Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Va Pensiero

I don’t trust in the beauty of the butterfly. Too showy. Too easily acquired. If I wrap myself up in a cocoon for weeks on end and then emerge stunned and blinking, as is my wont, will you stand, rooted to the floor, bewitched by the sight of me?
I am not a siren, and I have no call.
When we used to lie together, long before there were children, I stared at the ceiling and thought I could see the stars. As if your apartment were our very own planetarium. We shared our quiet dreams. You wanted to be known for something. It seemed to matter less what the thing was than that it be yours. I did not understand, but I loved you for your earnestness as you set about planning to achieve it. That was our way then, to love generously, to spill powdered sugar all over the bed as we greedily gobbled up each other’s sweetness.
The ceiling was cracked, the people in the next apartment over fought low and mean. There was a coin laundry in the basement. You gathered up our clothes into a cheap nylon sack and took them down. When it was time, you changed them over. Later, you brought them up, and I folded them, put them to rights again. And again.
Remember Mr. Lee? Mr. Lee across the hall? He was up to something. All those night visitors. And then our suspicions confirmed when one night he up and left, taking his motley belongings and motley companions with him to parts unknown and ominous for it. The next day, the police came, and inquired of us. What was there to say? He’d been jovial whenever we’d run into him in the lobby. Persistently, awkwardly, jovial. We were suspicious long before we had any reason to be.
And next to our slightly seedy building the Italian restaurant we could ill afford. Months of watching the well-to-do enter and exit Va Pensiero with unstudied casualness convinced us that we, too, could dine there, if only once, on Valentine’s Day or on some other equally formal occasion. But when we did finally step across its threshold, we felt out of place. Not for the likes of us. Perhaps in ten or fifteen years, we thought.
So this is what it is. We watched the real estate shows on Sunday morning, and we coveted, though we had little idea of all the headaches that would end up accompanying such a peculiarly American dream. I pictured myself, cappuccino in hand, leaning up against the cool, clean Corian countertops of those sleek and fully functional kitchens. (Our own kitchen quite literally a closet.) Betty Draper to your Don. So stereotyped, my small and yes, earnest, fantasies.
The lion’s share of the fun was in the not knowing, wasn’t it?
Tonight I gaze up at a different ceiling, a ceiling without the cracks that might define it, and I find myself unable to spot any stars. Even Venus eludes me.
Yet our children sleep soundly, untroubled, a few rooms over. Surely there is something to be said for a life that fails to crease their foreheads, or to turn down the corners of their blossoming mouths.
One day we will return to the town where we spent time as poor students, and we will enter Va Pensiero with comfortable nonchalance. We will order appetizers, and dessert too. Wine, in abundance. While above us, late into the night, young lovers will sketch out their idiosyncratic dreams in their private planetaria.
The beauty that makes me gasp as I approach forty-two years of age isn’t in the butterfly but in the chrysalis.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Believe in Dragons

"Mom?" pipes my eleven-year-old from the back seat of the car. I am waiting at a stop light and idly inspecting my eyebrows in the rear-view mirror. The sunlight refracted through glass doesn't do them any favors. How wearying, the chronic need for maintenance of one's aging self.

"Hmm?" I murmur, while trying and failing to pluck a stray hair between my thumb and forefinger.

"You know what I love about summer?" he asks, leaning forward in his eagerness. "That the days go so slowly. There's so much time," he says, and sighs that sigh of his, the one that escapes when he's eating chocolate, or ice cream.

"Yes, I remember that feeling," I tell him, and I do. Summer days so long they sidled up to painful, boredom as infuriating as it was exhilarating. "Celebrate it - it doesn't last. The older you get, the faster time seems to move. It's Christmas. I blink. And it's Christmas again."

"Why is that?" he presses. He's not one to let things rest.

"Well...," I think. "Maybe it's because as we get older, we have a stronger sense of our own mortality. We're that much closer to the end of our lives. That, or maybe it's because adults always have so much to do. Empty hours, for us, are rare."

It's true, but there's more. I don't know how to reconcile how busy I am with the relentless sameness of the jobs I do. I've parented for quite a few years now, and sometimes I fear that if I have to figure out how one more dinner will find the table, I will scream and scream and scream some more.

But we march on, out of necessity and habit.


I find that I am unable to read fine print. I buy reading glasses with stronger and stronger magnifications. I wonder why one turns forty and on a dime loses close vision.  I know no one over forty who's exempt from this particular malady. Maybe the universe is telling the middle-aged something important:

Stop looking close. Start looking far.



We are nearing home, my son and I. He has lapsed into a contented, dreamy silence. What is he thinking about? The books yet read, games yet played, friends yet made, lakes yet swum, cotton candy yet eaten, fireflies yet caught?

I am despairing over our next meal. Do the children have to eat so much, and so often?

The little girl at the end of the street is standing in her front yard. Her arms are stretched high, her head tilted up toward June's sun. She is yelling. I open the window to listen.

"I do believe in dragons!" I hear. Her tone is fierce, brooking no dissent. She is preaching a sermon to the sky.

My son and I burst into laughter. The little girl has enchanted us both. "That's it!" I cry. "Time goes on forever as long as you believe in dragons."

My boy cocks his head, nods nearly imperceptibly. "That's actually true," he muses. "Serious-true, not just silly-true." We look at each other, silenced by the moment. Suddenly I want to cry, not sad tears but the tears that come from being moved so thoroughly that you are unable to keep yourself contained.

"The problem is," he finishes, "Once you've stopped believing in dragons, it's really hard to go back to believing in them." "Yes," I affirm, and our eyes meet again, acknowledging truths small and large.

My son tumbles out of the car in search of his basketball, and I lope into the house and set about making dinner, which just now does not feel like a chore. I am light. I am outside myself, imagining how it would feel to believe in dragons. I am looking far.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Holocaust Museum, March

Tell me again, why I should
Wish to carry on.  I care not
For blue skies.  I speak only
The language of deictics:
Here, now, I, you, there.

Tell me why I can't help
But flash to stick-figure forms: 
Wide Munch mouths, shapeless
Striped garb, for you, Juden,
Lit only by an Auschwitz sun.

Tell me why the mindless
Chatter grates and scrapes.
Marbles fill my mouth.  I
Cough, quite delicate.  Still
Comes blood, betrayer.

Tell me about that one day.
I radiated joy: chubby fingers,
Cheeks, cute, cute, cute, cute!
What made me laugh?  Who
Shined on me?  He, she, you?

I assumed a funeral.  Instead
We tossed ashes, bits of bone
And metal melted into tooth.
A tick bit me then, there: apt.
If before, then always after.

On myself I choke.  Dust rises
At the berm.  I can't find you in
These life-affirming streaks:
Watercolors at Theresienstadt.
Leave me now.  I am stone.

Monday, June 17, 2013

My Very Own Wild

Since school let out I've been reading like a fiend, gobbling up words as if I fear a shortage.  A book a day, more or less, stopping only if there's a chore that refuses to wait, and rising from the couch with a most ungracious, juvenile pout.  I'm compensating for all those school days when I read half a page of a book before falling asleep, waking to find that I'd rolled over the book and bent the corners of several pages as well as its cover.  I love working in a classroom of six- and seven-year-olds, but I'd be lying if I told you that their irrepressible noise did not wear me out.

I read Cheryl Strayed's Wild and find myself exasperated with her blithe, naïve choices that so often forced her into extremely dangerous situations.  She was lucky, and oblivious to her luck in the way only the most beautiful and youthful among us seem to be.  Underlying my irritation is a healthy dose of envy, to be sure, because she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone, something few have done, and more than that she used her twenties to experiment and risk, which I never did.

Instead I was hellbent on finding security.  My husband and I both came from broken families (broken family: an apt phrase) and were united in our desire to do it better, to take our own childhoods like Boggle sets and shake them over and over until the cubes settled in a more felicitous arrangement.  I wonder about that, now, as a reason for choosing a life partner.  It seems sad to choose someone who'll remedy a lack: as if you're defeated before you've even begun.

But he and I, we've done all right.


In the space between the last page of one book and the first page of the next, I sit and stare outside at the bird feeder.  I am hoping to spy a species of bird I've not yet seen.  I watch all the birds (blue jays; cardinals; blackbirds; sparrows) line up on the deck railing in some inscrutable order known only to them as they await their turn to eat, and I'm amused.  Easily amused: one of my more congenial traits.

And I remember Cheryl Strayed writing about her realization on her great hike that instead of pondering the profundities of life, love, and loss while taking in the majestic landscape, she was really only concentrating on where her next footfall would land, or where she might next find water, and I think, Maybe I didn't need to seek risk and adventure in my twenties.  It could be that for me with my broken childhood, the greatest risk was the risk I ended up taking: building my own family, a new family, without a healthy model or guide.  That determining to parent children, and parent them well, was in fact my snake coiled and rattling, my bear snorting and lunging, my bow hunter with a thirst for rape in his eyes.  My very own Wild.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Pharmaceutical Consult

$2.69, she decides, handing over
The bottle of pills, with a motion
Practiced, brusque, and eyes 
Suggesting, Next-please-who's-next?

What miracle is this?, I wonder, 
As I fail to vacate my place in line.
That for $2.69 I might know peace,
Health, or the promise of same?

Amoxicillin is cheap, she shrugs,
Willing me to close my gaping mouth
And shuffle off before the ninety-ish
Gal behind me might cane-complain.

But wait, I implore.  Consider the newborn
Ear, its whorls, its tissue veined through,
Thin as paper, delicate as lace.  Or,
Perhaps you don't like babies.  I know.

The way the sun makes stripes on the
Sidewalk, in summer: watch, a boy saunters by,
And invents a game, on the square, there.
He hops between the lines, dark, light, dark,
And grins with sudden pleasure.  That?

Or...  This woman behind me, who's
Fretful and complaining, she once loved
A soldier, see, and each night brushed
Her auburn hair, one stroke for every
Day he'd been away.  Will that work?

Drugs are wondrous, and sometimes cheap,
But seeing well and true, well, that's a gift,
A gift that sets you free and flies you home.

I pay my two dollars, my sixty-nine cents.
She takes my cash without a word.  I feel old:
Old will scratch a scab.  Old will preach wise.
I turn, smiling, to the elderly lady, study such
Thin, blue hair, patches of bald here and there,
Imagine a glossy brown mane, the envy of all.

Because I can;  
Because we can.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sarah and Sarah: The End

(The middle is here.)

As Sarah and I became better friends, we started to share bits and pieces of our pasts, as people do. One of the most dramatic stories Sarah told me was of her at twenty, shopping in a department store with her mother when she suddenly, spectacularly, lost vision in both eyes while suffering a violent, unprecedented kind of headache. Doctors found a large tumor in her uterus, and soon after she underwent a complete hysterectomy.

There would be no biological children for Sarah, and she grieved that reality.

So when I myself became pregnant - too soon! I had a dissertation to finish! - I was hesitant about sharing the news with Sarah. I expected her to be genuinely happy for me, but I also knew that the information might awaken some of her own sleeping demons. Yet when I did finally spill the beans, Sarah was thrilled, and demonstrated that excitement time and time again during my pregnancy by asking me how this or that felt, by laughing when she put her hands on my belly as it ebbed and flowed in the later months, and by being the first to show up at the hospital when Ben was born.

After his birth, too, she was my most enthusiastic cheerleader. I won't lie: surrounded by graduate students, my mother 1,000 miles away, I felt alone, for certain, and even a bit ashamed. Serious graduate students - ones on the path to a faculty position - did not decide to start families at such a critical juncture in their nascent careers. Thus was Sarah's unconditional support of me a lifeline.

When Ben was an infant, he had a terrible stomach flu, so acute and long-lasting that we ended up taking him to the ER and having him rehydrated via IV. All his laundry and bedding, and ours too, was covered in vomit. We had no washing machine or dryer. We used a laundromat, which meant piling the laundry in the back of our car and driving it a few miles.

Daunted by the mountain of wet, disgusting laundry in my living room, exhausted from Ben's colic, and without my car (my husband and I were sharing the use of the car), I confided my sorry tale to Sarah. "Well, that's silly!," she exclaimed. "I'll be there in twenty minutes." She put me, Ben, and the laundry in her car, drove to her house, and did all the laundry there, which, you know, gross, especially when it's not even the soiled laundry of your own kid.

That's who Sarah was, though. That's who she was.


One day Sarah told me that she'd been tired and feeling mentally foggy. She was having blood tests done, but she expected the result to be nothing more than anemia.

Anemia would have been cause for celebration relative to Sarah's diagnosis. She had multiple myeloma. Of course I looked it up: death certain, a maximum of five to seven years of life post-diagnosis (and a painful life at that). I remember staring, dumbfounded, at the computer screen. My mother had been battling cancer, but my mother was sixty-two years old! Sarah was so young. I couldn't process it.

And then it was time for my little family to leave Chicago. My husband had been offered an assistant professor position in Pennsylvania. What could we do but go where the money was?

Sarah and I continued to talk on the phone, every other or third day. She wanted to hear all about Ben, and, later, baby Jack. I'd ask her how she was feeling, and she'd dissemble: "Oh, fine..." She did not want to talk about her health; she made that abundantly clear to me. The gate was locked on the language of cancer.

So it was a terrible shock when Buddy called me in April of 2003. Gently he revealed to me that Sarah was dying, that if I wanted to visit her it had better be soon.

But, but, but...

Jack was nursing still, and with a preschooler and baby I had a hard time imagining myself flying to Chicago. My husband and I discussed August as a potential window when I could fly out with the baby and leave Ben with him. He could take a week off of work.

July 5:  I called Sarah to wish her a happy birthday. I said, "Hi, Sarah." She returned, weakly, "Hi, Sarah," but did not laugh at our joke.

July 7:  Buddy called, sobbing.  Sarah had died.

Ten years later, it is among my deepest regrets that I did not drop everything but the baby and rush to see Sarah in April. The minutiae of my own life got in the way. I would do it differently, now that I understand that not everything is on a schedule, not everything can be predicted. I was in such denial. Not seeing Sarah, only hearing her voice, probably contributed to my myopia. Also: babies. Still, I made a mistake, and its consequences for me have been unrelenting. Most important, I never told Sarah how much I loved her, how much I'd miss her. I get that she probably knew those things, but my silence still matters greatly to me. And so I call this post "Sarah and Sarah: The End," and I grieve anew, for what was, and for what will never be.

Today my husband asked me why I wrote this. "Why would anyone care?," he wondered. "Is there some dramatic hook?" "I don't know," I snapped. "I needed to write it, for me. Whatever anyone gets from it, they get. There's no hook. It's just a story, of two friends, and a lovely, true friendship stolen by cancer. That's all it is." He looked perplexed.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Sarah and Sarah: The Middle

(The beginning is here.)

That summer, Sarah and I become established friends. We lost all the awkwardness that accompanies a new friendship, and we did so quickly. Now and then one of us would comment on our age difference, but then laugh and call us kindred spirits or soul sisters, destined to be friends whatever obstacles blocked us. In July, armed with wedding pictures (I'd been married in June), I arrived at Sarah's house for lunch (iced tea on the deck! lunch outdoors on little trays! patio furniture!), and we pored over the pictures. She asked a lot of questions about my relatives, and I remember thinking that most people, even friends, didn't care to hear all one's family dynamics and complications. But Sarah's interest was as genuine as it was rare.

At the same time, our husbands were getting to know one another. Later in the summer Buddy and Sarah invited us over for a dinner party with another couple. My husband and I were nervous. We were young. Would we behave appropriately, maturely? Could we be witty and convivial? We managed, while still feeling out of place. I know what I spent the evening pondering: How does someone manage this? Cooking an elegant meal for several people? Having all the right dishes, knowing about wine and its different types of glasses? Adulthood was still so far from me, still so much an object of scrutiny rather than a time to be lived.

If I tell you that my husband and I studied Sarah's and Buddy's life in order to prepare for our own, it will sound too forced. But that's what we did. We learned so many adult ways from being exposed to them. Driving home, my husband would sigh dreamily: Sarah is just a fantastic cook. I'd nod, and add, And what a gorgeous house. I love the exposed wood everywhere. Let's have a house like that someday, he'd reply, and then we'd fall silent, companionably planning our own future together.

If this makes us sound like the worst kind of bourgeois wannabes, you have to understand that we were what, twenty-eight years old? Still kids, still poor students, neither of us with a coherent or satisfying picture of childhood from which to draw. My parents had divorced when I was a baby; his when he was five. He and I were joined, perhaps most perfectly, in our desire for a life of stability.

Oh, we saw certain things, although maybe we couldn't have named them then: Buddy's tendency to dip too far into a bottle of scotch and then turn bitterly, meanly funny, at his wife's expense more often than not. Buddy's talk about his work: best job ever that you wouldn't want to have? Sarah's unwillingness to engage in an intellectual or political conversation, fearing, I think, that she'd say something stupid or uninformed. Sarah believed (and joked) that my husband and I were the smartest people she'd ever known, largely because we were both on our way to receiving PhDs. (By this time I was back in graduate school to finish my degree.)

In 1996, the following summer and also the summer of the Atlanta Olympics, Buddy and Sarah asked us to house-sit and cat-sit for a week while they attended the Olympics courtesy of an Atlanta friend. For my husband and me, this was a chance to play-act at having a life we wouldn't know for years. Sarah understood this; now I see that this was the reason she'd asked us to stay. Her cat could have boarded somewhere, but no. We would spend a week in their house, and we could take care of their plants and garden, too.

Remember what happened at the 1996 Summer Olympics? Was it on a Friday when Sarah's and Buddy's relatives started calling the house very early in the morning? There had been a bombing, and all the parents and siblings were frantic. I was unable to assuage their fears until Sarah herself called to let us know that she and Buddy were fine, just fine. I felt a wave of relief and wondered how it could be that I'd known these people for little more than a year but nevertheless cared so much about their well-being.

The day after Buddy, Sarah, and their son returned from Atlanta, their cat - the cat my husband and I had cared for - died. No, I am not making this up. He had a tumor, as it turned out, but I felt so terrible, and my husband and I compulsively went over the things we had done (or failed to do) for this cat, just to reassure ourselves that we hadn't actually killed him. In time it became yet another joke that we all could share, but Sarah was very sad for a long while. Wally had been with her for over a decade.  

The cat's death was the first tear in the history of the two Sarahs, and although Sarah and Buddy never for a second blamed us for the loss of Wally, Sarah herself felt guilt over not being with Wally for the last week of his life, and my husband and I felt guilt about the cat despite knowing that we hadn't caused him harm. And then there were the Atlanta bombings, casting a pall over all of it.

Foreshadowing... But of what? 

continued here