Excerpts from My Emilys

by Mike Smith

The following are two excerpts from My Emilys, a collection of essays that confronts the set of common circumstances surrounding the death of the author’s first wife from cancer four months after giving birth to their second child, and the similar diagnosis of his stepdaughter three years later, soon after his second marriage began.

Such Stuff

It took six and a half years after my first wife’s death for my sleeping mind to leave Georgetown Hospital, six and a half years for other memories of those eighteen months of our life together in Washington, D.C., to find their way back to the surface of my dreams. I know they’ve suffered a bit, as I have, suffered a sea change—It is a pearl now that was once my mind’s blinking eye.

Our apartment on 39th Street was on the second of a three-story “garden style” building. For half of the year, despite the large trees of the courtyard, it was suffused with warm light in the morning. I have an image in my head from our first year there of Emily sitting at the end of our dining room table, which was entirely too long for our four-room apartment. She’s drinking coffee and eating a chocolate croissant from Whole Foods. Her laptop, on the hard drive of which her not quite finished book is saved, is open but not yet on. Books and papers lie scattered around her. Our four-year old daughter, Virginia, is sitting on the floor by the coffee table, playing with Star Wars figures. I know it is a chocolate croissant because I am as obsessive about new foods as Virginia is new toys. Thus, the Star Wars figures; thus the chocolate croissant, which I discovered our very first week here and which, no doubt, I’ve brought back to my girls after taking the dog for her morning walk.

The table spanned the double window that made up the outside wall of our central room. It just fit, and at only the kitchen end was their space enough to sit down. It is this end that will serve us so well one year later when I have to administer the heavy antibiotics through Emily’s I.V. in the last two months of her life, but luckily, finally, this fact does not wholly obliterate now this earlier image.

The table was an imprudent purchase of our first semester of graduate school when we were flush with our first stipend checks and wanted to finally feel like adults in our own home. We went right out to Pier One and bought it on the spot, a mission-style display model with four chairs and a bench. It’s a dark grain, almost black, and I am still inordinately proud of purchasing it. It was not until five years later, when Emily accepted her first teaching job at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina that we lived in a house large enough to accommodate the table. In fact, it seemed our table had been made to fit our restored Arts and Craft bungalow with its five fireplaces, 12ft high ceilings and great hall. Before, we’d eaten most of our meals on a small aluminum outdoor tray, which we placed in front of the couch, booty from one of Emily’s exes that now holds our eleven year-old daughter’s books of mythology and spells. The big table is still with me too, scarred from the claws of our dog, Jane, who seemed to like surfing its surface. It’s now finally got the family to fit all seven of its seats.

It must be a Sunday, mid-morning, and quite early in the 2006 fall semester because Emily is still thinking about the dissertation she plans to turn into her ticket to tenure, not her classes. Emily is not yet pregnant with our son, Langston, but we’ve been thinking a lot about him, about who he might be and how complete he will make us feel. For five years I had secretly, passively, resisted another child, finding myself perfectly and joyfully overwhelmed by Virginia, who, almost since birth, has seemed both a force of nature and the only person who can bring me out of myself no matter my mood. Because the D.C. apartment proved to be as small as the house in Indiana to which we had brought Virginia home, we had had to adjust our play, and so Virginia and I had begun taking weekend excursions. In that first house, we had all, in fact, shared a bedroom. Virginia’s crib, once she stopped sleeping in our bed, lay mere inches from my pillow. One of my happiest memories of that first year of her life was waking one morning to find Virginia, still nearly toothless, standing behind the bars of her crib, laughing at her new ability to peer over the crossbar.

Perhaps Virginia, Jane, and I are hoping for a walk on the trails of the National Forest that coves our neighborhood. We played Hobbits a lot in those days, roaming the woods as Bilbo and Bilbino, splashing in the creek and climbing on the ship’s-rope vines which dangled over the trails, oblivious that the activity and excitement of a major city lay just three blocks away.

Early on, every new thing that late summer seemed an independent miracle: my eleventh-hour job, the spot for Virginia that opened up one week before school started in the second Pre-K classroom at Stoddert Elementary, a two-story, red-brick schoolhouse which lay across the field opposite our apartment building. I woke each morning expecting to be surprised. On Saturdays in September, Emily and Virginia will head downtown to the National Museum for free art lessons and scavenger hunts while I spend the morning writing—first with coffee in bed, then on one of the picnic tables near Stoddert within view of the D2 bus from Dupont Circle, which Virginia and I called the R2D2. I loved watching them walk across that field to meet me.

It’s remarkable how successfully even the conscious mind bends time. Often, over the last three years, hearing my wife’s lovely voice in a different part of the house, I still have to remind myself that it is my second wife Jennifer, not Emily, that I hear. Jennifer views parenthood the way Emily did, and Emily, also, possessed Jennifer’s way of instinctively negotiating the everyday of her world that convinced you she would be at home anywhere. I tell myself they might have been friends, my very own Hermia and Helena. Lucky dreaming me.

For a long time, though, I had not been able to claim my dreams as my own. When I dreamed of childhood, I dreamed of Virginia’s childhood before her mother’s death. Or I dreamed of Langston’s childhood in a world that should have been. A couple of years ago, as I was preparing for my two-year tenure review, I dreamed, first, that Emily had been denied tenure. Then, after I woke and fallen back asleep, that she was chair to whom I was making my i-dotted, t-crossed case. I woke and promptly decided to go ahead and invest in a 2-inch binder for my portfolio, anticipating how exhaustive my plea would have to be.

Before this fall, I had had exactly three dreams of Emily. The tenure dream was the third. Virginia has been graced with visits from her mother much more often than I have, a phenomenon for which I’m happy, mostly. The mother of Langston’s godmother, who is a practicing Buddhist, once told me that people who suffer early deaths ascend higher on the ladder towards enlightenment. I used to think that, perhaps, this was why she visits me so infrequently—I feel so far from any sense of enlightenment. Let me try to describe the first part of the third dream again. I am in our apartment in D.C., though the layout has changed. We now have three bedrooms, one of which functions as a home-office. We are higher up, too, ten stories or more, and the sky is grey and tinted through our large windows. There are no treetops in sight. I have been home all day and am just getting ready to fetch Virginia from school, Langston from a daycare that did not exist, when Emily enters, laden with briefcase, purple scarf, overcoat, and hat. Her cheeks are red and I can tell she has been crying, enraged. Or has she been laughing? I woke before I had the answer.

For someone who was so generous with her students, so careful and so gifted a teacher, it seems strange that I can easily see her having done something else with her life. Once, after waking during her longest hospital stay, Emily turned to me and said she thought she would like to go to the Appalachian mountains and work with her hands, become a potter in Asheville, North Carolina, perhaps, where she went to college and where she first fell in love with her life. I assumed she had been dreaming of a place as far away from that hospital room as she could imagine, but last summer, while visiting her parents, I found a photo of her in our high school yearbook. She’s sculpting a figure in clay. Though she was often self-conscious about having her picture taken, the budding photojournalist has caught her wholly absorbed in her work.

In the first dream I had of Emily after her death, we were strangers to each other. This dream occurred in the first year after I had moved back to North Carolina, more than a year before Jennifer and I began dating. Emily was young in this dream, younger than I knew her, as young as she is in the yearbook picture or the pictures of late adolescence her cousin in England sent me after her death. She had visited him the year she graduated from high school, and loved every second of the trip, smiling broadly in every picture. In the dream, the city we are in must be New York. It is winter and she’s wearing a green peacoat with the collar turned up against the wind, so I can’t quite make out her face. I do know she’s someone I must meet and so I chase after her on the street. The world is all cement and silver faces and I can’t quite get close enough to get her attention. Often while dreaming, I wake enough to know I am dreaming, which allows me the second and third chances that almost never occur in real life. Chasing her, I fall down a pothole and wake enough to dream a ladder at the end of the tunnel, rising to the street to find I have gained ground. But I never catch her. Finally, she disappears over the broad steps of an institutional building, which might be the public library, the famous one with the lions out front. I’m not sure why I cannot climb those steps in my dream. I can only sit on a bench across the street and wait with the pigeons to wake up.

Both the peacoat and winter in New York were part of our actual history together. Six months after we met as coworkers at New-N-Novels, an independent bookstore in our hometown Greensboro, North Carolina, Emily began her graduate work at Fordham University in the heart of the Bronx, while I finished up my final year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, still unsure about almost everything in my life. Everything but Emily. That Thanksgiving break, at a park near my apartment on the outskirts of campus, I proposed. We spent most of the winter holidays nestled in her apartment on 187th Street, eating pizza, watching bad television with Emily’s roommate, and sleeping late. Occasionally, we would actually emerge from our nest to see we were in a rather large city filled with people, and to buy Christmas presents in Greenwich Village for our families.

The second dream has been the hardest. I had been remarried for almost a year, a very hard year. That was the year my stepdaughter had been diagnosed with a germ cell tumor and I had just finished up my first year of teaching in this new state of ours, so in addition to negotiating the curves of a new family life, all seven of us were navigating the actual terrain of our new home. My Emily chose to visit me one of those hot July nights, just as my summer school term was beginning. She tucked me in bed, as if I were sick, then moved to the door, turned, and snapped her fingers playfully when I asked her to stay.

“So we’re doing this now?” she asked with one of her knowing smiles.

“No. That’s her,” I said. Even my dream self knew I was being petulant, a child.

“I like it. Do you remember how I used to. . .” she began, shaking her finger in mock anger.

“Yes,” I said. “Insazy.”

As she walked over to me, I asked her how long she could stay this time. When I asked her again, she vanished, and, in the dream, I was outside myself looking down, as if the face beneath me were my reflection, but the eyes of my mirror self were closed, my lips slightly pursed, as if waiting to be kissed. “Insazy,” incidentally, was the most endearing example of Emily’s delightful habit, usually in moments of great feeling, of unconsciously creating portmanteaus. Nothing dispelled the lingering grudge of an argument faster.

Mystery. It is our magical ignorance of our own brains that makes the images they create resonate through our lives and make our dreams such a delightful subject of study. Most modern theories assume our dreams, even the bad ones, are trying to do us some good. Careful theorists note the rest is always tentative. Most say dreams occur because some part of our mind is either obstinately attempting to solve the problems that vex our waking selves or cleaning out the stuff of the previous day, so we can solve our problems in the clear light of tomorrow. Even physiological theories seem to assume teleological beneficence, which is why I prefer those theories that avoid the base of rationality, the theories that remove biological agency from the phenomenon. Dreams as visitations. Dreams as wishes, desires that lie deeply enough that they are beyond our control. Can you choose with whom you fall in love? Would you want to? Jung called them big, the big dreams, the ones in which your apprehension seems quickened, more alive, as if your mind’s eye comprehended more than the usual spectrum of life, as if you had been loaned Crow’s eyes, Wolf’s snout, Hare’s ears.

One morning this fall, I woke up thinking of the Halloween of that fall, the fall of the image in my head, the fall before it all fell so terribly now more than seven years ago, when the idea of having another child was a private one that Emily and I only talked about late at night so that Virginia, who was a notoriously difficult sleeper, could not hear our plans. I must have been dreaming, but the dream fled before I woke or, perhaps, it woke me. Glover Park, with its odd mixture of small and large families, students, teachers and young professionals, embraced Halloween like no other neighborhood we had known. We stepped to the corner and were swept away by a rush of costume and chatter. Almost everyone kept a cooler on their porches, so the parents went trick-or-treating, too! It took us three blocks to find our feet, and, after an hour, all three of us had had enough.

When I woke, I was thinking of how warm and glowing our central room seemed, as we moved our aluminum table out of the way and sat in a triangle, criss-cross applesauce, with Virginia’s loot in a pile in the center. I found, as I lay on my back on my bed, luxuriating in this moment of my life, that, for once, I wasn’t trying to fix things, to construct a way out, to look for something I had missed the first time, some clue to Emily’s health that might have changed things for her, for all of us. I knew—how could I not?— how things would go, that even as soon as that following Christmas our story would begin to spiral tragically downward. Every other time I had remembered something of those eighteen months in D.C., the merest glimpse of the actual had been enough to close my eyes to the image of that past life. Not so this morning. In the rush of time that brought me back to the present moment where I was warm in my bed in Mississippi, my love Jennifer still sleeping beside me, in the rush that zoomed me out and away from that earlier life, I kept my eyes wide open.

Downy Time

The laundry room had fascinated my daughter Virginia since the July morning we moved into our Washington, D.C. apartment three days before her fourth birthday on July 12, 2006. It was located in the basement and less a room than a wide corridor that connected the two arms of our building. The flight of stairs you took to reach it lay behind the main staircase, down a short hallway just dark enough to entice a four year old who had been encouraged by her mother to love idiosyncratic nooks and small, secret places. So, when at the end of Emily’s first trimester that February, it became apparent that she should no longer walk the extra stairs, Virginia insisted on helping me with my new chore.

I was much more used to washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms than taking care of our clothes, a divvying up which suited Emily when we were first married as much as it did me. She had, after all, been doing her own laundry since she was twelve and saw it, largely, as a calming, even meditative activity. I can’t remember now if we had a conversation about domestic chores, if it was a negotiation or if we just fell naturally into this division of labor, but I do know that no chore, especially before Virginia, felt particularly onerous. As students, we had kept house casually, sporadically, and had a high tolerance for mess. Emily grew up in a household of animals, both selected pets and rescued guests in need of some tender loving care, so she was used to a household that valued other virtues besides cleanliness. At various times growing up, she shared her room with birds, baby opossums, and a raccoon. Even when we raised our standards because of a crawling baby who too quickly became a curious toddler, keeping a neat house seemed one of our easier responsibilities, so my only concern in taking over the laundry duties was that I might ruin one of the more delicate of Emily’s new work outfits.

Every couple of days, Virginia and I would traipse downstairs after school or supper with our brimming basket while Emily rested or graded and prepped for her classes. The laundry room was invariably spotless, which gave off the impression that it was seldom used. Nevertheless, forgotten items of clothing hung from a rolling rack in the corner. Fresh stockings or underwear, which got Virginia giggling, drooped beside coats and sweaters that had been there for months. She wondered why someone wouldn’t notice they’d left their briefs or bra behind and I asked her if she was thinking that a building full of people had gone to work that morning with nothing on under their clothes. The first thing she liked to do was to step into the cart and weave slowly between each dangling pair of pants, each lonely shirt sleeve, as if she were a predatory cat stalking prey through the savannah’s high weeds. One of the first times we went down there together, Virginia became terrified, mid-routine, by the buzzer from one of the dryers. She jumped and ran toward me, inadvertently carrying with her a man’s dress shirt like a mane around her head. Her face was guile-less and reminded me of that expression she wore as an infant when I would drop her down too suddenly to her mattress.

Unless you are unlucky enough to be tasked with the responsibility of maintaining one, there is something soul-restorative about a well-kept laundry room. It has to do with scents and sounds more than light. Strong sweets, the smells of a laundry—the musty perfumed shirts, the grass-stained jeans, the faintly blossoming sweat of the hard-playing child—entered me as I dropped the clothes en masse into the upright washer. The whiff of the overly strong scoop of detergent became memory when I moved the load, stiff with wet, to the dryer or separated and folded each warm piece onto its respective stacks. No matter the temperature outside, it was always summer in the Laundromat that winter. I remember wondering if anyone had thought to collect an anthology of laundry poems. A lot of the poets I had read have one. In fact, the first poem I shared with my eventual wife was about a sixteen year-old boy who spent his summers working at his lonely father’s Laundromat. Emily and I were just friends then, though she must have guessed my feelings. Mercifully, I don’t remember much of the poem beyond the plot and that it represented my first attempt at a ballad stanza. Near the end of the poem, the boy got in trouble for teaching a pretty girl how to cheat the change machine. Emily passed it on to her own father, a professor of English at UNC-Greensboro, my university, though I had not yet met him. When I did, he was kinder to me in his response than the poem warranted.

I regretted, with Virginia, that the machines in our building were not coin-operated because the unclean scrape of slotted quarters was one of the sounds I cherished—Metal on metal, the gears of commerce and hygiene. As it was, every month or so we would have to walk over to the rental office to put more money on our card. It was only a block away, but having basked in the wet warmth of the laundry room made any walk seem longer. In the redolent, always summer of our basement, it was too easy to forget that winter lay just one Plexiglass door away.

Just after we had moved, Virginia’s grandmother Nannah introduced her to “Snake in the Gulley,” a sidewalk game of her own girlhood. All you needed for this game was a yard divided by a walkway just like the walkway that led from the sidewalk to our new building’s door. One person, ideally a grown-up, would be the snake and patrol the walk trying to catch the rabbits that darted across her path. The snake couldn’t step on the grass, so could only grab a bunny when it was on the cement. Moreover, the snake had to hum a specific tune the entire time. As it happened, Virginia soon spied two more or less straight cracks about three feet apart which extended the width of the painted gray cement floor of the laundry room floor, so between cycles or if we were waiting on a dryer, she and I would get in a quick game. On rainy days, many of our young neighbors, the recent graduates and the recently married, would pass through on their way home from work, and, sometimes, they would join the game or just chat a minute or two with Virginia. She was the only kid in a building filled with interns, single professionals, and young couples hanging on to their life in the city for as long as they could, which meant that we had the laundry room largely to ourselves in the late weekday afternoons and evenings. After our games, the spinning and tumbling of the washers and dryers tempted us to let our minds fall quiet. Sitting on the bench one afternoon with Virginia, I answered her deep sigh with, “This is what they call ‘down time,” which she repeated as “downy time” to her mother when we returned to the apartment, laden with our loads. And so it was.

Half a year later, keeping things clean and in order would take on an urgency I could not have foreseen and would mitigate the adolescent adventure visiting the laundry room had seemed that late winter. In the summer and fall, I began washing my hands thirty times a day, only wore clothes that could be safely washed in hot water and governed Virginia’s dress with such ferocity that she was more bewildered than resentful. I stopped allowing Virginia to accompany me to the basement then, but these early days it was all a risk-free game. She and I laughed at my mistakes, including the time I washed four of my white work shirts with Virginia’s bright red nightgown and so wore pink the rest of the semester. Virginia loved folding, which first required jumping into the warm pile at the front of the dryer. I got into it too, the folding, not the hamper. The precision of the folds, the intimacy of this undervalued work, the polished floor, the sprays and measurements, this art of maintenance and conservation appealed to me in the same way polishing the furniture had when I was a child. It was meditative, a welcome interlude of thoughtless exactness and repetition. I always felt fresher coming back up the stairs to the apartment

If you Google the words “literature on laundry,” the first hit that comes up is the website for the American Cleaning Institute, which is the home of the U.S. Cleaning Products Industry, where you can click on a large number of the types of common stains to get step-by-step solutions. For adhesive tape or chewing gum, for instance, you should apply ice or cold water to harden the surface of the tape or gum, then scrape it off with a dull knife. For fresh blood stains, you should soak the item of clothing in cold water, not hot, as that will set the stain. For dried blood, you must use a product that contains enzymes. For crayon, you should follow the same procedure you would use for candlewax, in which, after scraping the surface of your garment the way you would for gum, you should arrange it on a flat surface. Lay the stained item of clothing between two clean paper towels, and press with a warm iron, changing the paper towels often to soak up as much wax as possible.

The site has been around in one incarnation or another since 1997, so it might have been helpful to me had I thought to check. By August, 2007, laundry was serious business. It was imperative that the apartment be kept as clean as possible while Emily was undergoing chemotherapy, and, eventually, I started going to the basement later at night, after Virginia and Langston had gone to sleep. The fluorescent lights mimicked blue moonlight instead of the sun now, the scent of detergent and dryer sheets artificially intense, clumsy imitations of flowers in bloom, the sweetness of rot. I worried over the chemicals of the blue-green gunk in the drain and went all organic. The trips downstairs became intervention, not interlude. I would sit, unthinking, rubbing my already dry and sore eyes, now irritated further by the dust and detergent. This was difficult down time, equally prized and dreaded because it was alone time, too. It was rest without restoration, unlike lying down with any of my three charges hopefully sleeping soundly upstairs. Loneliness had set in. I used to descend the steps a little too loudly in the vain hope of rousing a neighbor, so I might be graced with the opportunity to apologize and explain. I lingered over the last shirts to be folded, gulped a beer before putting the clothes away in closets and drawers, and loitered by the mailboxes hoping to see someone catching a last smoke on the front stoop. I worried that I might buckle under the weight of it all, keeping up with the unpredictable pace of Emily’s disease, holding the invisible germs at bay, and somehow maintaining a semblance of order for Virginia and Langston in the face of the chaotic unknown.

When my neighbor and friend across the hall stopped me one afternoon to tell me that he’d gifted me with three months of laundry service, I sat down on the steps and sighed with relief. My Downy Time had been, mercifully, suspended.

MIKE SMITH has published three collections of poetry, including Multiverse, a collection of two anagrammatic cycles. Recent poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, The Greensboro Review, Image: Journal of Art and Faith, Notre Dame Magazine, and Raleigh Review. In addition, his translation of the first part of Goethe’s Faust was published by Shearsman Books in 2012.