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Category: mother ache

the saddest apology. though never too late….

teddy home umbrella

I still remember the phone call. I had a brand new baby, a baby whose birth had not been without one of those moments where the doctor calls you by first name, slaps you to attention, and with eyes darting between your unblinking gaze and the monitor measuring the baby’s dropping-down heart beat, she tells you this is what you’re going to do: You’re going to get that baby out in the very next push.

And you, knowing the vast canyon of cold chiseled truth nestled into that statement, knowing that she’s telling you you have a few breaths and one push to get this baby out whole and without harm, without your life’s dream whirling into the darkest abyss, you call on all the angels and saints and powers within and without, and you do just what she told you: You birth that baby in one triumphant, I’m-not-losing-him-now force beyond nature.

And then you wait. Wait through unbroken silence, seconds that feel like an hour, the quicksand of time. And then, from the shaft of light slicing through the darkness, his lungs fill with air and you hear him wheeze out a cry. A cry that deepens. A cry that says, without waver, “I am here.”

And from that blessed second on, you cradle that baby like nobody’s business. Not one ounce of his being here was ever expected, he is wholly a miracle.

But the voice on the phone that day, not long after you’d tumbled home from the hospital, she was shattered by your dream come true.

She, too, had wanted a baby. Wanted a baby more than anything. Had undergone more medical twists and turns than you ever thought a doctor would allow. She’d been poked and prodded and shot through with stimulators and repressors and countless variations thereof, all in the hopes of that one impossible moment where egg meets sperm and the dividing begins.

It hadn’t worked, not for her and not for her dream. Not in any of the last many, many, many rounds (I won’t say how many). She, like I, had one baby already. He was in second grade, as was my firstborn at the time and that’s how we met. It was the second baby she wanted. It was the second baby, with no medical wizardry, that I got. And not for one instant did that not feel anointed, feel blessed, feel beyond my grasp.

From the moment I realized there was a heartbeat pumping within, I was washed through with hushed holding my breath. The minute I called my doctor (at home on a Saturday afternoon) to tell her what the little pink stick from the home pregnancy test was telling me, she laid out the cold hard statistics for the “advanced maternal age” of 44 and counting: Odds of Down Syndrome, odds of miscarriage before the first trimester ended. Odds, odds, odds.

Not for a day, not for an hour, on the long road to delivery, did I forget those odds. Nor did I take one moment of any of it as a given.

But the voice on the other end of the phone could only see it through the pain of her bottomless wanting what I’d somehow gotten. And so, she told me, in bitterest words that she could never talk to me again. Never wanted to hear from me again.

I remember cradling the phone, feeling my knees about to give out. We’d not known each other for years and years, but she was big-hearted, huge-hearted, my friend. And we had found some solace in our shared hoping for one more round of mothering a baby. And, besides, she’d smothered my firstborn with her dollops and dollops of tender attentions — not to mention, killer matzah ball soup.

But the road forked — heartbreakingly so — when I found myself with child. I’d tried, oh I tried, to shield her from the pain that I knew would slice through her, in the quarter hour when I pulled her aside, held her hands tightly, and told her I could hardly believe it myself, didn’t know how long — or if — it would last, but my prayers seemed to have been answered.

In using those words, she would tell me in the bitterest phone call, I’d all but told her, she thought, that my prayers were heard, and hers were not, hers were not worthy, she construed it to mean.

From my end of the phone call, I said over and over how sorry I was. How I would give anything for her to have the baby she so deeply, desperately wanted. And I was so sorry the words I had carefully chosen had only made it more awful. She repeated, emphatically, that this would be our last conversation, that she never wanted to speak to me again.

Months earlier, when an adoption agency had called to ask for references, I told the questioner, with all my heart, that I knew my friend would be a magnificent mother, would wrap her very huge heart around anyone blessed to be slipped into her arms.

And once, years later, I wrote her a letter. Told her how many nights I lay there thinking of her, whispering prayers to stitch back together her shattered heart. Asked about her baby girl, the one who’d come — yes — from far, far away.

I never heard back. Never once heard her voice after the terrible, awful heartbreaking phone call.

A few months ago, as would occasionally happen, I started to think of her. Wondered how she was faring, she and her two boys (husband and son), and her beautiful girl, now 12 or 13.

I googled her. I found one of those pages for someone who’s sick, very sick, and is seeking donations. I gasped for breath and clicked “Donate.” Didn’t know if she’d return the donation. Didn’t know. Couldn’t believe.

She was too sick to write but her husband, the gentlest man, wrote a very sweet note. He said thank you.

I knew from one more blast email he’d sent that, by the end of June, she was back in the hospital, back in therapy to try to relieve the slicing-through pain that comes with late-stage cancer. They were hoping, he wrote, that once the pain subsided, once “the numbers” improved, she would begin a science-bending assault on the cancer.

And then I heard nothing. Not till yesterday afternoon, when I clicked on my email, and there was her name, first and last. I opened the email, and I started to read, the words tumbling one on top of the other, not making clear sense.

Here’s what I read:

“I know it has been a very long time and many years needlessly gone by.  I am reaching out to you…I hope you don’t think it presumptuous of me to contact you at this late date, but I have spent a good part of the last three months reaching out…Trying to mend fences where possible, with the hope of finding some type of closure for everyone involved.  I don’t have any answers as to what happened, nor any great insight. I do know that what transpired was wrong, you were wronged and that I was unable to effect the out come.”

I wrote back:

“i am breathless. i always loved [her]. she was so hurt by the way i told her i was pregnant with T. i only MEANT to shield her from the pain i feared the news would bring. and clearly i bungled it horribly…….and i have been so sorry for so many years. for years i would lay awake at night wondering if i could yet write to her…..”

And then I googled her once again. Up popped her name, first and last, with the final addendum: “obituary.” She had died, back in the summer. I don’t know the date, don’t know the details.

All I know is what came in the last email from her gentle-hearted husband:

“She passed away peacefully in my arms after staring down cancer for seven and a half years. She had been through a heavy ordeal, seven chemo therapies, three major surgeries and two clinical trials.…We were waiting to start [a newfangled] vaccine when she passed unexpectedly, we both thought she had another year or two. We were a couple at the end, I made sure she was not in any pain. She asked me before she passed, what happens now? what happens next? I told her, I don’t know baby, but what ever it is we are going to face it together and then she smiled and closed her eyes. She was not afraid at the end and neither was I as we were together. I have to stop writing now as i cant see through the tears.”

And I sat there, staring and shaking, shaking and staring. All I could think was that it was the saddest apology I’d ever read, the one that wasn’t too late, not at all. Not one minute too late.

I wrote back: “[she] was pure love. she died with me loving her. and i will pray that she knew that…..”

And I will pray. And I do believe that she knew that. And that she knew that I knew she was sorry. And I was, too. I was, I am, so sorry.

For those friendships that shatter. For words never spoken again. For years lived with distance, with silence. For sparks that don’t get to fly between eyes, between hearts.

For all of it, for my dear blessed friend who never met my miracle boy, nor I her miracle girl.

It is the sorriest saddest apology. And it might have come late, but I am so deeply grateful it came.

Rest gently, dear friend. All is at peace where our hearts beat as one.

because this one made me nervous, because i wasn’t quite sure how i could say it and protect my friend, i typed it first in draft form. thus, today’s rare capital letters throughout. it still scares me a bit to write this. but the point is it’s a meditation on forgiveness, on friendship, on heartbreak and stitching those hearts together again. it breaks my heart that as i type this my friend isn’t here to read it, to see it, to know that the love never died. it breaks my heart that all those years, i never heard her voice again. i think i called once and left a message, so she heard mine. the aching all those years. the bittersweet whole truth of life: in my arms, i cradled pure joy. yet it cost me a friend. that’s a steep price. an equation i’d not weigh in a balance. instead, i am offering up all my sadness, my heart, to the friend whom i pray has found, at long last, the peace she so deeply deserves. 

are there apologies in your life that you would wish would be spoken while there is time to stitch together the brokenness?

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…..

laboratory for loving

laboratory for loving

dispatch from 02139 (in which most of what was learned this week came in the wee hours of the night, in the dark, uplit by glow of cellphone, and the voice on the other end of the line was the kid who’s taught me more than just about anyone else on the planet about what it means to love…)

long ago and far away, last sunday in fact, easter sunday, the piled-up collisions on the highway of my life seemed daunting, seemed as if i’d never find that skinny path between crunched fenders and broken glass, to ease myself to the side of the road, where i’d call 9-1-1, and see if blaring lights and roaring sirens came riding to my rescue.

(note to mother-in-law and all those who worry: all metaphor, no one really got hurt. not much anyway.)

there was, come to think of it, one case involving bodily injury, and that came, of course, because too often i forget to watch where i’m going. especially when i’m hurdling toward one of my sweet boys.

what happened is that the monday before easter, the first night of passover when the calendar was a bit more jammed than usual, i was dashing out of a lecture hall, because i’d just realized the school bus was disgorging my 11-year-old at the very moment i was leaving postwar fiction, and no one had reminded the boy to wait patiently on the stoop. i charged full throttle into a protruding (potentially decapitating) oak ledge (a big mother sucker, one i’ve since gone back and examined, and i’m talking two inches thick, 12-inches deep, cantilevered in thin air, jutting brazenly into the path of oncoming traffic).

i hit the darn thing straight on, as if a linebacker to quarterback’s helmet, only the parts of me that hit the former titanium-grade tree were those bones — sternum, clavicle and one or two ribs — that course across the upper chest, first line of defense against crushed lungs and heart and wind pipe.

ol’ wind got knocked right out of me, all right, and apparently, bones crunched too. as did my top back molar, which on impact somehow smashed and cracked into the tooth just below. so, for the next few weeks, i am spending too much time getting to know my lovely cambridge dentist. and because i’ve decided there’s not much to do in the cracked rib department, i am self-medicating with ibuprofen and watching the ugly chest bumps go down-down-down.

other than that, all the week’s collisions have been the sort that scramble up the heart and head. out of respect to all involved, all i can say on that is that my prayer list grew mightily in recent days. (and cure from breast cancer is among my prayers for a dear, dear friend.)

oh, there were the usual not-life-changing worries on the list: the sixth-grade math project (due today), the taped phone interview with one of the icons of the american feminist movement (yesterday), the newspaper assignment (due monday), the all-weekend narrative writing conference, and the cat who keeps forgetting that the rugs are rugs and not patches of grass thirsty for his fertilizations.

but the one who stretched my heart, and once again plunged me into the laboratory of what it means to really truly love, was my beautiful two-hours-away college kid.

i remain convinced that, more than anything else, i am on this planet to learn how to really deeply exquisitely love.

and from the moment my firstborn tumbled into my life, he has been my masterclass zen guide and professor.

the most essential truth, of all the truths i’ve learned so far: you don’t give up. ever. not when you’re bone-tired. not when the going gets really rough. not when you’re afraid to breathe. not when you really think you’re plumb outta solutions. or even make-shift stabs in the wilderness.

i vividly recall the first time that lesson crossed my sketchpad: i’d been home from the hospital with that little bundle of perfection for maybe one or two whole days. he was a hungry boy. he mewed and rustled in my arms, to make sure i always caught his drift.

i’d just finished a good hour or two of nursing, and then, hungry boy, he wanted more. well, it had been a long day already. one that had launched with little sleep, and one that barely allowed for spooning porridge to hungry lips (and the lips in this case were mine). but the sweet boy cried. all he wanted was the thing that i alone could give.

i remember, at precisely that moment, glancing at a window, a dark, mirror-like plate-glass plane shielding the abyss. i saw a frantic face in that window (mine). and i remember thinking, oh, now i understand how it is that overwhelmed mothers dump their newborns at the police precinct door. can’t i just take this bundled lump back to the land from whence he came? ask for refund. wipe my hands of all of it, and go merrily on my way? really, i don’t think i’m cut out for this round-the-clock unrelenting equation.

the temptation, i tell you, nearly flattened me.

but then, i plunked back down into the crushed pillows of the couch, yanked up my T-shirt, and attached babe to breast. i rode out the impulse to surrender, abandon ship, ditch it all and call in reinforcements.

and ever since, that’s been the bottomline of each and every mother-and-child encounter.

when you sign on, as i have, to life-long passage on the good ship motherhood, you are bound to find yourself in dark and murky waters now and then. it’s how life works. most especially in this day and digital age.

so the kid i love got hurt a few weeks back. all tied, it turns out, to when he broke his neck back in eighth grade. this time muscles spasmed. shot him through with pain. so bad he could barely breathe. and then the headaches came. pounding, unrelenting. two long weeks of unabated brain wedged inside a vice. or so it felt to him.

that makes it rather hard to read hundreds of pages, and harder still to sit through midterms. so, if you’re a kid who cares about not flunking out of college, you begin to panic.

and the worse it gets, the more you check in with that one soul on your list who’s shown herself to have a fairly bottomless bag of tricks.

thus, the phone rang the other night at 11:55. the first words were, “mom, i’m kind of scared.” that pretty much catapults you into the land of wide-awake and ready to hit the gas pedal clear up state route 2.

all i wanted in that deep dark moment was to be right beside him, the way i always used to be. with warm washcloth at the ready, sponging his pounding brow. i wanted the room he was in not to be the dingy college dorm, the one splattered still with blood from when he stepped on broken glass and forgot to spritz the cleaner. i wanted not to be sitting two hours away, but was deeply grateful it wasn’t the usual 17 hours away.

i needed to employ long-distance mothering, which might be one of the more wrenching brands therein. i stayed on the line a good hour, till he was yawning, till he was sure he could finally fall asleep. first thing the next morning, i was on the line with the doctor back in chicago. i was emailing the extraordinarily compassionate english professor who’d vowed to be there for whatever the kid needed. i was texting the kid, asking if he remembered to take the excedrin. asking if perchance the vice was loosening its squeeze.

i pretty much lost track of every other worry on my plate.

during the hour i was strapped into the dentist’s chair, i remember a tear trickling down my cheek. and not because the shot of novacaine hurt so much. only because the boy i love was far away, was hurting, was scared, was not so far from panicking.

i checked in a couple times that day. because when you are loving through and through you don’t get to forget the deep dark place where your firstborn dwells. you stay on it, check back with the doctor’s office, make sure they got the message, make sure the doctor’s set to call the kid.

you know it’s not yet time to leap in the car and drive out there. you want the kid to learn to fend for himself, to find his way, to take up the reins of his own life, and taste the sweet joy of self-driven resurrection.

by nightfall, you get a text, telling you the doctor talked to him not for five measly minutes, but for 45 glorious ones. he knows what to do. and, by the way, the headache’s lifting.

next day, he meets with the professor whose midterm he is due to take, whose reading he’s nowhere near finishing.

by week’s end, the headache’s all but gone. he sounds pretty much his usual ebullient self. he’s got a reprieve on the midterm, and all weekend to catch up on reading.

and you, the mother of this child, you’ve steered through the narrow channel, figured out all over again just what it means to love as you would be loved.

you’ve kept your whisper up against his ear, late into the night. you’d not let on that you’d been sound asleep till the moment the phone jangled you awake. you knew, because that’s just how it is, that you’d clear the calendar and drive straight through to the horizon if that’s what he needed. and, most of all, you knew there was no stopping you, no hurdle, no ledge, no nothing you wouldn’t brave for him.

in the laboratory for loving, the kid keeps teaching you the depths and breadths and heights of your hard-held vow to make this the one wee spot in your life where, no matter the blunders, you try — oh, God, you try — to get it right.

who teaches you the depth and breadth of love?

never enough…

dispatch from 02139 (in which we’ve returned “home” from our swoop down the eastern seaboard — a grand thanksgiving repast in new york city, in the brownstone at 94th and lex we have come to know and love for its grace (and wild rice salad, and indian corn pudding, and oven-browned brussels sprouts), followed by a zip through the lincoln tunnel to one fair haven, and my tall fellow’s ancestral home, the 1789 gardener’s cottage where, to this day, his heart ticks at its fullest, its soundest)…

i should have mastered this. should have figured this out. should have, should have, should have.

but i haven’t.

not when it comes to saying goodbye, not when the goodbye is to my firstborn, grand thump in my heart, big brother to the little guy, the one who’s been away, off at college for nearly three whole semesters now.

you’d think i could get through it without the preamble rumble down in my belly, without the pounding in my heart, without the tears welling and spilling.

but i haven’t.

each time, i swear, it feels like someone is unplugging a cord that keeps my glow up and glowing. that has something to do with how i breathe. that puts the purr in my heart.

each time, in the hours before, as i start to feel the yanking, the turning and twisting of parts deep inside, as i start to picture the hours and days ahead without him, without the unspooling of conversation that comes, unexpected, as i chop in the kitchen, as i fold laundry, as i tie my shoes and head out for a stroll, i start to see the color draining away.

i start to feel empty all over again.

i think back to the days of villages, when a mother and son would never be farther than a few cottages away, down behind a waist-high stone wall, through an arched timbered doorway, in a room where embers on the hearth burned orange, persimmon and red.

i wonder why, nowadays, mothers and children need live miles and miles, whole ZIP codes, away.

oh, of course, i settle back into my rhythms. get used to plowing through the day without the flash of his million-watt smile. without dinners fueled by his stories. (fact is, i don’t mind, not one little bit, seeing his bunk smooth and unrumpled. don’t miss the volcano of clothes he spills on the bedroom floor.)

we left the boy back in new york city. he’s a man now. my last glimpse of him was under a streetlight at the corner of 94th and lexington avenue. he filled out his shetland sweater, his chest now strikingly, breathtakingly, the shape and size and velocity of my own papa’s. a chest i always loved. a chest that made me feel safe against the world. and now that chest belongs to my son, my sweet boy, my strapping 6-foot-3 chunk of a man.

as i stepped back from his hug, from his long arms, broad shoulders, soft hands, i felt the pull like stretching of dough. i, into the distance. he, into the thick of his life. a whole weekend before him, a weekend with his beloved cousin and aunt, a weekend romping through the best of new york, a new york i’ll never see.

fact is, it’s his life he lives now. whole chapters and verse distant to me. unknown. uncharted.

as it should be. as it’s meant to be.

but that does not make the parting of mother and child one drop easier. not for this mother anyway.

it’s not that i want him tucked by my side. God, no. this is why and how i’ve raised him — to spread his arms wide as wide can be, to wrap in as much and as deep as he can, and then to soar high.

it’s just that along with that soaring comes the fact that mama bird’s back in the nest, or up on some other limb, watching the sky, watching the loop-de-loops. wings on alert, ready to spread, to enfold, in case there’s a fall, a need to harbor, to shelter again.

and that airspace between mother and child, that life space, it just seems to take — every time — getting used to.

i always think, i’ve never my fill of him. never enough of his stories. never enough of his heart. never ever enough.

and then, not long after i’d swallowed my goodbyes, i watched my own tall fellow, the one i married, say goodbye to his mama, down in fair haven, on the jersey shore. and i wondered if she too always feels it. that it’s never enough. that one more breakfast together. one more walk to the river. one more, one more, would finally fill the hole.

but truth is, i think it’s a hole that will never be filled. it’s a wanting that goes un-sated.

it’s a yearning, a hunger, a please-come-back that lies at the heart of deep love. most especially, at the heart and soul of mother love.

who in your life do you never ever get enough of? 

photo way above is my boys, big and little, plotting their flag-football moves in a game against the cousins, played on the lot behind the tall fence at hunter college on new york’s upper east side. i can’t get enough of watching the two of them entwine the whole of their lives…. 

photo below is my firstborn at his ebullient best.

happy blessed season of thanks, and beginning of advent, the season of waiting…..and now i am off to a long day of writing….classes wrap up in the next couple weeks. where did that first semester go???

seed scatterer

somehow, the other night, i swallowed wholly one of the truest truths of growing a thinking child from scratch.

mighta been one of the hardest ones to swallow, too.

but in the end, i am convinced, i’m one inch closer to a place that’s wiser. even if the getting there was bumpy going down.

you see, somewhere deep inside my head i think i thought that passing on the flames you hold most deeply, dearly, was a matter simply of holding up the wick, turning to the ones we nurse, we diaper change, we spoon feed, we wipe off, bandage, and shuffle on their way. the ones whose ears we whisper into, the ones whose shoes we tie, the ones whose pencil grip we help to rearrange. the ones whose papers we are no longer asked to read, for they are thinking now wholly on their own.

to pass the flame, i thought, was merely this: we turn and touch our kindled wick to theirs. and, poof, the burning light continues.

only, the other night, deep in thought and conversation at the kitchen table, deep in one of those tete-a-tetes that starts out slow, builds, spirals and suddenly is way up high on some perch where air is thin, and grip is slipping, i realized that not all flames are so easily lit from soul to soul.

not when you have, all your life, raised your child to think, to ask, to sift through what he’s told, to make his own only what sinks deep down to a place where what fits is weighed, is looked at from all sides, is held up to the shadow-casting light.

the subject, more or less, was religion. and in this house that’s a subject that comes with many threads. we weave here. we are braiders. we sift for golden strands, we entwine. we understand that some are shared, and some are wholly different, depending on whose birth threads we are holding.

more than religious, though, i am of the spirit. i find God in the scarlet flash of papa cardinal in the snowy boughs. i feel the shiver of the holy spirit when i watch the moon shadow play upon the window panes, and spill onto the bedclothes that bundle up and over my baby boy.

i whisper the hail mary, but i brush away a tear when lost in prayer on yom kippur. i feel the breath divine in hebrew, latin, or plain-old sidewalk talk. i needn’t be in church to know that holiness is near.

and so, it was the burning flame of spirit that i assumed–no, i counted on–i’d pass to my firstborn.

as clearly as he got my curly hair, the dimple of his father’s cheek, i thought the one most precious breath i have, i’d turn and breathe easily, wholly, into my soulful child.

oh, he had it when he was little. looked up at me one night, when he was all of two, and asked, “who puts God to bed at night?”

he had it, just a year ago, when he stood on the bimah, proclaiming the words of the Torah at his bar mitzvah, brought down the house, i tell you, with his grown-up understanding that nearly made the rabbi’s pale.

but now, now he’s taken history for thinking children, he’s heard word of wars fought in the name of God. and philosophies that stretch his mind into interesting new shapes. he is, right now, in this interlude, not so certain anymore.

and as we talked, i ached as the words he spoke fell upon my ears, sifted down to where my soul does all its breathing.

i tell you, it hurt to swallow, and, yes, to breathe.

but he is mine, and that’s unshakable, and, besides, i believe i’ve glimpsed the outlines of that soul. even if, right now, he calls it something else.

late that night, tossing, turning, in the way a mother sometimes does, it came to me, the image of the seeds.

i realized that what we do, in the long, long years of planting, is we are merely sowers of the seed. we scatter all life long, the bits of truth, of hope, the few scant things we know.

we scatter as we turn the words, in conversation after conversation. we poke a fertile nugget deep into the soil as we take our children by the hand, show them places and faces unlike the ones they would otherwise know.

we sprinkle seed through the books we read them when we pull them on our lap, turn pages. and then, years later, leave tucked beneath their pillow, just in case they find a minute for inhaling thought before they fall to sleep.

and after all the sowing, i realized, we can only stand back. pray for rain and sunlight. keep watch on what’s out where we have laid our lifetime’s crops.

hmm, is that a little bit of green, poking through the loamy soil? is that a tendril, reaching for the sky?

we’ll not know the harvest for some time. but we will trust that all the planting, tending, praying, was not in vain.

some seasons, what comes up is rich, is plenty, fills the bins. some seasons, what you put into the ground, isn’t what comes up at all.

but there will be a reaping. and, God willing, it will be more than you had ever counted on.

that’s the way it is when it comes to growing a thinking child. we’ve no flame to simply light their way, only seeds to scatter on their path, and wait–and hope–for blossoming to come.

what hard lessons has parenting brought your way? what, in life, did you set out thinking would be a cinch, only to find it was not the way you’d naively imagined? how have you made peace when the lessons you hoped to teach didn’t sprout in quite the way you’d planted? for those of you who’ve forged this trail already what were moments when you knew, oh you knew, that raising a thinking child held glories all its own. even when their wisdom caught you by surprise?

and by the by, today’s the blessed day of our resident mountain bird, the one who sings as if a warble-throated mama bird. here’s to sweetness, pure light and heart-melting goodness. in song, in deed. happy blessed day, pjv-az.

always, an open door

it is, of all the parts of this old house, the one that might just matter the most. it’s the one, surely, that sends the loudest message.

it is the door, the front door. and at our house it is mostly glass, so you can see what bubbles on the inside, and i can see out. so life pulses through the glass.

there is not, decidedly not, one of those little signs the village passes out: no solicitors invited.

oh, it’s not that i like talking about magazine subscriptions that just might send a kid to college. and it’s not that i like it when the doorbell rings just as i am stirring dinner.

but i refuse to have the first thing you see at my door be the sound of words slamming in your face. go away, not interested in strangers. hardly the tone i care to broadcast before you even ring the bell.

and, besides, i do like talking to strangers. especially kids who have ventured beyond the streets that they know well, and are maybe scared to shaking walking here where doors are always slamming.

but the open door i’m thinking about today is the one that is extended far beyond the front stoop. it’s the open door that means i am always at the ready for whoever comes this way, for whoever has a tale to tell, and needs someone to listen.

it is, i think, the highest calling of a house. to be a place of utter comfort. to be a place that oozes, “sit here, tell me all your troubles.”

it is why, in the first place, we stack the logs, put out pillows, make sure that there’s the softest, warmest blanket we can find. it’s why the pantry holds a basket full of teas, and the clementines are plenty.

first and foremost, a house brings peace to those who dwell there. but if that door is never open, if we don’t usher in a stranger, then a house is merely shelter. and not a place of holy respite.

it is the invitation that never ends. my house is your house. without the two of us to dance, the heartbeat fades away, evaporates to lonely.

just today, any hour now, there will be a woman at that door. a woman i barely know. i’ve only met her once. but her heart broke and cracked and shattered recently, and she’s trying to gather up the pieces.

she was pregnant with a baby girl just this summer past. and when they did an ultrasound, the kind they always do, not in search of any trouble, they found that baby girl had a hole where her diaphragm should be. so all her insides, the ones that should be in the belly, were pushed up by her lungs.

the baby girl was born, fighting just to breathe. and one month later, the baby girl died, right before thanksgiving.

her mama, strong and gentle all at once, survived the holidays. she has two little boys, so her hands, she says, are always busy.

but her heart can barely contain the bleeding that comes from burying a baby.

and so she comes, quite simply, to unspool her unending sorrow. she comes to try to ease the clenching in her chest.

it is in the telling of our stories, often, that the healing begins to come. it is in looking up through tears and seeing another face. a pair of eyes, a heart, absorbing all there is to be absorbed.

sometimes we are called upon to be a human swab for all the ache that cannot be bound inside one single heart.

sometimes we need only listen.

sometimes what is shared across a tear-splashed kitchen table is the very blessed act of kindling just a single wick of light where there’d been only darkness.

but if the door is sometimes closed, then how can sorrow enter, and begin to ease toward healing?

the open door, i’m convinced, is most essential for a house to be a holy place where hearts are stitched with hope, and two heartbeats rise in sacred echo–one promising the other that peace will come again.

do you find yourself sometimes across the table from someone who needs to tell their story? do you find it easy to forget that the purpose of a door is to be opened? what rites and rituals do you make a part of your home to make the stranger–or the friend–feel wholly welcome?

a prayer for the grownups of children who struggle

prayer for grownups children struggle

this is communal. there is, far as i can tell, not a soul who doesn’t at one time or another come into the ranks. there is no corner, sadly, on this market. no me-me-me thinking you are the only one who knows what it is to lie deeply awake–and not that you’re counting the holes in the ceiling.

hardly.

you’re racking your heart and your soul and your brain, even your belly, trying to figure out, devise some plot, to push back the struggles that threaten to swallow your little one. or maybe your big one.

you are no less than moses at the red sea, i tell you. you and your rod, standing there, palms raised, as if.

as if you, who does not possess any magical powers, can reach into the brain of a very young person, reach in and straighten some wires. get synapses connected. make them see. make them hear. make them not be afraid. make the letters that spill on the page line up in some sort of sense. instead of backwards and jumbled and utterly, thoroughly awful. so misbehaved, that alphabet.

as if–oh, God, please–you could stand in the halls or the lunchroom, or off to the edge of the playground. make the mean kids go away. stop the big ones from picking on little ones. or the other way around. splinter the words being hurled, the ones that are ugly and poison and might sting forever.

it is hell and it’s lonely besides.

barely a soul is willing to advertise the truth of the matter: not a one of us is merrily sitting back, watching little people skitter through life. as if it’s a pond and they were on skates and they’re gliding. making true loopdy-loops.

nope, i am no researcher, or taker of census. i have not knocked on doors asked, excuse me, is there suffering here?

but chances are good to better than good, the answer is yes. very much so. why, thank you for asking.

in my own little world, in just the last week, for instance, i’ve heard all of this: a child who tried to jump out a window. twice. one who died. one who can’t hear very well and it’s making her mad. you would be too. if all day you struggled to make out the words on everyone’s lips. and the lips didn’t move very slowly. not at all.

i’m not done: a boy afraid to turn out the light. another who won’t. a child who cannot see the big picture and hold onto a small fragile thread. it’s one or the other. and sometimes you really need both.

there’s a girl who keeps having seizures; no one knows why. but do you think, for a minute, her mother rests easy, whenever she’s not in her sight, whenever the phone rings? there are two boys who are watching their lives rip in half, as their parents divorce and it’s not always pretty. and two girls i know who won’t eat. no more than an apple cut in very thin slices. and she’s the one making progress.

my point here is not to make you feel drowning. my point here is just to take a deep breath. whisper a prayer. maybe think twice when you next feel alone. when you happen to think you can’t bear it. when the waves of your worry, and your lack of solutions, pull you down under.

i got to this notion the way i usually do. i thought and i thought. i listened and looked and tucked away stories. i jimmied my heart to the wide-open valve.

and all week i rode the waves of a sea that’s not far from despair. there is a boy who i love who is utterly stumped by parts of the school day. the parts where the words and the pencils are. in first grade, as you might imagine, that is a fairly good chunk of the day.

it is, at this point, still a mystery. as if there’s a fog that isn’t yet lifted. we can’t quite make out the landscape. i asked him last night, when word after word was coming out backwards, what it felt like inside. he took his hands and scrambled them all through the air. i heard my heart crack then.

and i know that that crack is not only mine. i know it rises up from the houses, all over the towns, all over the hillsides and valleys below. all over the world.

it would be headlines, i suppose, if there were a house where never a worry there was. or maybe the grownups in charge are made of something other than my flimsy cloth.

i am not, however, one to cave in to worry. no, i find it a friend. an ally, in fact. it stirs me, propels me, gives me whatever it takes, to take on the very steep climb up the waters that will not be stilled.

the prayer that i pray then is this: that even in the depths of our darkest night shadows, when all that we fear comes out of the closets, leaps ‘round the bed, bangs on the pillows, we might picture each other. know the communion of trembling hands. hearts that will not surrender.

that whatever it is that haunts and plagues all of our children be kneaded away. by heads that are wise. and hearts that are deep and filled with infinite chambers.

that we don’t wrestle alone. that the great and tender hand of our God settles quite firmly at the small of our backs. fills our lungs, too, with the breath that it takes to blow back the winds that are chilling. settles the waters. gives us a chance, and a hope, of making the climb, to the crest of the wave.

where, if we’re so blessed, we can look out at a sea of children who have managed to swim. and are stroking and breathing. and making a magnificent splash.

that’s what i pray.

how about you?

mama altar

it started as i drove home from the grocery, my eyes stinging with tears.

i’d gone in to grab some orange juice, a perennial thirst in this house. ran into my friend adreine, who runs the front end, who over the years, as she’s rung up my eggs, shoved my gallons of milk down the beltway, has filled me in on her longing, her longing to please grow a baby. all around her it seems, everyone else is getting good news, getting pregnant. not adreine. she, nearly 40, has had month after month of the no news that is very sad news in the baby department. as we talked, i wiped a tear from right by her eye, her beautiful, beautiful eye.

then i drove home, crying too.

i know what it is to bang on the locked gates of heaven and feel like nobody’s home, nobody’s listening. i know what it is to want, more than anything, the round lump of baby in your so-aching arms.

just a few days before the grocery i’d walked into a quite crowded room but could not miss the lightbeams shining from a friend. a friend who this time, for the first time, wore a billowy top that shouted, without hesitation, “i’m pregnant. i’m waiting.”

the beam on her face reminded me of ones i’d once worn. i couldn’t help–again–my own tear or two, moved by the joy of remembering. but as we talked i found out she too knew what it was to hold her deep breath. she’d lost one little girl, and she was scared, scared to trembling, that she could lose this one too. not that there was any reason she would. just because she’s a mama who’s been there. and once you’re there, it’s terribly hard to not think you’ll land there again.

i’ve been in that place myself. know what it is to wear a miracle ’round your middle. know what it is to hold your breath for nine very long months, so afraid that the miracle could so slip away. i too lost a little girl. once stared at the fuzzy gray lines of a baby stone still in my womb. looked into her face as she slipped through my fingers. left her behind in a little wood box, dug into the earth, on my papa’s own grave, in the drizzly cold of a cemetery, 12 years ago.

i know the dark and the light of fertility. i know its abyss and its mountaintop. i know the breathlessness of the ascent, and the gasping for air when you’re pushed off the trail.

i am forever a woman whose heart was seared by the loss and the triumph of childbirth.

i am, i’m afraid, a card-carrying member of the sisterhood for life.

and you do not abandon your sisters.

you build them an altar. you say a prayer, yes. but, even more, you build a prayer tableau and you take it to the next power.

you gather the makings of your prayerful intentions, the physical manifestation of what it is you are asking. it’s something that women, indigenous wise women, have been doing for ages. my friend mary ellen has taught me. my mother, who builds may altars, has too.

it’s there when you’re not. it’s there when you wander past, reminding. nudging: whisper a prayer. don’t forget. don’t leave those women alone. hold them close in your prayer.

and so, spurred by those faces, one in deep longing, the other in deep hope, i came home and started to gather.

i gathered talismans of hope and believing. of my own dreams that had finally come true. i pulled from my top drawer the little pregnancy test, the one that i’ve kept since the cold afternoon when the plus sign turned pink and my dream that would never come true, started to come. i reached in the drawer by my bed, lifted the armbands of delivery, one for mama, one for baby. i plucked the most blessed mother of all. and a gold-winged angel to boot. i snatched a few tulips from the kitchen, decided blood red was a color quite apt. i even remembered the tiniest prayer book, one that once was my mother’s. and then i laid them all on a rectangle of lace made by the grandma i never knew, the one who, at 40, gave birth to the man i called papa.

i made an altar for the mamas to be. the two that i know and the hundreds and thousands i don’t.

we are a sorority who share a particular pain, often unspoken. sometimes you haven’t a clue who your sisters are.

but once you’ve been where they are, you can never again look into the eyes of a woman afraid, a woman desperately longing for life, and not join her brigade.

you pray, and you pray mightily. you get down on your knees. you beg at the locked gate of heaven. you make deals, if you have to. and you pray to God that you do not hear only the echo of your deep incantation lost in the canyon of No.

you know what it is to hear the sound of your heart cracking. you do not leave a mama abandoned. you do not leave her to tremble, to quiver alone.

you muster the force deep inside you. you envision a babe, safe and asleep, in her arms. and you pray to God that someone is listening, someone comes through for those mamas.

if there is a sorority of promise, you are signed on. for ever, for life. and so i bow down at the altar.

please, whisper a prayer for the mamas. for adreine, for trish, and for all of the ones whose names we don’t even know.

measuring life in 8 millimeters

it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.

it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.

i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.

but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.

mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.

it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?

it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.

if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.

but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.

as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.

as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.

i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.

not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.

in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.

i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.

it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.

but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.

“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.

in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.

a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.

how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?