Offerings by Sandi Paris
It is Valentine's Day, and I have selected a gift for my lover. There are conflicting stories about the origin of this unofficial, yet widely celebrated, holiday. I am drawn to this one: Saint Valentine was beheaded on February 14th, 269 AD. He had defied Roman Emperor II, Claudius the Cruel, by continuing to unite couples in marriage, after it was forbidden. Claudius was a pagan, who also believed that wives prevented men from joining his army.
Valentine’s rebellion was surely inspired by his Roman Catholic faith, which only recognized holy matrimony. It is unlikely that he fully considered how helping couples to express love and commitment in a manner of their own choosing, actually encouraged an exercise of free will. Faith and courage are not the same, yet each may set us on a righteous, and treacherous, path.
This is the 20th Valentine's Day since my husband Randy and I became a couple. It is the first that we will celebrate in a locked Memory Care facility. He is 58 years old and a rare dementia has erased what he once knew about the delights of romance, and reciprocal giving.
Today I will re-gift a piece of jewelry to myself, from Randy. In exchange, he will receive a fresh chocolate heart. I examine my delicate silver pendant, turning it around slowly, just as I did eight years ago when he gave it to me. One side is beautifully etched with tiny flowers and grasses, while the other is engraved with words: Out beyond, there is a field. I will meet you there. This is a translated excerpt from the writings of 13th century mystic, Rumi.
The full narrative is more specific: Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" makes no sense. There is more, but this is enough for now.
I am reminded of our shared resistance to certain social norms and unnecessary judgements. The reference to a field spoke for our love of open spaces, and for the wildlife garden that we created together. Our garden invited the winged, hoofed, pawed, toothed and clawed to visit. It enticed crawlers, tunnelers, hoppers, swimmers, nesters, browsers, and pollinators to share that small piece of earth with us. Once we surrendered to them, we discovered a refuge for ourselves. The stresses of our busy lives fell away as we dug, planted, cleared paths, placed stones, and then sat quietly, to watch. Randy told me that he discovered this pendant while hunting for something that referred to a garden. He settled for a field. It is my favorite.
When I arrive in Randy’s room, I hold my necklace up and say, "Thank you for this!" He glances at it without recognition, turning his attention to the chocolate heart which he accepts with a chuckle. Once the chocolate has disappeared into his mouth, he abruptly stands and heads to the common area to see what all the noise is about.
Family members have been invited to attend a Surprise Musical Performance for Valentine’s Day. We all watch while a 20+ year old Michael Jackson impersonator grabs his crotch and moon-walks to the sound of "Billy Jean." The performer is the son of the manager who offered him up for free, which is an attractive price.
As unlikely as it might seem, I observe two of the more elderly gentlemen smiling and nodding their heads to the music. I have never before seen the full face of one man, who lifted his grizzled head from its usual position of chin-on-chest, to watch with faded grey eyes and a huge, unrestrained, grin of delight. We cannot always predict where joy will find us.
Michael Jackson does not hold Randy's attention. However, the beautifully decorated heart shaped cookies do. They have been placed on a card table in the middle of the kitchen, with the hope that they will be out of his reach. He is nearly 6’4”, with arms and legs proportionate to that height. It is my job to distract him from the cookies today, and I fail miserably. After months of living here, this is the day that he discovers how easily his long legs can climb over the gate, and into the kitchen.
We are soon back in his room with the door closed, happily munching pink frosted cookies with red sprinkles. These were shamelessly used to inspire Randy to follow me. I hold my cookie up in victory, touching his for a toast. With gusto, I say, “To Howard.” This has been our Valentine's Day salute for years. Cookies do not clink like wine glasses, but it is still a satisfying gesture. It is the cookie, not the memory, that connects Randy to this moment. Cookies were also a powerful incentive to Howard. . . .
Our first Valentine's Day was spent apart. Randy had recently been transferred, separating us by 150 miles of twisting mountain roads. He sent flowers and three cards, which I came to expect on every significant occasion. #1 - Humorous; #2 - Lusty; #3 - Loving and sometimes scary serious. That night we talked on the phone until very late. He playfully tried to teach me how to have phone sex, but his highly descriptive words did not call up the same feelings as his gentle hands, or the taste of his sweet exploring mouth. The only response I could manage was laughter. We eventually whispered goodnight and I went to sleep around midnight. We both had to be up early for work the next morning.
At around 3 a.m., I was awakened when the outside motion light clicked on. It illuminated my front porch and shinned through the glass door, which was across the entry hall from my open bedroom. Light, usually so welcome, reached through the lace curtain and onto my bed, to pry my eyes open. I lay with every fiber of my body on alert…listening. I hoped it was that damn stray cat again, taking feline pleasure in creeping around the neighborhood at night.
But then, I heard the gate latch click softly. This was followed by the sound of slow halting footsteps moving one after the other along the stone pathway up to the house. As they started up the ten steps to my porch, I began searching for the small pistol which I wasn’t sure I could use, but kept under my pillow anyway. My hands were shaking so violently that I could barely hold it. By the time I took the safety off, there was a shadow on the other side of the door and the knob was moving, like someone was trying to pick the lock. That's when I found my voice—my other voice—and yelled like an enraged beast. “You get the hell off of my porch or I will shoot your fucking balls off.” The doorknob stopped moving. There was a frozen moment, with both of us stunned by the voice and its powerful threat. Emboldened, I shouted again. “I mean it. Get the hell out of here.” The figure moved away from the door and I listened to feet retreating back across the porch and down the stairs. I heard the gate latch click again and grabbed the phone to call police. There was "little they could do if I didn’t have a description." After turning on all of the outside lights and checking the locks, I eventually fell back asleep.
The next morning, when I opened the front door, I was hit in the face by a huge bouquet of red heart shaped balloons that were tied to my doorknob. There was a note dangling on a string, with a message written in a familiar, shaky, handwriting. It said, Happy Valentine's Day, Howard. My intruder had been the elderly neighbor who lived next door.
That evening, I told Randy what had happened. I shared my story of Howard and how our unusual friendship had developed.
I purchased the funky old house from an acquaintance who had repossessed it. The street was more like a one-way alley and most houses sat very close together, with little or no setback. Ours was three stories high and up a steep driveway. It had a tiny overgrown garden, a lovely wrapped porch, and a second-story kitchen window that gazed out over the roofs of town, toward snow covered Mt. Shasta in the distance. I moved into the house with my son, Scott, and youngest daughter, Kristen, who would soon be entering high school. We also brought our mixed breed dog, Boomer, who somehow made it into our car after we stopped at the animal shelter one Saturday afternoon to “just give love.”
The move required the help of friends with trucks which, in spite of our best efforts, was inconvenient for neighbors on the narrow street. The need for frequent apology provided opportunities to meet many of them. A few weeks later, I began to notice an older man who I hadn't met, in the yard next door. I tried to introduce myself but he shuffled away with no eye contact, appearing to be both deaf and blind. This happened each time I encountered him.
After a few months, Boomer began acting unusually excited to go outside each morning. This was explained one spring day when I sat on the porch to watch the sunrise, and heard a man’s voice talking sweet and low. I peeked around the corner to observe the previously silent neighbor exercising his operational vocal cords while reaching through the back fence to pet my dog and give her treats. He wouldn’t speak to me, but had been seducing my dog. Boomer was experiencing no guilt over her indiscretion. There was every indication that they had established a more than neighborly relationship.
I asked another neighbor about the man who lived next door. I was told that he was a “cranky old guy” who “hates people” and “doesn’t talk to anybody.”
As spring sprung so did the weeds and many lovely plants that had been hidden under debris. I began to spend more time in the yard cleaning out flower beds. There were more frequent sightings of the man, who also seemed unable to resist the warmth and sunshine. If I came out while he was near my side of the yard, he would calmly and silently shuffle away. To most people, this might have been a signal to do the same. Instead, I began to sing out to his retreating backside, “Good Morning, neighbor.” “Beautiful day.” “Looks like rain.” “Getting hot.” I didn't wait for a response but simply sent my greeting through the air and got on with my day. His disinterest hung from hunched shoulders like rusty armor. It did a poor job of shielding him from my assault of neighborliness.
One fall afternoon I left work early and spent some time in the yard without seeing the neighbor. I eventually went inside to bake “Candy's Friend Helen's Sister's Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies,” which filled the air with anticipation. My children and their friends were raised on these crunchy edged, chewy in the middle, chocolate and nut filled, butter-laden monsters. (I am still convinced that they are a health food, in spite of the sugar, because they also contain generous amounts of whole oats and walnuts. This is not open for debate.)
Homemade cookies are more than sugar, flour, eggs and butter. They are also warm hands that measure, mix, shape, bake, and sometimes reach out.
My kitchen was on Howard’s side of the house, near our back door. As I baked, I saw through the window that he had appeared outside to work along our shared wire boundary. Kristen burst through the front door, pushed her blond curls out of her freckled face, and squealed “Yes! I could smell cookies for blocks.” Our laughter settled into blissful moans while sharing warm cookies. I glanced out the window again to observe our silent neighbor still crouched down in the dirt. Tossing my head in his direction, I asked, “Do you think he's smelling cookies too?” We looked at each other, grabbed a plastic bag, placed four huge cookies inside, and tied it closed with a bright blue ribbon. We waited for him to leave and then went outside to hang the cookies on Howard’s side of the fence. After checking periodically throughout the evening, the cookies were still there when we went to bed. We were thoroughly disappointed. The next morning I was preparing breakfast when I looked outside to see that the cookies were gone. In their place was a bundle of freshly dug flower bulbs tied together with brown twine and hung on our side of the fence. Kristen and I danced around like we had discovered a lost language. That day, when I came outside, Howard stayed on my side of the yard. He still didn’t greet me, but worked silently nearby. After a short time, he stood to go and quietly, but distinctly, said, “You never know what you might find hanging from that fence.” I sagely agreed, “You just never know,” and thanked him for the Iris bulbs. He nodded somberly and went inside.
Homemade cookies are more than sugar, flour, eggs and butter. They are also warm hands that measure, mix, shape, bake, and sometimes reach out. I would learn more about the hunger for that kind of nourishment.
Over the years, Howard and I shared cookies, jam, home baked bread, soup, seeds, plants, books, articles, and music CDs all from that wire fence. Occasionally, I would come home from work and find him sitting on the garden bench at the top of my driveway, waiting for me. He had a magazine article, or music, that he thought I’d enjoy. I gradually learned about Howard through these exchanges and he would occasionally share more than I expected. He liked to walk when it was quiet and people were asleep. He said that the police had once stopped him and asked for his identification. He refused, declaring that it wasn't illegal to walk and they had no just cause to stop him. They threw him in the patrol car, but then let him go because he was right. They made him walk all the way back home from the police station, in the middle of the night. Howard said he hated "Preachers and Pigs." I replied that saving people must be a daunting job. He responded gravely, “They are more dangerous than the sinners and the criminals.” I am confident that there were more troubling stories behind his powerful emotion. He didn't offer them up and I didn't ask.
I never invited Howard inside my home. He never met my close friends. I instinctively set a strong boundary and our friendship took root on the neutral piece of ground where he had surrendered to my cookies. Prior to tying balloons to my doorknob in the middle of the night, the only time that I had felt uncomfortable was when he asked if I’d like to come over and watch the movie, Grumpy Old Men, with him. I declined and he seemed to take it in stride.
Howard stopped speaking to me again. After that Valentine’s Day, he went back into hiding and pretending I didn't exist. It occurred to me that reclusive Howard may not understand how women experience the world differently than men. If he did, surely he would never have crept into my yard and onto my porch late at night. I walked next door to explain why I had been so frightened and angry. I wanted Howard to know how fear could burn low and constant, like a pilot light, until ignited into rage. I shared only two stories for illustration:
1. There was the hot summer night that I woke to a faint scratching sound emanating from my open bedroom window. I looked over to see the shape of a man’s head and bent arm silhouetted against the full moon, as his fingers stealthily crept around the edges, trying to pry my screen off. The police told me that they believed him to be the same man who had broken in and raped another woman, just a few months prior. Apparently he had a “type” and went on to rape and stab a third women, with a butcher knife, during another full moon. We were within a three-mile radius. Fingerprints were taken, and I moved with my children across town.
2. The deep and terrifying voice on my phone, in the middle of the night, accurately described where I had been that day. It told me what I had worn, and what he would like to do to me. This man knew my name and my unlisted number. The FBI got involved and put a trace on my phone. His calls stopped. They suspected a police officer. I was not notified if they ever identified him.
I told myself that Howard would want to understand how this menace follows us through our days and sniffs at our doors and windows at night. I was wrong. The last words Howard ever said to me were through the crack of his front door: “I never heard a voice like that before.”
Valentine’s Day had inspired Howard to imagine that the smiling woman over the fence might serve up more of what he hungered for. He didn't know about the other woman, the one with that voice, who also lives in this body. When she is called up, outrage comes with her. Howard hadn't imagined outrage being pointed in his direction, along with a handgun. He found the courage to reach for a sweet fantasy, but not the courage to accept a bitter truth. He shut the door, and I never knocked on it again.
I regret not telling Howard everything. Shame and fear had whispered that so much truth would be too much. If I had tried to tell him more, Howard may still have shut the door. But there was a chance that he might have listened, for as long as it took to empty myself of these stories. If that had happened, Howard could have found the courage to share my outrage. I didn't know then, that speaking truth in spite of shame and fear, is also an offering. How it is received is out of our hands.
3. I was three or four years old when men and older boys began to touch and coerce me, introducing me to sex much too early. My first orgasm occurred with a hand over my mouth as I was being dry-humped against a wall, at my grandmother’s house. The orgasm surprised and confused me much more than the hand over my mouth, which I understood. I was 10. It took decades to learn that my body was not the only magical thing that I possessed.
4. I was 20 years old and married, when a doctor in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, inserted his fingers into my vagina during a physical exam. He began moving them slowly, in and out, while manipulating my clitoris. When I tried to sit up, red faced and frightened, he held my ankles and asked, "Are you sure you want to get up now?" I couldn't speak. I couldn't speak about it for years.
5. I was 32 years old and feeling righteously independent until three rowdy country boys in a pickup truck, sliced up my tent and sleeping bag after discovering that I had slipped away to hide in the forest. They had cruised through the campground earlier and come back after dark. I heard the truck and peeked out to see that the headlights were off while voices whispered and boots shuffled. I didn't camp alone again until I had a dog.
6. I was excited when my boss scheduled me to work a conference in San Francisco. When I unlocked the door to my hotel room, I found him waiting for me, propped up and naked, in the bed. I had three small children and he knew I needed that job. Earlier that evening at a reception, an associate had slid a key with a suite number into my pocket, "just in case you need a place to go," he had said. He seemed to know something I didn't. I took refuge in the bathroom until I remembered the key. As I walked past the bed that contained my drunken boss, he slurred, "Oh Sandi, we are adults here!" It took a long time to fully comprehend the layers of power and control he had applied.
7. There was the jogger who saluted, fingers touching his forehead, whenever we passed, running in opposite directions. One dawn morning he hid, waiting to slip out behind me. I leapt into the empty street as he tried to grab me, when a car magically appeared and stopped, shining its headlights on our struggle. He ran off, and the woman in the car drove me home. I didn't run in early mornings ever again.
8. I remember apologizing for surprising a friendly fisherman who was standing on the river bank when I walked there during my lunch hour. He began to follow me, ducking behind willows. When I shouted that I knew he was there, he boldly stepped out, smiling like an invitation. His smile became a confused scowl when I cut up the bank and struggled through thick brush to the parking lot. I stopped walking by the river, for a while.
9. I went Christmas shopping after working late on a Friday night, when my children were with their father. I was bone tired as I struggled with my packages through the doors of the mall and into the darkened parking lot. I saw that the previously full lot was almost empty, except for my car, which was a far distance away. As I trudged toward it, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see the figure of a man moving across the parking lot, toward me. I instantly recognized the situation I was in. I fit the profile of a “perfect victim”—overburdened and distracted. I squared my shoulders and quickened my pace while also reaching for the car keys in my pocket. As I got closer to my car, he got closer to me. He quickened his own pace and began talking. "Hey baby. Hey baby. You look like you could use some help. Let me help with those." I was working my key into the door when I ran out of time. Turning to confront him, I shouted, "Do I know you?" He startled, hesitating just long enough for me to open it, then said "No baby, but you want to." He lunged but stumbled when I launched myself into the car, locking the door as he grabbed the handle. I started honking the horn and he ran. I drove home shaking and later learned that there were two rapes in that same area by someone who fit his profile. I told the police that I could probably identify him, but they didn't call back. I never again shopped late at night or parked away from lights.
10. I once showed a vacant apartment after hours, because it was the "only time" he could make it. I remember becoming aware that he was watching me too closely and curiously had no questions. After I handed him the application, he dropped it and moved in front of the door. Before he could react, I banged on the wall and shouted to the neighbor on the other side. The neighbor shouted back and passed the man on the walkway, hurriedly leaving. I never again showed a vacancy without pepper spray and confirming the name and number of the person I was meeting.
11. Finally, there was another boss, an actual friend who I had a warm relationship with. I knew his tendencies but believed I could manage them until the day he drove me to evaluate a remote property. He locked the gate behind us, and pulled a blanket and bottle of wine from his trunk. I needed that job too. He refused to promise that it wouldn't happen again, because he "couldn't control his feelings." When I told him I would resign, he managed to control his feelings enough to remind me that I couldn't get unemployment benefits if I left voluntarily. For the first time, rage crawled up my throat and exploded. I threatened to tell his wife and go public. I took some accounts with me and started building my own business. I have always been something of a late bloomer.
Several years after Howard stopped speaking to me, I returned to prepare my house for sale. I noticed a stranger going in and out of his open front door, and walked over to ask about him. The worker told me that Howard had died of heart failure, which I found sadly ironic. He had died in a nursing home. According to the worker, he had told a visiting clergy who came to offer comfort, to “Go to hell.” He also said that Howard had been ejected from at least one facility because he used profanity and threw things at people who were too "officious."
My neighbor was a sick, misanthropic, and curmudgeonly old man whose primary pleasures could be counted on one hand. It was no surprise to me that when those precious things were lost, he would seek relief by offending people who imposed their goodness on him. They kept him from the privacy that he craved. He had to give up his beloved cat, his little house and garden. The vintage Corvette was left behind in the garage to be inherited by a brother that he had little contact with. Howard also enjoyed classical music, opera, and erotica, none of which is readily available in nursing homes.
The worker invited me inside where he was sorting things into boxes. He pulled a set of elegantly monogramed, gold satin sheets from a donation box, and held them up with a wink. “Check these out.” Original creases were intact and they were neatly encased in the custom drawstring bag they had arrived in. He asked if I wanted them and I surprised myself by accepting. They were as vintage as Howard, but slick and bright, in contrast to his craggy darkness. The golden sheets had been kept new and pristine for many years, ready for a special moment that never came. They were still waiting to be warmed by body heat and anointed with the sweet stickiness of love making. When he tossed in some match books with Howard’s initials printed on them, I couldn’t stop myself from imagining him lighting a post-coital cigarette, like in old movies, even though I’d never seen him smoke. The man smiled broadly at me as I left, reporting over his shoulder, “I guess that Howard guy knew how to invest in the right stocks. Turns out that he was a very wealthy man. Now his brother is.”
I walked back to my house, my throat tightening as I let my fingers wander inside the bag to feel the luxurious smoothness of the sheets. I held a tender secret. Even as he hid in the dark and growled at humanity, I knew that Howard ached for someone to love. I also began to ache for all of the offended and frightened men who only feel safe with women who circle them like the sun.
Randy heard all of these stories, and more. He listened intently to each one. He never questioned the validity of my experiences, or of my judgement in attempting to move as freely through my life, as he did through his. Most important, Randy shared my outrage.
At some point, on one Valentine’s Day, Randy began to salute Howard’s misguided, yet courageous, reach for love. We honored his courage long after it had scuttled back into its hiding place, to snuggle up with the old dependable scars that were already carved into his frail, wounded, psyche. My friendship with Howard had begun with a cookie and I did not fail to notice that my final toast to him, was with a cookie.
I picture Randy grinning and saying, “Let’s just go for it, Babe.” We both understood that surrendering to love guaranteed pain. You can have pain without love, but you cannot experience love without pain. We were also courageous.
I hold my wine glass up for one more toast on this Valentine's Day. I am alone now and there is nothing to bump but air. “Go for it!” I say to the air. This will be my new, elegant, Valentine's Day salute. It should not be confused with "Take what you want."
When I finally turn off the light and crawl between the cold sheets on my own lonely bed, I realize that I am still wearing the silver pendant. I close my eyes and let my fingers again trace the shapes of those tiny etched flowers. I transport myself back into our wildlife garden, which now belongs to someone else. One day, someone might walk softly on that ground to scatter our mixed ashes. These will sweeten the soil that nourished us, and also feed the Iris bulbs that I transplanted there.
Every spring, Howard's bulbs send up thick green blades, like swords. They circle the strong stems that reach nearly three feet in height before opening their spectacular, copper-red, ruffled blossoms. Something brave and beautiful has been left behind. Another offering.