I Live in the Sky

Helen Park Bigelow

Chris Harris 

I Live in the Sky


I’m writing this on my sixty first birthday and there is something I need. Young Mercy has arrived, poking her head through the gap in the yellow curtains slung around my hospital bed. She brought me chocolate truffles all the way from Albuquerque. Now isn’t that absurd. We do have truffles here in Flagstaff.  I don’t like the truffles with their heavy smell of chocolate. I’ll give them to one of the nurses. 


But having young Mercy here has set up this feeling of needing something. She stands by my bed, saying, “Toni, is there anything you need? Toni, can I do anything for you?”  


There is something I need. But that is different from her second question, doing something for me. I try to think of errands young Mercy can do so she’ll be happy. She has a horse face like her mother, poor thing. Her mother, Aunt Mercy, always reminded me of the way a horse tosses its mouth up, the way its lips stand out from its teeth. Airing her teeth, I used to think, looking up at Aunt Mercy. 


Now I lie here looking up into young Mercy’s face. She has good dark hair, thick and wavy, and there’s almost no gray. She keeps it shiny clean. But that side of the family has too many teeth. Too many everything. When I asked young Mercy to buy me a notebook and a new pen she brought in a stack of notebooks of all sizes and about a dozen pens. All I asked for was one notebook and a pen that moves across the page easily, else I won’t have the strength to write. 


Maybe writing will help me figure out what it is I need. The notebook I chose is bright green with Snoopy on the cover. It’s the least pretty notebook in the stack young Mercy brought, and she winced when I chose it. 


So why did I pick the ugliest notebook? I think that’s called being passive aggressive but the whole idea of why I would do that is exhausting. 


I wanted the notebook and a pen but they are just tools. I understand that what I need has something to do with Aunt Mercy’s teeth but I am too crazy now from all these hypodermic needles to figure it out.


That was a lot of paragraphs. There’s thunder outside and lightning, rain making tiny braided rivers on the black window-glass. I hear visitors’ voices from down the hall. Today was lost. Every time I’m in the dopey druggy hours I decide not to take that stuff again. It’s such a waste of time not to be able to think. The drug is gone now and I try to watch the lightning. 




The nurse came with the shot. I must have dozed. All the visitors have gone and now the nurse is working her way down the hall giving backrubs. In spite of how I feel about hospitals this is a cozy time. When the nurse gets to me she will fuss about the bedsore back there where my spine is nubby but there’s nothing to be done when bones stick out the way mine do now. It’s peculiar having bones sticking out after a lifetime of needing to lose ten pounds. My remaining breast is now so small it almost isn’t there. I don’t like to look at myself. 


Perhaps I’ll skip my backrub tonight because I feel up to writing. Young Mercy was here again. I shouldn’t call her young Mercy anymore. She isn’t young. I’m six years older so that makes her 55. 


She mentioned her motel. I was ashamed. My house is empty and the neighbor is feeding my poor cat Blueberry. I worry about her being lonely. Blueberry, not the neighbor. I gave my keys to Mercy and told her to stay at my house. You would have thought I’d given her the moon. 





It’s morning now and things are bad. I feel a little frantic. I rang for the nurse 22 minutes early. She said she’d put in a call to Dr. Smithson. It’ll take her 22 minutes or more to get through to him. Maybe writing will help me think about something besides the squeak of the nurse’s rubber soles as she walks past my room. I can tell when she is going to come in here because her stride changes just before she turns the corner.


Mercy has been here for days. I can’t remember how many. I can tell her footsteps all the way from when the elevator bell rings as it stops on this floor. Her footsteps are like Aunt Mercy’s, big and apparent just like their teeth. 


I used to feel as if Aunt Mercy’s teeth were going to chomp me away to nothing. That first summer when I had to go and live with Aunt Mercy and Uncle Phil and young Mercy—what a God-awful summer that was—that was when I learned that my parents hadn’t fought or even bickered. It’s funny how dumb I was at 13. I was so dumb I didn’t know my mother and dad had fun together until they were gone and suddenly I was driving across Arizona with Aunt Mercy at the wheel and Uncle Phil beside her. Young Mercy and her smelly bubble gum were in the back seat with me. I sat there looking outside at northern Arizona and all its reds and all its rocks, thinking about cars and how fast and big they are, and about how my parents had been in a car going over to a friend’s house—just going over to a friend’s house right there in Tucson—and then they were dead. A driver who was drunk barreled through the light and into my parents’ car. Gone forever while I was home on my bed doing my algebra, and then I had to live with Aunt Mercy and Uncle Phil and young Mercy until I was 18. Five years. 


When we were driving somewhere together my dad would sing to make the time pass.  “You do sound magnificent,” my mom would say about my dad’s awful voice and they’d both laugh.  


There was no laughing in Aunt Mercy’s big Dodge. No singing. No talk, either, like Mom getting us all talking about how it would have been to be a covered wagon family. She said people had to walk across the grass, away from the wagons, and just squat there in the tall grass to do their business. Because there were no trees to hide behind, out on the prairie. Imagine that. 


But with Aunt Mercy and Uncle Phil and young Mercy, the simplest talk turned into nagging and they kept dragging me into it. If Uncle Phil thought Aunt Mercy was driving too fast, he said, “You’ll scare poor Toni to death.” If Aunt Mercy wanted the window closed, she said, “You’re messing poor Toni’s hair, see how miserable she looks!”


Oh it makes me furious just to remember. It made me feel so trapped. And then there was young Mercy. She did sneaky things like deliberately kicking at the back of her mother’s seat. Instead of saying, “Cut it out,” which is what my mother would have said, Aunt Mercy acted as if it wasn’t happening. For a long time young Mercy sat there blowing bubbles with her gum and kicking a little bit harder until Aunt Mercy whipped her head around and screamed, “Stop kicking the back of my seat!” 


Young Mercy popped a bubble and said, all sweet-voiced, “It was Toni doing it, Mom,” and she pinched my leg and hissed at me, “I’ll tell about the gumdrops,” because I bought a bag on the sly and hid it in the pocket of my suitcase.


“Candy is bad,” young Mercy told me back then. “You’ll get cavities and Dad and Mom are already scared stiff about how to pay for everything you cost.”





The nurse just came with the needle. My left hip this time. I don’t like that sting. I can’t watch. Right now I’m waiting for the stuff to work. I can feel its thick warm spread. I read what I just wrote. It felt good for a minute to get mad at those people again.


What miserable people. It’s better not to think about them. 


Think instead about where they took me that summer. The ranch, the Colorado Rockies, 3,000 acres. It had been in Uncle Phil’s family ever since 1870 or something. It was worth a fortune. All that land—Uncle Phil had waited his whole life to inherit the ranch and get rich. My dad said they got the shock of their lives because the land had been left to the state for a wildlife preserve. Uncle Phil and Aunt Mercy had lifetime occupancy of their cabin but my dad said that didn’t have much muscle at the bank. 


The ranch was up high where the aspens grow, and underneath the aspens you could find purple and white columbine. I remember sitting with the purple flowers, listening, because overhead the breeze made the aspen leaves twirl on their little stems and make the most tender sound as they touched each other. There were rounded places where the meadow grass was all folded down because elk had slept there in the night. Sometimes I would lie down in a curl in one of those places. 


The morphine is swelling through my veins. All I can see out the window is a square of sky. Sometimes it’s pearly silver like the inside of a clamshell. At twilight it turns lavender. 


But mostly my square of sky is blue. Sometimes it’s so blue you’d think they stirred in extra cobalt. Blue is the color of home, at least in the daytime. After all, we live in the sky, or our planet does. So therefore, so do we. I like that: “I live in the sky.” 


It’s a wild place, the sky. Sort of like death. It’s there for us all, but we don’t know quite what to make of it. 


My eyes closed and amazing dreams were right there even before I was asleep so that I woke up and said stupid things I couldn’t explain. I’m going to put this notebook down before I drop it, and try lying on my side. Sleep is the most wonderful thing. 




Young Mercy came again this afternoon. She’s been here for well over a week. I thought she just came for my birthday. It’s sort of a shock—she must have come because . . . but I don’t want to think about that. 


She stood by my bed. “Now Toni, be sure to tell me if there’s anything I can get you.”


I said, “Gumdrops.”


She said, “Oh, Toni, no, sugar’s the worst thing for you.”


“Then why did you bring me chocolate truffles?”


“Because they are so exceptional. I just wanted you to have a treat.”


I said, “If you want me to have a treat, go to the supermarket near my house. They have a big row of bins across from the produce and in one of the bins are exceptional gumdrops. Bring me a bag of them, please.” 


It was a most satisfactory speech to have made. I must’ve fallen asleep afterwards. When I woke up, Mercy had gone. I wonder if she’ll do what I asked. 


I like jellybeans too, the small ones with flavors that taste like their colors. Now if Mercy comes through the way she did with all those notebooks, I’ll be in business. I hope she doesn’t bring me chocolate truffles again. I never did like chocolate. How odd that Mercy could live around me for all those years and not know that I don’t like chocolate. She doesn’t like bananas, mince pie, and mushrooms.


I hope she doesn’t read this when I’m gone. 


There: I just made the nurse promise to destroy this notebook after I’m gone. Funny, I’ve always hated using euphemisms like “after I’m gone,” and now I’m doing it. 


The curtain around my bed isn’t really yellow. It’s got tan in it and a little gray. There’s nothing on the walls to look at except the TV and the clock. Nothing, not even a Kokopelli.




Young Mercy and Dr. Smithson came today and also two of my neighbors. When the last one left I was so tired I cried. Now isn’t that absurd. 


Dr. Smithson said I can get my shot early. He said early but he meant anytime, sort of another euphemism. 


Mercy brought me a tiny bag of gumdrops, about 15. With the gumdrops she brought a huge bag of sugarless hard candy, red and yellow and green balls. Sugarless indeed. Why eat candy if it’s not candy? And, how can sugar hurt me now? I’ll give the hard candy to the nurses. And eat the gumdrops.


There’s something I need. I can feel the needingess. It’s in my veins like the morphine.


Sometimes I think what it would be like to talk to Mercy, really talk, but I’m afraid she’ll toss her head and neigh. 


I’ve always thought Flagstaff has the best air in the world. The morphine makes me so stupid. Only just before I take it and just after, that’s the only time I have now. And I watch terrible junk on the TV hanging up there on the wall. But mainly if I have any time I want to write in my bright green Snoopy. 


I keep remembering that first summer up in the aspens. I slept on the porch of the cabin in a sleeping bag on an old army cot. I didn’t ever air out the sleeping bag the way later on I realized I should have. It smelled of me. I felt like an animal every time I crawled into my private den.


Uncle Phil slept in the living room. Aunt Mercy and young Mercy were in the two bedrooms. At night sometimes I could hear them cry—one or the other of them moaning and sobbing. I lay in my sleeping bag with my heart thudding from those sounds, and watched sheet lightning flash in the sky, and wondered what I should do. 


In my dreams night after night, I discovered that my parents were alive after all. Even now, occasionally, I still have those dreams. And even now, when I wake up, just for a minute I’m happy.   


Back then, I’d wake up in the morning alive with my dream, with dew beading my sleeping bag and chipmunks scampering up a pine tree, and I’d think, well, this is a fine place to be, up here at the ranch, but then young Mercy would scream at her mother in the kitchen. 


I hadn’t known people could make each other so unhappy. Meals were horrors of tension. I often wasn’t hungry and went down to the meadow instead. When I didn’t have to babysit young Mercy, I went into the forest alone. After a few weeks up there in the mountains I knew exactly where I was, so I just walked into the forest and didn’t bother with trails. I just walked anywhere I wanted to go. I didn’t think anything of it and the grownups never asked.


One day I left the house, crying, wishing I were dead. It seemed like forever that I would have to live with those people. Entering the forest, I passed a large boulder waiting to be climbed. But I kept on walking. I didn’t think I could make it through the summer let alone the rest of my life until I was eighteen.


Then suddenly, from far off, came the thundering of hooves. I thought it must be a horse galloping—but there were no horses at the ranch. I heard the sharp snap of breaking branches as the animal charged through the trees. A wild horse? The sound advanced quickly, the earth shook, and I backed up against the trunk of a big pine. I stared toward the sound. It grew huge and took over my being. There was no time to climb the tree or hide. 


Heading straight toward me crashed an enormous elk, a glory of antlers on his head. When he saw me, his forelegs stiffened in front of him and he braked to a stop. His giant head was much higher than mine. He was so close that I felt heat off of his body. We stared at each other. His sides heaved, his nostrils flared, and I could see light through their outer membranes. His heaving, panting nostrils sent off a spray that sprinkled my face. His mouth was open, his lips pulled away from his large yellow teeth. 


Then he pivoted and charged off through the forest. His pounding receded. I peeled myself away from my tree, and turned around as if to look for someone who had seen it too. Mom! Dad! I started back to the cabin, for after something that momentous I couldn’t just go on doing what I’d been doing. But soon I went deeper into the forest instead. It was cool in there, with splashes of sunshine. The pine needles smelled dusty and warm. I sat down on a rock. There was no one in the cabin I could tell about the elk. My elk. I touched my face. The spray from the elk was still there. Nothing that marvelous had happened to me before in my life, and even then, dumb and 13, I wondered if it ever would again. 




Young Mercy came yesterday while I was writing, and asked what I was doing.  


“Nothing,” I said, closing my notebook. I saw the hurt on her face. I did not want to hurt Mercy, she is my only living relative, is the heart of loyalty, and she cannot help it that her parents made her hard to love. It turns out she took a leave of absence from her job in Albuquerque to be here with me. Not just for my birthday. She came to see me through all this.


Oh, euphemisms. Just use the real words. She came to be with me while I die. It shames me. I don’t know that I would have done the same for her. I hope so.


I have left Blueberry to her and my little house and car, and everything I own, but when it is time to stop writing in this notebook I will give it to the nurse and she’ll destroy it. 


That time is near. I am afraid it will not come soon enough. This morning I asked Dr. Smithson how long I had. 


“Well, uh, I think weeks,” he said. 


“Many weeks?”


“Maybe a few,” he said. It was not good news. A few is too long. I hope it was another euphemism. 


The morphine doesn’t make me as sleepy or as still as it did. I refuse to look into a mirror. I am afraid of how afraid I am. 


Today when Mercy came it was Toni this, Toni that, and suddenly I said, “Mercy, there is one little thing you could do for me.”


“Oh, Toni, what?” 


She is so eager it hurts. “You can call me by my real name,” I said. 


She stared at me and then blushed horribly. “You mean, Antoinette?”


“That is exactly what I mean,” I said. “It’s a nice name. I don’t hear it very often.” I closed my eyes and thought she might drift out of my room.


But she said, firmly, “Antoinette?” 


I opened my eyes. “What, Mercy?” 


“You could call me by my real name too.” 


Her real name is Mercedes. “Yes,” I said. Had she wanted that for long? I could not bear it. “Yes, Mercedes,” I said. “Well. So. Now we have a pact.”


I put out my hand because that’s what you do, making a pact, you shake on it. We did. She is so gentle! Her hand was warm and—pleasant. I did not let go right away. 


She cleared her throat. “I am glad,” she said, and her voice cracked. “I am glad to have a pact with you. Now, Antoinette, rest. I will be back later.”


I keep falling asleep and waking up thinking about Mercy. Mercedes. It was lovely hearing my real name, and saying hers. Lovely and important, but still it wasn’t the big thing that I need. I have had more morphine. It is not helping much. Dr. Smithson has said not to fear, there are other methods of pain management. Pain management? What an odd term. Is he just saying that to take my anxiety away? Or perhaps he has something stronger. If he does, maybe I can take it after Mercedes comes tonight. 


Maybe she’ll read to me again. Last night—I think it was last night—she read for a long time, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird and I kept falling asleep but the nice thing was, when I woke up Mercedes was still reading. Her hair was lovely, the way it curled on her shoulders with the light shining on it. 


I’m trying to keep my mind seeing aspens, and a green meadow. Mercedes brought me flowers. Grocery store flowers. Pretty, but not like meadow wildflowers. She asked me if there is anything I need. There is something—more gumdrops? No, not gumdrops. Nobody can get me what I need. Having Mercedes here has made me finally realize what it is. 


I wish I’d told Mercedes about the elk. That day, and that whole summer in the Rockies, are why I ended up here in Flagstaff, where all the colors of aspens are close and the elk roam on the slopes of the mountains and drop lower to the meadows around Lake Mary with the snow. That day with my elk is the closest I’ve been to the wild. Until now.

Helen Park Bigelow is the author of David Park, Painter: Nothing Held Back, a Counterpoint Press book on the Bay Area figurative painter David Park, Bigelow's father. Her work has appeared in House Beautiful, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Palo Alto Weekly, and elsewhere. An eighty-six-year-old great-grandmother, she enjoys a life full of California redwoods, writing groups, friends’ manuscripts, the book she’s just completing, and the next one she’s starting.