Saturday, August 31, 2013

Traffic Light

She's waiting for the light to change, No Doubt providing the latest soundtrack to her life in the car, which she likes to think is perceptibly different from her life out of the car. She wonders if listening to No Doubt makes her hip, or whether the fact that she is even contemplating that question reveals her to be the antithesis of hip. But Gwen does make her feel vibrant -- alive in an electric way that she can't seem to replicate when she's not driving her car. Which is red. Come to think of it, that may have something to do with how she feels as she zips around town in her zippy vehicle. There is a reason that red cars cost more to insure.

She's using her steering wheel as a drum to accompany Gwen et al. when she notices the motorcyclist in the next lane over. Her first thought disappoints her: 
What an idiot, not wearing a helmet. It's just so drearily maternal. She blinks and tries again. Sees jeans broken in just right and a white t-shirt failing to conceal a slender but taut physique. His biceps are toned -- not aggressively, but enough to convince her that there isn't an ounce of fat on his upper arms. She sighs. Her own upper arms are her nemesis. Turning back to the James Dean (or is it the Brad Pitt?) biker, she takes in his black boots -- power boots, they are, with rugged, masculine soles. Finally, she slides her eyes up to his face. But he is turned away from her, and all she gets is a glimpse of short, spiky, sandy brown hair.

The light turns green. She will never know his age, or the color of his eyes. Whether his face is as handsome as the rest of him.

But as she lies in bed that night, she determines that it's all for the good. Had he turned towards her car, he might have seen her. What would he have thought? He would have noted the children's car seats, the deep circles under her eyes, her flyaway hair, and yes, those upper arms. And he would have assumed things. Some correct, no doubt. Others well off the mark.

She flips onto her stomach. 
It's better this way, she thinks, before closing her eyes and willing sleep to take her to a place where both he and she might like what they saw when they looked at each other, not with sidelong glances, but with eyes open, generous, willing to forgive.

written in 2008

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Weighing the Ounce of Prevention

My mother was always one for sexy diagnoses. Told in her later years that she had a disorder called polycythemia vera, in which the number of one's red blood cells dramatically proliferates, she ran with the least likely consequence of the disorder: I've got leukemia, she proclaimed via telephone, before I'd had the chance even to voice a greeting. Her intonation was oddly upbeat as well as characteristically dramatic, and to understand that, you'd have to appreciate my mother's fascination with medicine as well as her longstanding hypochondria that sought justification whenever possible. The literature she'd foisted on me when I was under the age of twelve spoke to her preoccupations: Death Be Not Proud, for one, but also a daunting assemblage of concentration camp memoirs. Also: anorexia. Sexy. Right.

Her chances of developing leukemia were slim. But people with polycythemia vera are at a significant risk of suffering strokes. This outcome she ignored. In her worldview, leukemia was dramatic and terribly sad; stroke, not so much. Her doctor told her what she needed to do to avoid stroke. It was a simple, time-honored practice: to submit to having her blood drawn once per week. This would prevent the build-up of red blood cells that would predispose to stroke.

When I laid these truths out in front of her, she did what she was best at: she denied. She insisted that my facts were wrong. What's more, she spluttered, red-faced with irritation, There is no way I am going to sit in a room with other people all getting their blood drawn behind curtains. Like vampires. I didn't bother to correct her misapprehension about vampires. In the simile as properly applied, the patients weren't vampires, only the victims of same. But she was already worked up, and I had to pick my battles, as ever.

Look, Mom, I reasoned, vapors of exasperation wafting up and around the kitchen table to supplant the smoke that once hung there, You've always affirmed that what you feared most and wanted least was to end up a vegetable. Like your father. Remember? That's what a stroke might do to you. Having your blood drawn once a week is such a simple preventative measure.

She shook her head. Not going to happen, she did but didn't say.

And so it went. Of course she suffered a major stroke some months later, and within the year she'd died, her legs filled with hundreds of blood clots each. The doctor who opened them up to have a look must have grimaced before resigning himself to sewing them back up and telling us that saving her legs, thus her life, was a hopeless proposition.

During that final year I was so often tempted to shake her post-stroke self, this amalgam of stranger and mother, and shriek, I told you so! But it would have helped no one. In response she would have offered me a stroke-addled grin and winked, gestures that might equally have signified, Don't you think I know that? or If I smile loopily enough, maybe you'll bring me a vanilla milkshake?

The prevention that weighed an ounce in my hand weighed a pound in hers, and I've had to learn that nothing I might have said or done could have balanced the scale.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Apropos of Nothing

In the vague time after night and
Before the morning proper, when
Silence turns delicate as glass,
The pitch of a scream raised us
Up and trembling, thick minds
Puzzling alone, then together -
Cat, child, stranger? Was this noise,
Noise, I mean, not sound at all,
The yowl of the undomesticated,
That fierce possessive war-cry:
Ancient, rough, undeniably limbic?

Or did dream turn rotten, mushy,
Foul, teeming with flies, or worse?
Was our assistance now required
At the bedside of one or the other
Man-boy, old by day, young by night?
(Years since we'd soothed sweaty
Skin, anguished eyes: years.)

We would not know the source
Of our awakening, not this time.
We lay back, fractionally appeased.
At least the sky would not fall.
Still we slept troubled, denied 
Long habit: make it better, fix it.
It was easy then. Now, it is this:
A noise - yes, never just sound -
No source nor provocation, and
Nothing to do but wait and see,
And fret, apropos of nothing.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Circling Back

Dear Mom,

On Wednesday our family wandered the campus of the college you attended. I tried to feel you there, but couldn't tell whether I was in fact feeling you or just feeling myself straining to feel you. It appears that I am not sufficiently keyed in to the spiritual realm. Had I been able to reach you by telephone, I would not have waited for your greeting before asking you, "Guess where we are right now?" I showed the boys the room near Main where you lived during your senior year. I remembered your pointing it out to me when I was a kid. Isn't that funny, how memory works? Why did I remember that small detail? Anyway, you won't believe it, but Older Teen will soon be touring college campuses, and he was definitely paying attention as we wandered around yours, which is as gorgeous as ever: Gothic architecture against such lush foliage. Did you know that the campus is now a designated arboretum? Older Teen was impressed.

You will understand why we stayed in the Alumnae House, scene of my wedding. We corraled the boys onto the very spot where we wed, and then we took a photo. They didn't complain, although they weren't very interested in the place where their parents got married, and why should they be, really? I thought of our guest list, small as it was, and stopped short when I realized that a solid third of those in attendance have since died. And these two sons of mine have sprouted up in their place; I have the photo to prove it. The way of things.

You were happiest during college, I now believe, and I don't know why we didn't think to scatter your ashes somewhere on your college campus.

While in New York we also visited with your son and his family, and they are thriving. My nephew, your grandson, is so affectionate and warm. Clever, too. Your name came up more than a few times. No one has forgotten you. That wouldn't surprise you, I suppose.

And your daughter-in-law, she had stocked food from William Poll. I know! You love that! She'd brought me the roast beef and watercress dip sandwich I always used to order. Oh, and something else I wanted to tell you: Did you know that Poll's makes baklava? And that it's out of this world?

So there it is: four days when I kept thinking of you, not with pain, but with time-earned nostalgia. It has been four years since you died, but more like sixteen years since cancer stole you from us. People don't understand that even if you survive cancer, the disease takes away the person you once were, the person who still believed that bad things happen to other people, the person who still felt lucky, and capable of experiencing unalloyed joy.

On Wednesday I wondered whether you could spy our little family gathered on the lawn at the Alumnae House: lanky, moody Older Teen, irrepressible Preteen, and my sturdy husband, with less hair but in most every way exactly as you knew him. I wondered whether you miss us. But mostly I remembered you, and the remembering failed to rouse anger, regret, or grief. And so I sat down and wrote you this letter.

Love, Sarah

Monday, August 12, 2013

Of Bodies, Celestial and Otherwise

As teens my brother and I did what siblings born to incapacitated or absent parents do: we grew close, our connection strengthened by the understanding that we were, each of us, as good as it was going to get. If we craved solace, we had to look in each other's eyes. No one knows the particularities we lived better than we do, and that shared knowledge forged an unbreakable bond between us. When I turned sixteen years old, my brother, away at college, predicted that there would no Sweet Sixteen, no ritualistic celebration, however small, for me. So he bought and sent me sixteen birthday cards, one for each year of my life.

Last night my brother, my husband, and I went outside to lie on our backs and peer up at the midnight sky. We were looking for trails of light, it being the right time, according to those in the know, to view the Pleiades meteor showers. We allowed several minutes for our eyes to adjust to the dark, and as we did we were silent, companionably so. I thought about something my sister-in-law had shared with me that morning: when my brother was hosting one of my nephew's little friends and his sister, the siblings were squabbling. My brother bent down to the boy and told him that when he was little, he and his sister fought just like the boy and his sister. But now, he confided, my sister is my best friend.

I thought about my husband on the left of me, and my best friend and brother on the right of me, and I felt lucky indeed. The sky was brilliant, cloudless and teeming with stars. I spied the Milky Way. We saw a few flashes of light, meteor showers, perhaps, but never did all three of us see a flash in the same place at the same time. I just want to stay out a few more minutes, my brother said. It would be nice for all of us to agree that yes, we saw this particular meteor shower at this particular location in the sky, so that we're sure it wasn't just an airplane, or our eyes tricking us.

We waited, but the climactic moment my brother sought failed to arrive. Still, I don't think any one of us was terribly disappointed. The night sky was spectacular as it was, without need of embellishment. 

Do you ever experience a moment, and even while one part of you is living it another part is processing it? My brain was busy filing August 11th, 2013 as a signal date to remember and fall back on someday, when my body is aged and infirm, and my memory is the only vehicle left to me. I imagine my elderly self smiling as I gaze on myself in early middle age sandwiched between these two people I loved, the three of us awed by the vastness and majesty of one piece of the universe, but also comfortably sure both of our place in it and of the people who anchored us there.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Perfect Sky For Rainbows

Last night I took my eleven-year-old to dinner.

We stepped out of the car and into a gathering storm. The sky was two parts grey, one part yellow. A grey so dark it verged on black lined the top third of the canvas and bled down into a lighter grey, the grey of a dolphin's coat. A swath of yellow too sallow for a sunset anchored the two greys to the horizon.

I glanced at my boy, who once desperately feared thunderstorms. "Cool sky," I observed, poking the patient to gauge his response. "Yeah," he assented. Then: "How would you spell 'yeah,' Mom?" "'Y-E-A-H,'" I recited. "That's how I spell it, too," he said. "That way, or sometimes just 'Y-E-A.'"

We entered the restaurant as I marveled over his nonchalance. He's no longer afraid of thunderstorms, a fact to be filed. And did you notice? It's 'Mom' now, never again 'Mommy,' not even in private.

We ordered our meals, which arrived promptly. He exclaimed over the food: "I don't know if it's because I'm really hungry from camp, or because this food is so good, but I have to say that this is the best meal I've ever eaten!" As if to prove the point, he proceeded to clean his plate, something he rarely does at home.

"Well!" he grinned, bright and satisfied, full belly and all, "How was your day? Is your ear bothering you less?"

Whereupon I reported on my day and my ear, finishing with, "You know, you are a charming dinner companion."

And he was.


By the time we left the restaurant the storm had passed. One half of the sky was straining to be sunny, the other still brushed in grey. "This is exactly the right weather for rainbows!" I gasped. "Let's see if we can spot one."

As I drove home he craned his neck obligingly, the better to see the sky. I thought I could make out the beginnings of a rainbow. I told him where to look, but he saw nothing, and teased me: "Aww, you're just inventing one, Mom."

But soon. "Look left!" I cried. "In the middle of that big cloud."

A rainbow, a proper one this time, its full complement of colors on display. A rainbow an eleven-year-old could, and did, verify.

"Whoa, Mom," breathed my boy, "it's almost as if you made it happen." For a moment he sounded younger than his years, and I remembered: eleven years old, when you are old enough to call your mother 'Mom' and serve as her charming dinner companion, but also young enough to believe that she might still carry a tiny bit of magic in her pocket. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

August Afternoon

Sun showers jewel spider webs.
Petunias, petulant, close up shop.
Birds squawk and wheel, restless,
Sensing the end of something,
And the beginning of another.
A child sits listless in a baby pool,
While the cicadas thrum and strum
Their mating melodies. Neighbors
Generous in June are not so now.
The mail carrier wears shorts with
Knee-high socks, ridiculous, but not,
Because who is there to see him?
Only the toddler, blind to fashion
Or its lack, as indifferent in her way
As the sun that bakes the sidewalks,
Burning the soles of nobody's feet.