creative nonfiction by Sarah Diamond Burroway


Sometimes, in the mundane conversation about grocery shopping or last night’s sitcom or laundry, an idea quietly rolls out in front of you. And, like a penny on the floor, you mindlessly pick it up, hold it between your fingers for a split-second then tuck it into your pocket where it stays unnoticed. And, at the end of the day, you feel it jangling there in your pocket and you carefully place it in a jar of loose coins sitting on your dresser. Always close by, should you need it but never really giving it a second thought.

It was during the monotony of a regular day, in the middle of washing dishes and taking the trash to the curb that my mother-in-law dropped a shiny nugget of an idea. A golden idea.  Only, I didn’t realize it until so much later. Until I needed it.

Yes, I heard what she said. I understood what she meant. It was a bit morose, perhaps, and I guess it made sense. But, chores needed tending and the day was nearly gone. So, I hung onto Jennie’s words, pushing them carefully into my collection of random thoughts, the thoughts I’d been gathering for more than thirty years during mundane moments like this.

Jennie was perhaps the most interesting woman I had even known. She and I had grown very close during the nine years I was married to her only living son. She was nearly sixty years older than me, and ours was a special bond.

Her only daughter, Willia, had moved to New Jersey in the early ’70s and rarely made visits back to Kentucky. So, I became the surrogate daughter. The receiver of motherly wisdom.

Jennie didn’t have a formal education to speak of, but she was smart and funny and engaging. I became her confidante on these routine afternoons of cleaning out the fridge or dusting the what-nots in her small first-floor apartment. She gifted me with various tidbits and trivia, knowledge she had acquired in her long and curious life. She taught me how to clean and cook rhubarb. She shared with me what life was like before the streets of Ashland were paved. Some of her stories were fantastical. Those were my favorite.

Stories like how she had asked her parents for a pet tiger for her fifth birthday after she had seen a picture of one in a book, but they refused to allow her to have one. Jennie walked out of the row house neighborhood and headed to Long’s Creek to pout and cry, lamenting her existence as a child with the most terrible of parents. She recounted how she cried and pounded her fists, praying God would change the inexcusable hatefulness of her parents and bring her a pet tiger to love.

There, by the creek in the shade of a willow, Jennie heard something louder than her own cries. She believed God had sent her a tiger. What else could make such a howl? Could God be so quick and merciful in answering prayers?

Quietly, Jennie crept through the brush along the water’s edge toward the incessant wail, in hopes of finding her coveted tiger. Had the circus rolled into town and the lock on the big cats’ cage fallen off, releasing a sleek, striped beast just for her? Jennie’s heart leapt at the thought of answered prayers and her very own tiger.

As she approached, Jennie realized, however, there was no tiger. No circus animal of any kind. 

Instead, Jennie found a small, crying baby. He was naked. Wrapped in a scrap of a dirty blanket. Skin sallow, almost translucent. She grabbed the tiny life and held it to her beating chest like a treasure, running all the way home, determined to keep him. Yes, maybe this is what God thought would be a better birthday gift. A human baby. A little brother. Yes, she remembered, this was so much better than a tiger.

Jennie slammed the door to her room, hoping to hide her new-found gift from her parents. She wanted to keep this abandoned baby. But, his cries soon brought her mother to Jennie’s room. 

Jennie said her mother made a pacifier by tying a spoonful of sugar into the corner of a dish towel, dipping it in warm water for the baby to have something to suckle. He had apparently been abandoned at the creek for several hours. His body malnourished and ill, already starting to fail just hours after his birth. 

She had never stopped thinking about the baby. “His skin was so soft and his mouth made a little 'O' when he cried,” she said when I came back to the table. The impact of this tiny child, found fighting for life in the brambles of a creek near a rough part of town, had stayed with Jennie for nearly three quarters of a century. “I always wish I could have held him again,” she said. 

Jennie was not allowed to keep him. Her parents insisted the baby be turned over to the police so his parents could be found.  The officers came and took the baby, still swaddled and fussing in that dirty blanket, to King’s Daughters Hospital on Lexington Avenue.

Later, Jennie said her father showed her a story in the newspaper about a newborn who was “found by Virginia Hicks, a young resident of the Sand Hole section.” She was devastated to learn her little boy, the baby that was left for her to find, had died shortly after arriving at the hospital. He was given a pauper’s burial in the city cemetery off 29th Street.

Jennie paused in recollection so I got up from the dining room table to make some coffee. 

She had never stopped thinking about the baby. “His skin was so soft and his mouth made a little 'O' when he cried,” she said when I came back to the table. The impact of this tiny child, found fighting for life in the brambles of a creek near a rough part of town, had stayed with Jennie for nearly three quarters of a century. “I always wish I could have held him again,” she said.

“But, why would you want to hold a dead baby?” I asked.

Jennie explained even though his life was slipping away, his eyes were alive. As much as a newborn’s eyes can be, on the cusp of trying to focus while starting to die. His lungs filled with cries and she could feel him shake against the cradle of her own small arms as she ran home.

“Even though we never knew who he was or where he came from, he was alive,” Jennie reasoned. “And then, he wasn’t.”

She questioned how anyone could leave a baby in such a secluded place, infrequently visited by children wishing to escape their families in moments of angst. A place where little girls cried over pet tigers they would never have.

“I always thought if I could have held him again, I would have known I had done the best I could. I held him and I loved him even though it was just a few hours until they took him. For that brief moment, I loved him with all my heart.”

Jennie believed if she had been given the opportunity to touch or hold the baby once more, the finality would have been simpler to understand. It would have been easier to know the essence of that precious boy was no more. Easier to grasp that his tiny frame was simply a vessel she held in her arms from the creek bank to a more proper place in which to pass from this life.

I don’t know what prompted her to share this story with me. We spent lots of time together and, living alone, Jennie always had a lot of stories to share when we were together. It’s not that I necessarily dismissed her conversation. I listened, then my mind moved on. Usually, when helping Jennie with housework or running errands, I was often wrapped up in the urgency to complete routine tasks and didn’t take time to think about the wisdom she was offering to me.


Sometimes now, I find myself missing her, not in a grieving sort of way. But, rather, thinking about her and stories she shared with me during the nine years I knew her.

Jennie had survived tuberculosis as a girl, had lost vision in one eye in adulthood. Her legs were bent and unsteady, unable to hold her frail frame. She rarely felt well enough to leave her apartment, instead, padding around her rooms in a brown leatherette wheelchair, feet fluttering as she glided from room to room like a duck floating across a pond. Diabetes, cancer, cardiac disease, and a chartful of medical diagnoses left her fragile, infirm, though her mind was sharp and engaging.

Jennie had outlived her first born son, who was killed by a car. His father, her first husband, drank himself to death after Junior’s life was cut short. Her second husband suffered from a myriad of ailments until he regressed through more than a decade of Alzheimer’s until he left this life. I’m sure she mourned them all, just as she had grieved the baby boy she’d found on Long’s Creek.

Perhaps the message Jennie imparted to me, the one that rang so loudly in my ears all these years later had to do with what she learned from letting go of the baby boy from the creek’s bank. “When someone you love dies, make sure you touch them,” she said. “Whether you are there when it happens or when they’re lying in their casket, make sure you touch them.”

The thought of touching a dead person, even someone I knew and loved, repulsed me. I could not imagine it. “That’s just gross. Why would you do that?” I remembered asking her during one of my chore days at her apartment so many years ago. I had smoothed a stack of dish towels I’d been folding and placed them on the kitchen table and sat down to listen to Jennie.

“Because it makes your heart and your mind understand the person you love is gone. They’re not here anymore. You won’t feel life or warmth or love coming back from them, rising through your hand, into your body, touching your soul.”

“When Junior died at age 11, I thought my heart would stop beating. I didn’t know how I’d go on,” she continued. “The mortician’s wife told me at the funeral home that I needed to touch Junior, to put my hand on his face, his arm. Feel his fingers in mine.”

Jennie paused.

“I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t want to do it. But there, in that funeral parlor, that woman took my hand in hers and gently, guided my hand to my sweet boy’s cheek. “She was right. It was not my boy. What I felt beneath my fingertips as I traced his jaw and ran my hand down the collar of his shirt was not my son. There was no soul. No love. No life left.”

Jennie said it was at that moment, she realized what the mortician’s wife said was true.

“I found peace a little easier. It was like touching a piece of wood or stone. It wasn’t my junior.”

Jennie’s words lingered there. I didn’t have any more questions. The buzz signaling the end of the dryer cycle broke the silence, and afternoon chores continued.

Just like that found penny, I didn’t think about our conversation until much later.  Years later, actually, when Jennie entered her last struggle on this planet.

Disease and age had overtaken all of Jennie.  She was lasting, subsisting, though just barely, through her final days in renal failure. Day by day, her light began to dim but glimpses of life sparked and twinkled as she neared the end.

Jennie, this talkative, brilliant woman, was slipping through her final nineteen days of life. It was so odd to see her, lying still, silent as her body took its time shutting down. As I sat by her bedside, I found myself talking to her, unsure if she could hear me. Random talk of recipes she had shared that I planned to cook. Of lists of chores that needed tending. Groceries and staple items that needed to be purchased.

Her lab results were worsening and the doctors said it was a matter of time before she would be gone. After spending that much time at Jennie’s bedside, the nurses had become more friendly and accommodating, trying to ensure my comfort as much as Jennie’s.

“You know it won’t be long now,” said one of the afternoon shift nurses. I didn’t reply.

“If you need anything, just let me know. I’ll be here all evening,” she said as she left to tend to another patient. I dozed in the bedside chair throughout the evening. Jennie seemed to drift in and out. It had been days since she had spoken. The hours dragged on, and in the same instant, time seemed suspended.

Jennie had long ago described hearing what she called “the death rattle.” A low, raspy, labored sound, shallow and thick. I heard it for the first time that night. I stood by the bed and looked at her face. She was wasting. The hollows of her cheek were deeper than just days ago. The glint of life I knew as Jennie was all but faded from her eyes.

I took her hand and gently caressed her arm to soothe her as she struggled for air. Her kidneys no longer functioned. Her lungs filled with fluid. I knew she was leaving and I stayed there with her, her fingers intertwined in mine, a small gesture of comfort.

The skin of her face was ashy and the pink had escaped her lips. I looked at Jennie’s hand in mine, her manicure was neat and trimmed, as always, but her nails and fingertips were the light purply blue of a child’s Easter egg. Her palms were splotchy and mottled and losing their warmth.

I spoke to Jennie of things I knew she liked, hoping my words would touch her ear, touch her mind and bring some consolation to this final hour. I had always imagined my heart would burst and my emotions would erupt when this day finally came. Bu, I found solace in holding Jennie’s hand and talking with her about so many stories she had shared.

I told her she didn’t have to stay here, that she could go on when she was ready. She had shared with me long before that sometimes, people who are dying need permission to let go. Jennie’s breathing slowed even more. This was one of those times.

I stroked her arm and talked about the baby boy she found on the creek bank. And how this beautiful child wasn’t crying anymore. He was smiling and waiting for her to come play with him and Junior. How her husbands, Mr. Strickland and Mr. Dunlap, were wondering why she was making them wait. And, I described how handsome they looked, waiting for her even though I had never met either of them, but had only seen them in her most cherished photos. I talked about tigers lounging in the sun and cold bottles of RC Cola and 5-cent bags of chocolate drops at the Capital Theatre matinees.

I tried to remember every happy story she had ever shared with me so I could echo it back to her now. But, was I recalling the stories for her or for myself?

For an instant, I felt the energy in her hand shift. Had she squeezed my fingers? Maybe she wasn’t slipping away. But, I knew that she was. Had Jennie intended to move her hand inside mine, or was it an involuntary motion caused by her life seeping away?

I held on with both hands now as Jennie finally let go. I was holding on for me now.

The feel of her skin against mine was changed. I leaned down to hug her and laid my face against hers, but the sense of her cheek touching mine was not as I remembered. There was no warmth. There was no energy. There was no essence of this strange and curious woman I loved.

In that brief moment of last breath, everything had changed. I felt my own breath catch in my throat in that instant. Jennie was gone.

I didn’t let go. I wanted to remember everything she had told me, all the details, all the stories. I thought about what Jennie told me about touching a loved one who had passed. The impact of that conversation never fully unfolded until this minute. I realized everything she had said was right.

I felt her words jangling in my head, like a loose coin in a pocket. I closed my eyes and felt Jennie’s story about touching her son’s face in the funeral parlor so many years ago roll through my head. Just like Jennie said, I would find peace a little easier. It was like touching a piece of wood or stone.

It wasn’t Jennie.

And, in that extraordinary lesson, I squeezed her hand in mine one last time. 

Sarah Diamond Burroway is a Kentucky writer and theatre artist. Her creative nonfiction and poetry has been published in Still: The Journal, The Bitter Southerner and The Worcester Journal. Sarah’s writing has been featured in the Women of Appalachia Project's "Women Speak" (2014-2017) and has been included in the project’s two anthologies. Her plays and monologues have been produced in New York, California, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Sarah is director/co-founder of Actors for Children Theatre and is Vice President of the Kentucky Theatre Association. Sarah works as Director of External Relations for Ohio University Southern. She is pursuing her Master of Fine Art in Writing at Eastern Kentucky University’s Bluegrass Writers Studio.

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