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?
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….
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…..
we’d expected to weep the whole way home. but then, minutes before the last goodbye, minutes before i pressed my heart against his chest, sealed in every prayer, tried not to turn on the tears as if a faucet, the fellow in the car parked behind ours tapped us on the shoulder, pointed toward the left rear tire and mentioned it all looked, well, rather deflated. (sort of like me, if i’d been a round rubber tire…)
it was a nail. a big one. one so big it might have been used to hold up a whole house, all on its own. it was a nail that begged for attention. how considerate of that nail that it gave us something decidedly urgent to think about, there in the trench of a long-awaited goodbye.
it was sunday in small-town america and the one gas station in town wouldn’t be open till monday. and the next nearest town nearly struck us out, as it started to look like the law student among us would never make it to his 5 p.m. flight back to his first day of classes (on our third at-bat of the short afternoon, after striking out at two tire stores that decided to take that particular sunday off (with cheery hand-scribbled notes taped to the door to tell us so) we finally got a hit at walmart, where the kindest crew in the world got everything fixed lickety split, and we sailed on to the john glenn international airport, where son no. 1 triumphantly — and barely — made his flight back to law school…).
and in the same way that those paragraphs above have detoured this little tale from its narrative thrust (this is a story about departures and aftermath), the behemoth of a sharp object in our left rear tire served to do the same on sunday afternoon: a.) it gave us something uncharted and urgent to think about, and b.) the quest for a tire sans sharp object made for the william tell overture rising louder and louder in my head, and buried a sweet little victory into an otherwise departure-filled day.
and then we got home.
home to this house where the sound of silence — the absence of footfall across the creaky boards of his room, the absence of quarter-hour showers, and doors opening and closing anywhere from midnight to 2 in the morning — and the unrumpled state of his bed, all hit me with a wallop monday morning as i tiptoed past that empty maw of a room, and down the stairs into the kitchen he won’t see till the end of november.
it didn’t take long — not too many soggy kleenexes — till i stumbled into what became my survival mode: i’ve been cleaning like nobody’s business. it started up in his room, when i decided, what the heck, why not strip the bed and throw every last thread into the wash. then i hauled out the vacuum, sucked up a summer’s worth of sand (all those star-speckled nights at the beach), all embedded in the braids of his rug and the distant recesses under his bed and the back of his closet.
then somehow i started to strip the pantry of all the stuff that’d be decidedly stale by thanksgiving, stuff that might as well have had his name embroidered on the sides, as they’re all synonymous with him. and then, gathering steam, i bounded down the basement stairs, opened the lid of the bin where, for years, soccer cleats and basketballs and frisbees and goalie gloves have lay in mud-crusted repose, now petrified into archeological artifacts of boyhood.
and so it has unfolded: messy corner after overstuffed drawer. pared, purged, put back in stripped-clean order.
i suppose a cleaning binge is a healthier option than any other available binge. but a binge is a binge and this one’s kept me barreling at breakneck, forget-to-eat speeds.
the truth is i’m not nearly as sad as i imagined, nor do i feel too hollowed, because the kid i love is doing just fine (or so i’ve gleaned from the one short phone call and infrequent texts from gambier, ohio). the kid i love is at a storybook college on a hill, where the professors plop themselves at dining hall tables (the dining hall, by the way, is straight from the pages of harry potter) and invite kids over for time-tested lasagnas. the kid i love is signed up for classes where he’ll read sophocles, thucydides, plato and aristophanes, and wash it all down with aristotle (this from a kid whose summer literary highlights were whatever he watched on netflix late into the night). the kid i love is about to discover his brain on overdrive. and i get to peek over his shoulder, go along for the virtual ride (i think i’ll read me some thucydides, too).
the secret (no secret to all who’ve come before me, but the thing about life is it doesn’t disclose its truths till you’re right in the thick of it), the secret of mothering kids who’ve flown from the nest is that as their world gets richer and wider and deeper, yours does too. because my older kid is taking a third-year law class — a criminal justice class — inside a federal prison, with 12 “inside students” (aka inmates), i get to consider what it means to those insiders to sit in a circle each week with a yale law school professor, and 12 “outside students” (aka kids from yale and quinnipiac universities), and even more emphatically what it means for those kids from cushy law schools to sit side-by-side men in government-issue jumpsuits, under the watchful glare of prison guards. because the one who’s brand new to college is reading old greeks and ancient romans whose words i might never have read (not a lot of thucydides in nursing school) i now get to stumble through those, maybe even catch a thought or a dozen thoughts i’ve never considered before….
i’m sure the bumps will come, and one day i will answer the phone and the voice on the other end will sound wobbly (or not, she says crossing her fingers), and when that day comes i will muster all the strengths stored up in these old bones, and i will stay on my end of the line till clarity comes — or at least some semblance of consolation.
but if my prayers are answered — and i pray them mightily, first thing every morning, last thing every night, a million times in between — the kid i love will find his way in the world, spreading his rare brand of sunshine, soaking up wisdoms and joys and adventures all his own. it’s why we birthed him, after all. it’s why we’ve loved him like there’s no tomorrow, for each one of his 6,596 days (so far; and counting). it’s why we’ve tried to infuse the few scant grains of whatever we know to be true and right and good.
dear kenyon college, he’s all yours for now. do right by my sweet, sweet boy. (with all my heart, i trust that you will, which is what so animates my spirit and brings me such solace.) and dear T, i’m here whenever you need me. and whenever you don’t, i’ll be the one lost in the cloud of old dust and cobwebs.
church of the holy spirit, where the bells toll every quarter hour, nestled along middle path, at the heart of the college
i’ve heard from one or two mothers that this cleaning binge is not a quirk all my own, that in fact it’s propelled plenty a mama through bumps and transitions. what then are the ways you put order back into your days when you feel the world slipping out from under you?
gy·ro·scope /’jira-skop/ n. a device used to provide stability or maintain a fixed direction, consisting of a wheel or disk spinning rapidly about an axis that is free to alter in direction. a device for measuring or maintaining orientation and angular velocity. it is a spinning wheel or disc in which the axis of rotation is free to assume any orientation by itself.
“device for maintaining orientation.”
sometimes i think my job is to be the human gyroscope. to keep it all straight. to keep all afloat. at speeds all their own. above all: to maintain orientation.
sometimes, even my own.
today is one of those days when the gyroscope in me is working overtime. before i was even awake i was tracing the map in my head of where people i love — children i love — are scattering today. one is climbing into a van with a van full of friends and a summer’s worth of clothes and rolling from new haven, to new york, to washington, to the rolling hills of virginia, then back to d.c. for a long, hard summer playing like a tv lawyer.
yet another of my kids (there are only two, lest i make it sound as if there are dozens and dozens) is marching into his last friday of high school. then he and the little flock i’ve come to love (as if my own), they are scattering like pool balls all across the country: wisconsin, new york, indiana, michigan, ohio, and, yes, illinois. (how apt that the heartland is draped in these particular boys, a heart-filled flock if ever there was.)
years back, when my firstborn headed off to massachusetts, and i stayed behind in sweet chicago, i got my first taste of this re-mapping that mamas do. i imprinted the hills of western massachusetts, pioneer valley, into my imagination. i knew the streets and inclines he loped day after day. and as i’d talk to him, the pictures in my head traveled along. on days when i wasn’t talking to him, i imagined where he trekked. you learn, when you’re someone who loves faraway, how to plunk yourself far far from where you dwell. the size of the space inside your head, it reaches as far as it needs to stretch. adds a live pulsing dot onto the map of the globe. you find yourself scanning the news for hot spots near any one of your very own dots. but mostly, you unreel a whole new reel of picture shows, one for each faraway someone you love.
i woke up this morning wanting more than anything to do like i’d always done when they were little, and we were about to go on a road trip. we’d pile into the wagon, check all the seatbelts, shuffle the water jug away from their feet, be sure the snack bag was reachable. then, before i shifted the car into reverse, we all paused, bowed our heads and muttered the mixed-up prayer that was our own: “holy garden angels protect us.” (one of us once dropped a syllable in guardian and it’s stuck ever since.)
this morning my prayer would be a bit more complex. it’s been nuanced over the years, textured with shadow, with depth and, yes, patches of darkness. the pleadings are at once as unfettered as ever — please let us land safe and whole wherever it is we’ve set out to go — and far more intricate, taking into account the particular inclines and tight mountain passages that come when the journeys are of the real-world, unchaperoned, higher-altitude ilk.
my instinct — no matter how far from home the journey begins — is always to reach toward the ones i so love, spread my arms and my safe-keeping prayers across and around them. i picture the prayer shawl, the one we draped over their shoulders the day they first chanted the Torah, the one we’ve pulled off the shelf for each of their blessings. all these years and journeys later, it’s the sacred cloth i yearn to lay on their shoulders, to wrap round their backs, as they bow their sweet heads, and my job — my holiest job — is to anoint them with my prayers. and my love.
dear holy God, God of adventure and challenge, God of steep inclines and precipitous drops, dear God, steady their footfall. soften the blows. dial up the everyday triumphs and occasional joys. most of all, bring them home, safe and sound and whole. and, yes, steady me, as i try my hardest to maintain orientation. no matter what comes.
i just realized that the ellipses — that trail of ink blots across a page — is perhaps my preferred punctuation. i’d been thinking, all week, that today would be the period at the end of a particular sentence. but then i realized, like so many things in my life, i prefer my punctuation in multiples, an abundance of dots rather than one. i prefer the soft close to the abrupt end, the holding on to the letting go, the voice fading into the distance, one last echoed “i love you” before it all falls to silence…
the boy i love is leaving today. flying to what is, in many ways, home. back to law school, back to friends who populate his thoughts, animate his days, friends to whom he’s stayed connected through the pings of his phone for the last 17 days, ever since he bounded down the escalator at o’hare international and folded me into his very big heart.
i know he won’t be back soon. likely not till next christmas. and that, to me, feels like a very long time.
which is why i’d been thinking of this as the period — punctuational stop sign — at the end of a particularly sumptuous sentence. two-plus weeks of late-night conversations, and the signature boom of his feet bounding down the stairs sometime mid-morning (or later), when the night-before’s leftovers would be pulled from the fridge, considered ponderously, studiously, in ways you might expect from a cerebrum in training, and then, only then, transformed into something distantly related to breakfast (or at least the feast that ended the long night’s fast).
neither he nor i nor any of us, really, has moved too far these past days. we took our cues from mother nature’s deep freeze, and burrowed under blankets. we are in some ways sated (there is only so much hibernating, so much foraging for leftovers, and even the fraser fir is starting to droop), but with each passing day of this last string of days i felt my heart taking charge here. my heart got more and more leaden. my heart sometimes seems to double in weight. it doubled this week. and, yes, yes, snappy vessel that it is, it will soon return to cruising mode, it will come back to equilibrium. life will go on. dramas will come and will go. my heart, bless it, will play right along.
but right now, in the page-turning time, when this one sweet spell is still within my hold, and i know the letting go will come before the day is done, there at the concrete curb amid the crush of traffic at the double-glass doors marked “departures,” i am decidedly sputtering. wiping away a tear or two when no one is looking. reminding myself that this is what comes with modern-day motherhood. this is how it is to love a kid who is out doing the very thing you spent hours and days and weeks and years teaching him to do: stretch his wings, leap. wait for the soaring to come.
i will, of course, return to my everyday mode, the one where i now live with a heart in two places. the one where i pay as close attention as i’ve always paid to the heart that formed inside me. even when it’s 764 miles away.
indeed, as happens in a life that runs only in one direction — forward — i will live my days emphatically, be pulled into this narrative or that, very much in the here and the now. heck, in the past 36 hours alone, one of us got a newly-minted driver’s license, another scored a summer job, and another blew out another year’s birthday candles. the new year brings a percolation of promises and plots in the making…
but on my way to finding my bearings, in the midst of putting balm to the sting, i will immerse myself in what’s come to be my cleansing ritual, now woven into the choreography of every departure: once home from the airport, i’ll climb the stairs and turn to the room there at the top, the one where my sweet boy has stayed, the one that once was his little brother’s. i’ll change the sheets, vacuum the alphabet rug, dump the towels in the laundry. i’ll prop the pillows, and set it all just so. the room, then, will be ready, will be waiting. awaiting his someday return…
whenever that comes…the room and my heart will be ready…
at this cusp of the new-born year have your days been filled with goodbyes and teary departures? endings sure to follow beginnings…and what are the ways you’ve found to soothe the hurt, the missing of someone you love?
these are the frames i’ll play and replay in my mind, as i sift back and forth across these blessed days now drawing to a close…
my sweet boy on his last official night in chicago: one last walk home.
goodbyes have always been bumpy for me. the first one i remember was me sitting on the concrete stoop in a garage in bloomfield hills, michigan. my papa had just pulled his turquoise blue ford falcon out of the slot where he parked, and was backing down the driveway. i was folded into a crouch on the stoop, swallowing back whole mouthfuls of tears.
i hated sunday nights when he drove away.
but he did so, every sunday night for six months. which, when you’re five, feels like forever and ever. he had a big job in a faraway place — chicago. and we hadn’t moved yet. so the time from sunday to friday night, when he’d pull back into the slot in the garage, open the door and bound into the house with all his dad-ness, it was as hollow a canyon as i’d ever known. on sunday nights, it seemed like we might never get to friday.
that early wiring, deep in the goodbyes department of my brain, it must have set me up for a lifetime of sparks firing, little explosions going off, when goodbyes were in the offing. because i’ve never gotten used to watching the people i love fade into the distance. certainly never gotten good at it.
and here i am smack dab in the middle of a big one. not the biggest ever. not the biggest i could imagine (for heaven’s sake, no one yet has invented a way to send a kid off to mars for ever and ever). but in the big-goodbye department, sending your kid halfway across the country, sending him off to law school, serious law school, knowing he likely won’t be back, not to live anyway, after two sweet sweet years that unfolded practically under your nose, well it’s big enough to give me wobbles.
the moving van is pulling up to his downtown apartment any minute. the texts are pinging at me even as i sit here typing: just took the sheets off the mattress, should i do a quick wash and dry before the movers take the last box? what about the pillows, bring in the car or load on the truck? hangers?
even from 14 miles away, i seem to be the answer mama. (and sure as could be, there’s a certain genre of question that to this day prompts me to dial my mama, certain she’s the repository of those things that mamas just know.)
we’re buffering this goodbye with one last week in which he’ll sleep here again. soon as our beloved friend jani, from germany, moves out, i’ll quick-change the sheets, and in will move the impending lawyer. (funny, even though he’s heading to law school, i’ve never before thought of him as a lawyer. law student, yes, but how in the world could i be old enough to be the mother of a lawyer?) then we’ll all pile in the old wagon, and point it east toward connecticut. which is where we’ll drop him off, help unpack piles and piles of boxes, then drive westward with one hollowed-out seat in the front, and plenty of tears in the back.
this goodbye is different, is sweeter, perhaps, than the one when we dropped him off at college, and he needed to figure out for the very first time who he was in the world without us in the shadows. this time, six years later, he has a pretty good sense of who he is, and a pretty good sense that we’ve figured out just where to stand in his life, close enough to always always listen, but not so close that all the moves aren’t his. he knows he’s stepping onto steep terrain, but i think — i pray — he knows he can make the climb.
he’s decidedly a grownup. moving into his first grownup apartment. complete with umbrella stand, i’ll have you know. a lovely one of blue-and-white porcelain, not unlike the one that stands sentry by our front door, one of several nods he’s making to the house where he grew up. bringing us with him, in some small way, even if only in the pot that will hold his drippy umbrellas.
last night, when i swung by his apartment to pick up one last load being shuffled to here, he decided to hop in the car as well. because, as usual, we were deep in conversation and he didn’t want it to end. and besides, he said, he felt like taking a walk. so we drove about eight miles north, and i dropped him off at an el stop, and he promised he’d only walk half of the way. but at midnight last night he was still walking along chicago’s lakefront, soaking up the city that birthed him, breathing deep all that he’s learned since he arrived on the scene 24 years ago.
he sent me this:
that sparkling city along the lake, it will always be his. always, always be home. and we will always, always, always, welcome him back. once we get through this next round of goodbyes.
are goodbyes hard for you?
and happy blessed bastille day birthday to my beloved across-the-way. xoxoxo