They weren’t spells exactly, more like medical recipes where plants were the ingredients. Simples, these recipes were called. The name intrigued me as much as anything else, the way it subverted the familiar, stripped the messiness of life and disease down to its barest, most tangible elements. Carry a string of flowers to keep infection at bay. Pick roots, leaves and berries during the full moon but for herbs wait until the darkest crescent moon, when they’re most potent. To ward off danger, wrap a wolf tooth in a marigold petal and stick it in your pocket. What could be more simple?
This was privileged, pre-internet information, the kind covered in library plastic that looked animal-scratched. I think you’d agree that I wasn’t a spooky kid, just your everyday Disney lover who walked with a congenital limp and whose tastes had predictably darkened after earning an undergraduate minor in creative writing. I had moved home when I found out you were sick, one of my few possessions from that old life a copy of a book about ghosts in the Middle Ages. OK, maybe I was a little spooky.
The real draw of those suburban library books may have been that they gave me an excuse to copy things into my notebook, to write without having anything to say. Most of the stuff was pretty drab. There’s something on one notebook page about the welfare of a tree being related to the health of a person. I recognize the handwriting all these years later, but I can’t actually remember writing the words Tree Voodoo beside a giant asterisk. Flying ointment appears at the bottom of one page, underlined by an arrow straighter than any arrow I ever remember drawing. It directs me urgently to the next page where I learn, or relearn, that wild angelica protects from bubonic plague and that Asclepius, the God of medicine, deflowers virgins and then turns them into vegetation.
There was no treatment or cure for what you had, not even any known causes. And you already needed so much help: a straw for your coffee and someone to pour it; to be pants-ed every time you had to use the bathroom; to be fed cans of Ensure through a feeding tube. It was only going to get worse. Your muscles were wasting away. You’d always been the one to help me, and I didn’t know if I was physically up to the job, brushing your teeth, helping you shave, getting on your BiPAP. I’d be your caretaker? With these shaking hands and clumsy limbs?
My bright idea was to sprinkle you in rosemary or make you chew bay leaves, like we were going to pop you in the oven.
As for my own plant-based experimentation, I stuck to my friends’ pot. A couple hits and I was gone. I backed Rex into a retaining wall and knocked off the driver’s side mirror, rolled down the window to find it was dangling by a cable, though the accident had more to do with my terrible motor skills than any substance. I was awful behind the wheel.
You weren’t going to have the car repaired. “Rex is yours now.” Your newly husky voice underlined each word the way an autumn breeze can make a person take note of every fallen backyard leaf. “You take care of it.” You had wanted to name me Rex, and when Mom said no, you saved the name for almost twenty years, refusing to give it to unworthy Pontiacs and dogs, until your dream car came along: a 2001 Lexus LS 430.
“Not getting it fixed?” I asked. “Dad, you love that car.”
“And now I’m passing it on,” you said. To destroy, you didn’t add.
“Fine,” I said. “But if I get a ticket you’re paying.”
This was a little joke. I was twenty-two. You paid for everything anyway.
I tried duct tape and superglue on the mirror. Neither worked.
The only solution was to get a job, make some money, and pay a body shop to fix it.
College graduate, meet new employer: the mall.
A friend from high school had become the assistant manager at a store on the upper level of an outdoor mall downtown that sold day planners. You liked the idea of me working there, having operated out of a day planner (compact, burgundy, nothing inspirational) for most of your professional life. My lyrical cover letter, recycled from an application to intern at NPR, had been so wildly off-base, my friend told me on my first day, that her boss had almost rejected me, thinking my overblown tone a warning sign.
I borrowed your button-down shirts for shifts and you reminded me how to tie a tie. I planned to have the mirror fixed in a month, but I didn’t make much money. No one bought day planners anymore, a fact my friend had neglected to tell me because she hadn’t needed to. September rolled into October and corporate started cutting shifts. I had to work more and more at night. That meant I spent more and more time wandering the store alone, a blond kid with a kinked knee looking every inch the returned missionary I wasn’t. I tried to stay busy. I even tried to read the self-help books the store sold. They were about how to manage people and why one should respond promptly to emails. I put them down after a couple paragraphs and stood behind the counter practicing my signature with fountain pens.
I found Wortcunning’s Secret Property of Herbs in the gardening section of the library. If the book had been properly shelved in Witchcraft or Spirituality, I might not have checked it out. I told myself I still wasn’t the sort who spelled magic with a k, who went for homeopathic detoxes and crystals. Before closing one night, I trudged out from behind the cash register, book in hand, and plopped down onto a footstool, my spine a gentle s-curve in the storefront glass, my shoulders hunched, one leg bent gamely beside me, the other straight out in front. Management didn’t like us having anywhere to sit and I could only lean against the counter for so long before my legs started hurting.
Using a notebook from a store display, I scribbled down the names of plants I’d never heard of, what they did and what they could be used to treat. Deadly nightshade took up half a page, dog’s mercury another half. At the end of my shift I locked the double doors and slipped the day’s take into a safe in the break room and drove home with my hand out the window, holding the broken side-view mirror.
In the morning, you were waiting for me when I came into the kitchen. Mom must have helped you out of bed and wrestled off your BiPAP. I made coffee and poured you a mug and poured myself orange juice. I found you a straw and got the paper from the driveway and laid out the sports section, reading over your shoulder.
We shaved with your electric razor. You stretched your upper lip over your teeth and lifted your chin so I could run the vibrating claw over your neck.
You asked when I was getting off work. We had our support group at seven. “I’ll be home in plenty of time,” I said. I clicked off the razor and started tying my tie in the mirror.
“Too short,” you said.
By the time I got home from work, it was almost six-fifty. You were sitting right where you’d been that morning, the sports section spread in front of you. You couldn’t turn the page, though you wouldn’t admit it. Maybe you’d gotten used to having stories cut off mid-sentence.
Mom had dressed you and combed your hair, like she’d done for me when I was a little boy, and hooked you up to the BiPAP. The last time I’d helped you shower, I had turned off the water to hunt for a towel. When I came back, you were shivering. “What’s wrong?” I’d asked. I didn’t understand your response. “What? Can you say that again?” This time you spoke clearly enough for me to comprehend. “I’m cold.”
We’d both been ashamed of my stupidity. We were both relieved you were showered and dressed and ready to go to group. I tucked your day planner under my elbow (it was my job to carry it now) and turned off the breathing machine.
We went to the bathroom and you told me to put your sunglasses on the floor.
“Here?” I asked, placing them atop a shaggy pink bath mat.
You knelt down and propped your elbows on your thighs. With what little strength remained in your arms, you scooped the sunglasses crookedly onto your face. You were proud of your ingenuity. It was good to see you smile, those big coffee-stained teeth.
“You are insane,” I said, straightening the glasses on your nose.
I was ashamed to have you ride in Rex, it was so messy, a bowl of stale oatmeal at your feet.
The support group was in the basement of a church. We were late but people were still going around the table saying where they were from and why they were here. After every terrible thing they concluded, “But we’re hanging in there.” I thanked God none of them thanked God. I’d seen that before at the groups. People who talked in terms of blessings were just trying to find another way to say how ripped off they felt.
When it was your turn, you introduced us. Head down, my leg went stiff under me, my toes crinkling in my shoe. I pressed a fingernail into the leather of your day planner so I didn’t have to look at everyone nodding like they understood. You dressed in the same khakis and tasseled loafers you’d worn to work my whole life.
Talking at a whisper was the equivalent of shouting for you now. I marveled at your jokey aplomb. You were used to sitting in conference rooms, being the boss. You were still handsome, maybe even more handsome than you had been before you’d begun losing weight, and you could still make people laugh. “Like a dad from TV,” my friends called you. I wanted to scream at all the families around the table just barely holding it together. This wasn’t a basement. It was a crypt.
“The feeding tube’s helping,” I said. “But he’s having to spend a lot of time on the machine. I guess he’s been pretty air hungry.” It was funny sitting at table and summing up, in two words, how you would die: air hunger. You would suffocate slowly, breathe and breathe and still not get enough air. “But we’re hanging in there.”
At the end of the meeting you made me stay and fold chairs.
Getting ready for bed that night, you asked if I was dating anyone and I got my laptop and showed you the profile of Cheetahboy, a mechanic from Ogden who had stood me up the other night. One of his pictures showed him in a tucked-in American flag shirt and a cowboy hat. In another, he was straddling a chair in his underpants.
“It looks like that guy has other intentions,” you said.
What frustrates me about reading my notebook now is also what I like about it. It’s not a diary or a blog. It’s not funny or touching or sad. It doesn’t even have basketball scores. It doesn’t even have feelings. It has simples. That’s it. Could there be anything more twenty-two than that? One of Mom’s grocery lists from that year would be more revealing. I was your artsy son, your middle child accumulating gibberish in a Moleskin while the world fell apart around us. I wanted to tell our story from the perspective of a day planner and a notebook, my bum leg and your failing diaphragm. I wanted shortcuts, magic. Some of what I wrote down I didn’t bother to look up. I’ve only just learned that stolon means stem and lumens are the hollow spaces inside stems. Under lumens I scribbled “entheogens—the god within,” but I had no idea what entheogens were. I still don’t.
Helping pack up your office, I came across a list on a yellow legal pad you’d written when you could still write. No. 1 was You don’t have to make the last dollar on the deal. No. 5 was Get over it.
At clinic, I thumbed through out-of-date magazines fanned on the table until a nurse called us back to another, smaller waiting room that made me claustrophobic. I turned to the back of your day planner and quizzed you on our social security numbers and frequent-flyer miles.
A nutritionist came in and asked you to step outside so she could put you on a scale. I stayed, not wanting to walk by a woman in a wheelchair. The woman was staring at the wall beside your door, groaning. The blanket wrapped around her had partially fallen off. I tried not to think she was crazy. What came out of her mouth was a jumble of letters, impossible to decode. She covered one eye and then the other. It took me another minute to understand that she was reading from an eye chart.
A respiratory therapist knocked on our door and popped her head into the room, greeting you by name. She clipped your nose shut and had you blow into an electronic spirometer, essentially a stopwatch with a mouthpiece that measured the strength of your breath. I stood there thinking, “Blow! Blow!”
“OK,” she said. “Good job.” She looked discouraged and told us what we already knew: you weren’t getting enough air. It was nearly time for you to go on a respirator.
You blew again.
I wanted to rip the spirometer from her and blow for you. You, the guy who clipped my toenails until I was twelve and helped me put on socks. The guy who took me skiing and hiking and to play night tennis at the club. “Like this!” I wanted to say. “Do it like this!”
Another readout, another discouraging smile. She gave you a hug and hung your charts on the door.
I thumbed through your calendar.
“How’s it looking?” you asked. Besides a birthday you’d filled in at the beginning of the year, the dates were blank.
“We can squeeze it in,” I said. I penciled in trach for the middle of next week.
Two days before you were scheduled for surgery, I found you panting on the edge of your bed. We tried taking deep breaths together. When that didn’t work you told me to call an ambulance. “Are you sure?” I asked, thinking, idiotically, of how expensive it would be. “We could just drive.”
Paramedics arrived. “Up here!” I said.
They tried to lay you down and I told them that you couldn’t breathe that way. They made a chair for you out of two transfer boards and took you down the stairs and out to the ambulance, Mom climbing in after you. “Don’t forget the day planner,” she told me as a paramedic slammed the door. The sirens started up and the dogs whined at the back fence. I went upstairs and changed into a new shirt and jeans and drove Rex to the ER. I didn’t bother trying to keep the broken side-view mirror from thudding against the door. I kept remembering the paramedics’ blue latex gloves on you.
They only let a few of us back there at a time. When it was my turn, I pulled away the curtain and saw your bloodshot eyes, the tube down your throat. I had no idea why no one put a blanket over you, or why you were as naked as a corpse. The attending physician explained that you had been sedated before you were intubated. The tracheotomy wouldn’t be performed until Monday. This was her word, performed, like you were part of an act, the magician’s assistant about to be sawed in half.
I left my notebook in Rex, in a pile of trash on the passenger seat. A spot of mustard obscured something about chrysanthemum and clover. A water stain smeared the cure for dropsy, and I would have had a tough time convincing you to try the recipe for levitating. It called for opium poppies, agaric mushrooms and toad skins to be administered with a special dildo or broomstick.
In rehab, your roommate was worse off than you. He wanted more and more morphine, already turning into a fiend. He’d skied into a tree or he’d hit a tree coming down the canyon after skiing. It was hard to piece together what was going on. His girlfriend didn’t say much. She just came and sat by his bed and tried not to cry. His family drove down from Idaho when he turned twenty-one and filled the room with balloons. Twenty-one. He was younger than I was.
You turned fifty-five a couple days later. I didn’t bring up any balloons. There were enough of them drooping around your roommate.
I installed myself in the chair next to your bed and woke up an hour later to the sound of your favorite nurse singing “Happy Birthday” in a creepy whisper. I didn’t join in. I thought it would depress the crap out of you to have the two of us leering over you. When she finished, she deflated the bubble at your neck, your cuff, so you could talk. Then she left the room.
“You really crashed,” you said in your new wind-swept voice.
I stretched and got up to pee. The view out your window was of other windows, a brick wall and a gravel roof with little white domes letting off steam. When I got back from the bathroom, I sat down again, raked my hand through a cowlick, and leaned my chair back onto two legs. In the process, I almost knocked over a basket of daisies and filler flowers perched on the sill above the radiator, no doubt someone’s last-minute purchase from the gift shop.
The daisies reminded me of a plant I’d written in my notebook, nosegay. What a word. I liked the thought of noses floating around, looking for wonderful-smelling flowers to make them gay. Unfortunately, there was nothing gay about the daisies before us now. Having spent too long being preserved in a refrigerator, they were wilting at an accelerated pace. “Water them anyway,” you said. It was winter in the valley below us. Nothing would be coming out of the ground for months. Our noses would have to be gay without you.
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