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Category: childhood

boxing up the bookshelf

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this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library. 

one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.

the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.

the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.

my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.

i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.

and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.

that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.

of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.

but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.

and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.

the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.

no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.

not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.

i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.

in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.

it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.

and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.

what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?img_8290

that one brave thing (an update)…

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illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

the empty room: gulp.

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it didn’t take long to hit us. once the sun went down, and the stars turned on. once two, not three, places were set at the old kitchen table. once we climbed the stairs and rounded the corner, spied the empty room.

empty, as in the boy who sleeps there was gone for a few days. empty, as in he made the bed before he whirled off to the airport (a sure sign of something unusual astir).

i heard both of us groan, the deep-down guttural sound you make when something feels strange. as we stood side-by-side brushing our teeth, i saw the look on both of our faces in the bathroom mirror: haunted.

we were both glancing into the not-too-distant, just-around-the-bend, two years-and-four-months from now. when the kid, God willing, will be off in college. the sweet boy who every night bounds into our room, in the dark, no matter the hour, whenever he’s finally calling it quits before sleep, and, every blessed night, he plops a kiss on my head, throws his gangly arms around whatever part of my sheets and limbs he can find, there in the dark.

how in the world will we manage, without his sweet animations 24-7? what in the world do you do with a house that’s missing its most precious cargo?

we’ve been at this, the other grownup and i, at this experiment in parenting, for nearly 24 years. had one babe then another fully occupying every inch of this house and our hearts. and last night, for the very first time, we both felt the hollowness up around the bend.

i didn’t quite know when i married the man i love just how much this fathering would melt him, would deepen him, would make him take so seriously the care and instruction of fine men in the making. i should have known — the man i love had perhaps the dearest father known to humankind, a man whose attentions on his children were deep and pure and unfailing.

one of the first clues that the man i married might take on uncharted dimensions was the night, weeks shy of our first labor and delivery, when he rolled my direction and announced to anyone listening: you’re not going to recognize me; i’ll be turning to mush (or something very much along those lines. i was not taking notes in the dark).

and so it’s been. the man practically goes weak in the knees for his boys. and ever since the little one came along, eight years after the first, a good four years after we were told that no more babes would ever come tumbling from the heavens, well, he’s kept his eyes on that prize like nobody’s business.

sometimes, in the thick of growing kids, when every few minutes you’re running this way or that, worrying about fevers and flus, tryouts and tests, you almost forget that some day the chapter will close. those kids’ll up and move out. pack their bags, wave goodbye, and launch their own sweet lives.

it’s not that we’re clueless, and it’s not for lack of evidence — all around us, seeing as we’re on the, um, older end of the parenting scale, folks we know and love are singing the empty nest song. we’ve been told — by reliable sources — that these people we birthed will perhaps marry, have kids of their own, turn us into grandmama and grandpapa. and having sent one off to college, and soon off to law school, we’re somewhat versed in long-distance parenting.

it’s just that — oh, my — it hit us like 10 tons of bricks last night that we could soon be dwelling in a house that’s 10 sizes too big. a house that’ll feel like an old pair of jeans, slid down around our ankles, because they don’t fit anymore. we might need walkie-talkies to holler from one room to the next, since our intermediary messengers will no longer be here to relay the word (as in, “mom says there’s smoke coming out of the oven!”).

thank God we get these limited-edition previews, those signs from the heavens that life is about to change, and change rather dramatically. it sank in with a thud last night, and now that wisp of what’s-to-come might begin to lurch around deep down inside, where we do all our growing, our getting ready for the transformation that’s peeking over the horizon.

he’ll be home sunday night, that sweet kid now romping through cambridge, mass., 02138, his home away from home, the global village where he’s certain he left a chunk of his heart. by then, perhaps, i’ll gather a stash of brochures from the college just down the lane — the one that might break me in slowly to this notion of deep empty nesting.

in the story of your life how did you find a way to adjust to the day-to-day absence of someone you loved? or is it an ache that still hurts?

two housekeepings: i’d thought i might write a blessing today for that soon-to-be-birthed work of my heart, Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving, but instead i was walloped by that empty bedroom above — and felt the need to try to capture the moment in words. i’ll likely send out a special blessing on tuesday, the official publication date of the book with the lovely nest on the cover. and an update on bravery: i found out this week that mustering courage, doing the thing that wobbles your knees, sometimes makes your wildest dream come true. details to come in the very near future.  

a prayer for beginnings and endings

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it’s whirling all around me, the beginnings and endings. mostly the endings.

on the leafy lane where i live, house after house has sprouted those signs they post around here, graduation signs. “congratulations 2016 grad!” the signs trumpet. and the kids who live in those houses, they were four, holding their mama’s hand, toddling down the puddled sidewalk, shyly peeking out from under a big yellow rain hat, the day i met the first of the flock. just yesterday, i thought. yet somehow, in the pancaking of time, they’ve learned to read and pedal bicycles, they’ve gripped hands to the wheel, stolen first kisses, broken bones and borne concussions. and now, they’re practicing “pomp and circumstance.” could it be 14 years later?

and in this old house, one will be awake any minute, gulping down one last hour of geometry infusion, taking two more finals today, leaving only one straggler exam for monday. and the big kid, the one who now refers to himself as, “a retired teacher, retired at almost 23,” he’s wrapped up his very last round of trying to teach kids to read. he and i sat side-by-side the other night, pored over the papers he’d hauled home, the ones with the questions he’d asked his kids to answer, in the very last class, before they piled paper plates with flamin’ hot cheetos, and cooled the flames with juice box upon juice box. turned out it was a lesson in all the questions that matter: what’s your favorite memory, what are you most proud of, what does it mean to live a good life, what kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?

the answers humbled both of us, the kid who’d wondered all year if he was teaching anything, and me, the mama who always knew he was. what most kids called their favorite memory was “when we were all on the floor, and the school got shot.” (or some variation on that school-shooting theme.) one kid was most proud that he’d “learned to read more better.” and then we got to the humdinger of a last question, the one that asked the kids to dip deep into their souls and pull out the rough draft of a dream.

in answer to the question what does it mean to live a good life, a seventh-grader (one well-versed in the echo of gunshot) wrote: “to be able to live life instead of not living at all.” a kid whose dad is in prison wrote: “i wants to be a wealthy person to provide for his family.” and a kid who’s scored a high-school scholarship and a national champion football ring wrote: “i want to live life with a dream.” a sixth-grader, though, might have said it most clearly: “it’ll be no killing.”

the kindergartener who tells anyone who asks that her daddy and her uncle fell down and died “when they tripped over their legs,” (they must not have told her guns were involved last summer and the summer before when the two were gunned down) she simply wrote: “i love you, mr. k.”

and so, school years are over, whole chapters have ended. careers (that short-lived teaching career) have come to a close. and job interviews lie ahead. so, too, do emails telling of roommates, and dorm assignments, and start dates for jobs. and lots and lots of soggy goodbyes.

so on this birth of a day when so much is ending, i’ll whisper these words, and offer them boldly up to the heavens…

first and always, thank you, dear God, for keeping them — all of them — safe. specifically, for each and every drive back and forth on streets where guns aren’t foreign, aren’t far away, where jersey barriers and plain-clothes cops (guns drawn) have been known to block the route. thank you for steering that bullet clear of anyone’s flesh the day it shattered the  schoolroom window, bounced off a pipe, and dropped to the hard tile floor of the preschool classroom. and thank you, while i’m at it, for inspiring my firstborn to ask those questions that might have given him a peek at the little bit of difference it made for him to stick it out till the end of the year, and not abandon the classroom. not even on the days when a second-grader pushed another clear down the stairs, or the pair of sixth-graders devised a science experiment, the one where they shoved their pinkie fingers straight into the electric socket to see what would happen. and not on the day the fourth-grader called him a name you wouldn’t want a kid to know. and not on the day when the fifth-grader punched him — hard — in the gut.

thank you for the hours when you gave them strength, all of them. the days when the soccer coach picked the other kid, the day when the test they’d hoped to ace came back not even close. the day when the job that somebody wanted was already filled.

thank you for the wisps of kindness that softened their days. thank you for the rare few times when i might have unearthed just the right thing to say. when i answered the phone, drove to the schoolhouse door without grumbling, and knew once in a while that the holiest sound i could make was the silence of listening, just listening.

thank you, too, for the joys. for the love birthed in somebody’s heart, and the delight of watching him tenderly bake her a batch of congratulations cookies. and ice them, to boot. each one inscribed with a word or a phrase that signaled their shared secret script.

thank you for the undeniable fact that they surround themselves with very fine friends. friends there in a pinch. friends whom the little one says, “make me a better person.” and friends who thought nothing of flying in for the weekend, halfway across the country, simply because it’s the place my other kid calls home (or at least this year he does).

thank you for the dinners that left the kitchen looking like a battalion rolled through. and thank you for the quiet dinners for four, especially the ones when no one minded the leftovers. thank you — yes, thank you — for the chance to pack two lunches again. and thank you, mightily, that the last one of the year has been packed. the pb & j, retired for the summer. or at least my spreading knife in it.

thank you for all of this, always. thank you for the blessing of pause. of paying attention to cusps, of beginnings and ends. thank you more than anything for this latest whirl around your radiant sun. i know i’m sated. i’m shining.

and what’s in your prayer for beginnings and endings? 

and happy blessed graduation, birthday, end-of-final-exams, whatever is your beginning or ending of choice on this glorious day in may…..

a p.s. about the little bouquet up above: when i was little, the height of springtime pluckings was the gathering up of plain old violets, and heavenly send-me-to-the-moon lily-of-the-valley. in a bow to those bouquets of long ago, i plucked up a little fistful. if i’d not stumbled on a prayer, i might have mused on those. instead, i simply tucked them atop the prayer. a fitting may altar. 

when the gentlest, dearest sounds of your day are gone

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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…..

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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.

the pages turned…

eric carle page turned

sometimes it’s in the immeasurable glimmer flashing by that we catch notice of the years slipping by.

so it was when i got word that eric carle, he who cut and glued the tissue-paper colors of the first childhood i inhaled by heart, he who wrote the rhymes, and pounded out the rhythms of measured bars of caterpillars and brown bears and grouchy ladybugs who ate the page, he would be among the short list of honorees at my firstborn’s college graduation.

suddenly, i was back in an overstuffed armchair. a navy plaid. one we’d bought when my belly was full and round, one we’d bought — on what for us amounted to a whim — because suddenly i was overtaken with the urge to have a sitting place, a nesting place, for me and my soon-to-be-born. that boy was not a week old before i cradled him in my arms, plopped him on my lap, perched a book before his eyes, and began to turn the page. one ear pressed against his mama’s heartbeat, and through the other ear, his mama’s voice rising and falling in sing-song brown-bear rhythm.

and so it went, through bedtimes and lull times and any time we happened to be curled together on the floor of his room, where a nook carved along the wall cradled all the books of childhood i had gathered for this and any other child.

suddenly, in my mind’s eye, in that tumble of remembering, i was perched atop my firstborn’s hand-me-down four-poster bed. he was nestled beside me, my long-legged boy in his little boy pajamas. i could see his little hand, dimpled hand, his hand that loved to turn the pages — no pages more so than the ones of eric carle.

every child has their natural-born predilection for a certain page. there must be something about the words, the rhyme, the color, or maybe just the humor deep inside. it’s indecipherable, and unpredictable, just what that book, that page, might be. but in the case of our house, our bookshelf, there was no more-loved page-turner than eric carle’s brown bear.

“brown bear, brown bear,” i can begin to recite. and i can take it — still — clear through to red bird, and yellow duck, and blue horse, and green frog, and purple cat. i stumble on white dog, but pick right up with black sheep, and goldfish, and then, skipping right by teacher and children, crescendo comes: in which, in rat-a-tat retelling, we tick through the whole menagerie of curiously-colored critters.

if i read that book once, i read it three million times. it was in these pages, i’m fairly certain, that my sweet boy learned his yellow from his blue. and for some reason, one that might forever escape me, it’s where i heard him laugh on cue, each time we came to that horse of blue. did he know that horses were not blue? is that what struck him silly?

and here we are, the pages barely touched in years. but when i got the news, the news that mr. carle would be presiding, i tumbled up the stairs to the nook in his little brother’s room where the books now stand, forgotten soldiers, stiff-backed, listing, and i pulled out the trinity of carles — hungry caterpillar, grouchy ladybug, and brown bear — and there, i turned the pages, and there i saw the years-old crinkles on a page that once upon a time must have so excited a little page-turner that he up and scrunched that charming goldfish that swims across two pages.

that the author of the cornerstones of my firstborn’s childhood would, all these years later, be there, in the flesh, at his college graduation, the ceremonial whirl that is the close of college, well, it just put a zap to my heart, and melted me. and washed me over in a sudden measure of just how many years have passed. how many pages have been turned. and made me ask, again and again, how did we get here? how did we get to this brink of college graduation, a moment that shimmered in the far-off distance, an indecipherable mirage that felt miles beyond my reach?

and as is my wont to do, i tick back across time, i hold the celluloid frames up to the light. i study one after another. measured bars all unspooling toward this moment of glory-be, he-made-it. i think of the shadowed hours, the ones when darkness descended, the ones when that blessed child bared his deepest fears and worries. i think of the broken hours, when a dream slipped just beyond his fingers’ reach. i think of the occasional glory, when that beautiful boy felt invincible and whole and understood just why it was he was planted on this holy earth.

and so there is symmetry, full circle, weaving together the beginning and the end of this particular chapter, the chapter called school life (even his little brother announced the other afternoon, as if he’d just put two and two together: “gosh, willie is about to be a real adult!”). the beginning and end here seem to have serendipitously been marked by eric carle, a fellow who found his joy, his purpose, in making shapes of brightly-colored tissue paper, and who wrote the score for a childhood measured out in the joy of turning pages, the delight of stumbling on a page that makes you laugh out loud.

i wonder if i might wiggle my way through the crush of all those college kids, and yank the wise man’s sleeve, and whisper my almighty thanks for the animation he stitched into our long ago just-beginning picture-book days?

red bird carle

who wrote the score of your childhood, or a childhood you’ve been blessed to watch up close? which picture books can you close your eyes and still recite, page by page, word by word?

on this particular morning i am particularly tied to my firstborn, who is about to step into the defense of his thesis, his 180-page page-turner. with all my heart and soul i offer up this morning for his prayers and dreams to come tumbling true….

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?

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?

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? 

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?