Someone to watch over me

Photo by Dennis Scoville

I had just finished feeding the cats when Dennis stirred from a deep sleep with a request. His voice sounded urgent and firm.

“I want my glasses. I want my camera.”

His clarity surprised me. The combination of Morphine, Haldol, and the toxins building up in his brain had rendered him nearly inarticulate. The day before, he had spoken to me in tongues.

Dennis’s cancer had begun in his prostate. But over the last two years, his CT scans had lit up with black spots, as if his bones were becoming riddled with buckshot. Now the cancer had invaded his skull. In the most recent images, his entire head was black — a beret of cancer.

Dennis could barely hear; nor could he see well.

“Is it dark or blurry?” I had yelled a week earlier.

“Blurry,” he yelled back.

Well, at least he wasn’t blind.


I handed Dennis his glasses and his phone. At first, he held it in landscape and then turned the screen to portrait. He pointed it at a spot at the end of his hospital bed.

He took one picture.

He handed me his phone and his glasses. He went back to sleep.

I didn’t look, not then.

That evening, as Dennis slept, I pulled up the picture.

This is what I saw: A darkened TV screen, a ceiling fan. His feet beneath a sheet.

This is what he saw: Something I could not.

After Dennis died the next morning, his hospice nurse, Pat, told me she believed that he had seen his spirit guide. In their final days, she said, many people have visions of their loved ones — floating near the ceiling, sitting in a corner of the room, leaning over the bed. Pat believed in these guides. She had no doubt someone had come for him, and that he wanted to take their picture.

When I look at this photo now, I strain my eyes to detect what Dennis felt so desperate to capture: a shadow, an apparition, a kind face that will allow me to lift the veil between this plane and the next. But I can’t see anything. It’s not my time.

See What You’re Missing


Dream No. 1, Wednesday

A stiff, raw breeze blew through the house. I had opened all of the windows because a strong storm was rolling in, and for the past two weeks, the air inside had felt heavy, stagnant.  It was May, but the wind reminded me of March, when the atmosphere is unstable and indecisive and unsure of herself.

For three weeks, I had been sleeping on the couch. I had thrown our queen-size bed away, hauled the mattress and the box springs to the curb for the garbageman. I hadn’t decided what kind of replacement bed to buy. A twin would be large enough for me, but would foreclose on future possibilities. A twin would be too small to accommodate me and the cats. I was leaning toward a full-size, but I felt torn, so for now, I had settled on the couch.

I fell asleep without a blanket. I dreamt I was holding a cold, round object, perhaps a potato or a stone. But the texture was too supple, too smooth. I was holding your hand.

You were wearing your brown coat, your fall coat, the one that kept you warm when we traveled to Meat Cove, at the tip of Cape Breton, and watched the cormorants huddle in the mist on the pier.

“Wait, aren’t you dead?” I asked.


“What’s it like to be dead?”

“It’s OK, not too bad, about what I expected.”

You always had a gift for understatement.

We were quiet for a while, and then you said, “But I do like sitting here in the breeze with you.”

Suddenly, my hand was empty.


Dream No. 2, Thursday

First, I had to dig a trench. It needed to be square, its perimeter large enough for a bed and several vases of flowers. Then I had to stack and mortar concrete blocks to build your crematorium.

You lay dying on a hospital bed within the building’s footprint. The hospice nurse, Pat, said I had to finish it, timed perfectly, so that I placed the last block, the keystone, as you died.

Pat updated me every half hour.

“It won’t be long.”

“You should hurry.”

I had completed one wall when I realized I had mismeasured. I leaned on my shovel and began crying. You had always told me to slow down, to be methodical, especially when assembling things. You were right. You were always right.

I started over, measured — twice this time — dug another trench, took down the concrete blocks and stacked and mortared them in their new spots.

“He’s almost gone.”

I sat down, slumped against the one good wall and cried. I still had two and a half walls to go. There’s no way I would finish on time.

As If You Could Escape


The blinds lift automatically.
I stand behind glass. You’re enclosed in a fiberboard box that from here looks like stone. Because by law you must be contained before you are rolled into the fire. As if you could escape.

Inside the box, you are dressed in a blue-and-white short-sleeved shirt that used to complement your skin tone. The same shirt you were wearing when we sat on the patio of the Mexican restaurant one summer afternoon long ago, drinking margaritas, half the rim salted, half not,
while knockout roses bloomed in nearby pots.

Inside the box, you are wearing khaki pants, but no socks. When Justin, the funeral director, came last week to pick up your body, I handed him a small pile of your clothing, topped by a ball of black socks. He said you didn’t need socks, so I must have returned them to the drawer. As if you could escape.

I read a Buddhist poem. The silver crematory door raises and the gears on the conveyor belt begin to roll. I’m so intent on reading the poem that I miss your going in.


At twenty-eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit, it still takes four and a half hours to cremate the average-size body. You went in at 1:30, which means you’ll be done by 6, so I go buy tomato plants and some cages. I take a late lunch, occasionally checking the time, and think of you as a stick of incense, orange and glowing.

After burning for four and half hours, the average-size body needs time to cool. The next morning at 11 I pick you up. Your urn is a handmade box of poplar, a tall and sturdy tree that is resistant to disease. I remove the lid and see that your cremains are encased in a clear plastic bag, which is tied off and secured with a silver tag. As if you could escape.

The bag is warm to the touch, the temperature of tortillas when they arrived at our table on the patio of the Mexican restaurant one summer afternoon long ago. I ladle out a portion of your ashes for your brother. Somewhere in here are your kind brown eyes, the constellation of moles that streaked across your left cheek, your blue-and-white short-sleeved shirt.

A life, on foot


My husband and I had been married 19 years before I saw his feet.

Dennis never went to the pool. On the very rare occasions we visited the beach — two, to be exact — he wore sneakers.  He preferred to shower alone. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. He wore socks then, too.

I did not complain. We’re all allowed secrets, and there are worse ones than the shape and condition of one’s feet. I once saw a black-and-white photo of him as a child. The picture was faded and old, but his feet looked normal.  He had five toes on the left and five on the right. They were not webbed.

After a while, it became a game, a test. Five years passed, then 10. How long can a couple be married and one spouse not see the other’s feet? At 15 years, I decided I never wanted to see them. That would be my secret.

In the spring of 2015, after we had been married 18 years, I glimpsed the side of his right big toe, as elusive and breathtaking a sight as if I had spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker in the wild. Dennis was in the hospital and in the process of removing his black crew socks and putting on his yellow footies — the color that indicated to medical staff that he was a fall risk.




I have wide, strong, homely feet, the feet of my father. I do not paint my toenails; that would only draw attention to their unattractiveness. I do not gussy them up with pedicures. Feet are tools. And like tools, they should used for the correct job, kept clean and properly stored.

When I was young, my family and I lived down a long gravel driveway that led to a gravel road. In April, my bare feet would be tender, and I would gimp to the mailbox. But by summer’s end, the soles would be thick and tough from playing basketball barefoot on concrete, from stepping on a bee in the lush clover, from softball games when the hot clay would burn through your cleats. By August, I could run barefoot down the driveway, down the road, kicking up dust. At night, I would wash my feet and tuck them inside fresh, cool sheets, where they were kept clean and properly stored.



It occurred to me midway through my marriage that in the normal course of living, I must have seen tens of thousands of bare feet. One pair stood out: In the summer of 1980, my friend Natalie and I were sitting in the hallway of our high school waiting for driver’s ed class to begin. She had removed her shoes to unveil her feet, tan and unblemished, as if milk chocolate had been poured into a mold. Her toes sloped like descending musical scale. Not a callus, not a bunion, not a corn. A perfect set of feet.

Fifteen years later, I found myself in a karaoke bar in my hometown in Indiana. The room was dark except for a spotlight pointed to the dance floor, where among the performers was a man with no legs and obviously no feet. He sang Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Then a group of women gathered to sing Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Break the Chain.” I could not see their faces, but in the spotlight I spied a familiar set of feet. After the song was over, I hurried to a back booth. “Natalie! It’s Lisa! It’s been a long time. I recognized you by your feet!” She smiled and nodded, which I understood to mean that she was anxious for me to leave.


This spring, Pat, our hospice nurse, was at our home for her biweekly visit. She wanted to check Dennis’s feet and ankles for swelling, which would signal his kidneys were not efficiently processing waste. She also monitored for ulcerations, which can occur either from constant pressure on the skin or from a gradual breakdown of the body.

I stood at the head of the hospital bed. Pat pulled off the left sock, then the right. For the first time, I saw all of my husband’s feet. The nails had grown long during his illness — Stage 4 prostate cancer that had metastasized to his bones. But otherwise, an unremarkable, perfectly good pair of feet.

Before I met him, Dennis’s feet had been to Vietnam and Italy and Fort Meade, Maryland, where, as a member of the last draft class — Lottery No. 33 — he worked in Air Force intelligence as a codebreaker and an analyst.

These were the feet, Size 10, that had balanced on the basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway, in Northern Ireland, on our honeymoon, 19 years and 11 months ago. They had tracked with me through Santa Ana canyon, no more than a slot, really, in Big Bend National Park. They had traipsed along the Skyline Trail on Cape Breton Island, where we scanned the sea for whales.

It is April 14 and Dennis is dying. He is in his last days or even hours. This evening as I rubbed his feet with coconut oil and aloe vera, I noticed they were cool to the touch. In the past, he did not like me to touch his feet. Tonight, he did not mind.






Purity & comfort in an empty mattress store in Durham

The Lakewood neighborhood in Durham is home to an eclectic assortment of businesses, both present — the Simonetti Historic Tuba Museum, the Scrap Exchange, African Land — and past — an early 20th-century amusement park and a 21st-century organic mattress store.

The store moved out a couple of years ago (the building at 2009 Chapel Hill Road is now for sale). I shot this photo shortly after all of the mattresses had been removed but the shop’s slogan remained on the wall.


Remnants of an organic mattress store, Chapel Hill Road, Durham
©2014 Lisa Sorg

Sun Trust

A woman was reading in Black Wall Street Plaza in Durham, an umbrella propped up to shield her from the sun. Later I noticed the SunTrust ATM in the background, with the same color scheme as the umbrella.


Durham street preachers: Read and heed


Five Points, downtown Durham

Above, a street preacher, May 2016:  “Read and heed. I hope you listen.”

Below, children from Mt. Zion Christian Academy, May 2015:
“Repent. You will be judged.”


©2015, 2016 Lisa Sorg