Saturday, March 30, 2013

Odyssey

And then one day.

You are in an unfamiliar city. Everything has "blank slate" inscribed on it. There it is on the face of the museum, "blank slate," engraved in stone along with the names Durer and da Vinci. You breathe, for the first time in weeks. Novelty is energizing. In the large entry hall your family forms a huddle, each player mapping a strategy for seeing the most of what he wants and the least of what he doesn't. Divide and conquer, your husband advises, and instinctively you move toward your younger son, because that's been the way of things for a long time now. But when your husband turns toward your older son and prompts, "Mom or Dad?," your firstborn gazes at you. You meet his gaze, and the two of you are trained on each other for longer than is comfortable. Something meaningful is in his eyes; you're not quite sure what it is, but you recognize its import. "Mom," he decides, finally, and you try not to look surprised, you act as if you are taking his choice lightly, contrary both to your instinct and your habit.

You go off with your older son, tell him that you are happy to let him navigate and see what he wants to see. And you really are. Whatever you had thought you'd wanted to see has flown off, a flock of birds that's wheeled away and scattered. Your son is a bit confused by the museum map. You vow not to intervene unless or until he asks for your help. With his head held high, he directs you towards his favorite classes of objects, which are not your favorites, not at all, but somehow that's better than fine. When you ask to see a painting in a particular room, he obliges with warmth and even comments on your selection. Your time together - one hour before you are to meet up with the other two members of your family - is companionable. You joke; you tell stories; you marvel at the age of this or that artifact. He teaches you - about celadon, a ceramic he's studied in World History class.

Throughout your visit to the museum, throughout your visit to this city, your firstborn treats you with unwavering kindness and affection. At one meal he defends you against a sarcastic throw-off comment your husband has issued. Now it is your and your husband's turn to lock eyes on one another, pleased (your husband) and delighted (you) by your fifteen-year-old's newfound chivalry.

Other mothers have told you that your teenaged boy returns, Odysseus after his long and arduous travels. At them you have nodded, not exactly disbelieving but still a tad skeptical. And then one day... And then one day you find that you can stop reaching far back to the memory of a bright-eyed, sweet, sunny four-year-old boy, because suddenly there he is, towering over you, to be sure, but otherwise none the worse for wear.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Giving Way

Yesterday it snowed, no different from the yesterdays before it, all the gray days blurring into one another like the snowflakes I consistently fail to capture with any lens other than the twin lenses God or nature gave me. But yesterday's snow seemed to fall in slow motion, and my husband, who knows most everything, told me that its sluggishness was owed to its light weight, and I nodded, agreed, and called the snow dainty, because I like to put my own spin on things. I would have raced for the camera, but experience has jaded me, and I was confident that the photo I'd take would look bleary and dreary, with no magic, none at all, so I didn't even try, and that's apt, isn't it, for March? Even the camera knows that magic is hard to come by in the third month.

Today I noticed that this latest snow was melting hard and fast, no match for spring, I suppose, and I heard water running through gutters and from downspouts as I walked to get the mail. When I came back into the house I found the cat on alert, neck stretched, head cocked, ears pricked, and I listened so I could hear what he was hearing: birds, not one or two but a hundred Hitchcock-worthy birds announcing their return, as raucous as middle-aged pot-bellied men after some or several drinks at a high school reunion. I wondered as I do every year how all the birds manage to show up at once. And their squawks, however dissonant, still such arresting music to me and the cat (though for entirely different reasons, of course) that we found ourselves grinning at each other, I swear we did. It's been dead quiet outside for too many weeks. I thought of the Grinch marveling that in spite of there being no gifts, Christmas managed to arrive just the same. And so it is with spring, which every year arrives just the same and just in time -- spring, which comes in on little bird feet skittering with joyful abandon over newly softening mounds of snow and slush.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Their Stories, Our Stories

A woman who volunteers with me in public radio tells me that since January her father-in-law has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and a friend, a very young man, has committed suicide. She sighs, says, "It's as if life is just..." Here she stops. Her eyes pool with tears. She balls her hands into fists and punches the air. "Bam!," she cries, a sound effect that accompanies each punch. Then she whips her head side to side a few times, as if to free it from pain. She continues in a soft, chastened voice: "It is selfish of me to coopt these stories. My own family is healthy and happy."

The guilt is familiar. I feel it, too, each time I grieve over a terrible story I hear on the news or read in the paper. Shame surfaces because it is impossible to digest tragedy without thinking, Thank God. Not me, not my family. We are human, after all, born with the biological instinct to protect our own.

But if instead we were to turn away from other people's losses - and there are so damn many of them - we would all suffer for it. Empathy serves a purpose: it motivates action to help those whom we are not naturally inclined to help.

So to my colleague at the radio station: Keep experiencing all the stories in the most visceral way. It's not selfish to do so. In fact it's the opposite: generous, compassionate, selfless.

And as for the quick and dirty relief we feel when the latest tragedy is not ours personally? I choose to reframe that sensation as profound gratitude for being spared as often I am. So much can go wrong, so much does go wrong. What a miracle when we can sink into the daily, the ordinary, the habitual, and take it for granted, as if getting through one's to-do list is all there is, and all there ever was.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Through and Beyond

My son will take driver's ed in the fall. It doesn't matter whether he wants to or not (he doesn't). Our school district mandates that all tenth graders complete a semester of driver's ed.

I gulp when I realize that driver's ed is upon us, that tenth grade is upon us, that sixteen years old is upon us.

My life as a parent is coming to a close. Oh, sure, I will be a parent for as long as I'm alive. I know that. What I mean is that this stage of actively parenting children who live in the same house as I do is nearing its end.

I grieve a little. How did it go so fast? If I wish to revisit the baby years, or the preschool years, I must close my eyes or thumb through photo albums. And I do, sometimes I do. I held a baby the other night, and her cooing sounds were music, old, familiar, welcome music. My body instinctively knew what to do with this little creature: I stood her on my thighs, and we bounced together, and she chortled. Not for the first time I mused, What a good mother I'd make today, knowing what I do now, and with patience born of age.

And then I gave the baby a bottle, and I listened to her contented sucking, watched her fluttering eyelids, and ached for what was and what will never again be.

++++++++++++++

What the manuals don't say is that completing the parenting cycle means reestablishing a relationship with your partner, redefining him or her as companion, not co-parent. This takes work, and so it ought. Sometimes couples find it impossible to return to what was, before the children came onto the scene and disrupted every single thing. That's why one hears of so many separations and divorces around the time the children leave for college.

This morning my husband and I listened to music while we did whatever it is we do on our laptops. We sipped at our coffee. The house was still, the kids sleeping on into late morning, as teenagers will.

And I kept stealing bashful glances at my spouse and wondering, Will we end up making it through, and beyond?



Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Veneer

Something happened the other day, something that made me feel intensely vulnerable. I can't go into specifics, but the incident fits neatly into the "worlds colliding" category. There was a misunderstanding, and it's been resolved: apologies issued and received, warm feelings restored or at least on the way to being so.

But I am not restored, not yet, anyway. Generally I walk around feeling psychologically healthy. Yet it takes so little before my strength is revealed as the illusion it is. So little before I worry away the late night and early morning hours. So little before my stomach seizes with anxiety. So little before I am reevaluating everything I believed about myself and other people. So little before in a panic I delete a Twitter account, Facebook updates, even a blog.

I've realized that I go through life blithely expecting the best and wholly unprepared for anything else. Do we all? Attribute our smooth sailing to good planning or constitutional fortitude when it's really just stupid luck that has us floating along, marveling at the sight of those ducks of ours, all in a row?

++++++++++++++

When my oldest son was nine months old, he started vomiting. He vomited relentlessly throughout the night. He was little enough that our doctor advised us to bring him to the ER for fluid replacement. So at two am, we did just that. In the triage room he threw up in the sink. A resident placed an IV and drew blood. He told us that we'd stay for a couple of hours, just long enough for my son to be rehydrated.

Twenty minutes passed. The resident had closed the privacy curtain to allow us all to rest. Worried that my baby was going to roll off the bed, I was circling his waist with one of my arms. He was looking better by the minute when I heard the resident's voice on the other side of the curtain. "We've got a very sick kid here," he said. My husband and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. "His blood levels are completely out of whack. I've never seen anything like it. He's being admitted."

My heart made to jump out of my body. My husband and I stared at each other, equally panic-stricken. Everything had changed.

The resident opened the curtain and told us a kinder version of what we had already heard. He added that his supervisor would be in soon to talk with us, and then he left us alone.

I remember calling my brother, waking him up, sobbing, "Something's wrong with the baby." I remember him trying in vain to calm me down. I remember making note of the time - 2:50am - and thinking, This moment marks the divide between one kind of life and another.

When the doctor showed up, thirty agonizing minutes later, she took one look at our son and smiled. "He's not sick," she said. "He's just fine." A few minutes of poking and prodding, and she'd figured out the source of the anomalous test results. The resident hadn't done the blood work properly. Apparently getting a reliable blood sample from a little person takes a bit of skill and finesse. We listened, my husband and I, while the doctor yelled at the resident, and we grinned. We could have kissed that hapless resident.

Our world had shifted back on its axis, and gratefully we settled into the old and familiar.

++++++++++++++

Last night I found that I could sleep again, and I didn't end up deleting my blog (this time). But I remain conscious of how thin the membrane is between fine and not fine at all, and I wonder: Is it as thin for you as it is for me?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Truth About Memoir (A One-Act Play)

Phone conversation with my brother on the day after I published my most recent post, one about my dad:

Sarah: Y'know, so-and-so is on Facebook and knew both of our parents -- in certain ways probably better than we do, because he (or she) knew them as contemporaries, not as parent figures. Do you think he (or she) reads my blog? I wonder whether he (or she) would ever comment on a post about either one of them?

Sarah's Brother: Nope.

Sarah: Why not?

Sarah's Brother: Because he (or she) is too classy.

Sarah: (Blink.) (Blink.) Uhh, so by extension I'm not so classy, huh? Because I'm telling all? Airing our dirty laundry, as it were?

Sarah's Brother: Oh, that's different. Because, well, you're a writer. An artist.

Sarah (laughing): So if you take crap and wrap it in pretty paper and some nice ribbon, it's OK then? In the name of art?

Sarah's Brother: Pretty much. Did you go in our Words With Friends game?*



*OK, so I'm conflating two conversations here, dear brother. But I'm allowed to do that, right? In the name of art?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wanted: Forgiveness of Filial Debt

In the early morning, a wisp of a memory rises, a butterfly that finally alights with enviable delicacy on my shoulder. All day the butterfly rests, patient, exerting only the slightest pressure, a reminder of his presence. A gentleman, he seeks not to offend. Still, he thrums with life; he cannot help it.

Even so, it is late at night when I climb the ladder into my mind's attic and search among the dusty discards for the key that will unlock the larger part of the memory. In the dark I bump into the corners of boxes and the legs of chairs. The air up here is musty with age. I am frustrated. Just when I mean to give up the chase, my bare foot makes contact with something cold. I reach down and pick up a key.

When I unlock the memory, I wonder how I could ever have forgotten. Rome, the summer of 1974. I am closer to seven years old than to six. My father is a diplomat assigned to Rome, and he has summoned my brother and me all the way from New York. We are to stay with him for six weeks, despite my mother's insistence that we are too young to spend so much time away from her. He has dismissed her concerns as purely self-interested.

He does not understand children at all, does not get that to a very young person six weeks is unfathomably long. Was he not once a child?

Every night I cry myself asleep. Every morning I cry myself awake. I cry into my pillow so as not to make any noise, because I am embarrassed by my homesickness. While I act as if I want no one to discover me crying, I desperately want someone to discover me crying, and toward this end I play endless mind games with myself. To wit: If the clock turns to 7:34 in the next ten seconds, my father will enter my bedroom and ask me what's wrong. When the clock inevitably fails to turn to 7:34 within my specified timeframe, I change the timeframe to be more accommodating. Still he does not show up. I think that he is as afraid of me as I am of him.

Each morning a dozen pigeons coo on the ledge outside my window, a ledge that runs the length of the apartment. Rome is riddled with pigeons. (So many years later, all I can remember of the city is that it was overrun with these brazen birds with red beady eyes and gunmetal coats.) I lie in my bed and listen to their full, throaty gobbles and pull the sheet and blanket tight over my head. I am terrified that these birds are coming for me.

We last, my brother and I, six days in Rome. Unlike me, my brother has broadcast - loudly and often - his desire to go home. Never more thankful am I for my brother's essential charismatic nature. Never more clearly has he been my voice as well as his own.

My father is spitting angry, believing that somehow my mother has managed to engineer our early departure. In this he is mistaken. She has been spending time in Israel with her lover, and sacrificing that time, she will confide in me much, much later, is one of the hardest things she ever had to do.

Also one of the most generous things you ever did, I will add.

++++++++++++++

My father is now eighty-four years old. He writes to me. He tells me that he feels life loosing its grip on him just as he looses his grip on it. He is regretful, and regret has made him maudlin. He professes pride in my person, in my mothering. I find myself unmoved. He wonders whether he might soon see me and the boys.

I reply to his words, but at the same time I do not reply to them. I respond to what is at the surface and ignore the rest. I do not make plans to visit him.

It is too late for us. Do not tell me otherwise, because I know what too late feels like, and this is it. Still, I am chagrined, because I thought I could do better: pretend, for the sake of decency. I cannot abide how the elderly live in today's world. But my father, although elderly, is more father than elderly, and still more not-father than father.

Along with chagrin I recognize grief, grief over a relationship that should by rights have been mine.

There was a time, in Rome, in the summer of 1974, when it all might have changed. One knock at my bedroom door. One penetrating look at my plainly sad, plainly scared little face. But nothing changed, and today little remains but an outsized, misplaced fear of the poor, stupid, innocent pigeon.




Sunday, March 10, 2013

Gentle Into That Good Night

Dawn arrived in fits and starts, as if it too had been caught sleeping. Margaret, however, was awake, had been so since four am. She'd dressed herself, combed her hair, started a pot of coffee, and was sitting, posture expectant, at the short side of the kitchen table that she'd once painted an antique white. Now, however many years later, the table was finally a true antique, she thought, and smiled.

As she did every morning at this time, she remembered to remind herself that she lacked not only a destination but the means to reach it. She had given up her car some time ago, after she had complained that everything looked distended, as if the world had become the fun house she'd run through as a teenager in Iowa, in the middle of May when the carnival came to town. She'd been chasing Tom, the older brother of her best friend; once she managed to catch up with him and circled her arms around his waist from behind, a move caution would have discouraged. He'd whipped around, pulled her pigtails, and said, "Aww, whatcha doin', Maggie?" Together they'd gazed at the distorting mirror before them, which Margaret was pleased to see lent her the curves of an older, different sort of girl. But then she saw Tom blushing, and lost her nerve, jerked her arms away from him. And that was that. Later Tom died in Korea. Funny, because not very many American men had died in Korea, and yet Tom had managed it, by chance or poor judgment she couldn't say.

How had she gotten on about Tom? Oh, the fun house, and her eyes. First there were the cataracts. The doctor had diagnosed them, and he'd removed them, too, but then something else had gone wrong: macular degeneration. So she sat at home, most days, watching the shimmering clock, thinking it cruel that old people are subject to an excess of free time just when they're no longer able to use it. It felt not so different from being nine years old, sitting on the hot front stoop in July, and waiting, hoping, willing something, anything to happen. Which it never did. But at least then she could reassure herself that she had her whole life in front of her, so many things yet to happen.

Sometimes now her mind would take trips that lasted for hours. She couldn't really fault it for wanting to escape now and then; once she'd read how prisoners placed in solitary confinement sometimes start to hallucinate, because their brains need to do something with themselves, and that had made sense to her, even then. Now she might be wondering when the mailman would arrive (he was late one afternoon, by nearly a quarter hour), and she'd find herself opening the letter notifying her that she'd been accepted to the University of Iowa, Class of 1953, and then driving with Martin in his convertible to the dead-end dirt road affording an acceptable view of the university, which they'd outright ignored in favor of kissing, sometimes for an hour or more. And later, the babies, Sam with spiky hair and Sarah with no hair at all, what an ugly baby she'd been, poor thing...

With a start Margaret would realize that the mailman had come and gone, and it was past time to prepare dinner. Another oddity of aging was that one or two bites of food were all she ever required. Any more food than that irritated her stomach.

Once she'd loved gardening, but lately her arthritic thumbs and fingers were swollen and misshapen past recognition. Just when she might have spent hours happily digging in the dirt, her hands had betrayed her. But she wouldn't complain. She'd never been a complainer and did not wish to start such foolishness at seventy-nine years old. Instead she'd just close her eyes and watch the movies in her head. So many reels, so many decades. Black-and-white, color, and with her eyes shut the pictures weren't even slightly cloudy. No, they were clearer now than they'd ever been.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Vietnam Years

In the study was a Zenith TV. Rust-colored herringbone chairs flanked the room. My mother and uncle, smoking, glued to the screen. My brother and I would line his GI Joes up on the carpet at the foot of the screen. Every now and then we'd look up to find the same set of pictures, it seemed, on endless loop. Soldiers, and more soldiers, in a hot green climate. Helicopters. We grew bored with the TV, begged to turn the channel. No, said the grown-ups, my uncle with his beard matted from the sticky sweet remnants of iced coffee (heavy sugar, heavy milk) after iced coffee. He was disheveled even then. My mother, no beard, iced tea, not coffee, but her and her brother's animated voices were of a piece. Why was everyone loud and on edge?

In the next room my grandfather lay dying. He'd been dying for years, for my whole life. He kept having stroke after stroke after stroke. He dribbled when he ate. He had a male nurse named Eddie, male and also black. That was confusing to a little girl who thought nurses were supposed to be female and white. The soap operas the cook watched had plenty of nurses, but they were always young, pretty, female, and white. The cook herself was black.

Sometimes my mother would plop me on my grandfather's lap for a photo. He smelled bad. I wriggled away as soon as I could.

One morning my mother looked sad, not the watching-soldiers-on-TV sad. Worse. She told me that my grandfather who'd been dying forever and ever had died. I hadn't expected that. Dying didn't seem an end point to me but rather something one did quietly in a closed-off, stale room with a nurse named Eddie and plenty of bibs.

My mother said that I wouldn't sit on his lap again, that he was somewhere else now. Trying to make sense of it, I asked her if that meant he'd gone off to the hot place to be with the soldiers. That made her cry.

I was relieved that I'd never have to see him again. I'd always run fast and breathless past his scary room, and now I could walk.

Eddie, though, Eddie I would miss. He always high-fived me and my brother. I thought my grandmother would find a different job around the house for Eddie to do, but she didn't.

My mother and her brother continued yelling at the TV, but lately they were yelling at this guy, even though he was the President. They kept talking about peachment. I liked peaches, but I didn't like this sweaty man on the TV much.

Now the adults watched the soldiers and these pictures of a building they called "water gate," which made no sense, because where was the water, where was the gate?

I missed cartoons, even more than I missed Eddie, and definitely more than I missed my grandfather. Nothing to do but line up GI Joes in tidy rows.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

When Cinderella Went to the Ball

Sliding down the banister is no fun when there's a newel post at its end. I learned that the hard way when I was six years old. Bloodied mouth, black-spotted tooth: the legacy of misadventure. If risk-taking turns out well, its likelihood increases. If not...

Here, an offering: At around the same age I made a mess of my room. This took work. I was by nature a tidy child. I tossed some toys onto the floor, threw a few dolls off of my bed, and waited. I needed to know whether I would be accepted as a different kind of kid.

The answer came soon enough, and it was fiercely negative. I cleaned up the room and felt both better and worse than I had before. Why go against who I was? Why go against who my parent insisted that I be?

Neat, quiet, conscientious, docile. These were adjectives teachers showered on me. I made their lives easy. After all, it's what I was born to do.

But one time a teacher distributed books as Christmas gifts. She told us second-graders that she'd hand-picked them, that no child was receiving the same book. Eagerly I unwrapped my book. Its title: Cinderella.

Ouch. I was not a stupid child. I understood the teacher's message.

Was it any surprise that Mrs. Meier was let go at the end of that year?

++++++++++++++++

When I was in ninth grade, my lovely best friend Elizabeth convinced me to cut off my waist-length hair. I'd worn my hair the same way for as long as I could remember. My mother was adamant about my hair's length; I can't say why, as she had been a tomboy child herself. This time I followed Elizabeth's, not my mother's, lead. I was enchanted by the results: my hair now fell to my shoulders. It was so light! I kept running hands through it and startling anew each time my fingers met air.

Back at home I pranced into the kitchen, where my mother sat at the table. I felt so pretty that for once I was unprepared for trouble. She took one long look at me and wailed, "What did you do?" And then, the habitual frown and icy words spoken through clamped jaw: "How. Could. You."

If I'd been older, I might have replied, sensibly, "It's my hair," or, "I didn't dye it pink or cut it punk."

Instead I burst into tears. And there we were, both of us crying, one shocked and saddened by an act of defiance, the other shocked and saddened to learn that going for a ten-dollar haircut could ever be construed as an act of defiance.