Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How the Skeletons Dance

by Zinta Aistars

She calls me Nisiņa (ni-si-nja). It is a Latvian perversion of the word “niece.” For some forty odd years, she didn’t call me anything at all. Nor I her. Yet now we find each other again, my favorite aunt and I, across time, across an expanse of miles (I live in the Midwest and she in Philadelphia), across what we are now finding is a battlefield of mess and memories stretching out across the decades between us. We stumble across one another on the Internet, and there is a quick exchange of links: our Facebook profiles, her favorite chess site where she plays the game long into the night, my online collection of photographs and poetry, a blog, a literary ezine. I view her posted photos of cakes she has baked—a white Easter bunny with ears dipped in cream cheese icing, a torte circled with blanched almonds and puckered raspberries sprinkled with chocolate shavings, a sheet cake made to look like the American flag with strawberries and blueberries in long, neat rows. It was baked not for Independence Day, but to mark the day she had become an American citizen, a young girl emigrated from Latvia during the war. She comments on my just posted album of images, a little house in the woods with a fireplace burning to comfort one, taken at a recent wilderness retreat.

Our e-mails race back and forth, near collapsing one over the other in a kind of frantic attempt to erase time and distance. I tell her that in a roomful of somber relatives, discussing art and cultural digressions and hopeless politics and theories of philosophy, circling on themselves like cats biting tails, she was the one dazzling ray of blonde sunshine. The young aunt who laughed a little too loud, a little too often. Louder than the rest of us dared. The aunt who let her fingers fly over the piano keys, chasing Ludwig. She married my uncle—my father’s second brother in a downward scale of age with my father at the summit—after two fiery dates. Their third date was their wedding day.

It wouldn’t last. I was just a little girl in beribboned braids, a bit confused about why my sunshine aunt was suddenly gone. The family was back to intellectual debates and marathon discussions on the newest developments in the world of art. My uncle was so sad. He would never marry again. She would marry again. I would marry, and again. Hers would last. Mine would not. Her blonde hair was gray. I was hiding mine. She had come to think of herself as the black sheep of the family. Now there are two of us, I reply.

And we are both writing our memoirs. We discuss the perils of going naked into the world. One has to wait for certain family members to die. Ah, the shame, the embarrassment, the unveiling of rattling skeletons. Could ruin a few marriages, estrange several children, undermine a career or three. I tell her I am calling my work-in-progress a pack of lies. Which, of course, it isn’t. One must protect the guilty, because they are still loved (and we are all guilty). But I may as well give this one fine gesture of undeserved kindness as I walk into that night. I can hear her laughter spread across her e-mailed reply. She’d considered a few gestures, not all of them kind. Most of those denuded secrets, after all, would be a blush on our own faces more than any other. Fools that we are. Ah, the mad and impulsive decisions of youth … we found we regretted none of them. Even those with the highest price. It was life, juicy life, lived crazily and fully, and regretting any of it would dishonor those who have the courage to dare.

One would think we were related. Can I still call her my aunt? Not by law. Perhaps a higher law. One of resonating memories, mirrored scar patterns, that her children with my uncle might in some wonderful, mystical way have a similar something about them with my children, none of them having ever met any of the others. It is the law of connection, gossamer threads that travel near invisibly between us all.

I laugh at her subject lines: “No, No, NO!!” Nisiņa, she laments, I cannot go on like this! Writing into the long hours of the night, too old to pull such all-nighters, but I’ve just read your story about your Tom the tomcat, and now I want to tell you about my favorite cat, called Ludwig, in honor of Beethoven, even though I stopped playing the piano several years ago. I cannot say why … nor why it will not wait until morning…

Every night now I check my e-mail one more time, just to find hers that sends me a little bučiņa, a little kiss, on the tip of my virtual nose. Sending auntie love across those hundreds of miles and many, too many hundreds of days. Sending bits and pieces of precious trivia that bond.

Both of us now gray and graying, time become an enemy, I begin to plan a road trip to Philadelphia. Perhaps in the autumn, when the Pennsylvania interstate that winds through endless forests will flame with color. She might bake a cake for me—with butter cream frosting. I would come with my stories of new art, somber, and she would make me laugh again. We would read our memoirs to each other and wonder at so many memories swirling in mist.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


In Memory, by Zinta Aistars

What would cause a man to pull the trigger and cause his own death? But I know what kind of moment leads near and around that moment, wishing I didn’t. When the pain of taking the next breath becomes so bone-shattering, that it is all your mind knows: stop, stop, STOP. The pain.

And there is nothing else. No more thought of the wife who wakes beside you, a quick buss on your scruffy cheek before she is off to brew another cuppa for another day. No more thought of the children, daughters and son, who share a certain gesture with you, a certain shine of the blue eye, the arcing of the hand to describe in the air above you a word most precise. They fade.

There is only the pain. That must stop.

But I knew nothing of that particular pain. We, that “we” that once lived in another time, were so very long ago, that I found myself studying your face, frozen in this time on some posting somewhere announcing your death, searching your features for your previous self. In our time, I was a teen, and you were a fresh college student. In this time, your hair had grown white, as white as my grandfather’s. Are you there? The softer flesh of your cheek, the chin, yet clearly, yes, I see you still. Glasses still slipping down your nose as they always did. Did you know that charmed me? The way you pushed them back up again?

We lay in the sand, cooled by the summer night, shoulders pressed together, length of one body along the length of one body, until my heart thumped in my chest, assured by the warmth of your fingertips tapping in my open palm. Your other hand reached for the brilliant sky, pointing. You knew every constellation, every myth and story behind every sparkling gem pinned up there, and I listened, holding my breath. Listened, until you leaned over me, pressing your lips to mine, your mouth over mine. Until the length of my body melted into the sand. Into you.

That millisecond before you pulled the trigger, I wish I could have whispered into your ear: no one ever kissed me like that again.

I see you standing below the willow trees, waiting for me to catch up. Looking at me as if I were everything. I was safe in your eyes. I was always safe with you.

In that millisecond, I wish I could have whispered in your ear: I was never that safe again. I left you seeking danger. I was young, too young, too foolish. Three decades later, I still pay.

I see the field of corn parting like the Red Sea before us, slapping against the little green Volkswagen plowing through, the two of us roaring with laughter, jumping in our seats, your one hand holding mine in the air between us, the other on the steering wheel, and the owner of that field shouting on the edge of it, his arms waving in your rearview mirror. Shouting, shouting, I know not what, but we were as incapable of stopping as were you …

… in that millisecond, did your memories rush through you? The grief of letting go sunk into a moment of relief when you do? Do you know, my gentle long ago friend, that I remember? Not once a raised hand, not once a raised voice, not once a flash of anger. You only faded away in silence when I said I have to go. Only years later would I learn about the depth of your grief. There were risks I needed to take. I needed to live my own life yet, one in which I, too, would learn to fade away in my own silent grief, one marked by raised voices and ungentle men. Now and then, thinking of you, that melting into the summer sand, how your hand would glide over my breast and stop to listen to my heart beating against your palm.

One heart not beating.

Wait …

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Prodigal Son

by Zinta Aistars

A newish friend recently said something that stunned me. It has been circling in my addled brain ever since. Apparently, from time to time, he reads my blog. “Your son mind that he isn’t your favorite child?” he said. I blinked. Favorite child? I have two. Recent blog-followers will note that I do indeed write more often now about my daughter, to whom I often refer to as “Blondie,” and much less often refer to my son ... at all.

Handing my son a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar this Sunday morning, I tipped my head to one side and said, “Hey. Do you mind that you are not my favorite child?”

He raised one eyebrow at me. He didn’t need to ask. He knows. He was there. I was there. The entire grueling, rocky path he chose to travel. It took a long, long time for it to be Blondie’s turn. And Blondie, not unlike me, still has nightmares about losing her brother.

“I don’t write about you anymore,” I say, sitting down with my own bowl of oatmeal. I pour maple-walnut coffee for both of us.

“Yeah. Please don’t.”

And I won’t. But for this once, if only to set the record straight. My son is now a grown man, tall and strong, a closely trimmed beard on a face that reminds me a great deal of his father’s—someone neither of us has seen for some time now. When he did resurface, and my son reunited with him, neither one recognized the other. But I do. When I at times rest my hand on my son’s shoulder, my hand remembers that shoulder. It is a powerhouse shoulder, thick and broad with hard muscle. Just resting my hand on that shoulder for a moment makes me feel safe.

But neither one of us speaks anymore about the eight years when nothing in life was safe. And, like my daughter, I never slept a night in those years from beginning to end. Not one. And I never woke assured that I would find my son still alive. He was a young boy, a man-child, who did not understand how to grow up to be a man. Like so many boys whose fathers had abandoned them, he rebelled against the world as he knew it, played at a machismo that was a warped exaggeration of what it means to be a man, and the anger and hurt inside him roiled and boiled in a ferocity he expressed in every way he shouldn’t.

I never gave up on him. Because he was my house on fire, I focused all my energy on putting out that fire, at very least keep it from burning the house to ash, and my daughter, desperately doing everything right, was the little tree growing alongside the burning house, feeling its flame, leaves curling in from the heat, yet holding steady. How hard those years were on her, too, I would come to understand fully only much later, when the fire had at long last been put out. The quiet ones suffer, too. Her occasional nightmares today, of finding her brother bloodied and bullet-ridden and dead, speak to me of her suffering, just as I did. Years later, we would do our weeping together.

He knows. For all those nights that I roamed the dark streets hunting him down, bringing him home again, he knows. He knows, for all those nights I posted bail and tossed him into the car, his lips in a tight line, while I tried hard to see the road home through my tears. How often could one heart break and still keep beating? It beat for him. He knows, for those times I pushed a six-foot tall man against the wall and dared him, dared him to just once lift that hand, until it dropped back down to his side. He knows, for the funerals of his teenage friends that I attended—as much to honor the young lives lost as the mothers who mourned them—the bloodless bullet holes in their chests sewn shut, and bowed my head in prayer I felt no one heard. There but for the grace of God...

God did hear. My son is still alive, while too many of his childhood friends are not. The rage inside of that boy seemed to have no end, no limit. Yet there was that day when we had sat in a room with other families fighting the good fight, and the group facilitator, savior of the day, put us through one test and trial after another. When the facilitator placed a blindfold over my eyes and told my teenage son to lead me through the woods outside to retrieve the prize, we returned sooner than any other, unscathed and prize in hand. The facilitator seemed surprised. Others were still stumbling blindly through the woods. I shrugged, “I trust my son with my life.”

And when the facilitator asked my boy to place the empty chair in the room, the one where his father should have been sitting, symbolically at the distance he felt between them—my son opened the door to the outside and carried the chair out into the woods. When he was asked to stand at the distance he felt with his mother, he looked at the facilitator and then walked over to me. We stood nose to nose. For all his rebellion, he trusted me with his life.

Our struggle was not over that year. Nor the next. Or the ones after. It was just a couple weeks ago that my now grown son, a good man if still tight-lipped, brought me a yellowed front page of the Kalamazoo Gazette. The front page story, now ten years old, was about his best friend, gunned down in the road by the police after a long car chase. Not a year goes by that my son doesn’t mark the day.

“I was going to be in that car with him that night,” he said, holding the paper across his knees.

“I know. That was the night I realized my prayers were heard, after all.”

Although I always had to wonder about the prayers of that other mother, murdered a year later by her husband with a single bullet to the head. The night she died, she had argued with her husband because he was wearing one of her son’s shirts. I remembered at her son’s funeral how she had said all she wanted now was to die with her son.

Most mothers would. Not only die once, but a thousand times, for their sons. And so, I repost here a very short story I wrote for my son in 2002, because even then—he knew. As he knows now. As my daughter knows, too. And with this, I will lapse into silence once again about that young man of whom I am so proud, for the road traveled, for the demons fought, for the wars won, for the wounds still healing, but the great heart that endured.

April 2009

A Thousand Deaths Plus One

By Zinta Aistars

"Don't shut me out," she whispers to the back of his head. "Would die a thousand deaths for you, know I would, know I would, you know it," she whispers with her lips right up against the rough short growth of his hair. Her hands reach around to touch his face, turned away from her, his body turned away from her, his eyes turned away from her. Light fuzz, bit of rough, cool cheeks, she smoothes her palms over his face and contours her fingers to the shape she has created. From one micro-magical cell deep in her body, eighteen years ago, she created this face.

She is perched like Mama Bird on the high back of the couch and her legs are up against either side of his shoulders. He didn't move when she perched behind him. She could talk and talk, her knees pressed into his shoulders, and he would not even flinch. Only the occasional tilt of his head would hint at some listening, random catching of a word.

Her fingers spread through his cropped hair. She loves this rough stuff, this short scrub, on no one else but him. This isn't just for him, this touching. It's her food, too. Her spirit leans into the touch, drinks of it, breaks its bread, and inhales. Heel of her palm stroking the length of his skull, fingertips down to the base of his neck, tracing the cords, tensing and releasing of his muscles. He wants to resist, she senses that he does, but her warm hands turn him inside out. His head drops back lightly into the cup of her hands.

"Miss me when I'm gone," she croons, singing her heartache for him to hear, "but erase me when I'm here, what the hell is that?"

His head tips, then rests, tips, neck tensing, rests again.

"Think I don't know, think I don't understand, but oh baby," she hums, "oh baby. Oh..."

She scrapes nail tips across his skull, his hair snapping to attention. Presses her thumb pads into the valley at the base of his neck until she feels the knot give. Circles at his temples, ever so, ever so soft. His shoulders droop.

"You give me hell," she hisses, "and I'll catch it. Kick, scream, tear, doesn't matter, I'm not letting you go into your own hell without me." She lays her cheek against his warm skull. The scent of his skin, of his hair, makes her weep. Just like the first time. Eighteen years, eighteen minutes, no difference. She'd rock this baby until he was seventy three. Then she'd be gone. But her wings would whisper soft as her voice now in his dreams.

Never let go.

Now her fingers trace the curl of his ears, cool to the touch, like intricate shells. If only she could make him hear. Patter of the rain on the roof, splash of a foaming wave, chatter of a pesky squirrel, sigh of a lullaby. If only she could make him hear.

She lets the silence sit a moment longer, then hums, then sings, ever so, ever so softly a lullaby from those long ago years... of little bears, and dancing sheep, and sleep, sweet child's sleep, and the promise of so many bright blue mornings to come...

There is a tremor in his shoulders. She stops. Instead, presses her lips to the curve of his skull. Closing her eyes, prays to all good and protecting spirits: spread your wings across my child, spread them wide and hold him close.

"Don't shut me out," she says once more, so he won't forget, but it does not matter. She will stay by the closed door. She will wait.

He gets up slowly, letting her hands drop between her knees, stands for a moment, still, then leaves.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

"Connect to Purpose"

By Zinta Aistars

The following was a short talk I gave today as something of a tribute, an expression of gratitude, from the health care writers to the nursing leadership at the health organization in Southwest Michigan where I have the privilege of working as publications editor and writer. While working on the nursing annual report, I learned, close up and personal, what remarkable people I work alongside. To protect the identities of these everyday heroes, I have used initials here and eliminated all specific references.

As a writer and editor for our communications and marketing department, I don’t often get to step away from my desk. When I was assigned to be one of several writers for the 2008 nursing annual report, I saw a chance to change that.

This was to be no small document. An annual report—some 60 pages long—digs deep. This report would cover every aspect of nursing here: renovations to facilities, various nursing conferences, nursing initiatives and outcomes, shared governance and green initiatives and Active Staffer and Pyxis and cultural competence and VitalSmarts and EXCEL and LINKS and how heroically and efficiently our nurses responded in a crisis.

Deadlines were tight; there was no time to waste. I scheduled 25 interviews in one month’s time. And, to my delight, the nurses responded. My calendar quickly filled up with appointments for tours and interviews. By deadline, I had turned in some twenty articles, and my fingers seemed permanently cramped over my computer keyboard.

Before the first proofs of the report came back for edits, I let my mind wander back over all the many interviews. All those nurses’ faces. All those hospital places.

There was the afternoon that L.S., director, pharmacy services, took me down into the “bowels” of the hospital to show me how meds are ordered, to be distributed by nurses to some 800 patients. Sure, I knew patients in hospitals received meds all the time, at any given moment. But until then, I had never really stopped to consider just how that happened. That many little pills and dosages, reaching hundreds upon hundreds of patients, all with precision and timeliness. I watched plastic canisters careen through tunnels and drop from the ceiling with prescriptions inside. I saw aisle after aisle of drawers and boxes, filled with every possible kind of medication. I saw rows of computers with pharmacists logging in prescriptions. Back upstairs, throughout the hospital, I saw busy nurses tap in med requests on computer screens, and drawers magically release, little doors popping open, the correct med available inside.


So that’s how it’s done.

I toured the neonatal intensive care unit to learn about the amazing outcomes of treating newborns for retinal detachment, an eye disease in babies born too soon. J.R., director, neonatal services, took time to walk me through room after room in the NICU, nodding with approval every time we “washed in and washed out.” I peered into incubators and saw the tiniest imaginable human beings. Each and every one seemed to have a nurse’s rapt face leaning over it, fussing and inspecting and soothing and, yes, loving, these little people just come into the world. I wondered if any of them would grow up to be nurses.


It clicked.

Then I met M.C., a nurse so young she could have been my daughter, and she worked at the opposite end of this spectrum of life—at ACE, acute care of elderly, at the hospital. M. was enthused and brimming with ideas about how to make the last days of a patient’s life comfortable and kind. She spoke softly, and she knew everyone’s names and habits and preferences, and her bright smile never waned.


This is what it is like to be in the care of someone to whom every life matters, beginning to end.

And then there was D.F., nurse manager of perioperative services-cardio. D. handed me blue scrubs, and watched closely to be sure I had the blue booties on over my shoes, my hair tucked inside the blue cap, and every snap closed, bottom to top. D. would show me the newly renovated operating rooms in the cardio center. The new ORs, she said, were nearly twice as big as the ones before, every one equipped with leading-edge technology. Heck, I didn’t know, all I had seen in my life was either through the groggy eyes of a patient wheeled into surgery and quickly fading into oblivion … or on the television screen of the curmudgeonly Dr. House.

Then D. opened the double doors to the new ORs … and I stood inside that shining and sterile white room, holding my breath. Oh.

Monitors in every direction gave the surgeon and attending nurses every possible view. D. easily explained the purpose of every piece of equipment in the room, but I simply stood staring, mouth agape. Here, I thought, was true drama. Here is life and death, all in the trained hands of the OR staff. In my mind’s eye, I could see the bustle, see the health care team in intense concentration, see the patient lying on the table in the center of the room.

The nurses of this hospital make one-chance-only, life-changing decisions every day. What YOU do changes lives, saves lives, and touches many, many hearts. In more ways than just with surgical tools.


I get it. I understand now—why all of you, the nurses, are so amazing, and what an important message we, the writers, have been given to carry.

I hope you will all enjoy reading the nursing annual report when it comes off the presses in May as much as we were honored to write it. Thank you.