ENGL 425: Advanced Creative Writing Seminar

Dr. Laurie MacDiarmid

Spring 2017, Sophomore Year

Assignments:

  • Blog Entries (iglswhimsythoughts)
  • 8 Writing Exercises
  • 3 Workshop Submissions
  • Portfolio (2 revised workshop pieces and a self-reflective essay)

Searching for Starlight

I stood by the door with my stomach clenching and groaning as I watched my daughter lay in a hospital bed.  She stared blankly at the wall as the nurses milled around her, ignoring the strangers poking and prodding her.  To her, this was becoming a common practice.  Since she was one year old, she had endured many tests to try to pinpoint what was happening to her.  She was now five, and we were still seeking answers. 

Checking umpteen machines and wires attached to her, the nurses somehow managed to try to make small talk as they jotted down their notes.  But I saw how she was already withdrawing in the silent way my little Maureen always did.

The eggshell white sheets swallowed her small frame, matching the pale pallor of her skin.  Her blonde hair hung around her shoulders while she twirled a stray strand.  Despite everything, she seemed so calm.  As soon as the nurses moved away, I snuck up to her hospital bed and curled up next to her, wrapping my arms around her thin torso.  Her little hands gently held my arms against her.

“It’s okay to be scared,” I whispered in her ear.

Glancing up at me, she relaxed against my stomach.  “I can’t be scared, Momma.  You’re scared, so I have to be brave.”  She smiled up at me.  We’d only just watched the Disney movie Brave the other day where she learned the word.  “I got this.  I’m strong.”

Tears pricked my eyes.  “I know you’re strong, baby.”

We were both quiet for a moment, watching the swallows circling outside the window.  The river flowed a little off the hospital property.  Other medical buildings crowded around the sides of the hospital.  Down the street was a flower shop, a McDonald’s, and a Dairy Queen.  Of course fast food restaurants were near a hospital—if cholesterol or a brewing heart attack became too much of a problem from that Big Mac, at least the hospital was just a walk away.

“Momma?” she asked softly.  Her eyes never moved from the birds.

“Yes, Maureen?”

She squeezed my arm.  “Will you tell me a story?  One with a real ending?”

I kissed the top of her head.  “What do you mean by a real ending?”

Tickling the downy hair on my arm, she said, “I know most real stories don’t have a happy ending.  Like you and your momma.”

My eyebrows crinkled.  “Baby, I still had a happy ending.  I have you, don’t I?”

A smile softened her eyes.  “Will you tell me a story then?”

Before I can begin, one of the nurses came in.  “Hey, sweetie.  I need to take a blood sample quick.  Then I’ll leave you alone until we begin the other stuff.  Do you mind?”

Maureen squeezed her eyes before nodding.  She leaned against me as the nurse stole some blood from the little catheter in her wrist.  When she finished, she patted Maureen’s hand and promised to be back in an hour.  “You’re doing great, sweetie.”

“Any specific story or just a story?” I asked her softly as she began to stare blankly at the wall again.

“Just a story,” she murmured as she held her stomach. 

“Okay then.”  I pressed the down button of the bed and dragged her tightly against my side.  “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl born from moonlight.  Her ivory skin and white hair were gifts from the moon.  All who met her fell in love because of how special she was.”

“Why was she special?” she asked, turning her head upwards to look at me. 

“Because she was perfect.”  I kissed the top of her head.  “The moon crafted her delicate features to catch the starlight and reflect its rays back.  She brought light everywhere she went.  The creatures of the land loved her for it.  When she was nearby, she chased away the dark and kept them company so they wouldn’t be lonely.”

“Why were they lonely?”

“Sometimes people just are.  It sort of happens to people, especially when they’re sad.”

Maureen played with the hair on my arms.  “Are you sad, Momma?”

Moving her around so we faced each other, I said, “Sometimes, but not because of you. You’re my starlight.”

A smile illuminated her face.  “I love you, Momma.” 

I pulled her back into my lap.  “I love you too, baby.  Should I continue?”

She settled against me, tugging up the thin cotton sheets.  “Yes, please.”

“So, the sun saw one day that the creatures loved the girl and grew jealous.  It didn’t like that she made light too so it came up with a plan.”

“What did the sun do?”

“It cast a curse on the little girl.”

Maureen wiggled out of my arms.  “Like Sleeping Beauty?  Or Snow White?  Or Rapunzel?”

I laughed.  Tickling her under her chin, I teased her and said, “You don’t like princesses at all.”

“Momma!  What did the sun do?”

“Well, the sun—”

A knock rapped on the door.  We both turned our heads as two female nurses walked into the room.  “Hello!  We’re all set in the operating room.  Now we just have to bring Maureen there.”

Like a switch was flipped, her bubbling energy was snuffed out.  My smile vanished as the ball of nerves returned to plague my innards.  “Okay.” 

“I brought a paper gown and booties for you, Ms. Everett, so you can accompany her into the room.  We’ll situate her while you put that on.”

I took the folded bundle with shaking fingers.  Swallowing, I went to the corner of the small space and slipped my arms through the paper sleeves, crunching it under my fingers.  When I turned around, Maureen was lying back on the bed, swaddled in blankets with the bed’s bars corralling her in.  If she had any color before, it was gone now.

“Ready?” a nurse asked.

Together, the nurses wheeled Maureen out of the room.  I walked beside them, touching Maureen’s hand, which had grown ice cold.  “It’ll be ok,” I murmured, mostly to myself.  Nausea bubbled up my throat. 

Keep it together, I told myself.  If Maureen could be strong, then I sure as hell could too.  We stopped as they swiped into a room.  Beeping machines and wandering tubes and needles were scattered throughout the room.  Burning antiseptic assaulted my nose.  They positioned her in the middle of all of it and hit the brakes.  I placed both my hands on the bed after the bars dropped.  Maureen immediately held my hand.

I watched in a daze as they attached more suction cups and needles against her.  Maureen clenched my fingers as they finished “settling” her into the room. 

The head doctor walked into the room all smiles and energy.  “Hello!  Are we ready?”

“Maureen’s the perfect patient,” one of the nurses stated.  Maureen smiled weakly at the compliment. 

“Alrighty, then let’s get the show moving.  Maureen, I’m going to assign you a task, ok?”

“Ok,” she said with a pinched voice.

“I’m gonna put this mask over your nose and mouth— it won’t hurt you a bit!  I want you to count for me for as long as you can.  If you fall asleep, that’s ok.  Don’t fight it.  Can you do that for me?” he said as he took a seat near the head of the bed.  He held a pink, rubber mask in his hand that was attached to a container that looked vaguely like a fire extinguisher.

“Ok,” she said, looking at me. 

I smiled, fighting back the wobble in my lip and the tears budding in my eyes.  “It’s okay, baby.  You’re doing so good.”

“That’s right, Maureen.  You’re being a real trooper.  Ready?” he said amiably.  She nodded as her body trembled.  He placed the mask over her face and turned a valve on the container. 

She counted.  “One, two, three…,” her voice grew fainter, more like a mumble as her hand slowly let go of mine.  A tear slipped from the corner of her eye as her eyes took on a glassy quality.

“She’s out.  Ms. Everett, if you’d like to give Maureen a kiss before you leave, you can do so now.”  He removed the mask and fiddled with some tube. 

I leaned down and placed a kiss on her forehead, unsettled by her eyes.  She was so still and with her eyes staring blankly like that, she looked dead.

“There’s a nurse waiting outside to escort you back to her room.  We’ll have her back to you before you know it.”

Somehow, I walked out of that room, haunted by her vacant eyes.  A male nurse smiled and began making conversation as I followed him out of the winding hallways.  No words penetrated the numbed daze that swept from her eyes into me.  He got me back to Maureen’s room, said something about letting them know if I needed anything, and left with the close of the sliding door. 

I sank into the sofa chair and began to cry.  My fingers clenched the roots of my hair as my shoulders shook mercilessly.  Choked gasps clogged my chest and airways.  After all this time of never-ending tests and “maybe it’s this,” I still broke down.  Each time I watched her undergo all the invasive tests and uncaring scrutiny of doctors and the medical field in general, I felt defeated.  Was it my fault she ended up like this?  Or was it the man that her birth certificate labeled father?  Whoever was to blame, Maureen didn’t deserve this.

Once again, I wondered if I should contact Jerry.  Five years ago, he had made it clear he had no interest in kids and left me to figure out how to be a parent.  He never paid me child support, which was fine because I didn’t need him.  If our relationship was any indicator, he would have been an awful father for Maureen.  Because he was an uncaring, selfish, vain bum, Jerry and I were not destined to be.  We met at a bar.  I thought he was hot with the blonde cowlick and dashing dimple and wanted something exciting and spontaneous after college.  I thought, what the hell?  So, I began a fling with him that I knew wasn’t going to last.  I never meant to become pregnant with Maureen. 

Yet, she happened.  I had no family to fall back on for help.  My mother and I refused to talk to each other after I was kicked out of the house at eighteen.  Back then, I was adamant about what I wanted to go into—writing.  Mom didn’t approve.  Dad had tried to follow his unrealistic dream too but with music and that hadn’t ended well for us—Dad died young after he was mugged after a small show outside our little town of Letvan.  I was only four when he died. 

Mom worked at a sweet shop that paid just above minimum wage, but there were no other options for her.  Letvan lacked any other jobs with the small population it contained, and Mom dropped out of high school her sophomore year to escape her abusive parents.  She had no one to turn to and no money to move us away.

At least that’s what I tried to tell myself growing up.  Really, Mom was just unhinged.  She always claimed to have migraines and could not do a lot of work.  She also had no ways to cope with emotions.  Any little thing went wrong and she’d be set off.  I remember days when I would be just a little too loud playing with my few dolls and she would come storming downstairs to spank me as she screamed at me to be quiet.  By middle school, I was fighting back.  I excelled in school and stayed behind for as long as possible before heading home.  School was my safe place, especially the library.  I devoured stories and found solace in the characters’ adventures.  By high school, I was set on being an author.

We fought all the time about it.  Mom never believed in me, so I could never understand why she cared so much about my decision.  Then I chose a college with a decent English program that offered creative writing, hundreds of miles away from our little town in Northern Wisconsin.  After I told her that I made my choice and paid the security deposit, she flipped and threw me out.  Broke everything in my room and tossed what wasn’t completely trashed onto the front lawn.  Then she told me never to come back.

Halfway through college, when I was an honor student in the English program, I sent her a letter with my high marks and an award I received for some creative prose I wrote.  A couple weeks later, the letter found its way back into my school mailbox, unopened.  I never bothered to contact her again.  I don’t even know if she’s still alive.

Thankfully, my friend, Jerica, helped me long enough to land a remote job writing synopses for book jackets and being a technical writer.  If it hadn’t been for her, I might have had to give up Maureen, which would have destroyed me.  Raising a child is exhausting but also fascinating.  Like a sponge, she picked up on everything I said and devoured every story I spun or read to her.  Even her retention amazed me.  I loved spending time with her.

And now we were on this awful ride for cloaked answers and daggered theories that never panned out.  Just the thought made me cry harder.  Maureen never seemed as energetic as other kids her age.  She always needed to nap a lot despite sleeping through the nights.  Food was always a struggle for her, even when she was in the womb.  I gained maybe ten pounds from my pregnancy, and she always spat up more than she actually consumed.  Doctors never seemed concerned because she appeared to be gaining the necessary strides in development even if it was always the minimum.  She was perfect in their eyes.

Yet, here I was in another hospital, feeling as if I had been cursed by some unforgiving entity.  To be helpless in saving your child is the worse fate any parent can imagine.  Every test was agonizing to endure. 

But I had to endure.  Hours stretched out to feel like years.  Tears slipped down my cheeks as I waited to have my daughter back.  Eventually, I allowed my head to fall back into my hands.

~ ~ ~

Three hours later, a knock sounded on the door before it slid open.  “Ms. Everett?” I looked up from my knees.  The head doctor from Maureen’s procedure stood holding an official looking clipboard. 

“Yes.  That’s me.”  I wiped my sweaty palms onto my faded jeans.

“The endoscopy went well.  We had no complications. They should be bringing your daughter around shortly,” he said softly.  Gray formed at his temples and crow’s feet crinkled the corners of his eyes. 

Swallowing, I closed my eyes as I asked my question.  “And did you find anything?”

Before he could answer, he moved as the bed came squeaking through the door.  Two nurses, a young man and woman, wheeled the bed back toward the quiet machines and flipped the brakes on.  Tears pricked my eyes as I looked into Maureen’s pale face.  Her chest moved slowly up and down with each breath.  Slightly parted, her lips looked dry and chapped.  At least her eyes were closed this time.

“Ms. Everett?”

My attention bounced back to the doctor.  “Yes, sorry.  You were saying?”

He nodded his head.  “It’s alright.  As I said, we had no complications.  During the endoscopy, I didn’t see any abnormalities or concerns, so that’s a good sign.  We took a few biopsies just to be safe, but I feel optimistic that there won’t be anything troublesome.”

“And if there are?”

He lifted his hands as if to put the brakes on the thought.  “We’ll go from there, but I’d rather not speculate anything.  Your daughter appears to be in good health.  No problems appeared, and we didn’t find anything, so again, good signs.”

Frustrated tears constricted my throat.  “How can you say she’s in good health?  We’re here, aren’t we?  And not to find anything?  She’s not faking it, and I wouldn’t do this to her if I didn’t believe something was going on.”

The doctor spoke in a placating tone.  “I’m not trying to accuse anyone of anything, but I stand by what we have found, which is nothing.  Usually, when I tell parents I didn’t find anything, they’re ecstatic.  Shouldn’t you celebrate that?”

I rubbed my face.  “I can’t celebrate anything until we have answers.”  I focused on her still face in the room.  “She has been sick ever since she was born.  She’s strong and tries to remain happy, but I can see she’s suffering.  Something is going on with her.  You aren’t there twenty-four seven.  I am.  I watch her go through these weird fatigue episodes and vomiting.”  The volume of my voice kept increasing, but I couldn’t seem to stop it as burning heat crept up my neck and my heart fluttered.  “She’s seen almost every doctor you can think of.  Each tells us she’s a beautiful, perfect little girl.  Healthy even.  Do you understand how frustrating that is?  Yes, I am happy that nothing “bad” has been found, but I am terrified of not knowing what she has.  Because she has something doctor.  My baby girl is not faking it for attention.  I am not babying her either.”

“Again, I’m not accusing you of anything.  Only reporting the facts.” 

Oh, how I wanted to slap that placating face.

Before I could continue my rant, I heard a soft moan from the hospital bed.  I spun around but calmed when I saw that she went back to sleeping, if that was what being under anesthesia is considered. 

Sighing, I pulled on my hair, anger dissipating.  “Anything else, doctor?”

“The nurse will be by soon to check on her again and tell you about being discharged.  She can go home in a couple of hours.  If you notice any issues or side effects, don’t hesitate to call us and bring her back.  Have a nice day.”  With that, the doctor walked away to placate some other unlucky bastard. 

The urge to crumble overwhelmed me.  Every test they took, every robbed vial of blood and urine, came back with a green bill of health.  Theories would spin across their clipboards and lips, but they never followed through after that blasted, perfect result.  Each doctor inspired hope just before dashing it with placating smiles and referrals elsewhere.  That is, if they would even refer me anywhere.  Some just shook their heads, claimed that it was my bad parenting, and told me she would grow out of it once I stopped babying her.

They didn’t see the pasty pallor of a ghost.  Maureen was a bright soul in a dimming body.  Smiles burned brightly across her face as she exhausted the little energy she mustered in a day.  She put a brave front on for every needle, every pin prick of possibilities, but I could see the real drain on her.  Waking up in the morning was a triumph for her.  And if she threw up, she would take on the responsibility and shove me away with an affectionate, “I got this.” 

A five-year-old shouldn’t be that way.

“Momma?” Maureen called softly.

I swiped at my face to smear any evidence of tears.  I turned around and smiled at her groggy eyes.  “Hi, baby.”

Moving toward the bed, I sat next to her and grabbed her hand.  “How are you doing?”

“I feel sleepy,” she murmured as her eyes closed again.  She scooted over to my lap and snuggled against my leg.

“Then you just rest.  There’s no rush to get out of here.”

I lifted her just enough to place her head on my chest.  She nestled against me and held me close.  Resting my head back, I closed my eyes too and sighed.  Answers were out there.  It was just a matter of finding them.

“Momma,” Maureen whispered.

“Yes, baby?” 

“Will you tell me what the sun did?” 

“Just for you, I will,” I said as I forced myself to sit up.  Maureen lifted her head just enough for me to move before I placed a pillow on my lap for her to rest on.  “The sun grew jealous of the little girl and cast a curse on her.”  I paused as I placed a hand on her head, trying to think of a curse.  

“The little girl didn’t know or understand the curse, but the creatures stopped following her.  She thought it was because they didn’t love her.  But that wasn’t the case.  The creatures couldn’t see her because the sun turned her into a ghost.”

 I stroked her hair as she played with a stray strand.  “She no longer reflected the starlight, which passed through her like she wasn’t there.  During the day, she would disappear until night came, forcing her to wander alone through the days.  At night, she still couldn’t be seen or heard, except for an outline of her body.  The little girl became lonely.”

“What did she do then?” 

“She followed the creatures that used to be her friends.  They searched for her but never found her, which made them sad.  Sometimes they felt her presence, helping them feel better.  The little girl realized this and continued to trail after her friends.  Despite the sun’s curse, the little girl still tried to reflect the best of the stars: their ability to guide and comfort others.  There was only so much she could do for the creatures, but she did her best and that’s what matters.”     

Maureen contemplated that.  “Why did she have to turn into a ghost?”

“Sometimes, bad things just happen, but what’s important is how people respond to it.  It’s okay to be sad after a bad thing happens, but after a while, you have to try to move on from it.”

“How do you move on, Momma?”

I paused.  “I have you so it’s more important for me to—because I love you.”

She turned so I could see her face.  “When can we go home?”

I sighed.  “Soon, baby.  For now, it’s okay if you want to take a nap.  I have to wait for the nurse.”

She relaxed against me.  “I love you too, Momma.”

Fresh tears welled up at the back of my throat.  I may not have had the best role model, but I was going to do my damnedest to do whatever was needed for Maureen.  She deserved far better than this back and forth between hospitals. 

I bent down and kissed her head again.  If we were to be cursed, at least we were together to try to endure while we figured out how to lift it.  We didn’t need a prince, but I would take a potion or counter curse any day to make her a whole child.