Monthly Archives: August 2014

Empress of the Universe

A few weeks ago, a client’s young daughter wouldn’t leave my arms to go back to her mother.  The client seemed insulted.  To cover the moment, I grandly pronounced that, of course the child clung to me — after all, I was the Empress of the Universe.  The tension eased; I walked the client to her car, handed the baby to her, and made a quick retreat.

I’m emotionally rocky this week and looking for ways to reclaim my positive outlook.  I’ve had my writers’ workshop participants construct Vision Boards, to which they affix images and words that symbolize where they want to reach with their work.  I decided to make an “affirmation board”, and happened to see a pretty bulletin board at a thrift store aptly sporting a crown — for Queen Corinne, Empress of the Universe.

I’ve filled this board with little notes from various folks:  An angel Christmas card from my dear friend Paula; one of the last postcards that my mother sent me; a Valentine note from my son circa 1996, a Mother’s Day card sporting Wonder Woman from my stepson; a letter from my father telling me how proud he was of me; a get well card from my nieces Amy and Chelsea.  Mixed among the letters and cards, I’ve added pictures of people whom I hold in my heart:  My brother Stephen, some nieces and nephews, my son, Susan Jeffay and Kati the cousin, Paul Orso playing pool at my grandfather’s house.

This affirmation board hangs in my kitchen, where I cannot avoid it.  I will see it in the early morning, on sleepless nights, while I’m hauling laundry or making tea.  I can stand, and study each small item, and think about the people in my little universe, some of whom might actually regard me as their Empress.  I cannot help but smile.  I cannot help but feel affirmed, if only for the brief moment when my gaze falls upon my board.

Mementos of the life of an aspiring empress.

Mementos of the life of an aspiring empress.

On a Scale of Nirvana to Bosnia

I’ve never been able to respond to health care providers who want me to rate pain.  “On a scale of 0 to 10, zero being pain-free and ten being the worst pain you’ve ever felt, where are you?”

Uh, no.  Here’s my pain scale:  On a scale of the every-day pain that I grit my teethe to tolerate and the pain I think my mother must have suffered when the cancer hit her brain, I’m way closer to the first than the second.  On a scale of Nirvana to Bosnia, I’m somewhere in between.

But my theory of relativity blew all to hell this morning, as I sat over yogurt and micro-waved coffee, watching James Ruby’s ice bucket challenge video.  Mr. Ruby, in what appears to be a fairly advanced stage of ALS, first sits in his wheelchair with his wife and son beside him, then stands, held by his son.  After making his challenge, he endures a grandly thrown bucket of ice water with a wide grin and an unquenchable spirit.

The pittance of suffering that I’ve endured fits into a thimble in comparison to the effects of this terrible disease.  I realize it’s not a competition.  But note:  I am strutting my stuff perfectly dry while James Ruby, unable to stand on his own, takes an icy bath while being held upright by his family.  And why?  To persuade people who can to donate to help save the 30,000 Americans who suffer from ALS each year.  I’d say that Mr. Ruby has found his way to Nirvana, and I am mightily jealous.

I didn’t submit to a bucket of ice but I did donate, in honor of my cousin Paul Orso.  I would ask any of you who have the means to make a donation, here:  Check out this Facebook post of James Ruby’s video, but please, get your hankies ready:

And I am sure you’ve seen this photo before now, but I’ll close today’s blog by sharing a photo of my son, my cousin Paul, and myself, taken at Paul’s home earlier this year.  Paul has ALS which has progressed since our visit to his beautiful St. Charles home.  We love you, Paul.

Patrick Corley, Paul Orso and yours truly.

Patrick Corley, Paul Orso and yours truly.

Two shots low

So I’m in a camera shop, buying a couple of frames and some picture folders.  The clerk gets the folders and we chat about her grey streaks which are so much cooler than my platinum blond, while she rings my purchases.  She tells me about her sister who has been a hairdresser (not a stylist) for 35 years, and lives in Spring Hill.  She says her sister gives her a family discount.  I ask if she brings the coffee, and she tells me that her sister always says, “Oh, I don’t need anything,” so she’s stopped trying or offering.

As I hand her the two frames that I chose from the sale table, I’m a little hesitant.  I’m going to use them for pictures of me and my in-laws, one per frame, and the frames are a little wild for Jay and Joanna.  But I trust my instincts, since these will be at my place, and the one for the picture of Joanna and me has charming little flowers on the edge.  I think she would like that.  As the lady adds the frames to the total, I mention her necklace and she fingers it.  I see her getting a little misty-eyed and ask if the pendant is jade.  She confirms this, and says, “It’s a cicada.”  She’s smiling but holding back some strong emotion, and I ask her if the cicada has special meaning for her.

“It does,” she acknowledges, her hands now inputting the merchandise that I’m buying, but her eyes looking off, to some far away place where the katydids sing in the evening.  “They symbolize transformation.”  I understand; I am partial to butterflies, myself, for just that reason.  I nod, and smile, and without glancing down, sign the ticket she’s handed me.

I’ve thanked her and I’m turning to go when she suddenly gasps. I turn back, and see she’s looking at my ticket in dismay.  “Those frames are on sale,” she exclaims.  “I charged you full price!”  I hand her the sales slip, my debit card, and the frames, and in a few minutes, she’s done the transaction properly and I’m twenty-eight bucks to the good.

I tell her goodbye and catch a lucky break on State Line, and head south to Latte Land.  The guy at the counter greets me and asks how I am.  “I’m two shots low on caffeine,” I tell him.  “I just jabbered my way to an over-charge at the camera store!  Luckily the lady caught it!”  He laughs, and takes my order.  A few minutes later  I’ve got an Americano in a real cup with a comfortable handle, and I’m sitting at a little table near the door, listening to music on their satellite radio and thinking about transformation.

To my mother, who has gone home

As  a young girl and later, in my twenties, I fancied that poetry was the purest kind of writing.  And thinking this, I abandoned my earliest writing, the essay, for a rocky sojourn in verse.  This period produced little of value.  I had three poems published, and a couple of more used for covers of various hand-outs in the 1970s literary scene.  But mostly my poems languished, then and now, on the crumbling pages of my journals.

Because I wrote these poems, they stand as the only record of my emotions during the raw days of my early adulthood.   And so, to share with you how I felt about my mother, here are two poems that I wrote about her — one about her life, and one about her death.


What do I say to this woman
sitting across from me
over a society lunch?
What do I say to she
who changed my diapers
who coaxed me through
a pre-adolescent limp
and post-pubescent cramps?
How do I treat someone
Who learned to drive at forty?
Who fought the maybe-giants
organized picnics
when she wasn’t at work
or scrubbing floors
or despairing?
There are no words for one
who is too familiar
with emergency rooms
So I sit, choking on idle conversation
about the silver market and over-sprouted beans
neither of which I understand.
If I appear tense
it is because I also choke
on unexpressed devotion
and overwhelming sorrow.

© C. Corley 05 April 1980



It is morning. Around me a dim room:
my cousin’s house. Last night,
and the night before, we talked too late:
Last night, we picked scriptures. We laughed over my story,
of my sisters and me choosing your casket,
which, you will be happy to know,
comes with a warranty, but no vault, so,
to dust ye shall return. I sleep
on a sofa. It is 7:00 a.m. and
I am afraid. In Kansas City, my
soon-to-be-ex-lover is just finishing his work day.
I dreamed of your death and now lay panting,
thinking of your stretched skin, your cold hand.
Beads of sweat rise across my forehead.
We have known it will be today, because Sunday you said,
I am waiting for them to come, and the eldest
of your children arrived only hours ago. And then it is 7:30,
and the phone rings, and my sister says,
Mary it is time to come home, and I know,
and the sun rises but you are gone and we do not see.

© C. Corley 21 August 1985

 In Memory: Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley, 09/10/26 – 08/21/85

Postscript:  The title of this entry references Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which was my mother’s favorite, and the spiritual from it, “Goin’ Home”, which my cousin Theresa Orso Smythe beautifully sang at my mother’s funeral.  My mother frequently said that she wanted to go home, and was ready to go home.  So, on this day 29 years ago, she did.

Nothing to complain about

I don’t recommend having cardiac spasms (or esophageal spasms, for that matter), as an accidental means of getting lots of positive reinforcement.  But truthfully, a trip to the ER and admission to the Cardiac Distress Unit can’t be beaten as vehicles for validation from those around you..

My whirlwind tour of NKCH’s newest unit provided me with an opportunity to understand and truly appreciate the goodness of lots of folks, as I’ve blogged here already.  Today, I found myself in court, dismissively referencing the noticeable bruising at the site of the IV line, where bruising testifies to my long-time use of bloodthinners.  The judge, whom I’ve known since she was a LAWMO lawyer and I was an LSEMO paralegal, admonished me for not calling to cancel, and then turned her eyes towards everyone else in the courtroom and instructed them to go easy on me.  Nice.

By the time I got to the office after court, I began to think that working had been a tactical error, Fatigue settled under my eyes and around my shoulders.  A couple of hours later, tightness and fluttering started in my chest and I hastily gathered my things, determined to reach home before the pounding started.  I lingered to talk to one of my suitemates, and before I could get out the door, I found myself sinking into his client chair clutching my chest.  I dug in my handbag for my new vial of nitroglycerin, and handed it over to someone whose hands could get the lid from the bottle.  One under the tongue, three minutes elapse, and I’m feeling better.

So I said my goodbyes anew and headed to Brookside, but couldn’t make the whole drive.  Shaking and tired, I found a quiet table in an empty shop and gripped a chunky mug of something frozen and sweet.  When I finally felt still inside, I restarted my journey home, stopping for a couple of greeting cards and to answer a call from a concerned friend.

By some foresight, I had left the air conditioning blaring, and the coolness flooded over me.  I dropped my handbag, my computer bag, and the day’s mail, and headed for comfortable clothes and a tall glass of cold water.

By 7:30, the sun no longer bakes the yard and I can walk down the driveway, looking at the flowers peaking from under the deck and weighing down the branches of my favorite bush.  At the end of the driveway, where the cedar tree used to stand and where there now grows two small bushes, I stand, looking down, at the mums planted for me by Abbey and John, the young couple who house-sat for me during my hospital stay.  As the evening air surrounds me, and I feel the warmth of the asphalt under my bare feet, I gaze at the hardy mums which were their gift to me, and realize that I’ve got nothing to complain about.

Thank you, John and Abbey.  Your kindness means everything to me.

Thank you, John and Abbey. Your kindness means everything to me.

No excuse

My mother received her diagnosis of uterine cancer in the fall of 1984 and died on 21 August 1985, the timing of which she learned from a visit to her one evening by an angel in a dream.  She told me of this dream while she could still garden and walk in her yard.  She said she had accepted the inevitability of her death, and could live with having only another year on earth.  She told me, too, that she wanted her last year to be peaceful, surrounded by family, with as much time spent in her garden as she could, while she could.

Late that winter, I think; or maybe early the next year; she had her hysterectomy together with a biopsy of her intestines.  She called me from Barnes Hospital in St. Louis one morning, frantic, crying.  “Oh Mary, Mary, you’ve got to come,” she pleaded.  “There is urine draining from the surgery site and no one will do anything about it.”  I hastily secured continuances in a couple of hearings that I had to handle as a private practitioner and made the trip to St. Louis in considerably less time than it should have taken.

There, I groused and threw my negligible weight around and got the oncological surgeon to acknowledge the problem.  Some of my siblings combined their energy with mine to accomplish this; I don’t recall the exact details.  After the second operation, though, radiation had to be delayed to allow time for her to heal.

In the tense days which followed, I found myself pacing the hall outside her room, grabbing one nurse after another, pulling them into the room to show them unchanged linen, unemptied waste baskets, and discarded piles of examining gloves and bandages.  I accused them of incompetence and, worse, unconcern.

After a half day of watching me try to bully the staff into delivering better care, my mother pulled my hand and settled me in the chair beside her bed.  She rubbed my fingers between her two cold hands and patted my cheek.  I expected her to thank me for my diligence.  Instead, she said, in the gentlest of tones, “Even cancer is no excuse for rudeness.”

On 21 August 2014, my mother will have been dead for 29 years.  On 05 September 2014, I will officially be older than my mother ever got to be.  I miss her; I miss her; I love her so much, still.  But I keep a part of  her with me that never dies.   I hope someday that I will hear someone observe that I remind them of my mother.  When that happens, I will know that I indeed have honored her memory.

Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley and yours truly, at the Bissell House, c. 1971.

Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley and yours truly, at the Bissell House, c. 1971.

Gratitude Journal, Day 9

Short and sweet today, folks:

Today I am grateful to Ellen Carnie and Jerry Stewart for getting me to the ER; to my husband Jim for coming and staying (still), to Bethanie, the ER nurse, for holding me while I sobbed, to john and Abbey for house-sitting, to all my good friends for their prayers, and to all the capable, caring folks of NKCH, who find me puzzling but have treated me like the Queen of the Universe whom I aspire to be.

Be well, all.  Be at peace.  Walk with the angels.

Gratitude Journal, Day 8, From the farm

I awakened before the sun peered above the earth.  The fragrance drifting through the windows of the pink bedroom, here at Carnie’s Honker Springs Farm, evokes a memory of days in other country settings — the musky smell of rich earth, the scent of grasses, an underlying pungency of living creatures and machinery oil. I lay in bed, no longer sleeping, as dawn sends tendrils of light over the trees, kissing the morning mist hovering over the ground.  Birds call to one another, the first to rise, the first to shake from their dreams and lift into the air while other sentient beings still linger in the hollows where they have burrowed for the night.

 In my own snug bed, beneath the handmade quilt and the soft extra blanket which I knew I would need, I briefly close my eyes and let the coolness of the air drifting in the window touch my cheeks.  Ellen Carnie’s farm has calmed me, as has her enfolding embrace, and the grubby little hand of Owen, her two-year-old grandson, and the charming  smile of Elizabeth, her seven-year-old granddaughter.

Now I have risen, and groped for the coffee beans which  I brought from the city.  Though I’ve not found the switch for the kitchen light, I’m managed to make coffee, and let the dog out, and stand on the back deck with my new digital camera and snap a few shots of the low-lying fog.  My efforts will not do justice to the scene before which I stand, in my blue cotton nightgown and my bare feet.  The sense of what I see does not translate to the image, for the spirit of the land cannot be captured.

Today I am grateful for the kindnesses that others have shown me, starting with Ellen and working backwards, through this year, through the years which fall around my ankles like tattered silk from an ancient robe.  The computer on which I write came from my husband, a kindness when its predecessor met an unfortunate fate.  The camera with which I tried in vain to secure an image of this farm’s beauty was given to me by my father-in-law.  The bottle of wine that Ellen and Jerry and I shared last evening had been brought to my home as a hostess gift by my friend Pat.  And these are just a few material kindnesses that I can name, casting my eyes about, without stirring from my spot on Ellen’s couch, here in the misty morning.

The listening ears on the other end of the phone, when I  am weary, have meant so much to me.  The neighbor who walked our block, calling for my lost dog; my friend Paula, who brought her toddler grandson to give me Brodey kisses one gloomy Sunday morning; other friends, who sit for countless hours over coffee or tea, sharing their stories, hearing mine.  I’ve a lifetime of kindnesses to recall, smiles and gestures, great and small, which formed the stepping stones that took me over treacherous waters.  If I sat and wrote for hour after hour, until this day ended and another followed, I could not recall every time when someone came to my rescue, or shared my overflowing joy, or took me in their arms while I sobbed.

I have always known that angels exist, and I have always understood that some of them come to us in a spiritual form while others arrive with human sturdiness.  Today, which I have, by virtue of forgetting exactly when I started this gratitude journal, christened day 8, I am thankful for angels.  For each angel, and for the existence of angels.  Without the angels in my life, I would not have made it to this day, 17 August 2014.  And briefly, please, indulge me, while I single out one angel for particular thanks:  my mother-in-law, Joanna Mitchell MacLaughlin, who has gone from being an angel here on earth to take her place with the heavenly hosts.

From the farm, I thank you all: Each and every one of the angels who have enriched my life.

The view from the deck at Carnie's Honker Springs Farm.  This photo does not show  beauty well enough, but I offer it as the best that I could do.

The view from the deck at Carnie’s Honker Springs Farm. This photo does not show its beauty well enough, but I offer it as the best that I could do.

Gratitude Journal, Day 7

I  have been posting a gratitude journal on FB and I’m going to declare that this is day 7. Today I am grateful for my friend Ellen Carnie, who has invited me to spend an afternoon and night at her farm.  With that,  I am also grateful for Abbey Vogt and her friend John Heitman, who are going to house-sit (dog-sit, really) for me, so that I can go.  I had originally planned to take my dog but mysteriously, she has come into heat after a long spell of not doing so.

Anyone who knows me knows that this journey to live complaint-free has been a difficult one.  As I approach the end of the eighth month (I started on January 1, 2014), I am thinking of Joanna MacLaughlin, my mother-in-law, whose birthday is tomorrow.  I began this quest in her honor and remain inspired by her memory.  My Facebook page has a picture of her resting place on its cover, but here, I will share with you, a picture of the lady herself.  I dearly love her and I miss her so very much.

So perhaps tomorrow, I shall surprise you all by my Gratitude Journal, Day 8; and an extra-special thank-you-for.  But in the meantime, be well,  everyone, and be at peace.

Joanna Mitchell MacLaughlin, image  c. 2012 Penny Thieme, reprinted with permission

Joanna Mitchell MacLaughlin’s photo appears here by permission of the photographer, Penny Thieme, c. 2012 Penny Thieme.

Chocolate mousse

My favorite curmudgeon invited me to dinner tonight.  Our usual Friday night date, Houlihans.  We departed from our customary orders for the entree but stuck with our normal libations:  A six-ounce Merlot for me, Stella Artois for him  He drinks two Stellas and finishes my wine.    Usually, he orders scallops and I get salmon. Tonight we lived dangerously:  He got a petite fillet, and I  opted for Thai chicken.

We spent a pleasant few minutes reviewing some proofs that had been sent for his review by the best photographer in the bi-state area, admiring the various poses and the smiling faces in the grouping.  Choice noted and reply e-mail transmitted, we settled in for a good long chat, about Joanna whose birthday is Sunday and how much we miss her; about children, and parents, life and death.  We spent a few minutes in silence, the peace of affection between us.  He understands much, does my favorite curmudgeon; and I understand so little, that just being with him comforts me.

We threw all caution to the wind and ordered chocolate mousse for dessert — with whipped cream and raspberries; one order, two spoons.  We ate it with uninhibited gusto.  I let him have two of the three raspberries on top.  We left not a drop of the delicious treat.  Our eyes lit as we regarded the empty dish with glee.

Neither of us can stay out late.  We exchanged a kiss in the parking lot, promised to see each other again, soon; and I waited until he made his slow but noble way to the car.  When he was seated, and I saw the brake lights shining, I continued down the lane to my own vehicle.  I sat for just a moment, not moving, not even turning the ignition.  I remembered another person whom I loved, who also had lung cancer, who also continued laughing and loving as long as she could.  My last dessert with my mother was a shared orange freeze from Steak n Shake.  I let her have the cherry on top.

After a few minutes, I started the car and journeyed home.  Now I sit, watching the light dim around me, thinking about curmudgeons, and feeling very blessed.

Twilight at the Holmes house.

Twilight at the Holmes house.