Incapacitated

The initial predictions were utter destruction by an epic monster.

Having suffered extensive damage from hurricanes in years past, central North Carolina fortified itself against Florence. I collected a small mountain of dry goods and canned vegetables—”hurricane stash”—that probably could have fed my family of four for two weeks without electricity. Since we’re on a well, we don’t have water when the power goes out; I  even purchased powdered milk to mix with bottled water, for our cereal. Bottled water . . . that took several trips across three days. By 6:30 in the mornings, restocked grocery shelves were again picked clean. I finally scored a 36-count pack of Aquafina and turned to maneuver away from the throng in that aisle when a man, loading his own cart, said, “Here, you better take another.” He hefted a pack of water off the shelf and stacked it on top of the one in my cart. This gesture by a stranger stirred my heart.

At home, the dogs had plenty of food, we had batteries, all the laundry was done, one of the bathtubs was filled with water, the cars with gas. Our porch rocking chairs and the grill were secured in the shed. The television news ran nonstop. My family watched the slow, drawn-out approach of the monster, and although the sun was still shining, school was canceled in anticipation of the onslaught. My mind continually scrolled for every possible preparation. I even boiled the remainder of our eggs so they’d be usable if the power went out for days, as happened in the past.

I planned for everything.

Except my back going out.

It started on the day before Florence was to make landfall and grew steadily worse. I attributed it, at first, to the barometric pressure; I’d heard several people mention headaches and backaches. By the time the wind and rain arrived, however, the grip of pain was too intense for me to sit or walk anymore. Dosed with ibuprofen, I spent the duration of the storm — five days, all told— lying in bed with pillows under my knees.

Unable to do anything.

Except re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

Escapism at its best.

Different things strike me on each reading. This time, as the wind raged on the other side of the walls, as sideways rain whipped in voluminous sheets, slapping the windows with fury, as the encroaching darkness forced me to switch on my phone flashlight in order to see the words on the pages—Lumos!— I lay there contemplating the nobility of the characters, the way they banded together, helped one another, in the face of their own destructive, epic monster. How they found unrealized courage despite ever-increasing darkness. As I lay reading, immersed in Harry’s world,  I caught distant snatches of the news from my own: on the TV in the living room, where my husband and sons tracked Florence’s path, meteorologists warned people that if their houses flooded to not seek refuge in their attics, because there’s no exit. Rescue personnel are not equipped to cut through houses to save people. Meaning that it’s safer to climb on the roof of one’s house than to be trapped.

For a second, everything went still: How could I do that? If it flooded here—never say never—how could I possibly climb to the roof? I can’t even move!

And then I read the words of Mad-Eye Moody to Harry as Harry was about to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament: Play to your strengths. 

Harry doesn’t think he has any strengths—this is Book Four, he’s just fourteen —and he has no idea that the Tournament was designed solely to destroy him. Moody growls: Think now. What are you best at?

Lying flat on my back, at the mercy of my own body, helpless against the forces of nature, imagining a flood . . . what strength would I have, just now?

I thought of elderly people in this storm. Then of my Grannie, years ago, when her house caught fire in the dead of night on New Year’s Eve; how, after just having heart bypass surgery in the days when it was a new thing, she climbed out of her upstairs bedroom window onto the porch roof and survived.

Play to your strengths.

In Grannie’s case it was pure grit. As for me . . . well, a streak of that same determination and strong will (Grannie-grit) runs in my own veins, but I think my strength is rooted in something greater. If had to choose what’s deepest within me to tap, it’s hope.

I recently heard hope defined as not wishing, but knowing, trusting. No matter how severe the pain, I know I’d be able to climb to safety. Somehow. I trust my family would help me. Even in my weakened state, I’d find and give the last of my strength to help them, too. A strength that would come exactly when it was needed, not before.

On and on I read. Of Harry’s overcoming, of his concern for others, his willingness to give his own life in order to save them, even those he didn’t know personally . . . .

The darkness, the storms bring out the best in humanity, reminding us that we are, above all, here to help each other. Not to destroy.

—I will write about Severus Snape another day.

And storms, ever how violent, do not last forever.

It didn’t flood here, although our yard remained a bog for a while.

Now we have a plague of bloodthirsty mosquitoes to battle.

And my back pain has diminished, bit by bit, day by day. It remains a twinge, still causing me to be mindful. Strange thing, that. Being rendered powerless during the storm, unable to do anything but read. And endure.

But, in the end, powerless all depends on one’s own perspective. Reading is another great strength of mine, is it not? Didn’t it get me through the storm and the pain? That’s hardly powerless. Not to mention that in my tiny neighborhood, in the heart of a rural area where we frequently lose the power for no apparent reason at all . . . the lights blinked but never went out.

Just like hope.

 

Motherlove

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“Ripe Tomatoes.” Robert Duncan.

When my first child was born, I thought I knew what love was.

But then . . .

Alone for the first time this day, I’m lying in the hospital bed, looking at the bulletin board with a few cards from friends and family already pinned to it, thinking of my mother and grandmothers.

How they warned me.

Three different times, unbeknownst to each other:

“I delivered all of my babies quickly, so don’t wait around when the time comes . . . ”

How each of them nodded sagely after giving their own individual versions of this pronouncement. Like lesser, more amiable versions of the mythological Three Fates. 

Good thing I listened, I tell myself.

I beat them all.

He came so fast.

Less than an hour after I walked in here.

*******

The doctor, thinking he has plenty of time, arrives almost too late. As soon as his gloves are on, it’s over.

“A boy,” he says. I get only a glimpse of tiny flailing arms as the doctor immediately hands my son to the nurses, who sweep into a side room to suction his mouth and nose before he draws his first breath.

Loud, remarkably strong cries reverberate through the rooms.

“Whose baby is that?” I ask the nurse attending me.

She chuckles. “Yours.”

Gracious. I never imagined a newborn’s lungs could be so strong.

Within minutes, another nurse brings him to me, puts him in my arms.

He’s already quit crying.

His father, standing by in green scrubs, weeps audibly.

This tiny face. The nose. It’s uncanny. “He looks exactly like pictures of your father,” I tell my husband.

“I know,” is all he can manage. 

Now, more than ever, I wish I could have known my father-in-law, who died when my husband was twelve. But the pictures are enough to know that his namesake, here in my arms, is a living replica.

*******

I feel a rush of something that surpasses euphoria. I recall a friend telling me about this sensation: Right after your baby’s born you feel like the most powerful person on Earth, like you could do anything. It’s almost superhuman.

The neonatal people come to take my baby.

I say I’m starving. 

My nurse brings me a breakfast tray.

After the first three bites I promptly throw up. On the rest of my breakfast.

“Sorry,” I tell the nurse.

So much for being superhuman.

My nurse, chuckling again, takes the tray away. “That happens a lot. It’s just your body stabilizing.”

*******

It’s all still a big blur, really. Family members coming, going. Grandma calling to see for herself that I’m okay, saying what she always says when she calls: “I just needed to hear your voice.”

The room is still now, strangely silent for a hospital. I hear muted voices down the hallway where my husband is glued to the nursery window, staring at his son.

The chilly gray morning has apparently turned into a sunny afternoon befitting late April; a ray of light shines through the high window above my bed onto the bulletin board. This golden finger of light illuminates a card with a little boy in overalls standing on the front: Congratulations on Your Baby Boy!

My baby boy. 

Mine.

An internal switch flips. A floodgate opens, some kind of dam bursts with a force too great for words. It surges through my entire being. My body shakes with the ferocity of it. Tears flood my eyes; I can’t see the bulletin board anymore, just the light.

He is mine, he is MINE. If anything, anyone, tries to hurt him, they’ll have to take me out first. 

*******

Motherlove.

The moment it kicked in remains vivid in my memory, many years later. My son was just hours old; looking at the sunlight on that congratulatory card, the sudden thought of something harming him nearly turned me animalistic. I knew I’d move heaven and Earth, I would fight to my death, to save my baby boy: Take me instead. I’d have been completely consumed by this force if a voice in my brain hadn’t said, Look, just be wise. Take care of yourself. Live so that you can keep him safe.

I don’t know why some women are infused with intense motherlove and others are not, for there are women who bring harm to their own. I don’t know everything that can go awry with a person’s psyche or all that causes internal barometers to not function properly. I only know the power of this moment and that the force of it is with me still, even now when my two boys are grown and beyond the protective bubble I could cast over them when they were small.

That doesn’t mean the love is any less fierce.

Mine. They’ll always be mine, as long as I am alive, and even when I am not.

For, once begun, motherlove never ends.

********

My thanks to Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, whose post “The Cariest” on her blog Courage Doesn’t Always Roar in January brought back the intensity of these moments. 

O. Henry

O. Henry grave 

Fall comes early in Asheville, North Carolina. The air is chilly when I get out of the car at the cemetery to visit the grave. I think of winter coming, of Christmas, of this writer’s most famous work. I take a picture, marveling at the coins spread over the gravestone. As I turn to go, a frigid wind gusts, scuttling leaves over the ground and across the driveway.

Leaves . . . I remember that story.

O. Henry’s headstone is covered in coins, mostly pennies, which usually add up to $1.87 –  the amount of money that Jim and Della had at Christmastime in his famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” This shortage of money is why Jim sold his gold pocket watch to buy combs for Della’s beautiful hair, and why Della cut and sold her hair to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim’s prized watch. Their sacrificial love for one another has made the story an enduring classic.

There is another story of O. Henry’s that I love almost as well.

I remembered it as I planned to write “Oh, Henry,” yesterday’s post about my son’s dog. I should write about O. Henry next, I smiled to myself. A little word play with the titles. How enticing.

That’s when I thought about the fallen leaves blowing over the writer’s grave.

I scrounged up my old paperback copy of O. Henry’s short stories and reread “The Last Leaf.”

In this tale, two young artists live in a three-story Greenwich Village building. One of them becomes sick with pneumonia. She watches the leaves dropping from an ivy vine against the wall just outside of her window, convinced that she will die when the last leaf falls. To her astonishment, the last leaf hangs on through high wind and rain. To make a short story shorter, the leaf remains because an old artist in the building crawled up a ladder in the dark of a raw November night and painted it on the wall with the vine. The girl begins to recover and the old man, Behrman, dies of the pneumonia he catches from being out in the weather while painting that night.

The old artist had always wanted to paint a masterpiece and never pulled it off – but the last lines of the story have the roommate telling the recovering girl about the leaf: “Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Berhman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night the last leaf fell.”

Self-sacrificial love at work again – but there’s more to it.

That leaf symbolized hope, sparking the desire to strive, to overcome. The old artist’s small gesture inspired the young artist to keep living.

This leaves me thinking, in the course of our days as teachers, as writers: Are we not the artists who paint the pictures of possibility, of hope, in the minds of others? Do we spark in others a desire to strive, to reach for what’s beyond their grasp, or to hang on only long enough until this, too, shall pass?

Our masterpieces may never be world-famous; they may be as simple as knowing the right word, the right idea, the right vision, the right story, and sharing it when it is most needed. Inspiration leaps from one heart to another, creating something to hang onto, outlasting high winds and rain. We may never see the full effect of our work, but that’s all right.

We paint the leaves where we can.

I close my old paperback book.

O. Henry, I am so thankful you were here.

 

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Baby’s breath

Sleeping child

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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.

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