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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Feraco Building Vocabulary Through Literature 16 July 2013.

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Presentation on theme: "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Feraco Building Vocabulary Through Literature 16 July 2013."— Presentation transcript:

1 A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Feraco Building Vocabulary Through Literature 16 July 2013

2 Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic. Exhaust from the dryer billows clumsily out from the house and up, breaking apart while tumbling into the white sky. Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic. Exhaust from the dryer billows clumsily out from the house and up, breaking apart while tumbling into the white sky. The house is a factory. The house is a factory.

3 I put my pants back on and go back to my mother. I walk down the hall, past the laundry room, and into the family room. I close the door behind me, muffling the rumbling of the small shoes in the dryer, Toph’s. I put my pants back on and go back to my mother. I walk down the hall, past the laundry room, and into the family room. I close the door behind me, muffling the rumbling of the small shoes in the dryer, Toph’s. “Where were you?” my mother says. “Where were you?” my mother says. “In the bathroom,” I say. “In the bathroom,” I say. “Hmph,” she says. “Hmph,” she says.

4 “What?” “What?” “For fifteen minutes?” “For fifteen minutes?” “It wasn’t that long.” “It wasn’t that long.” “It was longer. Was something broken?” “It was longer. Was something broken?” “No.” “No.” “Did you fall in?”… “Did you fall in?”… “I was cutting my hair.”… “I was cutting my hair.”… “Did you clean up?” “Did you clean up?” “Yeah.” “Yeah.” I had not cleaned up, had actually left hair everywhere, twisted brown doodles drawn in the sink, but knew that my mother would not find out. She could not get up to check. I had not cleaned up, had actually left hair everywhere, twisted brown doodles drawn in the sink, but knew that my mother would not find out. She could not get up to check.

5 My mother is on the couch. At this point, she does not move from the couch. There was a time, until a few months ago, when she was still up and about, walking and driving, running errands. After that there was a period when she spent most of her time in her chair, the one next to the couch, occasionally doing things, going out, whatnot. Finally she moved to the couch, but even then, for a while at least, while spending most of her time on the couch, every night at 11pm or so, she had made a point of making her way up the stairs, in her bare feet, still tanned brown in November, slow and careful on the green carpet, to my sister's old bedroom. She had been sleeping there for years – the room was pink, and clean, and the bed had a canopy, and long ago she resolved that she could no longer sleep with my father’s coughing. My mother is on the couch. At this point, she does not move from the couch. There was a time, until a few months ago, when she was still up and about, walking and driving, running errands. After that there was a period when she spent most of her time in her chair, the one next to the couch, occasionally doing things, going out, whatnot. Finally she moved to the couch, but even then, for a while at least, while spending most of her time on the couch, every night at 11pm or so, she had made a point of making her way up the stairs, in her bare feet, still tanned brown in November, slow and careful on the green carpet, to my sister's old bedroom. She had been sleeping there for years – the room was pink, and clean, and the bed had a canopy, and long ago she resolved that she could no longer sleep with my father’s coughing.

6 But the last time she went upstairs was weeks ago. Now she is on the couch, not moving from the couch, reclining on the couch during the day and sleeping there at night, in her nightgown, with the TV on until dawn, a comforter over her, toe to neck. But the last time she went upstairs was weeks ago. Now she is on the couch, not moving from the couch, reclining on the couch during the day and sleeping there at night, in her nightgown, with the TV on until dawn, a comforter over her, toe to neck. People know. People know. …I get a popsicle from the refrigerator and come back to the family room. …I get a popsicle from the refrigerator and come back to the family room.

7 They took my mother’s stomach out about six months ago. At that point, there wasn’t a lot left to remove – they had already taken out (I would use the medical terms here if I knew them) the rest of it about a year before. Then they tied the (something) to the (something), hoped that they had removed the offending portion, and set her on a schedule of chemotherapy. But of course they didn’t get it all. They had left some of it and it had grown, it had come back, it had laid eggs, was stowed away, was stuck to the side of the spaceship. She had seemed good for a while, had done the chemo, had gotten the wigs, and then her hair had grown back – darker, more brittle. They took my mother’s stomach out about six months ago. At that point, there wasn’t a lot left to remove – they had already taken out (I would use the medical terms here if I knew them) the rest of it about a year before. Then they tied the (something) to the (something), hoped that they had removed the offending portion, and set her on a schedule of chemotherapy. But of course they didn’t get it all. They had left some of it and it had grown, it had come back, it had laid eggs, was stowed away, was stuck to the side of the spaceship. She had seemed good for a while, had done the chemo, had gotten the wigs, and then her hair had grown back – darker, more brittle.

8 But six months later she began to have pain again – Was it indigestion? It could just be indigestion, of course, the burping and the pain, the leaning over the kitchen table at dinner; people have indigestion; people take Tums; Hey Mom, should I get some Tums? – but when she went in again, and they had “opened her up” – a phrase they used – and had looked inside, it was staring out at them, at the doctors, like a thousand writhing worms under a rock, swarming, shimmering, wet and oily – Good God! – or maybe not like worms but like a million little podules, each a tiny city of cancer, each with an unruly, sprawling, environmentally careless citizenry with no zoning laws whatsoever. When the doctor opened her up, and there was suddenly light thrown upon the world of cancer- podules, they were annoyed by the disturbance, and defiant. Turn. Off. The. Light. They glared at the doctor, each podule, though a city unto itself, having one single eye, one blind evil eye in the middle, which stared imperiously, as only a blind eye can do, out at the doctor. Go. Away. But six months later she began to have pain again – Was it indigestion? It could just be indigestion, of course, the burping and the pain, the leaning over the kitchen table at dinner; people have indigestion; people take Tums; Hey Mom, should I get some Tums? – but when she went in again, and they had “opened her up” – a phrase they used – and had looked inside, it was staring out at them, at the doctors, like a thousand writhing worms under a rock, swarming, shimmering, wet and oily – Good God! – or maybe not like worms but like a million little podules, each a tiny city of cancer, each with an unruly, sprawling, environmentally careless citizenry with no zoning laws whatsoever. When the doctor opened her up, and there was suddenly light thrown upon the world of cancer- podules, they were annoyed by the disturbance, and defiant. Turn. Off. The. Light. They glared at the doctor, each podule, though a city unto itself, having one single eye, one blind evil eye in the middle, which stared imperiously, as only a blind eye can do, out at the doctor. Go. Away.

9 The doctors did what they could, took the whole stomach out, connected what was left, this part to that, and sewed her back up, leaving the city as is, the colonists to their manifest destiny, their fossil fuels, their strip malls and suburban sprawl, and replaced the stomach with a tube and a portable external IV bag. It’s kind of cute, the IV bag. She used to carry it with her, in a gray backpack – it’s futuristic-looking, like a synthetic ice pack crossed with those liquid food pouches engineered for space travel. We have a name for it. We call it “the bag.” The doctors did what they could, took the whole stomach out, connected what was left, this part to that, and sewed her back up, leaving the city as is, the colonists to their manifest destiny, their fossil fuels, their strip malls and suburban sprawl, and replaced the stomach with a tube and a portable external IV bag. It’s kind of cute, the IV bag. She used to carry it with her, in a gray backpack – it’s futuristic-looking, like a synthetic ice pack crossed with those liquid food pouches engineered for space travel. We have a name for it. We call it “the bag.”

10 My mother and I are watching TV. It’s the show where young amateur athletes with day jobs in marketing and engineering compete in sports of strength and agility against male and female bodybuilders. The bodybuilders are mostly blond and are impeccably tanned. They look great. They have names that sound fast and indomitable, names like American cars and electronics, like Firestar and Mercury and Zenith. It is a great show. My mother and I are watching TV. It’s the show where young amateur athletes with day jobs in marketing and engineering compete in sports of strength and agility against male and female bodybuilders. The bodybuilders are mostly blond and are impeccably tanned. They look great. They have names that sound fast and indomitable, names like American cars and electronics, like Firestar and Mercury and Zenith. It is a great show. “What is this?” she asks, leaning toward the TV. Her eyes, once small, sharp, intimidating, are now dull, yellow, droopy, strained – the spitting gives them a look of constant exasperation. “What is this?” she asks, leaning toward the TV. Her eyes, once small, sharp, intimidating, are now dull, yellow, droopy, strained – the spitting gives them a look of constant exasperation. “The fighting show thing,” I say. “The fighting show thing,” I say. “Hmm,” she says, then turns, lifts her head to spit. “Hmm,” she says, then turns, lifts her head to spit.

11 “Is it still bleeding?” I ask, sucking on my popsicle. “Is it still bleeding?” I ask, sucking on my popsicle. “Yeah.” “Yeah.” We are having a nosebleed. While I was in the bathroom, she was holding the nose, but she can’t hold it tight enough, so now I relieve her, pinching her nostrils with my free hand. Her skin is oily, smooth. We are having a nosebleed. While I was in the bathroom, she was holding the nose, but she can’t hold it tight enough, so now I relieve her, pinching her nostrils with my free hand. Her skin is oily, smooth. “Hold it tighter,” she says. “Hold it tighter,” she says. “Okay,” I say, and hold it tighter. Her skin is hot. “Okay,” I say, and hold it tighter. Her skin is hot. Toph’s shoes continue to rumble. Toph’s shoes continue to rumble.

12 …“Would you check it?” she says, referring to her nose. …“Would you check it?” she says, referring to her nose. I let go of her nostrils. Nothing. I let go of her nostrils. Nothing. I watch the nose. She is still tan from the summer. Her skin is smooth, brown. I watch the nose. She is still tan from the summer. Her skin is smooth, brown. Then it comes, the blood, first in a tiny rivulet, followed by a thick eel, venturing out, slowly. I get a towel and dab it away. Then it comes, the blood, first in a tiny rivulet, followed by a thick eel, venturing out, slowly. I get a towel and dab it away. “It’s still coming,” I say. “It’s still coming,” I say.

13 Her white blood cell count has been low. Her blood cannot clot properly, the doctor had said the last time this had happened, so, he said, we can have no bleeding. Any bleeding could be the end, he said. Yes, we said. We were not worried. There seemed to be precious few opportunities to draw blood, with her living, as she did, on the couch. I’ll keep sharp objects out of proximity, I had joked to the doctor. The doctor did not chuckle. I wondered if he had heard me. I considered repeating it, but then figured that he had probably heard me but had not found it funny. But maybe he didn’t hear me. I thought briefly, then, about supplementing the joke somehow, pushing it over the top, so to speak, with the second joke bringing the first one up and creating a sort of one-two punch. No more knife fights, I might say. No more knife throwing, I might say, heh heh. But this doctor does not joke much. Some of the nurses do. It is our job to joke with the doctors and nurses. It is our job to listen to the doctors, and after listening to the doctors, Beth usually asks the doctors specific questions – How often will she have to take that? Can't we just add that to the mix in the IV? –and then we sometimes add some levity with a witty aside. From books and television I know to do this. One should joke in the face of adversity; there is always humor, we are told. But in the last few weeks, we haven’t found much. We have been looking for funny things, but have found very little. Her white blood cell count has been low. Her blood cannot clot properly, the doctor had said the last time this had happened, so, he said, we can have no bleeding. Any bleeding could be the end, he said. Yes, we said. We were not worried. There seemed to be precious few opportunities to draw blood, with her living, as she did, on the couch. I’ll keep sharp objects out of proximity, I had joked to the doctor. The doctor did not chuckle. I wondered if he had heard me. I considered repeating it, but then figured that he had probably heard me but had not found it funny. But maybe he didn’t hear me. I thought briefly, then, about supplementing the joke somehow, pushing it over the top, so to speak, with the second joke bringing the first one up and creating a sort of one-two punch. No more knife fights, I might say. No more knife throwing, I might say, heh heh. But this doctor does not joke much. Some of the nurses do. It is our job to joke with the doctors and nurses. It is our job to listen to the doctors, and after listening to the doctors, Beth usually asks the doctors specific questions – How often will she have to take that? Can't we just add that to the mix in the IV? –and then we sometimes add some levity with a witty aside. From books and television I know to do this. One should joke in the face of adversity; there is always humor, we are told. But in the last few weeks, we haven’t found much. We have been looking for funny things, but have found very little.

14 “I can’t get the game to work,” says Toph, who has appeared from the basement. Christmas was a week ago, and we got him a bunch of new games for the Sega. “I can’t get the game to work,” says Toph, who has appeared from the basement. Christmas was a week ago, and we got him a bunch of new games for the Sega. “What?” “What?” “I can’t get the game to work.” “I can’t get the game to work.” “Is it turned on?” “Is it turned on?” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Is the cartridge plugged all the way in?” “Is the cartridge plugged all the way in?” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Turn it off and on again.” “Turn it off and on again.” “Okay,” he says, and goes back downstairs. “Okay,” he says, and goes back downstairs.

15 …You should see the area where her stomach was. It’s grown like a pumpkin. Round, bloated. It’s odd – they removed the stomach, and some of the surrounding area if I remember correctly, but even with the removal of so much thereabouts, she looks pregnant. You can see it, the bulge, even under the blanket. I’m assuming it's the cancer, but I haven’t asked my mother, or Beth. Was it the bloating of the starving child? I don’t know. I don’t ask questions. …You should see the area where her stomach was. It’s grown like a pumpkin. Round, bloated. It’s odd – they removed the stomach, and some of the surrounding area if I remember correctly, but even with the removal of so much thereabouts, she looks pregnant. You can see it, the bulge, even under the blanket. I’m assuming it's the cancer, but I haven’t asked my mother, or Beth. Was it the bloating of the starving child? I don’t know. I don’t ask questions. Before, when I said that I asked questions, I lied. Before, when I said that I asked questions, I lied.

16 The nose has at this point been bleeding for about ten minutes. She had had one nosebleed before, two weeks ago maybe, and Beth could not make it stop, so she and Beth had gone to the emergency room. The hospital people had kept her for two days. Her oncologist, who sometimes we liked and sometimes we did not, came and visited and glanced at stainless steel charts and chatted on the side of the bed – he has been her oncologist for many years. They gave her new blood and had monitored her white blood cell count. They had wanted to keep her longer, but she had insisted on going home; she was terrified of being in there, was finished with hospitals, did not want– The nose has at this point been bleeding for about ten minutes. She had had one nosebleed before, two weeks ago maybe, and Beth could not make it stop, so she and Beth had gone to the emergency room. The hospital people had kept her for two days. Her oncologist, who sometimes we liked and sometimes we did not, came and visited and glanced at stainless steel charts and chatted on the side of the bed – he has been her oncologist for many years. They gave her new blood and had monitored her white blood cell count. They had wanted to keep her longer, but she had insisted on going home; she was terrified of being in there, was finished with hospitals, did not want–

17 She had come out feeling defeated, stripped, and now, safely at home, she did not want to go back. She had made me and Beth promise that she would never have to go back. We had promised. She had come out feeling defeated, stripped, and now, safely at home, she did not want to go back. She had made me and Beth promise that she would never have to go back. We had promised. “Okay,” we said. “Okay,” we said. “I’m serious,” she said. “I’m serious,” she said. “Okay,” we said. “Okay,” we said. I push her forehead as far back as possible. The arm of the couch is soft and pliable. I push her forehead as far back as possible. The arm of the couch is soft and pliable. She spits. She is used to the spitting, but still makes strained, soft vomiting noises. She spits. She is used to the spitting, but still makes strained, soft vomiting noises.

18 “Does it hurt?” I ask. “Does it hurt?” I ask. “Does what hurt?” “The spitting.” “The spitting.” “No, it feels good, stupid.” “No, it feels good, stupid.” “Sorry.” “Sorry.” A family walks by outside, two parents, a small child in snowpants and a parka, a stroller. They do not look through our window. It is hard to tell if they know. They might know but are being polite. People know. A family walks by outside, two parents, a small child in snowpants and a parka, a stroller. They do not look through our window. It is hard to tell if they know. They might know but are being polite. People know.

19 My mother likes to have the curtains open so she can see the yard and the street. During the day it is often very bright outside, and though the brightness is visible from inside the family room, somehow the light does not travel effectively into the family room, in terms of bringing to the family room any noticeable illumination. I am not a proponent of the curtains being open. My mother likes to have the curtains open so she can see the yard and the street. During the day it is often very bright outside, and though the brightness is visible from inside the family room, somehow the light does not travel effectively into the family room, in terms of bringing to the family room any noticeable illumination. I am not a proponent of the curtains being open. Some people know. Of course they know. Some people know. Of course they know. People know. People know. Everyone knows. Everyone knows. Everyone is talking. Waiting. Everyone is talking. Waiting.


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