Brevity Eighteen

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By Richard Terrill

“Life used to be fun,” my mother says a few days before her eighty-ninth birthday. “Now it’s shit.”

It’s hard to argue with her. Her memory is such that she asks me questions and by the time I answer, she’s forgotten what she’s asked. Our conversations take on an Abbot and Costello circularity. Suddenly disagreeable, she starts every sentence with “but.” She no longer remembers my father, and calls me by my brother’s name.

“You just have to get out of bed and start your routine.” I tell her. It’s a lame proposition, I know.

“Why?” she asks.

Her contradictions, out of character for the person she used to be, are now the most rational feature of her discourse.

“I just want to be somewhere where I can help someone,” she says.

She will never help anyone again, not even herself.

“I’m trying to be a person.”

I walk her down to the lunchroom of the nursing home and sit with her next to her roommate “What’s-Her-Name.” Six months older than my mother, roommate Mabel has a broken knee that will now never heal, and a mind as cloudless as a mid-June day.

“When we got the farm, I cleared sixty acres of rocks,” Mabel tells me. “Sixty acres. . . . But I loved it.

“This?” Mabel adds. “It’s a hell of a life. But as long as I have my wits about me, I’ll get by.” I’m thinking that Mabel needs someone to point to who’s got it worse than she does. Maybe we all need that.

After lunch I leave my mom and drive for the woods. I’ve forgotten my fishing gear back in the city, but on Audie Lake I paddle my kayak on a day that’s a poster for Wisconsin in early summer. Wild irises are in bloom wherever sun hits the shoreline. Water lilies. The lake with many bays and inlets I can explore. There are no cottages; there is no development to mar the shore. There are two skiffs fishing, some kids laughing at a campsite out of view, a mother bald eagle tending her nest on a dead tree, wary of my little boat. Otherwise, only me. I drink two cans of beer in the sun and get delightfully toasted. I’m happy to forget who I am, one week before solstice, that mid point. It will be the longest day, but the hottest weather comes in July.

I load my kayak atop my car for the drive home. There in the sand of the parking lot is a painted turtle, just more than the size of my hand. She doesn’t move, though I could touch her with my paddle. Could kill her. Except I love turtles, love all creatures of the lake and its shore.

What is she doing here, seeing me, yet not moving away? Is she lazy, like me, avoiding something, enjoying something else? No, she’s laying eggs. On this one day when something in the water or the air or herself tells her it’s time.

She makes a kicking motion to cover the hole she’s dug, then ambles off, her shell pieces of a puzzle, black lined by orange, flash of orange from her underside. A yellow line along each cheek. Her legs ancient skin, sinuous. She can smell the lake and knows which way to go.

She’s crawling through a parking lot, so I step behind her to quicken her pace. I follow her all the way back to the water, which she crawls into the way someone tired might crawl into bed. She is beautiful to me. There is no way those eggs will ever hatch, ever bring forth life.

Heading out of the woods and on my way home too, six more times I stop my car, hurry turtles out of the sand, in the middle of the gravel road, before they’re run over by some driver who doesn’t care.


Richard Terrill is the author of a new collection of poems, Coming Late to Rachmaninoff, winner of the Minnesota Book Award; and three books of creative nonfiction, including Fakebook: Improvisations on a Journey Back to Jazz and Saturday Night in Baoding: A China Memoir, winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Nonfiction. He teaches creative nonfiction and poetry writing in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

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