Category Archives: My Stories

It’s the Boredom That Kills You, When You’re Dead

Because nobody ever looks at it from the poor zombie’s point of view…

It’s the boredom that kills you, when you’re dead. At first, it’s the claustrophobia of being hermetically sealed in a casket and buried, but that feeling eventually gives way to the illusion of infinite space, which is actually rather pleasant.

Then it’s the soreness of your body’s pressure points against the velvet, until you realize physical sensations are all in your head—a matter of mental habit, as it were, not a response to any external stimuli. Gravity loses all meaning when you have no immediate plans of shifting your weight.

Without fear or discomfort to entertain you, you start thinking about the dirt outside your cushioned time capsule: black, yet honeycombed by trillions of minuscule gaps between granules, the organic matter of grassroots tilled under by the living when they saw fit to keep you in silk, metal, and lacquered wood, and of course worms. You recall the old children’s bonfire poem with the creaking seesaw rhythm:

The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout…

You wish they would. The living are fanatically devoted to organizing their dead things and their living things such that never the twain shall meet. Corpse goes here, worms go there. This ensures you’re completely separated from the outside world, preserved by a rubber gasket from the corrupting, unnatural influence of oxygen, soil-borne microbes, and those card-loving worms—worms which would otherwise be your only familiar company.

Even decomposition is too ponderous to be of much amusement. The chemical breakdown of your formerly vital organs have to make do with whatever air was in the box when they closed it, along with anything that subsequently manages to squeeze inside through structural microfissures and the principle of osmosis.

All of these roadblocks on the way from intact to rotted beyond all recognition buys you plenty of extra time to think up creative new ways of passing the time without sound or motion.

*  *  *  *  *

You wonder how long before you are bone soup in a subterranean mason jar. You wonder if you’ll still be able to think, then.

It already smells like every day of high school chemistry class crammed into one beaker, unstopped and billowing a cumulonimbus cloud of caustic acid gas. You try to mentally separate out the different scents, and discern which parts of your slowly sizzling soft tissues are the source of each. The phrase “methane gas” briefly crosses your mind, but you never paid much attention in chemistry class. You’re certain, however, that this odor is the sort of thing that would inspire a school-wide evacuation, if not a state of emergency for the entire suburb of Mounds View.

Mounds View. A pretty name for a childhood suburb. I believe I lived there, once. You vaguely recall tree-lined streets—the maples, the gracious shade elms. Bicycles in sunlight, sticky forehead sweat, a breeze through the arm holes in your tank top. There is a friend somewhere nearby. You have plans with him—important plans involving hacky sacks or music. His name doesn’t occur to you.

It is a warm sensation, to think of What Was. You continue in this pastime, even as the memories slip away like sand falling off drying swim trunks.

There is a crush. A young lady. Amanda. I still remember that one. You hang on to the scent of her perfume. You can see her face. You notice her eyebrows don’t match her hair color. The old truism about smells being a strong anchor of memory applies even in death.

But that’s enough for now. You’re exhausted by such remembering. Your mental stamina isn’t what it once was. Holding a thought is like holding your breath—which, incidentally, is something you’d like to try doing again, just to see what it feels like. It’s not that you feel suffocated—that feeling has long passed and you’ve grown accustomed to this still, cool airlessness—but you’re curious: would you still know how to breathe? It’s in, out, and repeatthat much you know, any fool knows that—but is there a trick to knowing how deep to go? What if you exhale too much? Would your breath run away then, and would you, if you could, have to go and catch it? It’s been so long, something so simple as breathing seems a calculus.

So exhausting. Stillness is a punishing assault. The black dirt outside has lost its texture, as far as you can recall. You fancy it’s just black, now, or blackness itself, so uniform as to become meaningless—now a negligible topic to think about, at any rate.

Your world is shrinking. Even your thoughts have become too heavy to lift. You drift in and out of sleep—and in sleep, no dreams, just blackness.

And more blackness.

*  *  *  *  *

You awaken to a lightning bolt in front of your eyes. The streak is of a silver so gleaming that it is all you are conscious of. You stare at it without context.

Crack. The lightning bolt grows in length and thickness. It is stationary, not momentary like a flash in a storm, but you are not aware of this incongruity, as you do not remember storms, or weather, or the difference between inside and outside. You are merely transfixed.

Crack. The hole of light in your world-less world rips wide open. Something is jammed inside the hole, something originating inside your own dusty casket and thrusting up into the blinding gash of light above.

It is a sleeve, you realize. Sleeves come with jackets. You follow the sleeve in your mind’s eye to its owner.

It is your sleeve. It’s your jacket. Yours is the sleeve—perhaps with an arm inside?—reaching through to the light above. You peer deeper into the great streak of Whiteness before you. Is there a hand up there, in the Light, attached to the far end of the arm in the sleeve that evidently belongs to you? It’s too bright up there to see whether.

Just as you decide you would like to take a closer look, the entire world goes White.

*  *  *  *  *

The next thing you’re aware of is the existence of form in the Light. Forms circle you, morph slowly. They are Rorschach ink blots, have no names or precedent, are like Darkness in hue but not tone.

A music box begins to play in your memory, and your memory is inside your body. I have a whole body, you recall. You do not think about what shape it’s in, or that it has been buried for who knows how long, but you realize you can control it with a mere thought. The realization is exhilarating.

You test your certainty: Bend, you silently command, to no body part in particular. A knee bends and bangs against the oaken cover of your casket.

Bend louder, you command, still not clear how this works, but eager for more. An arm crashes upon the surface of the casket, snapping it in two. The oaken pieces fall about your lap. You look down at your legs. You realize you have been sitting up. Did I emerge from somewhere?

“Rise.” This time a sound accompanies the command: your very voice, fallen to disuse and in need of a tune-up, rising up from your rib cage and into your skull and, presumably, into the Whiteness out there and all around you. You clatter up to what you approximate to be a standing position, and as you do so the Whiteness begins to fade and contrast with itself. Curving forms become vague flora, like giant broccoli, and straight lines emerge as imposing three-dimensional structures.

I know this place, you realize. This is What Was.

To be continued?

“My tears watered my mother’s corpse.”

My tears watered my mother’s corpse. She was in her nursing home gown, the blanket pulled up to her waist. Her head was tilted to one side, her mouth open, her tongue visibly swollen as it had been in her last days. I wailed long, natural wails. Such a reaction I had not expected to rise out of me.

After a minute or two the crying and wailing subsided to sniffles. I turned around, looked about the room. I caught sight of a small placard on the shelf among her meager final belongings. It read, “Love conquers all. Virgil.” It had hung in her apartment a few years. I picked it up, placed it on my mother’s breastbone, and looked at her again.

A nurse had placed a teddy bear beside her previously. I don’t know whether my mother would have approved of such a sentimental measure. She was 70 at the time of her death. Would she have deemed it humiliating, condescending, clueless on the part of the nurse? In life my mother was a Sherman tank, at times. I chuckled at what she might like to say about her current predicament. A bringer of war has no need of a teddy bear, you moron, you imbecile. You are below me. Maybe she liked the teddy bear. But what did she care now. This tawdry arrangement of limbs, linens, child’s toy, and placard was for the mewing psychological requirements of we the living. At least she had the word “conquer” now on her chest. That would be acceptable under any circumstances.

The curtain was pulled around her nursing home bed for privacy. The effect was of a makeshift mausoleum. A pop-up tent for dead people to be humiliated beneath the gaze of their ungrateful, semi-estranged offspring. You mourn me now, vile children. Your display of grief is a lie. Where were you when I needed you? We were off avoiding you, Mom. None of us could stand you. Don’t forget who turned away whom. I’m not lying. Damn you, you wretch, you train wreck, you twisted mass of nature, I grieve you.

You blind archangel. Flaming sword of Quixotic justice. Stoker of fires for hot air balloons, crucible of my armor. I grieve you.

The wailing started up again, then subsided after another minute. I hung my head. Suddenly I felt to make sure she was actually dead. I needed to be sure. Sure enough, the skin on her hands and face was lifeless. I’d never felt a dead person before, but I could tell. I listened for breath. Nothing. I sat perfectly still and watched her chest: the placard didn’t move. I was sure now. I stood up. Watched her a minute or two longer. Snapped a morbid photo. I do not apologize for this last measure; I have only one or two of her from when she was alive. Dead Mom, living Mom — I’ll take any photo I can get.

The whole affair lasted not ten minutes. I backed away slowly. Turned.

Walked out.

World So Sweet

As I rummage through the ephemera my mother left behind (journals, art, receipts, psychiatric prescriptions, etc.) I remember a prayer we used to recite before dinner:

Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything.

My mother didn’t make that up. “World So Sweet” is a folk prayer, i.e., the original author is unknown. You can speak it or sing it. My mother and I spoke it.

Continue reading World So Sweet

My mother died yesterday morning, June 18, 2012 at 8:10 a.m.

My mother died yesterday morning, June 18, 2012 at 8:10 a.m. The world was unworthy of her. Please read this tribute I wrote yesterday evening, and please feel free to share, re-post, or copy-paste this tribute elsewhere if you are so moved. I want everyone to know what kind of a woman my mother was. I want everyone to know she existed. I want everyone to know what she was up against.

In Memoriam, Ann Conley, Jan. 14, 1942 – Jun. 18, 2012

My mother was raised at knifepoint — or might as well have been. My mother’s mother once chased my mother through the house with a butcher knife. My mother hid under a neighbor’s porch until her mother’s psychotic episode passed.

My mother also saw her father “bloody the walls with” her mother.

The rest of my mother’s 70 years as a physically manifested human were an epic war against the demons that forever and ever laughed in her beautiful child face.

She wasted little time. At age 18 my mother escaped from Upstate New York to New York City and held secreterial jobs throughout the 1960s, back when they were still called secreteries. My mother’s favorite companies to work for were advertising agencies.

She drank a lot. Married a lot. Four husbands, all told. Had a son and a daughter in Connecticut with her first husband. She didn’t believe herself fit to raise them, so she abandoned that family when her son was 12 and her daughter was 8. That ate at her forever.

Later my mother married an engineer — brilliant by all accounts — and they drank and rode motorcycles together.

In 1976 my mother had a vision. She saw the ghosts of her dead relatives, including her mother and grandmother, as well as Jesus and maybe the Virgin Mary. I’m not sure about the details. The ghosts asked my mother whether she wanted to live or die. My mother chose life, and never had the desire to touch alcohol again.

She moved to Michigan and joined A.A., which became her religion and her family. There she found her purpose: helping drunks get sober and stay sober, or, barring that, giving them her time and support and physically sheltering them from harm. A.A. gave her a sense of belonging, the feeling that she was needed, and a made-in-America theology that she could accept. It also gave her her third husband, and that man became my father in 1980.

My mother and father moved to Upstate New York. The two of them loved madly and argued terribly. In 1981 my mother kidnapped me to Minnesota and disappeared under an assumed name. Her stated reason was always that she was afraid of my father, although even she admitted he had never harmed her in any way. As far as the little girl inside her knew, everyone my mother ever met had a butcher knife for her, and wanted to bloody the walls with her.

Starting with a junker of a car, one hundred dollars, and an ornamental feeding spoon, my mother cobbled together a vast Minnesotan support system for the two of us over the years. She navigated the social services for single mothers, established A.A. connections, and eventually cultivated friend circles throughout the Twin Cities metro area.

That A.A. club was my family and my church. Angels helping angels rise up from rock bottom. I attended A.A. meetings with my mother until I was 11, old enough to stay home by myself. My mother’s various boyfriends — half of whom were of the hippie persuasion, the other half military and law enforcement — all served as male role models for me. I believe she chose each one based on what she thought I needed at the time, rather than what she wanted.

Realizing she needed to expand her social horizons, and wanting to help the world as much as she could, my mother ran for local office on an environmental platform of saving some trees from being cut down. She was active in the parent organizations in the schools. She designed the t-shirt mascot (Tigers) for one of my two middle schools. Her drawing style was graceful. Delicate. Angelic. I never saw a more darkly expressive roll of toilet paper than when she drew one in black chalk for an art class she took in 1992.

The arts were not optional in our household. They were a mandatory part of daily life, just like breathing. We freely sang and whistled along to classical music, classic rock, and classic country. Legend has it her opera singing was the best in the state back when she was in high school. She could also play piano, which I saw her do on a number of occasions, whenever we would together happen upon a piano.

She took me to choir practice and band practice. She once spent all her savings on a euphonium (a kind of smallish tuba) for me so I could pursue my own musical path.

We laughed ourselves to the floor over Bill Cosby tapes, which we would play over and over on a vintage stereo system.

When I was 6, she woke me up before dawn and led me down the hallway to stand on the balcony and watch aurora borealis, the northern lights. They flashed all the colors of the rainbow. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she whispered. The awe in her voice made me realize I was witnessing a special kind of magic: the kind that anyone can watch but not everyone deems important.

For my mother, love was about helping each other to see such wondrous things. But love was also guardianship and blind, reckless self-sacrifice. Once, a couple of older boys were ganging up on me on the basketball blacktop across the street from one of the apartment buildings she raised me in. Mom saw this from our kitchen window on the third floor and strolled out to the scene, lazily swinging my aluminum baseball bat in one hand and grinning maniacally. She took one boy by the ear, placed the bat gently but firmly against his skull, and intoned into his ear softly and clearly through clenched teeth, “I’m not afraid to go to jail for my son.”

Sometimes the battle and the beauty fused into one thing. In 1996, my mother and I went to see a performance of Man of La Mancha with Robert Goulet as the title role at the Ordway in St. Paul. The final scene featured Don Quixote on his death bed, accosted mercilessly by knights in blinding platinum armor, all bearing giant gilded mirrors instead of shields, advancing on the old man, white lights screaming off the surfaces everywhere and showing Don Quixote his weaknesses and the futility of his valiance.

I broke down crying ten minutes after my mother and I left the theater. I didn’t know why I was crying. I would find out later.

I saw my mother spontaneously relive and act out her childhood violence on at least two occasions, once in 1988 and once in 1997. She threw her body against walls and cried out in pain and begged whoever was doing it to stop it. I was powerless to help; I could only watch. She referred to these episodes as flashbacks or “remembrances”.

We always loved each other very much — she was all I really had, and I was all she really had — but we often argued just as fiercely as she and my father had argued so many years earlier. I had yet to meet that father.

When I turned 18, my mother moved back to Upstate New York to try to reconnect with her family. On Father’s Day in the year 2000, I received a letter from my mother, included in which was my father’s current phone number, which unbeknownst to me she had kept track of for the entirety of the previous two decades. She suggested that I might like to give my father a call. And so I did. He and I really hit it off. When I first visited him that summer in 2000, my mother drove to join me at the house where he and my step-mother lived. My father and mother made ammends.

My mother had some success in her effort to reconnect with her own family, but her mind and body were already deteriorating. Don’t ask what was wrong, exactly; I gave up trying to keep track of it all a long time ago. Administrative records in my possession show a woman desperately seeking solutions to the monsters that wanted to claw her to pieces from the inside out. She waged full-scale conflagration on them, trying every drug known to psychiatry, and every physical therapy that might have helped her failing body to recover or at least plateau.

My mother stayed active in A.A., continuing to find some solace in helping others, at least as far as they wanted to be helped, which was, more often than not, very little. And yet she continued as long as she was physically and mentally able to do so. And she kept up her belief in a higher power.

She spent her final months in a nursing home here in New Hampshire. This morning, the torture device that was her mind and body could no longer hold her. The beautiful, innocent, precious, perfect little girl that had held onto life by her fingernails for seventy years finally slipped free.

The tenacious woman that saved the lives of countless people through her A.A. work has completed her mission impossible. The mother who infused my heart with an aurora borealis has finally risen up and flown away.

Fly, Mom. This world was never worthy of you. Fly.

 

(Written by Will Conley and originally posted publicly on Facebook.)

The Littlest Christmas Tree’s Revenge

In third grade, I played the title role in my school’s Christmas musical, The Littlest Christmas Tree. They strapped me with a Styrofoam tree that had a hole cut out for my face. Very adorable. I got the role because I was the littlest kid in my grade. Typecasting, whaddyagonnado. Who knows what fertile seeds that sowed for my nascent Napoleon complex at the time.

The big showstopper was my solo, “Christmas Is Love.” At the performance in front of the entire student body assembled in the gymnasium, the pianist played the opening bars two or three times, because I didn’t know when to come in. Finally, I sang…

Christmas is love, Christmas is caring.
Christmas is friends together sharing.
Christmas is what our dreams are made of.
But more than anything, Christmas is love…

At some point while singing, I spotted a couple of fifth-graders at the back of the gym. They were laughing betwixt themselves about the performance and making “retard” gestures. Suddenly they were the only two people in the gym, despite the hundreds of other kids and faculty who were present and dutifully watching the play.

Continue reading The Littlest Christmas Tree’s Revenge