Carry on

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where …

—”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” B. Scott/B. Russell

Dear Son,

I think this may be my favorite picture of you. For several reasons. I like to see you in such a peaceful setting, walking that country path beside lush green fields, under the blue summer sky. You were walking with a friend, so you weren’t alone. You told me that her puppy followed youI still can’t believe that’s just a puppy; he’s massive!and he got tired, so you picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.

That is why I love the photo so much. It captures the essence of who you are.

Quietly bearing your burdens, no matter how heavy. There have been many in these past few years. Ever how burdened you were, ever how twisted and dark the path became, you kept on walking.

No one knows better than I what a long, long road it’s been, from the day you started college to now. Graduation being canceled, just when the end is in sight, feels like a coup de grâce.

It all started off on such a high note, didn’t it? Getting that phone call two weeks after you finished high school, a church looking for a music director. Your childhood dream. I still have your kindergarten “All About Me” book with the prompt ‘When I grow up, I want to be’ … where you drew yourself as a choir director in crayon. You attained it at seventeen, before your formal training even began.

That summer was glorious and brief.

That fall you started college and almost instantly the shadows came.

Your father‘s diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the loss of his eye, the weeks waiting for pathology to reveal no cancer cells had spread. Despite your new job and your courseload, you stepped up to help him readjust.

On the heels of his healing came Ma-Ma’s stroke, the beginning of her slow decline over the rest of that year. She knew how much you loved her. She treasured every minute with you; she savored every long phone call you made from the time you were little. She couldn’t keep from crying whenever you played the piano and sangremember how she organized for you to come play at her nursing home, near the last? I will never forget her wet, shining face. She was inordinately proud of you. She loved you fiercely.

How grateful I am that you and your dad were there, holding her hands, when she died.

And so you bore her loss on top of an unexpected one.

I know you’re marking the date. Three years ago today, the accident that took your friend. Your little childhood playmate who sang with you in preschool choir, your high school band mate, the organizer of the Sunday-nights-at-Bojangles gatherings. As I write, I hear her pure, high voice echoing in the church to your harmony and piano accompaniment. Her going left all of us reeling—a swift, severe, deep cut to the heart, a knotty scar we’ll bear forever. And yet you play on. You still sing. You stand by her family in their remembrances, your presence the only comfort that’s in your power to give. She would be graduating, too, this spring … but no one is graduating this spring …

It’s one of the hardest things in life, losing people, and not only to death. People will come and go because they choose to, no matter how much we wish they’d stay. You endured this, too, with uncommon grace, never lashing out, just walking on with your invisible pain. I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it.

Seems we were due a respite, and if there was one, it was those few weeks of vacation last summer before your dad’s heart attack. You and I had just come home from walking when the officer arrived in the driveway to say your dad’s truck had run off the road and hit a tree, it might have been a medical event, maybe a seizure, no, he wasn’t sure what condition your father was in, EMS was working on him when he left, and did we have a way to get to the hospital? With your big brother too distraught to drive, you did it. Calmly, carefully, you drove us to the emergency room where the nurse met us at the door. You were beside me when she ushered us to the little room where the doctor met us to say your father had been resuscitated and was being prepped for heart surgery.

You were there with me that first night of sleeping on the waiting room chairs, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. You were there with me throughout that long week of his hospitalization, until your dad came home, battered, bruised, trying to recover his memory. You got his prescriptions so that I wouldn’t have to leave him … and when I took him back to the ER with chest pains a couple of weeks later, you met us there. Another hospital stay. Another heart surgery. Two more weeks of sleeping in the hospital. Do you remember the surreality of it all? How we felt like it would never end, like we were caught in the web of the wrong story, a movie with a terrible plot twist we didn’t see coming? How could this be?

Somehow you managed to keep your studies up, only leaving for your classes and your church services, making the music and leading the worship for others.

So here we are, at last. Your dad, recovered and restored … able to drive me back and forth to work with my broken foot … until this tiny pathogen bent on world domination closed the schools. Here you are, completing your final weeks of college online, being denied the walk to receive the reward of all your labors … it is unthinkable.

I think about the whole of your young adult life. How your road has been so long, with many a winding turn, through many a dark shadow. I watched how you went around, through, or over every obstacle on this arduous journey. You’ve endured what might have caused others to quit college, others who might have actually enjoyed their studies; I know you never loved the “game” of school and that for you it’s been a test of endurance, in itself. But the end is in sight—despite a pandemic. A plague. Who’d have ever believed, in our time …

You have come this far, bearing every heavy load. You’ve carried on. Often you, the baby of the family, carried the rest of us. You’ve fought internal battles for your own wellness more than anyone else knows; in this spiritual war, you’ve earned a Medal of Honor for exceptional valor. I know it and God knows it, Son. I stand in awe of your heart, full of love and mercy, so self-sacrificial, so willing to lighten others’ burdens as your own grew heavier. Like carrying a giant puppy during a long walk on a hot summer’s day, because it got tired.

That is why I love this picture. It is your story.

There are no words for how much I love you.

Keep walking, Son. Carry on. You are strong.

I am stronger because of you. Soon my foot will be well enough to walk with you again.

When we come through this present ominous shadow, college will be over, we’ll find ourselves in a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’ll celebrate all of it. Just a little farther alongI know that in your quiet way, you’ve already made your peace with it. I can almost hear you singing:

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
...

All my love, my always-little darling,

Your forever proud, grateful Mom

Child’s play

My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”

Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):

This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …

—What?

Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?

“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie” was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…

That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.

The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.

That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.

Its value, inestimable.

Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.

And our children?

They’ll keep on playing.

And watching.

“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”

-Janusz Korczak

Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger. CC BY.

Stayin’ alive

The master says it’s glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.

—Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

A friends tells me she can’t turn on the news at home anymore because her first-grader is terrified of catching “the cronavirus.”

I remember that terror …

It began with nosebleeds. I had so many as a child that the pediatrician told my father the vessels in my nose might need to be cauterized.

“Carterized? What is that?”

“Burned.” Said my father, before thinking better of it.

Burned?

BURNED?

I lived in mortal terror of having another nosebleed, of having the inside of my nose burned.

I told my Sunday School teacher about it: “My nose might have to be carterized if I don’t stop having nosebleeds.”

“Well, it’s better to have a vessel burst in your nose than one in your head.”

A vessel can burst in my HEAD? What does that mean? What happens to you if a vessel bursts in your HEAD? Do you die?

My head felt weak. I tried not to move it very much.

“Why are you walking so stiff and hunched up?” snapped Mom.

And then there was the sign in the church stairwell:

FALLOUT SHELTER

“What’s a fallout shelter?” I wanted to know one evening after supper when our neighbor walked across the street to play Yahtzee.

“Oh, a place where people can go if there’s a nuclear bomb, to be safe from the radiation,” said Mom, taking a drag of her Salem.

“Yeah, and this is the first place that would be attacked,” said our neighbor, shaking the dice, “with all our military bases and being so near D.C.” The dice rolled across the table. “Damn! Nothin’! I guess I’ll have to take it on Chance.”

How will we get to the fallout shelter to be safe, if it’s blown apart?

Why do we live here?

Nuclear bombs… the vessels in my nose, the ones in my head … what’s gonna blow first? What will happen to me? How’m I gonna stay alive?

—Yes, I remember the terror. To this day.

—Remember the children.

Photo: Fallout. m anima. CC BY

Little girl blowing bubbles

Ever wish you could keep a small child safe and innocent forever? It’s a wish as ethereal as bubbles in the wind, drifting away like childhood itself. I took this photo last summer. It’s taken this long to figure out how to convey what I felt.

Little girl

blowing bubbles

in the sun

free of troubles

How they drift

on the breeze

turning, turning

as they please

Colors shimmer

ever bright

just a moment

in the light

Wave your wand

my temporary

iridescent

bubble fairy

All too soon

time shall pass

bubbles pop

in the grass

How I wish

things could stay

idyllic as

this summer day.

My new name

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts

—Shakespeare, As You Like It

Life’s transitions tend to sneak up on us.

For example, when it dawned on my oldest son that high school wouldn’t last forever and beyond it was college plus this thing called The Rest of Your Life, involving responsibility and duty, he looked at me with big brown eyes full of gloom: “I don’t want to grow up.”

Alas. It happens.

But he found his way. Last fall he simultaneously started the pastorate, married, and became the dad of a beautiful four-year-old girl. That’s a lot of transitions in one fell swoop, and he’s embracing them all. He’s thriving.

One man in his time plays many parts . . .

All of a sudden, his father and I have reached the grandparent stage of life. While it’s the loveliest transition, I can’t keep from thinking, with a pang, How did I become this old? Truth is, there’s exactly the same age difference between my grandmother and me as there is between me and my new granddaughter. It shouldn’t seem so astonishing.

The hardest transition isn’t mine, however. It’s my granddaughter’s. She loves to come over, loves to climb in my lap with a book as much as I loved climbing into my Grandma’s with one. All of this is glorious fun. No, the hard part is what to call me. She’s used to saying Miss Fran:

“Miss Fran, I’m hungry!”

“Oooo, Miss Fran, I like your nails. Can you paint mine?”

“Can we have a popcorn party and watch Frozen again, Miss Fran?”

“Let’s go outside and blow bubbles, Miss Fran!”

She likes telling everyone that I am her grandmother now. She even likes pretending to be me. My son said that after I broke my foot she went clomping around their house with one rain boot on, saying “I’m Miss Fran!” Yikes.

This transition away from Miss Fran has proved challenging. But she’s working on it.

The other night she asked me to spell words for her with magnets on a whiteboard. I did, without realizing that she intended to copy them with a marker.

Here she is, writing with utmost care. A message to me.

With my new name, for the new role I get to play in her life:

Franna.

Life just gets grander.

I asked her if she wanted to spell “Franna” with one ‘n’ or two. She chose two.

A matter of heart

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

-Ecclesiastes 7:8

Last week didn’t start so well.

On Sunday, I broke a bone in my foot while simply walking (and falling, somehow) down the garage steps.

I’d already taken Monday off to attend my brother-in-law’s funeral but spent it on my couch instead with my newly-damaged foot elevated, commiserating with my husband, whose leg has developed a discolored, painful bulge—the leg from which veins were removed for his bypass surgery last fall. It’s not a clot, and that’s all we know until his appointment this week.

“I never would have believed that I wouldn’t be able to attend my own brother’s service,” he sighed. It’s a seven-hour round trip; neither of us was up to it.

I surveyed our legs, propped on the same stool. His left, my right. Mirror-images of each other. Except for my orthopedic boot.

I sighed, too, the entire left side of my body sore from overcompensating for the right. “I know. This is like being eighty years old or something.” Which is decades away…

Our college-student son, passing through the living room, quipped in his deadpan way: “Well, at least you’ll know what to expect when you are eighty.”

So. That was Monday.

On Tuesday I returned to work. It happened to be the 100th day of school, meaning that most kindergarten and first grade students (and many of their teachers) came dressed as old people. White hair, glasses, wrinkles sketched with eyeliner, canes galore.

For a split second, I mused: Who wants to live to be a hundred?

But the kids were adorable, their teachers were having fun, and God knows we all need to have more fun at school. Too much of it isn’t.

That is where my mind was when a little “old” person wandered up to me in the lobby where I rested on a bench between the arrival of buses, my morning duty.

A kindergartner. Big, mournful eyes moving from my boot to my face: “Are you all right?”

“Oh yes! I am fine,” I said, touched by the obvious concern in that small voice.

“What happened to your foot?

“Well, I broke a bone in it.”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, really, it doesn’t. The boot is a cushion for it, see, and it doesn’t hurt at all right now.”

A flicker of relief across the little, made-up old face. The tiny pseudo-centenarian went on her way.

That was Tuesday.

And Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday. Everywhere I went, the kids wanted to know: What did you do to your foot?

I shared the X-ray with some of them, saw the fascination in their eyes.

Some didn’t ask anything. They came up to me just to say I hope you will be okay. I hope you feel better.

As I labored up and down the staircases, one careful step at a time—the elevator at school is BROKEN—I thought a lot about the curiosity and compassion of children, how natural these things are for them, how comfortable children are with asking and expressing. If we can preserve, nurture, stir curiosity and compassion through all of their formative years … what a different culture, what a different world, it would be. Possibly our greatest work.

The week ended much better than how it began. Not because of satisfying still more curiosity about my broken foot with ongoing questions, or the taste of true human compassion at its purest. Not because I made it through the first week of recovery, although that was a glad milestone. No. Friday was a day of festivities, of celebration, all shining from the children’s faces.

“Happy Valentime’s Day, Mrs. Haley!” called the little ones when they passed me in line in the hallways, inviting me to their classrooms to share their candy, their cupcakes, their joy.

Valentimes. The mispronunciation seems almost poetic. As in, these times are made for Valentines. Definitely for love.

Oh my, thank you, I’ll come see your goodies but you keep them; they were given to you.

You yourselves are gifts enough to me, children.

You as well as puppy therapy. ❤️

Dennis the dachshund takes turns between my lap and my husband’s while we prop our legs.

Of the earth

Midway through lunch, the din in the cafeteria is too much. The new boy brings his tray to where I’m standing:

Can I sit here at this table?”

It’s an empty table, save for my phone, closed laptop, electronic entry key, all the things I carried with me because I didn’t have time to put them in my room before this daily duty.

I consider his brown eyes, looking up at me. Pleading.

I consider his boisterous classmates and the seat he left behind.

“Are you moving yourself here because you feel it’s a safer place for you to be right now?” I ask.

He nods.

“All right. That seems like a good choice.”

His face breaks into a grin. He sits.

And the questions start: What kind of phone is that? Do you have a dog? Do you like Doritos? What kind do you like best? What’s your favorite color? Where are you from? How old are you, twenty-nine? Forty? Older?

How old are YOU? Eight? Did you move over just here to ask me all these questions?

He just smiles and takes a swig of his strawberry milk.

Then:

“Mrs. Haley, what’s your favorite snake?”

“What? My favorite SNAKE, did you say? Yikes—I don’t …”

Of course I am about to say I don’t like any snake whatsoever, but something in his expression stops me. “Um, do you like snakes?”

He nods. “I like pythons.”

Heavens. I refrain from telling him about a man I saw on the news this week. He happened to find a boa constrictor in his couch and had no idea how it got there or from whence it came.

He’s watching my face. A keen observer, this child. He’s waiting for my response.

I could say I like green snakes, but I don’t. I could say I like black snakes because my granddaddy said they eat rats and mice, so don’t ever kill a black snake. I think about the copperheads Granddaddy killed on the dirt road where his barefoot grandchildren ran in the summertime. I think about the coiled baby water moccasin I found in front of the kitchen cabinets when my first son was just three, and I how I was about to pick it up, thinking it was an odd piece of rope . . . until I almost touched it. And saw its eyes. Or that time I was cleaning the attic and discovered a complete shed snakeskin; I nearly knocked a whole new exit in my ceiling, trying to scramble out of there . . .

I DO NOT LIKE SNAKES.

But this boy with the strawberry mustache is waiting. His eyes are shining.

And then I recall a little creature lying across my sidewalk a couple of weeks ago. So little that I thought it to be a large worm at first; it was the same pale tan. I noted a faint pattern of scales on it. Could it be a snake? I looked it up. It was. “Smooth earth snake.” They are shy; they live mostly in the dirt around trees and bushes. I’d just had all the old bushes around my house pulled up. Apparently this little fossorial serpent was disturbed, or even damaged, as the equipment pulled away deep, tangled roots. For whatever reason, it crawled out in the open only to die there on the sidewalk. Who knows, maybe it was just trying to get to safety.

—Poor little snake. The only one I’ve ever mourned.

I look at the boy. He’s new here. He’s been uprooted.

Perhaps he did come to this table for safety, after all.

Even as I begin to speak, I think of earth and geosmin, the organic element in soil that humans can smell to something like the trillionth degree (we can detect one tablespoon in three Olympic-size swimming pools) and why that should be, unless it’s because we were meant to live close to the earth, that we came from the earth, and to the earth we will return. A curious kinship with that little snake. With all living things.

“My favorite snake is the earth snake. It’s very small. Have you heard of it?”

He wants to see a picture, so I do a search on my phone just as it’s time for classes to clean up and go outside for recess. To run, to play, to breathe the fresh air, to enjoy being children . . . how well I remember.

The silence in the cafeteria now is too much.

Photo: Smooth Earthsnake. Cygnus921. CC-BY

Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”

He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”

We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.

He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.

I understood.

It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.

I never got to write with him.

I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.

For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.

To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.

Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.

And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.

—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Sick Ada

I don’t know where it came from, this idea for a story about a little girl who likes cicadas.

Except that I was a little girl who liked cicadas. I am a grown-up who loves them; I’ve written about this many times.

Anyway . . .

In my idea (that fell into my head when I was actually thinking of other things), a little girl is having a hard time adjusting to her parents’ separation. It’s connected to a change in seasons when she can’t hear cicadas anymore. Perhaps she will find some shed cicada shells and ponder the emptiness where a living thing used to be. Or how one outgrows things. Maybe she’ll even think that her parents have outgrown their love for her. I am not sure yet of all the meanings and connections; I will have to write and let the story grow and breathe on its own.

I do know, however, that the little girl becomes ill. Is it terminal? Not sure yet. She goes to the hospital. It’s winter. As she’s falling asleep, the heater in her room sounds like cicadas rattling high in the summer trees. It’s a happy sound, this buzzing. She will wonder if dying is not so bad, really, if she can just keep hearing cicadas . . . and then she hears voices. Her mother and father are there with her in the room, together if only for a little while, united in their concern for their sick daughter.

Whose name is Ada.

Sick Ada . . . cicada . . .

That’s as far as I’ve gotten, just grasping at these gossamer images, the barest wings of an idea.

But I think it might like to become a real story.

That belongs to children, for they live at the mercy of adults and the world.

And, of course, to cicadas, which are always buzzing somewhere, and which represent many things, mostly good.

Seems I almost owe it to little sick Ada, waiting there in the wings.

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose Hernandez. CC BY-SA

Waiting

We put the cookies in the oven

and we wait.

Good things take a while.

Don’t they.

Like Christmas and growing up.

Like wedding days

and having children.

Like heart-dreams coming true.

Like you.

It took a long time.

I had to wait.

My little boy had to grow up

and finally find your Mom.

It took a while

didn’t it

for you to get your dad.

Know what he told me?

“Mom, you’re getting a little girl

at last.”

So much of life is waiting, waiting,

it’s true

like my long ago-dream

of you.

So many books to read

and stories to share

and songs to sing

and places to go

and just to be

you and me.

So we put the cookies in the oven

and oh, we can hardly wait.