Skin – Carole Reichstein

Marty’s maternal family came from the Creek Indian tribe of Alabama. His grandfather, who went by Buck, talked like Foghorn Leghorn and was full blood Creek Indian. When Marty was a boy, he went fishing with Buck. Marty stood up to grab the bait box and fell into the river. He couldn’t swim, so he flailed, gasped, and began to sink to the bottom. Buck grabbed Marty’s t-shirt and hauled him back into the boat. NOW QUIT YOUR FOOLING AROUND he yelled as Marty sucked in air. Buck lived to be 100 years old. He died in his John Deere tractor while plowing a field.

Marty never really talked about his tiny bit of Native American blood inside him. He wore his hair long, but only so he could sweep it back dramatically with his big hands while he told a funny story. He looked more like a member of a Viking heavy metal band than anything else. Still, sometimes a man would pass Marty on the street and see the pale brown birthmark near his temple. It was shaped like a tiny kidney. Marty said that was a common birthmark for someone who is part white and part Native American. Sometimes Indians passed him on the street and gave him a once-over, nodded, and said “Skin.” Marty explained that meant hey dude you are kind of related to me and that’s cool. 

Marty ate lots of Tums and Alka Seltzer. He’d been overweight for years and his stomach pains were a normal routine. We even had Alka Seltzer tablets decorating our tables at our wedding (Marty chose the wedding decorations, décor and flowers). He assumed that he just had acid reflux and also drank lots of milk of magnesia. His looks changed slowly over time. Meanwhile, our daughter was born in 2007, and he got a new job working at a computer sales gig at 6am. We slept in separate bedrooms so Marty could get enough sleep for his earlybird job, and I could nurse Claire throughout the night without waking up Marty. He worked 6am to 3pm, and I worked 1-9pm. Three years blurred by, full of love, but also fraught with financial stress, family drama and fatigue. In December 2009, I got Marty on my health insurance. Marty was almost 45 but looked much older. I wanted him to get his teeth cleaned and maybe the doctor would encourage him to lose weight and cut down on his smoking and curb his bad Pabst habit. 

On January 30th, 2010, Marty made me drive him to the ER for his severe stomach pain. I packed Claire into the car and we all went together. Hours went by, and finally, a doctor thought to give Marty an MRI. Stage 4 colon cancer was the root of his pain. The doctors guessed that this hard mass in his stomach had incubated in there for years. 

Marty was an unreliable narrator. He fudged facts and sometimes did things he shouldn’t have. I don’t know how much time he was given to live by his doctor. Marty said that he had maybe 5 years, but when his 46th birthday came 9 months later, he threw himself a GIANT birthday party and the theme was “beating the odds.” So obviously the doctor didn’t expect him to even make it that long. Every person on the west coast who knew Marty showed up at our house. Our daughter Claire stayed up until 2am with a sweet child attending the party with her parents. I put Claire to bed. She had a blast. The next morning, she woke up, looked around, and said, Where did all the people go?

Two years of chemotherapy treatments, hospitals, medical trials and colostomy bags went by. I put on a brave face and concentrated on working my 40 hours a week and NOT GETTING FIRED from my job so Marty would continue to have the best medical care possible. Denial is an extremely helpful tool in this situation. The only way out is through, we told each other. As long as Marty was alive in this moment, that was all that mattered. We took bike rides, celebrated Claire’s next 2 birthdays, and hung on tight. And we continued on this path until March 2012, when Marty’s body just said, I can’t fucking fight this anymore.

The phone rang at 3am. I woke cleanly from my jumbled dream and answered it. This is the doctor on call at St Vincent. Marty has taken a turn for the worse and you need to get over here, he said.

Can I go back to sleep? I said. I’m tired and I just fell asleep about an hour ago.

No, you need to be here right now.

I called my friend Mary, a union organizer. I wish that everyone who ever finds themselves in this terrible situation could have a union organizer friend to help them through the shit. She picked me up in the middle of the night, and Karen and Denis came over to take Claire. We got to Marty’s bedside at 5am. It was still dark. He was on his way. An incubator helped him breathe in a jerky, labored way. I knew Marty was really dying then, because I had seen my father breathe the same way as he died 3 years before. 

While we kept vigil at his bedside, my mother and my stepfather were 30,000 feet in the air, flying from Florida to Portland to try and make it in time to say goodbye to Marty. The room felt electric and static-y like a vacuum tube, like there wasn’t anything else in the world except his hospital room and the hospital that contained it. Nick. Karen. Denis. Sarah. Jesse. Annie. Nena. Mary. Tommi. There were more people but my memory from that day and night is like a blurry and fraught gauze. 

The last time I was in a hospital room for that long was when I gave birth to our child. The world had ended and fallen away. All that was left were my doctor, the wonderful nurses, and Marty, who held my hand and gave me ice chips while I pushed for 4 hours. I thought we would never leave that womb of a room. 

Now we were in a different room. The nurses gave Claire paper and crayons and toys while Marty did his death work. We labored with him. Claire said to no one in particular, “Instead of a birthday, today is my Daddy’s dying day!” A nurse widened her eyes and mouthed “OH MY GOD” to us. 

Marty died at 10:47pm. It was a Thursday.

Mom and Harry arrived about an hour later. 

Claire ran into her grandmother’s arms and my Mom said I’m here for you, grandma is here. My mother turned to me. “What time did he pass away?”

“10:47,” I said. “About an hour ago.”

“Marty appeared to me in a dream while I was in the airplane,” she said. “Marty was singing a Native American death song and he wanted me to join in.” But I don’t know the words, my Mom said. Yes you do, Susie, said Marty, you’ve always known the words. And they began to chant together. The dream was so real and vivid that when she woke, she asked my step-dad what time it was. “It’s 10:47,” Harry said. 

The last time I saw Marty in a dream, his hair was short and he wore those black glasses that I still have in a closet somewhere. He was turned away from me, standing, reading a book in some godhead bookstore of some sort. I ran to say HI! HI! HI! to him, but before I could get there I woke up. As I always do. 

Carole works as a bookseller at Powell’s.

Leave a Reply