The Banshee

“You’ve got this!” was the last thing I texted her before she was rolled into the operating room.

We had been friends decades before, when we had both attended the same small, Southern high school, but had lost touch after I had joined the Army and she had gone on to college. We had reunited through the magic of social media about a dozen years ago, and had re-established something like a virtual friendship in the intervening years. I admired her ribald humor, her caustic wit, her genuine heart, and her devotion to helping others. For her part, she was always supportive of my writing, my music, and encouraging in my darkest times. We saw the world in much the same way and it drew us to one another.

A few weeks prior to my sending that text, she had announced that –after a few months of battling mysterious symptoms– doctors had found a tumor in her brain. A craniotomy was scheduled to remove the racquetball-sized mass and a biopsy would be performed to determine next steps.

She delivered this news with her typical nonchalance and good humor, as if it were nothing more than an inconvenience –like having to take her car into the shop. Over the next few weeks she gave updates on the upcoming surgery without ever losing that good-natured attitude (she even named the tumor). Her attitude was –at least for me– contagious. I was concerned with what the tumor biopsy might find, but untroubled by the actual process of removal.

A few days before her surgery she had sent me an encouraging note about my performance at pulmonary rehab, comparing it favorably to her own recent treadmill testing to get ready for the craniotomy. When I complimented her on her coolness in the face of her surgery she had said that, considering where we had come from, we had both overcome bigger obstacles.

She just didn’t seem worried, so I wasn’t either.

The night before her operation, we had talked about the watering can shower head in her hospital room. I had one like it and recommended it. It was all so mundane.

The next morning I had my own procedure (a dental surgery I needed to qualify for lung transplant) a couple of hours away in Portland, so I sent the aforementioned text, noted that she’d responded with a ‘thumbs up’, got in my truck and began my own long day of driving and doctors.

When I returned that night, I had been in a lot of pain and couldn’t wait to swallow my prescribed Oxy’s and crash on my couch. I spent the next day in much the same fashion –pleasantly spaced-out and napping to avoid the throbbing in my jaw. On the third day, I woke up wanting to know how she was doing; to know what the biopsy had said. I went to her Facebook page and it soon became apparent that something had gone terribly wrong.

She hadn’t ‘had it’.

She’d never woken up.

She was gone.

My friend Misty Ziegler was 46 years old when she died on October 31st, 2020.

I have missed her heart, humanity, and humor every day since.

When I was a child, my mother would take me and my sister to the public library in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, once a week. We would balance-beam-walk the low-slung retaining wall that framed the front of the red brick, Colonial Revival building until we reached the stone lions (that I was, unreasonably, not allowed to ride) that bracketed the wide stairway leading up to the front doors.

Once inside, my mother would turn us loose to roam the basement children’s library while she wandered through the stacks of the main library above.

The trip to the library was the highlight of my week, which is why I find it odd that I have only one really vivid memory of any book that I checked out there as a child. I could draw you the floor plan; can recall exactly where I would sit waiting for my mother to finish making her selections in the main library upstairs; can remember precisely where the librarian’s desk was; can still smell it when I close my eyes.

But I can only recall one book that I checked out there before I was a teenager, and of that, I only vividly recall a single illustration on a single page.

I was eight years old and the book was an assorted collection of folk tales, short stories, and poems for children. The illustration was for a poem called The Banshee, about the harbinger of death in Irish folklore. It was a two-color print, black and green, of a looming, howling figure in a hooded shawl, chasing a terrified child down a path.

I can’t recall the poem, only the picture.

It scared me so badly that I called my mother into my bedroom for comfort. Unbeknownst to me, when my mother had been a girl, a banshee in the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People had terrified her, and she still held a grudge. She had threatened to take the book, but I assured her I’d skip the banshee poem and just read the other stories in the book, so she had relented.

The next night, lying in bed, I couldn’t resist cracking open the book to the page that had scared me so badly the night before. It had only taken minutes before my imagination had me yelling for the comfort of my mom’s presence. She wouldn’t be dissuaded that night, and when she left my room that night, the book left with her.

But that wasn’t the last I’d see of the banshee.

She began to howl in my ear the day I was diagnosed in June of 2002, and ever since, everything has sounded like a lament. She draped her shawl over my eyes, so that everything I saw was refracted through a prism of death. She has been my constant companion –a hellhound on my trail from which I can’t run fast enough. The pall of death colors everything I see.

But the longer this has drawn on, the more it seems like a fraud. I feel like Hyman Roth in The Godfather II, who is described as having been dying from the same heart attack for twenty years.

People I love, and who I expected (and who expected themselves) to attend my funeral, have now not only heard the banshee’s howl, but have felt her cold touch as they are lowered into the grave. And every time it happens, she digs her bony fingers into my collarbone and whispers in my ear:

“It was supposed to be you.”

“I guess you’ll be going to my funeral now,” said my friend Doug Gast.

It was March of 2018 and we were sitting in the Parkade Bar & Grill in Kennewick, Washington –his local pub.

We had met about a dozen years earlier when he was an associate professor at Washington State University and I was a student at a community college submitting work for an art exhibition he was curating. As fate would have it, we moved to the same neighborhood not long after and became fast friends when we began frequenting the same pub at nights. We were about the same age, had similar backgrounds, and similar views on life and we really hit it off. I liked him immensely.

In 2007, I transferred to WSU and became his student, so we instituted what we called the “Cone of Silence” that strictly segregated our on-campus and off-campus lives –a necessity, due to how many of our evenings ended in hazy, alcohol-soaked revelry.

In late January, 2010, I had been in the hospital for months, battling a crippling and torturous manifestation of my disease that saw my body swell and split open like an over-ripe banana. Doctors had been mystified for the first two months, and had transferred me to a hospital in Seattle, four hours from home, where I had spent the holidays, confined to a wheelchair in a cancer ward, watching every one of my roommates die.

Shortly after New Year’s Day, the doctors had made a diagnosis and prescribed an effective treatment, so, by the time my birthday rolled around on January 21st, I was able to hobble in and out of the shower in my room. That’s just where Doug and his wife Casey found me, that last week of January –hobbling out of the shower. Luckily, I had dressed before I exited the bathroom, so I was saved us all some embarrassment, but I could have not been more surprised if I’d have exited the bathroom and found Salma Hayek sitting on my bed.

Not only had they come, but they had come bearing gifts (sketchbooks, charcoal, graphite pencils, fixative, books) for my birthday –which was four days earlier than Casey’s. Not only that, they wanted to bust me out of the hospital and take me to dinner and a rock ‘n’ roll show. It only took a little subterfuge to escape, and in an hour we were all sitting in Linda’s Tavern, just up the hill from Pike Place Market, enjoying the first real meal I’d had in months. We didn’t make it to the show, but we did make some wonderful memories. By the time they snuck me back into the hospital at two in the morning, I’d had one of the best nights of my life.

I never forgot that display of loyalty and love.

Over the next decade we’d be there for one another through all sorts of troubles too private to mention, but suffice to say that Doug and I knew one another as well as two human beings can, I believe. He was always there for me when I needed him.

It was December of 2017 when I heard he was dying of cancer. I was spending another Christmas in the hospital –rehab, this time– and felt desperate to bust out and run to him; to comfort him; to be there for him as he had been for me all those years before.

Life doesn’t work like that, though. It’s not fair, and we often can’t balance the scales. When I was released from rehab, I ran.

I had spent a traumatizing few weeks in the ICU fighting off a flu that had almost killed me, the banshee howling in my ear, so when they let me go, I’d bought this place on the Oregon Coast and never even glanced back at the place that had been my home for the previous twenty years. The people either, if I’m being honest. It was a month before I even went back to visit. Which is when I found Doug, sitting at his table in the bar, a few blocks from his house.

When he told me that he guessed I’d be going to his funeral, it felt like the worst sort of betrayal –like I’d cheated him somehow.

I retreated back to the coast he and I both loved.

He visited it often in his last couple of years and he got to see my little Shangri-La before he passed, but when he came to Rockaway in his last months, we had both been too scared of COVID to see one another. He and Casey sat outside of my house, their car idling, unable to bring themselves to knock.

I never knew they were there.

The banshee came for Doug on August 2nd, 2020. He was 46 years old.

For all the terror she engenders, the banshee is not actually intended to be a menacing figure in Irish folklore –though she has become so. She was originally a helpful figure, bound only to the upper class, as a useful harbinger to remind them to prepare themselves and their houses for their passing.

She has been that for me. If not for her, I would have never struck out on the path that brought me here to my cozy little home by the sea. It was her howling that drove me into a new life all those years ago. It was the weight of her cold shroud that reminded me to push harder, to keep going forward, to not give up. She has brought me to where I am.

I don’t know if my friends heard her, but I hope they did, because I have heard a message in her lament that I hope they were able to profit from.

“Death is coming,” she says. “Live while you can.”


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