The warm and heavy smell of wood is unmistakable. Whether it’s freshly cut lumber in the lumber yard, being milled in a shop, or already in place as the walls and ceiling of someone’s home, it is a smell that immediately elicits strong emotional and spiritual connections within me. It holds with it the promise of creative freedom, a comforting haven, and a bold reminder of the beauties nature has to offer. This is a smell that I grew up with. It permeates many of my memories, especially those with my father. Wood is something that I hold very dear; it is something that I will forever cherish.
When I walk into a place containing an aroma of wood, images of helping my father spring to my mind. As a child, I would occasionally accompany him to work at the carpentry shop he co-owned. I would dig through the wood-scrap bins, pull out the most interesting pieces I could find, and then glue them together to create some haphazard sculpture. Sometimes my dad would let me assist him with some of the easier chores, such as sanding, and once I was old enough to wield a sharp pocket knife, I sharpened the carpentry pencils for him. The world of wood was my escape from the ordinary; it was a world that my Daddy and I shared.
Eventually, my father opened his very own business, Sanctuary Woodworking, Inc. Hidden in the middle of the woods, it truly was a sanctuary. I worked there sporadically as a teenager, learning more about the art of woodworking. I would spend many hours at a time sanding various projects down to a smooth, wonderful surface. Each newly created piece felt soft as I ran my hands down them. Bits of sawdust always found their way up my nose, ensuring that the smell would stay with me long past the commute home.
A few years later, during my pregnancy, I worked for my father once again. I grew familiar with the different types of wood as I carried them up and down the stairs. It was then that I became acquainted with the variance in their scents. Pine emitted a crisp, bright scent in comparison to the darker and deeper fragrance of mahogany. Beyond their aroma, my eyes danced upon the surfaces of rare wooden masterpieces constructed by Mother Nature. The intricacies of wood grain patterns mesmerized and amused me as pictures accompanied by stories concocted between my father and I sprang to life. I was able to stand in awe in front of a finished project. I made this. I created something that will live on for decades, an unparalleled piece of art. I couldn’t wait to pass on the love for woodworking to my own little unborn masterpiece, my son.
To this very day, beautiful wood-craftings demand my attention. A faint wooden smell on the wind causes me to pause and seek its origin. My relationship with wood has been ever-developing, and it will continue to grow and change throughout my life. I maintain a deep respect for trees. Their company is a calming presence for me. Pieces of furniture, sculpture, cabinetry, and other creations hold within them the hard work and respect only artisans can truly appreciate. There is a very dear place in my heart for this abounding resource, this artistic medium, this connection between my past, present, and future.
When I was 15, I went to a horse ranch to purchase my first horse. I was standing in a field with the sun beating down on meand warming my skin, which created a nice tanned glow. The trees were swaying on a slight breeze so one could see all the different colors of green on the leaves. It was a perfect day to be watching three foals frolic around the pasture. Their short fuzzy tails were flicking back and forth, and they were happily nipping each other’s backs. I was making my decision about which foal to purchase. I really like a chestnut colored one, but he was a male, and I had gone to that farm specifically to get a female, a filly. There was only one and she was bay colored; she had a brown coat with a black mane and tail. Her name was Shocolot. She was an Arabian-Pinto mix, and she was only four months old. She was running around showing a lot of sass to the other two colts. Every time the colts came near her, she would kick out her long back legs and buck towards them. I like her already; she seemed to have a lot of spirit. I could not wait to take her home. I had no idea that taking this filly home with me would change her life forever, leaving my parents and me to save her.
It took a while to load Shocolot into the trailer; she had never been in one before. After some thrashing on her end, the ranch owner and I managed to get the trailer closed. When we finally got her home, I could hardly wait to show Shocolot her new home. As she was checking the place out, my father and I went to work on building a lean-to, a slanted roof which we attached to the back of our shed. It only took a few hours, and it was gratifying to know I had pitched in my own efforts for my horse to give her a wonderful shelter. The largest smile crept up my face as my father and I walked out. Shocolot immediately walked in to check out what we had done. I knew she would like it. It was the perfect size to comfort her. I was silently hoping she would like the change in scenery. She had an open pasture with a few trees at the previous ranch, and now her whole pasture was filled with trees, except up at the front of the fence.
The next day, I woke up early to see how Shocolot had fared through the night. I received a friendly nicker of recognition, and it made me extremely pleased. I must have been doing something right in her eyes. That afternoon I decided to teach Shocolot how to walk on a lead, which is very similar to walking a dog. It was important to get my horse to trust me to start the process of bonding. It took Shocolot a little over a week to have no hesitations or pauses in her walking. So far, I was very proud of my horse. Her movement was beautiful, and I loved to watch her muscles ripple beneath her coat. My relationship with Shocolot was so much more than a horse and its rider. It was as strong a friendship as could be. She would play hide and seek and tag with me as if she were human. It was the strangest relationship between a human and horse I had ever experienced. I loved my horse more than I even knew.
Two years later on an early winter morning, I sat bolt upright in bed after hearing a blood curdling scream. I was confused at first, but immediately knew who the scream belonged to. I could feel the blood drain from my face and my adrenaline shooting through my body like liquid fire. I ran as fast as I could maneuver in the minimal sunlight through the house to my front porch. What I saw in that moment could never be erased or dulled from my mind. My mother saw me and screamed at me in panic to grab the sharpest knife I could find from the kitchen. In a split second I battled with my legs to will them to move. I almost could not carry out the task. Finally, my legs responded and I raced into the kitchen to grab a large butcher knife. I tore back outside. As I reached Shocolot’s enclosure, I saw just how bad the situation was. My mother and I to this day still have no idea how long Shocolot was laying on the ground with one of her back legs wound up in a rope. She must have been struggling for many hours to get up. A thick layer of ice had formed across the top half of her body. The sweat she was producing was freezing immediately from the temperature. Her body was trembling like someone with hypothermia. I wanted to die from the pain of seeing my best friend in that situation, helpless, and voiceless, except the chilling scream.
I handed my mother the knife, and she began desperately to cut off the rope. When her leg was finally freed, we expected Shocolot to get up and everything to be all right. How wrong we were. Instead, she just lay there, unaware that her leg was even free of the rope. My mother and I tried helping her up, but the attempt was futile. She was an 800 pound animal; we were two 120 pound humans, so I made a difficult decision. I left my horse to wake my father. Waking my father at 5:30 am was difficult, but he understood the urgency in my voice. When he reached Shocolot and my mother, he was in shock by the situation. We all helped her up, but she could not stay standing. She fell down, which was a very bad sign. If a horse cannot stand, then a horse cannot live. A horse’s lungs cannot handle the pressure of her own weight. Luckily, Shocolot was very young and not yet fully grown; this played an important role in her survival throughout her tormented hours. On the third try, Shocolot stood with her front legs splayed out in front of her for balance. I grabbed some blankets from our basement to cover her. When her core temperature was regulated enough, she started limping towards her water trough, a very good sign.
My father went into the house to speak with a veterinarian. We found out that her leg had been cut off from blood flow for so long that there was permanent tissue and ligament damage. She would never be able to carry the weight of an adult again. There was nothing for us to do but to soak the damaged hoof in Epsom salt to help her with swelling, and the pain.
Shocolot is now ten years old and lives happily on a farm that helps physically disabled children take riding lessons. I have yet to visit her because I don’t believe I would be able to walk away without her. It was very hard for me to leave her after everything we had been through. We had become very close to each other in the six years I had her. Shocolot helped me learn the strength and courage it takes to get through a traumatic experience with a loved one. My experience with her has made me a stronger person.
It was nearly 2 am, a few weeks until summer. Most students my age were asleep, preparing for 5th grade finals. Not I. I was staggering down the highway, belongings in hand, heading towards uptown. The summertime breeze was unusually chilly, just as the night was eerily quiet. In the pitch black, I continued my journey, unknowing that I was completely lost. Abruptly, the whole world lit up, as if I had died and gone to heaven. When my vision cleared, only then did I see the car, and a policeman stepped out of it.
“Young lady,” he paused, as his eyes grimly looked me up and down, “why are you in the middle of the road so late at night?” At that, I burst into tears.
“I ran away! I just had to get away!”
“Okay, now tell me, why did you run away?” He asked as his face slowly softened. That is where this story truly begins: at home.
Zoom! I watched yet another car speed past the bus. I carefully scanned the area trying to memorize the route the bus took. Normally I drew or read to pass the time, but today was different. The rest of the trip was quiet as usual. My older brother sat beside me, swaying back and forth. He always had to ride the bus with me. I got too scared to sit alone, let alone too scared to ride alone.
“Kristina, it’s our stop.”
I looked up to see my brother pulling the cord, and then strolling to the back of the bus. I clutched the seat as the bus halted to a stop. Only after the bus stopped did I join my brother. I slowly slinked off the bus and stared at the twin red brick buildings that loomed in front of me. I took a deep breath then let out a sigh. I was home.
Immediately after entering our small apartment, I darted straight towards my room. I sorted through my stuff, trying to decide what I could live without. Whatever I chose had to fit in my pillowcase. I looked over all my prized possessions: my porcelain dolls, stuffed animals, Pokémon cards, wolf collectibles and video games. I really didn’t know how to choose.
“Dinner time!” My brother called out. I entered the dining room pretending nothing was wrong. After dinner was served, Mom looked at me with a wide grin.
“Kristina, I’ve got great news for you.”
“What is it!?”
“I got you an audition to a play at the DECC.” I smiled slightly. This made what I was about to do hurt even worse. I ate dinner in silence.
“Nick, Kristina, do you guys want ice cream?”
I headed back towards my room to continue packing. I jolted to a stop at the beginning of the hall. There he stood again. Every night he waited outside my bedroom, hands reaching out for my neck. That same anonymous shadow figure lurked here tonight, hand stretched out, bony fingers and all. My heart stopped. My breath was shallow. I didn’t want to move, even though I had to. I held my breath, and ran as fast as I could towards my door. I opened my door and slammed it shut. That’s it, I had to get out of here today. I grabbed my pillow and removed the casing. I stuffed it full of my Pokémon cards and stuffed animals. Now all I had to do was wait.
I glanced at my clock yet again. Finally, it’s midnight. I climbed out of bed and quickly got dressed. I slowly opened the door and peeked out in the hall.
“Good.” I sighed. The shadow man wasn’t there. I snuck into the kitchen and grabbed a loaf of bread. After heading back into my room, I shoved the bread in my pillow case. I crept towards the front door. Slowly I undid the chain lock and tip-toed out into the building’s main hall. I ran out of the building onto the streets. I was free.
I found myself back on the highway with the policeman. I was already in the back of his squad car and heading towards the local hospital. After frisking my teddy bear, he let me squeeze it on the way there. He called my mom and told her where I’d be. After getting to the hospital, I was admitted to the psych ward. After two days of frivolous testing, the doctors came in my room.
“Kristina, you’ve been diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia.” They explained.
“Do you understand?” I nodded my head, even though I didn’t really understand. All I knew was that I was labeled. I no longer felt normal, but I eventually got over that. Now I finally feel comfortable in my own skin.
“Click,” pause, hiss…“click,” pause “hiss,” the hypnotic sound of my arch enemy and friend permeated my consciousness. The embedded meaning of those sounds didn’t truly register; my consciousness simply floated on their surface. I existed because of those sounds. If they stopped, I would stop too. The sound lulled me into the transient bubble of a dream life. I found myself trying to match the intake of each of my breaths with each click and tried to exhale with each discrete hiss. As hard as I tried I couldn’t quite manage it. Frustrated, I stood up, stretched and looked around for the umpteenth time.
It was night, so the slick, black, reflective surface of the window glass would reveal nothing unless I pressed my face against it with hands cupped around my eyes. The chill surface repelled me. I had been cold in this room from the start. The icy lockdown of the frozen January beyond encroached and threatened my core. My shoulders ached, and the effort of sitting for hours on end in that chill had compounded the tension which had built incrementally, moment by moment. I rotated my head in a circle, tilting it back and shrugging my shoulders. Again I tried to assess my surroundings dispassionately.
Walls impassively grey and white, the blind, black windows, linoleum flooring of the usual boring institutional composition surrounded me on five sides. Overhead was the acoustic ceiling tile textured like a sponge to absorb the sounds. The sounds which I resented and craved simultaneously were sucked into that ceiling. My eyes followed the ceiling tile to the track embedded above me. Suspended from that track was the curtain. It was pulled back to the wall for now. Rarely had I seen that curtain in use. It couldn’t shield me from anything anyway. I could always hear that sound. “Click,” pause “hiss…click”. My eyes trailed downward along the drapery to the source. Flickering numbers covering its face performed a luminescent dance. It sat there enigmatically, my enemy-ally in an otherwise silent struggle flashing obscure messages in a code I had been trying to decipher for two weeks. The ventilator machine kept my husband breathing and alive.
I had asked questions. I guess I had sounded as if I could understand them. They had answered using phrases like oxygen saturation and partial pressure. This number needs to go down. It represents such and so. It must go down. This number is different it must go up. Those were the easy questions even if I did not truly understand the answers. I could know what to do and when.
“You can help,” they had assured me. “We’ll be just out here and we’ll check in, but you can help and let us know if this gets low.” They had spoken blandly as if it were just another routine day.
I had asked the hardest questions the first day. The milky white bag of sedation that prevented him from awakening and fighting the machine, did it ease his pain too? I knew he had been in pain, so much pain. When would they let him wake up? Can he tell that I’m here? Does he know I am holding his hand? I couldn’t even decide if I wanted him to know I was there. If he could know that, he must also know on some level a frightening sense of helplessness that I could not even fathom. Whatever comfort he might gain from my presence would only be swamped by the awareness of his immobility and agony. No, I didn’t really want him to know I was there with him. But they were not certain. So I stayed. I couldn’t leave him alone like that anyway. “Click” pause “hiss…Click” pause “hiss,” it was my breath, my heartbeat, my life. If it stopped, I would stop too. The bubble dream that held my life would rupture.
“Keep it concrete,” I had coached myself. “Don’t sweat what you cannot control,” I had chanted like an internal mantra. “Don’t start crying or you’ll never stop,” bolstered my last defenses when I began to crumple inside. That was the cardinal rule. Don’t cry. Tears are for endings and defeat; it isn’t over.
“Take care of yourself now, it won’t help him if you get sick,” concern tinged with impatience colored their words. The implied threat that I would not be able to stay with him achieved its purpose. I ate three times a day in the cafeteria but it was like cardboard and water that I had to choke down. A brightly colored gift bag appeared one day filled with nuts and dried fruit. I could nibble while I stayed with him. I rationed myself. I found I could the taste the sweetness of that fruit if I remained in that room.
“You need to sleep. Go lie down. No, you cannot sleep here. We’ll come and get you if there is any change,” they reassured me tonight just as every other night, as they herded me gently away. I lay down in a small room close by. The couch was firm and narrow but it sufficed. I wrapped my shoulders with the heavy warmth of his old Carhartt jacket and it enveloped me as if it were his familiar, lanky-armed embrace. The pungent stale scent of old cigarette smoke was faint but still clung to the fabric. Two weeks before I would have pulled out the Febreeze and gleefully eradicated that odor. Now it comforted me.
“Don’t cry dammit!” I commanded myself as the silence of the empty family room replaced the ‘click and hiss’ that continued unabated down the hall. I lay there and asked God again, “Papa God…won’t you please help him? I know he’s in trouble. I know it could go both ways. They told me that he’s got a 50-50 chance, but I know nothing is simply chance with You. I know You love him so much more than I ever could, so please…please…heal him.” I tried to tack on the obligatory, “Thy will be done,” but my throat clenched in rebellion as if to deny alternatives. My nightly ritual of prayer trailed away to whispers of “please, please, please” while I curled up tightly into a fetal position. Originally, I had laid there desperately trying to translate my feeble theology into a plan. If I could just somehow summon up enough of that mysterious commodity that they called Faith, would I then be able to influence God to heal him? I had surrendered that concept. I knew I didn’t possess that kind of faith. In this moment I only knew I wasn’t alone as I waited and watched and listened to the click and hiss. I felt alone, but I knew my whispered pleas were heard. It didn’t really seem to help much, but it was a tiny kernel of solidity in a world that was rapidly degrading into a surreal nightmare. The darkness closed in and…
“Julie, wake up,” the soft voice was insistent. The backlit figure in the doorway paused and waited while I struggled into full consciousness. “I’m sorry. I had just checked on him and he was fine, but now…he’s showing signs of a brain injury,” she spoke slowly and carefully so that I could follow the meaning of the words but I was still dazed. “Wha’…. Uh, what signs…just now..or… when, Uh… did you… How bad is… what do you mean?’” words stumbled over my tongue as I fought to understand exactly what she was saying. I knew there were still many possibilities, but inside I could feel that cold spreading chill that began with her oh-so-gentle voice.
Don had been a paramedic. He’d told me, “It doesn’t really matter if you can get the heart started again, not if the pupils are blown. That means the brain is toast and damage is hopeless. Elvis has left the building,” he had quipped darkly. I could picture his blue eyes twinkling like some devilish small child, his boyish looks deceptively making him appear far younger and more innocent than he was. Curly blond hair with a scattering of grey now, he had appeared closer to his teens than his thirties when we’d first met. His reckless heroism, fatalistic humor, and daring vulnerability had been a romantic three strikes to my heart and I was out. After thirty years I had met my match and there was no going back. “You’re stuck with me now,” I had warned him when he moved in.
We had eighteen years together and now Don had left the building. He’d left me when I wasn’t there! Damn him. The nightmare had overtaken the real world and I would never again truly awaken and feel alive in the same way. It was silent now. The sounds had stopped. I could only hear the slightly ragged sound of my own breath fighting its way past the constriction in my throat. It was true. Even if my heart kept beating and my breath found its way in and out of my lungs, I had stopped. I had ceased to exist. The bubble dream of life as I had known it was ruptured and all it had contained was gone.