A year ago, I began writing again. I mean the type of writing that isn’t limited to texts to set up meeting times with friends or the email to the teacher explaining the kids won’t be in school because we’re all covered in lice. Instead, I started actually observing the world around me, remembering forgotten stories, and putting them down on paper or on the screen.
I began writing with Terri Trespicio and her Sprinters, groups of fellow writers who meet to hone their skills through positivity, ecouragment, and comfort. Through these groups, I was introduced to the NYC Midnight writing contests. I was dubious: paying to write an assignment some person would judge? It's been a long time since I was in school, but this sounded a bit like the work I'd done when Mom was setting my bed time. But as I put on my bathrobe and heard random medals from half-marathons clink together from their spot hidden on a shared closet hook, it occurred to me I paid to run races for the joy of racing. Exercising the mind is just as important as exercising the heart. One might argue they are one and the same.
The thrill of digging in a flower bed or changing up the planting scheme is a mere idea when the snow is sitting heavy on the tree branches. Really, the thrill is in the doing, in the solving of a problem within a set of constraints. In the garden, it’s finding the right combination of a plant that likes the sunlight that kisses that part of the garden with a plant that will enhance the view—and maybe provide pollinators a place to alight. The winter gives me time to mull over the season that was and to plan the season that is to be, but I also want to feel the accomplishment of the doing. Somehow, shoveling the driveway just doesn’t scratch that itch.
Enter the NYC Midnight contests, a veritable word garden design problem. Throughout the year, the contest offers authors a chance to write pieces in different genres, of various word lengths, and with required elements scattered therein. Really, it’s the practice of creating a product that meets set constraints that satisfies the garden thrill I’m lacking when the sunlight is making the the ice droplets glisten and cold temperatures point me back to the kitchen’s warmth and the cup of coffee that’s waiting on the island.
What’s exciting about the writing contest is the format: entrants are given a short time limit to complete the assignment. It’s design and puzzle solving with a finish line. I’ve stumbled on to the mish-mash of garden design and road races without knowing that this is what I was looking for.
Most recently, I entered a 2,500 word short story contest and then waited. Then forgot I’d signed up for the contest until the week it was announced I was assigned a ghost story that had to involve a roommate and oversleeping.
Here, then, is my winter antidote to road race and garden design withdrawal.
Light of Mine
Marti startled awake to the penetrating blue eyes boring holes into her own sleep-deprived, green eyes. The faint odor of urine assaulted her nose and a blaring alarm that failed, once again, to wake her up before this now ritual morning awakening.
“Your light doesn’t shine.”
“Not at,” Marti glanced at the phone whose alarm was sounding, “7:50! We’re late!”
“Your light doesn’t shine.”
“Lele, I don’t have time for that. Scoot. We are late for school. Shower. Quick.”
Marti rushed through the new, but becoming familiar, routine of showering quickly, eating cellophane wrapped breakfast, and racing to their respective schools. Lele’s pre-school teachers were far more accommodating to the tardiness than Marti’s community college adjuncts.
“Marti, can we see Mama today?”
Water was dripping down their faces, rinsing off the last of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo from both heads. “Um, I don’t–”
“Daddy said we should.”
Marti slipped and caught herself on the shower wall. “Oh, honey. Were you dreaming again?”
Humming to herself and smiling, Lele began to get out of the tub. “No, Daddy and I were talking this morning.”
Marti shut off the water then reached for a towel. She realized she was drying Lele off harder than necessary, frustration finding its way into her fingers. The harried mornings were normal for Marti before she’d moved into Lele’s house, but explaining a father’s death was not getting easier with repetition.
“Lele, your daddy is in heaven. You can’t talk to him.”
“Uh-huh. Your light doesn’t shine. Daddy’s light shines.”
Helping Lele step into her striped leggings and pull on the pink fleece, Marti scanned the room for an outfit for herself and hoped she’d managed to properly pack up her bag the night before.
“Daddy told me we should visit Mama.”
“Not now, Lele.” Marti scooped up the little girl in one arm, flung a backpack over the other, and paused at the counter. “Do you want a peanut butter granola bar or the chocolate chip oatmeal bar?”
“I want Mama.”
Lele ran down the hospital hallway, oblivious to the sanitizer smells, the hushed tones of nurses at the station, and the despair that seeped out from the rooms she passed. Marti dragged along behind, wiped out from a day of excuses and pleadings for deadline extensions. Instructors were as conciliatory as possible given the circumstances, but Marti couldn’t tell just how long she’d be given. At a certain point, life around her would no longer give her the grace family deaths grant. She might be struggling to comprehend a brother’s death, a sister-in-law hooked up to machines, and whatever a Peppa Pig is or why she’s remotely interesting, but those excuses—valid though they were—wouldn’t last a semester.
“Daddy, let’s sing. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”
Lele’s voice, in the sweet toddler tones that might not be pitch perfect but drip with sugar, rang down the hall. Marti slumped in embarrassment, waved a wordless apology to a nurse who gave a kindly smile as she padded past, and made her way into the room.
“Lele, who gave you that sucker?”
“Lele, stop telling fibs. I’m not your mom, but I am an adult.” Marti didn’t add, “at least to you if no one else.”
Anger formed on the sweet face, and Lele looked far older than her almost four years allowed. “I’m not. Daddy gave it to me. Tell Marti, Daddy. Tell her!”
A chill swept up Marti’s back. “Daddy isn’t coming back, Lele.”
“Whatever.” Lele sounded like a teenager, not a toddler. Another lick of the sucker and she continued to sing, “Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!” She rested her head on Jeanine’s unresponsive shoulder. “Mama, today we read The Snowy Day. Miss Katy helped us make snowmen. We ripped paper then glued it on to other paper. I named mine Miller for Daddy. I think he’ll like it.”
The way Lele chatted with her mom broke Marti, who stepped outside of the room so Lele wouldn’t see her tears. The doctors hadn’t given Marti much hope when Jeanine was admitted three weeks ago. While the doctors and social worker had asked as compassionately as possible if Marti was next of kin to the shocked Lele, Marti saw them go back to their lives as soon as they turned away when Marti and Lele exited the hospital after the accident. Marti was left in charge of a little girl who didn’t understand her dad was dead and her mom was nearly there. No one seemed to care that Marti was just starting to figure out her own life and was not certain that she should be left in charge with someone who needed meals on a regular schedule. Or that a child needed a schedule, period, and schedules had never been Marti’s strong suit. Routine was as foreign to Marti as knitting a scarf was to a fish. Lele moved through the horror with a knowing confidence that baffled Marti. She was still trying to figure out Peppa Pig and getting two people out of the door on time in the morning.
“Your light doesn’t shine, Marti.”
Dammit. The alarm.
Lele’s piercing eyes awoke Marti in the familiar but still startling way.
“Daddy told me to wake you up.”
Throwing the covers off, Marti looked at the phone. 7:30 was behind, but not horrible. “Maybe we can have cereal this morning. Whaddya say?”
Clapping her hands, Lele skipped to the cabinet. “Yay! Lucky Charms! Lucky Charms!”
“I don’t have those, sweetie.” Marti slumped her way to the cabinet, opening the door while looking down at the annoyingly awake girl. “Honey Nut Cheerios or …”
Lele’s hand reached into the cabinet, “...or Lucky Charms!”
Marti stopped. She didn’t buy Lucky Charms. She replayed the grocery trip in her mind. Did Lele put something in the cart? Maybe. Life was way different with a kid in tow, especially one who was once again singing about her light. She shrugged off the squiffy feeling and thought maybe, just maybe, the two of them would actually see their classrooms on time for the first time since this living arrangement was forced onto them both.
Marti’s cell phone began vibrating as she was about to open the door. Lele was dressed–her hair even up in a pig tails–and Marti remembered to grab her biology book for class. Maybe the Lucky Charms were lucky, Marti thought, as she answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Is this Marti Ardmore?”
“Yes. Lele, let’s head to the car.” Marti realized she was confusing the person at the other end of the line. “Sorry. Who is this?”
“Dr. Arbuthnot from County General. Do you have a second?”
Dread filled Marti’s stomach. “If I said no, it probably wouldn’t change things.”
“I’m afraid not. Mrs. Ardmore’s condition isn’t changing. We’re going to need to discuss how to proceed. I know that this is a difficult situation, but you are going to have to make a decision regarding future care.”
Grayness filled Marti’s peripheral vision as she simultaneously tried to process the enormity of what this doctor was proposing while fiddling with car seat straps her fingers fumbled over. Lele happily kicked her feet back and forth, humming that song, as if her world hadn’t just imploded because of a stupid ice storm a few weeks prior.
“I mean, umm,” stammered Marti, who slammed the back door before sliding into her own seat, “can’t Jeanine just stay put for a while?” Inwardly, she groaned at the way she made the comatose mother sound like an extra jacket in the back of a packed closet.
“In cases such as these,” the measured voice on the other end of the line continued, “we rarely see change. Mrs. Ardmore’s brain is showing little sign of activity. I can imagine this is trying for you, but the fact remains you are the person left to decide the best way to carry out Mrs. Ardmore’s future.” A slight pause. “The best course of action might be to remove life support. Of course, this decision is yours to make. Do you have questions?”
Frozen to her seat, staring out the window at the bleakness beyond the driveway, Marti felt the weight of the call press heavily onto her chest.
“Marti, let’s go! This little light, I’m gonna let it shine! Miss Katy is waiting for me! Let it shine!”
“I’ll think about it,” offered Marti, glancing at the car’s clock. “Crap. Doctor, I have to go. I’m late. Again.”
Marti numbly began her day, dropping Lele off at her pre-school combination daycare. The other latecomers were moms, who despite their haggard hair and clutched coffee cups, still seemed to have their days under control. They were shushing kids to the correct doors, apologizing to the teachers, and returning to the chaos they understood and functioned within. Marti was an interloper here and she felt the pathetic stares as she awkwardly shepherded her new charge into Room Two.
As she drove herself to school, Meat Loaf’s voice filled the car. She and Miller had loved dancing raucously to this song. They might have been years apart, but Meat Loaf’s brash song of teen-age lust amused them both. It wasn’t just their own experiences by the dashboard light, but really at the wit of the song and the way it coursed through your body that made them shout the lyrics when it came on the radio. Miller and Marti would have impromptu dance parties in the kitchen, ignoring Grandma’s pleas to turn that racket down. Marti’s thoughts began to drift and she could feel the vinyl floor under feet, the rhythm between her shoulder blades, when she suddenly snapped to the present. Her foot automatically slammed the brake, avoiding a collision with the car in front of her.
Heart pounding, she looked left. A Miller Plumbing van was in the lane next to her own as the line that made her and her brother laugh the hardest came on, “Praying for the end of time/ So I can end my time with you.”
An eternity later, but really only after finishing classes and picking up Lele, Marti stood at the kitchen sink and stared out at the old silo. The sink, stainless steel, warmed in the hot water now as it did when helping her grandma with dishes. Orange formica countertops were replaced with a more modern mock-marble swirl, but the ageless cookie jar sat in the same spot. Miller had allowed Jeanine to change colors in the cozy room, but one look had silenced her desire to retire the cookie jar.
Strains of British voices floated in from the living room’s tv. She was certain that Miller, would’ve also cringed at the noxiousnous of Peppa Pig and wished he were there to rip on the show so obviously delighting Lele. He’d have known what to do. Miller, not Marti, was the one with his act together, who had saved the house from foreclosure when their grandma couldn’t work anymore. The field was tinged with the late day glow from the setting sun and Marti saw two doe on the edge of the cedar swamp picking their way through the corn. One looked up and returned Marti’s gaze even though it couldn’t possibly see through the window. Still, Marti felt her soul opening to this creature as she worked through what she knew was the decision Miller would make. Silently, and without moving her eyes from the doe he’d have shot swiftly during hunting season, she dialed the doctor’s number the doctor’s to begin the end.
Marti’s hand reached for the phone next to her bed. 8:00. There was no need to rush. The decision had been made. Schools would wait, so early or late didn’t matter this morning. Marti rubbed her eyes before it occurred to her Lele wasn’t the one who woke her. She pushed her hollow legs over the edge of the bed and forced herself to face the strangely absent girl.
She could hear Lele talking as she made her way down the stairs. “Does Mama really have to go, Daddy?”
Marti slowed her steps, could hear Lele sniffle a little, the chink of a spoon on the bowl.
“You have to go, too?”
Marti was afraid to open the door at the bottom of the stairs. Her hand reached out to touch the cone-shaped, brass handle, and stopped. Miller’s presence filled the air, surrounded her. She heard the clunk of the cookie jar lid.
“Marti will shine for you, Lele. You have to keep teaching her. You two will make it.”
Confusion and irrationality at hearing Miller’s voice forced Marti to turn the handle, throw the door open, and expectantly look towards the cookie jar for her brother to be leaning against the counter as he had her entire life.
Instead, sunlight from the bay windows flooded the room, washing out the contents’ outlines, blurring where one object ended and another began. The first rays of sun glistened off of the snowy fields and the dining room glowed so brightly Marti’s eyes squinted in pain. A powerful energy flowed through Marti, glued her to the old shag rug, and wrapped her up in an invisible, but very palpable, puffy jacket. She knew her path without understanding how and the knowingness seeped from the hug into her gut.
Marti turned to look at Lele and whispered, “You know what we have to do today, don’t you?”
Sad eyes turned down and Lele nodded. Marti asked, “Did Daddy explain it to you?”
A single nod.
Tears of loss, of frustration, of fear for the future streamed down Marti’s face. She knew that this final trip to the hospital would haunt her for the rest of Lele’s life, the life she had to now protect without regard to her own.
Lele drank the sugary milk from her bowl, put it down, and got up from the table. “Marti, it’s going to be ok. He told me so.”
“I know you know,” Lele grabbed Marti’s hand and led her to the bedrooms to get dressed. “Your light is starting to shine.”