what matters most
dispatch from 02139 (in which the script turns from sorrow to triumph, and from across the western hills, the cavalry gallops in, just in the nick of time…)
ever since we got the word way last spring that we were headed to veritas U. for this year of living sumptuously, the bespectacled fellow with whom we live, the one now known as “the professor,” had but one shining dream:
that, on the evening when he was called upon to stand before the crowd and unspool the whole of his lifework, a moment known in nieman vernacular as “the sounding,” his first newspaper hero — his papa, a longtime editor and lifelong newshound — would be in the room.
that his papa would be upfront and center glowing in that way he so often glows. that his deep soulful laugh would echo round the chamber. that the tears that stream so easily from his eyes would, indeed, be streaming. filled with knowing that in his grasp was a life of dreams come true.
it was not to be.
two weeks ago, an ambulance carried our beloved longtime newspaper editor to the hospital. he spent a few days in ICU, and now is growing sturdier. he’ll go home soon.
but not soon enough to take the trip from the jersey shore up to the city nestled along the charles river. not soon enough to be in the room last tuesday night, when “the professor” rose, clipped on the microphone and began to unspool the tale of why he does what he does. why his job as the architecture critic of the chicago tribune, in one of the world’s great architectural meccas, has for all these years held his imagination and his passions, why he lives the life of what he calls an “activist critic,” meaning he tries to avert disaster before it strikes its wrecking ball or sinks its pylons, or, conversely, why he uses his column inches to set an agenda of enlightened civic discourse when it comes to public space and edifice.
alas, there were heavy hearts here in the aerie. we all knew this moment swept by but once.
a videocamera filled in a piece of the gap. but the blank space in the equation could not, in fact, be filled. instead of treating the professor’s mama and papa to a couple nights at the inn on harvard square, instead of introducing them to the bevy of glorious fellows, we had to settle for follow-up phone calls to new jersey to recount the eve. we dispatched photos over the computer wires. and soon enough we will hand over a copy of “the sounding” as recorded on DVD.
but that is not the whole of the story.
other scripts were unspooling as that one stalled to its sorry close.
the professor’s firstborn, a college kid who seems to keep only scant attention on the doings back home, seemed to divine the significance of the evening, and despite the fact that it was midterm week — and a tuesday night, no less — he and i set about scheming how to get his lanky self two hours east so he could amply fill one of the seats in the room.
while we set about searching bus and train departure and arrival times, the little one in this house set sail a scheme all his own.
he’d long thought it would be a hoot to introduce the chicago architecture critic with a resounding re-enactment of the chicago bulls pyrotechnic theme song, an anthem that shakes the rafters of the united center back in michael jordan’s home cathedral on the near west side of the windy city. what was particularly amusing about that scenario was how counter to the professor’s culture that might be. our beloved professor is not exactly the pyrotechnic type. rather, he might be more instantly equated with a gentle brahms suite, or a soundtrack in which the hushed turning of pages was considered plenty percussive.
as would be the case in any suspense tale worth telling, the college kid could not find bus nor train nor automobile that aligned with his midterm exams. he and i even got to wondering how much it would cost to hire a car. or, might there be a friend — heck, a stranger would suffice — willing to earn cold hard cash, say 100 easy bucks, to drive the kid in for the evening?
as of 10:30 the morning of the talk (aka “the sounding”), there was no such solution to be had. we’d reached the dead end of this scheme. and it was clearer than clear that there’d now be yet another empty seat in that seminar hall.
yet all the while, as the college kid scrounged for rides, the 11-year-old (the one who no longer can justifiably be called “the little one,” much as i’ve come to love that name) busied himself with his self-appointed role in this unfolding family drama.
never mind that just a few years ago no one would have imagined that kid with the gumption to get up in front of a crowd and read hand-crafted words (let alone craft the darn words). he had it in his head that he — and he alone — should be the one to unfurl the red carpet for his papa’s shining moment in the nieman sun.
he wasn’t daunted by size of crowd, nor reputation of those esteemed and mighty nieman fellows. nay, he kept his eyes trained on one and only one sure thing: he loved his papa, and he would usher his papa to the podium in fitting form.
so, wasting no time, he perched himself on his typing chair, and pounded out his script. (a script, i tell you, no rambling mumbling from the hip.) he closed and locked his bedroom door, and practiced over and over, declaiming to his empty bunk bed. he gave it a run-through. he melted into smile. he liked it, his words of introduction.
but then, the afternoon of the big talk, he hurdled in from the school bus, popped a piece of chewing gum in his mouth (“i like to chew when i’m nervous,” he reported), then plopped back into typing chair, and revised his words. much better, he decided.
with no fanfare, he folded and tucked his script into the front pocket of his jeans. he slipped on his snow coat, and off we headed in the rain.
once inside the white clapboard nieman house, the beehive where all this speechifying was to unfold, we set about the business of transforming the joint into our favorite jewish deli on chicago’s near west side. while setting out the manny’s mustard and the “welcome to chicago. mayor rahm emanuel” signs, the professor’s cell phone jingled.
the next words i heard were these: “willie? where are you? you’re in harvard square?!?”
and so, the cavalry came through. the trumpet sounded from the crest of triumph hill.
at the very last minute, after white flags had been waved, the college kid’s roommate mentioned he was heading into cambridge for the eve, to take in a lecture and dinner just down the block from where all glory — and mounds of chicago brisket, and latkes, and half-sour pickles — would soon be dolloped.
the kid, resplendent in j. press fair isle sweater, barreled through the door and into the grand foyer. his mama let out a yelp that might echo in those halls for years to come. no sweeter sound than the sound of arms enfolding arms, the embrace that will not loosen.
not quite an hour later, the little one, in a magnificent demonstration of the heart that pounds beneath that skinny chest, rose to the microphone, and let loose his poetry of charm and pride and introduction.
said the little one:
“Hi. I’m Teddy.
My Dad is the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. He’s a good guy, and he’s pretty awesome.
But I have to be honest: I don’t always agree with his reviews.
Anyway, my dad and I have lots of fun together.
We play cards. I beat him.
We play basketball. I beat him.
And we always hang out together on weekends.
Okay, so maybe I have a little more fun – just because I beat him pretty much.
But if we had a game on who would have a better sounding, he would win.
I hope you enjoy his bodaciously awesome sounding.”
and with that, the architecture critic took it away.
but all i heard, most of the next two hours, was the sound of my heart thumping as i looked a few inches to my left and right, and saw both our boys circled tight, in hands-squeeze reach.
there are moments in our lives when all that matters, really, is that we breathe in and exhale the very same specks of air. that, in real time, we hear the same sounds at the same moment. that we catch the glimmers in each other’s eyes.
that we know, through and through, we’ve climbed mountains, forded streams, and dodged near bullets — just to be together.
because, as the professor always says, 98 percent of life is just showin’ up. especially when what you’re showing is the full power of your heart.
twas a night to remember, the night the boys came through for papa. and i was right there to be blessed by it all.
this one’s for the family journal. for my faraway beloved mama and papa-in-law. and for anyone teetering on the brink of should i jump through hoops just to be there….the answer: a resounding yes.
do you have a tale to tell of a time someone you love made the impossible possible, and came across the horizon to the tune of triumphant trumpet call? or a time when you were the one who decided the impossible must be slayed, and you were going to make it, come heck or high water?
Oh, this is beyond precious. My heart filled up reading it, and I could feel the blessing all the way here. Yay for your boys and for the two of you for teaching them “what matters most.” It will serve them well all their days.
And yes, the instance that comes to mind is a friend who drove from her Chicago suburban home, leaving her firefighter husband in charge of three wee ones, to be with me in Dubuque hospital where my mother was in ICU fighting for her life. Looking up to see her there, completely unexpected, is something I’ll likely never forget.
Here’s praying Papa K is gaining strength and good health daily, with lots of love.
Bam, your dispatch had me in tears. This is also a tale of family coming together, to make a reunion and homecoming of sorts happen. The first I learned of the family reunion in Austria was my uncle’s e-mail to Vienna that it looked like none of the American family members (and you can count the folks in the U.S. born with my surname on one hand) would be at the reunion. I took it as a challenge to get there. I phoned my family banker–my dad–and asked if he’d bankroll my trip. Of course. Then he decided he’d like to go too. He was approaching 80, battling COPD with four nebulizer treatments a day, not all that steady on his feet and otherwise fragile.
I was hysterical with fear. A wiser soul said let him go, and if he dies on the trip, at least he’ll die doing something special and meaningful. Said wiser soul is also a flight attendant, and she gave me the insider’s tips on traveling with medications, lining up airport wheelchairs departing and arriving, and everything else I needed to know to ferry him through O’Hare, Heathrow and Vienna airports.
Once in the fatherland, the generous relatives, whom we’d never met, took over. We even staged a surprise 80th birthday party for him at the reunion site, his father’s birthplace in the low Alps. 102 people singing happy birthday–in English! This was before Europeans got into smoke-free policies for public places, but for the afternoon, no one lit up in the party hall because it would have been so bad for my father. And my dad was so engaged and relaxed that even at that altitude, he was breathing and getting around pretty well. Through rigorous planning and a lot of spontaneity, it was a wonderful trip for both of us.
bravo! and beautiful beautiful. oh, the distances we will go. and the glories we will know. (remind me of this next time i hem and haw over plonking down cold hard cash for some airplane ticket. in large measure why i stand in awe of those expanded souls in my life who seem to instinctively take these dives without fear or hesitation.)
Ya’ done good, Babsy, your boys stepping up and showing up when it mattered most. Tedd and his “bodaciously awesome sounding”, indeed. I love when little kids use words bigger than they are. I am moved by Will, too, during mid-terms. Those two hours east on that week was like a trip across the ocean with the pressure on campus during exams. But they were there and you got to drink it all in. I could feel it myself in this piece. Please tell Tedd that I had the opportunity to read his speech and I think it was bodaciously awesome and tell Will that this goes on his friend resume for knowing how just to, as his father says, show up. Raising good men you are.
thanks, darlin. i too love when kids use words bigger than they are. i will tell tedd, who, by the way, gave his blessing for me to tell this tale in the first place, and to reprint his speech in the second place. thanks much for pullin’ up a chair. i love to see you here. xox
well, it just shows to go ya, how well the professor and the writer have done. you created a spot on the planet where all the right words and views and people were present in just the right amounts; and you have grown two boys into beautifully souled young men.
Bless your heart, my beautiful friend.
Sent from my iPhone
If I didn’t know ya, I’d swear this was a tall tale because it’s just too wonderful for words. Knowing that it is true makes it all the more precious. There are moments in life that are beyond description, but you, dearest bam, seem to know how to describe it in delicious detail.
Sometimes blessings come in surprise packages, sometimes they’re in the little things that heap up and bowl us over. You and ‘the professor’ are doubly blessed in those two curly headed boys. Ya done good, dearie. xoxo
P.S. Praying grandpapa is feeling better.
Sweet bam, I read this through tears. And I read somewhere recently (I can never remember where I read things!) that tears are a sign that you’ve encountered truth and beauty. In your story, it’s the truth and beauty of family devotion. What a sacred moment in your family’s story! Sending healing prayers out for the professor’s papa.
oh, hh, so so beautiful. bless you and bless you. as one who is so often in tears, and who was certainly draped in tears that night, i will not forget your beautiful understanding of tears — origin forever now tied to you….thank you.