"Safe Passage" by Julie Marie Wade and Brenda Miller

Julie Marie Wade

Julie Marie Wade

Julie Marie Wade is the author of Fugue: An Aural History (Diagram/New Michigan Press, 2023) and Otherwise: Essays (Autumn House, 2023), selected by Lia Purpura as the winner of the 2022 Autumn House Nonfiction Book Prize. Julie teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and makes her home with Angie Griffin and their two cats in Dania Beach. Her newest project is The Mary Years, winner of the 2023 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize selected by Michael Martone and forthcoming from Texas Review Press in fall 2024.

Safe Passage

I’ve always loved transitions. I mean the kind we use as writers—the glide from sentence to sentence, the quick hop to the next paragraph, or the unnoticed segue into what becomes an inevitable conclusion. When you think about writing, transitions might not be the first thing that comes to mind; we tend to focus on the big ideas, the meat, the heart. Or maybe we’re enamored of the words themselves, downloaded from that invisible well in the mind, landing just where and when we need them. But the transitions—oh, the transitions! They make my fingers tingle. Connection. A reaching across or toward. Two hands shaking in agreement.



My father taught me the importance of a handshake. I must have been small, maybe five or six, because his palm swallowed my whole hand when I tried it: extending my arm, holding my fingers in a steady row, leaning slightly toward him. “That’s right. Keep your hand firm,” he said. “A firm handshake confirms that you’re sincere.” Right there—I loved that—the word firm visible inside the word confirms. How thrilling the way words were built on other words, stacked like blocks in a Jenga tower that didn’t seem in danger of falling. I trusted language from an early age, more than other ways of knowing the world. But to my father, who favored the action that embodied the pledge, I said, transitioning, “It’s like our hands are nodding, not just our heads!”



I nod to the road construction workers who have set up camp outside my house, all my neighbors on this short street hemmed in by dump trucks, excavators, front-loaders, and bright-orange pylons. They start at 7:30 every morning—the rumble and beeps my wake-up call—and end at 5 p.m. on the dot, bright floodlights flashing on in the early dark as they finish up for the day. I watch them from my upstairs window, the neon-yellow jacketed men disappearing into the earth then emerging again, so many eyes on their every move. They’re working a project called “Safe Passage,” an intricate plan to construct sidewalks and crosswalks for the elementary school a few doors down. There’s an urgency to this work, trying to finish the messy phases before school starts again in January.

I’ve come to know a few of the workers who guide me in and out of my driveway like a VIP, figuring out the best strategy on their walkie-talkies. They bring me my newspaper, stoop to pet my dog. They take off their hard hats when talking to me, knocking on my door to tell me when the water will be shut off, when concrete will be poured. I always say thank you. I say I appreciate it because I do. I listen to Chopin piano sonatas on my earbuds while watching the choreography of their work, and it becomes so beautiful, the way these people know what to do, the skill involved in making safe this everyday transition from home to school. Safe Passage: it’s what we all want in the end, isn’t it?



I ended up moving to a cul-de-sac during the pandemic, a quiet strip of road prefaced by a speed bump and designated Court instead of Street by the U.S. Postal Service. Bold yellow signs used to introduce such roads: DEAD END, they’d caution, or NO OUTLET, more ominous still. Depending on the dictionary, a cul-de-sac is defined as either a “passageway open on one side” (hear the hopefulness) or “a route leading nowhere” (hear the despair). We love living on our cul-de-sac: the garden wall that stretches behind our house, lacey with climbing vines and abundant Suriname cherries; the possum we call Terry who lumbers home in the early hours to sleep beneath his cabbage leaf; and the small green field next door where a house should be but inexplicably isn’t.

If you turn down a cul-de-sac by mistake, the road runs out, yes, but often generously, curved to facilitate an easy U-turn. The dictionary calls a U-turn “a change in plans” or “reversal of policy,” the way the pandemic changed all our plans, turned us inward perhaps, turned us grateful sometimes for the smallest things: squeaking bamboo in the side yard, a squirrel we call Niles who chitters each day outside the screened porch, flaunting the cherries he’s plucked from the wall. If you live on a cul-de-sac, there’s a driveway you pull into, back out of, transition from, just like a house on any other road. It doesn’t feel like a “blind alley,” the way such roads are sometimes described. You can stand on your porch at dusk and watch all your neighbors’ porchlights flickering on, reminiscent of fireflies before the city lights got too bright. Maybe, we muse, this is what a do-over looks like.



I can’t tell you how many times (even in a single day) I long for a do-over: that batch of granola I cooked too long or not long enough, the haircut that never seems to quite work with my almost-curls, or that December day with my mother, when I should have just sat and listened rather than hustle her out of the Mt. Baker Care Center. She’d been there for ten days after one more round in the hospital, another bout of anemia or arrhythmia, and she had called me each night those first few days, crying, “I don’t know where I am, why am I here, what have I done now?” I brought her a box of holiday cards, a blue pen (she always wrote cards in blue, thinking black appropriate only for sympathy), a sleeve of stamps. After a few days she was able to sit on the side of the bed and write those cards in her beautiful handwriting, and I checked names off the list. We went to the family lounge and called my aunt and cousin, but she couldn’t quite tell them what had happened, why she was here.

She stayed in the room opposite the room where my father had been, six years earlier, the month before he died. In that room we had watched him deteriorate, a patch over his left eye for double vision, and where we’d had the conference with the doctors who said, since he wasn’t improving, he’d used up all his Medicare, and we’d have to move him or pay $10,000 a month. I don’t think she remembered how she cried then, how she wailed the obvious statement of our health system’s brokenness: “Just when he needs the most help, you turn your back?”

On the day I came to spring her from this place, they’d told her the persistent wound on her leg had become infected again, probably from the careless way the shower aide had hustled her in and out, gotten the bandage wet. They didn’t want her to go, but I didn’t want her to stay. I didn’t want to miss this one window between in and out, afraid she might never make it home. They decided it was okay since home health would come to monitor the situation. My mother sniffled and cried and said she was upset as I quickly packed her socks and underwear, said brusquely, “Can you hold it together long enough just to get us out of here?” A little more gently I said, “Transitions are hard.” I said those same words when my father had moved from the hospital to this nursing home, when he moved from this nursing home to another closer to my mom, when he moved from there to Hospice House, and then gone.



I didn’t know about home hospice care until my friend Maureen announced she would be dying at home, “most likely in the next six months.” No more chemo, no more searching for a phantom cure, just life until life ran out. I pictured an hourglass full of South Florida sand. Each update seemed to center on the letter “P.” First, there was the pill, which would ease her transition to the other side if the pain, another “P,” became too much to endure. Maureen was living in Colorado at the end, where a euthanasia pill could be legally prescribed (another “P”). Broadly speaking, it was palliative care, a word I was embarrassed to admit I hadn’t learned until my 30s.

I thought of “The Alphabet Song,” where children accelerate with gusto toward the fulcrum: LMNOP! So fast, as if those letters each contained a year, many years, a whole era of a life. I thought of the ways our lives gain momentum, falling into habits (good and bad), falling into love and work and futures we can’t imagine (don’t want to imagine) ending. After the singers reach “P,” there’s a collective intake of breath, and then everything moves slowly again, the way Maureen’s daughter said in a text: Mom is transitioning into a new phase of life. Or did she say death? Death surprised me—how it didn’t have to come abruptly at all, but might come quietly, might sneak up, even when the clock was (always, implicitly) counting down.

Three days before her death, Maureen told her family she had been dancing with God. They could hear her singing sometimes, between long periods of sleep. And always, until her last day, there were poems (the defining “P” of her life), as if she was writing her way toward death, toward some kind of union with it. When I think of Maureen in her final hours, I think of Dickinson, too, who wrote, “I dwell in Possibility—a fairer House than Prose—” (that plethora of “P”s). My Q for my sweet friend endures: What does it mean to die—to have died—to prepare to die in possibility?



My Threshold Choir group of four prepares to sing at Hospice House on Christmas Day. If there is anywhere to die (to dwell) in possibility, it is this simple building, where death hovers as a benign presence. We have eight families on our list, people who welcome the gift of song during these delicate transitions. We start in a room fully decked out in Christmas gear, with cards strung along the window, lights draped across the whiteboard, a tree on the side table garlanded and guarding presents. They tell us their dad, who is only 63, opened his stocking then fell fast asleep. We sing “Silent Night” for a woman who wants us to stand in the hall rather than sit around her bed, and we sing “In the Garden” twice for a man who seems to have shrunk to half his size in the weeks he’s been here. We sing for a man who closes his eyes and tilts his head toward us, basking, as if bathing in the sun. We sing for another man and his son, who has recently also lost his wife, so we turn toward the son, sing a song that brings her presence toward us.

When we enter the last room, we know we’ve arrived near this woman’s final moments. Her granddaughter sits beside her, watching her face—a face whose eyes stare at something beyond our knowing. Her breathing is shallow and slow, mouth open. We sing a song about letting go, and the granddaughter leaves the room to make a call. People often die just when the loved one holding vigil leaves, and the four of us instinctually reach for each other’s hands, our circle strong with focus. We sing a song that begins: Safe passage, pilgrim of the spirit… We ask her to lay down her burden, we sing that she is homeward bound. Our voices grow quiet, we begin to hum, and her last breath happens with barely a sound.

The transition phase in birth means the span of time when the cervix fully dilates, opening a portal between worlds. At hospice house, we know who has been put on the “Seven-day list,” meaning they have entered the passage between living with their illness and actively dying. The word “transition” means literally to “cross over.” We are in one place, then we are in another.



One place, then another: how the End Times were explained to me as a faithful child who gradually transitioned her way toward the precipice of doubt. It didn’t help my wavering that a certain bumper sticker in our suburban neighborhood had begun to proliferate, pesky and ubiquitous as any garden weed: In case of Rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned. So the end of the world meant fiery car crashes, station wagons and mini-vans colliding as their drivers and passengers were lifted from Earth to Heaven by an invisible hand? Poof! Gone. God struck me as the most terrifying magician.

Wobbly with dread, I would just start to drift off to sleep only to jolt upright, remembering Revelation 16:15, the gold star I had earned in Bible school for reciting the verse seamlessly, no missed words and no hesitations: “Behold, I am coming like a thief in the night! Blessed is the one who stays awake.” Every night I wondered if this was the night, and every night I trembled at the thought that I might be left behind.

In Confirmation class, Pastor John explained that Rapture came from the Greek (like all his favorite words), meaning “to seize” or “to snatch away.” When I pictured this future, there seemed no transition at all—just people lifted (seized) from their lives and placed on a cloud—and this fate only for the good people, the true believers. More and more I pictured myself alone, in the way back of an unmanned vehicle—all my loved ones already snatched away—gaining speed down the steep hills my neighborhood (Fauntlee Hills) was known for. What would become of me then—if I survived the crash, or if I didn’t? And to think I once believed that rapture was a joyous word.



So many words we speak in a lifetime, each sentence leading toward or away from joy. I wish I could remember my first words—how a recognizable phrase emerged from the babble—but of course I can’t. I wish I could know my last words, but those, too, are unknowable. In between: we say so much and so little. We say mark my words. We ask to have a word, or we give our word. Sometimes we can’t put it into words, and oftentimes too many words remain unspoken.

Every year I do a process called “Find Your Word” as a way to set some intention for the year ahead. Yesterday, I came up with the mundane word “Hydration.” It made me laugh. Yes, drink more water, but also plump up your life, keep it juicy, aglow.

In Hebrew, the word for word is Davar, or plural: D’varim. This word for word(s) derives from a sense of order, of harmony, everything falling into place as it should. I know this fact because I’m studying Hebrew in order to prepare for my adult B’nei Mitzvah: the ceremony Jewish kids have at age 13 to mark the transition between childhood and adulthood. I never had one (back in my day, the boys took precedence over the girls), but I’ve been yearning for this rite of passage as I near my 65th birthday. I want to step up onto the bimah, focus my whole attention on the ancient scroll, chant the parsha perfectly. When I hold the Torah in my arms to bring it down to the congregation, I will not stumble. I’ll feel its cool warmth, smell the dust of ages, as the congregants reach out with their tallits and prayerbooks, each one making contact and kissing their fingers. We’ll be connected through words made holy through repetition.

I don’t know why I want this ritual. But I spend at least a half hour every day with my textbook, Prayerbook Hebrew Made Easy, sounding out syllables, putting together words then whole sentences. The letters—so foreign just a few months ago—now reveal their sounds and meanings more readily, except when certain words decide to defy the rules. I translate Abraham is a father, and Sarah is a mother. I ask Who is the king? I tell someone You are a king! I explain, This is the Sabbath, and These are the words. These are the words, this is the language, maybe, that will make me feel grown at last.



Maybe, one of my favorite words: no belt, capacious waist, made to stretch as the wearer imagines what may be. Other favorites: if, might, could: small dolls unnested, arranged like children awaiting a class photograph.

About twice a year, I replace my running shoes. I know the time has come when each push-off and touch-down smarts a bit on the pavement, a buffer gradually lost between foot and earth. When ordering shoes, I click the option to customize. Always the same size, always the same style, but never the same words printed on the strip behind each heel. For the next six months, these words will be my mantra, one for the in-breath, one for the out-breath. I usually choose small words—love, pride—to keep my cadence snappy, but this time I opted for roomier words—gaily on the left foot, forward on the right. Now I’ve aligned the literal spring in my step with a conscious commitment to joy.

Even before I knew I was gay, I smarted when I heard the word straight, its implicit rejection of sidetracks and tangents, its unflagging love of a line. Known affiliates: Get to the point! Follow the path! No funny business here! Once, in college, my first queer friend said, “Make a right at that light, then gaily forward!” She leaned toward me, earnest ally in the passenger seat: “Straight is always too close to narrow, you see.” I saw. That must have been 25 years ago now, and still it’s gaily forward I say when giving directions, gaily forward I hear in my head when contemplating which route to take.

Close to my house is a long promenade that parallels the shoreline of Hollywood Beach. It’s the fabled straight shot, three miles each way with an unimpeded view of the surf. I’ve run that way for the better part of 12 years, tearing through the soles of more than 20 pairs of shoes. But not once have I run it end to end, the way a lap-swimmer pushes off and touches back to the same wall. I want the transitions: sudden veer into a side street’s shade, reemergence two blocks later into a glittery blare of sun; snaking between the visiting crowds, then ducking through a bricked alley only locals know. Maybe today I’ll turn at the abandoned hotel, where a lone bulb still glimmers in a top-floor window. I might cut through a visible break in the sea oats, kicking up sand as I go. Or I could double back behind the community center, shrouded with bright orange bougainvillea and patrolled by a posse of cats. If someone asked, “Aren’t you just running in circles,” maybe I’d say, “This is my gaily forward,” or even, more simply, “So what if I am?”