Tiny Light's Annual Essay Contest

Contest Results from 2000

Awarded Winners

First Prize of $200

A Boy in the Sea by Susan Hagen

We stand around outside the firehouse during our morning break, with hot coffee in paper cups. There are twenty-eight of us here today--emergency medical technicians with local ambulance companies, two EMTs from the Coast Guard, another who works at a professional raceway. Some of the students are full-time firefighters, a few are sheriff's deputies, and the rest of us are volunteers from coastal and rural fire departments throughout Northern California. I am one of only six women, and at forty-three, among the oldest in the class.

Today is the last day of a four-day training to recertify ourselves as EMTs. It's also the Spring Equinox. The skies are clear, the views are spectacular, and down below the firehouse, traffic on the Coast Highway is heavy with people coming out to spend their Sunday at the beach.

From the parking lot of the modest wooden firehouse, we watch a small sailboat take the swells. "We'll probably get called on that one," says one of the local boys, gesturing with his paper cup. The water has been rough and dangerous for the past several days, he adds, and even as we watch, a twenty-foot breaker slams the coastline from the open sea.

A young man from the Coast Guard is talking about his duty at the Golden Gate Bridge. He tells us how he's recovered the remains of several jumpers and fished bodies out of the water that had been lost at sea for days. "What do they look like?" I want to know.

"Boiled potatoes," he says without hesitation, then apologizes. "I know it sounds awful," he adds, "but that's what they look like to me."

Today is a perfect day to spend at the beach; but for us, it's a day to hole up inside the firehouse, studying pediatric emergencies. After the break, we return to the classroom for a review of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. There's no good explanation for SIDS, we know, and nothing we can do. A baby is healthy one minute and dead the next. Halfway through a video about how to handle the call, a young man gets up and leaves the room. Yesterday, during lunch, his wife brought over their four-week-old son. We passed the baby around and practiced feeling for the brachial pulse on the inside of his arm. "How many of you have been on SIDS calls?" the instructor asks. Half the hands are raised.

In the small rural town where I live, ours is a grassroots fire department with eight volunteers and a pair of engines parked in what used to be somebody's barn. We've responded to every kind of human tragedy: vehicle accidents, heart attacks, house fires, even a horse who'd fallen into a well. Five years ago, when I joined the volunteer fire department and went back to school to become an emergency medical technician, no one promised me an easy time sleeping at night. No one said my life would go on as if I hadn't been there to witness these things, hadn't tried to help.

But already I'm credited with helping to save two lives. One of them, a neighbor of mine, still calls me her "angel" when we see each other around town. The other, a young girl with a serious head injury, has written several letters thanking me for giving her a second chance at life.

Just before lunch, the local firefighters are called out to the beach for a water rescue. We watch Kevin and John thrash through the classroom, see them strapping on their helmets inside the cab as the engine pulls out onto the street. Ivan, a sheriff's deputy who works on the rescue helicopter, is also in our class. He makes his way up the embankment to the waiting chopper, where the pilot and paramedic are already preparing for flight. Although this isn't my district and it's not my call, I feel adrenaline surging through me, a tightening in my gut, the instinct to react. I know I'm not the only one in the room who feels this way.

Once the chopper is in the air, the instructor calls our attention to the next video: a two-year-old has been badly burned on his back and buttocks by a pot of beans that's fallen from the stove. The scene is shot live, and the child screams as a voice-over instructs us how to communicate with sick and injured children.

Behind me, I hear the soles of boots shifting on the floor, young men clearing their throats. Many of them are fathers with little kids of their own. The child screams as the paramedic holds his tiny hand in her palm and establishes an IV. "David," she says as she tapes the tubing down. "David, it's going to be okay."

There are emergency procedures to learn and medical techniques to employ, but the instructor reminds us that much of what we bring to our EMT work are the tools that we were born with: our eyes, our ears, our voices, our hands. These, in fact, are the only tools I have used on many of my own rescue calls.

The chopper lands on the helipad behind the firehouse as we are finishing lunch. The downdraft from the blades stirs the chips on our plates, and a tornado of paper napkins skitters across the picnic table. Yesterday, Ivan demonstrated rescue techniques from the helicopter. Attached to a hundred-foot line, he plucked two firefighters from the roof of the firehouse, and the pilot set them down gently on the lawn. We were in awe of the precision, the practiced expertise. Everyone envied Ivan's job.

But today we do not envy Ivan. He emerges from the aircraft in a wetsuit, though he hasn't been in the water. The parents were sitting ten feet away, he says, when a sleeper wave snatched two boys from a rock. "The father got the six-year-old out, but the older one... we couldn't find him." An hour at best, he says. An hour in the sea at this temperature, and the boy would die of hypothermia if he hadn't already drowned. That hour was gone.

From the patio behind the firehouse, I hear the call of gulls, the rhythm of the sea like a drumbeat. Last year, six people were sucked into the ocean from this stretch of coastline, including a pair of young lovers and a three-year-old girl. I think about the families of all those people lost, the parents stricken this very afternoon. Even though I didn't respond to the call myself, Ivan's story paints the picture in my mind. Always it's the little details that come to live in my psyche: the torn pink shorts on the little girl who fractured her neck in a trampoline accident; the big, bony knuckles of a sick old man who ended his pain with a shotgun; the boy we found overdosed in an abandoned farmhouse, his swollen purple hands like fists full of blueberry pie.

Despite the fresh loss we feel this afternoon, we retrieve the scattered napkins, fill the recycling bin with soda cans, and spend the rest of the day practicing rescue scenarios: a motorcycle accident, a diabetic coma, a pulmonary embolism, a gunshot wound. Larry, my partner these four days, is closed up inside himself and awkward with the oxygen cylinder when it's our turn to rescue. On Friday, his little nephew died of leukemia, and he's made arrangements to fly to Canada tonight after we take our written final. "We're a very close family," he tells me. "It's hard not being there with them."

The instructor shows another video, this one shot by a news crew at an accident scene in which a car has sheared off a power pole. We watch as the paramedic gets out of his rig and approaches the vehicle, steps onto a live power line, and falls to the ground in seizures. His partner tries to revive him with a defibrillator and manual CPR, but it's too late. "Personal safety is your first priority on every scene," the instructor reminds us. "Every call has the potential to make you the next victim."

Last week, during a rain storm, I responded to two vehicle accidents a couple of hours apart on the same dangerous curve: an elderly man injured in a solo rollover, three people hurt in a head-on collision. The sky was dark, the rain coming down hard. On either end of both scenes, firefighters held up stop signs and took turns waving traffic along one lane. Even so, our lives were endangered by every driver who gawked at the accident instead of watching the road. I know rescuers who've been slugged, bitten by dogs, had guns pulled on them. These realities keep us vigilant on every call.

It's getting late; I'm tired and spent. The instructor hands out our written exam. I worry over the questions, confuse the signs for hypo- and hyperglycemia, can't remember what to do with a prolapsed umbilical cord during emergency childbirth. I'm the third one finished, and of a hundred questions, I've missed only six. The instructor shakes my hand, and I'm certified for another two years.

It's five o'clock, and there are still a few hours of daylight left. I head north through town, and a few miles up the coast, I pull into a parking lot on the cliffs above that long stretch of beach. A Coast Guard cutter is trolling the waters, and an orange chopper flies low over the breaking surf. They're looking for a body now--not a boy in the sea.

I park in an empty spot and get out of my truck, lean against the hood, and look down on the beach. A group of teenage boys plays football in the sand. Picnickers are packing up their ice chests and starting up the trail. Along the water's edge, unsuspecting tourists trust their little ones to a sea that, earlier in the day, had stolen a family's son. Everywhere along this strip of coastline the signs are posted: Danger! Sleeper Waves! Shore Break! No one wants to believe that something so beautiful can also be so deadly.

The chopper flies over again. Soon the search will be called off due to darkness, and tomorrow, deputies and park rangers will comb the shore looking for the body. If the sea is calm enough, Kevin and John will launch their inflatable dinghy and poke around the rocks. A boiled potato, I think. That's what he'll look like when he's found.

A few cars over from mine, the family is gathered together, waiting. Someone new has arrived, and the mother is telling the story.

"The boys are on the rocks," she says in a flat voice. "They're hunting for mussels. Then a big wave comes and it sweeps over them and they're in the water and they're struggling. I'm screaming, 'Swim! Swim!'" She's crying now, as she tells how the father goes in, reaches both boys, but loses his grip on the older one as another wave hits.

"I can't see Steven," she cries. "I see his shoe floating, but I can't see Steven!" She goes to the open back of a mini-van and holds up a wet, sandy boater. "This is his shoe," she says, and she breaks down. "This is his shoe."

The grief that fills this parking lot is my grief, too. What happened here today belongs to all of us who were in that classroom together, whose hopes went up with Ivan and out with Kevin and John, whose arms have closed around parents like these in our own districts, on our own calls. For all our training, for all the skills we practice, sometimes there is nothing we can do but witness the loss, the sudden absence of life, the passing of a child from one world into the next.

Tomorrow my partner, Larry, will grieve with his own family in Canada. Ivan will dangle from the underbelly of his rescue chopper and pluck someone from a cliff or ravine. Others of us will be called to the scenes of accidents, package up the victims, watch each other's backs in the street.

It is the Spring Equinox. The night will be as long as the day. The people knotted together here are wrapped in a package of sorrow they can scarcely contain, and from the center of their huddle, wailing. At some point, they will have to go home, will have to leave their child to the sea. They will have to go somewhere other than here, with that shoe in the trunk and an empty space in the back seat where Steven used to be.

Second Prize of $150

30 AAA by Jaime Weiser Love

The hangers screech across the metal rack. My shoulders reach up to cover my ears."This is nice, Aunt Claire," I say over my shoulder.

I hold up a bright yellow sleeveless shift with big butterflies on the front pockets. Maybe the butterflies will cheer Mommy up. I imagine them flying off her pockets and fluttering around her hospital room and Mommy giggling her happy laugh.

"Well, Honey, I think your mommy would like that. You have very good taste, just like your mother... Let's see if we can find a few more, then we'll shop for you."

She pats me lightly on the head with her long manicured hand.

Her touch gives me the willies, each tap screaming, "BRA! BRA! BRA!" I scratch at the place where she tapped. Yuck. I can't believe we're related.

I lean on the rack of housecoats right in the middle of the Misses department. Right this minute, this second, I hate you, Mommy. I mean, great Mom, you have to go and crack up right in the middle of my most important year ever. I need my mom for stuff like this, not spooky Aunt Claire. I mean, she's bald, for God's sake. AL-O-PEC-IA, I know…but it still spells bald. Mommy, when Walt Nunnery tried to play turtle snap on my back and had no strap to snap, well, I felt like a total reject. And when I tried to tell you at the hospital, you acted like you didn't even hear me. God, I hated telling you I've got boobs, Mom, at the stupid loony bin. Mercywood. What a dumb name for a mental hospital. I confided in you, Mom, and all you said was, "I'll tell your Aunt Claire," then shuffled down the hall in your ratty paper slippers.

Just thinking about all of it makes me want to push over this rack of ugly polyester housecoats and go running out of here, back to last year when Mommy and I were in the shoe department buying wet-look go go boots for me and Jen. Aunt Claire's crackly old lady voice starts buzzing in my ears. I wish I could shoo it away.

"Honey, your mommy tells me you've never had a bra before" she says super loud.

Great. Now everyone in the store will be staring at my chest...Try talking a little louder, Aunt Claire, I don't think they heard you in the men's department.

"Aunt Claire, can we just forget it?"

"Forget it?" she says all sweet. "This will be fun!"

She wanders over to the Junior department and waves a handful of bras over her head like a big white "I surrender" flag. She looks like such a dork. I feel like surrendering, right into a miserable pile of twelve-year-old mush. I give in. I don't want to be a teenager, I don't want a stupid ol' nut for a mom, and I DON'T WANT SKINNY, BALDING AUNT CLAIRE SHOPPING FOR ME! But instead I look around to make sure I don't know anyone and follow the bouncing bras.

"Try this one." She waves one that looks like an undershirt with darts at me.

"Oh sure." Geez, I might as well keep my t-shirts.

"I want one with hooks in the back," I whisper, flipping through the tangled mess of bras in front of me.

This isn't how it's supposed to be. I want to be shoulder to shoulder with Mommy, giggling, proud that I am her Jaime, grown up enough to wear a bra just like her. I've only seen Mommy's bosoms when she's hurrying out of the tub or when I walk in on her, and she always covers them up real quick. She must not like them. They look kind of long and deflated, like a party balloon a few days after your birthday. I bet they were big once. I hope I have nice ones like MaryAnn on "Gilligan's Island," not dinky ones like Twiggy. Just big enough so boys will know I have them. Aunt Claire pulls out a lacy one with tiny pouches in front and a little seashell pink ribbon between the cups. I wrestle with a smile. It's just what I want.

"Um, that one's okay."

"Let's go try them on."

Let's? Please God, don't let her come in the dressing room with me! Oh my God, she is following me in! I sit down hard on the little stool inside the dressing room and cross my arms across my chest. I can feel my breasts underneath, so I move my hands down by my belly button. I don't want to think about boobs right now.

"Aunt Claire, you don't need to come in with me. I am twelve, you know."

"Oh Honey, I just want to show you how to put it on."

This is NOT happening. Aunt Claire is… taking her shirt off! No, God, please...SHE IS TAKING HER BRA OFF!" I want to disappear behind this Maidenform poster. I can't scrunch up small enough. It is too late. She cannot be stopped. Gripping the mirror, I watch these two ENORMOUS BOOBS come spilling out of her bra. I watch myself watching this in the mirror as she instructs me in the fine art of brassiere wearing.

"First you take the bra, slip it under your bosoms and snap it in front..." She smiles at my reflection to make sure I am listening. I bet her teeth are fake. If she doesn't stop, I am going to puke, right here, all over this sticky linoleum. It will serve her right. "Then you twist it around… And here's the tricky part."

"Wait, wait," she says. "You do it with me."

She might as well have taken out a gun and shot me 'cause I am dead now. Numb. Like those zombies from the "Creature Features," I do what I am told. Now we are side-by-side, bosom by bosom, our bras dangling in front like dance partners waiting for the clench. I can't help but compare my grapes to her mangos. Wow. She is STILL talking, but I am numb.

"Okay...Now grab each cup and simply pour your breasts into them for the best fit!"

She seems very satisfied with herself as her humungous breasts go PLOP into their holders. She gracefully slips each arm through its strap, and turtle snaps the back.

"Voila! Nothing to it."

Nothing to it? I don't have anything to shake in. I pretend that I am my big-boobed friend, Kim Mandel, and hook, twist to the back, shake, shake...shoulder ...shoulder, and…"

I am done! I look up at myself expecting to see dumb ol' Jaime, but instead I see... well, me. Not exactly Gilligan's MaryAnn yet, but definitely not Twiggy either. I have lost the battle with a smile, and I don't really care if my braces show. I tap the little pink bow between my breasts. I think I might be breathing again.

Our eyes meet in the mirror. I guess I do see a resemblance. Aunt Claire looks away, picks up the rejects, and taps her red nails lightly on my head again.

"Let's go show your mom."

This time I don't rub the tap away.

Third Prize of $125

Then and Now by Nancy Wilson

Into silence. Into the past. Into Ginkaku-ji. Carefully along the granite slab path we walk into tranquility. Feet pattering discreetly on the ancient rocks. Rocks wet with morning mist. Feet leaving prints for the future as they leave daily life behind. Through towering Camellia hedges, guardians precisely groomed to match the smooth stone walls below, we go deeper into the beckoning quiet. A glistening, glorious, growing baffle, swallowing sound and time. This living wall of dark, dark green separates the temple precincts from the world outside, becomes the subtle transition between real and symbolic.

We are returning to Japan, Kyoto, the Silver Pavilion, to honor twenty-five years of marriage. Our silver celebration. There is no silver foil here. No glitz, no glitter, no glimmer. Just rustic simplicity in this intimate, refined, rarified district. Once the personal villa of Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimasa, this was a place of aesthetic pursuits: tea-tasting, moon-gazing, poem-composing, flower-arranging, ink-painting. Now, this is a Zen sect temple, Jisho-ji. A place of peace, quiet, contemplation. A garden of exquisitely orchestrated plant, rock, and water features.

We have come early to avoid the uniformed school children chattering like grackles, the bustling groups of aging Japanese following their tour leaders' red flags, the cacophony of camera-toting foreigners like us. We melt into the garden, losing ourselves in the moist mossy silence. In this walking garden, we can suspend thought. Following the narrow gravel paths lined with hooped bamboo, the little stones crunch under our shoes. Che-che. Che-che. We are the only sound, the only movement, the only color. Pesticides have left few birds or butterflies to dance here, sacrificed on the altar of agricultural necessity. We circle the woods, reveling in the earthy naturalness that is so prescribed. Ponds to mimic oceans. Rocks to seem mountains. Trees to reflect the seasons. At every turn a green fugue develops, plays on our senses. Our favorite vista is from the veranda of a perfect little tea house, the Togudo-Hall. This moon-viewing platform gives a superb perspective of the Sea of Silver Sand. Sunlight ripples across the surface and sends our eyes to the white sand cone of Fuji-san, called Kogetsudai. I am mesmerized by this miniature incarnation of perfection. Not a grain of sand disturbed, not a twig misplaced. Several leaves precisely laid on the moss, in the tradition of wabi sabi. In a few days we will climb Mt. Fuji. My fiftieth birthday challenge. A spiritual high to celebrate a half-century of life.

When the buses arrive, burping diesel smoke, coughing up passengers, we leave this lush green sanctuary of restraint and tranquility. At the gate, I present my pilgrim's scroll to be stamped with the symbol of the temple in thick red ink. While the monk is brushing a simple calligraphy poem in my book, I browse. From the selection on the pavilion counter, I select a little prayer bag. White brocade with purple cords, smelling of myrrh. The attendant shakes her head and hisses back air through closed teeth. "Hssss-sss-sss!" She wants me to pick another. I resist. She insists. I persist. Black eyebrows arched in disbelief, she says, "Want have baby?" I shake my head, "No!" She flashes a knowing smile before bowing her head, covering her mouth with her hand, giggling demurely at my mistake. I retrieve my book, pay and flee, forbearing laughter. I have just purchased a fertility prayer. That is the one blessing I do not need, now.

Once I did. The first time we came to Kyoto, I watched at temple after temple as women pulled the misty gray clouds of incense from the huge cauldrons toward their wombs, rubbed the genitals of sacred bronze cows and then rubbed their own, blatantly. Once the surprise of this gynecological mysticism passed, I thought, What the heck? Why not? It can't hurt. It might even help. Certainly as much as tests, temperature charts, surgery, estrogen, Clomid, Pergonal, and worry. Western medicine has failed. Western prayers go unanswered. Why not try incense and sacred cows? Surreptitiously, I repeated every ritual I saw my Japanese sisters perform.
Now, all that seems long ago, less important. Even foreign. Here today, I retrace those memories, those longings for motherhood in the midst of menopause.

We leave the temple, turn left at the corner to follow the path along the canal, the Philosopher's Walk. One of Japan's most famous modern philosophers, Nishida Kitara, took this same walk daily for constitution and contemplation. Nine little half-moon bridges cross the canal, marking departures to temples nestled in the hills. Plip, plop, plink. Rain begins to fall softly. We soon must step carefully around the puddles, trying to keep our feet dry. Umbrellas brush the branches of the weeping cherry trees, releasing a splashing cascade of water droplets onto the gravel path. It is hot and still, except for the falling rain.

Before, the cherry trees lining the canal were blooming a pale, flesh pink. This path, the trees, the Higashiyama mountains fell like a stage backdrop. The scene waited for dancers to turn at its edge. We obliged in our youthful enthusiasm. Our dreams flowered. Then, the cherry blossom petals fell silently onto the water's surface, making it blush. I thought it sad that the trees' moment of great beauty had passed. But this is the moment most cherished by the Japanese. Philosophical, poignant, paradoxical.

Today we walk on, hand-in-hand, in the heat and humidity. Lost in our thoughts, oblivious, until an invisible presence sneaks into our private world. A gingery aroma circles our heads, slips into our noses, traces our footsteps, will not be denied. Around each bend we expect to see its source. The something or someone producing this mouth-watering smell. One last turn and we come to a tiny shop. No more than a doorway, really. A griddle sizzles. Sputters under the watchful eyes of two young women. Thin circles hiss, then crisp quickly on the gray metal surface. After thirty seconds, they take the still-soft cookies off the grill with a swift scrape. Steel against steel. Dropping them onto a bamboo stick suspended above the counter. Each clings tightly like a baby grasping Mama's finger. With wooden tongs, tap, tap, tap, the cookies are loosened, slipped off the stick onto a stack of cooling curls. We buy a package of these cookies, called Yatsuhashi. Little rice flour cakes redolent of cinnamon and ginger, baked in the shape of the canal bridges. The story is told that they were made by a mother mourning the loss of her child who was swept away by the river and drowned. Such a sweet reminder of great grief.

We savor these morsels in the rain, walking along the canal, mulling our memories. Time slows, replays. We wonder, were they here before? How could we have missed the smell of warm spices? But, then we were dreaming. Now we can taste the loss of dreams. The babies that would not come, that would never be. The few that did, that were lost, swept away by the bloody river. Now, the rain comes furiously. Torrents torment us, soak our feet, blow under our umbrellas, scatter our thoughts, wash us.

We scurry across the last little stone bridge over the canal to Nanzen-in. Through the dark wooden two-story gate. The gateless gate into the Zen of the temple grounds, protected by the hills and ancient black pine trees. We enter the prayer hall, slip off our wet shoes. Leave our umbrellas, our paraphernalia, our past. We quiet ourselves, collect ourselves, give ourselves to the hum of mantra-chanting monks, soft cymbals, delicate drums. Together they beat a timeless rhythm into our hearts. Peace. Peace. Peace. Flying on the silver wings of sound. Soft as breath. Incense seeps into our souls to soften the sadness that still sleeps there. We have walked this path before. We will again.

Honorable Mentions

In alphabetical order

Contestants received $

Guns and Slugs by Sherri Rice, My Shopping Mojo by Gwynn O'Gara

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