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“Can you do it better?”
“Yeah, she’s creepy.”

“Ugh, this bitch again?”
“She scares me!”

“Mrs. Crack? Mrs. Crack?”
“Are you crying?”

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I no longer sleep for more than three or four hours at a time. My hands swell, my palms turn blue. I’ve gone off bananas.

(I used to love bananas)

My hips throb, the skin beneath my underwear looks cross-hatched and puckered like a honey-baked ham bursting beneath it’s netted bondage. “I need bigger underwear.” I scold myself silently. “Granny-Pants, methinks.”

Sigh.

My hair has grayed. My chin’s been hacked, tampered with, duplicated in some twisted, Russian nesting doll scheme. My vision blurs while tears pool in my eyes.

“Are you crying, Mrs. Crack?” the littlest students wonder aloud.

“No, I’m dying.” I think ruefully.

Instead I reassure them. “I’m only smiling!”

Oh, how my teeth ache.

“Your last wisdom tooth here on the upper left is coming through!” the dentist states. I shrug. “It’s trying to.” I’ve had wisdom teeth brewing and bursting for the past twenty-three years.

(None of which I want pulled out, thank you very much)

Naturally I want to keep all the wisdom that’s due me.

I trudge to work each morning early, early, there in the frosty stillness, my bra pinching my shoulders, my too-tight underwear buffeted with pee-pads.

I enter each school repeating my mantra, “Smile, Smile!”

Yet the students sigh as I walk through the door. I am not their teacher, merely a teacher. Disappointment rebounds off their smooth, tender faces. It slides right off, down to my feet.

“Wrinkles are simply crevices where our disappointments dwell!”

I want to cackle this thought in a crazed, falsetto voice, like Meryl Streep in Into the Woods. Because it’s true, isn’t it? And levity becomes necessary when one’s presence is disquieting.

Regardless, I don’t say or sing anything at all, because here my inside voice is not sought. I use my teacher voice, instead.

One afternoon I find myself reading aloud to a group of sixth grade students. Their class novel is an intricate, twelve-person murder mystery that I am wholly unfamiliar with. Nonetheless, I enjoy reading, so I commence, liking the sound of my voice, the feel of the old-fashioned paper, the weight of the words wafting down onto all those blooming brains like so many strewn dandelion seeds.

Suddenly a boy raises his hand urgently, grunting, as if he needs the loo.

“Yes?” I pause to peer at him politely over the rim of my readers.

“Uh, I know you’re just a sub…” he begins, “but can you do it better?”

The question stumps me.

“Read better?” I ask, incredulous.

“Yes. Ms. Arlington reads the characters with their actual voices and stuff. So if Turtle’s talking, it sounds like Turtle. I mean, you’re reading and everyone just sounds the same…”

“Can you do it better?”  

“Well, Riott,” I remove my glasses to fix upon him a death stare accompanied by an enormous fake smile. “The truth is I actually cannot do it better. I am, as you noted, a substitute teacher which means, if I could do it better, I would be a full-time teacher. One with health benefits, a retirement plan, paid leave. So, No, Riott, Mrs. Crack cannot read better.

And with that I begin to read aloud again. With just one voice.

My own.

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Meanwhile, far from me, down by the sea, Mr. Rafnel’s voice is disappearing.

A wise, old man, he can now rarely, barely find the words he so longs to say.

Or rather, his brain can’t.

Mr. Rafnel is my mother’s partner, and he suffers from Alzheimer’s. Bill can no longer dress himself,  prepare any food, find a chair without help. Thoughts and words circle about his mind as if ensnared within a great, thick fog, which only lifts now and again for a few moments at a time.

A former navy chaplain, at one time Bill Rafnel sailed all over the world comforting the wounded; he was a baptist preacher who grew up listening to his own father preach, a little boy secretly launching paper airplanes down from the choir loft mid-sermon. Mr.  Rafnel was a renowned weaver, his colorful art featured in magazines and showcased within the Weaver’s Barn at the Antique Gas and Steam Museum in Fallbrook, a repository of American craftsmanship which he himself began. An overwhelmingly friendly and patient guy, Bill Rafnel had a formidable intellect and a constantly curious spirit, and as such his hands were rarely idle…he was known to stretch leather to make his own spirit drums, or whittle pan flutes which he then lovingly played to his dogs.Bill4

Now here I am –  in town to visit and help, and on this day, Bill sits, unaware who his own parents are, even though he’s staring directly at their portraits. Bill3He has no recollection that the beautiful tapestries gracing the walls are his. “I’ve forgotten everything I once knew,” he says quietly – a moment of painful clarity.

Just then my mother passes by in front of him.

“I know her,” he says, pointing.

Then he looks at me. “I don’t know …”

He has no idea who I am. Nor do I anymore, if truth be told. Lately it’s as if I’m a whole new person. Someone with gray hair who rises at 5am and abhors bananas.

“I’m Kristy,” I say. “Mary’s daughter. Mark’s sister. I’m here to visit.”

“Hello,” he says, as if we’re suddenly meeting for the first time. “I’m Silly Billy.”

He waves hello to me then – grinning wildly, laughing like a little kid.

*****************************************************************************

A man from Hospice arrives early Monday morning to help Bill shower.

Bill wants no part of it.

“Never!” he shouts, clearly agitated. “President!” he rages, as if he is one and we should all back away.

Mark, my mother, the hospice worker labor to get Bill into the shower. They lather shampoo on his chest, over the top of his head.

But Bill shouts again, bolts out the door, flees, naked, down the hall.

“Please, Bill, we need to rinse you off!” my mother begs. Drama ensues in which several grown people try to get an old, sudsy man back into the shower, frantically rinse soap from his eyes.

Bill wobbles and yells, surprisingly strong but unnervingly unsteady on his feet. Angrily he shakes, muttering incoherent pronouncements.

Somehow, amidst this chaos, Bill is cajoled back into the shower, washed and dried, plunged into fresh clothes, till finally led to a comfortable spot on the couch.

Now he sits, stiff-backed and shivering, obviously agitated.

The scene is heartbreaking. My mother and brother are overwhelmed by the sheer physicality of caring for him. Daily they are left grief-stricken by his loss of ability, agility, agreeableness. And here I am, with no idea how to help this once bright, bold man, now seeming so scared and confused.

I go to the piano, open the hymnal, begin to play. Hymn after hymn I sight read, plowing my way through the liturgy.

After a bit, Bill begins to hum along. He knows most of these hymns by heart. Or he did. A preacher’s son, a clergyman by trade. I keep playing.

My blue hands now sore and stiff, I pause at the end of a hymn, holding the notes with just the foot pedal. As if on cue, a booming voice calls out, clear and loud, “And now, I’d like to say a few words…”

From his spot on the couch Bill begins to preach. “In the beginning…and then…and….”

These are the only words he’s able to find, yet he stares bright-eyed and smiling at his imaginary congregation. Quickly I begin to play again.

But it’s enough.

More than enough, actually, to lighten our load, ease the mind, soothe the soul. The purpose of a sermon, in a nutshell.

Bill and I sing a few more hymns together, both of us transported through time. I go back to that quiet, quiet girl of long ago; the one who loved reading but hadn’t yet found her voice; a mere dragon of a child, all scales and scorn, not yet realizing she might actually breathe fire. He travels to a small church in Iowa, to sit in the pew where a young boy sings with his most treasured possession – his voice! – so confident, so carefree – until running to bob his toy sailboat atop the waters of his father’s sacred baptismal font.

There in the living room on a warm Autumn day the two of us let our inner voices come out to play.

Loud and proud.

Riotous – nay rebellious, indeed.

Fully alive.

Not yet extinguished. Bill2

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“Can you do it better? 
No, he’s forgotten
Ugh, where am I again?
This scares me
Silly Billy? Silly Billy?
Are you crying?”

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