Kage Baker and I lived for the last 4 years in an upstairs apartment in Pismo Beach. It was a delightful eyrie, full of light and air and with a broad view of the sea. We could – and often did – see whales and dolphins sporting in the waves two blocks away, while we sat comfortably in our living room. All the Pacific danced out here, and we could see the curve of the globe under the shining water.
The building stood back from the street, with a narrow inner court; you entered a little passageway from the parking lot, and then climbed 14 stairs to our front porch. We had flowers everywhere, mostly in pots so the landlord’s gardeners knew they were not to be casually lawn-mowered … in the summer, the scent of Kage’s roses came right up like incense, and filled the living room.
We spent a blissful 4 years running up and down those stairs, and never counted them once. I had no idea how many there were, until the day I brought Kage home from the hospital after her first surgery. There were 14 of them – one straight line, no turns or landings, that rose maybe 10 feet above the garden. They were painted white and a weird Rustoleum turquoise.
I think they were imported from Hell. Certainly, Dante’s bolgias must have been separated by similar stairways. They had been a challenge when Kage came home from her hysterectomy, but she beat them. However, by the time the brain tumour showed up, many weeks into chemo and radiation – those stairs might as well have been the wall of a glacier for her.
This time last year … 12th Night Eve. Twelfth Night is a holiday we have always celebrated in our family – the actual, reallio trulio 12th Day of Christmas, the Epiphany, when the Magi finally got the GPS working and made it to Joseph and Mary’s house. Kage wanted to be home from her brain surgery by then, for a bit of leftover beef and Christmas pudding.
But those 14 stairs – we dreaded them. To get to her own bed at all, Kage had to climb them at least once. To receive chemo and radiation, she had to get down them and out of the house – to get back home, she had to be able to get back up and in. Getting down was scary but doable, a sort of controlled crash into the wheelchair at the bottom. Getting up … was more like climbing out of Hell up the frozen body of Satan.
She was still in the hospital, but had reached the point where she was ready to just bolt out and escape – I spent most of each day there with her, talking and reading and taking dictation, to keep her obediently in her bed. Twice a day we walked through the halls and she tried to re-learn stairs. Up and down three little fake steps, one foot at a time; she tended to break into show tunes while she did it, flourishing her cane and doing the hand-jive that goes with a buck and wing. Which charmed her therapist and made both of us snicker, but wasn’t really adequate practice for our front stairs.
I kept thinking, she hasn’t had a stroke! She hasn’t forgotten how to climb stairs! She’s lost stamina and balance and just plain muscle mass: how will this help her up those 14 steps? I made constant inquiries as to where one found help in these circumstances, but met the same blank stare everywhere. Climb stairs? Well, she just has to do it, that’s all. No, no one can come transport her – it’s not safe for our ambulance drivers to carry someone up a flight of stairs, you know.
I began to have inklings of problems … But Kage wanted desperately to come home, and I was determined to get her there. She really felt she could do it, too. And when the day of blessed release came – she sang all the way home in the car, had me take the long way round so she could see her favourite vistas of hill and sea, and get a chocolate malt on the way – she made it up the first 4 or 5 stairs with fire and verve.
She made it up the next two like she was carrying me. And for the second half of the stairs, I carried her. One step at a time, because she was 4 inches taller than me and it was very hard to lift her the necessary few inches to make each next step; but if I stood on the step above with my arms about her waist, I could do it. She was very brave – her hysterectomy incision was still very tender and not quite healed – but I was hauling her up by brute force by the time we reached the top.
I had had the minimum good sense to take her wheelchair up there before we began the climb, so the rest was pretty easy. Getting her into her high, wood-framed bed would soon prove another challenge – but that day, she wanted to sit in her armchair and then lie on the fold out couch: so it was simple. In very short order she was comfortable and triumphant.
We told one another, over and over and with growing certainty, that as she got stronger the stairs would get easier. And if only she had gotten stronger, I am sure the stair would have succumbed to Kage’s fierce purpose. But they were demon stairs, and they were planning to suck the life out of her.
One of the great mercies of life is afternoons like that one last year. We watched the afternoon light on the sea, and were content.