A Difficult Bench

My first craft show was a bust. It was in front of a gas station. The gas station, along with other businesses, were promoting recreational activities and small businesses in the area, primarily along the New River. I was building a restaurant on the New River and heard the day before this craft show was to take place. I figured the gas station would be a grand place to sell some furniture since I already had some tables and chairs inside the station, at the cafe. I brought all the furniture I had made for my mom as well, emptying out her living room.

I set up next to a jewelry maker. His price point was low, I remember. It was five dollars for a necklace. I had a few tables, some stools, and a chair…the stool being the cheapest at $100.

After six excruciating hours, I sold nothing. I got some leads that dissipated in the midst of time, and I went back to building a restaurant.

The restaurant went great. Ever eaten at the Palisades in Eggleston, Va?

I never dabbled in craft shows again…until this past Christmas, almost twenty years later.

I had a desire to build more furniture, less remodels… but in order to do so and still afford the roof over my head, I had to get my name out in that specific field.

I signed up for a few Christmas Markets and made some boxes out of scraps. They were unique enough with dovetail splines and contrasting woods, but cheap enough to produce, so they had a price much lower than the cheapest item at my previous craft show venture.

This one market in particular took place in Blacksburg. It was cold.

I didn’t know what to expect. I was given a booth space next to an Italian engineer, who made fresh pasta and sauce on a Coleman stove. He had a huge line of hungry patrons in a hurry. Those patrons came over and shopped in my tent while they waited. I felt as guilty as the store in Cracker Barrell…fish in a barrel.

There was this one lady who just happened by. She wasn’t waiting for pasta. She was full of warm, positive energy. She asked if I could make a bench. She said she had thrown all of her dining chairs out the door due to their lack of comfort and looks. She wanted benches made from slabs, from local wood only, patchwork. Eight of them.

She went on to say that she had her own business, so I was curious and asked. She runs a Coffee Company called Mattie’s Mountain Mud. I suggest you try it so you can possess the warm, positive energy as well!

I thought about the benches, and she gave me a few dimensions as a parameter and we went from there.

A week had passed. It was the evening after Christmas. My sister’s family was in town. I took my wife and kids to our family homestead to celebrate with everyone. My Uncle and Aunt joined us as well. We had a grand beginning of an evening. Everyone had just sat down to dinner when my sister was starting to feel ill and retired upstairs. Shortly after, her husband came down the stairs and said we needed to get my sister to the hospital. I dropped my fork and dashed upstairs with my mom. We were all contemplating on how to get my sister who was getting sick and coming in and out of consciousness down the steps and to the car. I remember putting her arms around my neck and picking her up and continuing to tell her to feel free to vomit on me as then I know she is still awake. I set her down in the car and my brother in law and mom took her expeditiously to the next to local hospital (the local hospital is still growing on us).

I collected myself the best I could and came inside to hang with my nephews and get them ready for bed. Fortunately my Uncle is awesome and had them deep in discussion about life in outer space…Andromeda to be precise.

I can’t remember if I made them shower or not..I’m thinking I let them skip showers after all that happened and we went right to story time. Encyclopedia of birds is what they picked. Do you know how much of a challenge it is to read any reference book when you have tears of both worry and sleep deprivation? Afterwards, I’d like to say I tucked them in, but they might have tucked me in. I know I wasn’t asleep for long and they fell asleep fast. I snuck downstairs and fed both the wood stove and fireplace.

I was worried. Some years ago (I find discomfort in counting the exact amount), my father was doing pushups to warm up before he started practicing his Martial Arts. During a pushup, he had an aortic dissection, in the same room that my sister had just gotten sick in. This was the very room that the boys and I had fallen asleep in. I wanted nothing more to do with that room. I continued to feed the fires. I hear from my mom. She tells me that my sister has a mass on her brain and is being transported to another hospital. I collapsed by the now almost depleted wood pile on the porch. I then muster enough energy to stand, bring more wood in, and continue feeding the fires. Morning came and the sun followed shortly afterwards. I rose from the chair I had pulled up to the fire and went into the kitchen to start breakfast for everyone. I remember I first portioned everything out, so then once someone woke up and came downstairs, emotions could still grab a hold during conversation, but the meal would still have a chance of surviving. I wait. Still no one. I am in need of something to take my mind off the unknown. I begin cooking. I then reaheat…then reheat again. Then pour juice slowly into glasses. I set the counter with silverware, then I rearrange it. Finally, someone rises. Its my Uncle who is usually up at least two hours prior to this time. Then my nephews, and then my aunt. We all have breakfast and play board games together.

I don’t remember much else that day.

We find out that the doctors are electing to have surgery on my sister as soon as possible. She has the surgery and comes out of it rearing to go…rearing to go to a less country hospital. She even tells her surgeon this fact. I’m still at my family’s house with her boys. My wife is there, taking care of all the cousins and me. We find out my sister needs a second surgery. I get a chance to visit.

I try to avoid the hospital at all costs, as its where my father passed. I enter. I take the elevator to the appropriate floor. As I exit the elevator, I remember staring at the walls for hours years prior. The same floor. I go down the same corridor. I go through the same set of doors. Automatically I head right for where my dad was, but then I catch the room numbers out of the corner of my eye. Not all evil had been dealt to us, she was not in the same room as my father. A bit of relief was had…until after visiting with my sister she asks what room Dad was in when he passed. Shit. She knows. She is thinking about it. Two brain surgeries and a good bit of drugs and she is coherent enough to be asking these tough questions.

I try to get the line of questioning switched to another topic, but to no avail. I then try the tactic to remain quiet. I get out my sketchbook to work on the bench design. Its not happening as I have to shuffle myself and my overnight belongings every time a nurse comes in, which is about every fifteen minutes.

My sister asks again which room Dad was in. How is it that someone who has two brain surgeries and is on some serious western medicine can be so coherent, and alert? My sister was out of the country at a conference and couldn’t catch a plane fast enough to see my father one last time. Now she is in the same damn hospital, in the same damn ward with a life threatening ailment. My mom and I aren’t going to lose her to, damnit!

I brought some Thai food at the request of my brother in law. I didn’t know what to get, so I ordered a vegetarian dish under each heading of the menu, about six total. My brother in law eats before he leaves the hospital for the night. My sister and I weren’t hungry at the time.

Eventually hunger does strike us both at midnight. We tear into that Thai food like two starved college students. It was entirely too much food. We conquered the styrofoam boxes the best we could and retired the remainder to the trash can behind the nurse’s station. Those poor nurses. Here they were trying to be on point with some seriously critical patients and we first bomb their safe haven of a station with Thai food in the microwave, we then take the leftover pungent goodness and put some in the refrigerator and the garlicky remainder that’s not salvageable into the trash can. The aroma is everywhere for them for the remainder of the night.

After overloading ourselves with amazing tasting Thai food, my sister and I drift off to sleep. My sister in her bed, bound with enough cordage to strangulate a herd of horses. Me in my chair that is supposed to be a sleeping recliner. Minutes later her leg cuff alarm goes off. It goes off again, and again and for the remainder of the night. Turns out we have the most malfunctioning bed in the hospital. Unfortunately here are no more beds to spare.

Since sleeping wasn’t an option for the then short and strewn ten minute periods that no one was entering the room, my sister requested some food. A simple bowl of oatmeal she wanted. A normal person would have taken the packet of oatmeal out to the nurse’s station and prepared it there with the somewhat clean sink and microwave. I have worked in hospitals long enough to know that sinks in the nurse’s station are the most frequently missed item by Environmental Services. Instead, I opt for the 1990’s boat sink in her room that is is operated by foot pedals. Its a challenge, since its antiquated and broken. I enjoy a good challenge. I brought my backpack which has a plethora of wrenches, screwdrivers, and multitools. No tool from my backpack is needed. I found that if you kick the absolute shit out of the starboard side of the sink, right above the hot water pedal, then stomp down hard as if you were flooring it in your Ferrari, that the sink worked flawlessly. As for the fit and finish of these sinks, well, both had been discharged from the hospital a long time ago.

My sister and I start laughing historically. No muffler on our laughter. I can barely hold the bowl steady as I add the water. My sister reaches the hyena level of laughter because I’m making oatmeal in the filthy sink. My method to get the water flow stopped working. I kick harder, repeatedly. Somehow the nurses aren’t alarmed or amused. No sign of anyone coming to our rescue, but then again, if they had, tears were streaming down our faces in such a torrent that we’d be unable to see. Our stomachs could handle no more laughter, no more Thai food, no more oatmeal from the bedside slop sink in the ICU room. We both fall asleep for the remaining minutes of night.

Morning came. The sun rose, but between it and us was a cold, grey blanket. I was restless. My sister was as well. She’d ask me a question and I’d start to answer, but then she’d interrupt and ask me to turn the other way because she couldn’t take facial expressions. That was my guess anyways. Her actual words were “I can’t take your face”.

She asked about our father again and what room he was in. I was glad I was not faking her when I told her I couldn’t remember. I’ve got an amazing memory for experiences, especially the most challenging experiences. I don’t know whether to thank the gods for my memory or ask them what it is that I did to deserve such maddening thoughts. This memory was tough. Too challenging to remember.

My mother entered and broke the thought I had, and fortunately broke my sister’s as well. She brought us breakfast and a sense of freshness, something that was missing from the hospital room long before the twelve hour sleep over started. She sensed my waning mental ability and sent me downstairs for a coffee. The day had started. My sister finally fell asleep. I gathered my sleepover gear from her room, hugged my mom once more, and left the hospital.

My sister was amazing to put up with me. She just had two major operations on her brain and she elected that it was ok for me to stay the night with her.

I’m very fortunate they didn’t have a class titled “Conversation” back in grade school, or else I’d still be in grade school, struggling to have a conversation at thirty eight years old with a twelve year old just as I did the first time I took the class with other twelve year olds. I’d finally work up a conversation to have with Cass, but my timing was that of a true male, always off.

“Hey do you remember…”

“Don’t talk right now, its hurting my brain”

I left the hospital dreaming of Biscuit World that my Uncle had told me about. I must have used all my sustenance on laughing the night previous. You can combine toppings from ideas they have listed on the menu, at least that’s what I gather. Brisket topped with pimento cheese….that should catapult me throughout the day rather well.

I was too tired, too worried, too out of my mind to eat. I found a tree instead. I parked under this tree. It wasn’t the canopy I was after for it was January and the canopy was only a mass of sticks, still months off before any signs of buds.

My mom would call to check in, or I would call her. I’d call back home and hear the voices of my wife and children. The call would cheer me up, but at the same time tear me up. I’d cry and be unable to stop, and then my kids would ask me a question and there was no way if I was to answer that I could do so in a voice anything other than broken.

Days would continue like this. I’d stage myself under a tree and then await for a needed moment. Home was an hour away, and I’d make the trek every day or so.

My wife and kids were back home, along with my sister’s boys. They were having an absolute blast. Sleepover every night, and when I came home, we graduated from making pancakes in the shapes of animals to waffles in the shapes of animals.

Go ahead, I dare you to try and make a deer with rack, hooves, nose, and tail in your waffle maker.

I’d spend time with my kids and my nephews, and my heart was in it, but I still felt like I was out of place unless I was under that tree, awaiting my mother’s thoughts.

Earlier in the morning, my mother had pulled me aside into the nurse’s office and shut the door. She said “Damnit Cass knows. She is aware of everything. This is where your dad died. Damnit..and then before another word could be broken, we both broke down in tears holding onto each other.

Under the tree, I kept thinking that Cass has the support and the thoughts from everyone. Cass is as strong as a damn stubborn Ox. Cass can make it with the support that only a loving mother can give. I’ve got to keep my mom going so in turn she can help heal my sister in the way that only a mother can do.

I drifted off to sleep, then thought I’d go to a mall and look around. My wife wanted a new pillow. I may get my nephews new pillows to go with their new bedspreads. I must have stopped to get a coffee somewhere because I remember I about spilt my cup of coffee all over the display of firm sleeper pillows when my wife called and said that Ketchup the orphaned puppy was coming home to us the following day, that a kind lady had kidnapped him from entering his new home at a Jack Russell rescue farm.

I walked out of the store in amazement, back to my tree. I got in my truck. The winter sun was bright enough where I didn’t need to turn my truck on, the windshield was acting as a fine heater. I fell asleep again, thinking how drastically my life is changing with the ailment of my sister and addition of a damn dog. A large part of me felt for my nephews. Here they were staying with us on a temporary basis, they have always wanted a dog, and now they will have the opportunity to fall in love with one, and then leave for their home.

I was restless. I started the truck. I was beyond starving, but couldn’t eat. It was time to head home for a shower and some love from the family. I couldn’t do so on an empty stomach so I did the only normal thing a man could do.

Being a has-been chef, I used to keep up with the somewhat local (I live in the country, so my radius is extended more so than other chef’s radii) restaurant scene. I’ve slacked off quite a bit in the recent years that have passed, but believe that there was a cupcake business that made phenomenal key lime pie cupcakes among other flavors. I don’t know what happened, I’m sure there was a falling out with a business partner or a falling out of love with the idea, but they moved and there were no more cupcakes. Instead, they started a pie business. Savory and sweet pies. Miniature pies. Damn they are good. I wasn’t really interested in a flaky crust, but a slice of pizza? They cut a hole in the wall of their place and opened a pizza place next door. Makes sense since they are in the pie business, does it not?

They had a selection of pizza pies in a glass display case. You could order by slice. There was one with mushrooms, jalapeños, and onions. They take the slice and put it in the oven to reheat it. The slices were large, but I was hungry. I ordered two. As I said the name of the slice, it dawned on me. “Could I order two hot fun guys?” I about didn’t get “guys” out. I then busted out in comical, delusional, lack of sleep laughter. I then thought necessary to explain to the lady taking my order that I meant the mushroom and jalapeño pizza.

Unfortunately, back out in my truck, I noticed that the pizza was more than amazing. Did it ever hit the spot. I’ll have to order many more hot fun guys.

I needed to work on the bench design. I wanted to draw it out, although there wasn’t much to draw out, and my sketching capabilities are on par with my capabilities with holding a conversation. I have the dimensions. 14” wide. 15” Tall. 23” long. The slab tops will be just under 2” thick. I’ll connect the slabs with bow-tie inlays. There will be two stretchers between the uprights. They will be static, but the slab will be connected to the stretcher via loose tenons (glued on one side) and slotted hardware holes. Oak, Cherry, Poplar, Maple, Walnut, Sycamore, Locust, and Elm. After all of this thought with my sketchbook in my lap, I have only a few lines drawn. I drift off to sleep.

I wake, head back to the hospital, go up to my sister’s floor, call and check in, then depart for the house to see my wife and kids and start on the benches.

My sister had to have another surgery. They said they could remove more of the cancerous mass. The surgery went well, but the healing took some time. My sister and her husband stayed at a air bnb, close to the hospital. I remember parking nearby and conducting business from my truck, before and after visits. I gave an update on the benches. The customer didn’t like the bow-tie inlays. I went home and made the tops without. The customer changed her mind once again. I chiseled out for the bow-ties. I made each inlay out of a different wood, connecting all of the benches. The locust bench had inlays of cherry, sycamore, and walnut. The walnut bench had inlays of elm, cherry, and walnut. I didn’t ask for anymore customer input. I just created. It took me some time to complete as I had other jobs going on as well. A bathroom, including complete gut and redo of the tile and the creation of a 7’ double basin vanity was the current job.

A bit of time passed. My sister got stronger with every passing day. She was now fit for travel. She opted to continue healing at her house. Her family packed up and headed back to New Orleans. Seeing the cousins say goodbye after becoming so close was tough to watch. Seeing my sister strong enough to travel was pretty damn awesome. My mom packed a few things and traveled with them.

With everyone safely in New Orleans, I could work in the shop with a bit more focus. I finished the benches with ease. They looked amazing. I wanted a set. But what I wanted more now that everything had calmed down a bit was a slice of a hot fun guy and an I.PA.

***Edit: This tale took place at the beginning of 2020. I’m happy to say my sister and I had a conversation yesterday about how awful Samsung appliances are. If that’s not back to normal, I don’t know what is.

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