Sarah lifts the axe and then strikes. With a single hit, the log splits and is ready for the wood stove. She’s got a rolled cigarette or maybe a joint hanging from the corner of her mouth. She blows out smoke and puts another log in position. She is the queen of multitasking and survival. There’s a sense of ease to everything she does. Calmness. With not much more than a tent, she spent a year up there solo, probably knowing that the right people would follow or find her.
It’s several acres of land and somewhat off the grid. There’s a mailbox and a long dirt driveway that wasn’t always there. But those of us who stray off course always find a home again. Up in northern Vermont Sarah and Michael, my boyfriend’s parents, created a spot that welcomes all and makes it easy to escape a world where it’s all too common to forget what’s important. My heart and my future are in these woods.
Slim wants to mark his territory next time we’re up there. When he says this I think of Sunny, the Old English Sheepdog who slurps from any unattended coffee cup before venturing out and freely marking his territory. Slim’s idea is a little different. He wants to pick a spot to start building our own cabin. He says he’ll get a job at the general store in town and daydreams about simplicity.
By the time we move, our children will be older. We imagine them stable and successful. Our home will include rooms for them. The front door won’t have a lock. Slim is ready to call it home. I tell him it will be. I say I’m all in. But nothing is that simple.
Our five-year plan has turned into a three-year plan. Slim’s job as a welder is wearing on him. He wonders how long he can keep at it until the labor takes a harder toll. Already he aches. His feet have swollen, now needing wide-width shoes. Sometimes it’s everything that hurts, but he doesn’t complain too much to me.
Pain is an almost constant aspect of my life. Eight and a half years ago, I came down with MS. It was an aggressive first attack that caused more than thirty lesions in my brain and twenty down my spine. I was in the hospital for months as doctors did their best to halt or slow this degenerative disease from taking me quicker than it will. Doctors weren’t sure how much of my life I would regain. Driving, working, walking. I lost two of the three. My ability to walk can go with an MS flare, always for longer than I want, with no guarantee of coming back.
In Slim’s future I don’t get sicker. A wheelchair in the corner is more of an extra seat than a future necessity. We have a pack of dogs and we name them all Sunny just in case we can’t tell them apart. We share the land with a pot farm and walk to the stream to fill jugs of water. He knows I won’t make it to the stream. He knows I can’t carry a jug of water back. He knows I will never chop wood like his mother. He says these things don’t interrupt his dream. We’re still going, he says.
But I’m not in Vermont. I’m on the 11th floor of the Farr unit at Boston’s Beth Israel. This is where doctors examine, monitor, and bandage up brains. A nurse comes in with medical proxy forms. This gives Slim the right to make decisions for me when I’m too far gone to make them on my own. Under final wishes he puts that I want my entire body donated to science, everything that’s left after my organs are sent off on life-saving missions. These sort of things are just good to have, the nurse says, like it’s nothing. She signs them as our witness and I quickly forget her name, but it feels like slim and I are medically married. This gives him the same rights over my healthcare he would have if he were my husband.
Slim says he’s got everything under control while I’m away. I worry about that. The doctors are saying I might need weeks of rehab to walk again. I’ve been through this before, but it’s new for Slim. He knows I’m sick, but watching it all in the test tube of a hospital is quite different. Visiting hours end at nine. He’s coming back tomorrow. I’m sure there’s a plan to come every day, but sometimes plans don’t work out.
Whenever I need to take a deep breath, I read Elizabeth Bishop. Always Sestina. My right leg has gone numb, and I wish I had the book with me. There's a constant tremor in my left hand that came with the onset of MS and never went away. I can’t get it to calm. Panic makes it worse.
I close my eyes and hear the sound of my own voice reading Sestina, but even my memory is muffled. I am prisoner to a hospital bed and sponge baths from nurses. I feel like at any moment things could get really bad. That’s not usually what is happening. Doctors call them flares or attacks. Everything depends on what part of my brain is under attack. Sometimes things can go back to normal or a baseline. But this is a cruel and unpredictable disease.
Symptoms of my condition can come and go. If they don’t go within three days, I call my neurologist. If everything is going well, I see him twice a year, have two MRIs a year, and go into the hospital for an infusion twice a year. I also take a bunch of pills. I remember living differently as much as I remember the Bishop poem right now. The almanac knows what it knows. A grandmother’s tears make the stove top sizzle, probably as she searches for the holes in memory. We all become pieces of ourselves, and the tea kettle whistles. I think it’s raining, but maybe it just feels that way. We are planting our tears.
Before the five-year plan and the three-year plan, there was a thirty-day plan. If I am hospitalized for more than thirty days, we’re breaking up. Sometimes when things break they can’t be fixed. I’m one of those things. A long hospital stay could easily mean I won’t be coming out the same. Even though Slim googled MS and says people can live long great lives with MS, my son told him I’m right, and I don’t always bounce back. My son has seen me suffer since the start. Slim agreed to our thirty-day plan at first, but now he doesn’t want to let go. Before leaving the hospital, he holds me for longer than usual. I whisper twenty-five more days. Stop, he says.
Slim leaves the hospital before I want him to. They’re not really strict on visiting hours, but that doesn’t seem to matter tonight. He walks out of my room and then down the long hallway. I imagine he turns around at some point and looks back. His eyes are buttons. He stands in the path. I draw him there. I remember him there. I’m not sure he is there.
Slim turns forty in a few months. The start of a mid-life crisis has him frantic for new directions, but all that has been put on hold just to be with me for now. I wonder how far I can make it on his journey. I don’t want to let go either.