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Category: firstborn

roots and wings, unedited

for seven sweet days, we escaped.

i though had my heart set on one thing: savoring the days, the hours, the minutes. every drop of it. i licked my lips of it, let it drip down my chin. didn’t care a whit if it stained the front of my shirt, so sweet was the one last chance to slip away, to stay at the little mirror lake where we have spent sweet summer weeks in the past.

at week’s end, as we locked up the house and pointed the car south, toward home, my firstborn said quietly: “this is my last time coming home.”

what he meant, of course, was this was the last time the homecoming would be back to the place where he’s grown up, where he’s spent his years since the middle of fourth grade, the place that soon won’t be the epicenter of his daily whirl.

while we were motoring home yesterday, the chicago tribune, that newspaper where i type, was running an essay they’d asked me to write, about taking my firstborn to college.

because there is never enough room on the printed page, it had to be trimmed at the last minute. but i never have to trim here, not if i don’t want to. and this time i don’t.

and besides, plenty of you don’t read the tribune, don’t have it slap on your front stoop, come sunday mornings. so for all of you, and for the record, here is the unedited version of “roots and wings,” an essay that ran in the chicago tribune of sunday, august 7, 2011, less than three weeks before my firstborn shipped east for college…..

By Barbara Mahany

I’ve been practicing for months. Practicing what it will be like when, in a few weeks, my firstborn is packed up, flown off and settled into a dorm on a campus on a hill in a town some 1,000 miles from the old house where his stirrings have been the backbeat to my every day.

Just to see what it feels like, I find myself walking past the bedroom that’s hard off the landing on the way up the stairs. I peek in, see the bedclothes unrumpled, just the way he left them.

Sometimes, if I’m drawn in, I take a few steps beyond the door, look around, breathe deep of what it will be like — when the piles on the desk no longer teeter, when the soggy towels aren’t plopped on the floor, when, for months at a time, there’s no trace of him in our midst.

My firstborn, at last, is headed off to college.

And while, for the life of me, I cannot picture this place without him, I know deep down that the whole point of this exercise called parenting is this soon-to-come parting, no matter how hard.

While I might be practicing this new long-distance mothering — imagining what it’ll be like to not see the light shining from under his door at 3 in the morning, to not hear his books thump on the counter when he lopes into the house, to not wake at 5 to stir his oatmeal and send him off with a hug and a kiss — and while I can’t even begin to imagine how it will feel to look into his eyes one last time and walk away there on that leafy New England college quad, I do know that the real work started long ago — and for that there was no practice, only sheer trial by error and hope.

Day after day, hour by hour, bump after bump, for the last 18-plus years, I’ve been getting him ready for this great divide.

I was cradling that lanky baby in my arms, back in our city garden one hot Sunday afternoon, when a wise friend of ours, a priest actually, stood in front of a circle of people we love and told my husband and me that we had but one essential job: Give that child roots and wings.

Roots, so he is forever grounded, solid, deep. Wings, so that some day the wind will catch beneath him, and he will soar.

Roots, I’ve come to learn, are laid down slowly. They’re laid down late at night in kitchens, when the tears come, and the stories from the playground are enough to break your heart, but you stand there like a sponge, taking it all in, soaking up every drop of the hurt, whispering words of unswerving faith.

They’re laid down on long walks where you listen to the boy spill his dreams, and you let out his kite string; you say you believe, and you mean it.

They’re laid down after school at the kitchen counter, when you open wide the refrigerator and let him have at it, while you sop up the dramas of the day, you listen to the questions and the quandaries, and you offer up the scant teaspoons of wisdom you have to offer.

They’re laid down so when you get to this summer — the summer when your kid packs up the boxes, leaves home, steps into the college life of which he’s dreamed, for which he is so very hungry — you can stand back and watch what happens.

What you hope, what you pray for, is that while you’ve been hard at work cultivating those roots, the wings, undetected, began to unfurl.

Oh, sure, you’ve seen starter flights. The road trip in a car packed with 18-year-olds where you stayed home and held your breath. The lightning storm that hit when your kid was out on a boat in a river, and somehow he made it back to shore and stay alive, holed up — in defiance of science and common sense — in a metal boxcar used as a boathouse.

But, so far, the nest he has flown home to was yours, the one you’ve watched with vigilant eyes.

From here on in, the wings and the flights are all his.

–chicago tribune, 2011

so that’s my meander for the week, sorry it’s coming to you a few days later than usual. but i am delighted to type today’s date into the meander box: today is a date i love. it’s my little one’s birthday. and his first foray into the land of double digits. he turned 10 today, my little one. and while his brother gets to work on all those winged expeditions that are on his agenda, the little one’s still home where we can spend plenty of days ahead setting down those deep-set roots. happy birthday little T. we love you madly. xoxoxox

p.s. the photo above is an old-fashioned bowling alley, maybe the oldest in america, that we discovered on our little week away on mackinac island. my boys in silhouette. i love the way the light plays off the monticello blue walls…..

“my childhood is over.”

when he was not even 2, he looked up through the skylight as i tucked in the covers, soft by his shoulders. “mommy,” he wondered aloud, “who puts God to bed?”

when he was 3, he looked up from the kitchen table, and asked, “mommy, what is facetious?”

i’ve been side-by-side with this questioning child for 18 years now. i’ve gotten used to the way words unspool from his mouth, from his mind, from that heart deep inside.

but that doesn’t mean i’ve stopped catching my breath, feeling the air stopped in its tracks, when some of the thoughts come.

and so it was, the other night, sitting at dinner alongside a pond in chicago’s lincoln park, that great front yard of the city, looking south on the muscled shoulders of steel and glass that scrape the sky.

we were feasting, had sipped the watermelon, basil and gin cocktail (i don’t drink gin, but this had to do with a newspaper assignment, and that boy beside me, he sure didn’t mind). had scooped the very last drop of asparagus puree from our plate, and duck rillettes from a charcuterie slab.

the little one and his papa had gone off to visit the so-called powder room, when my brand-new 18-year-old took in one of his sighs, the kind where the smile begins with the first uptake of air, and the eyes start to glisten, and i pretty much know that what’s coming next will enchant me.

“you know,” he began, “this is the first time in my life a whole phase of my life has ended. my childhood is over. it’s not like you can reach back into any of the moments and shift it around. it was what it was. and even if i don’t remember one moment, or the one after that, the experience of that moment is all there, is a part of who i am.”

then he just smiled.

or i think so. for my eyes were veiled in a scrim of tears, that holy blessed water that anoints so many moments of life. sanctifies. signals, my heart has been touched here. is pounding. is spilling. cannot be contained.

“my childhood is over.”

i tumbled the words in my head, in my mouth, so many dew drops of wisdom packed in each one, so rich was the taste on my tongue.

“my childhood is over.”

and so it is.

and that, perhaps, is the crux of why 18 matters. not that he can now buy cigarettes; which you know he wouldn’t. not that he can vote, which he can and he will. oh, will he. and not, as he remembered to tell us when ticking off the new-found legalities, that he can now buy playboy magazine. which i would bet he won’t do. (and which prompted the little one to ask, loudly, “what’s playboy?” to which we all shooshed him quite emphatically, as fears raced through our heads that he’d be tossing that just-discovered word around on the fifth-grade playground.)

“my childhood is over.”

the words kept tumbling through my head, and suddenly so many scenes pop-pop-popped.

the summer camps at the zoo, and the planetarium, and that great hall of midwestern pluck and twang, the old town school of folk music.

the little boy in the NASA astronaut suit. the little boy in the blue-striped engineer’s cap. the boy on the baseball team in hyde park; the boy standing in the T-ball outfield, turned away from the pitcher’s mound, pointing toward the sky, hollering, “look, there’s venus.”

the boy sitting on the roof of the playhouse on the playground at lab school, watching–not playing in–the schoolyard games. the big move to the 10-mile-away town where all is leafy, is mown, is too-often manicured, leaving behind the pop and the whir of the city he loved. the el rides, back. the boy who would not leave his city. a boy forever enchanted with urban grid, and thoreau’s wilderness.

the tearful nights in the kitchen. the angst of all-nighters. the company he found in the pages of nabokov and faulkner and emerson. the arc of limitations he tested, wrapping his palms ’round the oars, rowing his heart out, not looking back.

it was all the quilt of his childhood. his childhood stitches now pulled through the cloth, now set.

it was what it was.

forever will be.

and i couldn’t help but think of how very wholly i had poured myself into the work of being his mother, of all the hours and brain cells and blood cells it took. the signing up for this camp or that. the filling out form after form. the driving him long ways, and jam-packed ways, at all hours. the praying. the worrying. the peering in through the classroom door to see that all was well.

mothers do that, knowing or not. we set out to be our child’s field guide and companion. we arrange and re-arrange. we call people we don’t know, speak words that don’t come easy sometimes. we listen 24 hours a day. we carry our children wherever we go, even when the miles between us are many.

even when they’re 18. and beyond.

but for that whole first chapter, the one whose last page has just turned, i was fully awake, fully on board.

i gave that boy the best that i had. i’d made him that promise. so help me God, i did not run away, not on the nights when i had no answers, not on the mornings when worry consumed me. not when, for the 9 millionth time, i walked in his room and witnessed what happens when a cyclone blows through.

i was, forever will be, the mother who plays in his childhood scenes. who will endlessly loop. i’m the one off to the left in so many frames. i am, more than anything, the one who is beaming.

the fact of the matter is this: the greatest gift i’ve ever known is the gift of being that boy’s mother. i have learned volumes. fallen umpteen times. scratched the depths of my soul, so help me God.

i have preached and promised and pleaded. i’ve stirred and baked and spooned in whatever was needed, oatmeal to amoxicillin, i’ve served ’em all.

it’s what we do when we discover our deepest calling is the call to mother a child.

that childhood is over. and my tasks there are laid to rest.

but that boy is riding today, in a car full of 18-year-olds, to a faraway city in the belly of michigan. there’s an interstate between here and there, and 18-wheel rigs that whiz by, hellbent on getting wherever they go in a hurry.

it’s time to let the boy go. his childhood is over. but don’t think for a minute that this day will be easy. his father is tied up in knots. i’m the one soothing, saying, he’ll be fine, when deep in my head i picture terrible things.

my last words as he strode out the door, that strapping tall boy with the duffle slung over his rock-hard shoulder: “come home safe, or i’ll kill you.”

dear Lord, hear my prayer.

the murky picture above is not so murky in my mind. it’s my two boys, after dinner, with the chicago skyline rising up over their shoulders. fireworks were exploding from behind those mounding rainclouds, and at first we thought it was red lightning, making for an unforgettable step into the night, as we left the north pond cafe, where we’d savored an unforgettable feast, an unforgettable marking of age. my camera didn’t do what i wanted, but i love the image anyway. it’s the way memory fades, yellows around the edges.

please forgive my tendency lately to write here as if i am tracking time, the close of my firstborn’s childhood, as he put it. one of the gifts of writing is that it serves as glue, to stick snapshots to the pages of your life, so you capture it, hold it. these stories are for down the road as much as for today. they are for me to read and re-read some day; they are for my boys to tuck in their boxes from childhood. in writing of life’s passage, i hope that each and every one of you finds a spark of your such passage, or the passage of someone you love. a blog is an odd-duck of a thing. a blog of four and a half years, odder still, perhaps.

these are but swatches of my heart. and if they spark something in you, my prayers are answered. do tell: when you hear the words, “my childhood is over. it was what it was….” what sparks to your mind? what are the scenes from your own childhood that have lasted through all the years?

the power of replay

in the picture show that’s been spooling through my head these months, these weeks, these past few days, i find myself looping forth and back.

from birth, to backyard sacraments (the morn we laid to rest the baby bird, before that the afternoon in our city garden when we blessed our newborn babe), to long hours after midnight, as i lay awake and worried.

i’ve remembered sounds — the swishing of the screen door on the old-world bakery where we used to stroll for an oatmeal-raisin cookie bigger than my little one’s pudgy hand.

and i’ve remembered breath-taking moments — the early morn in bed when his papa and i stumbled on what would be his name, the name that to me, then and now, sparked the picture of a tall, honest prairie boy, which in many ways he has become.

or this: the golden-lit noon when the call came from a stranger, she’d found my boy, limp, bloodied, mumbling, on a bike path in the woods.

they’ve all come tumbling, frame after frame, sight and sound and swirl.

as we near the marker labeled graduation, i find this time affords that rare chance to riffle through the picture box i carry where i go, the one inside my head. i pick up frames, i examine once again. i lay them in a row. and shuffle them through time.

it’s what we do, we humans who are gifted with a heart and with capacity for replay, rewind, fast forward.

life moves swiftly when we’re not watching — and even when we are. and suddenly we find ourselves at a so-called seam in what is, through knots and stitches, becoming someone’s patchwork quilt, the story of a life that we know so very well, that we hold as if our own.

these benchmarks, these stitched-together places, this is where we pause, and slip into double time, meaning we live in the moment on one plane, and in the inner plane we live on whatever speed we choose, as we so naturally fall into the sifting, stitching, marveling that got us all to here.

it’s why, as a civilization, we mark all sorts of time, of episodes, of chapters. from year to year of sun, or month to month of moon, we grab hold of any chance, it seems, to measure who we are, and how we’ve grown, as we pass the mile marks along the way: birth. birthday. end of every school year. holy anniversary.

we seem to want, to need, to play it back again. to spiral back and forth in time and space, if only in our minds and hearts, as we press into our souls the whole of who we love, and watch anew from every angle.

i know the time-trick well. i’ve been watching, playing, for awhile, these past few months and weeks.

only now, with days to go, the tempo’s picking up, the hours of sleep are dwindling, i am hard at work sorting through the picture show that is the life i’ve loved so deeply dearly: my firstborn’s years at home, my firstborn’s school years, his growing up years, his baby years and toddler years, his going-off-to-school years.

the ones i’ve known so intimately. the ones i alone recite, in the incantation of motherhood, the shadows and the light that got us here.

the tickets now are tucked in the slot where all the mail is kept. the white dinner jacket will soon hang in the upstairs closet. the grandparents should be walking in the door any minute now.

the time has come.

and i’ve milked the richness from the marrow. i have played and replayed so many scenes. i’ve stockpiled all it took to get here.

and when, on sunday eve, i look down on that flowing river of white gowns and white dinner jackets, i will more than likely be awash in joyful tears, satisfied tears, knowing tears.

i will have gathered up the frames, one by one, of the whole of this boy’s life with mine. and i will whisper holy thanks for the riches deep inside that this picture show has brought. the looping story that will never ever end.

i must bow on bended knee, and open wide the prayers inside my heart, to thank the Lord on High, who brought me long ago my deepest dearest hope: to be the mother to a child who would forever be my teacher.

and now, if you care to let it spill, what’s the picture show playing in the house that you call home?

that’s my firstborn, up above, on his first day of kindergarten, outside the gothic castle that is the laboratory schools of the university of chicago. that’s his best chumley from those sweet sweet days and years, more like brother and sister those two, and her mama, my beloved motherfriend, the rarest of gifts she was and is. they’ll both be here on sunday morn as we mark the moment with a family brunch.
it is just those snapshots that have filled me up so very much in recent days, as i hold each to the light. and marvel.

valedictory

absolutely, and without debate, there has been in our house one recurring theme in the chapter called “high school.”

it would be that phenomenon in which light shines from under the crack of the bedroom door till 3, then 4, and sometimes, ’round 5 (A!M! lest we be unclear), when the first rays of sun begin to dance amid the plugged-in watts of the desk lamp.

and even then there is no clicking off that fool light.

it is a cultural oddity that pulls the grownups out of bed, groggy, at wit’s end, wondering when, oh when, will this cruel and unusual punishment come screeching to an end.

you can stand at said bedroom door, and plea, and scrunch your face, and beg for mercy: “honey, PLEASE, go to bed.”

but no, the typing continues. the boy is hard at work. pounding thoughts, meeting deadlines.

and you, poor grownup, tired grownup, grownup who will wobble through the whole next day under cloak of stupor, you will grow accustomed to this high-school theme: the all-nighter that would not end.

and so, as if a 21-barrel salute to the end of that sweet sad sorry sobering chapter, the boy i love declared somewhere deep inside that he’d go out as he’d carried on all along: all-nighter on the last night of high school.

why, had you thought otherwise? had you fooled yourself into thinking this ONE time that ol’ eight-page paper would be typed, stapled, turned in one sweet minute before the schoolbell clanged time-out, game’s-end?

and so it was, after weeks and weeks of dropping hints (nabokov? checked in with nabokov any time recently?), the dear boy, breaths away from graduation, sat down at 9th hour to begin to type. to see how close he’d come to driving mama over the brink, into the seas of madness saved for those who set expectations foolish high.

and as if to amp the fun, he retreated from his room, settled in full view, just off the kitchen, where i could watch the lines unfold, where i could watch him type his way toward high school conclusion.

look ma, he seemed to type, i can dash off eight pages while you polish off your nighttime bowl of popped and fluffy corn. i can squeak in under the wire, while you witness the whole event.

alas, i could not stay awake past page five. and so i climbed to bed, tossed and drifted to a foggy-not-yet-sleeping place.

i had implored, “wake me at the end, i want to be there for the final period of high school.”

and so, when at 11:53 he wandered by the precipice of my mattress, stood ever still, and whispered, “hey mom,” i barely startled. just rolled over and uttered, “huh?”

could i give it all a read, he wondered, this paper that dissected four plays by nabokov, this paper due third period on the last half day of high school?

without thought or grumble, i ripped back the sheet, pointed my stiff self toward the stairs and down i climbed. i read, i turned small letters into caps, i marveled (or at least i think i did, as sleep was clearly fogging up my eyes and brain).

i slapped the boy upon the back, returned to stairs and up to slumber.

when i awoke this morn, i found the eight pages, printed out, in a folder, tucked one last time in backpack. and off my boy loped, high school all wrapped up in one last all-nighter.

so this is it, the hardest chapter yet, now writ.

the boy who started high school with an undetected fracture straight across his thigh bone, the boy who set out to get straight As, to take the hardest classes offered, he struggled and survived. he learned much, and so did i.

he set out to test his arc of limitations, as emerson once challenged. and hanging on the post beside his bed, five medals, bronze to gold. though the silver that he wanted never came.

he found three close friends, in a sea of 1100. and a boat full of “brothers.”

he has cried in my arms, and raised his fist in triumph.

in the end, there will be no valedictory speech, no fireworks to light the sky.

but in past weeks there have trickled in emails from teachers, tracing back to freshman year, remarking on what a kid he is, and how much he will be missed.

in the end, i’ve realized, it is the typed words from souls who’ve earned his respect over long semesters, over years, that constitute the prize of prizes.

the boy i love, the boy inclined to type all night, he’s triumphed in the end. and i could not be more proud.
nor love him any wilder.

here’s to a summer of no worries, no tests, no papers.

just joy and laughter, and the sweet glory of the journey shared, straight up to the last sure dot on the page.

–the end, sweet will, the end–

this one’s mostly just to record the moment, lest anyone ever debate that the end of high school quietly lulled to closure. there are souls all around this time of year, wrapping up chapters hard and not-so-hard. it is the time of year for looking back, then launching forward. to ends that mark beginnings. tell me what headlines your end of schoolyear, start of summer this time round?

practice

just to see what it feels like, i find myself walking past the bedroom beside the landing on the way up the stairs.

i peek in and see the bedclothes unrumpled, just the way he left them. or maybe the way the cat did, as that old striped fellow wriggled out from his No. 1 curled-up napping place.

sometimes, if i’m drawn in, i take a few steps beyond the door, look around, breathe deep of what it will be like.

my firstborn blessed child is away this weekend, will be gone for a whole string of days, and i find i am practicing what it will be like to have him swirling about me, but not here.

like all important acts in life, we practice. try on the costumes. memorize the lines. we stand amid the darkened stage, look out on all the empty rows, imagine our part even when we’re mere supporting player.

in just two weeks my firstborn child, the boy who’s held my heart since long before i held him in my arms, he will walk across the stage and close the page on this chapter called being-at-home. he will move swiftly toward the day we pack the car, lock the latch and drive toward mountains in the east.

and for me that is a rather large bump to get around, so i am already hard at work, imagining my days without him in the deep of my midst.

i am loosening the cords of my heart. i am knowing there will be long strings of days when i don’t feel my arms wrapped ’round his now-broad shoulders. when i don’t see him leaning up against the kitchen counter, filling me with stories, with questions, with laughter from the bottom of my belly.

long ago, i set out to love this child with all the love that i could muster. and i have done just that.

oh, it has not shielded him from the arrows and the sharp knife edges that i had intended to keep from him. and it has not kept his days free from shadows dark and thick and, on occasion, frightening.

but because i set those roots so deep, because i planted him in the richest ripest place within my heart, i will need a little time, a little practice, to right myself, to be steady when he is gone.

so this weekend, then, is rehearsal. is practice. is learning how to be.

just a short while ago, as i futzed around the kitchen here this afternoon, when suddenly i heard a funny beepy noise, i discovered that he was sending me that new-fangled smoke signal known as a “text.” as i groped for my old phone, i found, lo and behold, he’s been sending me poetic texts since last night.

as he rolled, near midnight, through pitch-black kentucky, land from which i hail. and as he rolled this morning into the great smokies, where i lived when i was 3. and he gloried at the hills.

and in that beepy noise just a short while ago, he wrote that he had rowed the course in tennessee — clinch river, its name — where the race will be, come sunday. and the boat “felt really good,” he wrote, then added one last word, the coda to his stanza: “fast.” and i, nearly 600 miles from that river, read plenty into those four letters.

and so i am learning that he can stir me even in typed text on the keypad of a phone. and i will learn, i now know, to pay attention to my phone. to look for telltale signs that he’s dropped in.

if not to the kitchen after school, if not to the side of my bed late at night, on those rare bedtimes when he plops in the armchair, or on the window seat, to unravel his heart… even if not all that, i now know, i am learning, he will still — and always — find ways to stir me.

because when you give birth to love, and you spend years rocking it, and staying up all night with it. and when you walk it into the school house door, and let go of its chubby little hand. and when you sit along the sidelines of the ballfield, and wince, as he strikes out again and again. and when you watch him catch the wind, find friends, think in ways that make the teachers send you notes, when you watch him grow and stretch and never ever shrink from those things that would make you wobble, well, you discover that even when the bedsheets stay unrumpled, and even when the cat is the only one who stirs in that boy-filled bedroom, you cannot help but be stirred by love.

the love that always and forever wears the name of the baby boy whose head you kissed once upon a birthday long ago, as you anointed him with the one word that would forever be his and his alone: will — my sweet, sweet will.

row like the wind, my beautiful boy, while i take a crack at being home without you, without you coming or going as the sun comes up and sinks down low again……

do forgive this long strung-out love parting, as i–like the monarch caterpillar–find myself wriggling out of my skin five whole times before the chrysalis comes, before the stained-glass wings of the butterfly take their shape, soon to catch the wind.

and since i never want this to be about me and me alone, what have been the acts in the story of your life for which you too found yourself rehearsing, so when it came you might know your lines. or at least begin to understand your new part…..

operation cupcake

i call her delicious cupcake, that girl so scrumptious, that girl so far away, along the coast of maine.

it’s been too long. so we are winging our way to delight in her extravagance for the weekend, as spring break is upon us and we are putting our world on pause, my firstborn and i.

as delicious as the cupcake promises to be–and ohhhhhhhh she needn’t promise, for me to taste already the buttercream deliciousness she holds–it is the time in flight with my firstborn that thrills me, that has held me steady through this long wobbly week of too much to do, too many bumps in the road.

my little one isn’t too very tickled that i am–for the first time–leaving his side. but he’ll be home with papa.

and a mama needs a trip through the clouds with her firstborn, when college already is whispering his name. when the next trip we take will be to deliver him to his ivy-covered dorm.

so here we go, to savor, to walk, to talk till late in the night. to sit down to deliciousness cooked up by my extraordinary brother. to awake to the sounds of cupcake herself, nearly two years old.

we will wander farmland, and atlantic coast. i will slip into their world for a few short days, and be home in time to start the week of spring break.

but mostly i will breathe beside my firstborn. i will take in all his wonders. i will freeze each and every frame. and hold him deep inside my heart.

and carry home morsels of my cupcake.

whatever you’ve got pencilled into your week ahead, i hope it brings you bliss, and dollops of buttercream. see you back at the table. love, auntie babs

the magic of mexican fried steak

it’s not happened often, but every once in a while, a boy runs out of gas. tank drained. big empty. not one ounce left.

and so, you tuck the boy in bed. even when he’s longer than the old twin bed. even when his past-noon* feets dangle over the edge.

you tuck him in and let him sleep and sleep and sleep.

you worry about his weary self. you check on him, from time to time, just as when he was a dimpled little boy. you touch his brow. and when you’re sure he’s in a deep, deep sleep, you kiss him on the stubbled cheek.

while he dreams the morn away, you wend your way to the butcher shop. you browse the steaks, the marbled slabs of muscle. you pluck one that’s on a bone.

you decide that in the hierarchy of mother’s magic potions, you are well beyond the need for oatmeal, you’ve climbed the charts to up where red meat looms. only cure that’s surer is one involving hypodermic needles. and needles make you queazy, so you stick to steak and its soul-restoring powers.

this is wise, because when you dare to rouse the sleeping man-boy, you have arsenal in your defense. you have new york strip to dangle.

why, you’ve seen the circus trainers do the same: dangle steak in front of cats, big cats, cats with killer teeth, to turn them into docile kittens.

not that any boy i know would growl or snarl or bite my head off. but when awaking worn-out, on-empty man-boy, i find a steak is handy.

and so on the edge of bed i sat, whispered words of red meat. i saw the smile spread across his lovely face. i saw the eyelids flutter open.

“if it’s too much,” i said, “we can go with oatmeal.”

ah, no, he answered rather sprightly. “au contraire. quite the opposite.” a steak, he said, was in his dreams.

but not just any steak: a mexican fried steak, was what he had in mind. so, with the click of that magic phone that coughs up all the answers, he typed in spanish words, came up with the abuela’s path to steak perfection, or in this case milanesas empanizada. that is, mexican fried steak.

with one swift leap, he was out of bed and down the stairs. he was talking bread crumbs, garlic, egg bath. red meat. meat so red i swear it moo’d.

we put our little heads together, he and i: grabbed a loaf of challah. swiped off the shelf the dusty mini-processor, a chopping-blending whiz my adopted jewish grandma gave me once upon a time.

we splitzed in bread. we added cloves of garlic. we inhaled. we sighed aloud.

we cooked our way to cure. we shook in cumin, poured in salt, cracked pepper. for good measure we added a little packet of something called “milwaukee avenue steak seasoning,” a smoky rub named for a windy-city thoroughfare where you can’t help but stumble over steaks of every stripe and cut.

“it’ll be chicago mexican fried steak,” declared the sous chef, smiling down on me.

and so, through that alchemy that is the holy work of kitchens, with a little splitzing, the cracking of two eggs, and the bathing of that steak, first in yolky goop and then in silken challah-garlic-cumin-milwaukee crumbs (that sous chef dabbed on quite a blanket there of crumbs), we turned the noontime into one of pure true joy.

we were cooking side-by-side. we were laughing, leaping out of sizzling oil’s way. for that deeply adorned steak, what with its eggy under-garments, and its crumby top-dressing, it was dropped in pool of hot corn oil, and it was turning into resurrection breakfast, served at 12:15 on what would have been a schoolday, restoring life to the once-nearly lifeless.

i never cease to marvel at the powers that rise from stove or oven. how what goes on there truly fills our pores, our weary bones. and most of all the tickers deep inside.

by lunchtime’s end, as the man-boy rubbed the last red drop of beefy juice right off his plate, as he sipped the last of his orange juice, he was joyful once again. he was ready, one more time, to take a lap on the track called life.

i rinsed the plate. i put away the fixings.

and i whispered a thank-you prayer to the abuela who’d led us to the restoration grotto, where miracles come to those who wield the fry pan.

* “past-noon” referring to the size of a foot is a favorite family expression, coined by a state-street shoe salesman who once measured my husband’s size 13s and declared, “oh, you’re past noon,” meaning higher than 12s. we have loved that phrasing ever since. and now two of three boys around here are past noons. and one is approaching as swiftly as he can…

what foods in your arsenal hold the holy cure? for the days when those you love can barely make it from the bed? and why do you think the kitchen is one room that holds such mystic powers??

oh, because we’d never keep a cure from you, here’s abuela’s milanesas de res empanizadas, as translated from the original.

ingredients:
1 / 2 Kilo of beef for breading Steak (that’s just about a pound, people)


2 eggs 
Bread for breading (we used three-day-old challah)


Ground Pepper 
Salt 
Oil
(we added a dash of cumin, two cloves garlic, and a few shakes of milwaukee avenue steak seasoning, a heavenly smoky rub from the spice house in evanston, ill.)

preparation:
for perfection, you want to toss bread, garlic, and seasonings into mini food processor. splitz, or blend, in pulses till the aroma makes your knees wobble, and you consider stuffing fistfuls straight to your mouth, skipping the steak altogether.

Season the steak with salt and pepper. 

(you’ll want two bowls: one for eggs, one for bread crumbs; this is a two-bowl process, although abuela won’t tell you so.)

The eggs are stirred well with a fork, and the steaks are passed in the egg, then go through the bread crumbs and fry very well on both sides. 

Served and garnished with lettuce, tomato slices, onion slices.

you feel better already, now don’t you?

freeze frame

i am holding onto moments, freezing frames, as if compiling a loop of kodacolor film i will hold, rub my thumbs along, raise up to the light, memorize, when he is gone.

i am stopping at the edge of his room, soaking in the tableau–the jumbled socks, the soggy towel–knowing that in half a year, there will be no messy room.

i am driving to his school, climbing stairs, entering the gallery where his art hangs on the wall. i am standing, neck tilted back, looking up, eyes wide, soaking in the art, his words, his name on the label on the wall.

i climb downstairs, take my seat in the dim-lit auditorium, look toward the stage, see the curl of his bass, the slick-down curls of his own head, still wet from the shower after rowing.

i lock my eyes on his silhouette in the darkness, as the stage lights come up from behind, as i study that head that i have held, have known, since the hour when i reached for him, newborn, and took him in my arms.

nearly 18 years i have loved him more than anything, have been a player in the story of his life. have known the scenes, most every one. and now, the ones i enter into, i hold onto in my mind, in my heart, as i commit to memory, yes, but even more to soul, the whole of this chapter of mothering. of being the moon to his orbit, his every day rotation.

i hear the drumbeat in the background. soft at first, muffled, but getting louder by the day. as if the dial’s being turned.

the last this. the senior that. final season.

two months and two weeks till graduation. all around me, high school swirls. he swirls. my firstborn, love of my life.

i pore over each and every frame. take time. stop, in mid-conversation, as he lies, stretched out at the end of a long day, reaches for my popcorn, tells me silly stories. i stop and marvel. take in each syllable, but witness too the quirks and gestures i have known for so very many years. the way he taps his thumb, crosses his leg and kicks his foot.

i marvel at the mere fact that at the end of these long days we can unspool together, i can hear in real time, without phone line or typed email. i can, for a few more short months, take in his life in 3-D, full-plane topography.

and so, as if storing for the future, for the days when he won’t be here, won’t be coming home soon. for the days when i ache to see his shining eyes, when i’ll give anything for a jumbled pair of sweaty socks to be dropped across his room…..

i am gathering the frames, the moments of his wholeness, one facet at a time. i am doing what we do when someone we love is leaving, and we are making room inside our hearts to store the memories, the sense, the wholeness.

i am holding onto time as i feel it slipping through my fingers. i am scaffolding my heart for when it’s aching, and these days are no longer……

the window up above, with the candles and the russian cross, that is one of will’s six photos in the art show. or it’s a part of a photo, taken at a louis sullivan russian orthodox church on chicago’s west side. i sat up in the choir loft as will clicked away in the jewel-box of a church, where sunlight played on golden threads and gold-painted doors.

as i try to wrap my head around this leaving, around this chapter coming to a close, i can’t help but reach for words, to try to shade in the outlines. i know there are those who’ve walked this way, did the letting go settle in slowly? did you keep watch as the time drew nearer? or did it come up from behind and catch you unawares?

pulling rabbits out of hats

it is what mothers do. on a rare day, on a day when stars and moons and jupiter and venus all align.

it is what mothers wish they could do every breathing day–make it all all right again. pick up the pieces. clean up the mess. shake off the bits of gravel from there on the sidewalk, where the grit scraped the knee. kiss the hurt, slap on a bandaid. make it all right again.

we know, those of us with half an ounce of living, that more often than not, we can’t right what’s wrong. can’t make the mean girls go away. can’t shift the score of the ballgame. can’t even chase the mean coach into a corner, make him tremble for what he’s done to someone we love.

but, once in a while, when the pile of wrongs piles too high, we swoop into action. we make like houdini. pull rabbits from hats.

and so it was the other morning, when i got to breathe deep of that rare sense of glory, of having triumphed, mended a hole in the day of a kid i happen to love more than life.

here’s the simple story, told only to remind me and you that we really can, every once in awhile, grab onto our britches, dash out the door, and make like a hero for someone we love. and of course it’s not about being the hero, it’s about that rare chance to do as we wish others might do for us, be for us. that rare chance to live the magnificent, luminous goldenest rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

how often have we found our sorry selves at the end of our ropes, and wished upon stars that someone would leap to our rescue? and what a beautiful thing when we find that we can do just that. for no reason other than through-and-through, inside-and-out, plain pure love.

so this boy who i adore–you’ve heard me write of him over the years–he is this week about as neck-deep in plain old unfiltered stress as a senior in high school can be: he is in the thick of tryouts for crew, a sport that has kids pulling on oars till they literally see stars and crash to the floor (don’t get me started); he is also in dress rehearsals for the spring musical; and cranking out not one but six art pieces for AP photo class, with a gallery show opening next week.

and so of course this is the week his phone, a fifth limb if ever there was one, decided to sputter and gasp and utterly die.

now a boy without phone is, i quickly realized, a boy whose life is verging on crumbling.

for one, he had no way to wake up in the morn, as that phone serves to jangle him from deepest of sleep, with its haranguing alarm that wakes the whole house–except, of course, for the intended sleeper.

for two, since the world has been stripped of pay phones, he couldn’t call for a ride, or tell me what time to be where.

and the mere look on his face, the oh-my-god-if-one-more-thing-goes-i’m-going-too, it stirred me to muster some forces.

as i dashed in his room that dreary morning, just after he’d trudged off to school, and suddenly i spied the dead phone stiff on the desk, i charged into supernurse mode. i dialed the phone store (from a phone with a pulse, thank you). i made an appointment. i squeezed in a triage, smack dab in the thick of a workday. the dear man at the store, he pulled out a toothbrush, of all the high-techy tools. he oohed and ahhed at all the gunk that had nestled into the cracks of the phone. and then, in unsparing words, he looked up and declared: “this phone has come to its end.”

he rattled through options. i attached price tags to every last one. but then i thought of that kid, i thought how little he asks and how hard he tries.

i told the man i’d like a replacement, didn’t care much that it’d cost more, by a long shot, than popcorn and movies.

the nice man played a rare card: without my even asking, he rang up the bill, and as he punched in the buttons asked me something about was the battery working. i said i really didn’t know the state of the battery, but then when he showed me the final sum, he’d sliced off a whole $120, because he deemed it a “battery issue.”

then he handed me a brand new phone, and i brushed the tear from my eye, sprouted due to his kindness and the mere fact that not even dollars would keep me from fixing a hole in the skin of my kid.

i walked out of that store as if on a hovercloud, my chest nearly heaving at the rare joy of success, my mood downright giddy. what had felt like a mountain just hours ago, was now whittled down to a clearing. i couldn’t subside the pure joy of lifting the load from my boy. knew, through and through, there’d be more times than not that i’d stand on the sidelines helpless, while the stretchers were rushed on the field. but for now, there was only delight.

and that night, when that tired tall kid strode through the door, expecting to spend yet another long night without phone, he looked at his bedside table, and there, lit up and flashing the time, he spied the fruits of my motherly labors.

he practically rubbed at his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe what he saw: the one thing he wished for that day, the one thing he couldn’t possibly have carved out a minute to do, it was lying there, shiny and new, just waiting for him to pick up and text.

it’s a rare and heady day. but oh how glorious a gift to get to play like a mama magician and make one bumpy life all smooth again.

no old hare ever looked so magnificent, no matter the hat from which it was pulled.

have you yanked any rabbits out of hats lately? anyone pulled one out for you?

angels among us…

might as well find feathers falling past your windows, that’s how rare it seems these days to find an angel in your stepping path.

but, oh, when they appear, wings spread wide, head cocked at full attention, offering up the whole of their heart and soul and thoughts, well, it’s enough to take your breath away.

and inspire you to be the same: be the angel in the hard-trod path of someone else’s life.

and so comes the tale this morning of the doctor, the medical doctor with the jam-packed calendar. so hard is it to score an appointment, or even a phone call with this busy bountiful someone, that you will pencil in her name on your calendar after turning page upon page. or you’ll wait days for a call to be returned.

it’s not–not at all–that she doesn’t want to fit you in. it’s that she can’t. she is too darn booked.

so imagine this: in an email dispatch sent across the wires on a sunday, no less, she asked if perhaps a certain boy i love might meet with her for coffee on a thursday evening. it would be a fine time for them to catch up, to see how things are going, to see if perhaps there is any tweaking she can do to his medical plan.

imagine that: a coffee call.

in an age when house calls are all but extinct (try finding the box to check on the insurance forms for that one), a revered and blessed doctor–one who surely trekked off to med school to join in the art of healing–offered up a winter’s evening, to share tea and words with a teenage child.

in my book, that’s an angel all right.

can you imagine the message it sends to a kid? you are important enough, i care about you enough, to give up an evening of my time.

not because you are paying me. not because the insurance company will have a clue what to do with any sort of billing code–as if she’d submit one.

because you are a patient—a human soul and body that needs a tad of tinkering to make things flow as they should flow—and i, as a doctor of medicine, have the knowledge and the life’s practice to steer you on that path.
imagine that.

i, for one, cannot stop thinking about it. i can’t forget the smile spread across my firstborn’s face when he bounded in the door, snowflakes on his shoulders, ice clomped on his boots. he had a deeper understanding of how things worked, and how the medicine might be calibrated to fine-tune the machine that is his lovely self.

it makes me wonder just how many angels are out there, sprinkled on our paths.

it makes me want to start to track them, their meanderings through our days and nights.

for surely, they are here. planted unsuspectingly among us, for the work to be done here, can’t be done by mortals all alone.

i am starting here, a list of angels and their stories. we might all sprout wings, if we begin to understand that the fine line between heaven and earth is bridged by those among us who live with wings spread wide and luminously.

add your angels here: