Today is going to be long ago


Beyond the sundown is tomorrow’s wisdom, today is going to be long, long ago.  -Thomas Hornsby Ferril 

Daddy paid the bill and we left the doctor’s office. My arms burned and ached from the allergy injections. We’d waited a long time for the injections, despite having an appointment every week on my father’s day off. We’d waited a long time after the shots, one in each arm, too, in case of a severe reaction. The day itself was shot now. As we crossed the parking lot to get in the car, I thought: Nothing ever changes. We come, I get the shots, my arms hurt for another two days. I still can’t sleep a whole night through because of asthma attacks. Balling up with my knees under my chest, my head on two pillows, helps me breathe sometimes. I can take in air but I have to push it out. My chest rattles. The wheezing comes most often at night. It’s worse in spring and fall – every Easter and Thankgiving, my parents say. Each night Daddy pours more water in the vaporizer in my room, refills the little metal tray in the lid with Vick’s menthol. The contraption steams and sputters for the duration of the night, but the only effect I can see is the loosening of the tape holding my posters on the walls of my bedroom – posters I bought at the book fair, one of a tabby kitten dangling from a limb, captioned “Hang on, Baby, Friday’s coming!” and a red poster of a sunset, with “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us” – until my posters fall down.  Every day I try to stick them back on the moist walls. I am tired. I can’t rest at night, I can’t rest after school because the kids Mom babysits at home want me to play and there’s nowhere to go, no getting away from them. 

I walk in silence by my father, across the ugly gray concrete parking lot, my arms burning, knowing those kids will be at the house when I get home. It’s the same, day after day, night after night, forever. Nothing ever changes. 

I don’t know how I can keep going on. 

I was only ten years old. 

I didn’t know to attach words to my feelings – boredom, depression, in a rut, despair.  I never communicated the heaviness of my thoughts to anyone at the time – I have always been quiet by nature. Since I couldn’t run in P.E., because it triggered my asthma in the days before inhalers, I spent more and more time reading and writing. 

This was my salvation. My escape. The way out of the daily sameness, the beginning of overcoming, of strength. I described the color and the hot, cinnamon taste of Benadryl in my fifth-grade memoir – the teacher responded, “What clear, great detail!” That was the first time a teacher praised my writing – here, unexpectedly, was something I could be good at, something to work toward. 

It happened slowly.  I don’t remember the exact turn of events, or the length of time it took, only that the moment of long-ago despair was just that – a moment. Things did change. Eventually I got injections in one arm when doctors decided to combine the serums; then the shots stopped altogether. Unless I am around cigarette smoke or cats, I am not troubled by asthma anymore (though doctors warn me one is never “cured”). My mom didn’t babysit the pesky kids forever; I could find my “space” again. I have never had serious bouts of depression, despite the fact that it runs in my family. 

Looking back now, I can see where that long-ago darkness might have been the beginning of a very different story. I was fortunate. I endured. I found my way through with words and pages. Decisions for my health were made with more and more wisdom. 

I remain today, whole and strong, and grateful, because of it. 

Every word, every decision, every moment – wisdom matters. 

If tomorrow is to be. 

I loved you at your darkest

At your darkest

August. Days of sweltering, snaky heat. Yet he donned a black tuxedo with a black-and-silver striped ascot and got to the church on time. 

In a back room, her bouquet of pink roses dripped on the front of her white gown, creating panic amongst the bridesmaids, but it didn’t stain. 

The morning’s thunderstorm cleared and the sun was shining for all it was worth when the ceremony began at 1:00. 

At 1:10 the preacher pronounced them husband and wife.

When they left the church hand-in-hand, the summer day was blinding – they shielded their eyes and made a run for it.

We’ve been running ever since, really.

For over three decades now. (I was a child bride. Well, sorta.)

As we mark another anniversary this week, I consider one of my favorite gifts from him, a bracelet he bought a couple of summers ago. We were at the beach for a few days, trying to get away from the daily demands, the stresses and strains – a lot was going on in life at the time. We went into a shop, and I saw it –  a band with a metal plate reading I loved you at your darkest.

It pierced my heart, those words. The incredible forgiving, trusting, reliable power of them. The surety.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

I nodded, for I didn’t trust my voice at the moment.

And so he bought it. I wore it out into the brilliant August afternoon, holding tight to his hand.

We’ve come through many darknesses – losses of people we loved, various setbacks, our own inner dark sides. Seeing each other at our worst.

But we’ve also seen the best in each other.

Growing older means acknowledging that there are darknesses yet to come – watching his mother’s decline with dementia is a daily reminder. We will not always be as we were, as we are now. Our summer is brief.

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, wrote Robert Browning.

It’s the togetherness, the commitment, the laughter at silly stuff, the embrace in the hardest moments, that drive the darkness away. The sacrifices. The faith that the sun will rise again tomorrow, and with it, hope. Abiding gratitude for every day.

It’s never the darkness that we carry with us anyway. It’s the knowledge that we walked through it together, to come out on the other side. Our minds, our hearts hold to what is good, what is bright. It propels us onward. Makes the entire journey worthwhile.

Especially when the journey almost wasn’t.

On the evening of our first date, I called to tell him I couldn’t go. I had a raging fever; I was being admitted to the hospital for tests.

“I am sorry,” I said into the phone, tears stinging my eyes. “Please don’t give up on me.”

“I won’t ever give up on you,” said his voice, strong and sure.

He never has.

I loved you at your darkest.

I did, I do, I always will.

Thank you.

 

Cactus malpractice

Cactus

Kelly’s cactus. GinnyCC BY-SA

I want a puppy, but his answer is always “NO.”

Tweety, my yellow parakeet, has died after six years of squawking, escaping his cage, and flinging seed hulls everywhere.

“No more birds, either,” says my father, in a tone that I dare not challenge.

I am bereft. I want something to take care of. Some small living thing that belongs to me.

I’m getting too old to catch caterpillars (the forest tent caterpillars, to be exact, which have amazing, detailed patterns with brilliant blue stripes and are not very hairy) and keep them in used margarine containers until they turn into little brown moths. Far too old to catch toads after school and bring them home in my metal Charlie Brown lunch box, which I was quickly forbidden to do.

I sigh. 

On a trip to Woolco, something catches my eye. It’s enchantingly tiny and it won’t make a mess or escape in the house.

So I ask: “Daddy, can I have a cactus?”

He looks at me oddly, as if he’s trying to decide whether or not I am being a smart aleck.

“Sure,” he says. 

The cactus costs 89 cents, the same as a 45 rpm record. It’s spherical, about the circumference of a quarter, about the height of a quarter standing on its edge. 

“Isn’t it the cutest thing?” I ask my Dad.

He raises his eyebrows. “Well, it’s certainly easy to take care of.”

For a couple of week, the cactus sits on my dresser, until I start worrying that it’s not growing. I know cacti don’t need a lot of water – maybe it needs more light, more heat. Cacti grow in the desert, after all.

Hmmm. How can I help it?

I know! The mirror in the bathroom is in a large frame. I can climb on the sink and put the cactus on the top of it, right up there under the light. 

Sure enough, it fits perfectly, just inches away from the bulb.

After a few days, I climb up and check on my cactus. It’s grown taller! I give it a few drops of water and return it to its makeshift sun.

And then I forget about it for weeks.

When I finally remembered the cactus and scrambled back on top of the sink to retrieve it, I found only a little brown crisp in the tiny pot.

Burnt slam up, as my grandfather might say.

I stood there gazing at the destruction in my hands, feeling a pang of horror mixed with shame – Am I the only person, ever, to kill a cactus? 

I meant well. I wanted the cactus to grow, to thrive, to have what it needed.

I just failed to check on it more than once to see if my plan worked, or to determine if it was even a good plan in the first place.

And the cactus couldn’t say Hey, this is too much light and heat, not enough water – I do still need that, you know. 

It just quietly withered away.

The word that comes to mind is mindfulness.

A mighty and crucial thing, indeed.

***

Note: There were hermit crabs and, yes, puppies in my near future. 

They fared far better.

Mystical morning

Ocracoke surprise

The island dawn is one of nebulous grayness, the sun an oblique white disc shrouded in veils of clouds. Painted from a palette of pearl, silver, and slate, the sand, the sea, the sky are starkly monochromatic, like an old black-and-white-movie. The temperature is indeterminate, neither hot nor cold. The morning is not uninviting nor inviting; it simply is.

As I make my way past softly rolling dunes of long grass shivering and undulating in the wind, I think only of the ocean, the opportunity to savor its splendor in relative isolation, away from commercialism. I expect to see a die-hard beachcomber or two; surely this a shell-collector’s paradise.

I do not expect the tree.

There it is, up ahead in the sand, directly in front of the path where dunes give way to the shore, with the shimmering, empty Atlantic for a backdrop.

How curious. I’ve not seen a tree smack in the middle of a beach before.

Are there others? I scan the shoreline, as far as I can see, on the left and the right.

No.

This is the only tree.

Did it grow here, somehow? I investigate. I suspect not, as the sand is built up around the tree’s base, although I can’t discern human handprints. Or footprints. I don’t even know what kind of tree this is, although I saw numerous others like it lying in the Pamlico Sound on the Hatteras side of the ferry ride to Ocracoke. I should have asked the crew what kind of trees these are and why they lie so far out in the water. 

Driftwood, then. 

It stands here on the vacant beach with its thin, snaky branches twisting skyward. Shells dangle from some of the vine-like tips, reminiscent of castanets on fingers. Or earrings.

I am enchanted. I’ve a sense of standing in no-man’s land, except that someone has clearly been here. Maybe someones, plural. Mystery people were inspired to plant this bit of driftwood and to decorate it with what was near at hand. 

The tree is dead. Shells, for all their intricate beauty, are but skeletons. I marvel at the human heart, its great desire for creativity and play. At the ability of the inner artist to see that random pieces of things no longer living, broken things, can come together in such an unexpected way. Whimsy in the wind. The beach tree stands as a mystical reminder that all is not lost, that all has value, that there’s beauty beyond the brokenness if we are willing to rearrange the pieces. The extraordinary lies not beyond the ordinary, but within it. Not beyond us, but within us, within our very grasp, if we just reach.

The ocean sparkles despite the obscured sun, like the twinkling of an eye when someone’s just about to smile.

Ocracoke morning

Note: The title is a deliberate play on that of a previous post about my son’s trip to Iceland – both attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mythical morn.

slice-of-life_individual

The last stop

 

Nursing Home

The Last Station Nursing Home. Ulrich JohoCC BY-SA

I push the wheelchair down the hallway. We pass an old man in a wheelchair; he lifts his hand in greeting, although he’s never seen us before. In the lounge, a tiny, gray-haired woman is holding a doll in her arms, rocking it while she watches TV. She takes a spoon from the tray in front of her, scoops up something orange – maybe jello, maybe mashed peaches – and tries to feed it to her doll. My throat constricts. With every step, I feel like the world is converging, that I am being squeezed into a narrowing tube.

I come to the room. 

“Here we are, Grandma. This is your room. It’s really nice.”

In the wheelchair, Grandma covers her face with her hands. She begins to cry.

I kneel, nearly panicked, feeling akin to Judas Iscariot. “Stop! Please don’t cry. You will make me, cry, too. Is that what you want?”

Instantly her hands drop. She lifts her wet face, squares her thin shoulders. “No, no. I don’t want you to cry.”

She looks at me with those watery blue eyes that I know so well. She places her bony hand over mine on the arm of the wheelchair. “If I have to come to this place, then I am glad you are the one who came with me.”

For a long while we just sit in the waning afternoon light, holding each other’s hands. There are no words.

Because there are no words.

I feared the day would come when she didn’t know me. She forgot many things – what era we currently lived in, that many family members were long dead. I debated whether or not to tell her when she mentioned her brothers or her son – my father – that they were gone. How many times can a person stand to lose someone they love? She watered her artificial poinsettia at Christmastime and, still in possession of her physical strength, managed to get out of the building through a window (if I recall that detail correctly).

She eventually lapsed into a docile silence, looking at every visitor with a sort of curiosity, but no longer struggling. She’d stopped speaking. At this point, she wasn’t feeding herself any more, so I would feed her whenever I was there.

Taking the plastic spoon in my hand, I say – I don’t know why, maybe because of tradition, habit, courtesy, or simple spontaneity – “Grandma, do you want to say the blessing?”

I know she hasn’t spoken in weeks. I guess I expect to say grace for her now.

But she bows her head, clasps her hands . . . and recites, perfectly, word for word, the Lord’s Prayer.

I sit, awestruck. This isn’t the family blessing, my grandfather’s prayer, that we always say when we give thanks. But she knows it is a prayer; it remains intact in her mind.

I thought of all the nursing homes I’d visited through the years, usually during the holidays to sing Christmas carols. The Alzheimer’s wards are especially haunting, with their heavy doors and alarm systems. The people sit, physically present, enduring their days, but mentally elsewhere, often unresponsive unless one of two things occurs. When a child comes in, the faces of the elderly suddenly light up. It’s an eager expression. They lean toward the child, smiling. Some even hold their hands out to the child. Whether it’s the newness of life or the memory of  what once was, the presence of  a child is magic here.

As is music.

Carolers walk the halls, singing, and residents wheel themselves to the doors of their rooms. Some smile and wave, others nod in time to the song, until we sing “Silent Night.”

Some of them were just sitting at dinner, one leaning to the other, saying, “I don’t know where I am. What is this place?” The other responded, “I don’t know either. And who are you?”

They may have been playing Scrabble earlier that afternoon, although the words won’t come and the tiles are too hard to see anymore.

But when “Silent Night” begins, the light comes back on in their faces. They sing every single word with us – even a woman, rocking her doll. 

This is my grandmother’s favorite hymn – she taught me to play it on her chord organ long before I started school, placing my little fingers on the keys over and over until I got it right. 

She was born the day after Christmas and died three days before Christmas, almost on her ninety-first birthday. We sang “Silent Night” at her funeral.

These thoughts and images swirled in my mind yesterday as my son played the keyboard at his grandmother’s convalescent center. I noted the absence of one resident who followed me nimbly to the exit the last time I visited – I saw the eagerness on her face, the light of it – just as the alarms went off and the nurses gently escorted her away from the door.

She died last week.

My son plays hymn after hymn; the residents clap after every lively rendition. Someone sings in a clear, soft soprano, every single word of every stanza, in perfect time with the music.

This is my story, this is my song . . . .

Even at the last stop, when time seems to be no more, when the days and nights and years and epochs melt together, when the stories lie dormant, music sweeps in like a breeze, stirring  fallen leaves into the air again. The words rise to the surface, for they are there, always there, in the deepest, darkest places. No matter how long they lie, the old, familiar melodies bubble back with the first strains. Released.

They sing, and I marvel. At the power of it, at the gift of it, at the peace of it.

Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming. Silent nights are coming. But until then, their hearts go on singing.

I stand amazed.

 

Mastering the monster

School bus

Bus #147. SebamirumCC BY

Life takes many unexpected twists and turns – a friend of mine says, “Life is one wild ride.” The mysterious is frequently interwoven with the breathtaking, the brightest moments often collide with the darkest, and the greatest desires of our hearts almost always involve epic challenges.

It took me the better part of two decades to finish college, for example.

I married at twenty, quitting college with a year and a half of coursework in general studies and theater arts. My boys were born. My husband completed two degrees needed for his work. I took a variety of jobs, all the while wanting to return to college myself, taking a class or two whenever and wherever I could. Sometimes I dusted off the old textbooks and plays, reread portions, dreamed of going on with my education.

When my younger son started kindergarten, I took a part-time reading remediation position that became full-time, until the program was cut after a couple of years.

“I’d like to keep you on, if you’re willing to take a teaching assistant job in first grade,” my principal told me. “Furthermore, there’s a distance education cohort beginning for paraprofessionals to get teaching degrees. You should pursue this – you’d be an excellent teacher.”

I pondered the prospect. A teacher. At the elementary level? I don’t know. High school English, maybe, but . . .

“It’s a consortium,” the principal went on. “If you’re a full-time teaching assistant, our county qualifies you to attend with financial aid. The books are even covered.”

Here it was, the long-awaited chance to finish school, only it didn’t look exactly like what I imagined.

The principal noted my hesitation. “It’s a perfect opportunity. What are you waiting for?”

Turns out that the program had K-12 reading certification built in.

That was the tipping point.

I love roller coasters. They climb and climb, gaining momentum, then – wooooosh. Hold on tight, as you don’t know what’s coming next – a pretty good metaphor for the wild ride of life. I applied to the program, got in. I loved my classes, my advisor, my instructors, my classmates. Returning to college was exhilarating.

Until.

“Of course, as a full-time teaching assistant in our county,” my principal said, “you’re required to get bus driver licensure.”

WHAT? 

I’m not overly fond of driving in the first place. The idea of maneuvering something as big as a bus, loaded with kids, being the only adult responsible . . .

“I’m not sure I can do it,” I said, going cold and clammy. My stomach lurched like it does after a sudden twist on a coaster, only worse.

The principal smiled. “Yes, you can. Look at it as something that gets you where you want to go.”

That’s what it came down to. If I wanted to finish school, to teach – which I now wanted to do more than anything, the ultimate situational irony – then I would have to face the big yellow monster.

My dad had driven a school bus when he was in high school. So had his sister. Back in their day, students were drivers. Daddy told stories about students tampering with the governor so the buses would go faster – I could envision the buses bumping down the country dirt roads, whipping around the bends in thick clouds of dust, kids bouncing wildly. He told the tales with glee; I listened in horror. While I darkly imagined Daddy’s great amusement on learning that I’d be driving a bus, if he’d lived to see it, this connection to him helped, if only the tiniest bit.

Look at it as something that gets you where you need to go.

I couldn’t let a bus stop me from finishing school or embarking on a whole new career that stretched out before me, glimmering and beckoning like the sea.

I signed up for the training.

The trainer started off with lots of stories, such as a driver once tipping a bus over by trying to avoid a squirrel, which is why we should never swerve if an animal runs in front of the bus.

I put my head down on the desk.

Then there was the first exam: Memorizing all the parts of the bus, how these parts are connected, what these parts do and why, what every light means. This was conducted by walking with the instructor, pointing everything out and giving an oral explanation. A written exam was also given.

I briefly considered failing these exams but my pride wouldn’t let me.

The training culminated in behind-the-wheel practice with the instructor, who asked: “Ever driven a Mercedes before?”

“No sir,” I answered.

He chuckled. “You’re about to now.”

I thought he was joking.

He wasn’t.

The bus I learned to drive on was made by Mercedes-Benz – who knew? It almost drove itself.

I managed to get this monstrous thing, this almost-airplane, through the narrow tree-lined streets of the nearby little old southern town without doing harm to anything until the instructor said: “All right, make a stop. Let these imaginary kids off the bus.”

I made the stop, opened the bus door. The flashing lights came on, the stop sign came out. I even counted imaginary heads.

For the first time, I thought: I’ve got this. It’s not so bad.

Then, as I closed the door to move on, the instructor said, “STOP!”

“What?!” I jumped a little in my seat. I stood on the brake.

“You just ran over a child,” said the instructor.

“I – what? How? I counted all the imaginary heads!”

“You didn’t check your mirrors. Kids can hide close to the bus and you’ll never see them if you don’t check all those mirrors. That’s why they’re there. Kids have been killed that way.”

I returned to work that afternoon in the deepest funk. A teacher assistant colleague greeted me: “Hey, how’d the training go?”

I sighed. “Not great. I ran over an imaginary child.”

My colleague grinned. “How did the imaginary parents take it?”

I laughed in spite of myself.

Still, I put myself on the prayer list at church. Seriously. The youth minister consoled me: “Look, when the time comes, God will give you driving grace.”

He was right.

The first time I had to drive, on my own, with real kids, it wasn’t a magnificent Mercedes bus but an old “cheese box,” as the kids say. I boarded with driving grace in my head and rosary beads in my pocket, given to me by a friend – and I’m not even Catholic.

I – and more importantly, the kids – lived to tell about it.

In fact, my driving the first-graders on their field trip to the movies (a trip of about three miles, consisting of three turns, one of which I took too close with a back wheel going over the curb, causing the bus to sway and the kids to scream), made their writing journals. When the teacher asked them to write about their favorite part of the trip, our entire class wrote various versions of this, with various spellings: “My favorite part of the field trip was when Mrs. Haley drove the bus.” On all the pages I was depicted at the wheel of the big yellow monster, my hair flying in the breeze for some reason, and smiling.

In the eyes of the kids, apparently, I was a great success.

I consider my mastery of the yellow monster my most dubious achievement, closely followed by my passing a college course on golf. No animals ever ran in front of me, all the kids got home, and other than the door handle rolling off one day and causing me to drive back to school with the stop sign out and all the lights flashing so that every car on both sides of the road pulled over, I am happy to report that I only had to drive a handful of times without incident until I finished the teaching degree and moved on, when I no longer had to drive a bus.

It did, indeed, get me where I needed to go.

Those obstacles that stand in the way of what we want, where we want to go – there’s no shortcut, no way over or around them. The only way is through, even when it doesn’t seem feasible, beneficial, or possible.

Whatever it is, whether it looms in front of you, in your past, or inside you, face your monster. Look it in the eye.

Then make up your mind to master it.

Grace be with you.

Fresh-cut grass

Grass

Grass. montillon.aCC BY

As daylight hours grow longer, spring stretching toward summer, the hum of a lawnmower is ever-present in my little neighborhood.

Yesterday my younger son mowed our lawn. When I arrived home after work, there stood Banjo, our yellow Lab, with his front paws on the wooden gate leading to the backyard, barking his welcome. As I walked from the car to pet him, the clean, green fragrance of fresh-cut grass also rose to meet me.

It’s the smell of home, of childhood, of long ago.

I closed my eyes against the waning afternoon light. In the cool of the day, for a second, I was there, in another neighborhood, another yard.

My father was so proud of the corner lot he bought in the summer before I started school. This was our first house. Up until then our family had lived in apartments. At the time, having two bathrooms (really a bath and a half – my sister and I dubbed them The Big Bathroom and The Little Bathroom) seemed a great luxury.

By the front steps to the left of the sidewalk stood the black lamppost. Beyond this, the yard sloped toward a chestnut tree and the ditch, which entered our yard from under the street and joined the backyards of all the houses on the block. When I wanted to visit my friends, I took the shortcut, running alongside the ditch. (This ditch sometimes caused flooding, which is  another story starring my dad: The secret gates.)

A maple tree stood on the right side of the front yard. My mother’s gardenia bushes and forsythia comprised a small hedge near the front steps, and at the right corner my father eventually planted a camellia bush, brought from his own childhood home.

My father kept our lawn immaculate.

He did it for years with a push mower. I wonder now if he ever rued having that corner lot with so much grass to cut, especially in the summer when his fair face grew florid from the sun and heat. He wore a towel around the back of his neck to wipe away the sweat.

I played outside a lot as a child; the scent of grass wafted through many games and adventures with my sister, the neighborhood kids, the dogs.

I can’t remember the first time the fragrance brought a pang. It just hit me one day: I stopped, inhaled.

Fresh-cut grass.

Daddy. 

For a split second, I was a child again, standing in the front yard in the cool of the day, glimpsing the streets, feeling the hum of everyday life, lazy afternoons, the maple tree stirring.

The sense of order, continuity, stability behind it all is my father.

All present and real in that clean, green smell.

Our last phone conversation was about his cutting the grass. He had a riding lawnmower by then:

“My chest is sore. I think it’s from turning the wheel on the mower. I probably shouldn’t have gone over the yard twice.”

“Why do you need to do it twice, Daddy?”

“Well, I don’t need to do it twice. I like to cut it in one direction and then the other. It makes a pattern. Looks so nice.”

“Has that made you sore like this before?” 

“Not really. I overdid it this time.”

“When do you go back to your heart doctor?”

“I don’t go to him any more. Once you’re healed they see you for a while but then they release you. I only see a regular doctor when it’s time for check-ups.”

I don’t like the sound of this. He’s been mowing his lawn forever and hasn’t been sore. It could be overexerted muscles, but . . . 

“Daddy, you should go back to the cardiologist. Just in case.”

He didn’t make the appointment. His mind was on getting through his last week of work and retiring after nearly forty-one years as a security guard at the shipyard.

Four days later, on a bright, early-fall morning, he walked across his prized lawn for the last time. He was in uniform, going to work. He had three more working days to go.

The neighbor across the street happened to look through her window and saw him lying beside his car.

It was his heart, of course. It just blew, six years after his first attack and bypass surgery.

He died there by the green, green grass of home.

That’s a damned sad song, he once told me, shaking his head. “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” That and “Danny Boy.” When I was stationed in Las Vegas, at the nightclubs somebody always asked for “Danny Boy.” Why do people like songs about dying? Why not ask for something cheerful, for God’s sake?

Something cheerful.

It’s not a song, Daddy, just a blog post about fresh-cut grass, but there’s cheer in it, because the grass, though cut, always heals itself and grows again, and you are always present in that sweet scent, and I am a child without a care in the world, only I don’t realize it yet.

I do now.

Thank you for everything. I owe you much.

Love you.

* * * * *

Daddy - USAF

Daddy served in the United States Air Force before I was born. Memorial Day seems to be a fitting time to honor him. Although his service to his country was long past, he was nevertheless in uniform and on his way to perform his duty when he died – one of the most dutiful men I’ve ever known. He was also a storyteller. With Daddy, stories occasionally became epics, as he liked to talk and frequently got in trouble for that in school, according to my grandmother. I owe my love of story in large part to them. Here are two favorite stories of mine derived from theirs, featuring all of us:  Born and Baby’s breath.

Making adjustments

Poor Banjo

Poor Banjo!

Banjo is my family’s 18-month-old yellow Lab. If he can be summed up in one word, it’s exuberant. If two words – wildly exuberant. He is a force to be reckoned with, ninety-one pounds of raw energy barreling toward us at top speed in hopes of 1) eating something or 2) having us throw a ball or stick for him to retrieve. Endlessly. Banjo goes into a frenzy if he thinks we’re about to stop throwing said ball or stick, the bodily equivalent of shouting NONONONONOPLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE!!!! His beautiful gold-green eyes (sky-blue when he was a baby) go pink around the rims; he often leaves us humans coated in a layer of frothy slobber, prompting us to quote Bill Murray’s line to Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters: “He slimed me.”

During attempted walks on the leash (key word: attempted – these walks are more like trying to restrain a steam locomotive), Banjo’s mouth foams to the point of looking rabid, unnerving to anyone who might recall a certain story about a big yellow dog exposed to hydrophobia. I mentally push this horrible connection away the instant it comes to mind. Managing Banjo has become something of a Herculean challenge, to say the least. Twice he’s escaped from us, running, barking and foaming, through our neighborhood, causing one woman to run into her house and giving young men chase. I corralled him once myself and got him safely to our fenced backyard. The other time my older son chased him for forty-five minutes, while Banjo had the time of his life ripping through neighbor’s yards and swimming in the pond across the street from our house. In disgust, my son gave up and stormed home, at which point Banjo, sopping with pond water, bounded back up the driveway.

Banjo escaped from the backyard recently, having dislodged two slats of the wooden fence by repeatedly jumping against them with his considerable weight. Looking at the slats, presently secured with bungee cords until we can nail them back properly, my husband said, “If we can’t contain him, we’re not going to be able to keep him.”

My turn to say NONONONONOPLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE!!!! 

Despite all, I love this wildly exuberant dog. He’s been with us since he was seven weeks old, a ball of yellow fuzz that slept in my lap or on my feet. Banjo’s presence represents hope and survival, his own as well as my husband’s during a dark time;  I wrote about it in The unplanned baby. How can I just give him up? Yes, he’s one giant mess. Sure, he sheds copiously, enough hair to make a whole other dog. Yes, he dug up the pipe leading from the propane tank by the back deck until the stench of gas frightened us all, giving us visions of the whole place blowing at any moment, until we buried the pipe again and built a small wall of cinder blocks around it. Banjo barked at these blocks nonstop, all day, every day, for about a month.

But when he goes into his crate at night, he looks at me with those golden-green eyes and waits patiently for me to reach through and rub him for a minute. When I do, he leans his head against my hand, closes his eyes, and savors every second – the sweetest, most loving of creatures.

If only he would stay this calm more often . . . .

It was inevitable, of course, and past time, really. It had to be done.

We took Banjo to be neutered.

We did not know until we picked him up that he’d be wearing a cone to keep him from interfering with his surgery site until it healed – for seven days.

“There’s no way,” I said, watching Banjo writhing, twisting, and jumping, trying to rid himself of this horrid thing around his head. But after a few minutes, he sat still, with his head hanging down. Subjugated, submissive, maybe even dejected, Banjo seemed to be contemplating this new, unfortunate turn of events.

In the subsequent days, he simply made the necessary adjustments.

He learned that he had to put the entire cone opening over his food and water bowl to eat and drink. I laughed at the sight. He looked like something straight out of science fiction, a vacuum-headed suction creature from another planet. He ran through the backyard, as exuberant as ever, with his cone pointed toward the sky like a morning-glory flower. He wanted to play so badly that, despite the cone, he managed to drag a five-foot pine limb thicker than my arm to me in hopes that I’d throw it for him.

He still waited for me to rub his head when he went into his crate to sleep.

“I am so sorry about all of this, Banjo,” I said, working my hand through the bars and past the cone.

He shifted his head to help me reach him, leaned against my hand, and closed his eyes. So accepting and forgiving.

I rubbed him an extra-long time, tears stinging my own eyes.

My husband and I took the cone off after four days. We couldn’t stand it anymore.

Banjo is healed now, running unfettered again in the backyard each day of this glorious, sunny spring. He never fails to lift my spirits, this big, beautiful, messy boy. He reminds me that setbacks are temporary, that whatever pain and hardships come, there’s something good waiting just on the other side. Accept, make the necessary adjustments, carry on – cheerfully.

Just another of life’s lessons from an exuberant yellow dog that will hopefully be calmer now.

Regardless, here’s the truth about Banjo: He doesn’t belong to me. I belong to him.

Always.

Reflection: What are the necessary adjustments must you make in your own life, currently? Think acceptance, forgiveness, healing, moving beyond. What’s the something better that might be waiting on the other side of the struggle, the pain? Write your truths.

 

Born

“They said it would be a while,” announced the young man, as he came through the apartment door. “I gave the nurses your number – I figured I could wait here just as good as at the hospital, since it’s so close.”

“Yes, that’s true!” beamed his mother, closing the door behind him. “I’m so glad you came!”

The young man’s father nodded from the table. “You’re just in time for strawberry shortcake. Come have a bite.”

The young man seated himself at the table while his mother dished up another serving of shortcake topped with freshly-whipped cream. He’d hardly tasted it when the telephone rang. He froze – it couldn’t be the hospital, could it? 

His mother darted to the phone: “Hello? Yes … yes he is.”

She held the receiver out to him.

Was something wrong? Despite the juicy strawberries, his mouth was dry as he took the phone.

“Congratulations!” said the chipper nurse on the other end. “You have a daughter! Mother and baby are doing fine.”

He managed to thank the nurse. He hung up and looked into the rapt blue eyes of his parents.

“It’s a girl,” he said, blinking. “She’s already here!”

His mother hugged him. She began to cry.

In a flurry, they gathered the dishes and set them in the sink. His mother took off her apron and grabbed her pocketbook. His father put on his black cap, and the three of them fairly scrambled out of the kitchen door and down the back stairs.

His mother-in-law and sister-in-law were standing at the nursery window when the young man arrived with his parents in tow. 

Said his sister-in-law: “It’s a girl – finally!” She sounded almost wistful, having no children of her own.

Turning to hug the young man, his mother-in-law said: “Looka there – a granddaughter, after five grandsons! I thought this baby might come fast. All of my mine did.”

“Mine did, too,” said the young man’s mother, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

The mother-in-law took her by the arm.”Come up close and see your first grandbaby.” And she stepped back to let the new grandmother near the nursery window.

“Ohhhh,” whispered the young man’s mother, gazing through the glass. “She looks just like a little angel.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, unabated. 

Her son, the brand-new father, peered through the glass beside her, frowning. He hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but one thing was for sure – the newborn wasn’t pretty. “Good Lord. She looks just like Daddy.” 

Everyone laughed at that. It was true – the wrinkly, ruddy newborn had hardly any hair and looked like a little old man – indeed the image of her granddaddy, who beheld her silently, smiling, his heart bursting with pride. He thought of the twenty silver dollars he’d collected  for his first grandchild. One day when this baby was old enough, he’d give them to her.

The in-laws congratulated each other on one side of the glass as the baby slept soundly on the other, while somewhere in the bowels of the hospital, the baby’s mother wanted to know when she was getting some supper, since the baby’s arrival had preempted it.

Thus was I born, that long-ago evening in May, strawberry season, in the city, when fathers were relegated to waiting rooms instead of witnessing and participating in births, before Cool Whip was even invented – alas.

As the day rolls around yet again, with every celebrant who gathered at the nursery window long passed on, it occurs to me that knowing the story of my birth is a gift. It ranks high, priceless, among all the gifts given me over a lifetime. I owe this mostly to my grandmother, a tireless storyteller, and some to her son, my father, who, in his matter-of-fact way, told me that my mother grumbled about missing her supper and that newborns aren’t pretty – not even his own! He made a similar observation at the funeral of his father – my grandfather – as we stood by the casket. “He looks really good,” I said, stroking Granddaddy’s snow-white hair for the last time, marveling at the smoothness of his skin. My father frowned: “I don’t know why people say that. Corpses don’t look good.”

Geez, Daddy.

Nevertheless, I cherish my birth narrative as told by those who were there.

Tonight I celebrate them and their truths, their personalities, their wit, their lives – and their stories, which allow me to see events from their perspectives. Tonight, for just a moment, I am at the window, watching through their eyes, when I am born.

The fascinating reciprocal, of course, is that because of their stories, they live on through mine.

Reflection: Do you know your birth – or adoption – narrative? If you do, write it down! If you don’t, ask, if possible. If not possible, well, that’s a powerful story in itself. Explore your beginning, experiment with perspective  – and write. And, by all means, if you know the birth stories of others – tell them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baby’s breath

Sleeping child

Angel1. peasapCC BY

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. – Isak Dinesen

Being a light sleeper, he hears the rasping sound in the middle of the night. He gets up, tracing the sound to the baby’s crib. 

She’s not breathing right.

He touches her face; she isn’t feverish. She stirs under his hand, still sleeping, drawing ragged, rattling breaths.

He is young. This is his first child. They are out of town, visiting his sister in the country.

He goes back to bed.

But he carries his baby with him and lies awake all night beside her, to make sure she keeps breathing. He perspires with anxiety – she’s so little. 

Just three months old. 

“It’s asthma,” the doctors tell him later. 

A few years afterward, she has a bad bout of it. He takes her to the doctors, gets medication. She cries and cries, which doesn’t help the breathing.

“I – want – Grandma,” she wheezes, tears dripping off of her chin.

He calls his mother. “She wants to be with you but I hate to bring her when she’s sick.”

He sounds worn out.

“Bring her,” says his mother.

She lets all the housework go. Wrapping her arms around her granddaughter, she sits down in the rocking chair. Back and forth, back and forth she rocks, singing, “Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.”

Yes – Je – sus – loves – me – ” the little girl tries to sing, rattling, wheezing, coughing on the words. She can’t get enough air. 

“Don’t try to sing, honey. Just listen to me singing,” says her Grandma.

On and on Grandma sings. The little girl settles, dried tear stains streaking her flushed face. Lulled by the beating of her grandmother’s heart in time with the song and the rocking of the chair, her eyes close at last. Rocking back and forth, back and forth, Grandma sings, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. Be well. Be well. Be well.

The sweat and the tears couldn’t cure asthma.

They represent another kind of healing power.

Self-sacrificial love.

“I was afraid to sleep,” my father told me of the long-ago night he lay awake, sweating, to make sure I kept breathing when my first asthma attack struck at three months.  He would get up countless nights throughout the years when he heard me coughing, to bring me medication or to turn on the vaporizer.

It’s why my grandmother dropped everything to comfort me, always had open arms, always had a song despite the tears. “My heart was breaking the whole time,” she said, recalling the day I begged to stay with her and didn’t have breath enough to sing, the memory resurrecting the tears even after decades had passed.

The memories are theirs, not mine, as I have no firsthand recollection of these events; told to me separately by my father and grandmother, many times over, they are part of my narrative identity.

Sweat, tears. The pouring out of their lives for mine, the pouring of their love into me from the very beginning. I am infused with their strength, their perseverance.

And beyond the power of the sweat and the tears is the power of story.

I remain to tell it.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer