Objects of My Attention
We had no trouble agreeing on which of Simon’s outfits to dress him in after he died. He would wear a tie-dye T-shirt, red sweatpants, and socks to match the T-shirt. The kids got hand-dyed shirts for Christmas from Linda, their daycare mommy back in Michigan. She even sent them to us after we moved to Utah when Simon was six and Miriam was three. We had at least four to choose from, plus the cotton socks Linda had dipped in dye to match.
Simon in bursts of yellow turning frog green as it blends with turquoise blue. Simon laughing, stretching out his arms, leaning over for a hug, riding up the driveway, veering his bike around at the garage. Brown eyes joyful, half-teeth growing in, radiation hairline, pale skin, ready smile. A kaleidoscope of color spreading over his heart, a smaller one at the opposite hip. And sweat pants. He could never bother with more restrictive clothing. Easy on and off. Quick trips to the toilet. Pockets to carry things, or cozily cup his hands. And socks to match his top. Simon had defined his own style by kindergarten in a pattern like this: lime green top, navy shorts, lime green socks. Or sky blue shirt, heather grey sweats, sky blue socks. A pair of socks made in the same vat with an exuberant tie-dye shirt, plus his favorite cherry red sweats—that’s what we chose.
It had been a quiet night, mostly, until the sky outside looked like wash water and I woke to Simon’s scuffling hands. They clawed at his chest, at the wide adhesive bandage covering the spot where a narrow white tube penetrated his skin. I eased myself onto my right side to get a better look, gently pulling my other shoulder out from under Miriam’s hand. She had come during a dark hour of the night and slipped in next to me—as she did nearly every night. As Simon used to do most nights, until the last days when he never left our bed at all. He used to come, pillow in one hand and sippy cup of water in the other. When his pain was bad, he carried the little clear backpack that held his medicine bag and pump, too. He stood at the footboard, asking, May I come into your bed?
Beneath his scratching fingers, the bandage and coiled tubing of his central line clung to his chest like a spider he could never brush aside. So important during his illness for chemo, fluids, blood draws and transfusions, the line could do little now but transport narcotics. He had lived nearly three years with the thing, protecting it from yanking and wetness and dirt, undergoing the daily heparin flush, sitting through the skin tugging and wound cleaning of a dressing change every three days. Of course he wanted to rip it out.
A hospice pamphlet called this clawing behavior “picking” or, more officially, “terminal restlessness.” It’s common in people who are dying. I had seen brief gestures in the last few days, like scratching a bug bite, but this restlessness was more determined. I reached across Simon, who lay on a wedge of pillows in the middle of our bed, to shake Markus on the shoulder. I said, Something’s going on or Are you awake? or maybe I said nothing at all.
Markus and I lay, each propped on an elbow, curled toward Simon, holding his hands. We must have said I love you and It’s okay. Must have stroked his sore head and wasted arms. Simon struggled to speak. He said, Sit me up, and we adjusted his body a little further up the wedge. We watched him through the dim light. His breath caught and paused, panted, paused. In-out, in-out, in-out, long pause. A bag of fluids pumping toward his chest neared empty. Soon the pump’s electronic warning sound would pierce the quiet. I reached past my pillow to switch it off.
In exactly that moment, I think, we heard his syncopated breathing: in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out, long pause. In-out, in-out. In out.
Markus placed his ear to Simon’s heart. I don’t know where I looked, what I touched. Had I dropped his hand? Had I? When I reached for the pump? Had I let go?
August 6, 2004. 5:04 a.m. Markus and I had been coached by the hospice team to note the time. I can still picture Simon’s traveling nurse, dark hair cresting over her round forehead, an ex-smoker’s rasp, dimples when she smiled. She’d been to our house a few dozen times by then. We sat around the dining room table for her instructions. No need to call hospice immediately. Just notice the time. She turned her head toward an invisible clock, demonstrating calm. Hospice could add it in the records later, whenever we felt ready to call. She warned us not to notify the mortuary too soon. People think they have to call some authority, but you don’t, not on hospice, not when the death is medically expected. Take all the time you need. Take hours, take a whole day. After you’re done with everything you wanted to do, that’s when you call the funeral home. They’ll be there and gone before you know it. Happens all the time.
A little later, after Miriam was awake, we began to feel our way through the day. She still asks us why we didn’t wake her up to say good-bye, to see her big brother die. She was four at the time, almost five. She had stayed asleep next to me that last hour, on my other side. She woke up to find Mommy and Daddy hugging and crying in a strange way. Simon looked the same dead as he had for the last week, just completely still. Eyes bulged much farther than the lids could close. Bones spread at the seams in his skull. Chin, shoulders, arms, legs all shrunk to bone. Skin a yellowed grey. How could I explain to her that I wouldn’t have known the moment to wake her up? Or that I couldn’t think of anything else at all, not even wonder whether to wake her up? When the moment is upon you, death is like birth: it’s now. Or so I tell myself, because I think I must have made a choice to let her sleep.
Miriam and I bathed Simon, just as we had done in the days before. She climbed up on the bed to kneel next to him. Warm water in a basin, one of those drab pink tubs from the hospital. A squirt of rose bath soap. A small washcloth, the kind you use for a baby. We probably took turns with the cloth, or she washed and I dried. Or I washed and she dried, gently, but knowing this time our touch didn’t hurt him. We rubbed his skin one last time with arnica oil, nature’s remedy for pain.
He lay bare, freed from his diaper and the oxygen tube in his nose. Markus tugged out the tiny urinary catheter. He peeled the rectangular bandage from Simon’s chest and uncovered the spot where the tubing entered his skin. Markus wondered for a moment if cutting was all right, if he should ask someone first, if something might leak out. Then he simply cut it like a piece of string. Nothing leaked.
Having released Simon from the last medical attachments, we began to dress him. First we put on his underwear—we had decided on Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear, a little pair of briefs with cartoon figures across the rear, trimmed around legs and fly in a color like royal blue. Then we pulled on his red sweatpants, past the bony width of knee in his straw-thin legs. It took all three of us—Markus, Miriam and me—to maneuver the neck of the colorful T-shirt over his swollen head. We slid yellow-red socks onto his feet. Then we placed him in the middle of our bed, legs straight and hands at his sides. We pushed a rolled up washcloth under one cheek to help his face point upward. There was no way to close his eyes. We kept him there under his special quilt until the end of the afternoon.
Our social worker from hospice spent time with us that day, playing with Miriam and offering guidance. The two of them sat on the bedroom floor, cutting spirals in white paper close to where Simon lay. Families often keep a lock of hair, she said. I needed a moment to realize she meant my last chance was now. I bound three short brown tufts with thread and cut them off to save.
Our plans were set. We had decided no casket, no viewing. An urn made of onyx waited downstairs, tall and smooth with swirls of ochre, red rock, cream, and sagebrush. Tie-dye in stone. We explained to Miriam—and to ourselves—that Simon’s body would be smaller this way, turned into ashes. That his love of nature would make him want to take up only a small space in the earth.
No! cried Miriam. I don’t want Simon’s clothes all burned up.
No one had thought that part through. I had assumed the clothes would go with him. Miriam’s four-year-old mind was clear: I want Simon’s clothes back. Perhaps there was a way to honor her wish, the social worker suggested.
Markus and I made a deal with Miriam: her brother could keep on his underwear, and we would ask the mortuary to remove and return his clothes. The next day Miriam made a watercolor drawing of Simon with a head of curly hair and his arms spread wide, wearing red pants and a tie-dye shirt. He’s flanked by two tall flowers and sheltered under a band of blue sky.
In the days that followed, I returned often to the foot of his empty bed. His outfit lay folded, socks on shirt on red pants. I lifted the pile to my face and drew in its familiar blend of arnica with rose. Burrowing deeper, I caught a darker scent, like acetone spiced with cloves. It was that smell again, the unknown scent slowly filling the room the day I touched and washed and dressed and sat beside my dead son.
Heavy autumn rains have dropped a net of grey over the mountaintops. I have to pause before I remember this hazy color comes from snow. Below their shoulders, the mountains roll flaxen and green, with dots of auburn and puffs of pinkish-red. Rain pounded all night on the skylight above me. Rain rushed down the streets in the morning; I had to leap over storm gutters to keep my feet dry. Now a mid-day grey sky makes peepholes over blue sky. Bright-edged clouds travel low and echo where the snow has traced the mountain ridge in white.
Heavy autumn rains have draped the mountaintops in gauze.
Afternoon sun cuts in through the fireplace windows. Its low winter angle illuminates a spotty film on the glass. Light bounces sharply off particles on surfaces and sills, dramatizing their presence with tiny elongated shadows. In the swath of sunshine, dust motes twirl and glint like bits of mica. Specks like that must fill the air, but they vanish outside the blade of light. I know I have seen, and ignored, the windows for a while now. I have no idea when they were last cleaned.
No time for that. Guests will be here soon. It’s my cousin and his wife, who come from California every year for a ski week in Utah. And their son, who is Simon’s age—or the age Simon would be. There’s no pressure to present a spotless home, but I’m doing what I can. I’ve vacuumed the downstairs and sucked off the mix of cat hair and dust that felts itself along the sofa ledge. My last task is the little glass coffee table. In the honest light of late afternoon, every smear and particle shows. A few squirts of cleaner, wiped until the surface squeaks—that’s all it really takes to make the living room feel company-ready.
The oval tabletop, slightly irregular around its green-tinged edge, rests on a dainty oak frame. I finish wiping the surface and reach under the glass to remove a smudge I made when I flipped it to clean the other side. Now my fingerprints are gone and the table glistens. As I kneel there, a beam of light draws my eyes toward the corner window. Dried droplets coat the surface like scales on a fish. How much more dust would I see floating in the air, I wonder, if my window let in all the light?
I know I have washed these windows before, outside on a ladder in the driveway, leaning over the climbing rose. Markus has, too. We’ve lived here over six years now. I even remember doing the south-facing triangular glass front of the upstairs addition during our first year in the house. It must be seventy square feet of glass, looking east at the angular Wasatch Range and west at the more distant bulk of the Oquirrh Mountains across the Salt Lake Valley. Trees, mountains, and sky demand a clear view. I picture myself adapting a broomstick to hold a squeegee, setting a tall ladder on the balcony, striving for streak-free perfection. The effort seems connected to Simon. Maybe he was up there in the playroom while I strained to reach the point overhead. He might have been sitting on the carpet with his Lego alongside Miriam and her Barbies, getting hungry for a snack.
Judging from the late-winter grime on the living room windows, it could indeed be years since they were cleaned. Markus and Miriam grow skeptical when I assert something like that. Perhaps I claim we haven’t made sushi for dinner yet—a favorite of Simon’s—or watched the early Pixar movies again. But Markus and Miriam find ways to prove I’m mistaken. There’s a lot I can’t keep straight—people’s names, or events on my calendar, or whether I’ve just re-asked a question that someone has already answered. There’s the hesitation sometimes when I hear my name spoken before I realize it refers to me. There’s the shock of how quickly, almost immediately, it became difficult to remember Simon. Do the dead leave and politely take their traces?
No matter how many times I may in fact have cleaned these windows, or Markus has, on this particular afternoon I feel certain I haven’t touched them once these last five years, not since Simon died. Markus doesn’t examine grief the way I do. He wouldn’t wonder whether he has cleaned the windows, or if he feels he has cleaned the windows. When he decides he wants something clean, he cleans it.
The droplets turn silver in the shifting light. I consider what the window would look like clean. And I realize I am at last beginning to ask a new question: What would it feel like to want clean windows again?
Gauze softens an image. Mists drift gauzily. Memories hide behind gauzy curtains. The word itself expands like the fabric, which is woven to stretch lengthwise while holding firm across its width. I have grown curious about gauze, the actual fabric that inspires its figurative associations. The word, I learn, probably came from the city of Gaza, which sent dreamy woven silks into thirteenth century Europe. Perhaps the French first said gaze before the word was Anglicized. Gauze isn’t a self-description, like herringbone twill, and the name doesn’t indicate a weave, like double cloth or satin. Instead, it refers to fabric the way china is porcelain and hamburger is ground meat. In any case, the word alone doesn’t bear the meaning of flimsy or filmy or full of air.
Traditional gauze is woven using the leno technique, in which pairs of neighboring warp threads are twisted around each other after each weft row. The twist keeps the cross threads in place, leaving small gaps between the rows and creating elasticity along the warp. Looms can be mechanized to do the twisting, but the airy effect of gauze is more often achieved using a mock-leno weave, which simply puts distance between the threads without a cumbersome twist.
Mostly I know about gauze from its medical uses: a flexible wrap to go around bends and protrusions of the body or a padding for wounds. Surgeons pack internal cavities with gauze to staunch bleeding while they work. X-ray-detectable gauze was developed to locate pieces left behind. No doubt Simon’s surgeon packed his abdomen with gauze after cutting navel to side on his five-year-old waist and then peeling back layers to reach the tumor deep inside by his kidney and adrenal gland. That surgery, which took place in the middle of Cancer Year One, effectively removed Simon’s primary tumor plus a small spot growing on one lung. But surgery had no impact on the millions of cancer cells spreading head to foot along his sympathetic nervous system. He underwent more treatments than I have ever counted, at major hospitals in New York, California, Michigan, and Utah. By early June of 2004, just after Simon’s seventh birthday, the doctor’s gentle, sober estimate was weeks, a month, maybe two. Outside the cubbyhole exam room where Simon sat playing a video game, Markus and I matched the doctor’s hushed tones. A long-carried fear moved one tick over to a fear confirmed.
In the quiet of my own bedroom on an early August afternoon, I wrapped a square of gauze around my finger, dipped the tip in a cup of water, and dabbed at the corners of Simon’s eyes. We hadn’t known at first why his eyes were expanding. We assumed it was from the egg-sized tumor growing in the bone at the top of his forehead. Then we learned there were multiple tumors in his skull, including behind each eye. Bubbled flesh appeared at their outer corners. Simon’s hospice nurse assumed it was connective tissue poking through or else it was tumor. The difference, she said, was medically irrelevant. A few weeks ago, while he had still been able, Simon used a little hand mirror to look at himself. He touched his forehead, inspected his eyes. Is this my cancer? he asked.
I had never been near a dying person before. I didn’t know it would be so quiet. Intravenous narcotics disguised pain, although Simon hated how they dimmed his mind. We’d heard stories of children in horrifying pain, rushed to emergency rooms and sedated until narcotics could regain control, as the pain specialists say. Too much relief was safer than too little, we were persuaded, and we attached medicine bags and pushed syringes to keep him filled with drugs.
There was very little drama; Simon stayed at home. I could ease part of his misery in simple ways, with my own hands: resting my palm across his forehead. Or wrapping a moistened bit of fabric around my finger to soothe his drying eyes. His gorgeous, full-of-life brown eyes, already pushed into memory as he lay there losing his sight. Watching over him, breathing him in, I felt grateful for quiet, grateful for gauze.
Late one afternoon, as winter merged with spring, the time to wash the windows came. I began with the broad window in the living room, shoving back the sofa and hoisting the blinds. Cleaner hissed toward the glass, the plastic pump clicking in my hand. Don’t waste the spray. Squirt at the top. Wipe it off before it seeps into cracks. Familiar gestures took over.
I massaged in circles on the glass, tipping my head to look for streaks. Dirt etched the bumps and hollows of my hand into my paper towel. Moisture left the glass, and the surface began to grunt. I had assumed it would be a visual thing, knowing when glass has reached the point of clean. But clean is a sound. I closed my eyes and listened again. This time I felt a tug on my hand, a resistance from the glass right before the chortles and squeaks. The glass held my hand tight to its sudden nakedness.
In the last daylight, I moved outside to the front porch, where the window frame trapped what the wind stirred up. I took on the fine black powder with a bucket of sudsy water and a rag. Dislodged dirt trickled from the window ledge in wandering watercolor lines. I wiped off the filthy dribbles and their accusation of neglect. I wrapped my finger in a clean spot on the rag and ran it across the transom bar; the tip blackened instantly. My shoes made gritty wet marks on the white porch floor.
I finished the outside window and quickly wiped the porch railings, too. Before the light vanished, I headed inside and stood on a kitchen stool to spray and wipe the two small windows next to the fireplace. Then I put my tools away. I lowered the blinds and scooted the sofa against the wall. I stood back and looked through the gaps in the blinds. The glass looked different—shinier and darker. As dusk fell, the outside showed through somehow deeper and more distinct.
The next morning Miriam gave me a pre-teen shake of the head and asked why I was washing the windows. She had noticed, as she usually does, that my attention was flowing toward something other than her. I told her it was because I wanted the windows clean and that it was sort of a research project for me, to see how it felt. That’s just plain weird, she said. No doubt, but it was motion.
With refilled supplies, I went outside. Markus was away, or I would have asked for his help with the fourteen-foot ladder. Midway through the driveway side of the house, I remembered we owned a squeegee. I dug around in the storage room and found it—sturdy like the ladder, the type of equipment Markus tends to buy.
When I finished outside the kitchen, I leaned back in my perch and studied the results. Clean glass looks black. Beyond the surface of the black-looking glass, the ladder’s orange rails and aluminum steps reflected like an underwater tableau. Deeper still was a patch of sky—blue with tufts of white.
The 1920’s glass of the living room windows rippled. There were no screens behind the single panes. Aside from the interior blinds, nothing blocked the surface. By day, I could sit at the dining table and look out front. When I moved my head side to side, tree branches shifted in the rippled glass like a tapestry reweaving itself before my eyes. The effect had vanished behind the grime. With the blinds turned exactly flat, the slat lines nearly disappeared. Their narrow edges intersected with the blinds’ vertical strings to make a delicate plaid. I could tilt my head and watch the world change between the gaps.
Not long after the windows got clean, I decided to look for gauze. It was an early, nervous gesture when I knew we had to sell the Utah house. I feared losing the memories it held. The touch of the actual fabric, I believed, could substantiate my memory of caring for Simon. I found a whole shelf of it in the bathroom cabinet. Gauze keeps.
There were packages in various sizes with names like Nu Gauze and Mirasorb. There were individual envelopes of sterile gauze. I found a package labeled “200 four-inch non-sterile sponges,” half used and zipped inside a plastic bag. There was another box, factory-sealed. I would have said the gauze I used that summer to tend to Simon’s eyes was an off-white thready cotton. That would have fit my story. Yet most of what I found wasn’t even woven cloth. It was a “formed fabric” of rayon and polyester, bright white. It stretched more or less the way woven gauze does, but its fibers had been squished together, probably under heat, to form a lattice.
Looking for cotton, I opened one of the crisp envelopes of sterile gauze. It contained an airy off-white fabric, but the package didn’t list the fiber. Between my fingers it felt like cotton, and I wanted my recollection of cotton to be true, so I did a burn-test—something I picked up years ago when I studied textiles. It burned fast like cotton, turning brown at the extinguished edge with soft, dark ash. I held the piece under a magnifying glass, anxious to identify a leno twist. But all I saw were the semi-perpendicular threads of a mock-leno weave. Threads raveled off in all directions.
In truth, my memory of caring for Simon at the end does not involve ripping open individual envelopes of gauze, cream-colored or leno-twisted or otherwise. Most likely I reached into a ready stack for a four-inch square of bright white synthetic. That would explain the half-full pack. Dabbing his drying eyes with my dampened gauze-wrapped finger remains a memory that feels noble, simple, and complete. Yet somehow I’d grown obsessed with purity of the fiber.
By the end of the evening, there was a jumble of gauze on my desk. Each piece had a black or brown corner where I had stuck it into a flame before holding the extinguished end to my nose. The burnt paper smell of cotton. The melted plastic stench of polyester. I picked up a square of cotton gauze and tugged at it to test its give. It caught on the rough tips of my fingers, rustling in the quiet house. I stared at its simple alternating structure of thread and air: presence and absence.
I tossed the samples in the trash.
Recently, I cleaned the little glass coffee table again, both sides. It survived transatlantic shipment for the third time when we left Utah in 2010 to return to Markus’ native Germany. That table has followed us from the garage sale where we found it pre-wedding all the way into middle age. The thin oak frame stands on narrow legs, looking fragile but holding strong. On top of it rests the same quarter-inch-thick glass oval, always creeping just off center, giving full view of the taut lines of the frame and the white rug below. Cleaning the tabletop still feels like a magical transformation. I reserve the task until after I’ve shoved the vacuum all around.
I don’t really notice the unevenness of the glass oval, not anymore. I used to fantasize about a new piece of glass, professionally cut and twice as thick, ringed by a perfect edge of green. I’m sure Markus still wants to replace it, but I don’t think I could part with the old glass. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to lift and flip that imaginary glass, not by myself. I can barely handle the thin one. It wobbled just now as I picked it up to turn it over, and suddenly I was clasping both ends with panicked, sticky hands, gasping at a vision of losing my hold, watching the glass shatter in my mind, silently screaming to make it all go back whole.
Shaky and cautious, I set the glass down. I wondered at the fear coursing through me when it slipped in my hands. Then, like chasing a bit of paper on the wind, my mind touched on a truth hidden deep below reason: all these years later, I am still afraid that Simon will die.
Relief comes slowly at such moments. Reality brings its shallow consolation. There’s nothing to fear now; he’s already dead.
It’s been over a decade since Markus and I flew to Salt Lake City on a March weekend to find a house. We had postponed the move once for Simon’s treatment. A year later we went through with the move so Markus could take a job and I could stay home. We arrived as a family in July. The whole time of the house purchase and relocation, Simon was in and out of multiple hospitals. It was a period of extraordinary complexity.
In our move to Germany, when we sold the Utah house, we ended up keeping most of the “Simon stuff,” each of us clambering for different parts. Miriam, a teenager now, wants all the Playmobil for her own kids. She’s also attached to his Christmas stocking, which matches the one I knit for her. Markus collects subtly, a pin with Simon’s picture, a plaster mold with a handprint, an electronic image of Simon’s face on his computer desktop. I have bins with Simon’s things. Boxes with programs from two memorial services. Favorite stuffed animals. School papers. A stack of his clothes on a bookshelf in my office. More clothes in the basement. A secret stash of medications, which I keep because the heparin syringes and bottles of methadone can bring back details when I tell his story. We still have (and use) the gauze.
I was thinking again about the pair of Buzz Lightyear underpants, the ones we dressed Simon in after he died. I suddenly felt uncertain. Surely I remembered it right. Hadn’t we joked about Simon going To Infinity and Beyond, just like Buzz? Well, I started thinking, I can check, in that pile of his clothes on my shelf. My hands tensed to push me up from my chair. I turned toward the doorway. I pictured the tie-dye and the red sweatpants.
Only, no. The underpants stayed on Simon’s body. Gone. Cremated beyond all reach, with him. Even if I followed my impulse to dig up the urn and peer inside, there would be no knowing. For an unwieldy moment I feel struck by the power of Hindu cremation: non-existence proclaimed in a public blaze. Surely that would convince even the most disbelieving heart. Suddenly I’m cut loose from questions about what those underpants might have been. There’s nothing left to verify. The body turned to ashes is nothing but ashes. Momentary clarity brings an intoxicating peace. A dark dreamscape appears, and a ghostly image of a dead boy lying stiff rises up, slowly twirls, and floats away. My mind flashes, and I see Simon from behind. He’s standing at the end of the upstairs hall in his underwear, hips relaxed and one knee slightly bent. He’s looking off into the distance, and the memory breathes.