*painting by Liam Golden www.liamgolden.com
The plastic basins sit in the sink. I would say “kitchen sink” but there is only one sink, spring-fed, in the cabin my father and uncle built with their friends on the first backwater of the Cheat Lake in West Virginia almost 50 years ago. The basins are now used to soak crusted egg off the white plastic plates with their pea green and yellow floral design. The plates, like the colored glass lamp hanging over the table and the embroidery of mushrooms on the wall, are relics of 70’s beer and cigarette bacchanals, before us kids, when the place was still called “Mecca South”.
The basins, however, date from the early 90’s, and before they were used to soak breakfast dishes they were used to collect my father’s excess bodily fluids, mostly bloody phlegm, as I recall, brought up by long bouts of a painful, hacking cough.
They came from Ruby Memorial Hospital, and are still, 24 years later, the easily identifiable (at least to anyone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals) hospital pink that they were in 1993. My memory of my father’s facial features has faded more- much more- than the color of these plastic basins.
The pink is very tasteful, actually, which surprises me when I go back to the family place once every year or two and re-discover them. One of my aunts built a house on the property and lives there year-round now, and the past few years my cousins have been bringing their small children for impromptu family reunions. I always find the basins still here and notice again that the pink is not a bubble-gum pepto-bismol pink but rather a dusky, purplish-pink, somewhere between blush and bruise.
That summer, the summer of ’93, my father was hospitalized for a month (or a little more? or a little less?) with a septic knee infection (I think this is what it was? All I really knew at the time was that the knee was the size of a grapefruit, and it was very serious). My older brother was in Mexico visiting Aunt Julie and Tio José, and my mother, panicked and doing a less expert job of hiding it than she generally did, mostly stayed at the hospital. That left me largely at the cabin with a dumb Brittany Spaniel named Calvin and a field mouse-obsessed orange tabby tomcat named Popcorn, listening to the same mixtape cassette (Duran Duran, U2, SWV), or top 40 country music on the radio, eating toasted and buttered english muffins when I got hungry. I also learned how to meditate by following the instructions in a worn paperback called “Yoga Meditation” which I had purchased at the used bookstore in Morgantown. The cover had a photo of a lady in a white leotard with long blonde hair sitting in lotus position with a tall candlestick burning in front of her.
I would walk the narrow path hacked into a ridge of the steep hillside, following the shoreline of the backwater below, until I got to what I had designated as my meditation spot; a boulder protruding out over the long drop to the lake, with a small, quiet stream running beside it. I would sit cross-legged, close my eyes most (but not all) of the way, count and concentrate on my in-breaths and out-breaths, and try to notice my thoughts as they came up and dismiss them, like blowing a soap bubble out towards the lake, watching it drift and pop. My favorite type of meditation was 360 degree listening meditation. I focused on individual sounds, and then gradually learned to notice them together, to be aware of the spontaneous symphonic qualities of sound. The stream running close by on my left, stillness as it fell over the ledge and the splash on the rocks below as it continued on it’s way down to the lake. Wind in the thick, bright green foliage all around me. A cricket somewhere behind me. a distant jet-ski’s roar and stop. An outboard motor idling as someone pulled into a shady fishing cove on the opposite bank. loud laughter from the Graziani’s dock, echoing over the backwater. The hum of a plane overhead. By the time I was back at the cabin, changed into my bathing suit, and wading, then diving into the cool, sun-dazzled green water of Cheat Lake, my mind was often nearly empty. It may not be an accurate recollection, but I do not recall feeling lonely or scared.
At some point, after maybe two weeks or so, Grandma came down from Pittsburgh to stay at the cabin with me. She brought white bread, chipped ham, mayo and iceburg lettuce. She brought milk and Frosted Flakes. She brought a semblance of normalcy, and a flurry of activity. To every day, it’s project. We hiked up to the bright, sunny pastures at the top of the property to pick blackberries. Grandma with a kerchief tied over her silver hair. We tried our hand at fishing from the dock. We collected firewood. We built a “handicapped ramp” up to the front porch of the cabin out of clay that I dug out of the lake by the bucketful and large flat stones that I dug up all up and down the shoreline, and hauled up the path in a little red Flyer wagon. Grandma explained that the ramp was because my father was going to get out of the hospital and come back here, but would have no flexibility in the knee, and would certainly be using a walker or a cane, if not a wheelchair. I see now that my grandmother conceived of this project as a way of occupying my time and distracting me, as a way of giving me some structure (little did she know I had done fine without it), and to give me Optimism writ large, as a concrete thing I could feel and hold, even build myself, one stone, one handful of wet clay at a time.
Optimism was sort of a moot point for me, though. It really did not seem conceivable to me that my father would die. When I was near him I was enormously, inarticulately concerned with his suffering. I felt his suffering physically, in my own knobby, twiggy wisp of an almost-pubescent body. But at that time his death, his inevitable death, for a full-blown AIDS patient in 1993 had virtually no hope of survival, simply was not real to me. His death belonged to the realm of impossible- I should say impermissible– things, and so did not concern and pre-occupy me as it has off and on in all the years since it did occur.
When Grandma drove down to West Virginia from Pittsburgh and hiked in to the cabin with groceries, straining to haul her petite body over fallen trees that blocked the path, she may have brought, tucked in with the groceries, a fashion magazine. I can’t remember, but it strikes me as likely, because both my mother and my grandmother bought me fashion magazines as a form of reward or comfort. My mother always gave me the hulking behemoth September issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Grandma may have brought me the July, or the new August Vogue.
Decades later, it is with the eyes of an aesthete, a now confirmed devotée of Fashion (studied at Parsons, apprenticed to a bespoke tailor, etcetera), as well as for many years a practicing visual artist (Junior year of college painting in a Paris Atelier, etcetera) that I see the darkish pink of these hospital spittoons in the sink. I think, “I would like a linen dress in that color. A cashmere tunic with big pockets and a scoop neck. Silk lounge pants. Suede high-top sneakers.”
I am well aware of what they are and how they came to be here. He did insist on leaving the hospital, despite the doctor’s warnings that it would kill him. As my mother never tires of reminding me, I get my stubborn, bullheaded streak, as well as my temper, from him. My father came back to the cabin on an old pontoon boat, ferried in by loyal, deeply good, gutter-talking, chain-smoking, large, loud-laughing mountain neighbors who had known him since he was a child and loved him. He used the ramp that Grandma and I had built. He was not well and I distinctly remember him, after having insisted on going out sailing and getting caught in a storm (that stubborn streak again- Death be not proud!), lying on the sofa under an electric blanket and a couple other blankets, shivering, irritable. I lay down beside him, put my arm and leg over him, and lay my head on his bony, caved-in chest, determined to give him whatever warmth I had.
We returned to Boston when the scent of Fall was on the air, just in time for the start of school. He survived for almost two more years after that summer; an incredible feat considering that he had no functioning immune system of his own at that point, only a sister who was a blood match, and who was willing to have white blood cells sucked out of her body and pumped into his body to buy him a little more time.
Sometimes I think any normal family would get rid of those pink plastic basins. But then I realize that “normal” doesn’t mean anything. There is no “normal family”, just as there is no “normal person”, no “normal life”.