Today all the snow is melted. I enjoy seeing the patchy new grass even as I dread the enormous work of spring — weeds everywhere in the yard, in the herb garden, between the rocks on the path. My back has been hurting for a solid month. One doctor stretched my leg into the air over her shoulder. Another gave me pills to relax the muscles, but I slept so deeply and with such poor posture that my back hurt more in the morning. I roll myself over a big pink gym ball. I use a battery-powered massage pillow. When the massaging motor hits the most painful spot, I say, Ow, out loud. My two dogs sit in front of me and watch as though this were a game. Whenever I say, Ow, they tilt their heads. A friend tells me, Back pain is always anger. I don’t believe him. Maybe, though, grief settles in the muscles there. That, I could believe.
My father once told me that people with blue eyes have a greater tolerance for pain than brown-eyed people. His irises were icy blue. I think he meant only physical pain. After my brother died from cancer at the age of nineteen, my father was devastated. They had been a pair, he and my brother, doing everything together. A former police officer, my father started looking for companionship at cop bars in Jersey City: Darts. Big German steins. Songs of heartbreak on the jukebox. An Irish flag over the mirror. One night a TV news crew from New York City came to the bar to do a story on a set of triplets who were all patrolmen. I watched the segment on the evening news at six. While the triplets talked about their boyhood dream of being police officers, my father laughed in the background, obviously drunk.
A few years later my father called his old partner on the force, Lenny, and asked for a ride to a rehab in Lafayette, New Jersey: a pleasant town with pine trees and big homes. My sister drove my mother back and forth to visit him. I was living in Baltimore, Maryland, at the time but promised to come to the family discharge meeting at the end of the month. Meanwhile my sister sped over the hilly roads to the rehab center in her convertible Camaro. She was very dark eyed. I guess her pain tolerance was low. Once, she was stopped by cops who asked, What are you — high? She wasn’t.
Before my brother died, he was sick for almost five years. My mother spent days, weeks at his bedside in the hospital in New York City. The room had a view of the East River. She liked to look out at the water and the tugboats with a big M painted on them. Years later, while working as a nurse, I took care of the man who owned those tugboats: Mr. McAllister. He was small with wild white hair and blue eyes. He almost never asked for pain medicine. When he did need it, I gave it to him intravenously. While we waited for his pain to ease, I would massage his feet, which were thickly callused and cool to the touch. He sometimes giggled as I put my hands on them. He died in his semiprivate room, a pastel curtain pulled around his bed, a tiny TV mounted above him. He died while his boats moved upriver, pushing barges filled with garbage.
To help pass the hours sitting in a chair next to my brother, my mother took up needlepoint. Sometimes she crocheted. She made a red-white-and-blue afghan for the Fourth of July. She embroidered Christmas ornaments. My sister joined her, and then I started embroidering, too. Working without a pattern, I stitched a hawk on the pocket of all my nursing scrubs. I embroidered the poem “Desiderata,” by Max Ehrmann, for my boyfriend: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, / and remember what peace there may be in silence. . . .” When I think of those years, I think of my brother lying on his side, one hand holding the rail of the bed, and all three of us — my mother, my sister, and me — working needles in and out of cloth.
My friend Joe, the one who says back pain is always anger, lives in a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in Ovid, New York. He and his brother have built a distillery on the land. Sometimes at night Joe goes into the cavernous room filled with stainless-steel kettles and copper tubing and plays the violin. He films himself and sends the video to me. The best Thanksgiving of my life was one I spent with friends at his farm. That Wednesday we walked in the fields behind the house. He had a cow with a cancerous eye. Its head was so large it filled the kitchen window. Joe’s water was from a sulfur spring, and when I took a bath in it, my silver rings turned black, but my skin was as smooth as a kitten’s fur. Joe baked bread, filling the house with the smells of yeast and rosemary. He played the piano. He made an abstract painting of his farmhouse: white and light-blue swirls, with just the suggestion of the house, as though seen through a cloud.
On Thanksgiving Day my friend Rachel and I picked up twigs and leaves in the yard and made napkin rings from them. She’s Italian, with dark eyes and curly hair. We put three tables side by side to make one long table, which we covered with bedsheets. After supper we sang and played a game where we tried to guess the definitions of unfamiliar words. I slept in an old brass bed in the room where Joe kept his paints and canvases. There were sketches of cows and of nude women and one of a nude man. I dreamed I was holding a paintbrush over a jar of turpentine, worried the paint would dry before I could clean the brush. In the morning a kitten jumped onto the bed and woke me by purring in my ear. My right hand was numb from holding the brush in the dream.
The year before my brother died, I lived in Virginia and dated a vegetarian with long, wiry hair that stuck out from his head when he didn’t braid it. His name was Rick, and I thought he looked like Jesus Christ, whom I’d had a crush on as a young girl. Rick and I hiked up to Crabtree Falls early in October. The leaves were outrageously red and yellow, like crayons. It took us four hours to get to the falls. Tired, we sat next to a sign warning that five careless hikers had died so far that year. I really want some Kentucky Fried Chicken, Rick said. We laughed, and he rolled over and kissed me. I closed my eyes and saw the face of my brother in pain, a big tube in his kidneys, another in his chest.
Four months after my brother’s death, I took a train from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was April. The ticket cost $119 round-trip, and it took three days to get there. We had a stopover in Kansas City, Missouri, from 11:30 PM until 5:00 AM. Everyone had to get off the train, and the conductor advised us to buy a snack before midnight, when all the vendors shut down. I was embroidering a blouse with a scene of a mountain and an oversized sun. I sat in the station with my backpack between me and the seat so no one could steal it if I fell asleep. After a few minutes a man came over. He had red eyes, dark skin, and only three teeth, all in the front. He said he’d fought in Vietnam. He asked me to buy him some liquor. I put the wide needle through the sun and told him to watch my embroidery hoop while I went and got what he’d asked for: the bottle with the rose on the label. I was nonjudgmental in those days and filled with cheer over my train trip. I came back and found him smiling and rubbing his finger over the raised threads on the blouse. I stayed awake all night while he drank and then slept with his head next to my leg. He roused when the train came in at five and waved to me as I boarded it. I remember thinking I couldn’t wait to tell my brother — which I immediately realized was impossible.
At the family meeting when my father was discharged from rehab, I tried to support him. My mother and sister expressed anger, which I feared would start him drinking again. I told him I loved him unconditionally, but I also asked why we weren’t enough. I know you loved Johnny, I said, but why aren’t we enough? He just shook his head with a combination of shame and bewilderment. He was wearing blue jeans and white sneakers that looked new. We took him home after the meeting. My sister and my mother sat in the front of the Camaro, and my father and I squeezed into the back seat. My sister took a curve too fast, and the wind blew our hair into our faces. I glanced at my father, who gave me a raised-eyebrow look. I laughed. So did he. We were back. That quickly, the family was reassembled. Except now there were just four of us.
The first time I snorted cocaine was off of a Jesse Winchester album cover while I was living in Virginia. I didn’t feel anything. I said to my friend Sandy, I don’t feel anything.
She nodded as though she had expected this. Let’s go to Cabell Hall, she said.
Old Cabell Hall was the music building at the University of Virginia. You could rent a room there with a baby-grand piano in it for three dollars an hour. We drove my green Chevy Nova. When I pulled up outside the building, I said, Wow, I never really thought about how many leaves make up a bush. I had brought a Bruce Springsteen music book, and Sandy had some crocheting. I sat at the piano and was able to play all fourteen pages of “Thunder Road” without a mistake. Sandy was making a large lace square from narrow blue thread, and her fingers moved with lightning speed. She looked up at me without stopping. So this was cocaine.
When I moved back to New Jersey, just three months before my brother died, Sandy gave me the blue lace square. It was too small to be a tablecloth, so I draped it over my nightstand. I would carry it to all fourteen states I have lived in since.
My father needed a way to fill his days during his recovery. First he collected baseball cards. Then one day, in the hobby store, he picked up a mosaic kit. Over the next year he covered everything in the house with little tiles: tabletops, wastebaskets, a lamp, a wooden box I’d gotten for high-school graduation. I was living in New York City at the time and would come to visit him and my mother. Once, when my father picked me up at the train station, he said, Wait till you see what I made for you.
Impatient, I replied, Tell me, tell me, but he insisted it was a surprise.
When we got to the apartment, he held up a National Geographic cover with a photo of an eagle flying over a harbor in Alaska. Got it? he asked.
Got it, I said.
He led me into the guest room. There, he said, and pointed to a framed object about three and a half feet high and two and a half feet wide. It was a mosaic replica of the National Geographic picture.
Wow, I said. Really? Wow. Thank you, Dad.
He said he’d drive me home with it the next day: You’d never get that on the train.
He was right. It probably weighed forty pounds. We laughed while my mother watched from the doorway. She looked grateful. She looked relieved.
When I was four years old, I asked my mother for a little white cardboard box, the kind you might get a pair of earrings in. She gave me one, and I found a navy-and-white hair ribbon and cut a piece of it and Scotch-taped it to the top of the box. Then I picked out a dark-blue crayon and drew a design beside the strip of ribbon. I gave the box to my mother, who saved it for many years before finally giving it back to me when I turned forty. You were so proud of that thing, she said.
I still have the box. I like to think of my four-year-old self designing it. Before my mother gave it to me, she put a dollar bill inside with a note: Johnny found this in the ocean, 1961. I was five that year, and he was three. Our two childhood selves in a little white box.
I brought the forty-pound mosaic with me every time I moved, to all fourteen different states. It was so heavy there was no wall I could safely hang it on. So I would prop it in a corner of a room, or sometimes in a closet. Hundreds of tiny, meticulously arranged squares depicted the water, the eagle, the mountains. A series of lovers helped me load the mosaic in my car after we broke up. Maybe these men didn’t love me anymore, but they still liked me enough not to make me carry that thing down a flight of stairs by myself.
After about ten years I started to resent the mosaic. My father would sometimes ask if I still had it.
Oh, yes, of course. Yes!
Once, it sat in a corner for so long that a spider made an intricate web across the back. When I went to move it, the threads stuck to my fingers.
Recently I went through a box of old letters I had saved. Some were from chemotherapy patients I’d treated, most of whom had died. Others were from homeless men who’d lived in a shelter where I’d once worked. A cocaine addict had written a poem for me titled “For Nurse Angel, Mary Jane.” He liked to rebuild vacuum cleaners and wore a maroon smoking jacket he’d found in the trash. The poem was rhyming, almost a ballad. I could imagine a cowboy singing it. Reading it, I thought about that time I had snorted cocaine from an album cover and driven to a piano studio on campus, and how much fun it had been. Then I thought of this man’s life, so many men’s lives, destroyed by drugs. I was lucky in more ways than one, I thought, as I read their letters to me.
When winter comes to Montana, and the cold and dark settle in to stay for months, I like to make earrings. This year my larger dog, Maisie, hurt her tail. The vet showed me the place where her tail was damaged and prescribed an anti-inflammatory. Maisie cried incessantly. I sat up with her from midnight until 6 AM. She pressed her restless body against my leg, and I made thirty-seven pairs of earrings. My hand was cramped from twisting the wire. By sunup Maisie’s second dose of medicine had kicked in. I had covered the pill in peanut butter, and she’d eaten it from my hand. Her tongue was hot. I could see trust and pain in her amber-brown eyes. Her warm tongue undid the cramp in my hand.
The last needlepoint project my mother worked on was an oval tablecloth: cream-colored with intricate brown and beige flowers. After my brother died, she put the unfinished cloth in a plastic bag in her dresser. Twenty-two years later, after she had died, I asked my sister if I could have it. My first winter in Montana, I finished the embroidery, carefully matching the colored threads at the craft store. Five years later I gave the tablecloth to a friend who’d let me stay with her family for two weeks while I’d healed from a hip replacement. This year, at Christmas, I ate dinner with her and her husband and their two sons at a table covered by that cloth. My mother’s hands were there with us, in the stitches. The friend’s younger son was the age my brother had been when he’d died.
My father had long fingers and curly red hair on the back of his hands. His nails were hard and clean. I have a picture of me when I was just three months old holding on to his finger. In another photo, taken when I was seven, he is standing next to a porch railing, leaning against the post. I am on the step next to him. We are holding hands and smiling at each other.
After my father died, my sister and I went to clear out the storage unit where we’d been keeping, among other things, 425 slides of great paintings, 55,000 baseball cards, 17 boxes of mystery books, a chair and a small white bench my father had made for me, and the giant mosaic of the eagle over the water. We divided the cards between two friends whose sons were collectors. My father had them meticulously boxed and labeled: Topps, 1977, Full Set. Fleer, 1984, Full Set. We had pulled a dumpster over to the storage unit so we could toss anything that needed tossing. I dropped the mosaic of the eagle into the dumpster. It hit the metal bottom with a crash. My sister gasped. You’re throwing that away?
I nodded and said, I hate that thing.
She looked worried. But Daddy made that for you!
Yup, I said. And he knows I loved him. Do you want it?
She gave no reply.
I asked my father once if he was afraid to die.
Hell, no, Mare, he replied. It’s the next great adventure.
Hours before his death, I was sitting with him when an old high-school friend of his came to visit. Doesn’t he have beautiful hands? she said. Everyone always said the Nealon boys had the most beautiful hands.
I was holding his hand later, waiting for him to leave us, when I thought of him making that mosaic for me. I pictured him selecting the colors to represent the water, the eagle, the sky, the mountains. I imagined him pressing each tile into the grout, making sure it was in just the right place.