pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: brothers

when the gentlest, dearest sounds of your day are gone

DSCF2348_2

some days when i write, it feels like i need a crane to hoist my heart out of the deep-down depths, to vault to the heights where the words deserve to be. this is one of those days….

it’s been five days now. five days without the sound of his front right paw rubbing against the back-door glass, when every morning at dawn, his shadow etched against the fading darkness of night, he’d be waiting for me, waiting for me to let him back in, our night-prowling cat, to let him get back to the business of roaming this creaky old house as if it all belonged to him, his acreage to do as he pleased, to rustle under the covers here, to climb into the laundry basket, the shopping bag, the shoe box we accidentally forgot to put away. to plop himself squarely onto whatever book or newspaper we were reading, whatever keyboard upon which we were trying to type, shoving aside all distraction with his furry insistence, as if to say, forget that, pay attention to me.

it’s been five days since i’ve heard the faintest trot-trot-trot of his little cat paws, descending the stairs, coming round the bend to where he knew he’d find me, letting out one of his signature meows, the ones we’d learned to read as if particular declarations, and so we’d do as he ordered every time: feed him, scoop him into our arms, open the door to let him out into the garden he guarded so well and so long.

tiger boy and his tiger cat

tiger boy and his tiger cat

it’s been five days since we’ve heard the lap-lap-lapping of his tiny sandpaper tongue, scooping up the droplets of cream with which we indulged him (or, truth be told, the water from the bowl of the toilet he considered his own private pond). and it’s been five days since i’ve heard the sound of his four-pawed leap to the hardwood floor from the very high bed of the boy who’s never known a day without him, the old striped cat, the cat who came from the farm, the cat with more adventures than a conquistador or even huck finn. the cat we called “turkey” for short, the cat whose very long name — turkey baby-meow-meow-choo-choo-hi-cat-bye-cat — won him a contest just this year at a faraway vet school, where the vet students (one of whom used to work at our long-ago animal hospital) were asked to submit the best pet name they’d ever heard — well, sadly, finally, after nearly 19 years, our sweet little cat is no longer.

turkey baby meow-meow etcetera lay down and died on pi day, monday, the 14th of march, 03.14.16. curled up in a ball, face turned to the stars, he quietly softly slipped away, a dignified death for a most dignified fellow.

and it’s the absence of sound — those soft, barely-perceptible sounds, the ones that beg your keenest attention — that is so deafening, that amplifies the ache in all our chests, that defines — at least in small measure — the volume of the hollowed-out hole in each of our hearts.

in the blur that this week has been, here’s what happened: sunday afternoon i found out my dear, dear friend had died, and because i’d been asked to write her obituary, i slipped into that writing zone where i lost focus on nearly everything that wasn’t the words i needed to type to tell the world who she was. i do remember that later that night i scooped up the cat as he meowed at the bottom of the very steep stairs, and i carried him up to the bed of the boy doing homework beside the bedside lamp. as i walked in the room, the boy scooted over, away from the light, clearing a space on the sheets and the pillow. i asked what he was doing, and he matter-of-factly told me, “oh, that’s the side that turkey likes, so i’m getting out of his way.” when i countered that, actually, he — the boy with the hours of homework — was the one who needed the lamplight, he shrugged it off, said, “nope, turkey gets the side he wants.”

that’s the last that anyone remembers.

and then, monday, not long after dinner, when i bent down to scoop up my backpack, to head out the door to drive a carpool to soccer, i eyed the little cat bowl still piled with bits of the food that he crunched whenever he needed a nibble. and that’s when it hit me: i hadn’t seen him all day, or at least i suddenly didn’t think i had, though i couldn’t clearly remember. delaying carpool departure, i zipped through the house, spot-checking each of his usual places, an itinerary i knew by heart: atop the sleeping bag in one bedroom closet, under the bed blankets in the other boy’s bedroom, curled on the heated bathroom floor, snuggled on the bean bag by the back door from which he surveyed his lair. one by one, the spots came up blank. our cat was not in the house. so we took to the alleys, combed them up and down, back and forth till close to midnight. (i managed to squeeze in my carpool duties, worried the whole way, resumed my search with headlights on high beam once back home.)

and then, the next morning, in an early morning volley of email about wholly other matters, i mentioned to my across-the-street guardian angel of a neighbor that “on top of everything, we can’t find turkey.” and that’s when she shot back the news that felt surely heaven-sent: that reminded her, she wrote, that a friend of hers had mentioned seeing a cat who looked sick the day before, and it was somewhere down our very block. i had hardly finished sweeping my eyes across the words when i was out of my seat, and halfway across the room to the old tin bucket where we kept the cat’s mud towel, the one we’ve used a hundred thousand times to wipe off the rain or the snow or the puddles of goop he padded through, on his way to the door where he waited, always waited.

i ran out the door, and down the sidewalk, eyes trained on the distance, murmuring — almost a prayer — no, no, no! and then the lump i’d passed the night before, the lump that in the dark had appeared to be a pile of leaves, it wasn’t leaves in the early morning light; it was dear sweet turkey, curled in a little cat comma, his paw up and over his eyes, his face pointed up toward the half-moon, still fading against the early morning’s soft sunrise.

a whole 18.5 years after he trotted into our lives, he was gone. i wrapped him, and carried him home. my arms shook the whole way. we all huddled in the front hall, at the foot of the steps, and we cried. the little one’s knees went out, as he crumpled onto the stairs, and his face contorted in grief.

not one of us didn’t cry, and cry hard.

and just like that this old house is missing some of its most essential sounds. and surely an immeasurable chunk of its heart.

i heard the boys shouldering each other’s heartache. i heard one say to the other, “he was like our third brother.” they both said, in unison, as i carried him, stiff, into the house, “he was my best friend.” a cat can do that — a cat can be so loyal, so loving, so there when you need him, everyone thinks he or she is his favorite. DSCF6964

the older one, the one who rode out to the farm with me back in october of 1997, back when we were convinced there’d never be another babe in the family, he’s been around for every one of ol’ turk’s big adventures: the time he got stuck in the drug-dealer’s den just down the alley; the time he leapt and then tumbled from the third-floor skylight, and lived to tell about it, staggering along the gangway, dizzied but unharmed except for a droplet of blood that dribbled down his little cat chin; the time he was missing in action for six unbearable days, and then, minutes before the very-sad firstborn was supposed to shuffle off to his very first day of kindergarten, that old cat came bounding up the back steps like he was the hero in a hollywood western, the sheriff who rides to the crest of the hill, bringing on the cavalry, just in time to kill the villain, just before the credits roll and the sun sets on the five-hanky movie.

the little one — only 14 to turkey’s 18 years, six months and 21 days — he had never known a day without that old cat. when we moved to cambridge, mass., for a year, the little one said he was happy to tag along, but he had one non-negotiable caveat: “i’m not going unless turkey comes too.” and so, we tucked that old cat in a nifty little carrier, slid him under the airplane seat, and made him an apartment cat for one (rather miserable, far as he was concerned) year of his long and storied life.

so here we are: bereft beyond words. the reminders are tucked in a thousand places — the cat toy peeking out from the basket, the stacks of cat-food cans on the shelves of the pantry, the old navy bean bag still streaked with clumps of his fur. bit by slow bit, i’ve been subtracting, cleaning the shelf of the cat food, washing out his bowls one last time. i’m trying to think of these awful days as lessons in grief, and the insolubility of death. no matter how hard you wish, you can’t bring back the pit-a-pat paw sounds. can’t muster his face, with the ears perked just so, there at the glass still streaked with his mud prints.

it’s the valley of mirage and phantom echo, the raw and early hours of grief, as you imagine, make-believe — for an instant — you’ve just caught a glimpse, or just heard the sound.

it’s deafening. and deadening.

and i know that time, the sacred balm of all of life’s deepest heartaches, i know time will bring healing. i know the day will come when the thought of that old cat won’t sting quite so piercingly, the way it does now.

and so, for the second time this week, i am writing an obituary. and while the loss of a most blessed friend and the loss of a furry one are in no way comparable, i’ve realized this week that death is death. and “little deaths,” too, loom large, and they hurt sometimes in ways that riddle each hour with excruciating moments of missing.

and, yes, it’s only a cat, but a cat over time, a cat you’ve known and nuzzled and loved across the arc of your entire childhood — across the days when no one else understood your sorrows, and no one else curled across your chest, or slipped warm against your pjs quite the way your cat did — it makes it achingly hard to catch your breath, to steady your knees, to find your way forward without him.

our garden will be so empty this spring. the whole landscape is so empty right now. and it will take a good dose of time till we’re breathing deeply again.

i was thinking i’d write an “ode to one exemplary cat,” but for now i might simply point you toward posts from the past: in chronological order (he’s been a recurring character here at the chair over the years) the hunter (2007); starting the goodbye (2010); when the cat comes limping home (2011); and “will he make it home?” (2013).

if you’ve a furry or a feathered or a slippery or a hard-shelled friend, give him or her an extra squeeze today. and listen close to those sounds that animate your day. the silence will break your heart when those blessed little friends are no longer…..

IMG_5233

dear turk, we loved you dearly. as sweet will said when he kissed you goodbye, “thank you.” thank you so very very much. xoxox happy hunting wherever you are. love, all of us.

and to louisey who insisted we needed the little striped farm kitten so willie wouldn’t grow up alone, and to dr. jane whom we adored and who tried to convince us a roaming cat wasn’t such a good idea in the bustling big city but fixed him every time he got into a fix, and to all the friends who’ve loved him, and not minded — alicia! — when he ambled in your back door, and made himself quite at home, despite your trembling fear of all things furry, thank you and thank you for ever and ever amen.

tracks to my heart

engines of youth

the email slipped in with no more than the ubiquitous ping. it came from my faraway brother, the one with a boy of his own now, a fine little lad rounding the bend toward two.

the email couldn’t have been clearer:

“Hey Babs, we are thinking of getting a train set for milo. I recall you guys had a great Thomas Train set up. If you still have it, would you be open to our borrowing it for couple years?  We would pay all packing and shipping both ways. Saves us buying new.  I totally understand you might not want to let it go. Just wondering.”

in an instant, the snapshots came tumbling: my own firstborn’s second birthday, a summer’s day so hot and sticky he wore just a onesie as we tiptoed down the stairs to see what the birthday fairy had tucked in the living room corner. my heart nearly burst as i handed him the very first box i’d ever gone out and bought for him. it was a box so heavy the little guy couldn’t lift it. he needed his papa and me. inside: an oval of track, wooden track; one ivy-wrapped train station; and a little blue engine named thomas, thomas the tank engine, a train who’d ascend to a starring role in the celluloid loops of one boyhood.

for years and years, the consummate posture in our house was a boy perched in a crouch, his fine little fingers curled over the spine of a train as he moved it this way and that, spinning tale after tale, spewing noise after guttural noise (for that’s what trains do when they speed or they crash). one by one, we collected engines and track and bridges and tunnels. we collected stories, and friendships there on the floor where the tracks morphed from circle to oval to intricate geometries that looped and ducked and rose and forked. back in the day, the little TV by the kitchen table played over and over the tales of the trains of the island of sodor, all told in the lilting tongue of one ringo starr, who to these children was simply mr. conductor, while to his parents he was the rockstar drummer, now curiously cast as trainman. (ringo gave way to george carlin — or maybe it went the other way, carlin to starr — either way, a bizarre bit of telegenics, one that endears both gents forever.)

our sweet boy loved trains more than anything. for years, we rode them cross country, falling asleep to the sway of the bunks as we rolled through the heartland, the hudson river valley, or the rise of the rockies. we drove to where we could watch the lumbering locomotives, switching back and forth on the side tracks in the yard where they were hosed down and polished. we climbed aboard on sundays and rode up and down the “el” line, or around “the loop,” chicago’s train set for grownups.

more than once, our little trainman plopped his head to the pillow and drifted to dreamland clutching one of his engines. he rarely left home without his striped engineer’s cap. and when he was four, and we drove to a farm to fetch a striped six-week-old kitten, our little trainman inserted “choo-choo” as the mewling’s middle name.

one christmas, the very same brother who now wonders if we might send our train set his way stayed up the whole night, sawing and pounding vast planes and chunks of wood, a train table with sawdust-sprinkled landscape, one that stood on four stout legs, and rose to the precise height of one little boy’s waist, for maximum stretch of his train-steering arms. that blessed brother’s all-night labor made for a christmas awakening never to be exceeded.

and then one day, the train table was collecting dust. the trains hadn’t moved one inch in the yard. they were tumbled all in a pile. and, in time, tossed in a bin and tucked at the back of the toy shelf.

for years now, they’ve cowered in the dark. too treasured to be relegated to the attic. too forgotten to see the light of the murky playroom downstairs.

but still that bin holds so many sparks of a boyhood, i can nearly hear its whispers. maybe more than anyone in the house, i’m the one still clutching the tracks and the sweet-faced engines.

but around here we believe in hand-me-downs. and not only because it stretches a dollar. because a hand-me-down is history. is layers of story. of love. is animated even its stillness.

and so, this morning, i will sift through the train bin. i will pluck out thomas, the blue one, and james, who is red. edward, i recall, is the kind engine (and thus, always, my favorite). and toby is a troublemaker. how could you not love the cast of your firstborn’s childhood? how could you not treasure the trains that, often, came to dinner? made lumps in the bed clothes? filled little-boy pockets? spouted faucets of tears if left behind, ever?

that little train man is far from home now, 1000 miles away from the train table that is no longer. he’s all grown, and he told me just last week, with a thrill in his voice, that the window of his senior-year dorm room looks out on a train track that runs through the woods of his leafy new england college.

and just a bit farther north and east, in the little town of south portland, maine, there is a little boy who doesn’t yet go to sleep dreaming of trains. but he will. oh, he will.

as soon as i slap the shipping tape onto the cardboard box that waits in the basement. soon as the nice mailman scoops up the parcel and plops it onto a faraway stoop. soon as sweet milo crouches down in that way that boys do, and curls his fingers just so, round the spine of the train. and, full steam ahead, chugs through a childhood.

bless the tracks and the trains, and the boys who so love them….

what are the treasures from your childhood? or the childhood of someone you love? do you recall bequeathing that treasure to the next keeper of treasure?

boy, becoming…

teddy fitting room 13

he is trying it on, my boy in the three-way mirror. trying on what comes next: the gulch between boyhood and manhood. the years when certain nicknames are dropped and stuffed bears get tucked away in shadowed boxes. the years when bedtime comes later and later, long after mama’s in dreamland. the years when testing the fates begins to occur. the years when it all — sometimes — comes crashing deep down inside.

my little one is no longer. he’s 13 today. and while the statute of limitations on that tender name — “little one” — has worn out its welcome, i feel the urge to mark the moment here at the chair with a swift look back at my muse, the one whose moments i captured here where words are the butterfly net, here where the tenderest heart took hold in the cracks between letters.

my little one was all of five when the chair first pulled up to the table. he was a kindergartener who hadn’t quite figured out how to hold onto a pencil. or tie a shoe. or string all the slashes and blobs on the page into what might be called words. he climbed into bed, back in those days, outfitted for battle, slaying monsters with light sabers — all while he slept, apparently.

he went off to first grade here at the chair, armed with red hearts in his little jeans pocket. i kept one, too. mine was in my pocket, and all day long through the torturous hours of school, we squeezed on our wee little hearts, a morse code of the very best kind — “i love you.” “i miss you.” “i’m right here.”– were the messages we squeezed back and forth.

my little one and i went for moon walks. we gazed at the stars. and i captured his wonder.

captured his questions too, his questions without answers. “mama, what will happen when i die? will you die? will daddy die? who will die first?” the rat-a-tat-tat of truth-seeking missiles.

over time, and once he realized the world beyond his doorstep was occasionally reading along, he issued a declaration: i wasn’t allowed to write of his wisdoms and ponderings and wobbles and blips without first submitting draft form before the committee of one — the committee of T. he would read, rule, issue edict: publish or no.

what i’ve found — in that magical playground that is the stringing of alphabet letters into words into sentences into thinking out loud — is that the surest way to discover nooks and crannies in your own heart, and in the heart of the one you attempt to capture in brush strokes and shadings — not unlike the art student sketching the pose of the deftly-draped model in the drawing studio — is to circle back, again and again over the years, to put it to paper, to trace over and over again the outlines, the depths and the illuminations. to stand back over the years, and to see what you’d not seen on first go-around. to hold in your hand the faintest yet sharpest glimpse of the child who populates your hours, your heart, your deepest imagination.

to fall in love all over again is a gift to whomever beholds it. i fell in love, over and over, holding my little one up to the light. and now, my little one is at the brink of something quite big: he’s adding a “teen” to his numbers.

thirteen soft august eighths ago, i was perched in a hospital bed, cradling my very own miracle. the babe who defeated all odds — at every step of the odyssey, from conception to birth canal. i remember how keenly i studied him. his delivery had had a few bumps, the sort that can steal your sweet dream and turn it into a nightmare. in the flash of an instant. in a heartbeat skipped.

prayer — and the mightiest push that ever there was — delivered him. a babe in my arms at 44-and-3/4 years. take that, doctors (and actuarial tables) who swore it would never happen!

all these years, that notion of something outrageous, the blessing of beating the odds, it’s held me tight in its focus. i’ve a gift, we’ve a gift, all of us who melt at the tender words that ooze from that heart, or the way he rubs circles soft on your back. he’s a gift, the boy now crossing the great gulch to manhood. here’s praying we draw on all of our wisdom, and acres of love, to guide him safe to the other side.

bless you, sweet T. happy birthday. and with all of my heart, thank you. thank you for coming along….

one of the blessings of having typed here all these years, is that i’ve managed to capture a string of word snapshots: my boys growing up. and they are among the most precious treasures i know — the boys, certainly, but also the snapshots. i never set out to frame these moments in time, but that’s what’s happened. and it’s why i back-up and back-up. why i wish i could carve these in stone, so no cyber-thief, no computer blow-up, could ever steal these fragments of my heart. 

but since you don’t come to listen to me ooze about my beautiful boy, i thought i’d leave a little birthday present for anyone interested in the art of paying attention. here’s a glorious passage from robert bly, observing a caterpillar. it’s so exquisite in its powers of focus and concentration, i just thought i’d leave it out on the table — a morsel in words — for your delight. savor.

A Caterpillar on the Desk

by Robert Bly

           Lifting my coffee cup, I notice a caterpillar crawling over my sheet of ten-cent airmail stamps. The head is black as a Chinese box. Nine soft accordions follow it around, with a waving motion, like a flabby mountain. Skinny brushes used to clean pop bottles rise from some of its shoulders. As I pick up the sheet of stamps, the caterpillar advances around and around the edge, and I see his feet: three pairs under the head, four spongelike pairs under the middle body, and two final pairs at the tip, pink as a puppy’s hind legs. As he walks, he rears, six pairs of legs off the stamp, waving around the air! One of the sponge pairs, and the last two tail pairs, the reserve feet, hold on anxiously. It is the first of September. The leaf shadows are less ferocious on the notebook cover. A man accepts his failures more easily-or perhaps summer’s insanity is gone? A man notices ordinary earth, scorned in July, with affection, as he settles down to his daily work, to use stamps.

“A Caterpillar on the Desk” by Robert Bly, from The Morning Glory. © Harper & Row, 1975. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

and what such magnificent observations have you made today?

old blue rides into the sunset. end of story.

old blue. sunset

some time today, a hungry tow truck will roll into the back lot of kenney’s automotive on coates avenue in south deerfield, massachusetts — some 771.668 miles away on the odometer — and the scrunch scrunch scrunch of the metal tooth biting into the rear bumper of an old blue wagon will pierce my heart, all the way from here, inside the old gray house nestled along the alley from which that old car drove away just last summer.

car died a smoky death, rolling into the left turn lane of a country road, near midnight the other night. i found out when the little phone by the side of my hotel bed jangled me awake, and my heart ripped through my chest when i saw the name pop up and heard some degree of alarm as the voice on the other end of the line, a voice i know to be my firstborn’s, yelped: “mom, the car’s smoking. how do you pop the hood?”

he explained, in a bit of a rush: “we’re heading to a diner (at midnight, mind you). and all of a sudden the ‘check engine’ light went on. when i touched the brake, the whole dashboard lit up and smoke started pouring.”

how odd that just the night before, under the halo of a streetlamp in a soggy college parking lot, we’d all made a pilgrimage to that old wagon, paid our last respects — though we didn’t know it at the time — all under the premise that i was applying the $101 village sticker to the windshield and the kid brother, who is sentimental about these things, said he really missed the old car and just wanted to stretch out in the back seat for a minute or two. never mind that the college kid — who’s never been keen on housekeeping — tried to convince us that, really, the car wasn’t in shape for visitors; there were a few remnants strewn around the seats, items the kid brother wasted no time in spying, inquiring about, loudly — in service of his father’s enlightenment and the college kid’s deep chagrin.

i, motherly and not trusting that the job would get done before the old sticker expired, climbed behind the wheel — a wheel i’d climbed behind umpteen million times in the 20 years since we’d bought the sturdy scandinavian vessel — and slapped on the sticker. looked around. climbed back into the pouring rain. the kid in the back seat inhaled — breathing deep of the rare perfume of sweaty rowers who’d made the car into their team shuttle — and then he sighed. he didn’t want to leave the car alone, there in the college lot. fact is, he wanted to take it home.

but we had a big city — boston — to get back to, and a long two-hour’s drive in pouring pouring rain. the car would be home in a few months anyway, when it was motored back for the summer.

when the call came in on sunday night — when whatever it was did whatever it smokily did — my second thought, after telling the midnight caller to be sure not to stand on the side of the road, was “thank god, he didn’t drive into cambridge (the original plan), or this smoky thing would have likely happened while he was alone on a god-awful rainy night along the side of the mass pike where guard rails keep you from driving off what midwesterners would call ‘the cliff.'”

fast forward through a flurry of phone calls, and a keen friendship struck up between me and dear gerry, the massachusetts car mechanic who tells me “the news is bad”: the car we bought before our firstborn’s first birthday has finally bit the dust.

we might get $250 for parts.

now i know it’s little more than a heap of scandinavian steel and a few still tufted cushions, but that old car ferried us clear through two splendid childhoods: drove one little boy to preschool, kindergarten, straight to college. drove the other one home from the hospital, for crying out loud. and every day after. until the car itself went off to college.

at about year three, when we thought there’d never be a little brother and a cat seemed a solid substitute, it drove one mewing striped kitten — stuffed for safe carriage inside the cardboard slot of an ice house beer six-pack — from farm to city house. and it made like an ambulance the bloody afternoon we got the call that the firstborn had somersaulted over the handlebars and was found lying limp on the side of a trail in the woods. from the front seat, that boy whose neck we didn’t yet know was broken, moaned: “mom, am i going to die?” and the little one in the car seat one row back just whimpered and prayed his mighty little prayers, he would later let me know.

it’s the car in which one boy learned to drive. and where i do believe he sealed a first kiss. it lugged groceries by the ton, and broken bikes, and giggling boys. it’s where one or two of us have turned when a good long ride, with the radio on loud, was the surest cure to chase away the blues. it’s carried us through storms and snow and crying jags that would not stop. it always got us home.

it almost hurts to peek at the picture up above, a beauty shot if ever there was. and i can’t bear to imagine the grinding of the gears as the tow truck hoists the wagon to a tilt and rolls it to the burial ground of old, much loved and trusted carriage rides on wheels.

with its bumps and bruises, it’s rolling off in glory. a car that earned its honor. never once did one of us get hurt inside that vessel. it did the job it promised: it rolled two boys, one cat, a mama and a papa safe and sound through all the twists and turns, the hills and downslides of being a happy family that dearly loved what was hoisted on its axels.

i’d planned on telling you about our adventures back in the land of 02139, where for five intoxicating days we inhaled dear friends, cobblestone streets, even a shakespeare class in old harvard hall. but the death knell for the old blue wagon tolled. and i can’t much think beyond it. it’ll be a long sad summer pedaling my bike. my heart will always pine for old blue, the car that turned me gray.

do you have a car you loved? a set of wheels that carried you much farther than mere odometer miles?

the power of five

power of five. four at zoo

this is us.

power of five. five.

this is the rest of us.

there are five of us. four boys + me. i’m number 2, and these days, the only one living near our center of gravity, our mama.

my mama ran into a little bump a week or so ago. and ever since, the five of us have been circling her like electrons to the proton that started it all. which, scientifically, she more or less is.

my mama, you know, if you’ve been pulling up a chair for a while, is one deep-of-the-earth mama. she’s often reminded me of those heavy-bottomed tipsy toys that never fall over, no matter how hard you push. (and before you go imagining my mama with a big heavy bottom, STOP!, she has nothing of the sort. she always prided herself on how she had to eat a whole pan of fudge to keep some weight on her skinny bones. what i mean is she’s taken more than her share of hits over the years, and she never ever wobbles. it’s rather uncanny.)

i’ll never forget one scene with my mama: it was at the kitchen door of the house where we did most of our growing up. the long black funeral car, the one that would carry us off — the five of us plus our mama — to the funeral home where we’d say one last rosary over my papa, before he was carried off — in a hearse — to the church and then to the cemetery, that funereal car had just pulled into our circle drive. you could hear its somber idling, telling us it was time, time for what we so deeply dreaded. but before she put her hand to the knob, my mama gathered us in a tight little circle. i was sniffling back sobs, and i know i wasn’t the only wet-eyed one in the bunch. but not my mama. she looked us solid in the eyes — mothers of five have a way of looking straight into five pairs of eyes all at once — and she said four words that i’ll never forget: “do your father proud.”

there’s another scene that i can’t help recalling: it was shortly after i’d miscarried my sweet baby girl, and the doctor kindly let me keep her beautiful little self. so i’d tucked her into the most beautiful wood box i could find, and with all the ceremony of yet another funeral, we drove — my husband, my firstborn, and me, clutching the box — into the cemetery, and up to the spot where, in the rain, we spotted my mama, with her foot to the blade of a shovel, standing atop my papa’s grave. she was digging a spot for her unborn granddaughter, right on the chest of my papa. “she’ll always be safe,” my mama whispered. and before we left, she handed me the sack of flower bulbs she’d brought along, thinking we might want to tuck in more beauty, along with our sweet little girl.

those are only two scenes. but they’re pretty much all you need to know about my mama to understand why the five of us — scattered just about as widely as you can be in this country and still be in the same country; from maine on the northeast, to long beach in southern california, from the mountains of northern arizona to the plains of toledo, ohio — tightened our orbit around her, soon as word went out that, in her words, she’d “flunked her physical,” on the eve of her 83d birthday.

somewhere deep inside, without anyone ever saying it, we all know that we are her lifeline (as she has ever been ours), and, marvelously, we all have a job. i’m the nurse, so it’s a good thing i’m closest in miles. i’m in charge of reading all the medical gobbledygook and driving to far-flung diagnostic outposts. brother number 2 is the one who will always always make her laugh, laugh so hard you just might wet your pants, but we won’t talk about that. another brother, the caboose at number 4, is the one we call the encyclopedia. he looks everything up, and knows the answer before the question is asked. and there’s the artist, brother 3, whose depth is immeasurable, and who always has had a connection with our mama that makes me think that in a past life they were strolling the side streets of paris together, ducking into ateliers of painters and thinkers, both of them in their french berets, their gauloises cigarettes dangling from chic cigarette holders. and then there’s the oldest, the one who takes his birth order to heart, and tries mightily to keep us in line. he’s the one who remembers every birthday, and slips in a $20 bill for each of his nephews, harkening a brand of uncle that is increasingly rare — and delectably sweet.

we’re it, the whole of the life squad. and, deep down, we know it. and, despite the miles and difference in time zones, and thanks to the miracles of texting and email, and the occasional phone call, we’ve all felt the centrifugal tug that’s pulled us tightly together. so tightly that before the doctor had even come into the wee little examining room yesterday, brother 4 had looked up and sent a link explaining the funny word i’d spotted on the medical report. by the time the doctor strolled in, i’d swallowed whole the national institutes of health take on this matter.

but the best part flowed in the hours after that appointment, after my mama and i walked out with sheafs of paper, and a date on the calendar. i’d be lying if i didn’t say our hearts felt a few pounds heavier in our chests. i’d be lying if i didn’t say i felt rather alone and a little bit wobbly (i’m still a student in my mama’s wobble-free school), and suddenly december was looking as gray as the snow clouds building in the late november sky.

but then, without asking, brother 4, the one with whom i’ve always shared far more than just that explosive BAM monogram, he announced he’d be here, right at our side. and not too many hours later, brother 3 said he too was mulling flight options.

and suddenly all my aloneness was wiped away, in that miracle that comes when you’re one of a gaggle. when your mama once looked you all in the eye, and admonished: do your father proud.

we will do our papa proud. we will be right there with our mama, as he so tenderly would have been. we will kiss her on the forehead as they roll her through the double doors, and we will try to keep the comedian from making her laugh so hard she tugs at her stitches. we are fully equipped, the five of us, to hold each other up, and most of all, to hold up our rock-solid sweet blessed mama, the one who’s always always there to rush to our rescue.

it’s what life brings when lived to the power of five.

so that’s the news of the week, here at the old maple table. pray for our mama, who will recover and be strong as an ox, as ever. undaunted by the week’s news, she’s joining me tonight in the kitchen of the homeless shelter where we’ll cook for folks whose lives are far more of a struggle than we’ll ever know. that’s how my mama keeps teaching lessons. she’s the tipsy toy that won’t topple, and she’s taught us all to try to live that very way.

when you travel through life’s tight spots, who clenches your hand and carries you forward? do you have brothers and sisters who lighten the load?

bit by bit (or, the wisdom of being lost)

bit by bit TK flyaway

the hard perch of the airport chair was where i sat for a good half hour after he’d slipped down the gullet that led to the plane that would carry him into the pink-soaked sun-setting sky.

i wasn’t budging till that plane rolled down the tarmac, till it pulled him into the twilight, into the far off far off.

i thought much during that chunk of an hour of how the heart is a vessel that needs determined attention. a heart doesn’t stretch to its widest capacity, not without a long curriculum of tending and exercise. not without short chapters in being pulled to the pinching point, and then finding our way, home through the maze.

my not-so-little one took his first solo flight into yesterday’s sunset. flashed his own boarding pass, lugged his own suitcase, squeezed no one’s hand this time when the plane lifted off, that glorious gallump from earthbound to air.

he’d been hoping and wishing and pining for a chance to go back to a place he loves, back to the global village he called home all last year, back to friends who’d wrapped him in their arms and their hearts and carried him through a landscape that forever changed his worldview. he squeezed me so tight the night i clicked on his ticket, i thought i’d teeter down the stairs. this week, as monday turned to tuesday and wednesday, and finally to thursday, he could barely keep from counting down every last hour.

but then, at gate C 27 at the far end of the concourse at the world’s second-busiest airport, he realized just what he was about to do, what he’d never done before. and once i kissed him — loudly, too loudly — on the forehead, once i’d discovered the angel named “christina” who promised to get him where he needed to be on the other end, in boston, he looked away, into the place where you look when you’re blinking back tears, and talking down all the worries that have come tumbling out of your heart and settled solidly in the pit of your throat.

i watched that young boy of mine, that boy whose heart carries him straight into the face of his fears sometimes, i watched him hand his boarding pass — a bit crinkled by then — to the nice man at the door to the jetway. i watched him tug one last time on his suitcase on wheels. i watched his little boy legs, decked out in hiking shorts and basketball socks, and i felt my heart melt away.

i know it’s not easy for him to get on a plane, to sleep on someone’s hard floor. i know he gets horrible headaches sometimes.

but i know, more than that, that this is a kid who leads with his heart. and who, despite the wobbles and the oh-what-did-i-get-myself-into’s, never backs down from fear. he gives a tug to the wheels and doesn’t look back. he turns round the bend and into the mouth of the plane.

i sat there, nose to the vast span of glass, and saw this short trip for a good bit of what it was: an exercise in finding his way, an exercise in letting a boy discover deep down inside just how resilient he is, just how deeply he can count on the heart that pounds in the chest of his 80-pound self.

his biggest worry as we’d driven to the airport was what if, once he got off the plane, he couldn’t find his way to the baggage claim? what if his dear and wonderful friend — and the whole seventh-grade welcome committee — couldn’t convince the TSA agents in boston to let them slide through security to get to the gate where the intrepid traveler would be getting off the plane?

you’ll find your way, i told him. you’ll stay calm, most of all. you’ll use your brain. and your common sense. and you’ll look for signs. and ask for help if you need it. there are kind people everywhere.

not a bad prescription for all of us, for all of life, come to think of it.

and maybe that’s why, more than anything, i could hold my own breath and let him walk down that accordion-pleated tube all on his own: because as much as i want to hold him tight — no, more than i want to hold him tight — i want him to feel the rush of wind at his cheeks, i want him to know the sturdiness of those well-muscled calves, i want him to know the intricacies of his own inner compass, and the invincibility of that very fine, very deep heart.

isn’t that one of the many definitions of love: to put wings to dreams? to launch early soarings that build to some day’s long flight?

isn’t all of childhood a trajectory of ascend and retreat, climb and tumble, kiss the hurt and try all over again? aren’t we always aiming to loosen the training wheels, to give the children we love the power and knowledge that there is not a hill  too high to try to crest? and how will they take in the view from the mountaintop if we don’t plonk them on the starter slopes, whisper in their ear that we know they can do it, and we’ll be here to catch them if and when they need us?

just last week i read a fascinating article about the latest frontier explored by howard gardner, the harvard educator who first advanced the notion of multiple intelligence. in a new book titled “the app generation,” gardner and his co-author, katie davis, consider the ways kids growing up with infinite apps at the touch of their smartphone screen will navigate this new world. the professors probe “app-dependent” versus “app-enabled,” and try to steer us toward the latter.

but the point they made that’s had me thinking all week is when they mentioned how, in a GPS world, kids today barely stand a chance of getting lost, of finding themselves directionless (in a literal, compass-like sense), and thus how they might never get to know the glorious rush of bewilderment followed by clarity. of walking aimlessly and without mooring, before digging deep, relying on internal and external cues to find their way out of the maze — be it city streets, or out in the woods. or in the A terminal of boston’s logan international airport.

so, sitting there in the hard airport chair, training my eyes on the plane that did not budge, i relished this moment, this breathtaking adventure of letting my big-hearted boy dip deep into the vast tool box that’s already his.

he’ll soar home through the stars come sunday eve, and there at the gate will be his papa and i, open-armed and ready to wrap him in once again. the brave sojourner, back where — for now — he belongs most of all.

godspeed, sweet traveler. you teach your mama so very much. xoxoxo

the art of getting lost: do you remember a time when you hadn’t a clue where you were, and needed to find your way? is it a lesson you’ve considered passing along? and do you remember your first solo flight? and what wisdom did you bring home, tucked in your traveler’s bag? 

joy of one

joy of one. tedd. 12.

sooner or later, it happens. to anyone who’s assembled a tumbled lot of kids. housed them. fed them. worried through a night or two.

it’s the law of simple arithmetic. subtraction, actually.

x – 1 (to the nth power, depending how many you’ve accumulated) eventually = 1.

for all the momentum you’d once acquired under that one shingled roof, for all the noise once collected over forks and spoons and spilled milk, there comes a day when there’s only one poor child under your sights.

poor child, indeed.

that one and only kid is unshakably under the steady gaze of eyes that have no distraction, that aren’t too often pulled hither or yon.

that poor kid is all alone in the glare of your watchtower.

and in our house, the grownups come in pairs. so in fact, he’s under double glare.

he wakes up some fine mornings to not one but two tall people tickling him from slumber. one’s armed with warm, moist washcloth (the turkish spa treatment, you might rightly think). the other employs soft circles to the hollow between the bumps where angel wings were supposed to sprout.

he saunters downstairs to made-to-order pancakes and bacon. on mornings like this morning, when all that slumber was hard to shake, one of the tall people caves and offers a ride in the little black sedan. complete with concentrated conversation, the rare sort that comes when the interviewer is truly deeply interested in all that lurks deep down inside your soul.

now, you might be retching right about here. thinking, holy lord, what sort of overindulgent parenting is this? where’s the rough-and-tough school of hit the “eject” button, hightail ’em out the door, stuff a granola bar in their pocket, and kick ’em in the pants, with a casual, “have a good one,” tossed over your shoulder as you slam the door behind ’em?

well, there are rare few chances in this boardgame called “a life,” in which to pull out all the stops, to give it everything you’ve got, to score one more chance to do it right, to love with all your heart.

so that seems to be the m. o. over here.

by accident of gestational bumps and broken hearts, we’re in our third chapter of parenting over here. we had the one-and-only round one (a round we thought would never end), the oh-my-gosh-it’s-two (yet another round i seemed to think would never end), and now, thanks to a very far away college quad, we’ve got one-and-mostly-only.

day in and day out, it’s a ratio of 2 to 1.

and perhaps the most beautiful part of being the mama of a 12-year-old when you yourself are 56, barreling toward 57, is that you are wise enough to know: there is no more sacred incubator in this blessed gift of life than the one into which you pour your heart, and whatever accumulated wisdom you’ve scraped up along the way — that holy vessel called a growing, stretching child.

doesn’t matter to me if the child comes by birth or by heart, or simply wanders down the sidewalk and finds a place on my couch. it’s a nasty speed-chase out there, with cars flying into ditches right and left. if the walls within which i dwell happen to offer rare respite, time-out, breathing room, a place where dreams can be launched, and hurts aired out to dry, well then i’m posting a shingle on my doorpost: “time-out offered here.”

even after all these days — and there’ve been 4,420 — since that sweet boy landed in my arms, i consider it a miracle of the first order that he’s here at all. never mind that mop of curls. or the bottomless smile and the matching dimples. or the tender way he takes my hand and gives it a squeeze in the middle of driving from anywhere to anywhere. never mind that, mid-lope out the door, he hits the brakes and circles back for a goodbye hug — one for each grownup.

never mind all that.

it’s just the rare precious miracle of the chance to rocket-launch one more sack of hopes and dreams and heart. to try to pack in all the love and goodness and tender toughness that just might add a shard of light to this sometimes darkening planet.

i’ve always said he seems to know, deep inside his soul, that he was a last-chance baby. the one who beat the odds. the one who left his mama jaw-dropped and quaking at the news. those sterile hens in the bible — sarah (90, when she birthed isaac), rebekah and rachel, to name a few of the so-called “barren” — had nothing on me when it came to being flabbergasted at the revelation (although my shriek came upon seeing the little pregnancy plus sign turn pink, which i don’t think was part of the biblical story).

and so, he seems to indulge us in our over-lavishing. fear not, we try to keep it in check. at least when anyone’s watching. but i happen to have married my teacher in the tenderness department. in patience, too. that man has never once uttered a note in the tone of shrill, a tone i know by heart. used to be i didn’t stop myself till he shot me a withering glance. that stopped me, rattled me back on track.

but over all these years — and there’ve been 20 in the parenting corral — i’ve learned to take his lead, and not auto-leap — well, not every time — into the role of mrs. harsh & overhurried.

once upon a time you would’ve thought the world depended on our getting to the nursery school on time. and i still have trouble reminding myself that a tornado-strewn whirl of clothes heaped on the bedroom floor is NOT the moral equivalent of hauling swine flu into the country, hidden in a clandestine stick of salami.

i think often — expend a bumper crop of brain cells — on the subject of growing kids. it’s religion to me, the holiest sort. it matters more than anything else i will ever do. closest thing to curing cancer. because it boils down to taking the heart and soul you’ve been handed, and tenderly, wisely filling it with light. considering it a stealth missile of planetary illumination. the answer to a peace-prize prayer.

oh sure, the darkness will come. we can’t keep that at bay. but we can give the gift of buoyancy. we can keep the boing in the human spirit. the bounce-back machine that takes the wallops, and rights itself again.

there’s not a creature on the globe who wouldn’t pray to be loved deep and pure and forever after. it’s the highest hope of all creation.

and at our house he only wishes for someone else to please steal our attention. especially when we double-team the launching him from bed.

here, on this crystal clear morning before the day of atonement, at the end of a long week of wondering where my next writing assignment will be, the one bit that bubbled up was my poor outnumbered child. he weathers us well. has a stable of distractions. there are two particular readers, readers on the jersey shore whom i happen to adore, and this one was, in good measure, for them. forgive me for indulging in family lore. i know that nothing matters more to them than knowing their sweet boys — five grandsons — are in good-enough hands. 

what do you consider the holiest work you’ve been asked to do? 

love, bam

the sound of hollowed-out

brother love

when you love someone, when there is a someone in your life who drops in every few months, makes you laugh till you fall off your chair, or plops beside you on your beanbag in the basement, sidles up, takes the whatchamahoojie in his hand, and click-click-clicks right beside you, for hours into the night, as your words weave back and forth, an alchemy of big-brother wisdom and vernacular that wholly escapes your mother, you pretty much come to thinking of that someone as a guy who walks in halo. he’s your own personal savior, patron saint and laugh track.

he’s your big beautiful brother.

and when eight long years fall between your birthdays, when one of you is off gallivanting round leafy college quads, and the other is back home mastering obstacles like combination locks and kickstands and how to juggle soccer balls while holding onto handle bars, what falls between you, the glue that holds you tight, the interstitia of your entwined hearts, it’s pretty much a recipe of two parts magic, one part paying attention, and a good dollop of the long-held family maxim that the two of you are in this world to watch out for each other. because no one will ever do it better.

so, saying goodbye to that big fellow, saying goodbye on the morning when the old family wagon, all spiffed up and tuck-pointed with brand-new spark plugs, brake pads and all the parts that might keep it from going kerpluey on the side of some far-flung highway — somewhere in the godforsaken woods of ohio, new york, or western massachusetts — well, it hollows you from the inside, from way down low to up where the howls come out.

it hurts.

more than anything you’ve ever had to do.

because all summer you’ve been hearing folks joke about how this is the last time your big brother will spend much time hanging around these parts. geez, they’re even bequeathing you his room — bedroom with bath — up at the bend in the stairs. that sure must mean this goodbye is for good. no one scores a sink and shower unless this deal is for keeps. and someone just handed you your big brother’s hand-me-down washcloth, and said, “congrats, you’ve got your own crash pad now.”

so deep in the darkness of the day when the old wagon rolled down the alley, hooked a right, in the direction of the eastern seaboard and that leafy college, you couldn’t help but let the tears fall freely. you couldn’t help the sounds that came from deep down low, where all the sadness dwells.

you couldn’t keep from saying the words your mama will never ever forget, the very definition of love, spelled out in wails and tears:  “he’s the perfect prescription for a tough time.”

he is, indeed.

that big brother, with his kooky mix of tenderheart-slash-rocky-balboa inspirations, and a stable of 96 spot-on accents and impersonations from all around the globe and comedy central’s backstage, he is the perfect prescription.

for plenty of moments in the mixed-up files of a 12-year-old who’s just moved back to a place that looks familiar but in fundamental ways will never be the way it used to be. and who can’t shake the haunting echoes of a place — and people — you came to love and miss each and every day, all banging noisily about your heart.

as you try to find your way, once again.

but there’s one other thing about the sounds your mama heard the other night, a sound she recognized right away, and will not forget: it sounded deep-down hollowed-out, the cry let loose from human hearts standing at the precipice of unfathomable canyons.

canyons that offer two options: find a way to get across, or stand there wailing till the end of time.

it’s a canyon and a sound that she remembers.

she wailed it, night after night, in the long nights after her papa died, when she could not for the life of her figure out how she’d travel forward, find her way through the maze, without her papa’s star light and shoulder to lean on.

indeed, my sweet boy cried out, in that haunting mournful tone that makes the hairs on your neck bristle.  thank God, no one died. but someone left.

and leaving feels awful.

when you’re only 12, and you’ve not had much practice at learning to go forward, to find your way, without the shining light — and secret handshake — of the ones you love the most.

i could have let the picture do the talking here today. says it all, pretty much. a little one whose arms do not want to let go, little one holding tight, and big one giving it one last blast of gusto. we’re doing what we can to keep the little guy afloat. a flotilla of scrambly 7th-graders sure helps. and platters of sparkly cookies, winking out from under glass domes, they help too. this was the year it hit the little guy the hardest. and it’s with his explicit permission, by the way, that i was allowed to try to write this, to put in words a love that shakes me to my core. we’re double-blessed — in the boy department and far beyond. and the little guy will be all right. his heart will grow even wiser as he finds his way, and discovers that miles don’t really get in the way of two hearts that pump to the same beautiful song. 

how have you gotten through your hardest goodbye?

loopy days

loopy days bedsheet

for three short weeks — one down, only two to go — there’s a new rhythm in this old house. it goes like this: ’round late morning, i hear a swoosh from up above the kitchen ceiling (that’s the bedsheets being whipped aside); then i hear a thud, followed by a parade of thuds, thud-thud-thud down the stairs. as the thuds round the bend, lope into the kitchen, i look up and see a bed-head. my beloved boy.

he begins his morning forage through the fridge. as he piles tubs and cartons on the countertop, he lets out with a “whadda we got for breakfast, mommo?”

that’s my cue to begin the litany, all within the confines of high-protein, low carbs, healthy, delicious, and filling.

hmm. let me know if you’ve got ideas.

it’s at about this point that the eggs are being cracked, he’s begging for mushrooms, and wants to know if i remembered to get the mozzarella at the market. as i watch egg whites whirl toward the kitchen walls, i leap up from my typing to play at being his sous-chef (though really all i am is the wiper-upper of kitchen splats).

he whips up something grand, something delicious, and always spilling over the sides of his plate.

we mosey back to the table. or, well, he moseys, and i finish up the de-splatting. then we sit, and the loopy days begin. we dive deep. quickly.

waste little time on folderol and fluff. we’ve got a year’s worth of college life to pour over (we’ve been known to take in two years at a gulp, retreading over year before last, if pertinent) , and there’s the year ahead to consider, too.

we loop round and round, drop threads, follow new ones, circle back — hours later — to the thread we’d left behind. it goes like this for half the day.

now, not all college kids go off the way mine has. i’ve heard tales of kids who text many times  a day. i’ve even heard stories about college kids who dial phones. call home. to be fair, that happens here too, but not so very often. and, when it happens, it is sometimes very very late at night.

we seem to have birthed a college kid who takes his college full-throttle. unless it’s dire — and on occasion, it’s been vaguely that — we’re pretty much the side show. oh, there are insistent “love you, mommo”s. and there are (astonishingly), “do you remember where you put my sewing kit?”

mostly, i, um, never ever doubt, not for any longer than five or 10 minutes, that he appreciates my unbroken love and care.

but, really, it’s these sacred hours when he’s home, when the two of us are circling in and out of each other’s footspace and quarter-hour time slots, that we make up for lost time, and seal the deal for the long whitespace ahead.

these hours, the ones where he might sink down low inside a bean bag, while i trod for miles on the treadmill, the ones where i sous to his chef, these are the ones that knit us deep and thick and forever at the heart.

love in every house spills out in idiosyncratic ways. and it changes over time.

at my house now, i am licking up these hours of deep and winding conversation as if the ice cream melted on my cake plate.

i am whispering thanks to the heavens above that, right now, for this short interlude, i can do my typing here, not far from where the thuds patter down the stairs. so that i can weave my sentences in between his stories. so i can be here to catch the loop-de-loops of conversation as they unfurl. in slow time. unhurried time. whip-up-omelettes-while-you’re-talking time.

because i’m long practiced in the art of asking questions, allowing long spells for replies, i find this a part of motherhood to which i take a particular shine. play time on the floor, i flunked. so, too, chutes and ladders and monopoly. i wasn’t bad at crayons and paper. but really.

the deepest glue i know is the one that comes from unfurling the whole of the human heart. the nooks and crannies. crests and high plains.

so it’s what we do here. for three short weeks. in the mid-day hours when no one else is home. and my brain’s at full attention. and my work can wait till dark. for these hours are slipping through my fingers. and i am plumbing the depths of each and every one.

loopy days, i find, are the summer’s sweetest offering.

do you practice the art of the slow-unwinding conversation? the one with someone you love that stops and starts and plumbs the depths for days and days on end? and carries you across long dry deserts of barely enough time to really, really talk?

and because i promised a bit of cerebral uplift, i’ll begin what i’m calling the marginalia department, where i scribble in the margins of whatever page i’m turning, where i recount for you the lines i’ve scored and underscored. 

this week from rebecca solnit’s “the faraway nearby,” a line to chew on for a time:

“Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”

or this….

“Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself.”

i am especially keen on the first, about difficulty school, and the option of learning from it. it’s a thought that carried me to sleep last night…..and it’s a book that came highly recommended by one of my very favorite reader friends…..

the view from inside one mama’s heart

brothers

i know.  i said i’d take a turn north, explore the cerebrum instead of the vessel that pumps down in the chest. but, so happens, a prodigal child is circling back to his homestead this weekend, for three short weeks, for what might prove to be the last and longest time.

i hadn’t quite realized how hollow this old house feels without him. the first year he went off to college, it was all new. i hadn’t quite grasped that it was the new normal; it still felt like a blip, an oddity. i could hum along and pretend that one day soon it would be back to the way it had always been.

the second year of college, none of us were here. we were tucked in that third-floor aerie that hardly knew him. that felt small enough and tight enough not to miss him quite so much. and besides, he was only two hours away.

now, now that we’re back in the old house with the room at the bend in the stairs, his room, the room he grew up in, the one where he learned to shave, first slid into a tuxedo, the one where he typed his college essays, where his desk lamp stayed burning till too late in the night, too early in the morning, truth be told, i feel the emptiness. this old house feels baggy, like we’ve gone down in size, and the jeans on our hips are sagging, sliding clear to our knees.

it’s quiet. too quiet sometimes. oh, don’t get me wrong. i wrap myself in silence like a soft-knitted afghan. quiet and silence allow thoughts to percolate, ideas to bubble up and thicken, gain depth and nuance, not unlike a balsamic glaze, or a mound of caramelized onion.

but that prize — the silence so rich you can count the tick of the clock — comes at the cost of not hearing the laughter. not standing at the cutting board, come late afternoon, with tears rolling down my cheeks. and not because i’m chopping an onion; because the lanky kid who just strolled in the door is recounting his day, is telling me tales animated in one of the 5,000 accents he’s mastered, an around-the-world whirl from one little mouth. it’s the uncanniest gift, his knack for assembling a whole host of characters, spilling them forth, one tale, one voice, at a time.

there is nothing so sweet as a belly ache that comes from your kid doubling you over in side-splitting, air-gasping guffaws.

that kid is coming home. that kid will fill this old house, once again, with the clomp of his feet, the sound of the shower that drones on for what seems like an hour. i’ll hear the sound of his pawing through the pantry, in search of whatever will fill that bottomless belly. but most of all, i’ll hear the sound of that voice i could pluck from the middle of grand central station, that voice i can hear in my dreams.

i’ll hear the particular way he calls me “mommo!” a collection of soft consonants and one open-mouthed vowel that buckles my knees, kickstarts my heart.

even better than all of that, though, are the sounds that will come from the two who are brothers.

i realize more than ever that eight years apart is a lifetime. one is off, navigating the steep slopes of college. the other is back home, after a long year away, trying to find his way through the forest of middle school. miles and miles lie between them. most of the year, they are no more than apostrophes in each other’s stories. they intersect barely. trade two syllable texts, on occasion.

but, in the rare few weeks they inhabit the very same house, they will be everything i always prayed for: each other’s guidepost and lighthouse. they’ll curl in the beanbags, side by side, down in the basement. they’ll motor off in the old station wagon that now has no fan, no AC or heat. but it does have good tunes, they tell me. and they’ll turn them up loudly. i might even find the little one sprawled on the big one’s twin bed.

there is much catching up to do. the big kid’s learning lessons at considerable pace. the little one is starting to ask much deeper questions, questions best answered not by your mama, but by the very big brother who, in your estimation, knows all there is to know.

in plenty of ways, the two couldn’t be any more different. or at least it had always seemed that way. if i’d had two ovaries, i would have sworn one came from the left and one from the right. but, fact is, i only had one, so they both popped from the same cubic inch of real estate.

and maybe that’s why — deep down — the two of them understand the most essential brotherly truth: they’ve got each other’s backs. they are each other’s deepest allies, and fiercest defenders. it’s the truth that propelled all my prayers, in those long fallow years when month after month brought the sound of my heart shattering.

and so, as the drumbeat quickens, as the march on the calendar moves toward sunday at 5:07 p.m., central standard time, so too does the pace of my pulse. i’ll move into full mama mode as the hours unfold. i’ll do my usual dance: zip around the yard with clippers, tuck stems in a fat old vase and plop it next to his pillow. i’ll cook up a storm. polish the bathroom mirror, change the sheets, vacuum the rug. make like a long-lost traveler is returning to civilization.

if i stop to consider the calendar, if i realize that this really might be his last long stint under this roof, i might park myself at the door of his room, and stop the clock.

nah, on second thought, i wouldn’t want that. i love every inch and ounce of this growing of kids. i love the intricate layers of conversation, as it deepens and deepens, year after year. i love getting the phone calls from far, far away, hearing the stories, the life that he leads that so exceeds the bounds of mine at his age.

i love that he’ll always have us to come home to. and that his room at the bend in the stairs will echo forever the sounds of his bumbling years. the years when he was finding his way, the years when he did that under my watch.

more than ever, i thank the heavens that i’ve the little guy, too. that one more time i can reach out a hand, and help a traveler up the side of very steep hills. this old house would be so very hollow without him.

and for three weeks, three too-swift weeks, this old house will be filled with two boys, and their very big hearts, sloshing and spilling with laughter and stories and, sure as can be, some very fine wisdoms passed from brother to brother….

just as i prayed so long ago….

thank God for the prayers that came true…

the picture above was snapped the night before the big one left for college. he read a pile of books to the little one that night, as the little one didn’t want to turn out the light, didn’t want the morning to come. 

so many mornings have come and gone since then. so many more about to come…..

did you have a big or little sibling who took your hand and guided you through the world? or did you find your pathfinders beyond the bounds of the family you were born into??