Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Quicksilver Boy

This boy. Last night, he danced. Arms spread-eagled, he whirled about before Irish-stepping across the family room, only to collapse, laughing. There's so much joy in him. Why walk when you can run? And he does run, his coat unzipped against winter's worst and flapping behind him, arms, as always, outstretched, as if to collect whatever the wind might deign to offer. Tasked with getting the mail, he routinely scatters a few envelopes across our snow-crusted lawn. Some neighbor or other rings our doorbell to deliver our missing mail, and sheepishly we roll our eyes, murmur, "Twelve-year-old boys," as if that explains it.

But joy so naked and trusting, it costs. The wind can turn and bite. "What is he crying about now?," his older brother mutters, irritated. I don't answer: The world is made more beautiful by its ugly underbelly. The teen wouldn't understand, thankfully. Even tiny irritants wound tender, exposed skin. See, we need to wonder this: Which twelve-year-old will we find when we wake up in the morning? We never know, not one of us, not even the one of us who should by temperament be able to guess.

He frets for weeks about making a team. Then he makes it. It is with relief that I pick him up from school. I am expecting - I feel I have earned - a reprieve from his long and tiring worry. "Are you thrilled?," I press, willing it so. "Of course!," he grins. I could eat up his smile for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so filling is it. But then, impossibly, he is frowning. "Except now I'm really nervous about the competitions."

Caught unawares, again. I should have expected the underbelly. It never leaves us for long.


"I think you came into this world old and wise," I tell him, "and with each year you are growing younger." He nods, agreeing. And then sighs at the thought. "Wouldn't that be fantastic?," he whispers dreamily.

This boy. He makes me feel so much and so often. Almost, but not quite, as deeply as he does. I flip coins on the hour. 

But whatever it costs, for him, for us, I will pay, just to glance out the window and spy Mercury himself, running with delight and abandon, heedless of any obstacle, chasing rainbows because he can, and because they are worth everything. Who would, who could, tell him otherwise?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Steps Up to Goodbye

He told me that he had received his first email from a college. "Oh?," I replied, careful to keep my tone just right - interested, but not too interested. Meanwhile, my stomach clenched, taking on what my voice could not. In my head I calculated the realities: Nine months to college visits, SATS, preparations for the next big thing.  The first big thing?

"Yeah," he answered, while stuffing his mouth with cookies. "Not a college I care about, but anyway. Guess it's just the beginning." I nodded.

But it's not my beginning. His beginning will be an end for me. I understand now that there will be no soul-crushing, tear-stained goodbye on the day he leaves for college. Because the goodbyes are already happening, every day, even every hour. His father asks him to watch a movie with us. He considers for a moment before declining. "I need to work on my History paper," he says. "Sorry." My husband does not conceal his disappointment. "Aww, c'mon," he persists. "Watch the first 20 minutes, and then you can go if you don't like it." My kid laughs nervously, sensitive to his dad's pleading. "I'll watch one with you another time. Maybe tomorrow." And he turns away, goes upstairs to do whatever it is he does. He is becoming less and less real to us. He is nearly a ghost. He treads that lightly. The only time I recognize my boy is when he argues with his little brother, but even that he does with a certain degree of listlessness, as if he is using elephant's memory to play an old, ill-fitting part.

I see that these next two years will contain a thousand leave-takings, each a twinge on its own, the sum enough to make me gasp. Luckily I don't have to endure them all at once. It is kinder this way.


As a child he had a funny little wave. He would raise his hand and hold it high, motionless. On his first day of kindergarten I caught the wave on film. It reminded me of the Queen's wave. It spoke of confidence and serenity. He remains confident and serene. The things that bother me - oh, so many things that bother me! - do not even register in his world. I envy him his preternatural poise and unconcern. Both will serve him well.

He is the one who taught me how to parent, but also how much we tend to overestimate our role in who and what our children become. When I flash back to him at four years old sprawled on the floor surrounded by hundreds of Legos, the concentration and total immersion in the building of this vehicle or that house, I don't see someone very different from the sixteen-year-old before me. He has ironed out his own kinks - his obliviousness to what he wears, or how he appears before others - in his own time, and largely without my assistance.

He is near ready to go. No one can miss it. He's earned his learner's permit in adulthood. Not, however, in driving. He refuses to learn how to drive. So yes, maybe there are a few more kinks he needs to iron out. That's what these last two years are for. Meanwhile, I will endure one thousand small goodbyes proffered with a steady raised hand and a sympathetic smile so tiny anyone other than his parent would miss it.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Turn and Face the Strange

Her name was Jolie. Why, then, did we persist in calling her Julie? She was my mother's housekeeper for a time, and she sometimes brought her three-year-olds, Tony and Tyisha, to our house. At ten, or eleven, a narcissistic age, I assumed that she brought them for my benefit, but of course she was forced to cart them along when child care was unavailable. I fell hard for the twins, sweet, serious Tony and sunny Tyisha, elfin children both. I can still conjure up the sounds of the blue and purple beads in Tyisha's hair clicking, clacking as she turned cartwheels in the living room. Tony and Tyisha knew the secret language of twins, but they never used it to exclude me or anyone else, being above all generous little souls. Julie - Jolie! - would sometimes ask me if I wanted to put them down for their afternoon nap. Oh, yes I did! I would tuck them into their makeshift bed on the floor and tell them stories until they fell asleep. Even asleep, they smiled. I was smitten.

Then one day Jolie announced that she was moving to Florida. My mother was sad for one reason; I, for quite another. Jolie asked me whether I might like it if the twins slept over at my house one night before the move. But she already knew the answer. I planned for that night in a manner befitting Martha Stewart. Every moment was accounted for, filled by some interesting and educational activity or another. I even planned the twins' dinner. It was grand. The only bump arrived at bedtime, when Tyisha felt homesick and cried. Devastated, I ran to my mother, who knew, in the way of mothers, how to make it better for the little girl. Soon she was asleep.

Fast forward years, six, maybe, and I was on a forced visitation with my father, who'd decided to trade time in someone's condo in Florida for time in his apartment in Paris, and there he and I were in Ft. Pierce, in an old lady's apartment decorated principally with bamboo and loud tropical prints, glass doors sliding onto a tiny patio too hot in any event to touch with bare feet, a postage-stamp pool, and no beach in sight. Florida sans beach with my stranger-father. I wanted to cry. What got me through were letters from my friends, who all seemed to be having better summers than I. My father would suggest a game of tennis, and I'd decline, most often. When I did accept, we'd walk over to the gated community's courts, and I'd whack the ball so hard it would sail over the fence, forcing my dad to leave the court to retrieve it, while I stood in place, smiling grimly. We ate a lot of Campbell's soup, because Stranger-Father, as it happened, didn't know how to cook. I remember talking very little. Once, he mused, "You get so many letters." What to do but nod? Another time he wondered about the Love's Baby Soft I kept on the bureau. Embarrassed, I told him that it was perfume, and promptly turned as pink as the bottle.

We were dying, the two of us, in Ft. Pierce's searing version of August, no facilitator to help us communicate through years of distance. And then I remembered Jolie. One morning I declared that I wanted to visit Jolie and the children, who lived perhaps forty-five minutes north. I was surprised when my dad agreed to take me there; only now do I see that he was as bored and lonely as I was, and this, if nothing else, was something to do. When I telephoned Jolie, she sounded excited by the idea, and gave me directions. Close to her house, the neighborhoods abruptly changed from lushly foliaged gated communities like ours to one-story squat little stucco houses set feet from one another. Closer still, and my father and I were in the unusual position of feeling like outcasts because of our skin color. Elderly black men sitting on their stoops and smoking would scan our car and us in it with slow, languorous eyes, not unfriendly, but not welcoming, either. It seemed hotter here. Chevys and Oldsmobiles - the big old cars - were parked in front of most houses. And here was Jolie's house, at last - pink stucco, and seemingly not much bigger than my bedroom at home. We parked, and my father leaned back, settling himself deep into his seat, and told me that he'd wait for me; I could take as long as I wanted. Nervous, I got out of the car and walked slowly to the house. Jolie threw open the door and hugged me, her smile wide as ever. But behind her I heard yelling. Jolie shrugged helplessly, and called for the twins. But who were these lanky kids? Had I forgotten that Tony and Tyisha would grow up without me? I guess that I had. 

To me they were polite but indifferent, much like my father and I to each other; they didn't remember me. They soon hurried off to the back of the house, back to their games, their lives. Meanwhile Jolie introduced me to the girls' father, who looked less than pleased to meet me. She went to make me an iced tea, and he followed her, leaving me sitting, my hands underneath me, on the edge of a sagging sofa. He was hurling words at her; his tone was low and mean, as if, I thought, he was chastising a pet who'd misbehaved. When she came back, her eyes were filled with tears and apology. "He doesn't want you here," she whispered to me. "I'm sorry, Sarah. Finish your tea, and we'll say goodbye." She squeezed my arm. In the pressure was the hope that I would understand.

I was out of that house in under fifteen minutes, and as I slid into my car seat, my father looked at me expectantly. I shrugged. We were as silent on the return trip as we'd been on the trip out, and when my dad eventually pulled into our parking spot at the condo, I leapt out of the car. "Going to check the mail," I cried, clutching the mail key to my chest like the lifeline it was. Only at the wall of mailboxes, my safe place, did I allow myself to cry.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Core Curriculum

Usually, unless I'm being pushed and pulled by the vagaries of depression, I do try to be a better version of myself. I can't change who I am. Nor would I want to. But the aspects of my person that I like, those I would choose to polish to a high gloss, and the ones I could do without, well, if I could kick them under the bed where they'd gather dust and stay harmlessly out of everyone's way, why wouldn't I do that?

Last week I discovered something ugly about myself, or, if not ugly, at least in need of some attention, as skin chapped by winter air.

I was delivering dinner to a family in need. A good deed with which I can't take issue. But as I stood at the front door to the family's home, having just passed over the meal to a teenager, I realized that I was waiting. For a thank you, for some acknowledgment of what I'd done, for a verbal equivalent of a pat on the back.

No expression of gratitude arrived. Why not? The dog was barking, frantic to be let out, the children's faces appeared drawn and their expressions stressed. I turned to walk to my car. The truth, I recognized as I drove home, is that this family has far more pressing business than thanking me for my tiny gesture, which would fill bellies for one evening, and perhaps not even that, given how hungry growing humans can be. I felt shame.

I want to do better. I seek the status of the anonymous donor, the person who's managed to take himself or herself wholly out of the act of giving. 

Each day I try to take one more step on the long path to adulthood. I'm aware that some never make it all the way to the end of that particular path, which if it were located at a ski area would certainly be the black diamond slope. But that doesn't mean that I, or you, shouldn't try.

I stumbled. But instead of looking for sympathy in others' arms, I am dusting myself off and plodding on towards that better version of myself. She's beckoning.

I tell the first- and second-graders with whom I work that we never stop making mistakes, yes, even those of us who to them are impossibly old. They frown as if they don't believe me, and also as if the notion of learning something new every single day seems downright exhausting.

But it's a process, making a life, or not just making it but making it worthy of itself, and I expect to be making mistakes at seventy-two or eighty-six years old. Still, on the last day of my life, whenever that is, maybe I will finally shake hands with my best self. I'd really like to meet her. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Sense of a Close Call

Nearly midnight on the last day of winter break, and I am binging on a book, which doesn't happen often enough. There is an undercurrent of tension jolting me forward, the belief that if I don't finish this book tonight, it will be days before I can pick it up again. From upstairs I hear a choked sob, and I undertake a mental calculation. Cat throwing up? No. Child who can't sleep because there's school tomorrow, and he's worried? I sigh, ungratefully, especially so because once I was exactly like him, and of all the people in the world, I should know better, and do better. With regret and irritation I close the book hard. In return it offers up a satisfying thwang of protest, and the cat, startled, jumps up from his spot, hidden among blankets scattered atop the ottoman. As I wait for the boy to present himself in the family room, I drill my fingers on the cover of the abandoned book. What I am thinking, ungenerous and immature: My time. It's my time.

He is all limb, now, at twelve, so skinny his hip bones and knees enter a room before he does. His pajamas are always too short in the leg and arm, no matter what size I buy him. His face is showing signs of angling into manhood. And here he is crying, as I'd predicted, but also clutching at his head. So I was right and wrong both. He tells me he has the worst headache of his life, and I believe him. He is pale, and his eyes are wild and darting, as if they want nothing more than to escape this body and fly away south.

I have forgotten my book. I pretend a calmness I do not feel. This headache, it has awakened him from sleep, which is not usual, is it? I can't remember whether I've read anything about this, but I'd be lying if I didn't confess that terrible words like tumor or aneurysm float up into the space between me and my son. I give him medicine, deciding to overdose him only slightly, because he's that close to the adult dose, three or five pounds off, and if anything requires sending in the cavalry, it is this headache. I have him lean his back against my chest, which given his age and lankiness means a few awkward maneuvers, and I massage his scalp and forehead. We sit like this, in the darkness, for forty minutes, when he thinks he can return to bed. I am now too scared to sleep. I remember that he suffered through another bad headache two or three weeks ago, and I swear to myself that if he has a third one, I will be running him to the doctor.

In the morning, he leaps downstairs in his coltish way, and offers me his smile, wide and restorative as a view of the sea at the horizon. And I breathe, for the first time in hours. My sleeplessness has afforded me the time to finish the book put aside at midnight, but I suspect that it will always be tainted by its connection to ruthless pain, and I shelve it far back in a bookshelf I find hard to reach. As my boy smacks his lips impolitely while downing his breakfast cereal, his hair askew in every plane imaginable, I bless this return to normalcy, and recognize how lucky I am. Roughly he carries his bowl to the sink and slops milk on the counter. I don't feel like asking him to clean it up, not just now. 

He turns from the sink to glance at me. His eyes are bashful. "Thank you for last night, Mama," he says. I return, sterner than I mean, "You shouldn't thank me for that; it's what parents do!" He nods, agreeable, and slouches off to dress for school. I wonder why I didn't, or couldn't, say, simply, "You're welcome." Maybe because nothing I did in the night seemed voluntary. I did what I was there to do. This was my imperative, no less: to ease his suffering. Or perhaps I couldn't acknowledge my child's gratitude because earlier I'd been so annoyed by his intrusion into my time alone. That kind of annoyance does not deserve to be thanked.

What dogs me the rest of the day, as if by inches I'd averted the hideous metallic scrape signifying a car accident, is shock, heightened adrenaline, relief, and most of all the sense of narrow escape through no agency of one's own. I've written this particular story, but I'm well aware that I might have been forced by chance or circumstance to write a different, far less ordinary one.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Once and Future Year

December 31st, 10:13pm.
It’s come to this, the night
When promise sits with pain.
Look, the glass just poured
Reflects an eye, funhouse
Large, a disembodied organ,
By virtue of which novelty
It may tell stories, may teach
The violent wisdom of ancients,
May gaze, grotesque, so deep
A fish would have to learn
To fluoresce in such black,
Cold waters, or die trying.
Empty the glass, then, yes?
January 1st, 8:09am.
How ’bout this: morning,
Again! — weak sun, but
Sun, to be sure. Here
We are. Maybe we hoped
To be there, but we’re
Not. Toss off the sheets,
Greet what’s ours, offer up
Odes to the still unwritten,
Drive all the satellite roads,
Abundant as motes meandering
Down the young and spindly light.
But first, remember, breathe.
Steady in, steady out. Go.

written on January 1, 2012