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Category: family

felled by fever

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the view from my pillow

dispatch from the land of aches and pains: it’s day five of fever here. the sort of fever that keeps your head splat atop the pillow, unable to lift it for more than a few minutes, and then only because you’ve run out of reasons to talk yourself out of moving. it’s a whopping case of strep + influenza (which is not to be confused with plain old flu) and it feels like someone poured bottles of toxins down my gullet. i don’t think i’ve ever spent so many hours sleeping in my life, and it’s all i can do to sip a cup of tea. but the fun part is that i’m not alone — my sweet mate is on it too. he started it, in fact. but his stopped at terrible cough and achy all over, and i apparently went for the premium plan, adding strep and full-throttle influenza to the mix. thus, we’ve had a fabulous week of empathy. i moan, and he concurs. i hack my lungs out, and he joins in too. he’s been the very best nurse that ever there was, and i must say there is something deeply blessed about being so so sick you can’t even pretend you’re anything but. all vulnerabilities are exposed. all frailties front and center. and you are so grateful for all kindness, from the way he peels you a clementine in the middle of the night, to the way he presses his back against yours to warm you when your teeth are chattering and you can’t shake the chills. when i think back to the fellow in the newsroom i had a crush on all those 29 years ago, i hadn’t a clue how magnificent he would be when i needed him most. he’s shown me, over and over, this week.

xoxox

sending love from the land of counterpane. and p.s., i got my flu shot, but apparently this year’s batch didn’t do the trick….

have you ever been bowled over by the pure loving compassion of someone whose carried you through some mighty dark hours? 

 

the blessing of friday night dinner

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the table is already set. the brisket — five pounds of it — now idles in the fridge. its exercise in surrender — from muscled slab to fork-tender succulence — began yesterday, when for nearly five hours it filled the kitchen, filled the whole house really, even the brick steps just beyond the kitchen door, with olfactory titillation — a mix of chili sauce and bay leaf, brown sugar, red wine, clove and peppercorn.

img_8399no one’s coming for another 12 hours. but the preamble, the moment the binder img_8401of family recipes is pulled from the shelf, the moment i place the call to the butcher who always cracks a joke about my irish surname and my jewish cooking, that’s when i begin to be swept up in the magic of it all.

and this friday night, in particular, brings with it a whole new landscape. for all the shabbat dinners i’ve served, and there’ve been many, this is the first time our firstborn is taking the train, and coming home, or coming back to this old house anyway. his home now is miles away. but not too many miles. not as many miles as he’s been before, and will be again. so, tonight, i am sliding into the folds of a brand-new cloth, one i’ve not before slipped my arms, my heart, into. all week, i’ve had flashes of the old mama i must now be, the one with the ample bosom, and the flour-smudged apron, the one who opens wide the front door, as she pushes back the floppy curls now dripping from the workout in the steamy kitchen, and welcomes in her sprawling brood. (ditch the ample bosom, ditch the flour-smudged apron, and the portrait takes a closer resemblance to my reality.)

i’ve had this friday night on the calendar for weeks now. it’s the shabbat when, after dinner, we will go to synagogue to say the mourning prayers, the prayers of yartzeit, marking the one year since my father-in-law, my boys’ beloved grandpa, the only one they ever knew, died.

for this night, the word went out: please be home for dinner.

and so, some time this morning, our old red wagon, now parked on a leafy college campus in iowa, will point east, pass cornfields and the occasional shimmering tower, and finally pull down our alley, bringing home the son who has now been without his father for a whole orbit of the globe around the sun. another boy will hop off his bike, park it in the garage, maybe think to wash his hands, once inside the bustling kitchen. and the third dinner guest will climb off the train, tuck his briefcase under his arm, and stride along acorn-pocked sidewalks till he gets to this old gray-shingled house.

it’s the blessing of the friday night dinner, a blessing like no other i have ever deep-breathed. as the week lurches to a close, as deadlines are met, and hustle and bustle hit pause, i circle in on final preparations. candles stand erect on the table. lids topple off the coterie of pots and pans. i blanket the challah — the loaf of braided egg bread that’s a staple of shabbat — with the cloth my firstborn penned with brightly-colored markers long ago in kindergarten sunday school. wine will be poured.

and one by one, they’ll trickle in, the boys i love. they’ll have put their busy weeks, their worries and distractions, behind them. i’ll strike the match, put flame to wick, and unfurl the first of the three blessings. blessings for the sanctuary of time we’ve constructed friday after friday, just before sundown, according to ancient text and modern-day awe. for all time is holy, but on friday nights when the table’s set, the candles  are burning, and the faces you love are the ones you look up to see, that’s when the cloak of holiness drapes most certainly around your shoulders.

tonight, we’ll raise a glass of deep red wine, and my husband will lead us in the prayer we call “grandpa’s prayer,” the shehecheyanu, the blessing reserved for the most extraordinary times, the most sacred times. the times when you reach deep down to the bottom of your soul, and pull up grace and blessing. when every pore of your being shimmers with the knowing of how richly, finely, you’ve been blessed, anointed by purest holiness.

and because i stumbled on my own jewish prayer of blessing, of remembering, i too will recite words that stir me to full attention, words that make me bristle with deepest knowing just how sweet the hour is, every blessed hour, and the turning of each season. and the knowing, too, that the ones we love are ever woven into the whole of who we are.

the words are these:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

may the memory of my beloved father-in-law, arthur zavel kamin, ever be a blessing. and may your friday night be drenched in all that is holy, is deep, is broken loose from the shackles of haste and deadline.

do you have a weekly pause for holiness? what’s your preamble for sinking into sacred time?

we remember them….

AZK

a beloved, bespectacled man died this week. my husband’s father. the original mensch. a man i most remember with his face crinkled by the folds of a smile that enveloped from chin to forehead, and, best of all, with a single tear trickling down his cheek from behind his tortoise-rimmed glasses. i see him at the dining room table, holding up a short glass of wine, as we sit down to bless shabbat — the sabbath — and i hear him reciting the Shehecheyanu, the jewish blessing for those rare anointed moments in time, when, as the prayer says, we thank God for enabling us to reach this sacred occasion.

my father-in-law — a man so tender to me you might never have guessed how hard it was for him, early on, that his only son was in love with and marrying a catholic, even an irish catholic — died on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, the day of atonement, of fasting, the day of judgement. a day when jews (and those who love jews) wrap themselves in their deepest prayers, and the prayers are laced with unflinching references to death, to dying, to lives well lived — or not. who shall live and who shall die? who shall perish by water and who by fire? who by sword and who by wild beast? on and on the prayer pulses through the litany of life’s endings, not a one of them softened for easier going down.

the prayers, some of them this year, made the raw ache of this brand-new death even harder. they stung, some of the words, so i squeezed my husband’s hand as tightly as i could, and i kept watch. i watched his face, in profile, through the hours of prayer; kept watch for tears in his eyes, for that faraway look, for the moments when he swallowed hard. i kept watch on the visage of grief, and imagined the landscape inside.

but there came a moment in the day of atonement prayers, toward the end of the day, when the sun was setting, and the shafts of light streamed in from the west, turning the sanctuary from blinding gold to rosy. it’s a part of the day of prayer called the memorial service, and tradition has it that children are kept outside — too sorrowful. the words and the prayers are tinged with mourning, with longing for lives lost. but amid the sadness, there is a prayer i have always loved, a prayer that wraps its words around me like the softest afghan, a prayer that makes me feel the brushstroke of God, quite honestly. it is pure embrace of a prayer. and it has never held me more tightly, nor more tenderly.

it doesn’t seem to have a name, but the refrain is “we remember them,” so you might call it the “remember-them prayer.”

what i love most is that, like so many jewish prayers, it pulses with a deep interiority. it rustles through the soul. it captures the quiet of the human heart. it breathes into the crevices of our consciousness. it understands perfectly how it is to be alone with your grief, with your longing, and to feel your heart swell and spill, as that rising up of love and loss, intermingled, so defines grief. and it grasps for breathtaking pauses in the beauty of the passing year, in the turning of the seasons, and it anoints those moments, those unfoldings, as vessels for remembering, for loving, for stepping bravely into a world without the ones who have defined us from the beginning of our time, or for as long as we have loved them.

i offer here, the “remember them” prayer:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

grandpa art with first two of five grandsons

grandpa art with first two of five grandsons

the truth of today is that i am holding tight to prayer for one other someone i love tenderly and dearly. someone with whom i have shared deeply sacred moments, and hours of animated conversation over the decades. hours curled up on a couch, afghan covering our feet. hours in the kitchen. hours at the dinner table. hours walking in the woods. hours cradling our newborns. hours adoring our growing and nearly-grown children. hours marveling at her energy, her spark, her heart that knows no bounds. she is still here, but already i am remembering. and loving till the end of time. 

AZK at the Reagan White House, pen poised, question ready to pounce

AZK at the Reagan White House, pen poised, question ready to pounce

and this just in, my beloved father-in-law, the son of an immigrant baker who rose to become editor and president of a new jersey newspaper, the one that covered the news of the jersey shore, read the forward, the legendary jewish newspaper every day for years and years (it was originally written in yiddish). so my husband, who wrote a beautiful obituary for his father, rewrote one with a yiddish twist for the forward. and it runs there, as of minutes ago. the headline: Arthur Z. Kamin, Trailblazing New Jersey Journalist, Dies at 84. for my tenderhearted newsman of a father-in-law, this is the much deserved trumpet blast at the close of his most beautiful life.

this day, i send deepest love first to my beautiful beautiful mother in law, and to my blessed sister in law who i will soon be with. their loss is vast and without borders. hold them, and my sweet blair, and will, and especially little teddy whose tears will not be stanched, in your whispered prayerful hearts. 

and here’s the question of the week: what words bring you comfort when you are aching in sorrow?

maybe i should pretend….

picture of dad, taken from back cover of his book.......

i’m typing this a day before i usually type. because tomorrow, friday, at this lovely hour, i’ll be feeling my heart plunk though my chest. i’ll pretty much be wishing i was anywhere besides where i’ll be: sitting in a grand dining room, with white-jacketed waiters scurrying like flocks of plate-bearing birds. knives and forks will be tinkling. i’ll be wishing that every wine goblet at every place was sloshing and swiftly being drained. i’ll wish for delirium to sweep across the room, and everyone in it to drift into ether-land. i’ll wish, quite frankly, to be knocked out myself.

it might extinguish the angst.

as the clock ticks toward 40 minutes after 12, i’ll be calling on angels and saints to lift me and carry me through the next 35 minutes.

you see, i’m slotted to get up, before a crowded dining room, in an old-guard chicago club, and unspool a few wisdoms.

which — if you know me even a wee little bit, this should come as no surprise — scares the behoozies right out of me. oh, i’ve been practicing a good bit of late. it’s what comes after you spend a few years sitting alone in a room, typing your heart out. all of the sudden, they (those faraway someones in the towers of publishing) glue all that typing together, put a pretty cover on it (in my case, a vase of what my little one calls “the dead flowers”), and then they make you get up and talk about those words. out loud.

which, pretty much, is my definition of living-breathing fear. it’s so far outside my comfort zone, i find myself dreaming of rocks i could hide under. examining closets for the extent of their “hide-ability.” my recurring nightmare, just before i wake up on the dawns of the days when i’m slotted to “book talk”: it’s me being toppled by tidal wave after tidal wave. complete with slimy sea shimmerers.

but then, each and every time i stand up — certain my knees will give out, especially if i’m teetering on the skinny little “kitten heels” my fairy godmother in book touring told me i needed to buy (“everyone looks at your feet while you’re reading; you need something excellent for them to look at,” she instructed, in no-fooling terms) — each and every time (so far), i’ve been overtaken by the intoxicant that swirls through the room. the one called love, pure and simple. i look out into a crowd peopled with faces i love, even faces i’ve never seen before, and suddenly i am soaring. no longer the terrified typer, but suddenly afrolic, to make up a word, one that for these purposes we’ll define as in the midst of frolicking. frolicking in waves and waves of laughter and tears and words tumbling on words.

but here’s the problem: i can tell, by the toxins that build by the hour in the hours and days leading up to every one of these podium moments, that i have clearly not inherited the microphone gene, the one double-dosed in my father, that jolly fellow above, the one who looks as if the mike is a plug that literally fills him with high-voltage current.

my papa never met a podium he didn’t love. heck, he traveled the world seeking out podiums. told us umpteen thousand times his fine little podium trick: just look out and picture everyone in their skivvies (that’s vintage 1920s talk for undies).

frankly, it’s never worked for me. i’m too scared to picture anything, let alone fruits-of-the-loom, and tattered stretchy sports bras (if my undies drawer stands as template for this).

so it came as something of a surprise — perhaps a hand reaching down from the heavens — when, a few hours ago, hard at work rinsing gunk from the kitchen sink, i suddenly was struck with a novel idea. one that in alllllllllll my years of being allergic to podiums and microphones has never before leapt into my braincells.

what if i pretend my papa is sitting there? smack dab in the very front row, all pink cheeks and twinkling gray-blues, drumming his fingers in that way that he did, that way i still can hear in my head.

what if i channel that jolly old soul who lived to tell a great tale, who wrung every drop of guffaw out of a punch line, who couldn’t care less how corny it was, long as it erupted the room in knee-slapping, tear-swiping, catch-your-breath laughter?

my papa lived to make people laugh. my papa lived to delight the ear with the tricks of his tongue and his tale-telling superpowers.

i’m a dialed-down version of my papa. what i’m aiming for, first and foremost, is to make it through alive. or at least not collapse in a heap, my little black dress and kitten heels the only discernible survivors. oh, i love a good laugh. i swell to it, like any living-breathing soul of irish descent.

but when i feel heaven and earth intermingling is when it’s so very quiet you can hear breath flowing in, flowing out. when you look into faces, rapt. maybe a tear, maybe streams of tears, messily making their way down cheek after cheek.

that’s the magic that propels me out of my seat. that’s the one and only reason i’m mustering whatever it takes to stand up and teeter on wobbly knees, wobbly ankles, curled-up toes: i’m aiming for the pulsing heart inside each and every one of us. i want our hearts — for as long as we can stretch it out — to beat in the blessed unison, the deep-down understanding that we all, every one of us, are searching for the sacred stitch that draws us together, that animates the whole of us, and lifts us to a plane of higher purpose.

and, maybe, if i pretend my papa is there, in the very front row, all dapper in his brooks brothers suit, the one with the buttoned-up vest, the one he wore on the most special occasions. maybe if i pretend he walked across chicago’s loop from the glistening tower where he typed for all those years — maybe, just maybe, the god-awful worry will melt away.

and i can pretend, tomorrow, that me and my dad are sitting alone in a very big dining room, and i am looking at him, straight into his heart, telling my very best stories, and unspooling a wee bit of wisdom.

miss you, sweet papa. see you tomorrow….

how do you talk yourself through the things that scare you to jitters?

a bubbling up of gratitude

giving thanks 2013

any minute now, we’ll be lacing up our hiking boots. it’s take-to-the-woods day here at our house. no malls, no credit cards need apply. we’re decidedly not interested in all things consumer-esque. the only things we care to breathe in today are cold air, wide-open sky, and the sound of our boots crunching dry prairie grasses.

but before we zip the triple-thick parkas and slide into the fattest mittens money can’t buy, it’s the hour of bowing our heads and unfurling gratitude.

i begin this year, and this particular season of life, with deepest thanks for all that’s conspired to take it up a notch. and the notch that matters most around here is the devotion to paying attention. paying supreme attention. in so many ways i’ve taught myself to live in a way that holds most frames of life up to the light. i’ve gotten quite skilled at stopping time, hitting the pause, relishing the breadth and depth: the way the light scatters across my wide-planked kitchen floor, beholding the scarlet flash as papa cardinal settles into the branches just beyond my kitchen door, absorbing the metronome of the schoolhouse clock’s tick and tock, the soft tickle of my little one’s curls against my cheek when he climbs in bed — still — for one last cuddle before i drift into slumber.

but in the past week, as my mama and i have stepped into this new corridor of time and holiness, i’ve noticed something new: it’s as if veils have been lifted, and conversation is purer than it’s often been. stories are unspooling abundantly. there’s a gentleness. forgiveness. it’s as if our hearts have melted toward a common purpose: we are forging into the unknown. we don’t know what’s around the bend. but what’s now is a newborn chance to relish. relish time. relish each other’s gentle company. relish the gift of an afternoon spent rolling out my mama’s mama’s butter-cookie dough, pressing the tin gobbler just so, dotting tail feathers with raisins, and through my mama’s keen invention of spatula and speed, airlifting from cutting board to baking sheet before the doughy gobbler loses half his heft.

it is the velvet underside of uncertainty, of doctor’s diagnoses stirring you from sleep, of waking up with a wobble in your belly, because you don’t know these woods. don’t know quite where the brambles are.

it’s the gift of reawakening. realizing all over again that every blessed hour is a miracle. and that you can choose just how to live it: rush it, or relish every drop.

thank you, Maker of All Holiness, for the noodge to relish.

thank you, too, for the gift of being home. for being back in this anointed old house that seems to know me from the inside out, to soothe me, and some days keep me from toppling. thank you for the red-checked chair with ample arms that invite me in, for the straight-backed sturdiness, across from where the logs crackle and the flames leap high and mesmerizingly.

thank you for the windows. for the flutterings and flashes just beyond the glass, as the clouds of gentle creatures take off and land, from sky to limb and back again — each time, lifting just a little bit of my heart.

thank you for telephones, for the rare sound of a voice that nestles soft against my heart. that, within a syllable, brings joy, brings comfort, collapses miles and aloneness, amplifies the hours spent in coming to this holy bond of deepest knowing.

thank you for the bits of news — of whatever ilk, good or bad or nasty — that percolate the hours of each day, make one slice of time so vastly different from the next, stitch drama to the script of life, offer us the chance to absorb each and every frame from an angle never known before.

thank you for wisdom, the sort that comes in unexpected flashes, when you only know you’ve found it as you feel your heart go thump, and you sit bolt upright, or feel the goosebumps sprout. might come reading along the pages of the news, or in a poem slipped under your transom, or from a stranger passing by. might come in the holy gospel of the wonder child, as you catch one last phrase tossed over a shoulder from the exiting seventh-grader at the schoolhouse door.

thank you for the dawn, that sacred cloak of in-between, when crescent moon dangles just above, but night gives way to morning’s light, and heaven’s dome, at the seam of earth and sky, soaks up scant threads of all-absorbent pink. thank you for the stillest hour when all that moves is barest breeze that rustles leaves, and far off, the stirrings of the lake that never cease.

thank you, most of all, for the deep down knowing that you, Holy Depth and Gentleness, never leave me adrift. never let my quakings take me down. ever bring me light, and tender touches. ever hold me up, against the chilling winds. and bring me to communion with all that’s glorious and bountiful in this rugged, rugged landscape.

so that’s the starter list, the scattershot splats of gratitude. here and there, hither and yon, as my heart and head skip here and there. as always, take up the gift of unfurling whatever makes you deeply grateful….

stack o turkeys

the power of five

power of five. four at zoo

this is us.

power of five. five.

this is the rest of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what matters most

what matters most

dispatch from 02139 (in which the script turns from sorrow to triumph, and from across the western hills, the cavalry gallops in, just in the nick of time…)

ever since we got the word way last spring that we were headed to veritas U. for this year of living sumptuously, the bespectacled fellow with whom we live, the one now known as “the professor,” had but one shining dream:

that, on the evening when he was called upon to stand before the crowd and unspool the whole of his lifework, a moment known in nieman vernacular as “the sounding,” his first newspaper hero — his papa, a longtime editor and lifelong newshound — would be in the room.

that his papa would be upfront and center glowing in that way he so often glows. that his deep soulful laugh would echo round the chamber. that the tears that stream so easily from his eyes would, indeed, be streaming. filled with knowing that in his grasp was a life of dreams come true.

it was not to be.

two weeks ago, an ambulance carried our beloved longtime newspaper editor to the hospital. he spent a few days in ICU, and now is growing sturdier. he’ll go home soon.

but not soon enough to take the trip from the jersey shore up to the city nestled along the charles river. not soon enough to be in the room last tuesday night, when “the professor” rose, clipped on the microphone and began to unspool the tale of why he does what he does. why his job as the architecture critic of the chicago tribune, in one of the world’s great architectural meccas, has for all these years held his imagination and his passions, why he lives the life of what he calls an “activist critic,” meaning he tries to avert disaster before it strikes its wrecking ball or sinks its pylons, or, conversely, why he uses his column inches to set an agenda of enlightened civic discourse when it comes to public space and edifice.

alas, there were heavy hearts here in the aerie. we all knew this moment swept by but once.

a videocamera filled in a piece of the gap. but the blank space in the equation could not, in fact, be filled. instead of treating the professor’s mama and papa to a couple nights at the inn on harvard square, instead of introducing them to the bevy of glorious fellows, we had to settle for follow-up phone calls to new jersey to recount the eve. we dispatched photos over the computer wires. and soon enough we will hand over a copy of “the sounding” as recorded on DVD.

but that is not the whole of the story.

other scripts were unspooling as that one stalled to its sorry close.

the professor’s firstborn, a college kid who seems to keep only scant attention on the doings back home,  seemed to divine the significance of the evening, and despite the fact that it was midterm week — and a tuesday night, no less — he and i set about scheming how to get his lanky self two hours east so he could amply fill one of the seats in the room.

while we set about searching bus and train departure and arrival times, the little one in this house set sail a scheme all his own.

he’d long thought it would be a hoot to introduce the chicago architecture critic with a resounding re-enactment of the chicago bulls pyrotechnic theme song, an anthem that shakes the rafters of the united center back in michael jordan’s home cathedral on the near west side of the windy city. what was particularly amusing about that scenario was how counter to the professor’s culture that might be. our beloved professor is not exactly the pyrotechnic type. rather, he might be more instantly equated with a gentle brahms suite, or a soundtrack in which the hushed turning of pages was considered plenty percussive.

as would be the case in any suspense tale worth telling, the college kid could not find bus nor train nor automobile that aligned with his midterm exams. he and i even got to wondering how much it would cost to hire a car. or, might there be a friend — heck, a stranger would suffice — willing to earn cold hard cash, say 100 easy bucks, to drive the kid in for the evening?

as of 10:30 the morning of the talk (aka “the sounding”), there was no such solution to be had. we’d reached the dead end of this scheme. and it was clearer than clear that there’d now be yet another empty seat in that seminar hall.

yet all the while, as the college kid scrounged for rides, the 11-year-old (the one who no longer can justifiably be called “the little one,” much as i’ve come to love that name) busied himself with his self-appointed role in this unfolding family drama.

never mind that just a few years ago no one would have imagined that kid with the gumption to get up in front of a crowd and read hand-crafted words (let alone craft the darn words). he had it in his head that he — and he alone — should be the one to unfurl the red carpet for his papa’s shining moment in the nieman sun.

he wasn’t daunted by size of crowd, nor reputation of those esteemed and mighty nieman fellows. nay, he kept his eyes trained on one and only one sure thing: he loved his papa, and he would usher his papa to the podium in fitting form.

so, wasting no time, he perched himself on his typing chair, and pounded out his script. (a script, i tell you, no  rambling mumbling from the hip.) he closed and locked his bedroom door, and practiced over and over, declaiming to his empty bunk bed. he gave it a run-through. he melted into smile. he liked it, his words of introduction.

but then, the afternoon of the big talk, he hurdled in from the school bus, popped a piece of chewing gum in his mouth (“i like to chew when i’m nervous,” he reported), then plopped back into typing chair, and revised his words. much better, he decided.

with no fanfare, he folded and tucked his script into the front pocket of his jeans. he slipped on his snow coat, and off we headed in the rain.

once inside the white clapboard nieman house, the beehive where all this speechifying was to unfold, we set about the business of transforming the joint into our favorite jewish deli on chicago’s near west side. while setting out the manny’s mustard and the “welcome to chicago. mayor rahm emanuel” signs, the professor’s cell phone jingled.

the next words i heard were these: “willie? where are you? you’re in harvard square?!?”

and so, the cavalry came through. the trumpet sounded from the crest of triumph hill.

at the very last minute, after white flags had been waved, the college kid’s roommate mentioned he was heading into cambridge for the eve, to take in a lecture and dinner just down the block from where all glory — and mounds of chicago brisket, and latkes, and half-sour pickles — would soon be dolloped.

the kid, resplendent in j. press fair isle sweater, barreled through the door and into the grand foyer. his mama let out a yelp that might echo in those halls for years to come. no sweeter sound than the sound of arms enfolding arms, the embrace that will not loosen.

not quite an hour later, the little one, in a magnificent demonstration of the heart that pounds beneath that skinny chest, rose to the microphone, and let loose his poetry of charm and pride and introduction.

said the little one:

“Hi. I’m Teddy.

My Dad is the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. He’s a good guy, and he’s pretty awesome.

But I have to be honest: I don’t always agree with his reviews.

Anyway, my dad and I have lots of fun together.

We play cards. I beat him.

We play basketball. I beat him.

And we always hang out together on weekends.

Okay, so maybe I have a little more fun – just because I beat him pretty much.

But if we had a game on who would have a better sounding, he would win.

I hope you enjoy his bodaciously awesome sounding.”

and with that, the architecture critic took it away.

but all i heard, most of the next two hours, was the sound of my heart thumping as i looked a few inches to my left and right, and saw both our boys circled tight, in hands-squeeze reach.

there are moments in our lives when all that matters, really, is that we breathe in and exhale the very same specks of air. that, in real time, we hear the same sounds at the same moment. that we catch the glimmers in each other’s eyes.

that we know, through and through, we’ve climbed mountains, forded streams, and dodged near bullets — just to be together.

because, as the professor always says, 98 percent of life is just showin’ up. especially when what you’re showing is the full power of your heart.

twas a night to remember, the night the boys came through for papa. and i was right there to be blessed by it all.

why i do what i do sounding

this one’s for the family journal. for my faraway beloved mama and papa-in-law. and for anyone teetering on the brink of should i jump through hoops just to be there….the answer: a resounding yes. 

do you have a tale to tell of a time someone you love made the impossible possible, and came across the horizon to the tune of triumphant trumpet call? or a time when you were the one who decided the impossible must be slayed, and you were going to make it, come heck or high water?

on call…

on call

dispatch from 02139 (in which stirrings of the highest order are due to occur….)

as the final hours of the month of november melt into the newborn ones of the month of december, i find myself jumpy.

jumpy and oh-my-goodness-y every time a chirp or a burp or a hiss or a moan rises up from the belly of the flat little phone that follows me everywhere.

i am on call.

on call if not for flat-out midwifery, well then for the auntie approximation thereof.

in which the doting and dying-to-be-there auntie babs gets to make one lifelong dream come barreling true…

in which, once the labor pains come, come hard and deep and unrelenting in that way that they do when they mean business, she will stuff the toothbrush into the bag, the one that’s already packed clear down to the street map. she’ll rumble down the stairs, shove open the door into the brisk cambridge air and hightail it straight to the fine state of maine, a mere 127 minutes away (minus the seconds i’ll certainly shave with my foot emphatically pressed to the gas).

yes, any hour now, up portland way, a baby — the baby — is due to make his global debut. the stars are aligning, the planets are too. did you happen to catch that full-bellied moon? it’s as if the nightsky were a blanket, blinking on for the nursery.

and, for once in my life, i am close enough to the centrifugal force that i can’t be kept from what amounts to a celestial sky dive.

plan is, i’ll be there.

not when the wide-eyed one first flutters opens his eyes, drinks in his mama, his papa and the whole world around. but shortly thereafter.

miracle is, i’m likely to be the one to hold his big sister by the hand, feel her heart pumping straight through her palms, as she slips her wee fingers through mine. i will be there as we pad down the hallway, she and i, as we round the bend, and for the first time in her life, as she steps into the all-over glow of being the one who now leads the way.

i consider this an advent miracle of the first order, the highest rung on the ladder of enchantment and wonder: to be in the room, shortly after the arrival of one strapping bundle of love upon love.

and, indeed, and thank you lord, it is yet another miracle in this year of living most sumptuously. that i just happen to be a short jaunt away, just a hop and a skip down the eastern seaboard, when life stirs again in a portland delivery chamber (this one complete with birthing pool).

last time, back when ellabellabeautiful was born, i was in a bedroom far far away when the phone rang, when word came, that she had arrived. with my whole heart and soul i wanted to shrink down to a dot, squeeze through one of the speaker holes and shimmy my way through the wires to pop out on the other end, where the newborn mewed.

but i hadn’t yet mastered that bit of prestidigitation. so all i could do was stand there, in the dark, weeping and yearning.

not so this time.

this time, watch out.

this time, hallelujah, i can ooze my loving, my cooing and cuddling all over the place. on the big sister. on the mama, and papa, and, yes, quietly, contentedly, all over sweet baby boy.

all week it’s seemed that the baby could come, would come, at any hour.

after all, all was ready, at last.

the farmhouse my brother had gutted down to the studs and rebuilt of his own labors, it was  complete. the little family had moved down the lane, and into the homestead, with garden and beehives and room, come springtime, for hens and their cluckings. he’d driven down to the cape (cape cod, that is) and hauled home a truckload of family heirlooms. tucked them in corners, placed them front and center in the best of the rooms.

and then, as if that babe had his ear pressed to the wall, as if he knew, all’s ready, the little one began his stirrings.

any day now, his mama told me. so i packed the bag, unreeled the street map. started living hour by hour, ready to rocket-launch at the drop of a pin (or amniotic waters).

my boys here on franklin street will be fine, oh so fine, without me.

and i will drink in the best december elixir: the birth of a newborn babe. and the rarest of loves that i’ve ever known. a perfect start to the season of advent, the holy days of awaiting…

(if that baby comes in the next 13 hours and 14 minutes, it’ll be a november delight…but no such word yet this morning. for a girl who’s old enough to wonder if she’ll be around come the day her own boys have babes, this is a rare thrill, one that might not be repeated in my lifetime. so i am drinking in deep. wholly saturating my soul in all of its glories.)

seems apt that, come sunday, advent begins, not the countdown to christmas for me, so much as it’s the season of waiting. the season of settling deep into the quiet corners of the soul, even if it means swimming upstream from all of the madness this world has layered onto the month, and the weeks leading to christmas. how do you plan to quietly wait for that that might take your breath away?

 

ebbs and flows

no wonder i turn to the waters rushing in along the sands to take my cues, to absorb the rhythms of the comings and the goings. unceasing, ever, and without apparent tussle, the pools come in and roll back out again.

the lessons always there, amid the geometry and the physics of the mysteries around me.

all i need do is become the student, absorb the holy text and the teaching that it offers.

***
once again, i have parted with the boy i love so dearly deeply. once again we have bid our goodbyes, whispered prayers for safe keeping and safe flight. we have felt the tears trickle down our cheeks, and our hearts pounding hard against our chests.

i watched my two sweet boys laugh and jive, in that way they do, one last time this morning. before the school bell rang, and it was time for the little one to throw his arms again around his big old brother, to swallow hard, to not pull away.

the little fella didn’t even notice how each one of us, we cried right along.

theirs was first among the litany of goodbyes. and, for the little guy, this was the true goodbye, the one in the sanctuary of the kitchen, all of us circled round him. not the hurried one in the schoolyard, when they’d dropped him off, and he’d try not to let on how much he’d miss the tall kid riding in the front seat.

once they’d headed off, once the door had closed, and the car had pulled away, a father-and-sons hurried ride to middle school, i stood in the quiet of this house, let the silence seep in, wash over me, the ebbs and flows of leaving, of going off.

it was preamble to the parting later in the morning, when the clock struck quarter past 11, and i slipped the keys off the hook. when i grabbed my backpack, felt my heart sink low, helped him with his bags, and loaded up the car one last time.

that boy won’t be home till summer.

but this time, this blessed time, i know that he is pulled by roots now deep, now lasting. he is thick with friends far off. they peppered him with messages for days. when you coming back? we can’t wait to see you. what time’s your plane? when you landing?

he is loved in a place i barely know. he is loved by friends i have never met. he is loved. and that is all that matters.

last night, as i was sleepy-eyed and headed up to bed, he looked at me and asked, “hey, mommo, wanna stay up and chat?”

who says no to the sweetest, finest invitation ever?

i did not say no.

we huddled under blankets — me, under red chenille on the chilly couch. him, under gray flannel on the red-checked armchair across the way.

for a good two hours, he told stories i’ve been waiting months to hear. i sopped up every one, a sponge in red-and-white-striped jammies.

we went to bed, at last, when my eyes were drooping closed. when i could not keep those eyelids up, at full-throttle attention, no matter how i tried.

no mind, though.

it made the leave-taking that much easier, knowing i have stories tucked inside my heart. knowing that i know now the landscape of his life, his loves, his laughs.

this now is the third goodbye, in what will be a lifelong string of such. i am starting to learn the rhythm, the ebb, the flow.

i now know, because i feel it, that somehow the boundaries of my heart have grown. it now encapsulates the many miles between my boy and me. i know that no miles wrench us apart. they just expand the connection.

i only learned that truth by living it, by breathing in and out the ebbs and flows, the comings and the goings.

but i might have understood it, figured it out, perhaps, if i’d wandered to the beach, paid close attention to what was being whispered there, in the rippling of the lake.

if i’d understood sooner that the paradigm was right before my eyes, etched forever in the sodden sands.

if i’d looked to the waters of this wise and ancient earth, if i’d watched how what flows out comes back again.

if i’d trusted what i saw, what the heavens long have known, long have whispered to the ones who listen.

only now, three times back and forth again, do i settle in to the rhythm, to the knowing that my boy, the boy i love so dearly deeply, he is never going off, just away and back again.

it’s a rhythm i can count on.

happy blessed new year, chair people. may the ebbs and flows of your days, your weeks, your months, be gentle and eternal….

when the cat comes limping home

our sweet old cat is a wounded soldier. one who all week has needed me to be his nursemaid, his nanny, and his doting ambulator.

the old fella has had many a page-turner in his time.

the spell, long ago, when he was holed up in the down-the-alley gang-bangers’ drug-dealin’ den, and, in search of him, i tiptoed through the pitch-black cellar with the dealer himself, who lit my way with his bic-flick lighter. (it wasn’t till i’d safely rescued the rascal that i realized i’d been alone in a dark place with a dude with a penchant for trouble, although during my time with him he was a downright gentleman; i baked him brownies, dropped them on his doorstep later that day.)

or the time that ol’ cat took a stroll out the third-story skylight and lived to tell about it, after a rather bumpy ride down to the sidewalk.

he’s been caught and wedged and upside down aplenty. he’s come home with a nip to the ear, and minus a few tufts of fur.

but, until last week, he’d never come home limping.

and he’d never ever needed me so very much.

i fell swiftly into the role of nursemaid; after all, far as he’s concerned, i am his not-so-furry mama.

once i realized he couldn’t even step down from his padded orvis bed, why i concocted a pillow staircase, one that led gently up or down, depending on where he was headed.

soon, he was headed nowhere. just lay there curled up like the cutest old cat that ever there was.

i bought him cream. opened cans of albacore tuna. he lapped up that cream like any kitten would. he turned up his nose at the tuna.

and that’s when we knew we were sinking deep into trouble.

all week i carried him wherever i deduced he wanted to be: the litter box, the outside bird bath where he insists on drinking (i know, it’s gross to think about, and i pour him fresh pure water twice a day, swirl it around the shiny silver dish, but he refuses. apparently he likes his water murky. and so it is. i try not to think about it).

i ferried him up and down the stairs to all of his favorite curled-up places, the rug by the bathtub, the blanket on the window seat, the old chair by the furnace down in the basement.

i was quickly becoming a cat whisperer.

at last, the vet, whom i’d been talking to every coupla days, thought it was time for a look-see. i got up at the crack of dawn, drove darn near to the edge of creation.

but the vet, you see, is an old, old friend. a wonderful fellow. one you’d drive to see, too, if you had a cat with a limp, and no clue what might have happened out there in the jungle that is our leafy backyard.

seems the old tabby got a few nips to the shoulder. nothing huge. but enough little bite marks to make it all swollen and quite a bit sore. (now if that cat could talk, and i sure was wishing he could these past few days, he might tell you and me that “sore” didn’t begin to tell the story, more like the biggest pain in the arm he’d ever imagined.)

old guy had a fever, too. which accounted for all of that snoozing and the two pounds he’s lost in the course of a week.

he’s on the mend, we now hope. though i still get to play nursemaid, for as long as he needs me.

i’ve been told to put warm moist packs to his sore little shoulder, at least twice a day. and that’s where the hot water bottle comes in. just like a baby whose tummy is achy, our sweet little cat is purring under the spell of the oldest trick in the doctor bag.

it’s an uncanny thing how deeply we fall for the sweet little critters who call our haunts home. one night i barely slept a wink, so worried was i ’bout the cat curled up beside me. i kept peeking to make sure i detected some sort of twitch and knew he was still among us, alive.

two days i stayed home from the office, worked here in the typing room, just in case he needed me. just in case.
we humans, i hope, employ our hearts rambunctiously. pay heed to the call to tend to all creatures great and small.
that ol’ cat has given us chapters and verse, whole yarns of adventure and mirth. we owe it to him, to the universe, to give it all back, whatever he needs.

if only these seeds of pure love and devotion would catch and grow into a world-wide bumper crop….

if only….

in the meantime, i’ve a new jug of cream in the fridge, and a whole stack of tuna tins there on the shelf.

whatever that ol’ cat desires, we’re here to attend to his every last whim. so long as he sticks around, and gives us reason to purr.

i happen to know for a fact that we’ve got some of the most dedicated creature keepers here at the table. i bump into one nearly each week at the farmers’ market, weighed down with her bushels of leafy greens. she has hardshells aplenty, some who are nearly 100 years old (and i am not kidding). the stories she tells about her deeply devoted ways nearly always have me in tears. maybe she’ll share a few here. you’ll be inspired. i promise. and anyone else with a story to tell about a sweet creature you love, and nursed back to vim and vigor, we’re listening…..