yahrzeit is a yiddish word translated as “time of year,” and for jews, a people who sanctify time in so many ways, yahrzeit is both solemn and a blessing. yahrzeit is when jews remember the dead, and, as in so many cultures, when we wrap ourselves in an almost-palpable sense of remembering. for jews, it dates back to the 16th century, when an otherwise obscure rabbi wrote of yahrzeit in his book of customs. every year on the anniversary, “the time of year,” of the death of someone beloved, jews are called to the synagogue, and rise for the reciting of the mourner’s kaddish, a praise prayer to God, spoken in the depths of mourning, of grieving, and of remembering. it is one of the beautiful mysteries of judaism that the kaddish does not mention death. it’s an ancient aramaic prose-poem, thought to be an echo of Job, “spoken from the sub-vaults of the soul,” that, as some have written (beautifully), is offered up as consolation to God, who suffers the loss of any one of us as piercingly as we do.
at home, the marking of “the time of year” is when a yahrzeit candle is lit, and burns for 24 hours. to glance at the dance of the flickering flame is to remember, to offer up a word, a prayer, from the heart.
my papa’s yahrzeit is today. 42 years ago, this became the darkest day, the snow-swept night the doctor walked into the cold, linoleum-tiled hospital corridor and simply said, “i’m sorry,” leaving us to fill in the unimaginable, unspeakable blank. my beloved papa had breathed his last. and it would be a long time till i could fill my own lungs again. and it is a miracle and testament to godly healing that all these years later i do know laughter again, and i have filled my life with treasures––my boys, first among them––my papa would have so reveled in. oh, he would have beamed. in my darkest and my brightest hours, he is with me still and always.
i am not alone in marking this day as a day of remembering. all our calendars are filled with dates all but written in invisible inks that we alone decode. the date i miscarried my baby girl. the date my firstborn broke his neck. the date you found out something terrible. the date you or someone you love got sober. the date you figured it out, whatever “it” might be.
it is in remembering, i think, that we sometimes grow our hearts. it is in holding close whatever was the whammy life dealt. those whammies come in a thousand thousand colors and flavors and sounds. and those moments, those chapters, are the ones that propel us into our truer and truer depths. it’s life in its complexities that draws out the marrow of who we are.
i am not one who usually turns to nietzche but i stumbled across this line this week, and suddenly it fits with thoughts of yahrzeit and remembering and loving:
“no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” the young nietzsche wrote.
but we walk the bridge with those who’ve walked before us, with those we’ve loved and lost.
and in my darkest hours, and in my brightest ones, i somehow always find my papa shimmering there at the edge of the frame. in my deepest dark hours, i pray: “be with me papa.” and he is.
it’s the last line of this poem where i feel my soul swoop up and skyward…
Lines For Winter
Tell yourself as it gets cold and gray falls from the air that you will go on walking, hearing the same tune no matter where you find yourself — inside the dome of dark or under the cracking white of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow. Tonight as it gets cold tell yourself what you know which is nothing but the tune your bones play as you keep going. And you will be able for once to lie down under the small fire of winter stars. And if it happens that you cannot go on or turn back and you find yourself where you will be at the end, tell yourself in that final flowing of cold through your limbs that you love what you are.
~ Mark Strand ~
the earthquake in turkey and syria: as we all watched helplessly the devastations in syria and turkey, it was hard to watch, and hard not to want to reach across the screen and clear away the rubble. i have been moved time and time again why the white helmets, an all-volunteer corps who leap into chaos and devastation with unbridled courage and determination to pull any breathing bodies from beneath the dusty hell on earth. should you be inclined to do what we can from over here, and want to be sure your money’s getting where it will make the most lasting impact, check out this navigator from NPR to find out just that. the baby girl to the right is the sole survivor of her family, pulled from the rubble with her umbilical cord still attached to her dead mother. the world is rooting wildly for her. and blanketing her in so, so much love. and remembering her mother. . .
and before i go, in case you didn’t happen to see my highly unusual monday morning posting here on the chair, i bring this invitation to the friday table! it’s a real-live virtual (such is the definition of real-live these days) chair gathering. we’re calling it a launch for my next little book, but really for me it’s the joy of finally finally gathering us all together. and finally putting faces to names like “jack,” and “hh,” and “nan”. . .
we’ll gather on the evening of Tuesday, March 21––the actual pub date of The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text––when we shall send it soaring into the everland. it’s free and it’s just for friends of the chair––wherever you are––and it’ll be at 7 p.m. chicago time, when we’ll gather by zoom. and all you need to do is click this link to register. the zoom link will be magically sent to you. and, since i’ve never ever done this before, beyond that we will all find out together what happens next.
that’s my papa above, feeding the kangaroo, when he was once down under, giving yet another one of his gloriously animated speeches to a crowd of grocery mavens. my papa was an ad man, an ad man who loved a microphone. i, as his deeply devoted daughter, decidedly did not get the microphone gene, though i can find myself animated once i get over the trembles.
how do you remember the ones you’ve loved and lost?
it wasn’t the winter break it was supposed to be. or the christmas. or the new years. two of us were behind closed doors for days on end. one of us is still shuffling from armchair to armchair, plopping down for little puffs of air. another one has blotchy red spots on the back of his hands, covid rash they call it. the other two of us strained to keep two steps ahead and out of the path of the red-spiked intruder.
but we barreled on, the four of us. christmas-morning bread pudding finally billowed in the oven on january 2. and ever since we’ve been trying to shove the train back onto the rails, to make the most of these 10 days before flights and calendars dissipate us once again.
it dawned on me in the middle of the night, as i shuffled through the dark to trace my way to the bathroom down the hall, that we were––at that very moment––all four of us safe under one single roof, as is my most settled equation, as is the variable i’ve prayed for, waited for, for two long years. and it hit me just as quickly how the four of us, over the years, have grown to be our own impenetrable force, a circle of loving each other fully and thoroughly through thick and thin and whatever the whims of life hurl our way.
we’ve worked hard at that. it doesn’t come without determination and practice. it’s a living, breathing exercise in turning the other cheek, in forgiving, in listening, in quietly knocking on a bedroom door and asking, “can i come talk?” it’s long long hours on the long-distance line. it’s jumping in the car and driving hours, if necessary. it’s showing up, again and again. it’s being willing to admit, i blew it. i worry too much. i got scared. (or whatever is the foible of the hour.)
it’s believing in the best of each other. and giving yourself the time to see it. it’s figuring out that if someone else sees the best in me, maybe the best is deep down under there, after all.
it’s a lifelong practice in practicing. in knowing there will be days when you don’t quite do your best. when your voice comes out in sharper tones than you’d intended. when you wish you lived alone. when tears sting your eyes, and eventually you hold each other tight.
it’s a testament to loving played out in episodes that take your breath away: the time the stranger called to say she’d found your kid unconscious, strewn on the bike path; the time your kid called to say he got into the law school of his dreams; the time the brand-new driver slunked in the house and handed over the speeding ticket he’d just gotten on his first friday night out; the time your mom turned to you and said they’d found a tumor, and weeks later your then-little one proposed a hat party to make a little bit of joy out of grammy losing all her hair.
those are the strands that make a family, that stand a chance of weaving something whole in a world of rampant brokenness. it’s the little asides at the dinner table, or while stirring onions on the cookstove, the gospel spelled out––again and again––in certain truths you dare impart. it’s the notes you slide under the bedroom door. the stories they hear you share at the kitchen counter, or listening in on one of your phone calls. that’s the slow-unfurling whole of who you are, and what you believe, what you stand for, that gets spelled out, inscribed, passed on without a slip of parchment.
families are made by choice or by birth. both stand strong against the cold winds of history. families take endless work, and infinite joy. at our house, it’s the laughter that is the certain glue. the antics that punctuate the pure delight. sometimes, too, it’s tears, the willingness to cry. always, it’s the listening, and the curiosities that drive the questions. hours and hours of questions. of true and telling replies.
it’s the most important work i’ve ever done. making a family, day after day after blessed loving day. it’s the hardest work, and the work that lifts my soul more than any other aim i’ve reached for.
my definition of family is nothing like it was when i was little. i used to look to the scrubbed and polished clans who filled the church pew, all in matching hats and coats, lined up like stepping stones in graduated sizes. a lifetime of paying attention clobbered that flimsy facade. now the ones who teach me how it works are the ones who weather heartache, who do not give up, who tell the truth, don’t hide the hard parts.
i remember in the hours before my firstborn was born, i was sitting all alone at the kitchen table, and i whispered words to God, promised to envelope that sweet child in all the love i could muster, to harbor him from every hurt. i’ve found out over the years that you can’t keep the ones you love from hurt, from heartache. but you can build a mighty shield, you can build an unbreakable ring of love and light, and you can be there to catch ’em when they falter, you can wrap them in your arms, rest their heads against your heartbeat, and you can promise them your love is one inextinguishable force, and your light will always always burn for them. and you can always make ’em laugh. and listen to their secrets, their hopes, their dreams, their prayers.
and when the days don’t unfold the way you’d wished, the ways you’d dreamed of, well, you can wait till the darkness ends, and you can tuck a new bread pudding in the oven, and you can shuffle to the kitchen table, join hands, squeeze tight, and whisper, thank you God for bringing us this holy, holy moment, and letting us weather all of life––its best, its worst––with each other at our backs, our sides, our wholes.
every family is its own story, is a vessel for a hundred thousand stories, some passed down from generations, and it’s hard work to make a tiny community of similar-but-unique human beings coalesce into something whole. how do you get through the hard parts? what’s your one essential ingredient? (questions need only be for your own personal reflection, as is always always the case.)
tis january, a month of new beginnings, and a happy birthday blessing to the one and only MJH, loyal reader, dear friend of this ol’ chair, and to my longtime beloved comrade MBW, whose birthdays are today!
one of those phone calls came the other afternoon, the sort that snap you into realizing with every synapse that this fragile interwebbing we call our lives is so precariously held together, barely a breath keeps the filaments from snapping right in two. it was one of those calls when one minute you think the biggest worry on your list is the ache in your hand that won’t be quelled, and then the phone rings. you hear the voice you know so well. you hear the depths of its deepest canyons, and the words can’t spill quite fast enough. you listen, and you hear words that send you tumbling, catapulting down an unimaginable chute for which there feels no bottom.
you hear words that someone you love dearly has just gotten word from a doctor, and there’s a death sentence attached.
and you spend the next 18 hours barely breathing. swiping tears from your cheeks, your chin, your nose, the hard back of your hand.
blessedly, miraculously, that call was followed by a clarifying one the morning after, and it turns out the message first conveyed was not nearly as drastic as originally told. the one i love has every reason to believe he’ll be around years and years from now.
but in the intervening space, in the hours of scanning the whole of my life and the deepest places in my heart, i stared once again at the fragile filaments that hold us, that position us, that sometimes fool us into thinking they’re indestructible. we forget the fragility. we forget how each day when we first stir under our covers, plant a wobbly foot on the floorboards, peek out the window at the rising sun’s pink wash across the sky, it’s a miracle. it’s a flat-out gift that no one dare take for granted.
because in a sweep, in a single phone call, in a tumbling out of words–in a heartbeat–it could all be gone. poof! no longer….
i didn’t mean to scare you here, the way i wrote this, the way i waited a whole paragraph to let you know the coast is clear. but i did mean to remind us all that this is fragile, oh so, so fragile.
most of us have gotten those phone calls, those knocks at the door. i got one when i was 18, and another when i was 24. i admit to living too much on the edge of fear.
but it’s hard to scrub away the clear memory of the operator breaking in the phone call, telling me there was an emergency, and someone needed to interrupt the call. hard to wipe away the long drive through the blizzard, the walking the hospital halls, kneeling with my youngest brother in the stripped-bare hospital chapel as cold as everything else that night. hard to undo the doctor’s somber words, when he walked down the hall, ashen, and simply said, “i’m sorry.”
it’s hard to forget six years earlier the unfamiliar sight of my father walking into the drug store where i worked, telling me in the middle of a weekday afternoon that i had to come home, i was being taken to a hospital. hard to forget all the nightmare that unfolded after that.
with those indelible etchings on my heart, i count myself among the blessed ones, the ones less likely to forget most days just how precious this all is. just what a miracle it is that i became a mother to two boys who are as precious to me as all the magnificence in this wide world. that i met a man i dearly fiercely love, a man whose depths have steadied me, have buoyed me, have fueled my updraft in ways i never ever dreamed. that i’ve lived well past the 52 years my blessed father was allotted. and that i never take for granted a moon’s rise, or the sun’s setting. i live to hear the cardinal singing, to stir something bubbling on the stove. life’s littlest miracles are the sum and substance of my days. and then you add the big ones — the loves that animate my heart and soul, the laughter that punctuates the hours, the wisdoms that take my breath away — and i am living, breathing, holy gratitude.
and i aim to live my life at fullest attention.
what moments in your life have made you see the fragility that underpins it all?
My heart is in equinox. Equal parts light and shadow. That’s not necessarily an out-of-the-ordinary state of affairs for the human vessel that holds all we feel in a day, in a lifetime. But it’s not usually so amplified, not usually so stark.
On the one hand, I am counting down the hours and minutes till a boy I love, the first one I birthed, comes home for the first real time in years and years. The first time in as long as I can remember when he won’t be squelched by the pressures of (in reverse chronological order) bar exam, law school, admission to law school, wrangling a classroom of hellions for the year he was teaching on the mean streets of Chicago, and before that pushing against the deadline for an honors thesis that somehow stretched to 300-plus pages. He is—in three days and two hours—packing a Portland apartment into a moving van, and one day and six hours after that he’s boarding a plane, crossing the Rockies, the Great Plains, and the checkerboard of farmland that is preamble to landing at Chicago’s O’Hare International.
He’ll be here—for the first time in six years—for the Thanksgiving feast. And Christmas, and the turn of the new year. Then he’ll move on, to New York City, where once again he will take up his pen and his law books and clerk for a federal judge. And all that time, all the weeks when he’s here, the first order of business will be simply to breathe. To sleep in the old room at the top of the stairs, to trundle down to this old maple table, to cook by my side, and walk along the lakeshore where we all go to think when our thoughts—and our souls—need every square inch of the infinite sky.
And, on the other hand, the man I married three decades ago, the man whose life has unspooled next to mine for the best of my years, he’s off on the Jersey Shore, in an old quirky-but-endlessly-charming house at the edge of a pond. He is there all alone, except for the movers who are coming in shifts, day after day, to empty the house of every last trace of the long lives lived there. The house will be bulldozed before spring turns to summer. And it’s his job, as the only son, to attend to its final hours. He is packing up the last of the dishes found tucked in a cabinet no one had known, finding nearly lost treasures slipped between books on the shelves (his parents’ ketubah, or marriage “contract,” signed in ink in January of 1955, and almost sent off with a load of donations), taking one last long look out the living room window, watching the sunlight and the swans on the pond.
It’s a house that has played an anchoring role as a central character in the narrative of the long lives lived there. No one ever imagined it wouldn’t be there, high on the ridge at the top of the slope, peering down on the pond. The footfall of at least a century and a half are pressed into the stairs that twist up to the bedrooms. Sixty-five of those years belonged to my husband’s father and mother—he in his white bucks or his Keds, a gentleman of old-school sartorial splendor; she in her size-10 flats (never heels, for she never wanted to tower too tremendously over the little children she taught, as a woman of considerable height).
My husband, who has long taken to heart the tenet that architecture shapes lives as lives shape the architecture, is not one to bid farewell to timber and bricks (both of Revolutionary War vintage) without a significant lump in his throat, and a piercing in his chest. I saw how his eyes went dark, the sadness not hidden, when he said to a friend the other day, “It’s like another death.” It’s the last one of its chapter. Six years ago, the sartorial one breathed his last, and just this July, so did the schoolteacher. Each time, my husband and his sister scattered the ashes along the holy ground that is the edge of the pond.
I can barely imagine how hard it will be to turn the key in the door that one last time. To walk down the steps, turn, take one last look. To drive away, down the lane, the white clapboard gardener’s cottage disappearing into the distance. To know, after 64 years, he’ll never come again.
And so the shadow is thick on the walls of my heart, and the light, too, is dappling, is falling in splotches. The equinox of the heart is not uncharted terrain, but oh it makes for gingerly treading.
Thank you for listening. It is hard, so hard, to say good-bye.
funny that i wrote this in caps, up till now. i’ve been writing and writing all week, and i guess i’ve fallen back into work mode here on the keyboard. for me caps are like wearing my big-girl shoes, lower case is kicking ’em off, shufflingaround in my slippers. i’m letting it stand, as a salute to the ones i love…
photos above by blair kamin, on Shippee’s Pond, fair haven, new jersey.
how often do you live in equinox of the heart, and might it be–in many ways–the natural state of the vessel that contains so very much of our love, and our joy and our hurt? so much of our lives are equal parts light and shadow.how do you find a stillpoint?
in a hospice room 719 miles away, a cluster of people i love sit circled round a bedside: a son, a daughter, their mother. words are few now, hours vary by breaths per minute, by doses of morphine. i am there/not there by the miles on a map between us, but my every breath is with them. vigils are kept without proximities. vigils are kept by heart. and my heart is there…
this vigil, as with most any vigil, is one syncopated by its own time and twists, all of which are beyond — far beyond — our inclinations toward clock and calendar, those false measures by which we mark things. minutes turn to hours turn to days. in the timelessness of now, i’m reminded how we set our hearts sometimes by timekeeping tools of our own making. we allow for acceleration, we slow, we pace. but really all of it is no more than device within which we pour ourselves for the comfort of the walls around us. as a species we seem to prefer to plunk ourselves in vessels rather than fling ourselves unbounded onto undulating limitless seas.
i steady myself inside this landscape of not knowing by extracting and considering the stories that emerge, that tell us who we are, who we mourn and who we aim to emulate. as is always the way, the stories we extract from lives well lived are the very fibers that will weave us back together again, in the wake of our emptiness. they’re the totems and road signs that point the way for every day thereafter. the etchings of the heart that prove inextinguishable instruction, the wisdoms and glories that keep the radiance from dimming.
here’s one of the ones i will tell from the life of a woman who from the start was always in my corner. that alone is everything (especially in a mother-in-law), but more than anything i have loved her for her goodness. her endless, endless, bottomless goodness.
in a parade of tales to tell, this one i’m forever seizing: it’s the tale of a gas-station attendant and my mother-in-law, who just two months ago was as blonde, beautiful, and fully engaged as ever. the gas-station attendant, it turns out, is an immigrant woman from a sometimes-unwelcome country, who some years back with her now-late husband bought a CITGO station in new jersey, worked the register seven days a week, long hours every day, and came to know the blonde-haired lady with the old volvo as a friend, one who never failed to deliver kindness every time she filled her tank, and carefully-wrapped gifts at christmas and easter. when the gas-station lady hadn’t seen my mother-in-law and her spiffy new Honda Fit for weeks, she tracked down the home phone and left a message, saying she missed her, and hoped all was well. my husband—who has meticulously been attending to all matters of the heart, and much else besides during these long weeks—called her back, and the woman explained that my mother-in-law had always been so kind, and over the last few weeks she’d grown more and more worried by her absence. the gas-station woman said that when her own husband had died — leaving her to run not only the register but the whole gas station on her own — my mother-in-law was right there with sympathies and kindness, and had become something of a rare american friend here in this strange new land.
to befriend the folks who pump your gas, to befriend them to the extent they notice your absence, and track you down, leave word and hope you’re well, that’s a measure of goodness worth remembering.
here’s another story that’s emerged, that tells us who she is and was in the silence and the solitude when no one was looking: in poring through the piles of papers that shrouded the desk in his old boyhood bedroom, my mother-in-law’s first-born and only son found a yellow legal pad with pages and pages of carefully enumerated names and gifts. my mother-in-law, an inveterate bargain hunter and irrepressible gift giver, spelled out her christmas lists every january, once the post-holiday sales were cleared, and her bedrooms filled with carefully chosen dollar-sale finds. when the Gap marked down winter scarves from $20 to $1 apiece, my mother-in-law bought the whole lot, and squirreled away each one for her endless christmas list. (she also never missed a new baby gift, a wedding, a graduation, or a sympathy gift, but hands down, my jewish mother-in-law’s favorite holidays were those wholly christian christmas and easter. maybe it’s no wonder she never minded the idea of a catholic daughter-in-law.) christmas 2021 was months ago enumerated, executed, and laid out in shopping bags all across the bedroom floors. all that’s left was the wrapping, a months-long ritual she usually began each october. indeed, my mother-in-law had her giving down to something of a science. a science of goodness, of calibrated, counted-out (and bargain-hunted) perpetual goodness.
it’s a goodness without measure, and she lived and breathed it every blessed day.
what stories do you tell of the ones you’ve loved most dearly? or even ones you barely knew but whose stories became the measures of your own every day?
for all these 15 years here on the chair, my mother-in-law was among its most loyal dedicated readers. she was the first to call if she liked it, and ifshe didn’t….well, the silence….
i tell her tales here with love. with so much love….
someone i love is dying, and someone else i love is stationed at her bedside, has been so for weeks now, navigating the shoals and sharp rocks of slowly, surely dying.
someone wise once said that dying is hard, hard work. so too is being the one who keeps the bedside vigil, who is there when the breathing comes hard, who is there in the rare in-between moments when the stories from long, long ago come tiptoeing into the light, seeping out of tucked-away places in the black-box mystery that is the human mind.
because we live in a world with ethernet connection, and because rhythm and routine etches something of a lifeline in even the most uncharted landscapes, i know each day how the hospice day is more or less unfolding, 720 miles away on the fabled jersey shore. i am living some shadow of those faraway days right here in this old house. holding my breath, holding down the fort on this end, so the ones i love can do what needs to be done in these anointed hours, with no mind to what’s unfolding here.
somehow, in a summer that’s breathing hot and hard, i’ve drifted toward the tool rack in my cobwebby garage. i’ve taken on tasks long overdue — and back-achy. weeded like a madwoman. envisioned something beautiful where before there’d been bald and desiccated earth. set out to make it so.
as endless chore has morphed into life-breathing vision, as prairie weeds came out, and carpet roses, false indigo, and myrtle were laid into newly-dug holes, i found myself fueled by Miss Rumphius, she of Barbara Cooney’s eponymous classic picture book, she who set out to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traipsed and turned. for Miss Rumphius held faithful to her creed: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather had once told her, as she perched upon his knee. “all right,” she promised, not knowing just what that promise might be.
when she grew up, the little girl with the promise, Miss Alice Rumphius worked in a library, where she read books about faraway places, which made her want to travel the world just like her seafaring grandfather. and so she did, trekking from tropical island to tall mountains where the snow never melted, through jungles and across deserts. when at last she came home to a place by the sea, she remembered her instruction and her promise to her grandfather: to make the world more beautiful.
in the arithmetic of my little brain, i too took on that creed; subtraction counterpointed by addition. as the someone i love lay gasping, lay whispering her goodbyes, i set out to sow pre-emptive beauty into this thirsty, blessed earth. it seemed a necessary exertion. it seemed to breathe a little oxygen into this airless stretch of days.
of course i know i’m not really balancing anything. no forever blooming white rose could supplant the weekly phone calls, or the undying knowledge that once upon a time the one who’s dying was the one who emphatically and open-heartedly endorsed the marriage between the lifelong observant jew and the lifelong devoted catholic. and besides, long before that, she was the one who taught the one i love how to engage deeply in conversation, never letting pass a cursory question or response. long before i met him, deep conversation had become my lifeline. and, in the long list of things the reading teacher taught, she’s the one who made me love the color red. because a world in red just might stop you in your tracks, or charm you trying. and it’s a color now that will forever make me see her standing in her red kitchen with her red plaid apron, the one i once sewed for her, the one she wore for decades ever after, and she’ll be waving a big red spoon as if conducting some orchestra, though really she’d be making some essential point because that’s the most certain thing she ever did with a spoon. cooking, you see, was not her thing. and she was more than proud to say so.
there is no tally, in the end or all along, for the countless ways someone weaves her way — indelibly — into the fibers of your heart. all i know is that she melted me — and half the jersey shore — endlessly, unforgettably.
every once in a while in these mad garden-reshaping days, salty tears have fallen on the clods of dirt i’m heaving with my shovel. but at day’s end, when i rinse my muddy toes under the faucet, when i finally pause to eat, i look out at the white roses, and the false indigo shifting in the summer breeze, and i think hard about the hard work of living and dying and making the world more beautiful.
in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes.
and it’s a promise i will never break.
fully admitting that a good bit of my binge gardening was merely putting my worries to work, and keeping me from idly staring at the clock, awaiting word from the jersey shore, praying fiercely all along the hours, here’s the question: where do you find balm for the deepest aches in your heart? and how do you follow Miss Rumphius’ instruction to make this world more beautiful? (latter question is one for your own heart, no need to divulge your secrets here….)
and while we’re at it, may this first-ever national holiday of a juneteenth be a blessed one….
i thought i was fine this week, the week we marked the day and the hour when my dad died 40 years ago. but then, as the hour grew nearer and the twilight grew dimmer, one of my brothers started a chain of emails, everyone chiming in, adding a snippet, a gesture, a frozen moment in one of our minds. my brother michael, in four short lines, haiku of the heart, conjured a moment that pierced me, one that keeps looping round in my head. he wrote how he’d driven down from milwaukee in a blizzard, in a borrowed car with a bag of sand tossed in the trunk—just in case. my other brother, two years younger and all of 19, was riding shotgun. when they got to the hospital parking lot, walking toward the entrance, they saw an old family friend. the man, always stern, must have been wise enough to station himself out in the cold, on the sidewalk beside the gliding glass doors, where he’d been waiting, on the lookout for two sons not knowing, maybe sensing, they were on their way to their father’s deathbed. wordlessly and from a distance, the man shook his head, a gesture simple and somber, a shorthand for the grief soon to come. a sad shake of the head, that’s all, letting them know, before the question was asked, did we make it in time?
it’s an angle of the story i never knew before, or if i did, i’d long ago buried it. it slayed me, that simple short story. ripped me in bits. i thought until then that i was okay. but then i crumbled…..it all came tumbling back, that awful abyss of a night, and the way the grief spread like a shadow, one by one across each of our lives, changing us all forever and ever. i ached all over again for both of my brothers, out in the cold, absorbing the subtle but certain shake of the head. grief comes in so many layers.
because i’m writing up a storm for a book that is taking immense and total concentration, because i’ve been underwater for days, squinting at the screen and hoping no one notices if i never get up from my chair, i am re-upping this tale written 14 years ago. how can that be? when my little one sat on my lap watching his grandpa for the very first time. how can it be that that snowy blizzard-y night was 40 years ago?
measuring life in 8 millimeters(from 2007)
it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.
it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.
i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.
but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.
mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.
it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?
it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.
if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.
but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.
as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.
as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.
i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.
not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.
in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.
i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.
it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.
but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.
“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.
in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.
a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.
how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?
Amid the haunting tremors of this national moment, and the bone-chilling worry that something awful could erupt, the dreadful sense that we are teetering at the precipice of something precious being lost, I interrupt the breathlessness, the imploring for peace, mercy, justice and truth, to turn ever so briefly to one of the countless personal narratives that unfurls against this shadowed backdrop. Someone with whom I’ve carved a life is turning the page on one of his most consequential chapters, and, as the family historian and archivist, it must be duly marked.
This is a love story.
It begins long, long ago, inside a vaulted cacophonous chamber inside a gray stone Gothic tower, one that hugs a river’s edge as it courses toward one great lake, in the crosshairs of the American metropolis that rose defiantly from the endless prairie.
A tall bespectacled gentleman, cloaked in appropriately puddle-splashed and newsprint-stained London Fog trench coat and holey-bottomed penny loafers, strides with his signature mix of certainty + humility down the newsroom’s center aisle, past desk after factory-assembled desk, each one equipped with typewriter, ancient desktop computer, and, chances are, one of the big-city news hustlers straight out of central casting (half-drained whiskey bottles hide in file drawers, stashed behind the extra pair of brogans down where dustballs grow; ashtrays brim with stubbed-out cigarettes; expletives punctuate the rumble, a slurry mix of ringing phones, clackety-clacking teletype machines, and the endless bark of irascible editors and the copy kids who dart and dodge at every bark before it turns to bite).
Our protagonist, the bespectacled one, is noticed by a young Irish-American nurse-turned-scribe, one whose presence in that very newsroom is as unlikely as anything in her curiously-scripted life. She especially perks her ears when newsroom talk spreads word that this new fellow — this 6-foot-3 Ivy Leaguer who’s arrived by way of Des Moines, and is reputed to write “like nothing you’ve never seen” — boldly exits the newsroom on Friday evenings at six o’clock sharp (akin to walking out of surgery just before the scalpels dig deep into flesh, as Friday night is when the big bulging Sunday paper is “put to bed,” and all hands usually on deck). Word is that the reason for his unnewsroomly departure is to sprint to synagogue for Friday night service. This unorthodox (for a newsroom) orthodoxy is a.) impossible to miss, and b.) highly impressive to the religiously-intrigued Irish-Catholic ecumenical one.
(Turns out, don’t you know, he was dashing out to the door not only to bow his head and pray, but also to keep a sideways glance on any nice Jewish girl who might wander into the synagogue’s so-named Singles Shabbat, a mix-and-mingle for the 20-something minyan set. Our unreliable narrator here obviously mistook urge to mate — or at least to J-date — for religious fealty.)
It’s not long into this newsroom tale till she — our narrator — falls for him. It is longer, markedly longer, till he returns the favor. But this is not that love story.
This is her ode to his third-of-a-century dedication, devotion, middle-of-the-night perseverations to the journalistic craft, to his unswerving eye toward excellence, toward equity and justice for all in the urban grid, from the greenswards to the cloud-poking steel-and-glass arisings.
Back in the beginning of this Chicago story, he worked the city desk, just like the legions of fresh-faced cub reporters who started out eager and naive to the wily ways of Second City aldermen and crooks (sometimes one in the same), ears trained to the police scanner, ready to leap with hat, coat, and scribbler pad to the scene of the nearest atrocity, disaster, or ambulance chase.
First time the Irish-Catholic and the new-to-the-newsroom Shabbat devotee found themselves dispatched to the same breaking news was the night ol’ Eddie Vrdolyak, an aldermanic stalwart of Chicago’s famed Democratic Machine, broke loose and turned Republican, stunning his Southeast Side constituents who filed into the Serbian Orthodox church hall with their bundt cakes and their murmured words of world-is-upside-down consternation and congratulations. She soaked up color, ambiance, mood; he stuck with the facts. (A telling distinction, one that in some ways would never really fade.)
From there, the hard core of the city desk, the one who’d studied hard the intricacies of balustrades and board-and-batten, casement windows and Corinthian columns, who’d versed himself in architectural volumes from primitivism to Postmodernism, dutifully bid his time pounding Chicago pavement, but he never took his eye off that glittering ever-shifting skyline.
In the fall of 1992, a mere five years after slipping on his Chicago Tribune ID badge, he was crowned the title he had long, long yearned for: architecture critic of America’s First City of built masterpieces and no little plans. (Note: For all my wanting to, and with all my years cobbling sentences and spinning yarns, I cannot do justice to his 28 years “on the beat,” as newsroom parlance would put it. Oh, but I shall try.)
He’s sized up the likes of Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, Santiago Calatrava, Robert A.M. Stern, Jeanne Gang, and the iconoclastic-in-every-way Stanley Tigerman, among the many, many.
He’s marched into architectural battle with no less than Mayor Richie Daley (e.g., the infamous Meigs Field midnight raid, bulldozing Xs through the runway, among his many go-arounds with Da Mare), Mike McCaskey and the Chicago Bears (Soldier Field brouhaha, or in our critic’s inimitable description, “Starship Enterprise crash-landed on the Parthenon”), the Chicago Cubs (Wrigley Field, and specifically the Toyota sign planted in the bleachers, a “wart on the face of baseball’s grande dame”), Star Wars director and Hollywood legend George Lucas (a “cartoonish mountain” of a proposed lakefront museum the critic likened the “giant lump” to a “bloated Jabba”), and, of course, the Developer in Chief, Donald John Trump, who first courted then skewered our friend the critic.
Our critic’s story began long before the summer of 1987 when he loped into the Tribune Tower. He’d grown up in a newsroom, starting out at 13 on the night shift — writing obits by night, body surfing on the Jersey Shore by day — in his father’s newsroom, a classic PK, or publisher’s kid, in Red Bank, NJ. He’d interned in newsrooms in Newark, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston. And paused long enough for a masters in environmental design at Yale. This curious chemistry of take-no-guff news hound + aesthete and well-trained critic’s eye proved a formidable match for the rough-and-tumble of Chicago, where not even the arts are shielded from shenanigans and shysters.
This explosive combo, well, exploded. Often. In shouting matches with City Hall, delivered at full throttle and no words minced. The leitmotif (toned down for tender eyes or ears) went something like this: “Don’t give me that [baloney]! Tell me the truth!” It is reported that as these shouting matches unfurled for quarter-hour chunks of time, the heads of young reporters would pop up from behind their screens around the newsroom, “like gophers from their gopher holes,” to ogle the sight and sound of a scribe at top bellow.
Truth, most often, won out. Which might explain how, along the way, the critic’s sharp eye and voluminous and tireless reporting on the inequities of the city’s bejeweled lakefront — well-appointed and abundant on the North Side, decrepit and inaccessible from poor Black neighborhoods on the South Side — would in time reshape the city map. Bulldozers literally shoved parkland to where before there had been none. And millions once unjustly cut off from the great Lake Michigan shoreline now romp on beach and trail, “forever open, clear and free,” in accord with the 1909 edict of the Illinois Supreme Court that has become the rallying cry for decades of lakefront protection. Hands down, the opening up of the entire swath of lakefront is the critic’s proudest moment. That redrawing of the lakefront came in the wake of his 1998 series, “Reinventing the Lakefront,” six parts in all, that won him what a young friend of ours once and indelibly declared, “the Polish Surprise” (sound it out swiftly, and you’ll know what I mean, especially to the tender ears of a 5-year-old child).
Together, after all those decades in the same newsroom, the Irish scribe and the tireless critic (one of the rare perpetual newsroom bondings, wed in 1991) paired their names on only three double-bylines. One, named Will (now 27, and a brand-new lawyer — just yesterday sworn in virtually to the Illinois Bar from a Portland, OR, courthouse), and another, Teddy (19, and trudging through college). And yet a third: The mother of those double-bylines was asked by the critic to tag along when the new Prentice Women’s Hospital was opened and ready for architectural critique, since after all, the critic pointed out, she was the one who’d pushed out the double-bylined babies in the original hallowed Prentice hospital.
And now, for some undetermined chunk of time, the indefatigable and as-yet-unnamed-here critic (long ago, I made a vow that I would not write of him or our marriage, except for occasional sidekick insertions, as he was something of a public figure who deserved full control over his private life), is hanging up his London Fog, and kicking off those holey loafers. He announced his leave-taking on Twitter the other night (see tweets down below). And with lump in my throat, and tears not only in my eyes but running down my cheeks, I partake of the great newsroom tradition of clapping him out as he exits the building and the beat.
As he wrote in his own last column in the Tribune, which ran practically hidden in the inside pages of the Business section on Thursday:
When I became the Tribune’s architecture critic in the fall of 1992, there was no Millennium Park, no Museum Campus, no downtown Riverwalk, no Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago and no St. Regis Chicago. There were no planter boxes in the middle of Michigan Avenue and few bike paths other than those on the lakefront trail.
Hulking public housing high-rises still stood at Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. State Street was an ugly transit mall. Little planes still landed at Meigs Field. Sears Tower was still Sears Tower and the tallest building in the world.
I am chest-burstingly proud of the brilliant work he’s written under his byline, of the countless midnights when he slunk out of bed to fix a sentence or deepen some particular thought. His devotion must rank among the rarest in the business. His love for his city and his readers kept him writing long after counterforce made quitting the easier option. We’ve seen him trailed by TSA agents at O’Hare who wanted to keep up some architectural conversation, straight to the boarding gate; stood by as he was tapped on the shoulder as far away as London or DC by a reader who recognized him and didn’t want to miss a chance to say thank you, ask an architectural question. It’s that devotion — and infinite unsung kindnesses extended to readers and would-be someday critics — that is perhaps his shiningest prize, the one that comes with no crystal paperweight, and no plaque to hang in a back corner of his book-lined office.
He’s our beloved Blair Kamin, of whom we are soo soo proud. And who has left an indelible and breathtaking mark on the city he loved, the newspaper for which he wrote for 33 rollercoaster years, and who has written his best and most lasting lines in the narrative that is our blessed little double-bylined family.
But that’s the not end of this love story. Only this latest chapter.
Here’s how he broke the news on Twitter last Friday night:
After 33 years at Chicago Tribune, 28 as architecture critic, I’m taking a buyout + leaving the newspaper. It’s been an honor to cover + critique designs in the first city of American architecture + to continue the tradition begun by Paul Gapp, my Pulitzer-winning predecessor.
During these 28 years, I have chronicled an astonishing time of change, both in Chicago and around the world. From the horrors of 9/11 to the joy of Millennium Park, and from Frank Gehry to Jeanne Gang, I have never lacked for gripping subject matter.
Whether or not you agreed with what I wrote was never the point. My aim was to open your eyes to, and raise your expectations for, the inescapable art of architecture, which does more than any other art to shape how we live.
So I treated buildings not simply as architectural objects or technological marvels, but also as vessels of human possibility. Above all, my role was to serve as a watchdog, unafraid to bark and, if necessary, bite, before developers and architects wreaked havoc on the city.
I am deeply grateful to my newspaper, which has never asked me to pull punches. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with talented editors, reporters, photographers and graphic designers. They have been a huge help. Journalism, like architecture, is a team enterprise.
What will I do next? I have no idea. After decades of stressful deadlines and rewriting paragraphs in my head at midnight, I’m ready for an extended break — and many long bike rides along Chicago’s lakefront.
It’s essential that a new critic, with a fresh set of ideas, take up where Paul Gapp and I left off. Imagine Chicago without a full-time architecture critic. Schlock developers and hack architects would welcome the lack of scrutiny. -30-
you’ll note i put aside for this one time my disinclination to hit the shift key and write with capital letters (writing here in lower case is for me something akin to kicking off my shoes and shuffling around in slippers), but for the upstanding critic, i decided to pull out my big-girl keys and give him ups and downs on the keyboard scale. i’ll return to slippers, no doubt, though i do note it makes for easier reading when you can spy the peaks and valleys in each and any sentence.
in the tweets above, you might notice mention of Jon Stewart, the late-night genius, who once saw fit to enter the Chicago architectural fray, a little back-and-forth, you might say, between our hero here, the critic, and the comb-over developer who would go on to rule the Oval Office…watch here the clip of Signfeud, from the Daily Show…
i have now overflowed this space with a kitchen sink of Kamin esoterica and folderol. it is with all the love in the world, and bursting giant heart, that i thank the Chicago Tribune (where, combined, we toiled for 63 years) for bringing me the other half of our double byline. it’s been some rocket ride, and i’ll hold on tight for wherever this takes us next.
much love, BK. i am — in the great Tribune tradition of “clapping out” your final exit from the newsroom — standing and applauding. xoxox
and here’s a final twist for this week’s chair: how bout this, you ask the question this week, and i will try to answer….the annals of the newsroom are now open for the curious…..
there should have been a gathering of little wax sticks, a whole cloud of them poked into the landscape of a buttery cake, each wick flickering, sputtering sparks, as she drew in a very deep breath, ready to blow them all out.
we should have flown in from our corners of the continent, gathered at her old kitchen table, brought our stories and quirks, raised a glass or a skinny-necked bottle.
she has long been our matriarch, our mother, our chief instructor in living a good and simple life. hers is the code attributed to st. francis: “preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
and she’s turning 90 on tuesday.
in our house, she’s grammy. there’s even a day of the week named in her honor, grammy tuesday, a title she earned by motoring to our house every blessed tuesday since our firstborn was born in june of 1993. she played the role of “nanny” one day a week, when he was a newborn, a toddler, straight through till the day we sent him off to college. when he was eight, and we found out he was getting a brother, grammy doubled her workload. without hesitation or pause, she announced she was coming on thursdays as well. over the years, her nanny equipment expanded to include the blue plastic cooler she filled with the fixings of whatever she’d decided we were having for dinner, one of a rotating cycle of circa 1970s dinners. if you trace back the roots of her cooking you might discern that she was the wife of an ad man, an ad man who counted campbell’s soup among his quiver of clients, and thus my mother might only be bested by mr. warhol when it comes to making the most of a soup can.
because my mother is all action, few words, the scenes that flash in the carousel that plays in my head — just like the home movies that clackety-clacked through the reel of the kodak projector she’d set up in front of the living room fireplace, every once in a sunday — are utterly silent.
watching them now, on the eve of the dawn of her tenth decade, they still take my breath away.
there’s the time at the kitchen door, when the long black limousine from the funeral home idled in our circular drive, and my mother (a widow at 50) in her camel hair church coat gathered the five of us (one girl, four boys in her brood), and intoned: “make your father proud.” she’d meant in the church where we were headed for his funeral, and the cemetery afterward, but i’d always taken it as instruction for life. and i’ve tried, oh i’ve tried.
there’s another time, in a misty winter’s drizzle, when we were motoring into the cemetery where my father was buried, and we were carrying a tiny wooden box, inlaid with brass. inside was the tiny, tiny baby girl i’d just miscarried. we’d decided to bury her beside my father, and as we drove into st. mary’s cemetery, there was my mother, standing above her husband’s grave, her foot to the lip of the shovel, already digging the hole where we would lay our baby to rest, forever atop her grandfather’s chest.
there are even — more rarely — silly times: squirting a can of whipped cream into the mouths of my boys. squirting it into her own. when i was little once we stayed up late, my mother and i, making fudge from a box. and then, leaning against the fridge in the dark, we cut out piece after piece in the moonlight. we giggled.
my mother has taught me to fix things myself, to sew on a button, to darn the holes in a sock. my mother gave me ironing lessons there at the board she unfolded in the kitchen, sprinkled with water doused from a recycled 7Up bottle she’d fitted with a hole-pocked cap, the better to moisten your wrinkles. she taught me how to get a sharp enough crease on an oxford cloth shirt, or a pillow case, should you be so inspired. (i’m usually not.) and right there at that ironing board, on a day without school, she taught me all about “the birds and the bees,” (her words) and the womanly cycle certain to come.
my mother taught me to love birds and walks in the woods. my mother woke me up most every school morning trilling lines from robert browning, robert louis stevenson, or emily D, her beloved belle of amherst. my mother taught us, over and over, not to ever let the church get in the way of God. i took it as gospel. when i came home with my jewish boyfriend, my mother who’s gone to morning mass every day of her life, pulled me aside to tell me he was a keeper. she even pinned on him her highest medal of honor, “he’s an old shoe,” she exclaimed, citing the holes in soles of his penny loafers, and the falling-down hem of his seersucker shorts. when our firstborn — the old shoe’s and mine — turned 13, and became a bar mitzvah, my mother spent months carving from wood the yad, or pointer he would use to trace the lines of the hebrew scroll as he read from the Torah.
my mother, by many measures, has not had it so easy. she’s borne heartache enough to crush a flimsier soul. but my mother — whose daily uniform of baggy, faded denim jeans, sweatshirt, and lace-up thick-soled shoes bespeaks her character — is nothing if not sturdy.
she’s not one to bellyache about the missed birthday candles (all 90 of ’em), nor the noise that would have bounced off the walls of the kitchen.
on tuesday, as on every other morning in all these immeasurable years, she’ll almost certainly get out of bed before dawn, feed her birds, sit down to her crossword puzzle, shuffle off to church, maybe take a stroll in the woods, and pour herself a “drinkie poo” soon as the twilight turns on.
we won’t be there in the ways that we’d hoped. but we will all raise a glass. as i’ve just done here, a glass spilling with words. happy birthday, mom. and thank you.
what are some of the life moments you’ve missed, no thanks to the red-ringed virus?
and a bit of housekeeping:
one, a fine friend of the chair, a master naturalist i met at a meeting of the thomas merton society, a friend named paula, had a hugely glorious moment this week when USA Today ran a beautiful, beautiful essay she wrote about the bedside vigil she kept during the final hours and funeral of a world war II veteran, and i am delightedly sharing the link here.
on tuesday evening, as my mother is sipping her amber-colored refreshment, i will be ZOOMing in what amounts to the first, last, and only book tour event for Stillness of Winter. and you’re all invited! it’s a virtual book launch, courtesy of a lovely local bookstore, The Book Stall in Winnetka, and i will be reading one or two pieces, and generally delighting in seeing a host of fine faces through the screen of my laptop. it’s at 6:30 chicago time, and you’ll need to register here to get the link. it would be more than wonderful to make this something of a little chair gathering. it’s via Crowdcast and there is room for everyone!(my hope is that my brother can zoom in my mother, so we can toast her as never before…)
my brother started it. my brother who wasn’t yet 20 the night we all got phone calls, urgent phone calls, to get to highland park hospital. it was dad, we were told in those long-ago calls. and it didn’t look good.
there was a blizzard that night, but we all drove through it–two from milwaukee, two from downtown chicago (one was already there, the youngest; he’d walked in the room steps ahead of my mom, and he saw the team bent over my father’s bed, as they tried to start his heart again). i remember holding my breath as snow flakes fell and blew. i remember thinking the edens expressway, the most direct route from my little apartment to the hospital where we waited, i remember thinking it would never end.
three of my four brothers, especially, were too too young for the news–one, the youngest, had only just turned 13, the other two were in or in and out of college, finding their way–too young for the news that would come when the doctor walked stiffly into the hall, gathered us, and we all leaned in as he looked down at the shiny tiled floor, and said only, “i’m sorry.”
that was not enough for me, the one who needs things spelled out, in more refined detail, so i spurted out, primally, “did he die?”
he did. and so five children and a widow walked back into the snow storm, with a plastic bag of his “effects,” a cold and clinical word for the relics of the one you loved.
all these years later, my brothers especially, try to resurrect the faint outlines of the one we loved and lost. my brother, now the father of a feisty second-grader, he especially reaches into the vapors for the father he never got enough of, none of us got enough of.
this week, on the eve of the 39th february 10 since that snowy awful night, my brother sat down and made a list. a beautiful list. one raw, and unfiltered. he wrote all the way to 39, one moment captured for each year since we’d lost the great gregarious eugene shannon, felled by a heart attack, a massive one, at 52.
my brother’s litany of moments was nothing like mine. so i sat down and wrote my own. and my other brother in arizona, he wrote one too. he wrote his on paper and when he lined up the pages to send us a picture, the pages stretched from one end of his living room clear out into the hall.
in all, we counted out a portrait of the man we loved.
the one, i wrote, who “unwrapped from squares of wax paper his chicken or tuna salad sandwich from the Wesley Pavilion Auxiliary Tea Shop at the side of my hospital bed, almost every day, the entire month or five weeks i was there.” i wrote how, that whole long month in june of 1975, he walked down michigan avenue, from his shimmering big-city ad agency, ducked into the hospital gift shop, bought his sandwich, chips and iced tea (tall with lemon), carried his white paper lunch bag up the elevator to the fourth floor, which everyone knew was the psych floor, and came to my room on the north side of the hall, where he pulled up a chair, and sat beside me. he sat beside me the whole while, as i tried to make my way through whatever was under the metal lid of my hospital tray. we ate side-by-side. i was anorexic, and in 1975, no one knew what to do with a girl who’d all but stopped eating, so they signed me in to a psych unit, and my dad came every day. it remains the tenderest definition of love i know.
i wrote, too, of my dad and his affinity for the backyard hammock strung between two oaks, and his red-plaid christmas pants, and his pride in a closet full of brooks brothers three-piece suits (for a kid who grew up in paris, kentucky, with a train engineer for a father, and a country schoolteacher mama, it had been a long and shining road to brooks brothers’ chalk-striped suits). i wrote of the scar that ran down his bald pate, left there by a german shepherd when my dad was six, and climbed a fence he shouldn’t have.
and i wrote about coming home from the hospital that snowy february night in 1981, “finding dad’s creamy cable-knit tennis sweater, the one with the v-neck rimmed in stripes of blue and red, draped over the kitchen chair (i’d always thought it must have been dropped there when he went off from tennis to the ER that saturday morning, and it still hung there tuesday night).” i wrote of “wrapping myself in the sweater, and literally not wanting to take a breath because I didn’t want to breathe in any air from a world not inhabited by dad.”
we wrote on and on, the three of us. and we all wept reading each others’ litanies. it was, in the week that pauses for love, quite an exercise in bringing back to life the ineffable, the ephemeral, the love that slipped away too soon.
we counted our way into the very depths of love. we brought threads of our father back to life just long enough to wrap ourselves in the thick of it, in the heart of him. love doesn’t die, we proved again, counting the whole way.
i know there is grief gathered round this table, and i wrote this in part because the list-making proved so resuscitating, at least for the short while we were hard at work remembering, conjuring, lifting moments out of the vaults of our heart. we typed through tears. we gathered words as traces of a time now slipped away. the time might be behind us, but the love is living, breathing, even now.
how would you begin to count, your exercise in loving?
and may the swirls of love — lost and present — rise up and swirl around you this day of hearts.