Articles From DoubleTake 24

Rick Bass : Some Safe Place

I remember--can never forget--and do not wish to--when my mother was sick from the leukemia and had made the decision to take the treatment of chemotherapy and radiation that would buy her another year-and-a-half of life. I remember walking downstairs wit h her from her hospital room to the first floor, where there was a store or shop or what-have-you that supplied wigs for after the treatment. I remember the clarity and depthlessness, the steadiness, of her blue-gray eyes as we examined the wigs and I off ered second opinions, comments, on the styles and colors. She was young and had beautiful short brown hair that still had a copper-red hue in it when in bright sun. She examined the headpieces as if they were merely vegetables in a supermarket and not the beginning, the final beginning, of this new thing. Her quiet steadiness--that same inner calm--was courage of a type I'd never seen before, nor since. We tend to think of bravery as a shouted, muscle-flexing thing, but it was the way she examined those w igs with me: as if she were holding all of her beauty in one hand--considering a trade, or a purchase, and not complaining of the quality, or lack thereof, in the purchase, the trade, she was about to make.

I remember one of the times she was in isolation for--what? six weeks?--after the radiation, waiting for the new cells to come back true and clean: which they did, the first time. You couldn't have contact with other people: you had zero immunity to the w orld. The man taking the same treatment in the room next to her couldn't stand it and, as my mother put it, "went over the wall"--just got up and walked out one day, halfway into his treatment.

She stayed in hers and bought for us with that sorrow another year. We visited her, phoned her, flooded her with mail and visits and stories. It was in the spring and in Montana the cottonwood buds were sticky and green and making their sweet scents. Her mail down in Houston had to be irradiated before she could open it but I sent her some of those buds anyway, wrapped in Saran-wrap, but when they opened the mail to irradiate it they took the buds out and threw them away.

"Sixteen, already," she said, speaking of my youngest brother, when she was in the hospital on his birthday. "Can you imagine?" She was in and out of the hospital, living on our blood, on friends' blood, and on that of strangers. She couldn't use my blood ; it was too much like hers, had a low platelet count, and made her have an allergic reaction. My mother was as straight as an arrow, funny and beautiful, but firm, strict, true. One of my father's business associates was a wildish kind of man, fond of hard liquors and cigars and such. It was his blood to which my mother responded best. By the time it was nearing the end (though of course it never ends) we were calling him Uncle Jack.

At my middle brother's birthday dinner--she was home again, and well again, and it was a wonderful dinner--the five of us, my mother and father,myself and my two brothers--she was talking about what it had been like when the doctors had discovered the name of what she had. There was this one chromosome that they called the Philadelphia chromosome and there was no doubting it, that was the one that was making all this happen, they could see it under the microscope in cross-section.

There was a word for what it was hoped the treatment would do--not remission but some word like that, only more marvelous--one of those similar kinds of words that ends in -ion, and which we clung to brightly that night as my father informed us that the doctors thought that what was occurring--the crooked chromosome straightening back out like bent iron bars being trued by a circus strongman.

I have forgotten what the word was, since--but I knew it then.

There is a lake up here, high in the forested mountains, where she and I and my father and my wife went fishing, back when she was first sick, but before we knew. She had a pain in her elbow, that was all.

It was in the summer and they were up in the mountains visiting us. I was as strong as an ox and because she and my father wanted to go fishing I drove up toward this lake and then carried my canoe over my head through the old forest and up the mountain to this hidden lake that I knew about.

The lake was deep and cold and surrounded by the mountains and the deep green of the forest: tamaracks, pines, spruce, fir, cedar. The lake was a perfect circle, like the crater of a volcano, and its waters were dark. Tall green grasses surrounded it, at the forest's edge, and yellow lily pads lined its perimeter, where blue dragonflies darted. There was a cow moose with a calf at one end of it and a deer with her fawn at the other end. My mother was wearing a wide straw hat and the fish were rising in t he still waters all around us. We caught fish all afternoon, silver trout, rainbows and cutthroats, taking turns in the green canoe: my mother and I, my mother and my wife, my father and I, my father and my mother.

We came home and cleaned and cooked the fish. We sat on the porch in the long summer twilight and watched bats swooping against the violet sky, watched the first stars begin to make themselves visible, and held the image of the lake, and that day, somewhere far within us, in some safe place.