Featured Nonfiction: The Transit of Venus by Rebecca Gummere

Editor’s note: Rebecca Gummere’s gorgeous essay, “The Transit of Venus” was selected by Rebecca Makkai as the runner-up in New South’s 2015 Writing Contest. Here, Rebecca shares how her essay took shape and what she’s been working on since. 

Rebecca Gummere: The essay is about the gradual decline and death of my mother, but it’s also about the transitory nature of all life, about how the world we know is ever slipping away.

The actual Transit of Venus occurred in 2012, when the planet traversed the sun, visible as a black dot moving across the sun’s face. I was surprised at my own urgency about seeing it. Even as a child I was drawn to stars and trees and rocks, to the marvels of the natural world – but there was a certain desperation about my sense of needing to witness this celestial event that will not recur until 2117, long after I am gone.

Eventually I came to realize that the Transit represented all that I wanted to hang onto, and how I wanted to freeze time – for my mother, for my grown children, for myself. My melancholy over missing the event became a sort of lens to look at what was really happening, the ending of so many things.

I wrote some of the essay while my mother was still living, even taking notes at her bedside, perhaps my way of having a voice in a situation in which I felt overwhelmed and out of control. I wrote the remainder after she died. In the end, it felt important to have both the immediate and urgent voice as well as the longer perspective.

I am so pleased and honored that the essay was selected as a runner-up in the 2015 New South Journal contest and appears in the journal along with so many fine works!

*

“The Transit of Venus” is part of a book-length collection of essays I have been working on for the past couple of years.

The ancient Celts spoke of “Thin Places,” where the veil separating this world and the next is gossamer thin, permeable – where it was believed heaven and earth interpenetrate. Traditionally such places are said to occur in nature – where ocean intersects with shore, or mountaintop touches sky.

The working title of the book is Naturally Occurring Junctures because of “thin moments” in my life, times where I have felt more was happening than was immediately visible, when I sensed a sort of “hum” coming from the world beneath the world. It certainly happened at the bedside of my dying mother but also on a city street in Asheville and in a hospital basement and even in the pages of a book belonging to my sister who died many years ago. In these moments it seems past, present, and future move as one, and I nearly always have the sense of standing at the edge of something.

It’s this sense that “more is going on” that keeps me up at night and keeps me going to the page. I am drawn to what is numinous, to what is beyond our definition of “knowable” but still shimmers at the periphery of our vision or announces itself as a prickle along the skin. It’s what drew me years ago to attend seminary and serve in ordained ministry for fourteen years, what drew me to move beyond the borders of church, and what drew me to travel to Geneva and tour CERN, where the “God Particle” was discovered.

It’s what draws me now to consider questions that go beyond any system or theology, questions about the nature of love and what it means to be part of the human family, and about what it means to be alive in the slipstream of time.

My mother first quoted Hamlet to me when I was twelve: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” That one sentence set me on a path. All these years later I remain convinced that wonder can tap us on the shoulder, mystery will sidle up beside us, anywhere at any time.


The Transit of Venus

I.

The Number of Stars in the Known Universe

  1. I am trying to organize my thoughts.
  2. They will not stay organized.
  3. She cries and cries. My mother does not cry. Therefore I am worried.
  4. My mother has an oozing bedsore at the base of her tailbone. Bedsores are “ _________” and can be prevented by “_________.” I glare at the plump CNA, wanting it all to be her fault. As she changes the dressing on my mother’s open wound, she throws an apple-dimpled smile my way.
  5. I refuse to catch it.
  6. At 95 years old, my mother is peering over the edge, blinking into darkness. “Why didn’t I just die in that goddamned hospital?” she asks the air, me, the entire Brady Bunch crammed into the black plastic box on the table in the corner.
  7. She asks her surgeon. She asks her nurses. No one will answer. Instead, “How are we today?” chirps the dietician, setting down a plate of something that looks like mottled goopish mounded something. “Good morning!” trills the physical therapist, flexing his biceps and winking in her direction.
  8. The lady next door to my mother screams all day and into the night. She has 3 different voices she uses. My mother says it is “interesting, to say the least.”
  9. She cries when I return from my 7-day writing retreat.
  10. I don’t cry but I feel like a piece of dog crap for having left her.
  11. I shouldn’t have gone. I should have cancelled the trip. I should not be so:
    1. selfish
    2. ambitious
    3. driven
    4. all of the above
  12. There is no good answer for any of this.
  13. I am running out of time, too.
  14. I have the feeling she would like to ask me why I went but will not. She never did say, “Don’t go.” She never did say, “Have a good trip.” She has not inquired: “How was it?”
  15. See #12
  16. I am a heartless cunt.
  17. There is a pterodactyl in Room 122. I know this because as I hurried past the door I heard a loud squawk and rough talons tearing at plastic sheets.
  18. When my mother sleeps, she looks like an old man, her chin whiskery, her forehead twitching.
  19. When my mother sleeps, she looks like a small child, her cheeks pink, her lips parted.
  20. #2
  21. 1024 or about a septillion, more or less. Probably more.
  22. A small voice somewhere inside tells me to stop scurrying, to sit down and take her hand, to hold it, to touch the paper-soft skin, to feel the pebbles of bone, to entwine her fingers in mine. “Don’t rush this last part,” the voice says in the dearest most calming way. Our eyes meet, and my mother smiles.
  23. A small bird somewhere outside her window looks in at us sweetly, peering from a bough on the pine tree as if there is something of infinite importance it has been forever longing and longing and longing to tell us. 

II.

The Transit

June 4th, 2012

Tomorrow begins the Transit of Venus. Everywhere – in homes and schools, in the electronics department at WalMart, in hospitals and sports bars – news channels are airing stories of the pending rare celestial event. In the photographs Venus glows golden, luminous, displaying a careful beckoning roundness. Yet surface temperatures approach 900°F, sulfuric acid rains continually, and constantly erupting volcanoes violate the landscape.

Still, the images of our sister planet are beguiling in their beauty, alluring in their mystery. Venus is the only planet named for a female, for the goddess of Love and Beauty, ancient astronomers seeing Her outshining the other planets, a shimmering beacon gracing both twilight and dawning skies.

Long before I knew Venus was a planet, She was to me a granter of wishes, a symbol of promise and possibility. When I was very young, my mother had taught me, as her mother had taught her, to look toward the Evening Star in the darkening sky and make a wish, and I always did, believing some sort of silvery power emanating from Her, sending forth a wave of blessing and good fortune as a thank you for having entrusted my concerns to Her.

I don’t recall what I would wish for – probably a new bike, a new doll, maybe curly hair like the pretty girl down the street. Later, perhaps, I wished for “that boy” to notice me just once. I am not certain when I stopped wishing. For a time I even stopped looking upward.

 

Some months ago I had a dream in which a former lover came to join me in the shower, taking me into his arms, pressing my head into his muscled chest as warm water flowed over us both. Decades ago we had lain down in summer grasses, rolled naked in summer sun, drank summer rain from each other’s hot skin.

After the dream I lay in my bed feeling teary and confused, memory churning a fine froth of wake as decades slid away beneath me. By 2115 when the Transit of Venus comes around again, I will be long gone, and not only I but likely my adult children and possibly their yet-to-be born children. A weight settles in my heart – of sadness, fragility and the thin slippage of time.

Nevertheless, tomorrow at 4:47pm Eastern Standard Time, Venus will begin her transit, the dark spot of her like a beauty mark on the sun’s face.

 

I wonder where I am in my transit, whether I am two-thirds or three-quarters or nearly all the way done. I am surely at the point where more of my lived life lies behind than in front of me. The world I have known is disappearing, too. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, sibling, son, father. Cousins, friends, children of friends, an ever-expanding list of those who have passed into the great dark of the Great Beyond.

 

My ninety-five year old mother has transitioned from cane to walker, walker to wheelchair, wheelchair to bed, with a sobering tenacity. Watching her I have noted traceable losses occurring first over years and then later months, then weeks, and finally even days – so many small deaths from which she will never recover, her life, as with all our lives, heading one direction. Like the planets, there is no mechanism for going in reverse. Mercury in retrograde is an illusion.

 

June 5, 2012

It is the day of the Transit. My daughter and I have driven from the town where we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains down to the senior citizen housing in the small city where my mother moved after my father’s death. I am discouraged to find the sky as overcast here as it was up the mountain.

When I had called earlier my mother said she wanted to go out for sushi. My daughter is excited about the prospect of Japanese food. I feel jangled and impatient. In my purse is a schoolchild’s version of a viewer, a pinhole camera I made at work after looking up instructions on the NASA website. All afternoon I have been sneaking outside and practicing – placing one sheet of paper on the sidewalk and standing with my back to the sun as the light blazes through the pinhole in the foil taped to the other sheet of paper I hold in my hand. The resulting image is blurry, a murky puddle on a white page fluttering on the ground.

 

When we enter my mother’s apartment the television is blaring with reports on the Transit that is now less than an hour away. She rolls her eyes and gives a heavy sigh. “Turn it off, she says, shaking her head.

I had been eager to show her my Camera Obscura. My mother instilled in my sisters and me a sense of reverence about the natural world, teaching us how to identify wildflowers and trees, berries and edible plants.

She had shown us the stars, given us the names of the constellations of both winter and summer skies. Her face alight, she would point toward Orion and the Pleiades, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, and we three girls would move closer to her, caught for a moment in her tether of wonder.

“Turn it off,” she says again. “It’s on every goddamned channel. You can’t get away from it.”

 

At the previous senior residence my mother had invited friends in for happy hour, passing a bowl of mixed nuts and a plate of Stilton cheese and English water crackers, moving from glass to glass, refreshing drinks and catching up on gossip.

Now she lives in a senior housing facility with mostly Southern Baptists. As she puts it, “No one here will drink with me.”

She likes to dress up for our dining excursions, coordinating her colors, clipping on matching earrings, adding a bright scarf and a spritz of cologne. This afternoon as we pull away from the facility she is smiling, her head held in queenly bearing. She waves goodbye to the three residents who are seated on benches in front of the entryway. They wave back.

 

In the parking lot of the Japanese restaurant I lift her walker from the back of my car and look up at the clouds, hoping for the barest hint of clear sky. I wonder if I can get my mother and daughter situated inside and then suddenly recall an urgent phone call I need to make, or tell them I may have forgotten to lock the car. Make some excuse to come back outside for the chance to see Venus, lovely Venus, even if She is only a small muddled spot on a piece of paper.

 

Instead I give one last glance and follow my mother inside to the booth where we always sit.

“Do you know what you might want?” I ask when we are settled and have our drinks.

My mother’s eyes are wide. She devours the menu in one glance. Something about her is brighter, lighter. “Let’s see,” she says, licking her lips. “I think I’ll try something new.”

 

There will be twenty-eight more of these dinner outings, and then her knees will become weaker and more unreliable, getting in and out of the car will be too fatiguing, and her appetite will wane to the point where nothing interests her, not even a bloody rare New York Strip. In eighteen months she will develop a bowel obstruction and opt for the surgery thinking, even hoping, she will not survive it. My children and I will spend three tearful days with her, saying our goodbyes.

Later, in the recovery room, eyes still shut, she will lament in a morphine-drenched voice, “Well…I didn’t expect this.”

 

Tonight, however, she dives into her plate of crunchy tempura rolls and does not speak again until she has eaten every single morsel. Outside it has grown dark. As we leave the restaurant, the owner says in halting English, “Bye-bye. See you next time,” and my mother gives a nod. I toss my camera into the trash.

Later I will think, “We didn’t love each other enough,” and then later still, “We loved each other the best we could.”

III.

Chronicles

I keep notes in a four by five spiral-backed notebook with a green plastic cover. I bought it to keep organized, but my plan is not working so well. The need sneaks up on me to write things down quickly, so that I open to the first blank page I can find. The result is, there is no real progression, just a mad hopping back and forth that in the end turns out to be truer than any sort of chronology. Because in the end everything is chaotic as fuck. And my mother dies anyway. And nothing is as I thought it would be.

Jan? (hairstylist)
Care Plan
Medications
Back at Rose Glen in a week?
Hospital bed
PROGRESS REPORT
Mental state – any confusion?

Hers or mine? I am uncertain.

One evening as I am preparing to drive back up the mountain, my mother says, “When you leave the love goes.” Snow is predicted, and I had hoped to get on the road before dark, but at her words I unwind the scarf from my neck and sit down beside the bed and take her hands in mine.

Thinking of her alone at night, sitting in her own waste, ringing and ringing and calling and calling, I am caught. I should stay. I should move here, quit my job and find another. Give away the dogs and the cats. Hire someone to fix up my house, put it on the market, so I can be here, really be here, so I can walk out to the nurse’s station and demand, “Somebody, get your ass in there and change my mother’s diaper!”

I realize none of this can happen in the time frame it needs to. I remember why she is here and not with me. Because the rehab facilities in my town have a poor reputation and no one there will take my mother’s insurance. Because her doctors are here.

Because she has continued to say “no” whenever I have mentioned the possibility of a move, and I am afraid to ask the real reason.

“The love stays with you all the time, it fills the room, every corner. The love never leaves you. You are never without it.”

I don’t even know if that’s what I said. I hope it is, but I cannot be certain. She had taken me by surprise.

 

I’m certain recording details gave me the illusion of control. Today I have no idea what most of it means. (“BP dropped. Cardiazem IV. BUN 155, 130. C 4 3.6”) Then I would have asked anyone and everyone to clarify, to explain, to give me information, that hard-edged weapon against the unknown terrors of helplessness.

Written catty-corner across one page in large lettering are the words, “Dr. Demetrios.” He is the nephrologist who has been called in to consult on my mother’s case when she had to be hospitalized again.

My mother is in renal failure. No one knows why. I come to cling to the possibilities of what he may be able to tell me. Each time I come to see my mother, I ask the staff: “Has Dr. Demetrios come?”

But no one ever seems to know for sure. They look at me and shake their heads, shrug, move back to their paperwork.

I have massaged Dr. Demetrios into being a clever philosopher. I see him in the Agora, draped in a linen toga, a crooked line of desperate seekers winding away from him. His white head is lowered, and his voice rises and falls as he confers with a weeping man. I take my place in line and wait. I am sure he has answers for me, for us.

In the end, I never meet the man. I never hear the results of all his clever testing. I never know what he found at all. I am never even sure there were any tests. In fact, I entertain the possibility that he may not even be real at all. I begin to suspect he is someone the nursing staff has invented like one would do for a child, the wise old doctor who has all the answers and can make everything all right.

“Everything will be understood once Dr. Demetrios gets here.” Something to keep one quiet and well-behaved while they prod and poke and stick and withdraw and inject, while they turn and wipe and peer and press.

While they look past my mother and her agony, past the open bedsores and the misdiagnosed yeast infection that has left her bottom raw and seeping and the overlooked fungus from too many antibiotics that has left her mouth blackened and sore.

Later I add to my notes the name of Dr. Rangarajan, who is the only doctor I actually meet. When I press him for details on my mother’s condition, he is evasive, telling me we have to “wait and see.” When I mention hospice, he becomes defensive and tells me she is making improvements. I say, “What does that mean? What does that look like to you?” And he chews the inside of his mouth and rolls out some more numbers, gesturing with his pen, avoiding my eyes.

Another three weeks in the hospital to see how she does, he tells me. And then maybe back to her apartment. Or maybe not.

“We are looking at a long time,” he says.

“Will she ever get out of bed again?”

He looks at the floor, shakes his head. “Probably not.”

Later a nurse takes me aside. “You do what you need to do, honey. It’s up to you.”

 

Now my mother is home in her apartment, her black pleather sofa donated and in its place a hospital bed, and in the middle of the bed is my mother’s tiny frame. She lies very still and looks from ceiling to window to me, then back to ceiling. She fidgets in discomfort, worry, impatience. It is hard to know and she does not say.

The hospice nurse is four hours late.

 

Over the next days my notes change to shopping lists:

Power Strip
Juice
Broth
Coffee Ice Cream

The hospice chaplain stops in. As pastoral visits go, it was all right. I couldn’t have done better. In fact, I could not have done it at all, not that day or for days to come, despite the fact that for the previous fourteen years it had been my calling as a Lutheran pastor to encourage, to shepherd, to speak of the unshakeable foundations of our Christian faith.

A decade into my years of service I began to lose the sense of Presence, the grip of certainty. Previous convictions evaporated, leaving my spirit sere and dry in a way that felt truer and cleaner but saturated with loss. I was without language about God, about Jesus, about salvation. About hope.

One night, however, as the rattle of my mother’s lungs fills the room and I lie curled in a chair by her bed, I have a vivid waking dream. In the dream the young CNA we have hired has nodded off to sleep, and since I am unable to keep my eyes open, I am worried there is no one to care for my mother.

Then, as happens in dreams, the CNA suddenly appears on the other side of the bed, checking on my mother. To her right are a tall middle-aged woman with short brown finger-waves, an older man with gray hair, and a younger shorter man with dark hair. The CNA looks at them, surprised. They squeeze together between a floor lamp and my mother’s antique cherry corner cupboard.

“Don’t mind us,” one of them speaks to the CNA, and they all smile, peering past her to my mother.

The CNA seems perturbed but not surprised to see them and finishes her task, then returns to her chair where she immediately falls back to sleep. The three move to stand where the CNA had been.

The older man places his hand on my mother’s leg and gazes at me, and after a moment he speaks with a staggering tenderness. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ve got her.”

I wake with a start, my ears pulsing. The CNA and my mother are both sleeping. The room hums. I drift off to sleep again.

In the morning I recall the dream and am surprised at how deeply it comforts me.

 

The next evening my mother is nearing death, and I sit next to her, touching her arm, stroking her hair. I talk to her, telling her how much I love her, thanking her for being my mother, for making me brave and strong like her.

I call out the names of those who are waiting for her on the other side – my father, her parents, my sister, my son, her dearest friends – all with their faces alight and arms wide in welcome – and all of a sudden I find some sort of door has opened for both of us, and I begin to pray, the words pouring out of me.

I speak of comfort and peace, of joy and love and homecoming. I speak of Jesus. I find olive oil in her kitchen cabinet and anoint her with a benediction for her passing into the next world.

Then the moment is gone and I am all daughter again, weeping over her as I kiss her forehead and whisper, “Momma, Momma, Momma…” and then the final breath leaves her, and the door closes, and I am alone in the room.

IV.

Sorting

The ceiling in my daughter’s bedroom is clean and white. A shadow plays along one green wall. I sink deeper into her bed, draw the comforter to my neck. Every so often she comes to check on me, sits at the edge of the bed, touches my hair, then leaves again.

My bones ache. My eyes are dry and raw. I try not to imagine where my mother is now: the sheet that covers her face, her limp arms resting on a hard metal table that stands in the middle of a cold empty room.

In a couple of days I will drive down the mountain and begin the task of emptying her apartment. I close my eyes and remember.

How the stain on the floor where the hospice nurse dropped the soiled bedding is drying to a dark brown.

How the carpet will be indented from the sharp legs of the hospital bed.

How the reclining chair where she always sat faces the door like an open mouth. How the scent of her will hang in the air even now – furniture wax, lavender sachets, and something else, the warm smell of her hair, her skin.

I remember there are silk blouses and mohair sweaters and knit slacks in her closet and gold monogram stickpins in the antique walnut dresser, and that in the corner cupboard are boxes of photographs where time is all mixed up – my mother as an infant, my sisters and I at the beach, my parents on their wedding day, my father, gray-haired and balding, grinning in front of a boulder at Bryce Canyon, my mother plump and middle-aged, waving to him from a table at a pub in England.

I remember one last thing – how the cardinals will be gathering in the small tree outside the one window that faces the sun, how they will flock in the February chill, clustering hearts in the naked gray branches.

V.

Homing

In July we bring my mother’s ashes to the Gulf of Mexico, to the dunes where four years ago she and I had brought most of my father’s ashes.

My mother’s parents had first come to this beach on Florida’s Panhandle in the 1920’s when she was seven years old. In those days the beaches were empty, the dunes majestically high. The shoreline would have been littered with shells, the blue-green waters teeming with fish, turtles, and dolphins, and the tide pools rife with mollusks and sea urchins, limpets and crabs.

Once my mother had described to me how she and her cousin Joyce could make a floatation device out of muslin. In my mind’s eye I see the two of them, their small arms stretched high and wide, the fluttering fabric waving along behind them like a sail or a giant wing. Their eyes are bright, their faces browned; their mouths open with laughter. While running they trap the wind in the fabric, flipping it over and tying a hasty knot. Then they dash into the water where their small bodies will be lifted and tossed until the ocean seeps through the fabric, when they will return to the shore and wring out the muslin, open it wide and run back up the beach, sunlight glinting from their small shoulders as the wind fills the fabric again.

 

My parents brought my sisters and I here nearly every summer. We spent hours diving into the waves and then more hours at the edge of the water, digging for sand fleas and hunting shells. We napped on our towels, took long ambling walks. Our hair turned sticky with brine and our arms brown, our noses freckled. By day the scent of Sea & Ski suntan lotion intoxicated us, and at night the sharp coolness of Noxzema on our sun-parched skin would carry us away into slumber.

Sometimes, in the dead of cold dark winter I would sneak into my mother’s medicine cabinet and find a dark blue jar of the fragrant cream and open it, inhale summer, hear the gulls, feel the sun, count the days.

How long till we would return? How long?

 

The years passed. High school and college came and went. Grandparents died, and lines etched my parent’s faces. Hurricanes reshaped the shoreline while developers invaded and removed the dunes. We grew up and had children of our own, bringing them one by one in a kind of initiation, dipping their fat baby toes into the warm Gulf waters.

Now those children have all grown; now they bring their own children.

 

We gathered on the dune, forming a circle around the hole my nephew had dug in the sand. Dark clouds scudded overhead. We had hoped for a few days of sunshine and clear Gulf waters. Instead the National Weather Service had issued a flood warning and the sky flickered like neon.

We poured my mother’s ashes into the hole, then added what was left of my father’s ashes, about a cupful, and together used our hands to fill in the sand.

The two plastic bags containing the last whispery bits of my parents’ remains were brought out to the water as the rains moved in again, and I stayed at the shoreline while my daughter and nephew rinsed the bags completely.

Standing at that edge in the rising wind, I felt the stab of my new estate. Orphaned. Unmoored.

 

Later that night I walked onto the deck over the dunes that held the mingled ashes of the ones who brought me into this world, who had brought me to this place. As I peered up into the night sky at the carpet of stars in the Milky Way, I recalled a dream I had after my father died, when my mother and I were learning how to move forward together, we who had each too often misjudged the other.

In the dream she and I are out in a field of dried brown grass and bare trees, the feel of late fall in the air. We stand next to each other but do not touch. Then high overhead hundreds of bluebirds appear in a flock so massive it completely covers the turquoise sky, painting it a deeper sapphire hue. Above us the birds dive and swirl, their voices filling our ears, and for a moment I stand and look in wonder, too amazed to move.

Then I turn to my mother. I see her small face tilted skyward, her mouth slightly open, and I realize with a shattering joy that she and I are together in this marvel, this wonder of unexpected beauty, a miracle of sudden blessing that surely must cover us, surely even now.

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Rebecca Gummere’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Christian Science Monitor, Alimentum, Crack the Spine, The Gettysburg Review, The Rumpus, and the New South Journal. She has twice been awarded North Carolina Regional Artist Project grants and has received two Pushcart nominations, and has also been a fellow-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with two sweetly oafish boxer dogs and one owl-faced cat. Contact Rebecca at rgummere@mac.com. For updates follow Rebecca on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rebecca.gummere and on Twitter @rgummere.

 

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