In her powerful debut, THE RED RIBBON: A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding Loss, Nancy Freund Bills writes of the multiple losses she has faced, including the death of her husband in a lightning strike and the passing of her mother, about which she was informed in the midst of a different storm. In her lyrical prose, Bills shares her landscape of loss and survival in chapters that are deeply moving, sometimes humorous, and memorable. Kirkus Reviews said of the book, “Memoirs of loss and survival are rather common, but what sets this one apart is Bills’ extraordinary perceptiveness and writing talent . . . . A keeper of a book by a talented author.”
Introduction to her excerpt, “The Patriot’s Day Storm” by Nancy Freund Bills
On April 16, 2007, a storm—part hurricane and part late spring blizzard, hit the southern coast of Maine. By midday, the meteorologists had named it the Patriot’s Day storm because it was a holiday in Maine and Massachusetts as well as the date of the Boston Marathon. I remember the day clearly because it was also the day my mother died.
Six chapters in my memoir, The Red Ribbon, A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss, concern my elderly mother and our complex relationship. However, it is in “The Patriot’s Day Storm,” that I receive the news that she is dying. This chapter was both difficult and easy to write. Emotionally, I wrote in a puddle of tears, but I remembered the day clearly—the phone call from the hospice nurse in Montana, the power being out, the punishing wind and pounding rain. In fact, my memories were heightened by the tenderness of surgical incisions around my neck from thyroid surgery, the mix of heat from the gas fireplace and the drafts that wriggled through the living room, and the lack of the usual distractions—no TV, no radio, no dinging of a toaster or microwave.
Figurative language came flowing out of me. One of my favorite paragraphs is: “I love the giant maple tree outside for its ability to soothe me, but now its newly leafed out branches are thrust in helpless arcs. Oh, please don’t fall down, I say to the tree. I love you. Don’t die. Let it be some other tree. But I catch myself; I can’t pray for that.”
“The Patriot’s Day Storm” shares with the reader one of the many devastating lightning strikes of my life. Even now when I read it, I find myself humming “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”
Excerpt adapted from The Red Ribbon: A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss
When the ringing of my cell phone wakens me, I know it must be the nurse from Rocky Mountain Hospice calling. “It’s mother’s nurse,” I whisper to David, my friend and lover of six years, who is lying next to me in the dark. “Yes, Sharon,” I say into my phone. “Thank you for calling.” She apologizes that it’s late or early. I’m not sure which.
“How is my mother,” I ask, and Sharon shares her report. “Is she in any pain?” I ask. “No?” The details flow over me, and I repeat part of what I am hearing so David will know. “…so running a high fever and her heartbeat is fainter.” I sigh. “Thank you,” I say. “Thank you for your kindness.”
“Well,” David asks, “What did she say?”
“She thinks my mother is going to die today.”
“How can she tell?” he asks. This is typical David, ever the skeptic.
“She’s a hospice nurse. She’s seen a lot of death.”
He reaches out and tries the bedside lamp. “Power’s out.”
“I’m not surprised,” I say, “Central Maine Power is going to be busy.” We are both silent. “Tell me what day it is,” I ask.
“It’s April the sixteenth,” he says. “It’s Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts. I bet they’ll have to cancel the Boston Marathon because of the storm.”
“Mother would have been ninety-five if she’d lived till her birthday in June.”
“She hasn’t died yet,” he says. “You just saw her a couple of weeks ago. Did it seem like she was dying?”
“I worried that I might not see her again,” I say. “And she was…fragile.” I silently repeat the dates of my mother’s birth and anticipated death– June 16, 1912 to April 16, 2007. Patriots’ Day, 2007. I’ll remember this, I tell myself, like I remember other dates. Like July 24, 1994.
By the time I do a lot of reminiscing, David is asleep. I better get out of bed, I think. Maybe the nurse will call back, and I want to be ready. As I swing out of bed into the pitch dark, somehow my feet find my slippers; as I reach out into the chilly air, my hands find the footboard to guide me through the sightless space. At the doorway of the bedroom, I run my hands over the familiar walls. Then, I try the hall and bathroom lights. No response.
It is 9:00 a.m. I sit on the couch in the dimly lit living room, still in my pajamas, the cornflower blue ones with old fashioned full-blown roses. I reach down and pat the blue fleece of my winter robe and retie its belt. The heat from the gas fireplace burns my cheeks yet the living room is cold and drafty. I run the cool back of my right hand across my face. Soon the first floor will warm up. Soon the power will be back on. Soon the storm will be over.
Outdoors, the threatening wind drives sheet after sheet of rain onto the east- facing windows; the half-shuttered windows usually offer a view of the Portland seaway, but not now. At intervals when the rain reaches crescendos, a thin layer of water seeps between the window moldings and bleeds down the panes.
I love the giant maple tree outside for its ability to soothe me, but now its newly leafed- out branches are thrust in helpless arcs. Oh, please don’t fall down, I say to the tree. I love you. Don’t die. Let it be some other tree. But I catch myself; I can’t pray for that.
Sometime later, I hear David’s footsteps on the stairs. “Power’s still out,” I call out, “but there’s orange juice and cereal.”
From the kitchen, he says, “If you open the refrigerator, do it quickly so the food won’t spoil.”
“I know,” I say. I am a veteran of storms and power outages in rural New England.
“How long have you been up?”
“Since the nurse’s phone call.
“When was that?” he asks.
“About seven, I think.”
“Do you think the nurse can really tell?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Remember she’s a hospice nurse. A nurse begins to recognize the signs–changes in breathing, changes in the color of the skin, even the tilt of the chin.”
“How do you feel?” he asks.
“No,” he says pointing to his own neck. “I mean, your neck, the incision?”
“Oh, it hurts,” I say touching the semi-circle of bandages that cover the three incisions. “It’s tender. But, of course, I’m awfully relieved not to have thyroid cancer.”
David nods and looks at the bleary world outside the windows. “I want to go look at Willard Beach,” he says. “I want to check on how high the ocean is, to see if the beach is covered. Do you want to come?”
“I think I should stay by the phone.”
“It may take hours,” he says, but then he adds, “But I understand.”
He comes into the living room and sits on the couch beside me. He holds his slicker loosely in his arms and stares into the orange and yellow flames of the fire.
“What time is it?” I ask him.
“Could you wait just a little…”
We sit quietly for nearly half an hour.
And then the phone rings.
© Nancy Freund Bills 2019
Award-winning writer Nancy Freund Bills is currently on the faculty of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, OLLI/USM, where she facilitates the fiction writing workshop. She is also a retired clinical social worker; during her twenty-year-long career, she served both as a psychiatric social worker at Concord Regional Hospital in New Hampshire and Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine, and as a psychotherapist at Green House Group, a group private practice in Manchester, New Hampshire. “The Myth,” Chapter 19 of The Red Ribbon, received first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her memoir, fiction, and poetry have been published in Reflections, The Maine Review, The LLI Review, The Goose River Anthology, and in The 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Collection. A member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA), she lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with her two Maine Coon cats. Find her online at nancybills-memoir.com.
Author photo by Julie Bishop.