Things Will Not Stay Put

1. Finding You in Brixton

This is what I remember about finding you.

I open the door and you’re standing on my stone step, your back to me, your hair brushing the collar of your gray belted coat. You have the bearing of a royal, ramrodded, hands clasped at your back; you’re looking out at the raucous street scene — the hawkers, the hobos and activists, and the line of rundown row houses, yet to be discovered by the artists and the real estate developers.

You turn towards me and there you are.

I am twenty-two and very much taken with living and working in London, so far from where I started. My housemate and I’d placed an eight-word ad in the local Brixton paper — Group House Seeks Male Roommate to Share Flat, Expenses. And you show up with your half smile, northern European cool, dashing looks. As if by magic, you are the rabbit I pull from a hat.

Soon you inhabit our ramshackle home. Then my bed. Then my head and my heart.

In our cold water and no central heat house, we hunker down in co-joined sleeping bags, huddling too close to a plug-in grill to fend off the London damp. One night just past midnight, an acrid, plastic smell alerts us; the foot of my sleeping bag caught fire and a large nylon patch melted and blackened as we talk, oblivious.

We talk. Our words are runes, translating for one another what we’d each held close — a dead father, childhood shames, audacious dreams. We unfurl our tightly wrapped stories and swap them like trading cards, or notes passed back and forth between school desks. We tumble over sentences, rushing to agree — yes, yes, I felt that too.

We’re greedy for the stories, the aha moments of alignment; raised continents apart, we make a mythology of the unlikely path to one another, the near miss had you not stopped for that second coffee, if the discarded ‘Roommates Wanted’ section had not been splayed on that crumb filled counter, or if I’d popped over to the corner shop, or been hanging laundry in the garden when, on a whim, you knocked at my door.

Soon, ochre leaves darken and pile on the ground and winter arrives, and we keep talking. We stuff newspapers under door jams and press rags around loose-fitting windows. We feed coins into an ancient, timed heater unit bolted to the wall. On a mattress tented under horsehair blankets and rumble sale quilts, we eat graham crackers and foil wrapped chocolates and, on lazy Sundays, only venture from our cocooning to steep tea on a one ring hot plate, or dash to the toilet.

And when the season finally turns again, we escape to the countryside, to the moors and pastures, to the yellow and white foxgloves, ragwort, and nettle leaved flowers, to fields where we dodge dung patties and once, after we hop a fence to gather ripe and dropping blackberries, an angry bull. He splutters and snorts and thumps one hoof and we sprint towards a brambled gate, breathless, high with adrenaline and pheromones, and still in our early twenties, the delusion of invincibility.

We have almost all four seasons before a gaping breach opens in the ground beneath us, when you slip from the land of the healthy to the land of the ill — that sub-terrain alternate universe always waiting for a missed ‘Stop’ sign or an errant gene — a land inhabited by the unlucky and the doomed.

But in this first year, still in my early twenties, in finding you broken parts of me begin, slowly, to mend. The internal shouting match between me and my past dissipates — childhood memories of abuse and sorrow fade to whispers. With you, when we are brand-new, I get to rewrite my story and relief cracks me open.

And while it lasts — and then during the teasing reprieves from your years’ long illness — we’re always angling for a happy ending.


2. This is Not a Cancer Story

This is not a cancer story, though cancer makes a guest appearance.

This is not a cancer story because you did not want it to be, so weary are you of the relentless chipping away at who you’d once been: gifted translator, brilliant student, expert skier, Sunday painter. The disease took all this until, near the end, you are merely patient, holding a one-way ticket to the shadow world of the sick and the dying.

This is not a cancer story because the world is already full of them, most heartrending and worthy. But you hate them all, even the brilliant ones, even the ones pressed into your hands by well-meaning friends, for these stories grasp at an irreducible cause and effect, at victim blaming and sense making. You hate them almost as you much as hate being defined by the illness.

I am healthy, aside from the cancer, you insist to doctors and anyone who listens; this you need to believe until you no longer can.

This is not a cancer story, even though you endure body-slamming surgeries, salvage chemo, clinical trials and alternative remedies — all this you try to minimize, embarrassed by the hand wringing and the fussing around you. Before the end, before you finally lay down mantel and shield, you insist and insist you are healthy aside from the cancer. To this day, your hopeful, wayward conviction flays me.

By thirty-three you are done for — the same age Jesus Christ and John Belushi and Sam Cooke died, you tell me. If these men could pass so young, then why not you too? When the end lurks just around the corner, you find comfort in this brotherhood who’d gone through the turnstile before you. You try to explain your logic to me; these lost men are no more dead than those who perished after an enviably long stay on planet earth, the lucky ones who depart only once their joints are sanded paper-thin, their faculties dimmed, their youthful promise well-spent or betrayed.

During these last weeks when you can still hobble around, your swollen Elephant Man feet encased in special-order Velcro shoes, you ask to visit a nearby cemetery. The minor excursion demands military grade preparations to move you from place to place, so battered is your once proud and handsome body. I would much prefer to head to the meandering river that bifurcates your Danish hometown, where bobbing rowboats and brightly painted ferries escort tourists and school children from shore to narrow shore. Or to stop, for just a little while, by the quavering golden mustard fields edged with cheerful red poppies.

But you are a man on a mission. During the graveyard visit you lean against antique tombstones while I, at your direction, brush away twisted vines and desecrated leaves to reveal the faint markings of birth and death dates; what strange comfort you find when we discover the resting place of someone who’d passed on after only a brief stay.

In your yearning to blaze a pathway to acceptance, you come to believe the mere passage of time will transmute your personal tragedy into something quotidian and ordinary — just an unripened apple falling from a laden tree, a gibbous moon yet to come full circle, the senescence of a cell. Nothing to cry about. Just life, unfurling.

And when even a short trip to the cemetery become too arduous, when most movement sears you with pain, you begin painting again, the colors thinned with water, delicate and feathery brush strokes conjuring a mysterious liminal space, perhaps the Bardo between your young man self and your failing, disappointing body.

And in the very last days, when your feet are too swollen to stand, when certain nerves are sliced and deadened to try to stem the circuits of pain, when all life’s ambitions dwindle to the hope for a minute of comfort, you say this to me:

If I could just sit on the couch holding hands with you, that would be enough.


3. Widowing

I lean my forehead against the train window, a satchel stowed beneath my feet, passport and traveler checks secured firmly under my right arm, away from the goings-on in the aisle.

I’ve been longing for sleep since we left the last station in Denmark, hoping the rhyme of clanging wheels on clacking tracks — and those forlorn whistles — would lull me, yet here I am, awake and restive.

The train streaks by forests, by golden mustard fields exploding with red poppies; the scenes blur prettily, an impressionistic painting framed by the large window. We’re crossing through southern Jutland, a spit of land annexed by 19th century Prussians only to be returned a hundred years later. Before the borders were redrawn and then redrawn again, generations straddled their Danish ancestry and an enforced German citizenship. This in-between region is still imbued with an ongoing identity crisis; now it is the formerly German residents who resist Danish nationality. This brokered peace is uneasy.

My mind will not quiet. I give up on sleep. I turn away from the window and sit more fully upright in my seat considering my fellow travelers.

To my left a stout woman is sandwiched between two Aryan children — one boy, and the other a girl, I think, or perhaps a longer-haired brother? With a pen knife the woman quarters an apple on her lap and offers pieces to the children, their chins pointed up to receive the fruit.

Four American college students balance beers on knees and jostle for attention and one- upmanship, clapping one another on backs and shoulders. I, still in my early thirties, feel so ancient in comparison. Has life not kicked at them yet, I wonder? Might they be black and blue under their clothing, or are they as unburdened as they appear?

A long-haired traveler in muddied boots stands each time I rise from my seat, whether to stretch my legs or to escape to the toilet, the only place to cry on this journey.

My stated goal is to visit friends around the continent before I head home to the states. Really though, I’m just stalling. I’m biding my time, postponing the inevitable; my return to work, to an empty apartment, and to the rest of my life without my husband, dead now six weeks. An eternity.

It is time for the shelter of the toilet. As I make my way into the aisle the long-haired traveler stands and bumps up against me, ever so slightly. His leather jacket is veined with tiny pale cracks, much like the creases above his thin-lipped mouth.

Smile, he says, when he catches my eye.


The command no woman, in the history of all women, has ever wanted to hear. And particularly not from a strange man on a train barreling ahead at one hundred kilometers an hour. And especially not me, not now, when each meter pulls me further away from my late husband.

My thoughts somersault with confusion and regret. I do not know how to unpack the question that looms: how am I to straddle ten years of marriage with this new unfathomable citizenship — that of young widowhood? I am stunned at how closely my husband’s death shadows me, at how deathlike I, myself, feel.

I take a water bottle and small yogurt from my satchel. For weeks these have been my only sustenance. As my body thins, I discover newly prominent hip bones and clavicles. Perhaps I intend to disappear? My clothes now fit like a pair of old underwear, its elastic overstretched, sagging and loose, as if they belong to someone else.

I decide a coffee might rouse me. I join the small line forming in the cafe car; most of us take a wide footed stance against the swaying of the train car; we grab for the walls to steady ourselves when the car rounds a turn, or lurches forward.

Behind me, someone stands too close. I feel his breath on my neck. I look down and see it is the man in the muddied boots.

At the next shift of the car, he shoves into me from behind, as if steadying himself.

I think to turn to him and ask him to back off.

I do not.

And so, he stays, leaning into me, more heavily as the seconds pass, moving up against me as the train lurches again. He says nothing though there is a slight release of breath from his chest, some heat exchanged between two forlorn bodies.

There is something alive for me in this moment.

A stirring. A nickel drops and there is whirring in my ears.

Then it is my turn at the cafe counter. I order my coffee. With eyes straight ahead, I return to my seat. I never look behind, never acknowledge the presence of the long-haired man.

I continue my journey, each mile pulling me further away from the safe bubble of my husband’s love — and I feel burst.

But I am not. I am still here.


4. Mother Rat

My newborn lies on bedsheets soiled with breast milk, blood, pee and other unidentifiable bodily spills, a domestic crime scene of a rough labor and delivery, followed by three sleepless nights.

Her father, my second husband, sticks around just long enough to count toes and fingers and family resemblances, and then hightails it to an artist retreat for the long weekend.

So here we are, just we two. I look at the baby and she looks at me, warily I think, as if to size me up. Her nearsighted eyes flicker, her barely visible lashes flutter; she’s withholding judgement, at least for now.

And she’s perfect in the way of infants; lucent skin, silk thread hair haloing her head, the sweet, pungent perfume of baby and milk and talc. She’s been my almost singular goal for the last three years, the salve and salvation I longed for since the death of my first husband, so sucking is the deep hole he left behind.

And here we finally are, mother and child and we’ve taken the biggest trust fall of them all. We’re in it together, she and me, whatever comes next. Though I could not save my partner, to this wee girl I promise my blood, my lungs, my strong back and capable hands This is my pledge, my new existential purpose.

And yet — and yet. I’m not quite feeling what I’m meant to feel: that famous outpouring of mother love, imbued with its catechism of self-denial, the inexorable martyrdom of caring more for her than for anyone else on our green and blue planet. I feel this absence of feeling almost like the absence of my lost husband.

I leave my baby safely in the middle of the bed for just a moment. In the small kitchen carved out of this artist space, I fill a glass with tap water and open the under-sink cabinet looking for tissues or paper towels to sop up the fluids that still leak from between my legs and from my laden breasts.

And there she is standing by the water pipe, a rat, large and still. She looks at me warily, as if sizing me up, her snaking tail twitching. We are alone in this place, my babe and me. I am mostly naked and I’m frighteningly feverish. I cannot jump on a stool nor run from the house calling for help, abandoning my girl.

Were I less sleep deprived, were my hormones not pin-balling around, I might have stayed calmer. But I do not. I stare her down as I try to regain my bearings. Now in a slight delirium I imagine we are both postpartum, mother to mother, rat to woman. And with atavistic ferociousness comes the need to protect our young. This mangy creature will throw all in to shield her rat pups, as will I to rescue my daughter from this first mother trial.

I take a breath. I scan the tiny room and realize the rodent must have broken in through a ruptured sewer pipe — what a stench there’s been on recent hot days — and which means there may be others.

My baby is thirty feet away in the tiny bedroom. Her father is three hundred miles away in New York. My dead husband is three thousand miles away beneath a cut and polished stone on a flowering field in Denmark.

And I am alone, our little Cambridge worker’s cottage invaded by dirty, diseased, and possibly baby snatching vermin.

I must stay strong. I must act. I must put on some clothes.

I gently close the cabinet door. I grab a broom with a broken handle and back out of the kitchen. I slam shut the bedroom door, which makes the baby wail then whimper. I fetch the landline from the window bench, hold the ragged broom handle like a spear at my side, curl my body around my newborn girl, and call one of my oldest and most practical friends, who calls one of her oldest and most practical friends, who has a neighbor who has a brother who has a son. And as if by magic, two sturdy lads arrive in an exterminator van, and while my daughter and I shelter behind the locked bedroom door, under a soiled comforter, they take away this innocent rat family and plug up the broken sewer pipe.

And once the men are gone, and once I venture to the kitchen and fetch some water and snacks for me and a clean diaper for my daughter, I sense a tectonic shifting, the breaking of a dam; now I am flooded with the baby love I yearned for, but also feared. It is brave to care for another so deeply and without reservation, for our beloved are fragile and irredeemably mortal.

Image: photo by Fadi Xd on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Denise Dilanni
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