Poet’s Choice: The Story Behind “The Light”
When I was growing up, my family always kept a pitcher of orange juice in the refrigerator. This was the 1960s, when frozen concentrate ruled, and we always had a few cans in the “icebox,” as my dad still called it. And every morning my dad or I made sure a can had been defrosted, and every night we checked to make sure the pitcher was in its spot, on the fridge’s top shelf. It wasn’t because we had an abnormal fondness for oranges; it was more a matter of life and death. My mother, a diabetic since childhood, could go into shock at any time, and a glass of orange juice seemed to work best at righting her blood sugar.
Shock sometimes came when she tried to do too much, or when she waited too long to eat, or sometimes if she was late with her daily insulin injection—small mistakes that could have a big impact. I had heard the story of how, when I was a baby, my mother fell into shock while on the living room sofa, and the only thing that saved her was when the neighbors found me on the front lawn in a soiled diaper, something they knew she would never allow when well. When she went into shock, sweat soaked her body, and her mood changed—her normally easy laugh would change to a bite, or she would get as silly as a drunk. I was an only child, and I became the backup to my father. I learned at any early age—10? 11? 12?—how to give her insulin when my father wasn’t around: 4 units lente, 2 regular, make sure to tap the syringe and release any air bubbles that could travel to her brain. It became a normal part of life.
But it wasn’t really normal. Over time, as I graduated from high school and went to college and graduated from college and found a job, the diabetes took its toll on my mother: her diminishing sight was finally extinguished, her compromised immune system allowed infections to take the inner workings of an ear, and ultimately a leg. She became the focus of our attention, not just because we wanted to help as the disease progressed, but because we admired the way she endured: Never giving up, never succumbing to sadness and depression, refusing to become the “poor blind woman.”
My mother died in December 1993, a few weeks after her leg had been amputated because of a staph infection, and my father passed a month later from liver cancer. Following their deaths, I thought of them both, but more and more I thought of my father. He had been in the background, helping, administering, supporting. I wondered what it must have been like for him, the fear he must have felt sometimes when my mother went into shock, the heaviness of responsibility to have her life in his hands. I remembered one story in particular, how he had awakened one night to find my mother covered in sweat—the dye in her nightgown actually seeped into her skin—and when he roused her and tried to help, he felt as if she were a long way off. She kept saying she “saw the light,” presumably that pathway to the afterworld, and all she wanted him to do was hold her. I thought of the uncertainly and sheer terror he must have lived in that night, how small he must have felt, how the relief must have spread through him like floodwater when she made it through. Those thoughts led to a haibun, “The Light,” which was first published in the December 2010 issue of Haibun Today. Rather than a piece about fear and suffering, though, it became a paean to love and hope, and to how even though life may have its way with us sometimes, we can endure by focusing on the smallest things, and simply doing the next right thing.
I see the light—there, she whispered. They were sitting upright in their bed, pressed against each other, under a skylight of stars: Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, Polaris. Her curly hair lay matted to her forehead, and her purple gown, sweat-soaked, clung to her body; tomorrow they would find it had dyed her skin lavender. The skylight angled outward, and night sounds filtered through the screen. There, she said again, pointing. He followed her finger to the bedroom corner. Through the mottled dark he saw only vague outlines: the overstuffed armchair, his pants and polo shirt on the chair’s back, the afghan she had made for him on their first anniversary. But no light. His stomach collapsed and he clutched her tighter. On the nightstand, a half-empty glass of orange juice, far below the stars.
between this world and beyond insect songs
She grabbed his t-shirt, pressed her matted hair into his chest. Hold me, hold me. Her body trembled for a few seconds, and her breathing sounded as loud as a waterfall in the still room. His own breath was quick and ragged, and his heart seemed too large for his chest. He reached for the glass of orange juice and brought it to her lips. She drank, and he returned it to the nightstand. Usually one glass was enough to right her sugar, but not this time; she was already on her second, and heading for a third. I see the light. She had never said that before, not even in the worst of the clammy, shuddering reactions. He thought of all the times he had poured her orange juice, had fed her hard candies and pretzels, had sat with her waiting for her blood sugar to return to normal. Then he remembered the first time he had to prepare a needle for her, drawing in the insulin: four lente, two regular. He had tapped the syringe furiously, desperate to make sure there were no bubbles that would rush to her brain. He had swabbed her toughened arm with alcohol, and when the needle entered her skin he gasped. She had laughed, called him a worrywart, a ninny, a love. I see the light. He wanted to call 911, to speed her to the emergency room. But every time he moved for the phone, she let out a sharp cry and clutched him: Hold me, just hold me.
far-off sirens the blood that pulses through us
Finally, midway through the third glass of juice, she grew still. Her grip on his shirt relaxed, and her breathing steadied, grew less loud. As it did, his own breathing quieted: the orange juice had done its job. Again. This time. He focused on her breaths, the way each tickled the hairs on his chest. He counted each movement, and began to time his own breaths with hers. This is what their world had become: a tangle of limbs, a tickle of hairs, a patch of stars too far away. He looked at the corner, at the vague shadows. Her breathing held steady, and his didn’t waver. You worrywart, you ninny. He felt the tickle again on his chest. You love. For now, it was enough. He closed his eyes, put his cheek against her forehead. He smelled the damp of her hair: soap and apricots and the coming summer. He stared at the stars. He waited for dawn, its first faint glow. And he held her. He held her.
oranges in morning sun behind the rind the light