My brother Pete was called to a rockfall in Tennessee the weekend we got the upsetting news about Mum. A piece of Little Frog Mountain had slid onto highway 64 near the Ocoee River in Polk County on Tuesday, four days before, blocking all traffic southward to Georgia, eastward to North Carolina, and westward to Cleveland, Tennessee. The old two-lane road, built to haul copper from nearby mines, had last been improved in 1912; its cut slopes had been shedding rocks regularly for years. This slide had begun, but wouldn’t end, with a boulder the size of a pickup truck rolling onto the two-lane highway about six in the morning. Workers from a local contractor arrived shortly afterward to break it up. The noise of the excavator scooping away debris, along with a hydraulic percussion hammer, called a hoe ram, chipping away at the boulder, muted the noise of the hillside, which wasn’t done moving. Little Frog Mountain had begun to sing, cracking and popping, but the workers didn’t hear it.
Vanessa Bateman, a geological engineer with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, drove five hours to the scene when she heard about the boulder, taking only one stop for the bathroom and no food breaks. Walking the last steps to the site where work on the boulder had begun that morning, Batemen, with her trained ears, heard the terrible music of the rocks under the roar of equipment and immediately ordered everyone out of the area. Thirty minutes later, as she watched from a small suspension bridge over the Ocoee just across the street, the hillside lost its grip. Its fragments crackled as it slid over the road, snapping tall pines, then chewing them up like twigs, taking everything in its path. The video clip on YouTube was spectacular, prompting comments from geologists that one rarely saw a hill let go like that, start to finish. Considering the human toll it might have taken, Tennessee media named Ms. Bateman a hero.
My brother, a consulting geo-technical engineer, was packing two days after the boulder rolled and the hill let go to leave his home in New Hampshire. He was about to fly down to Tennessee and meet with Ms. Bateman when I called. Mum had fallen. She was in pain but there were no fractures. She wasn’t eating now, but she might again, the nursing home staff said; it could take a while to know what was going on. The nurses, practiced in tone, gave me to understand that this occurrence was likely to be it. Mum, an Alzheimer’s patient, had been declared terminal two months before. She could no longer lift her hand to her mouth to eat, and no rehabilitation could help her do it on her own again. Her thoughts had become tossed and disordered, her sentences no longer linear.
On the phone to Pete we tried together to decide what to do. Both of us were needed elsewhere. “Whatever decision I make, it will be the wrong one,” my brother said. I had to think about that. Like Vanessa Bateman, he keeps people safe. His job is to look at hillsides and roadbeds, or shopping malls precariously built on weak soils. Some ten years ago, on route 287 near the Tappan Zee Bridge, while traffic snarled overhead, Pete was wandering around in excavation beneath the closed sections, hunting for diabase columns, vertical volcanic intrusions which would provide natural support. A lot would ride, never more literally than here, on his right decision: the rebuilding was designed to anchor itself on the diabase intrusions which are part of the large uplifted sill of the Hudson palisades. These cliffs fronting the Hudson River are a place geologists love, revealing the history of the earth as plain as a book. But the road provides a pleasing substitute where the road has blasted through hills along the approach to the bridge, revealing anticlines, fossils, igneous intrusions and the eternal sedimentary layers, making visible the world to those who must often find other ways to access the knowledge beneath their feet. Walking over the earth, Pete has a feel for what goes on underneath him, beyond what can be seen. Perhaps that feel had been what made Vanessa Bateman sure the rocks would fall.
Rocks have always been part of my family. I texted Pete photos of my palmful of pebbly black and white granite from the Anza-Borrego Desert in California one March, and he texted me back—“dolomite”— from his snow-bound office above the swollen Merrimack River to where we sweltered. I had been wandering with my husband and his sister around smooth waist-high slabs with tiny wells, or morteros, where the Cahuilla people had pounded corn. The grind of pea-sized granite-like rocks under my feet had left me curious, as you might be with a rare bird or butterfly.
My father was a hobbyist who once dropped everything after work to buy me a sample of cinnabar, the ore of mercury. Our spontaneous trip down old route one in Massachusetts in the summer twilight led to an old man’s single-wide trailer where he kept his shop. Such a trip was out of place in the orderly lives we normally led. That night Mum waited dinner, impatient; Dad, his tie loosened, eyes alight, took me and set off on the hunt. I would remember every inch of the ride, and on the trip home held the small red rock in my hand as though it were magic. Like our father, Pete would one day cross the continent by car to go to Idaho’s School of Mines. The wide craton of the west, its light and stretch, transformed him, and he went on to become an engineer of soil and rock.
When I went to the Canadian Rockies a few years ago, the last of my family to make it there, I learned at last what my father and brother had learned, of the grandeur and inexorable dominance of the mountains, stony veterans of a struggle that broke these ranges into jagged teeth, their faces erect and sharp, warriors still standing. There the earth’s flanks are under you as they are nowhere else, and every twitch, every glance of light reminds you how small you are.
* * *
My mother’s favorite landscape was Plum Island off the coast of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Her grandparents had a summerhouse there they called Bohemia, presumably because it was a place of radical leisure, though it was only a few miles away from where they lived their respectable lives. At Bohemia they worked to hold onto the dunes, planting emerald green beach grass that cut skin like a knife if you hit it wrong. Amidst the grass, fragrant pasture roses, given just a little soil, thrived and hipped in profusion enough to make a fine jelly; beach plums, grasping at the land, yielded deeply sweet cobblers; small pale sedum thrust out improbably elaborate, ghostly blooms.
For Mum life was about the sea. She had learned to swim in that icy water, stroking alongside her formidable grandfather, a brusque man who swam regularly in the water off Cape Ann, sometimes in his clothes, his head above water with his pipe and tobacco tucked under his hat. For her it became as natural as breathing. Under her grandfather’s exacting eye she became an excellent swimmer, avoiding undertow and watching the water like the terns and gulls circling overhead. She spent her days bare-headed on the beach, playing incessantly in the glare of the water and the wind’s sharp kiss. She never would have left, if she had had her way.
Of her childhood days there remained glimpses, once my brother and I were born, in summer afternoons when she took us to Marblehead, where my grandparents rented a small cottage with rights to a rocky beach. The shore, covered with the shattered remains of boulders, gave us skipping stones. We hunted for beach glass, climbed the rough red granite boulder in the middle of the beach and hunted for crabs marooned in the warm wells of its fractured surface. We came back to the jib, as the house was called, for sugar cookies and ginger ale, our pockets full of shells.
I will always remember my mother hanging laundry in back of our house at the edge of a great field rimmed by a second-growth pine wood, a place rich in grass and moss and shrubs, thick with deer and rabbits, and pheasants who called in the early morning. She hung up shirts at the hem, stretched taut, and inserted metal forms into the legs of my father’s trousers to pleat them, adding every other garment, towel, and rag she washed till the line groaned. I would play in the field, or sit and watch the microcosms spread across the ground, the green moss when it went to spore, the ants through the hard tufts of grass in late summer, the bluets in spring and the butter-and-eggs sprinkled with rusty Indian paintbrush in the fall. Always I sat within sight of her navy tweed skirt and sweater, her dark red hair lifted by the breeze. She was my landmark.
* * *
The day Mum fell she had lost her bearings trying to get up from her alarmed chair. She wasn’t able to stand without help, though she disliked help. She would move that day, and no force could stop her. Falling, she hit her hip. The X-ray of her hips, where she felt excruciating pain, was negative. A physician’s assistant later told us that in late stage dementia, the brain sometimes can’t absorb what happens to the body. It relies instead on what it remembers of pain, seeking familiar ground. She had broken her femur five years before and had found it hard to breathe for the pain. In her mind, she had broken it again.
On Monday, two days after the fall, six days after the landslide, the nurse called again. “We were going to come Friday,” I said from my university office. At first, the nurse was silent. “Your mother isn’t drinking. This is one of the signs. Of course, she could take fluid tomorrow. . . .”
“So we should come now?”
The nurse measured her words. “That’s up to you. She could decide to eat. We’ve seen it happen.” Then she lapsed into silence.
I leaned back against my office chair, listening to the cell phone breaking up.
My husband and I drove halfway from Baltimore to Concord, New Hampshire that afternoon, trying often to reach my brother by phone, with no luck until nearly five. Pete was in conference with Ms. Bateman and the Department of Transportation, waiting to meet with its Commissioner. He had been in a cell phone hole, muffled and focused on the reality that no one trying to leave this corner of Tennessee for parts of Georgia or North Carolina was going to get there without taking a very long go-around.
He told me later that after he hung up he could only manage to say to his colleagues, standing around with Styrofoam coffees, rumpled from travel and long hours, that he had to go home, his voice deserting him. Someone drove him to Atlanta, away from the rockslide on an alternate road that took them hours in the wrong direction, due north and east, before dropping down south again; he arrived deep in the night at the airport hotel for a few hours’ sleep, waking to take a dawn flight to New Hampshire. We converged at my mother’s bedside at ten o’clock that morning. My mother’s eyes opened when she heard me; she craned her neck when Peter came; the nurses crowed with delight; “She knows you’re here!”
The first morning I read to her from Alice in Wonderland. In its early chapters, a girl falls down a hole in the ground and sees things, her body changing sizes as she seeks to find her way into a beautiful garden. Later, awash in the tears of her larger self, Alice swims away to dry land. I wanted to imagine her swimming.
* * *
It had been water that came between my mother and me. Simple, domesticated tap water, heated in a percolater where it boiled and shot up through a small tube centered in a basket of grounds, only to drip through the coffee, boiled again in turn until the color was right, and the smell past enticing. You never see pots like that anymore. I didn’t see it then either. What I know is what others remembered. Mum was poised in her apron, her hand on the pot, ready to pour, her back to the door of the kitchen, and I raced in, grabbing her legs, destabilizing her, spilling the water down my neck. The burns were permanent, and changed everything.
Back then burns were healed with grafts taken from other parts of the body, not specially latticed as they are now, or cloned, but lifted and plopped, stitched; if you were lucky they held. I sported a large rectangle on the outside of each thigh, invisible now, but then they were large and pale with defined borders, flags of skin harvesting which were visible whenever I swam, or wore shorts. Younger kids would stand, blocking my path, asking “Why do you have those things…,” accompanied by a gesture; it was not a situation where words worked. I always knew when they were going to ask: the cant of the head, the locked knees of determination. Was I frightening? Had their mother forbidden them to ask? My family’s impulse was to bury the knowledge of the accident and its aftermath as if the reality of such loss and pain and fear could, in some emotional earth, break down into the harmless atoms of which it is made. Of course this does not happen.
“You will have to go to the hospital,” my mother would say in each of the summers I went back for adjustments to the plastic surgery. “To the hospital” was code for another scheduled misery, and left me terrified: what had I done to deserve this? Penal codes came no more severe. For many years my greatest battle was scar tissue: I had a ridge that rose on my neck when I cocked my head, and a broad pink squiggle just above my jawline. It was impossible not to notice.
But everything I needed, I was given. An extra surgery when I was eleven to “gild the lily” as my plastic surgeon said. I did not reply, “what lily is that?” though the question took shape in my mind. I had always been burned, as far as I knew. There was no lily; the burn was not beautiful. But neither was it strange.
I returned home from that surgery with a refined squiggle flattened to be level with the surrounding skin and thinner as well as smoother. Years later, I went back to the hospital voluntarily, my older skin loose enough now to enable the graft’s removal; this was a big deal. Older skin stretches more easily; in fact, skin is pretty amazing generally, as I would find out. The doctors removed my pale, palm-sized graft then stretched my skin to cover the space; this meant the color of the skin from my neck would now be nearly uniform. For the first twenty-four hours after they’d pulled me tight I couldn’t chew. At forty-eight hours, as the skin gave way, I could fully close my mouth, and at seventy-two I felt comfortable going to the grocery store in a turtleneck. I was no longer patched: everything, newly held together, looked like it belonged.
* * *
I don’t know if my father forgave my mother for the burning, though he always loved her. What I saw in his face was a sadness, a bodily stiffening when we skated too close to the thin edge of discussing what I might need or want because of what happened. I never asked my father how he felt about the accident. I finally asked my mother when she was eighty-four, two years before she died, and she found words and language to tell me, the tears, long buried, bubbling out in ways no one would believe, astonishing as the sun on the blade face of the Rockies. And because the accident was an old memory, she remembered it better than she could what she’d eaten for breakfast. She told me my father wouldn’t touch her for six weeks after it happened, how her mother had scolded her for her stupidity, the broad swath of her words scorching the whole family: “I would expect something like this from your sisters, Elizabeth, but not from you.”
As this unfolded Mum sat in her recliner, I beside her on the bed, the pine tree outside her window full of squirrels and the sky of scudding clouds. We pieced together the layers of my parents’ loss; their pieces became mine.
* * *
After a while it made no sense, on that day we arrived at her bedside, to read to her. We sat in that pale green room, Pete in his crisp fishing shirt and chinos, his beard snowier than I remembered, his grey blue eyes tired. I envied his stillness. He would rise from time to time and murmur that he needed to check in, and took the stairs down and outside to make the call to Tennessee, worried that the local contractor they’d hired would bring the hill down on himself, or patch it badly so that it would fall, sooner rather than later, on someone else.
I followed him down, once, stopping in the lobby to watch where he stood on the lawn in front of the nursing home pacing and cooling in his shirtsleeves, bent with the phone as though trying to hear the voice of a small child, gesturing then nodding, raising his fingers to his forehead. I remembered my mother telling me, in the room where she now lay dying, that after the water had burned me she and my father had, in their panic, raced me to the hospital, forgetting my three-month-old brother in his crib. He too had been part of the thing that happened.
On Friday, four days after our vigil began, Pete seemed to know without understanding fully that it was time. Earlier that morning, he had driven out to be with Mum some two hours ahead of my husband and me, getting there, I imagine, to say what he needed to say to her, the two of them alone. He rushed us through lunch, uneasy, herding us back to her room, where her breathing had changed. Her shoulder pulled forward with effort at every breath. By mid-afternoon her breathing was fleeting and irregular.
Soon the breath left such a long interval before its return that we called the charge nurse. Holding my mother’s darkening hand, she had trouble finding a pulse. She stood, waiting, listening. I rested my hand on Mum’s ankle. My brother shifted on his feet, his eyes streaming. “3:37,” the nurse said to her companion, her fingers gently leaving my mother’s wrist. And to us, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
* * *
After Mum died, Pete went back to Tennessee. There the contractor began to scour the raw surface of Little Frog Mountain, removing by hand loose rock from its surface—rock expected to fall within the next five or ten years—in a process called scaling, which is done continually as the larger arc of restoration unfolds. The grooming continues in this way as deep holes are bored into the face of the hill above the slide, and bolts slipped in to anchor it. Tons of rock and debris are carted away. Helmeted workers blast boulders that threaten to fall, trucking them offsite. Eventually a crawler crane arrives and a platform of crushed rock is built to hold it. The elbowed arm of this enormous machine lifts tons of equipment and men onto the more fragile part of the slope to do precision blasting and further scaling, all to alter, or perhaps slow for a lifetime, the inevitable fall of the hills. It happens piece by jagged piece. Sometimes, as scaling continues, rock believed to be tightly adhered to the surface comes loose. It’s not easy to tell what needs doing. Nothing replaces the steady, dogged, necessary work of men by hand.
Pete helped Vanessa Bateman develop plans to hold the rocks with a pattern of bolts that would lattice the hillside, as plants might do in the natural way of things, and considered how to place a barrier that could withstand the high impact of what yet might fall. It’s a complicated and dangerous process, the forces of earth being what they are.
© Robin Farabaugh
Robin Farabaugh is a Senior Lecturer in the English department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County . Robin reports, “Although I was trained in Early Modern English literature, I have enjoyed writing creative non-fiction and like so many others, I have been tinkering with a novel, still in progress. I’ve had essays published in The Crab Orchard Review and the Southwest Review, and in a short-lived online journal called the Chesapeake Reader.”