Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.108] The evening before she was to go to South Beach Haven, Merry let her daughters dye her hair and do her make-up. She spelled, “For my going out party,” and Jan assured her she’d be as gorgeous as in one of her young photos.
When Ben, grading quizzes on the living room couch, looked at his wife in the Ocean Room, it seemed he was seeing past the years. The shimmering strings of grey were gone from her hair and it was the color of wild honey again. It made him think of the taffy they made on their third official date, pulling, stretching, laughing till the honey turned creamy white, the strands so brittle they broke.
He loved her hair like this. Young hair.
Dr. Steve Barnett, an old college buddy famous for his jokes, had done the medical diagnosis. No jokes, no laughter, Steve’s eyes moist. Could he have seen this, Ben wondered—what they would come to?
“Merry, I can’t be positively sure, but all signs point to multiple sclerosis.”
“Which is …?” Cuing, coaching him, her face in shock.
“Mostly a mystery.” Steve’s voice was so reverent they could [p.109] barely hear. Was it his first time to break bad news to a friend? “It happens when the myelin around the nerves breaks down, which is kind of like peeling off insulation, and it results in static, you might say, between the brain and the central nervous system, which affects movement and sense, and that’s where your tingling comes from, from this static …” He kept talking, no pause, soft, scared, sorry, even as he gave hopeful statistics: Most m.s. victims are only minimally affected. Only 25 percent need wheelchairs, only 5 percent get bedridden or die from it. Only a fraction get the chronic progressive kind. Most people have long episodes of remission.
But he must have seen the possibilities, that her m.s. could be ravenous, strip her nerves without remission, unhitch her muscles, stiffen her joints, condemn her to prolonged, half-living rigor mortis. Turn her to stone.
“It may be more inconvenience than anything else.” But Steve’s eyes showed a sadder vision.
“Then I think I should tap dance,” said Merry. “Don’t you? I think if I learned to tap dance, I wouldn’t get it very bad. I can’t imagine m.s. crippling someone who tap dances. Too incongruous.”
Steve grinned and hugged her.
That moment, as Ben saw it from retrospect, was the peak of his married life—the identifiable instant that separated before from after. Steve’s diagnosis was the Rosetta Stone that translated every feeling Merry described in her feet or legs, her falls, the halts of her gestures, the growing slur in her speech. The innocent letters—m.s.—made accidents into symptoms. As Steve identified the path, Merry started her sinking pilgrimage down to the place Ben couldn’t share, down where there was no celebration in the differences of human bodies. Differences would go beyond gender now. Merry was sinking, slipping, falling into—yes—a tar-pit of cripples and wheelchairs and statues. He could not know what she would come to know, could not fathom the patterns of her new universe, the fresh divisions in [p.110] her seasons. Fall. Winter. Freeze. Deep freeze. Deeper Freeze. Syllables of time. Despite the hollow comfort in Steve’s words, these differences would slash them apart.
Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary.
Igneous: made from lava.
Metamorphic: changed form, the result of pressure through chemical action of liquids and gases from nearby magma.
Sedimentary: made from other rocks.
Same questions, different names on the quizzes. Another semester of pouring vocabulary into freshman heads. Only a fraction would remember igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Only a fraction would remember him. Few would suspect all the weight he carried to class, the invisible boulders of the geology prof.
Merry was seeing him peripherally. He could feel it, though he did not look at her now.
Igneous. Forged into porous crust, singed solid, all softness burned away until there is no movement, no celebration in the wind. Fire rock.
This is the hot tingling you feel, this static, that makes communication impossible between central nervous system and nerves. This is the fire in your bones.
And will you love me always?
Even if I’m crippled?
When I’m sixty-four?
I wanna hold your hand. I wanna be where you are forever. I want to hear your voice. Can’t remember your voice. Can’t move without your voice.
Metamorphic. Changed, molded, compressed, pressured, coal to diamond, petrified collapse; God squeezing too tight for breath, removing air pockets, deleting space, densifying form, not even a cry escapes.
Metamorph. This is when you fall and can’t get up, your body is [p.111] changing, the static won’t let you stand, the message routes are clogged with debris of myelin, and nerves forget what they’re for; they turn to rock.
It’s not that I don’t love Utah, only that I think sometimes of the beach, and I think, you know, of the fish. And …
I can’t remember your voice.
Sedimentary. Weathered, shaved, eroded into other selves, changed by time. Compaction.
God, if there is a God, I’ll give up anything you say, even my faithless heart, if you’ll let me have her. I’ll forget my dad dying in the coal mine, I’ll go to church, pray twice a day, quit sinning. Anything you say, I’ll give it up.
And meant it.
I wish I could stay with you, feel you here, be one till morning.
And had meant that.
I think I can’t go on, Benj; I know I can’t, not possibly, but I do. Can’t bear it, but I do.
I want to remember. Your voice.
Igneous. Metamorphic. Sedimentary. This is what happens. Heat. Change. Time. We turn brittle, and this is the hot tingling you feel that says there is no more communication, the static that says insulation is gone, penetration no longer possible.
“This is my wife.” He remembered the first time he had spoken those words—on his honeymoon at the hotel’s front desk. “This is my wife.” Her eyes now were the same ones he had met on the polluted beach those too few years ago, full of sorrow, betrayal, and unmistakable, boundless love.
He turned off the light, knelt beside her chair. “This is my wife.”
Only the blue aquarium light shone, made her skin appear soft and youthful. He could see himself shrink in her thick lenses. His face, her eyes. He removed the glasses and gazed at her.
[p.112] “This is my wife.”
The woman who had stood on water, Ocean Saver. He could envision her, her hair just like this, with the roiling slate sea behind, rain-heavy clouds like bruised plums over her head, and lightning trembling on the dark horizon. She is whispering to a dying gull who revives at the sound of her voice, which he cannot hear, and flies away, becomes a shooting star, and then it’s dawn and she is standing just beyond the lacy edges of green waves, head and arms raised like a glorious invitation. The sun is gilding her a path on the water, shining on the beach as a wave recedes, shining the gold of her eyes. And she is dancing through those waves—clean waves, for she has saved them— and swimming away, and he saying to her eyes, Come back. Come back.
May 8, 1989
Ben is writing this. My handwriting is getting too jerky.
Everything is fine. We have job charts. The girls are pleasing us immensely with their efforts. They are very responsible.
We have a testimony of enduring to the end. We know the Lord will bless us. Maybe He has job charts for us in heaven.
Ben got a promotion. He is now a full professor. More money. We appreciate the university’s insurance. It covers some physical therapy and medication.
The girls are all good students.
We got new curtains in the living room.
There was static in this entry as Cody read it. Was it in Merry’s cover-up words? Or was there some other interference trying to keep her from Merry’s mind and voice?
[p.113] Merry’s dream, her last night in her home, was of Ben and his veiled bride getting married in the front room, a faceless Mormon bishop (not Hank) doing the rites. Ben is feeding the bride a square of cake, laughing as he pushes the frosting into her teeth. Someone hands her a napkin for the crumbs, and worn out with joy, the bride—still veiled—sits in the armchair, feet up, arms behind her head, her halo of roses lopsided like a casual, happy angel’s.
“You ready to carry this little woman over the threshold?” says the bishop to Ben. “Can you lift up all this satin?”
“I’ve had practice.” Ben gallantly helps the bride from her chair, swinging her legs up and catching them, his left arm under her knees, his right one around her waist. The bride leans her head back as though her neck muscles are gone and tosses the bouquet out the window.
It was a cold day. Stubborn leaves dangled from aspen branches. Windows were frost-ferned, air-glazed and scratchy as Elizabeth ran from the main building to one of the attached wings for her English class.
When she opened the door, she stepped back. Joe had shaved his mustache. A simple thing that nevertheless felt like betrayal. Now he was the man Penny had on top of her television. Younger and less dignified. Less threatening. Less wild. His tie was a blue and white diagonal, a generic, fashionable, executive tie that was done up too tightly.
Joe gave some vague descriptions of Shakespeare, whom they would be studying now, then had them write an in-class essay on their most embarrassing moment. Elizabeth couldn’t concen-[p.114]trate. When class ended and she moved towards the door, he touched her elbow.
“I’ll miss my bus,” she said to the floor.
The others exited. Elizabeth waited, glancing at his tie.
“You mad at me?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Something’s wrong, though.”
“Is it Pen—?”
“No.” She didn’t want him to finish her name. “You seem younger without your mustache.” She stepped towards the exit.
“Thanks. Is it your mother?”
“Maybe,” she murmured. “I guess we’re moving her to South Beach Haven. I guess maybe tonight, we are.”
He closed his eyes. “You want to talk about it?”
“Not much to say.”
He inched closer. She could smell his cologne. Drowsy, musky scent. “Talk,” he said.
She glared up at him. “Everything changes. EveryBODY changes. Nothing stays the same. Just better to ignore the whole damn charade.”
“Oooh, a naughty word. You must be upset.”
She took two defiant steps towards the door. He moved his hand to her hair, set to bridle her.
“Wait, Liz.” Softly. “Couldn’t resist mentioning the language. I used to say stuff like that to Pen and maybe that’s why she left. Give me another chance, okay? I’m not the insensitive jerk I seem. Not quite. I know what you’re going through. Your mother’s leaving; you’re starting to grieve. That’s completely natural. I’d be worried if it were otherwise.”
Her cheeks throbbed. She didn’t answer.
“I was so angry,” he said, “when my mom went away—when she died. When I found out that everything I loved involved [p.115] her—depended on her—and I couldn’t have them anymore. I was angry at God mostly, for taking her, for allowing it. And at Mom for being in the car when it crashed. At myself, for not receiving a revelation—something!—to tell her to stay home. At the world for going on. You feel like that?” His hand moved down her scalp.
He and Cody, always trying to get at her through her hair, she thought, always fingering her nerve cells. She shrugged, and he lifted his hand like she had pushed it off.
“I remember one old lady, one of the main Mormons in Payson. She knelt down by me and she said, ‘Joey, your mommy has been called home to God. She’ll be happier than ever before. You mustn’t be sorry about that.’ Know what I said?”
A quick look told him she was listening.
“I said, ‘Lady, why don’t you go and do likewise?’”
When she smiled, Joe took her hands in his—something, again, that Cody was always doing. “Give me a chance.”
“Why are you fighting me?” His tone was sharp but his hands were gentle around hers.
“It’s hurting you, the thought of your mother going away.”
Her answer was out before she had clearly formed it in her mind: “You’ll go away too! You started disappearing over the weekend. On Friday you still had your mustache.”
“Oh, geez.” He released her hands and held his head as though it would burst. “Come on! I did this—shaved—at the principal’s hint, okay? I guess he thought I was a self-contained hippie revival, I don’t know.”
“Maybe so,” he laughed. “Maybe I am. As it happens, he found out about the times Pen and I protested the nuclear plant in Nevada.”
“When you got yourselves arrested?”
[p.116] “Wasn’t me.”
“I don’t know if I’m proud of that arrest, but Mr. Prince let me know that if I didn’t start looking like a Republican lobbyist, I might not have a job here next year. Maybe I over-reacted, I don’t know. But I don’t want to be unemployed. Sometimes when I over-react, I do something like shaving off my mustache. It happens.” He touched his naked upper lip.
“I hear that’s a pretty common problem with hairy men.”
“Big problem. Very common. You look awful.”
“Now come on, I didn’t mean to insult you; you know that. This is all just eating away at you, obviously.”
“You need a hug,” Joe breathed, and wrapped her up, held her, and stroked her hair. She clung to him as though he might dissolve.