupboards, duplicate supplies, and the household manual I’d been compiling for weeks: labels taped to cupboard doors, instructions written out in careful hand for the heating, washer, dryer, lists—bagged lunch components, acceptable dinners, friends and parents, contacts and back-ups for all eventualities, things to take to school, what was to go in the PE bag and which days it was needed, the best books to try at bedtime and in which order. If I might happen to become a sad statistic and leave her motherless, the maintenance of those day-to-day rhythms must blunt the blow - only possible with the most fulsome instructions. Here, now, the sky’s brushed baby pink and baby blue. At five of seven, the telegraph pole, the palm tree are still in shadow but the prickly pear is coming into resplendent view.

Back then, there we were, scrubbed up under theater lights, a homemade CD playing - averred by my natural birth classes as a matter of import for mother and baby. (I say ‘we’, it’s misleading; the father’s presence imperceptible though granted, this time he wasn’t coked out of his head). I can’t remember the soundtrack. My spine numbed, it didn’t feel so easy, lying at an upside down tilt behind the blue paper screen cold-heaving, trying to move thoughts away from incision and incalculable risks and complications as recounted in the natural birth classes. I pushed attention to my toes, wiggled them in an old trick to distract, re-focus, until a fat, fully formed infant was passed onto my chest. So utterly other, held against memory of the scraggly pink and fawn-limbed five-pound thing the first time round; this one was huge-headed and thick-bodied, yellow, I didn’t know him. He must have cried—don’t we all?—I can’t remember.

Later that afternoon, I heard the clip clopping of my daughter’s princess heels down the hallway and onto the ward. She appeared, flushed with fever, laminated picture of her star-self in hand. She held him, deliberately; there is a photo of the moment as required. I willed her no sensation of rupture to our bond, no lessening of her primal position; she must perceive only the gain of a brother, lifelong companion, no hint of injury. She received the “gift from the new baby” (deemed critical by assorted authorities), a doll baby with change of outfits, with grace and puzzlement, then visiting hours were over. It would be our first night apart. As much as I can remember, the baby and I were peaceable, both mute; he made do with what little he was given and I with going through the motions. His first Christmas was spent at home, in a bassinet under an easterly window, hoping for the miracle of vitamin D synthesis from watery winter sun.

Here in the desert, the shortest day’s not such a thing, spoiled as we are with blue and uplift. Now, at 7.32am, the sky is fresh with wispy white, the palm’s greens and browns distinct, bending to a breeze. There is yellow in the mesquite behind the cactus. This year, I’ve failed to do birthday decorations. Previously, after weeks spent in collection of cartoons, stickers, cut-outs, favorite characters, amusing pictures and quotations, snippets—humorous, meaningful—a surrogate birthday family has appeared—on walls, bedroom door, in unexpected places—to wish the birthday child well on their special day. It always seemed necessary to summon up more well-wishers, more supporters, more lookers-on. But this year, out of steam, there are just twelve balloons suspended with gold ribbon from the ceiling. There must, at least, be balloons, always balloons—to impose lightness, joy; to speak the things we can’t say to each other, I love you and Happy Birthday to You! I will try to be upbeat; keep coursing panic out of sight, and existential dread—my own, strident, twelve-year-old self would be appalled at such unbridled manifestation of our mother. No, I won’t be that; we have balloons, and a weird unfolding plastic candle-flower to perch on a pint of vanilla ice cream because he doesn’t like cake, or any kind of flavors.

Mr Pineapple Head, the kids’ one-man-band-circus-party-entertainer who was also, it transpired, a part-time chimney sweep and son of our next-door neighbor, shared this birthday. He liked to drive to Stonehenge for a winter solstice-birthday blowout. It was much less crowded than in June and with more real Druids: they let people right up to the stones only on the night of 21st December, he said, it was a special atmosphere. I always meant for us to go there but mine wasn’t a boy to appreciate a ten-hour round trip for a ‘happy birthday’ alongside rocks, spiritually imbued or otherwise, and he preferred sticks in any case. Maybe he’ll go himself one day, though it’s a long way from here, I must remember to mention it. He’s awake now. It’s not yet the moment of your birth, I tell him, but it is; I’ve forgotten the time difference. He starts his day with a flying-shooting online x-box thing with his friend in England. And then: we potter about; do the cards and presents; go to Barnes and Noble in search of a better light saber, one that doesn’t have stupid voiceover commands, just lights. We play ping pong, all of us, his step-brother and step-dad and sister and me, winner stays on, dog chews up the balls that bounce off onto the patio when he gets to them first. Here we are, together, in our new desert life, on a surreally sunlit winter solstice birthday.

We have dinner, set a match to the flower balanced on the open tub of ice cream. It starts as a bud then, in slow creaking circles, opens to reveal fourteen glowing candles (that’s how it came, so there’s two for luck), all the while playing a speedy, high-pitched ‘Happy Birthday’ and won’t stop, even when immersed fully in water, when stomped on, when pulled apart, still it plays its tune - a good omen? Fully unfurled, the candles long blown out, insistent on its birthday wishes, comedic, migraine-inducing, won’t stop, still faintly audible underneath a pillow in the next room. The dog chases balloons, tries to eat them.

Too late, in bed, I think, re the birthday, that we should have talked more, maybe: highlights of the past year. Or, lessons learned or points of gratitude. Twelve things that...I don’t know, I’m not good at any of this kind of thing, it doesn’t come naturally like it does to my husband, and the scraps I think of usually come too late. And I forgot to mention Stonehenge. But the flower-candle is still audible at five of midnight, and even I can see how we’ve oriented ourselves, how we keep on moving, to the light.


Time in a Body on the Shortest Day of the Year

When I woke up to blood-stained sheets I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. Not by my period, which had started the day before, but rather by the accident. I’ve ruined countless underwear because I won’t wear pads. They crinkle. They take up space. More than anything, they make me hyper aware of my body. And as a woman, I’m pretty much always aware of my body. Especially when I’m on my period.
     But I haven’t bled in bed in… I can’t even remember the last time. So seeing the round maroon spot on the white sheets surprised me. From the start, I was very grateful that this day would be the shortest of the year.
     And somehow it still managed to be very long.
     After I took care of myself, I drove to the farm where I keep my retired horse, Aslan. He’s almost three decades old, almost as old as me, and a few weeks ago he aggravated an old injury. He got a little too playful in the pasture with the herd and bowed a tendon. His injury isn’t life-threatening, just slow to heal. He’ll be on stall-rest for weeks more. And I’ll be wrapping his legs daily to provide support or the duration.
     When I arrived to change his wraps on this particular morning, I noticed the swelling in his injured leg was worse than day before, a marked change from the gradual but steady improvement I’d seen. I kneeled down on the hay-covered ground, the back of my boots muddying the bottom of my pants. Just hovering my hand over the swollen bump, I could feel its heat. The step backwards was more frustrating than surprising. Aslan doesn’t like being separated from the herd. When I first contained him, I fretted he’d just pace in his stall all day and cause more damage to his leg. Luckily, limitless hay has been a sufficient distraction to his confinement.
     But yesterday the herd moved to a different pasture and he couldn’t follow. He probably walked out his worry round and round the stall. Fortunately, he was calm when I arrived, so the step backward was a small and temporary one.
     After tending to my horse, I returned home and sat down and called my grandma. It was a call I’d been meaning to make, needing to make. It lasted the better part of an hour—which was one of the reasons it had taken me so long to make. I love my grandma, but whether I talk to her once a day, once a week, or once a month, the conversation is the same—not in the annoying way where she asks similar questions and we cover similar topics but in the heartbreaking way where she tells the same stories word-for-word and updates me about how every one of my extended family members is doing even though the information is no longer up-to-date.
     My grandfather has dementia and when she passes the phone to him, he’ll ask me where I’m living and then a minute later ask me where I’m living once more. He doesn’t really know who I am, my grandmother knows this—tells me so—and I can hear her coach him on the other end of the line.
     His mind is gone. Hers is slowing.
     After I hung up, I painted. I’m working on a Christmas present. And art is good for the mind. Good for the soul—if you believe that’s different.
     My thoughts meandered as my brush smeared paint in soft strokes across the canvas. I thought about the warm spell we’re experiencing in Ohio. I thought about asking my stepfather to remove the window ac units he helped install this summer. I thought about how I’m 32.
     I plopped my brush down into the mug of water. I pulled out my screwdriver from my bag of tools. I took out an ac unit. It was easier than I thought. I’ll take out the others tomorrow.
     I cleaned up my house, then myself. Took a shower. Then went out on a dinner-and-a-movie date with my girlfriend Abbie—our last night together before she’d be leaving for Michigan to visit with her family for Christmas.
     I managed to leave my purse in the theater. I also managed to not realize this until we’d made it home. I also managed to find it again after we drove back. While I laughed about it later that night, in the moment, I was spicy. She wasn’t sure why I was so mad at myself. I wasn’t sure either. Part of it I chalked up to my period. Part of it was the wasted time—squandering the already short day.
     And, in hindsight, the biggest part was a sensitivity to time more holistically.
     Forgetting was a failure of my mind.
     All around me bodies are breaking down. Aging.
     I am too, of course. But I’d prefer not to think about it. That’s the thing with animals—all animals—even if we know what is happening to us (and that itself is a big “if”), we don’t always care to deal with it. Sometimes it’s easier to just ignore it. To keep on.
     Until something makes it so that we can’t pretend. Like a forgotten purse, witnessed.

Once we made it back home, purse and all, the last thing we did before going to bed was exchange a Christmas gift. This would be our Christmas eve since she would be in Michigan for the 24th.
     I gave her a bobblehead cat for her car’s dashboard. She named him Felix, and this lucky cat would accompany her on the 7-hour drive north the next day. She said it was perfect.
     She gave me a miniature humidifier—shaped like a spaceship with a dog looking out the window. I would use this to help with my dry nose and throat. It was perfect.

Morgan Riedl is a doctoral student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio where she lives with her rez dog and retired horse (not in the house). She has an MA in creative nonfiction from Colorado State University. Her work has previously appeared on Brevity's blog and was a semifinalist for Ruminate's VanderMey Nonfiction Prize in 2017.

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

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