Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cosmic Tallying

I like to imagine a cosmic balancing scale: for each wrong there is a right, for each pain there is a pleasure, for each loss a gain. Maybe this way of seeing allows me to taste the glass half-full when by disposition I tend towards pessimism. Or maybe I simply prefer symmetry wherever and whenever I can find it.

When my stepmother died some twenty-nine years ago, my niece was born fewer than twenty-four hours later. Those events seemed to balance each other out quite fittingly: death, birth.

And the day of my mother's death is the day of my father-in-law's birth. The day before is my nephew's birthday.

I chose my graduate school in part based on its proximity to my then-boyfriend. That relationship flamed out spectacularly. But then, on the very first day of graduate school, the day first-year students were summoned in staggered lots to register, I met my future husband thanks to the first two digits of our social security numbers, 07 for us both, a New York State prefix: we were grouped together.


My husband has been reading college applications. One essay question reads something like this: If you could choose one year to go back or forward in time, which year would you choose, and why? You thought, "I'd kill Hitler," didn't you? I know I did, but eventually rejected it. A member of Hitler's inner circle would surely have stepped in to fill the gap created by killing Hitler. The conditions in Germany in the 20's and 30's were ripe for fomenting anti-Semitism. To change the course of World War II you might need to intervene in World War I, and then you'd probably spur some other terrible conflict in the attempt.

College applications aside - saving the world aside - I would love to be a fly on the wall in my very own past, to verify whether how I remember is in fact how it was. To spend time again with people I loved who are now permanently lost to me. To change things? To fix whatever went wrong? Well, every time I go down that path I end up without my present life, without my children. I'd have other children, no doubt, but how could they replace these, the ones here now?

I'll take my balancing scale, thank you. There's always a way to zero the scale, no matter how many steps it takes to get there. Perhaps it's a childish, or rather a child-like, way of being, not so different from playing Loves Me, Loves Me Not with the petals of a daisy.

On the other hand, if aging has taught me anything, it is that being child-like as an adult is neither uncommon nor in the least bit undesirable.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Emptying Nest

He brushes past me on his way to anywhere but here. "Wait!," I cry inwardly. But I neither voice the command nor have any idea what I would ask of him, or tell him, next. I feel these days as if they are a countdown, which I suppose they are. A countdown to his leaving home, to his being done with childish things. I have the sense that I have not imparted everything, or, in my more punishing moments, not imparted anything at all. I want to tell him about life, and love, and grief, and time, how it opens and closes, how it doesn't really obey the principles he's been studying in physics.

Even if I were to find the words, or believe that my experiences might be condensed into universal application, he is not, at seventeen, in a listening sort of mood. So I leave things unsaid.

We joke at the dinner table - at least we still eat together as a family - and in the pauses between the light banter I see that he and I are more alike than I'd ever guessed. We catch each other's gaze in moments of mutual understanding, and I know that he likes who I am and trusts what I think. (Of course I feel the same about him, but that's less of a surprise, for the obvious reasons.)

That will have to be enough for now. There will be no heart-to-heart conversations. Idly I wonder if girls and their mothers have these, or whether adolescence trumps gender in this regard.

I miss him already. No one told me about this, the pain that arrives even before they leave to start their own lives. Is it possible that experiencing what I am now is preparing me to handle the actual leavetaking with stoicism and grace?


When my mother dropped me off at college, she drove onto a pathway on the main quad, a pathway meant for foot traffic only. I was mortified. A group of my fellow freshmen was clustered near the door to my dorm as I emerged from the car red-faced with shame and rage at my mother's incompetence. At that moment I wished desperately for her to disappear. Later that day when we said our goodbyes I was nonchalant, surprising myself by not crying. But as I watched her car crest the hill at the end of the street, I swallowed back a lump of sudden pain and whispered, "Come back."

I was, like all seventeen-year-olds, overwhelmed by the variety of feelings I seemed capable of having, feelings that seemed external to me, even foisted on me, like the weather.

And now I think: as my own seventeen-year-old brushes by me on his way to anywhere but here, I might try seeing him not with a mother's eyes but with the eyes of the seventeen-year-old I was in 1985.