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Category: heartache

goodbyes give me wobbles

WKchicagocorner

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:

WKcityatnight (1)

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

holy ground

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from Pope Francis’ encyclical, June 2015, quoting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
“It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”

in these hours when my heart feels hollowed, i find myself staring out windows, through panes of glass, into the garden, sweeping my eyes across the mostly fallow faded landscape. mostly, all i feel is empty. the thrum of a heart’s ache drowning out the usual song. but then, i fine-tune my attention, i look more closely. i am drawn out the door and into the rinse of springtime’s particular shade of sunlight.

it hurt, at first, to imagine this year’s garden absent its cheeriest animator, the old striped cat curled into his napping coil, occasionally opening an eye, giving chase to a robin, lumbering back to the spot where he crushes whatever nubs tried to grow beneath him.

but then i started to tiptoe down the bluestone walk. i plopped onto the stoop just beyond the kitchen door, beside the mailbox that holds all my garden tools. i looked for signs of life, of earth’s wintry crust breaking open, giving way, cleaving apart so the season’s first stirrings had room to trickle back to the surface, bursting forth.

more than any year in a long long time, this month of march has my fingers — and my heart — yearning to dig in the dirt. to brush away dried and shriveled grasses. to cut back stems and sticks that reach to nowhere. to nip and tuck and prune. to break apart the winter’s hard-pounded soil, to comb through clumps, sprinkle seeds, tuck in roots. to make way for the earth to bloom in the ways it so insistently blooms, hope-filled spring after long hard winter, again and again, year after year. no matter the pounding our hearts have taken.

it’s holy ground, the acres and acres that invite us in, to begin a close and careful examination. to witness the astonishments the earth offers up, offers forth.

IMG_7252and so, this Good Friday, this holy friday, i walk in silence, and i whisper the prayer of the earth once again unfurling in beauty. earth knows just how parched our soul might be in this the season of starting over again.

it’s the garden, the woodland, the gurgling of the winter’s thaw in the creek, these are the places that animate the coming back to life — of the earth, and the curled-up spirit within me. the one that just might find the courage to reach once again for the softness of springtime’s return.

i take to heart the words of dear pope francis, above quoting the patriarch bartholomew. i subscribe to the belief that God wrote the Book of Nature, and that each and every unfurling tendril, each and every bulb that shoots down roots and shoots up that periscope of green, each and every quivering of feather or leaf, it’s all here to whisper the presence of the Divine and Holy Wisdom. all we need do is plunk ourselves amid its quiet narrative, all we need do is pay attention, and the lessons and learnings will tumble upon us. breathe healing into our brokenness. breathe hope into our hollows. breathe, again and again, the story of resurrection, of life tiptoeing in to all the moments and places where we thought only death was left in the wake.

may this Good and holy Friday fill you with prayer. and with hope to wash away your deepest sorrow. should you prefer a more solemn meditation for this day of crucifixion, i offer this post from the past, the eloquence of silence.

how do you find hope in the shadow of your sorrow?

snowdrops

radiant brokenness

cracked plate

someone i love was shattered this week. it shattered me.

and it got me to thinking about kintsugi, the japanese art of repair when a bowl or a vessel is shattered. in this craft as ancient — and poetic — as any still practiced on earth, the crack isn’t simply glued, the pieces reassembled. it isn’t hoped that no one will notice, that the brokenness will be hidden, kept secret.

hardly.

kintsugi

the crack and its repair are illuminated. literally. powdered gold, most often, but sometimes silver or platinum, is sprinkled into lacquer resin. the vessel is veined boldly, radiantly. if a piece of the vessel has been shattered into splinters, the missing piece — the absence or abyss — becomes invitation for abundant gold compound, a gilt vein pooling into eddy or island or pond. golden pond of patching together.

kintsugi plate

it’s a practice that dates back, at least, to the 15th century. and, so the story goes, it may have originated when a powerful japanese shogun by the name of ashikaga yoshimasa broke one of his prized chinese tea bowls, and sent it off to china for repair. what came back was a bowl mended with ugly metal staples. the shogun, somewhat shattered by the ugliness, ordered his craftsmen to come up with a more beautiful means of reassembling, of repair.

kin = golden + tsugi = joinery

kintsugi. golden joinery.

it’s the art of embracing brokenness. it’s craft, yes, but even more so it’s philosophy, a philosophy that draws from the japanese understanding of wabi-sabi, which is to behold the beautiful in imperfection, impermanence.

at heart, it’s a knowing that the fracture doesn’t mark the end of the object’s life, but rather embodies an essential moment in its history. it’s worn because it’s been woven into the fabric of daily life, and daily life offers up bumps and bruises and tears and tatters. the more it’s engaged in the depths of day after day, the more likely it’ll be knocked around, jostled, sometimes even broken.

so, too, the human heart.

“the vicissitudes of existence over Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 7.52.29 PMtime, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. this poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself,” writes christy bartlett in flickwerk: the aesthetics of mended japanese ceramics.

to be engaged in the drama of the human theatre — that place called being alive — is to be exposed to shattering.

yet isn’t the redemption found in the truth — resounding truth — of hemingway’s glorious line from a farewell to arms:

“the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

or, in the infinite wisdom of rumi, the sufi mystic:

“the wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

so that, today, is my prayer. that the shards disassembled, strewn and scattered across the plains of life, in those darkest hours known to humankind, are not merely slapped back into some smoothed-over order, some half-baked pass at hiding away the fracture.

but that, as inspired by buddhist wisdom, we come to a deep understanding of the truth of golden joinery. that if perhaps we can find love for the whole of who we are — the broken, the fractured, the piece that’s forever lost — we might discover not simply strength but radiance in the stuff we find to patch ourselves back into a whole.

and in so doing we become all the more beautiful because of where we’ve been broken. and where the Light now finds a way in.

plate cracked

watch this kintsugi master at work (and, yes, it’s without sound): golden joinery video

i know, i know, i promised that proper porridge post. it’s bubbling away on the back burner, i promise. this just wasn’t the week for a clump of oats. although they fortify me many a morning.

have you ever considered the truth that our brokenness makes us more beautiful? have you discovered that, indeed, the Light pours in in those places where once we’d been shattered, that in gathering up the pieces, in patching the whole together, we might begin our repair by sprinkling flecks of radiance? aren’t these the precise fault-lines where God finds His opening, where God infuses the breathtakingly beautiful?

crushed.

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crushed. not the bone, the bone is merely broken (likely, two bones in two places). it’s the heart that feels crushed.

the doctor who wrapped that arm in plaster yesterday morn, he said it could be there for a long time. twelve weeks. that’s basic math in our house, because we all know that in just less than three weeks the kid now wearing that cast had his heart set on trying out for a soccer team he’s been dreaming about for, probably, a good two years. the kid whose arm is in plaster is about to start high school, a big high school where it can be plenty hard to find your moorings, but being on a team at least gives you a place to begin.

the kid whose arm is in plaster is a goalie. that means he swats at the ball with all his heart and all his might, and tries to keep the other team from rocket-blasting the soccer ball into the wide expanse of tied-together string otherwise known as “the goal.” i’ve seen that kid leap high into the air, i’ve seen him knock away incoming balls as if mosquitoes that deserved a passing swat. i’ve seen him dissolve in the back seat on the long ride home on the days the games don’t go his way. the kid plays with whole heart. in fact, the kid lives with his whole heart. which is part of why i fall in love with him, day after every single day.

what might have me weepiest here this morning is that the whole day-long yesterday he never let out a peep of complaint. not a single word of self pity. not a single “why me?”

while i spent the day choking back tears, he just swallowed the whole of it, and wondered how he’d brush his teeth or eat pancakes with a thumb and a hand that won’t be holding anything till clear into october.

what you can’t see in the picture up above is that that’s only the half of it. the other half looks like this:DSCF1290

that’s his knee. he’s a matched set. the knee will be in that metal-ribbed brace for the next four weeks. with physical therapy twice a week.

what happened is this: smack dab in the thick of our “staycation” last weekend, we had a torrential rain. for the kid in question this has been The Summer of the Self-Propelled Wheels. he and his phalanx of buddies slap on helmets and ride into the wind. and the rain. they go where they need to go all on the power of their feet pushing round the pedals. not long after last saturday’s rain, after coming home to strip off the soaking clothes and put on dry ones, the kid set back out on his bike, to do a good deed for a friend. (you know where this is going….)

not 15 minutes after he’d pedaled off, the sun by then cracking through sodden gray skies, we heard a faint but frantic knock at the back door. there stood the kid, covered in scrapes and cuts, with a right wrist cocked at a truly odd angle. in that microburst of adrenaline that often comes, he’d pedaled himself home after flying over the handle bars, and smacking hard against the concrete sidewalk. the rain from the earlier deluge was still so deep he couldn’t see the curb, so when his bike tire banged up against it — just a few feet from a street that courses heavy traffic all day and into the night — he went flying. he was alone. (you are beginning to get a picture of the scenes that keep flashing through his ol’ mama’s head.)

long story short: he’s banged up. two fractures in the right wrist, one in a bone that takes forever to heal. banged-up knee besides.

and the truth of it in this summer that has been soaked in sad news — brain tumors and breast cancers, long roads of chemo for people i love, some with unthinkable infusions flushed straight to the chest or into the belly — is that i know this is many notches down on the bad news scale. it’s bones and tendons and all will heal. but beneath it — beneath every single bit of not-good news conveyed in the halls of hospitals and doctors offices — there’s a story, a human heart that strains to absorb, to understand, just what it means, what it all means and how in the world you’ll find your way forward.

what it means here is that a kid whose heart was set on being part of a team, on finding a solid place to belong in a school that sometimes feels like it might swallow you alive, he might not find that mooring. not so swiftly anyway. he might miss the whole-team carbo loads the night before games. he’ll miss the morning-after walk through the halls when kids might have been high-fiving him for some crazy miraculous save. he’ll miss whatever are the mysterious winds that blow among players, that weave them into a whole, weavings that come in looks exchanged on the field or words whispered in locker rooms. he’ll even miss the heartbreak of a ball soaring just beyond his reach.

trust me, as i type these words, i realize it’s all just sports. it’s just cleats and a ball and a shared pursuit. but aren’t these the threads of childhood, of growing up, and finding our way, of stitching together the whole of who we are? and don’t all the moments matter, even the ones we cast aside as not quite life or death?

and one other odd-ball thing i thought about: it didn’t take me long to wonder if just maybe this broken wrist was in fact a silver lining, one i couldn’t and might not ever see. maybe, i thought to myself, some guardian angel had swooped down and saved my kid from some truly awful collision of the head or the eyes in some moment in a game that now won’t happen. maybe, i thought, my kid was saved because he won’t be in some moment that otherwise might have been. i’ve heard tales aplenty of goalies knocked unconscious. and a dear friend of mine, one whose sweet boy also lives and breathes to keep balls from sailing into goals, she and i share horror tales, like the one about the kid blinded when he took a cleat to the eye. or the goalie who died on a soccer field not too many miles from here, not too many years ago. mothers of goalies share these horrors in whispers along the sideline. we pray that someone will please issue a ruling that goalies must wear headgear. or eyewear. because, with all our hearts, we don’t want to be the moms who get up after the fact, after the disaster, and beg the crowds to change the rules. while we head home to teach our kids how to get along without the eyes God gave them.

but really what i set out to write this morning is something about the degrees of sadness, the relativity of broken hearts. how, even in a summer when people you love are having brain tumors radiated to smithereens, and other people you love are wrapping their heads around the fact that they’re facing 18 months of chemo, you can’t help but feel crushed when your kid is broken, and something he loves is taken away — at least for awhile, especially at the very start of what you knew would be an uphill climb, the start of new trier high school.

we struggle our whole lives long to make sense of things that catch us off-guard. we muddle through day after day, trying to figure things out, trying to pull up muscle and courage from deep down inside, to take the wobble out of our knees. so much of life comes careering around corners, unseen, un-imagined. sometimes it feels like our whole life long is one big expansion of the heart as we discover just how much we can wrap that muscle around, and just how tenacious we might be. even on the days we feel gut-punched. and dab away the tears.

forgive a sort of weepy post. just woke up that way. i know i’ll find my way. part of this morning’s fogginess is that we were out late last night at an MRI to peer deep into those bones. and my next few weeks just got a bit more complicated. i’ve only started to try to figure out how that right-handed boy will draw triangles in geometry or tackle physics experiments when school starts the middle of next month…

what silver linings have you found in chapters of your life that you’d not seen coming? 

the stories we carry close to the heart

coffee cups. stories heart

i was late getting to the old maple table this morning. late, because i was drawn to another kitchen table before i could get to my own. some mornings are like that. some hours are like that.

i was drawn to a table where a mother i love wanted to talk. fueled on fresh-poured coffee, the tears soon enough flowed. the mother to whom i was talking buried her beautiful daughter just 20 months ago. we talked about grief, and the state of the heart after the dying. she talked about her blessing, the blessing of her daughter having had the time to wrestle her demons, and make peace before dying. she talked about another mother’s absence of blessing. a mother whose daughter was knocked dead in the dark of night, at a bitter cold bus stop, when a drunk driver — one who forgot to turn on the headlights of her car when she tumbled out of a tavern and slumped behind the wheel — drove into a tangle of college kids on the snow-piled side of a road, and so the mother of the beautiful girl who died — a “songbird,” my friend called her — never got the chance to have the last conversation you’d have if you knew in your heart this was the last. she worried that the last conversation between the other mother and child might have been more of the sort that mothers and children so often have: “did you remember to make your reservations for spring break?” “don’t forget to check your mailbox, i’m sending the boots you left under your bed.” or, maybe: “oh, sweetie, why don’t you just tell your friends how tired you are, and stay in and catch up on sleep tonight?”

the thing is, if you bumped into my friend in the grocery store, if you watched her tossing bunches of kale into her cart, while tossing rejoinders over her shoulder, witticisms that made anyone in earshot break into giggles (because she is that funny, and most often in high animation), you’d never in a million years guess how much heartache she’s borne. you’d not know that, after four hellish years battling the rarest of cancers, she buried that daughter, and has a son who won’t ever walk, nor utter a word, and whose meals are zipped in a blender and poured in a tube that goes straight to his belly.

my friend is but one of the ones who carries a story, a volume of stories, close to the heart.

she’s not alone. we all have a story. every day, chances are, there is one something weighting us down, bearing against our chest in ways that make it harder to breathe. it’s not always life shattering, but it might be the sort of worry that infuses even your sleep, wakes you up with a start, spares you no break from its drumbeat.

this week, on one particularly extraordinary morning, i found myself amid a circle of women who, one by one, let on that they too carried a story. and that’s what got me to thinking about how many of the myriad souls we bump up against in the course of the day are waging some unspoken battle, the likes of which we’ll never know. never imagine.

and thus, as wise philo of alexandria, the greek-speaking jewish philosopher, instructed: “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

there was, first, the woman i’ve known for years, though not too terribly well. i’d once written a newspaper story about the children’s choir she long ago ran with clockwork precision. then, years later, when i wrote about my own mother’s breast-cancer battle, that same woman reached out and wrote how she, too, had been diagnosed the very same week, and knew by heart the battle. when i bumped into her just this week, she was sporting two very black eyes. she’d fallen, she said, changing a light bulb. seems after three bouts with cancer, she’d developed some bizarre syndrome that left her numb from the waist down — and apparently, it hasn’t much slowed her. and it was only in passing that she mentioned something about her son, mentioned for the very first time that he was quadriplegic.

“oh my gosh,” i interjected, “you have a son who is quadriplegic? was it an accident?”

she answered, softly, but hardly a whisper: “failed suicide. he was a freshman in high school. thirty-five years ago.”

i inhaled a very big prayer as i soaked in her words.

and then, just minutes later, after eggs and coffee were served, after i’d turned to my right, continued talking to a lovely woman i’d met three months earlier, this woman mentioned matter-of-factly that her upper chest was sore, and she’d be heading home to ice it. i asked if she’d pulled a muscle. “no,” she said, “i was diagnosed with breast cancer just before christmas. i had a double mastectomy four weeks ago.” and all morning, i’d only been thinking how elegant a figure she cut, with her sleek gold-buttoned black suit, her streaked-blonde bob, and her eloquent animated conversation.

we never know the stories carried close to the heart.

we never know when we’re sitting next to a woman who, day in and day out, worries about a son who can’t move a muscle. and who got there from the depths of unspeakable pain.

we don’t know that from the time we last spoke to someone till the moment we’ve once again bumped into that someone, she’s suffered the full-throttle blow of life turned on its spine: being told she has cancer, weighing the options and outcomes, and being wheeled off to surgery that will forever alter her God-given life-bearing body.

when you’re listening, when you keep your ear to the heart, these stories come and come swiftly. the calls from the doctor. the unexpected email. the squawk from the bedside radio, first thing in the morning. the reminder, over and over and over: these hours are precious, are holy. live as if each moment matters. because, the truth is, it does. and walk in radiant grace because we’ve really no clue who in our path is shattered, and broken, and deeply in need of the life-giving love with which we might bathe their wounds. or embolden their march into battle.

oh, goodness. it was either write about what really stirred me this week, or count up the 50 ways to really, truly tell someone you love them (in light of tomorrow’s feast of love, valentine’s day). seems i went with the truly stirring. forgive the darkness. the point is the light: the instruction to hold each hour, each encounter, each blessed someone, up to the radiance. life will come without pause, without bumpers to soften the blow. the instrument of healing, of love, is ours and ours alone: we can choose to tend with tender loving care. we can choose to be ever aware of who among us might bear more than we can imagine. we can lighten their load, and pray to God the favor’s returned when the load that needs bearing is ours. 

how are you stirred by philo’s instruction: “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”? or, alternately, might you tell a bit about the unwitting saints who’ve lightened your load at the very moment when it all seemed unbearable?

love letters lost

love letters lost hands

sifting through the cyber-ashes, gathering up a flake or two of text, pausing long enough to read, to remember, to let the tears fill and fall. feeling the full-throttle pang of if-that’s-what’s-left-how-very-much-was-lost?

i’ve found the snippet dated april 10, 2009, on the eve of a baby’s birth, in which i wrote to the expectant mama and papa: “i am certain that we have entered into holy time….” a beautiful baby girl was born deep in the middle-night four days later. the email marked the beginning of the hardening rhythms of that labor and delivery.

i’ve been scribbling life’s every twist and turn, long as i can remember. i mark time with typed-out missives. short or long or in-between, doesn’t matter. all that matters is that, for me, it’s putting life to paper, etching time with written record.

i’ve found the one i sent hours after delivering our firstborn to his leafy college, in which i wrote: “poor teddy sobbed silently, melted in tears.” august 29, 2011. i’d sent that one off to my mama, who wanted to know how the parting went.

and there’s the one, three months later, when that firstborn came home for the very first time, and at the dawn of that first morning while he slept, back in the bed above where i was typing, i wrote to my brother: “i suddenly feel whole for the first time in three months….”

i even found the email, carefully tucked away in my meticulously organized treasury of emails — a virtual apothecary chest of drawers within drawers, each one labeled and stuffed with cyber-snippets — from november 4, 2008, when one newly-elected barack obama sent out a note letting me (and a few million other cyber-pals) know that we’d just made history and, by the way, he was heading over soon to grant park, a moment in history — a moment in my email trove — that won’t soon be forgotten.

i have been sifting through all week, discovering what was lost and what was saved. i find notes from the mother of a dying child who wrote, “as they say at NASA, failure is not an option.” another to a friend whose husband had just died, and who i tried to fill with comfort in the best way i know — words dispatched from the pulsing place deep inside my heart. yet another to a friend whose unborn baby girl had just died. and another, a note from the intensive care unit where our firstborn lay with a fractured neck bone. and one my little one (nine at the time) wrote to his uncle, “i will love max all my life,” after his uncle’s beloved golden retriever up and died.

it’s birth and death, and all the touch points in between. it’s loss and hearts filled up. it’s history and how i breathe.

i write because words for me are the vessels in which i pour my unharness-able heart. i pay acute attention to nuance and particulars. i make up words to try to stretch the periphery of that place that holds so much. i want the people in my world to know they’re not alone, they’re loved, their murky shadow is pierced by shard of light. there is a hand to squeeze in the darkness, and i offer it in words.

i render communion in banged-out letters on a keyboard.

and when your hard drive fails, and the trusted back-up drive does too, when you fall in the unheard-of 0.5 percent, you lose crucial threads, you lose what matters, you ache and you weep, the tears spilling to the keyboard.

and so it’s been all week, as i sift and sort and flag bits and snippets that piece the long-winding narrative — the story of a love that’s flowed without end for all the years i’ve been typing.

among the many chapters lost: the one of a boy with a broken neck and his triumphant bar mitzvah three weeks later; the story of that boy wending his way through high school and — finally, achingly (for his mother anyway) — heading off to college. i’ve lost all the emails that i sent, at every turn in those early far-from-home days that turned to weeks and months of learning how to be a long-distance mama. i’ve lost the emails i sent to beloved teachers, kindergarten through college. and, to pinpoint yet another now-missing chapter, the emails bandied back and forth between my sweet life mate and moi, as we decided whether to up and leave our house, our life, our humdrum everyday, to move for one short year to cambridge, mass., to go back to college, to dwell beyond our comfort zone.

in the life story of a family, much unfolds over the course of eight years. back when i first started typing on this particular apparatus, one boy had just turned 13, the other was barely five. i was working at a newspaper, longing to work from home. george bush was president. my brother’s first wife had just died. neither my beloved niece nor nephew had yet been imagined. my mother hadn’t been told that she had a tumor growing in her belly.

i recorded it all in the little blasts i type and send nearly every single morning, and through the whole day long.

the nice and very smart geniuses who live in apple-land, they did the best they could. for days and days and hours without end (or so it seemed when our phone calls ticked into sixth straight hour, three days in a row). but the sent emails could not be saved. nor the photo albums, all carefully edited and curated. i got back raw images, some 20,000, and i will sift and sort and delete the blurry ones, as i’d done before, in all those hours now lost. the books i’d made from those images — pictures and text, page after page — all gone.

and so, on this day of hearts and cut-out valentines, when words are scribbled in silly rhymes and riddles, i am left to consider love letters lost. and to hope and pray that the echo of what they meant, and what they tried to hold up to the light, i am left hoping that it lives on where it was birthed — deep inside me, deep inside the soul of a girl who’s been holding tight a pencil all her life, trying again and again to get it on paper, to get it right, this immeasurable, unfathomable force of life, of love, of understanding.

the one that sometimes is spelled out in quiet little emails. ones that arrive with nothing but the ping of a flat black box telling you something from the heart has just landed. please read, and know that you are loved.

forgive me for dwelling one more week on this nasty mess of a cyber-crash. it’s been just awful, the slow dawning realization of chunk after chunk that’s simply gone, vanished, kaput, kerpluey. like so many other losses in life, we console ourselves with the deep down truth that in the end the only thing that can’t be stolen, can’t be crushed, or lost, is the imperceptible and vast catalog of memory, of what’s held in our hearts and souls and minds. 

what love letters do you hold closest to your heart?

the sound of hollowed-out

brother love

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

he’s your big beautiful brother.

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

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

it hurts.

more than anything you’ve ever had to do.

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

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

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

he is, indeed.

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

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

as you try to find your way, once again.

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

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

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

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

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

and leaving feels awful.

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

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

how have you gotten through your hardest goodbye?

home. amid a host of tugs and pulls and squeaks from far corners.

moving boxes...

dispatch from 60091 (in which, except for invasion of colonies of critters with matchstick-sized legs, i attempt to nest in solitude, with a few elephant-sized distractions…)

i’ve waited 18 months for this. to have unpacked the mountain of moving boxes. to have tiptoed room-to-room, inhaling the musty scent of home. to be tucked up against my old maple table, with the morning sun draped across the slabs. my old chipped coffee mug at the ready, inches from the keyboard.

i’ve waited for the tick and tock of our grandpa’s clock. to hear the morning song of birds, my birds, my flocks, rising up and rolling in from the jungle that is my overgrown garden. i’ve waited and waited.

to be home, and going nowhere.

alas, it hasn’t exactly been a week of lolligagging and tossing back bonbons in a tub of bubbles.

the night before i zipped the last of the home-bound suitcases, back in 02139, i got word — make that, news flash — from my hilarious friend who spent the year here holding down the fort. she’d ducked into the wee bathroom off my writing room (the old garage, long ago turned into maid’s quarters, how apt that i now dwell there…), and there, dozing atop a feather bed of nibbled toilet paper bits, a nice fat chipmunk. only it wasn’t sleeping. it was, um, dead. and had chosen a basket filled with toilet paper rolls to be his final resting place.

she spared me pix of the kerplunked critter, and instead sent me a dramatic close-up of just how adept chipmunks are at making bedclothes out of the tissue paper with a purpose.

i considered myself fair-warned.

which is why, once half across the country, once the cat, the boy, the three fat suitcases and i were greeted at the baggage depot by my fair mama and ferried home, i tiptoed with trepidation into that wee room. i scanned for paw prints, wee paw prints, everywhere a furry thing might scamper. i scanned, too, for the caraway-seed-sized deposits they always leave behind.

i found them.

abundantly.

piled high and thick atop the baby blankets i had so neatly folded and tucked into a basket back in the corner. must have seemed the perfect lullaby land for all the baby chipmunks (and judging from the pile, there was a bumper crop of baby chipmunks). i did not scream. i merely long-jumped from the room, slammed the door, and decided to deal with it in the morning.

long story, short: $500 later, my new best friend joe, the jesus-believing critter control apostle, arrived on the scene, armed with coyote urine, ammonia crystals and wheelbarrows of cement. not a poison to be found, bless his benevolent heart. just some serious deterrents for re-entry to the chipmunks’ underground metropolis, the one they dug in vast array beneath the concrete slab upon which the old garage was built.

that’s the story of the first-floor critters. upstairs, in all the drawers where soaps and cottonballs were stored (note the past tense), another branch of the Rodentia family (the ones with long skinny tails and appetite, apparently, for european scrubs) had made themselves quite at home. why, it was a veritable carnival of critters, all with matchstick legs and the itty-bittiest pit-a-pats the world has ever known. they’d run amok undetected for lord knows how many months. (they don’t exactly blow trumpets announcing their arrival.)

and, oh, they served as such a rousing welcome committee. (i was roused, all right!)

but all that, truly, fades in the narrative arc of this long week.

the heart of the matter is that one long dark night this week i sat alone in my long-awaited bed fielding phone calls from my firstborn who was spending the night in an ER 1,000 miles away, getting IV painkillers pumped into his veins (neck and head pains, all tied back to a broken neck in the eighth grade, when he somersaulted over his handlebars swerving from — get this — a chipmunk who’d dashed across his bike trail).

and that’s only the half of it. my little one, the brave one who boarded a plane to germany a mere 48 hours after whirling in the door, a trip he’d long awaited, a trip for which he’d spent the year studying with his german tutor, he’d gotten sick as a dog on the flight across the atlantic, and 24 hours after de-boarding the plane was still upchucking in his new german bathroom. i was getting emails from the teacher, updating me on just what shade of green he was sporting, hour by hour.

when you are 11, and 4,538 miles from home, and you’ve been tummy-rumbling in volcanic proportions for a good 36 hours, you really truly desperately deeply through-and-through want one of two things: a.) to catch the next plane home, or b.) to have your mama sky-dive from the clouds.

thus, you do what any thinking person would do: you pick up the phone, and dial in your request.

and your mother, on the far side of the globe, hearing the whimper in your voice, imagining just how wretched it must feel to have wretched straight across the ocean, she kicks into high mama gear: she drops to her knees, points eyes heavenward, and unfurls the litanies of prayer reserved for just such moments.

she smacks herself upside the head for letting such a little guy go in the first place. she calls on angels, saints, random trumpet players, anyone and anything who might come charging to the rescue, to barrel up the hill and storm the ramparts.

she tries everything she can humanly think of. she pounds out “this i believe” treatises, reminding the little fellow just how brave he is, and just how valiantly he has conquered a host of uphill battles: the sleepover on wrigley field, the two-week summer camp in the deep dark mosquito-infested woods of michigan, the whole dang city of cambridge, massachusetts. heck, he even weathered a whomping case of scarlet fever and pneumonia when he was just a wee young thing.

the boy can do it.

he is, i often remind him, the egg that wouldn’t take no for an answer. while all the other eggs could not make it out of the roundhouse and chug up the mountain, that little guy was the one egg who made the climb, who was born in a shaft of pure white light at 3:22 one hot august morning, to a mother who defied logic and medical tomes, clocking into the maternity ward at 44 years, eight months and five days old.

on the off-chance that my sweet boy is tucked under the puffy covers in munster, reading these words from glowing screen, i have five words and a comma for you: you can do it, sweetie.

i love you higher than the moon and wider than the oceans. you have angels, saints, mamas, papas, grandmas and grandpas, uncles, aunts and a big brother all pulling for you. we’ll make sure you are pumped up with dramamine for the swift ride home. and we’ll be waiting at the airport with double-time hearts and wide-open arms. we’ll pull you to our thumping hearts, and keep you home all summer. we’ll even ply you with fresh-squeezed lemonade and oatmeal-raisin cookies. we’ll let you stay up late and sleep till lunchtime, if that’s the way you like it. we’ll whip up a welcome home parade, and make you grand marshal and chief potentate. i won’t even make you pluck your dirty socks off the floor. (not for the first hour, anyway….)

you will have triumphed over the latest in your long litany of championship makers. you are some boy, you glorious sweet soul, you who always says, “yes! i want to see the world!”

it’s right before your eyes. take it in, sweetheart. then hurry home. so we can all chase chipmunks hither and yon and all around the garden, one big happy reunited family. home sweet home, at last. oh, sweet lord, at last.

so that’s the news from the homecoming committee. shoulda known that you can’t go away for 10 long months and not expect a bump or grind upon return. 

question of the week: what words of wisdom would you impart to a wee lad far from home, and weathering a whopper case of travel bugs…..

the days when we drop to our knees

days when we drop to our knees

dispatch from everywhere, as there are no geographical boundaries today. we are a world united in pain…

there is so little to say today. words escape what we hold in our hearts. if there is anything left in our hearts, anything other than oozing, breath-taking pain.

we ache today. throb.

throb, as we dare not glance at the screen. throb for the children. throb for the ones who love them. loved them.

lord, God, bless them, the ones who are gone now, the ones who watched, who heard, who lived an unimaginable hell.

lord, God, bless every last everyone torn by this terrible moment in time.

i had no notion that i would be writing these words today. i was riding the T this morning, or was it the brink of afternoon, when the first words shot across my pocket-sized screen. “school shooting in connecticut.” the numbers rose each time a new email dropped. 2, then 18, then 20, then 30.

i have flimsy grasp on the details, because i couldn’t bear to look. couldn’t bear to read a word. but i watched the president brush away tears. and that’s more than enough to begin to grasp.

i’ve spent the week with a brilliant three year old, and her brand-new just-unfolding baby brother, a soul-filling interlude that swept me away from the cares of the world, that kept me enchanted inside the glimmering veil of a world without horrors.

i can barely begin to fathom the five-year-olds in that kindergarten, the children’s garden gone ugly, gone utterly wrong.

on a day like today you abandon whatever it is you thought you needed to do.

you need do nothing but inhale the sacred all around you. you need do nothing but tell the ones you love how fiercely you love them.

and when they come home at the end of the day, or however you reach them, you tell your children in no uncertain words that they are your breath and your life, and you’ll do whatever it takes to keep them safe, to shield them. and under your breath, inside your heart, you’ll know that you can’t.

you know that in 20 some bedrooms this morning, mothers or fathers were waking up children. were kissing their heads. were scrubbing their cheeks, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. were putting out breakfast. were trying to get them to hurry along, tie their shoes, change their orange-juice-stained shirt, remember their mittens. dropping them off at the curb. thinking they’d see them again. hear the chatter, again and again, from there in the back, from their car seats. these were children still strapped into car seats.

these were babies. not far from the womb.

the cries and the questions that rise from our hearts, they come without answers…

these are the days when, as much as you possibly can, you erase whatever was on the calendar.

once the cloak of night falls, you gather the ones you love in the tightest circle you can. you kindle lights. you steam up the kitchen windows, with whatever is hot, is delicious, is fumbling toward comfort.

you close your eyes and open your heart in unfiltered prayer.

you pray for this world. you pray for the children, the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters. the ones who are lost now, forever lost.

it’s all we can do.

there are no words. and whatever else we thought mattered, it really doesn’t. not at the end of this very long day.

dear God, bathe us in some shard of light, break through the shadow and fog of despair. deliver us from this evil.

this was not the dispatch i planned to write today, though the one i was going to write would have been called, “the days we don’t tell our children about.” which would have been eerily fitting. sad thing is, the children will know. the horror will seep out in this news-porous world, where headlines can’t be kept from young minds, and tender souls. much happened this week, but it will have to wait for another day. baby milo was born, and i beheld the miracle of watching his mama fall deeply in love all over again. i was there in portland when he arrived, was standing there at the door at just after midnight when my brother and becca waddled out, knowing he was coming. not knowing it would be in less than an hour.

and that’s not the only occasion of this week. the chair turned six on 12.12.12. i marked it by sending a love note to the beautiful boy who first built the chair and the table, who told me i could do it, and left me alone to try. i told him he’d brought me an infinite bundle of the best my life has given me. 

and none of that is what holds our attention as afternoon is shadowed by nightfall. i can’t quite come up with words on a day like today. so i’ll trust, as always, that here at the chair we are joined at heart and in words hurling toward heaven….

how will you hold the ones you love tonight? at our house, it’s shabbat, and the challah awaits. so too the menorah, where tonight all but one candle will burn. 

the courage to come back. one last time.

i went back to my old hospital, children’s memorial in chicago, on a sunny sunday afternoon this past weekend, for what was billed as a “closing ceremony” for families who had had a child die there. the old hospital is coming down soon, and before its nine stories are crumbled to a pile of shattered bricks and twisted rebar, the hospital’s biggest hearts and best minds understood that those families needed a chance to say goodbye to a cornerstone of their life story, no matter how dark the chapter.

it was a story and a moment i had to honor. as a nurse i was there for my beloved troupe of kids, the ones who died on my watch: julie joiner, a girl i loved, a girl who had cancer in her spine, and who, lying flat in her hospital bed, once made me a papier-mache pumpkin head and painted it green. she called me her “irish pumpkin queen.” and did i mention i loved her dearly, still think of her, still remember the gift it was to be her nurse? i was there, too, for joe, and for pebbles, and for jeffery, and for denise, and even for the kids i loved whose names i don’t remember. i was there for their mothers and fathers, who allowed me to care for and to love their children, straight through to their dying breaths.

i was there as a writer, too, because over all these years i have learned that words are the finest instruments i can reach for as i carry on my nurse’s promise: to shed light where there is darkness, to hold up the human spirit, and to aim to heal through whatever form love flows. here is the story i wrote. even though it won’t run through printer’s ink in any newspaper, sharing it here is rich enough for me.

By Barbara Mahany

Most of all, it took courage.

Even before they got there, it took courage to scribble the date and the time and the event — Closing Reception for Bereaved Families — onto the calendar.

It took courage to get on the plane in New York or Arizona, or to climb in the car or the pickup truck in Iowa or Highland Park or Tinley Park, and head back to the corner of Lincoln and Fullerton and Halsted streets in Chicago, where for 130 years, Children’s Memorial Hospital has stood, a brick-and-mortar reminder to everyone who walked or drove by that it is not to be taken for granted that children are full-cheeked, and blessed with mops of hair, and can romp in the sunshine.

To go back there, to go back to the place where you heard your child’s last breath, where you held that child in your arms one last time, or kissed him or her on the forehead, or where you crumpled over their lifeless body, is to open a deep dark vault of pain and emptiness that never goes away.

And so, once there at that unforgotten place, you could see the courage it took just to push the “8” button on the elevator of the parking garage, to get to the rooftop on a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon domed by a blue sky pocked with puffy clouds.

You could see it in the faces of the mothers who looked as if they held back a seawall of grief. You could see it in the way a grown son wrapped his arm tight around his mother’s shoulders as they strolled down Lincoln Avenue and turned in at the parking garage, or the way a father clenched the hand of his wife, and leaned hard against the glass. You could see it as the mother in big dark sunglasses squeezed her grown daughter’s hand so tight her knuckles blanched white.

For the 350 or so mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all from families who had had a child — a newborn, a toddler, or a highschooler — die at Children’s, it took a rare brand of courage to come back, one last time, to whisper yet another goodbye.

This time, though, the goodbye was to the building that, for many, had been etched into their darkest memories — the floorplan all but memorized, the steps from the nurses’ station to the door of the room still known by heart, the view out the window frozen in their mind’s eye. Even the nubby fabric of the seats in the chapel, those are the details of a dying and death that are never forgotten.

“One of our first concerns when we started making plans to move to the new hospital was the bereaved families,” explained Kristin James, director of the hospital’s Heartlight bereavement program, which provides support for at least two years to the families of any child who dies at Children’s. (The name of the program, she says, came from a mother who said her heart “went black” when her child died, and not until she met another bereaved mother did she feel the light again.)

“Children’s represents a time, a moment, a chapter. It’s part of their child’s history,” James, a family therapist, continued. “For some of those children, their whole life was spent here. For some, just a few hours. Either way, this becomes a sacred space. So, for some of our families, closing this building felt like a whole other loss.”

She went on: “Children’s is not contained within walls, it’s not limited to a space. Those children who died here, those memories, they are coming with us to the new hospital. It’s very important for the families to know that we carry those children in our hearts.”

And so, some 2,000 invitations were mailed back in March to each family whose child had died there in the last 12 years. Through word of mouth, even the family of a girl who died in 1932 responded. Every day for weeks, James said, dozens of those families have called, just to retell their story, just to make sure all wasn’t lost.

Because until moving day — Saturday, June 9, when the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago officially opens — the Lincoln Park hospital was still treating children on its medical and surgical floors, in its intensive care units and emergency rooms, the “closing ceremony” was held on the rooftop of the parking garage across the street, looking onto the concrete-and-blue-tile tower, just below the helicopter pad where the sickest and most critically injured children have been airlifted over the decades.

Purple tulips and blue hydrangea, tucked into silver cups, teetered on tabletops in the afternoon’s wind. Chimes clanged. And the elevator doors began to open and close, ferrying the somber families.

“It’s 31 years; it’s never left me, you know,” said Charlene Wexler, whose then-12-year-old son, Jeffery, died of leukemia on Sept. 11, 1981, and who pulled from her purse a clutch of snapshots of the full-cheeked boy who once had a shock of jet black hair. She was shaking, and already dabbing at tears as she filled out the name tag, and wrote the name “Jeffery,” after the word, “Remembering…”

“It’s like I can play everything back,” she said, as she began to pull story after story from her memory. She hadn’t been sure she’d be able to make the trip back to Children’s, she said, but her husband urged her, and her sister and brother-in-law met her there.

“Our tears are our trophies,” said the brother-in-law, Jack Segal, as he wiped one off his cheek.

Not far away, another mother, standing in line for a cup of water, didn’t even try to brush away her tears.

“Why come? I had to come. How could you not come?” said Barbara Pinzur, whose son, Brett, was just five days old when he died in the neonatal intensive care unit, back on May 22, 1994. He had been born with three, not four, chambers in his heart, and just the week before the closing ceremony, Pinzur, of Highland Park, said she opened his baby box. She pulled from her purse the card the NICU nurses had sent after Brett died.

“It’s incredible that the hospital remembered all of us,” Pinzur said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Your child didn’t die for no reason.’ A child dying has to have an impact on somebody — a nurse, or a doctor — to do more, to do better.”

And so, after the reciting of the children’s names, and the tinkling of chimes, and the reading of a poem or two, the mournful bagpipes of the Emerald Society shattered the near silence of the rooftop crowd.

One by one, the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends, dipped itty-bitty wands into vials of bubbles, and exhaled. A cloud of iridescent spheres up and wafted across the rooftop, out over Lincoln Avenue, and toward the place where so many children have died.

At last, a smattering of smiles broke across the sea of somber faces. One of the mothers ran to the rooftop’s concrete half-wall, pulled out a camera and tried to capture one last snapshot. And just as the camera clicked, the bubble exploded and was no longer.

-30-

the photo above was taken on the hospital’s parking garage rooftop, and the magnificent city skyline is the backdrop to a red jewel crabtree that will be planted in a park across from the old hospital’s site. families were invited to fill out a tag with a name or a memory, and hang it from the branches. when the tree is planted, the tags will be buried at its roots, so that the families always have someplace, some sacred place, to come back to.