pull up a chair

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Tag: brothers

40 years later…

i thought i was fine this week, the week we marked the day and the hour when my dad died 40 years ago. but then, as the hour grew nearer and the twilight grew dimmer, one of my brothers started a chain of emails, everyone chiming in, adding a snippet, a gesture, a frozen moment in one of our minds. my brother michael, in four short lines, haiku of the heart, conjured a moment that pierced me, one that keeps looping round in my head. he wrote how he’d driven down from milwaukee in a blizzard, in a borrowed car with a bag of sand tossed in the trunk—just in case. my other brother, two years younger and all of 19, was riding shotgun. when they got to the hospital parking lot, walking toward the entrance, they saw an old family friend. the man, always stern, must have been wise enough to station himself out in the cold, on the sidewalk beside the gliding glass doors, where he’d been waiting, on the lookout for two sons not knowing, maybe sensing, they were on their way to their father’s deathbed. wordlessly and from a distance, the man shook his head, a gesture simple and somber, a shorthand for the grief soon to come. a sad shake of the head, that’s all, letting them know, before the question was asked, did we make it in time?

it’s an angle of the story i never knew before, or if i did, i’d long ago buried it. it slayed me, that simple short story. ripped me in bits. i thought until then that i was okay. but then i crumbled…..it all came tumbling back, that awful abyss of a night, and the way the grief spread like a shadow, one by one across each of our lives, changing us all forever and ever. i ached all over again for both of my brothers, out in the cold, absorbing the subtle but certain shake of the head. grief comes in so many layers.

***

because i’m writing up a storm for a book that is taking immense and total concentration, because i’ve been underwater for days, squinting at the screen and hoping no one notices if i never get up from my chair, i am re-upping this tale written 14 years ago. how can that be? when my little one sat on my lap watching his grandpa for the very first time. how can it be that that snowy blizzard-y night was 40 years ago?

measuring life in 8 millimeters (from 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in the darkness, it’s the familiar rhythms of the heart that soothe…

As the black velvet wintry curtain settles on the world outside my kitchen window, I am grounding myself in the rhythms I know nearly by heart. In the teeny stumps of clove, in the slicing of the onions, in the bay leaf pressed against the slab of beast.

When the not-yet-winter light, the stretched-thin light of middle December, slants in, it’s brisket weather once again. And this year, more than most, I am leaning into whatever is familiar, whatever might bring me a sense of rootedness in this sudden state of disorientation in which I find myself.

My brother, my just-younger brother, the one I’ve been sidling up to ever since his birth two years after mine, awoke a week ago with a lump the size of a grape on his neck. When it ballooned, within hours, to avocado-sized, he drove straight to the ER, a room we’ve visited far too often this long autumn. Before lunchtime, he’d been zapped through the CT see-through machine, and told he needed to run not walk to an oncologist, a noun that makes your insides shake like jelly, a noun that shoots you through with shivers you cannot shake, no matter how many sweaters you wrap around your shoulders, no matter how many hot baths you soak in.

He’s now seen the oncologist, he’s had the needle slid into his neck, the cells extracted and sent off to the lab where someone whose brilliance in all things pathological I am so grateful for, I am counting on, where someone we will never know will peer into a scope and spell out the cold, hard science of all that lies ahead.

We’ve been through a lot, this brother and me, over the decades (trust me, that’s one short string of words packed with understatement, profound understatement). While my other brothers have tales of shared soapbox-derby cars, and U-Hauling trailers across the Wild West, of sleeping bags under stars, and criss-crossing the country for concerts of The Who, the adventures I have had with my brother are ones across and into the deep caverns of the heart, back alleys of the soul.

Ever since we were little, when I used to tiptoe down the hall at night, perch myself on the end of his twin bed, listen to the baseball games on his staticky transistor, pull back the curtains and count the stars, we’ve shared a certain fluency, spoken in our own form of brother-sister secret code. Whether it was knowing kicks under the dinner table (an art that comes in handy with five kidlets and a wordsmithy dad sardined around the oval kitchen slab), or the shared whispers in the way back of the station wagon as it rolled across the countryside, en route from our grandma’s Cincinnati to our Chicago, the only two points on the family map that shone with honest-to-goodness incandescence.

In short order, we’ve shouldered each other through the same grade school, high school and college campuses (though his years in Milwaukee were far more animated than mine; say, the night he decided to direct traffic on the city’s main east-west boulevard with the stop sign he up and lifted from the sidewalk), we’ve borne each other’s griefs as we first buried our father, and later my brother’s first wife, who’d died of a melanoma gone ugly wild. And I’ve leapt on more last-minute flights — with tickets grabbed and paid for while sprinting down the concourse — for him than for anyone else in my life. Every single time, it turned out to be — for both of us — something of a life raft.

For reasons that nearly escaped us this past spring, on the Sunday after Easter, as COVID reached its vernal apex, and all things actual turned virtual, my piano-teaching brother (with perhaps the biggest heart known to humankind) left behind the high desert of Arizona after 35 years, and moved home to the house where we all grew up, the house where he and my mama have waited out the loneliness of this awful isolated siege. He filled her house, and her heart, with days and nights of music, of simple conversation, and with his signature brand of serendipities and joy rides. Hot dogs and fries at 3 in the afternoon, who says you can’t so indulge? Making video recordings as she rode her “red convertible” tractor mower, hiked the woods, or pressed the wrinkles from the church’s altar cloths, her weekly spin through priestly laundry, who says those treasures don’t belong in the family archives? Oh, he kept her laughing, all right. Kept her on her toes. And praying. Especially when she knew not what else to do.

And now, as this ugly awful “lower-case c” (his vernacular for the diagnosis at hand) creeps out of hiding, he is here, where once again — and emphatically — we can harbor him, and shoulder him, take him and his newly-moved-here beloved (whom we adore, by the way, for her unflappable capacity to bulldoze through any brick wall that stands between where they are and where they need to go, and for loving him in the way he’s long deserved), we can take them by the hand across the uncharted topography of ologists — oncologists and otherwise — and the cutting-edge arsenal they’ll employ to do the job, the holy job of zapping chaotic trouble-making cells, to kick them clear into oblivion, so help us God.

While we wait and wonder, wait and worry, wait and pound the heavens with our ceaseless prayer, I am straining to ground myself in the familiar, in the kindling of the winter’s lights in this season of unexpected shadow.

I am reaching for those rare few things that remind me of years and seasons past, when the darkness was not so thick.

As the kitchen fills with updrafts of clove and peppercorn and bay leaf, as the sinew of the brisket beast gives way to succulence, and the house swirls with the scents and sounds of Hanukkah, a festival of light if ever we needed one, I inscribe my prayer and my heart into each one of the words I’ve typed here. My heart, it seems, prays best against the percussions of the keys as I press my finger pads up and down the alphabet.

So consider this my prayer, my love song to my Michael, and with each word, may healing come. May burdens lift and be unloosed. May you swirl, dear M, in all the radiance you are, my blessed glorious brother whom I love. Whom I have loved since the beginning, our beginning, yours and mine entwined.

Xox


In an ordinary year, this post might have been about the birthday of the chair, 14 this year (tomorrow, in fact). But this is no ordinary anything, and the birthday ceded to my brother. The marking of time, though, the remembering back to why I first decided to pull up a chair, to invite you to do the same, brings to mind this one simple truth: it’s because I believed then and now that all our stories, the humdrum quotidian stories that unfold right here in the confines of our old familiar homes, they belong to all of us, they are all of ours. I unspool these ordinary tales from the files of my life because our stories, yours and mine, aren’t too too different, no matter where or who or when. The characters and setting might be all our own, but just beneath the surface we find the pulse beat of universal truths and narratives. We all have someone we love who will wake up one day with a diagnosis that takes our breath away. So when I tell these ordinary tales, my hope is that you might slide into the narrative, think of your own brother or sister, your own someone you love, think of your own times when you could not breathe for the fear pressing against up your chest. The hope, ultimately, is that we all share — and find each other — in the messy, gorgeous, never-ending human narrative….your story is my story, my story is yours. With a tweak here or there….

Bless you, each and every one, for being here, for pulling up a chair, a heart, and all the wisdom and goodness and gentle kindness you never fail to bring here. You have made this sacred quiet space everything I believed it might become. Thank you. Love, b.

Now, what are the rhythms that steady you, that ground you, when your world is hurling upside down?

rail riders

swamp king

“swamp king surveys his realm”

it was one of those ideas that tumbled into place. the two of them — one intrepid, the other more than willing to follow — would set out on uncharted adventure. road trip, in the first iteration. brotherly road trip. but then, suddenly, as was the case long ago in one boy’s history, the rails beckoned. the city of new orleans, in particular beckoned. that’s the name of the rail line, the legendary rail line, as well as the crescent city itself.

a line made famous when steve goodman penned the song, and arlo guthrie, and willie nelson, and john denver covered it. a song that burrows into your brain waves and takes a few days to shake itself out. goodman wrote that “i’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” but really it’s 924, give or take a twist in the tracks, from chicago to nawlins, meandering along the mighty mississippi.

and so, with a few clicks of the computer, tickets were had, bags were stashed with the few things a boy needs, and the days between soccer weekends were suddenly filled with visions of beignet and po’ boy and, because their grammy insisted, praline. old dear friends who know new orleans like the back of their hand, they dispatched guides to the back alleys and tucked-away treasures. and how perfect that a friend we love just happens to be restaurant critic/food writer for the new orleans times-picayune and, occasionally, the new york times, where his prose lures millions, i’m certain, to the eateries of his adopted metropolis.

we set out to union station monday night, where, according to the amtrak website, the dining car, the famed dining car that boasted of jambalaya and red beans and rice, it would welcome sleeping-car riders a full hour before departure. they’d be clinking forks and knives against china plates, sipping from crystal goblets, as soon as the sleek engine lurched out of the station, through the shadows of a city being drained of its daylight. or so they had every reason to think.

until we got to the counter where they check the tickets. and the lady barked, “oh no. not anymore. that website needs update. all they have now is express meals.”she went on to say the meals were “awful,” went on to explain that she was talking about pre-made sandwiches zapped in a microwave. she advised a trip to the train-station food court before boarding. and i saw the glimmer drain out of two pairs of eyes. i saw a jaw drop, i swear. but that lasted only an instant. they were set for adventure, and a boxed set of bread and cold meat couldn’t derail this duo.

we dashed up the escalator to scoop up the last helping of chicken fried rice, as the vendor closed shop for the night, then we grabbed two stale bagels for the price of one, an end-of-day deal at the bake shop. then, kisses all around, and hopes for the best.

the brothers were off.

the mother and father, not used to this absence of children, motored away. worried, if truth be told (and it always is around here). one or two of the boys was showing sign of distress. one with brewing case of heat stroke, a case that only started to surface the nearer we got to the station.

and, as is often the case in these parts, the narrative plot grows thick with unanticipated turns. so much for unadulterated joy ride.

it started out semi-comically enough when the door to their sliver-sized sleeper car decided to lock behind them as they set off for the dome car. took a train engineer, a dining car waitress named joy-ann, a porter, and a crow bar to get the door unlocked — more than half an hour later — amid a chorus of “never saw this before, not in 35 years working the train. door’s not supposed to do that.”

then, as night fell across the central illinois farmland, the heat stroke of the little one — the one who’d been up for soccer at 5 o’clock that morning, and had played two games on a field that shimmered with 100-degree heat — it got worse and worse, and he got sicker and sicker.

and if you think it’s hard to tend to the sick when they’re splayed out on the couch right before your eyes, you can double the duress when they’re on a train headed south, and you’re stuck home, farther and farther away by the minute. yes, there was a midnight phone call. or two. and yes, there were more in the morning. took the whole of a day before the kid could guzzle enough to slow his breathing, quell his tummy, and stop seeing stars.

and all along a brotherly miracle was underway. each one worried about the other, so much so that every time i talked or texted, the only thing they wanted to talk about was their concern for the other guy. and then, not long after hitting rock bottom, things turned around. i don’t yet know all the details, because as i type they’re rolling home through illinois farm fields, having left behind memphis, and mississippi’s delta, and the swamps and bayou of louisiana.

all i know is that they packed in as much as humanly possible in the 24 hours both were upright and breathing. i know there were po’ boys of various renditions, and something called “snoballs” that turned one of their tongues deep midnight blue for the whole of a day and a night, “no matter how many times i brushed my tongue, mom.” i know there were fried oysters, and an old man on a trolley who filled them with stories and a wallop of wisdom. i know they felt something “sacred” at preservation hall, where the jazz wailed deep into the night. and i know they warmed mightily to the slow southern pace. and the charms of the characters they gathered, like souvenirs, all along the way.

and more than anything, i know they got each other through one of those very tight tunnels, the kind where you can’t see the light at the end. and all you can do is hope and pray and wheedle each other forward.

we set them off on the rails in the hopes that they’d seal their holy blessed year with a cajun-steeped hallelujah, of the summery sort. we hadn’t thought one would be nurse to the other. weren’t anywhere near to witness where and how they discovered the magic. all that matters, though, is they figured it out. they fended for each other. one led, and one followed. and then the tables were turned. as is the way on any zydeco dance floor. as is the way in any life well loved.

welcome home, sweet boys. i missed you.

i love that photo above, “swamp king surveys his realm,” snapped by the older one — photo by will kamin, the credit would read — as they rode the rails home. the one in the photo, aka “swamp king,” was feeling infinitely better by then, the magic of nawlins indeed.

have you taken a trip that turned into far more of an adventure than you’d plotted? and what are the life lessons you carried home?

footsteps straight to my heart

willie diploma wall

four years ago, it was the sound of his footsteps i knew i would miss more than nearly anything.

the thud of his footfall onto the floor of the room up above, the footfall that signaled to me, down below, that the boy i love had clomped out of bed, or trundled down the stairs, that he soon would be rounding the bend, showing his face, his radiant face, at the old kitchen door.

his footsteps are back.

and my heart couldn’t be more tickled, delighted, dancing its own little jig.

the thud of the footfall is one of those percussive refrains woven into the rhythms of this old house, of any old house, and it’s a sound you might take for granted — it belongs with the particular click of the doorknob, or the way the car door slams off in the distance, and your heart knows before you know that someone you love is now home. you might take it for granted until suddenly, without forethought, it’s silenced, it’s absent. until all you hear is the hollow emptiness of no more footsteps — or door clicks, or car door slamming in the not-so-far distance.

it’s a quiet that crushes you. the unspoken sonic abyss of the someone who’s gone.

and now, with the thuds and the clomps and the rushing of water from the tap in his bathroom once again punctuating the soundtrack of this old house, i find my old heart quickening, picking up its rhythm, pounding just a wee bit harder, as once again — in that way that happens to mothers — i wrap my whole self — body and mind and heart and soul — around this interlude of pure wonder and blessing.

indeed, it’s way more chaotic around here than just one week ago, when this old house contained only three peoples plus a crotchety cat. and the lumbering fellow we’ve added to the equation, once he and his papa pulled down the alley, unloaded the mountains of boxes and lamps and speakers and papers, he’s set this old house percolating once again with his particular cacophonies. yes, there was a hammer pounding a wee bit late into the night. and the avalanche of stuff hauled out of his room and into the upstairs hall, it could tangle you into a knot, and snuff out your breath if you happened to trip and tumble deep down in its clutches.

but a bit of a miracle’s unfolding. i’d call it the answer to a prayer, except that i never dared to pray for it.

the boy i love, the boy who graduated in a cloud of glories at his college on the hill, he moved back to chicago thinking he’d rent a studio apartment, try to pay rent while teaching in an inner-city classroom, before he heads back off to law school and PhD school, before he spends a life trying to right wrongs and carving out justice. but then, as he pulled his duffle bags and moving boxes back into his boyhood room, as he perused the websites of apartment listings, as he realized the rent for a space not much bigger than his room at the bend in the stairs might be tough to afford, he started to rearrange his thinking — and his old room that bore the totems of middle and high school and selves long past.

he pulled posters off DSCF1241the wall, peeled campaign stickers off his closet door. took down the little boy bulletin board i’d bought the day we moved into this old house. he cleared his book shelves of boyhood favorites, took down the hobbit and twain and j.k. rowling; slid in hobbes and kant and aristotle. hung his hard-won college diploma just above his old desk, the desk where he calculated his way through fifth-grade math, and where he typed his junior theme. he must have measured the proximity between the door of his old room and that of his little brother, the one he says he came home to be close to.

he’s decided to stay.

he’s perched his french press coffee pot next to my gurgling electric one. he’s added his paltry few spices onto the shelf next to mine. he’s plugged in his speakers, and asked if we could pull up the old navy carpet so he can stride on the birds-eye maple that’s too long been shrouded. he’s decided, for now, that home will be in the place with a room all his own, and a sprawling kitchen just down the stairs (the commercial-grade six-burner cookstove and his mother’s built-in grocery service might have helped tip the scales in the refueling department).

for now, he’s sticking nearby.

for now, he and i are sitting down to breakfast, lunch and dinner. we’re taking long walks. we’re holding our breath — together  — as he puts muscle to hammer and tries to sink nails into plaster. we’re sitting out in the summer porch, listening to night sounds. we’re backfilling all of the stories that hadn’t had time to be told.

sure, my days are topsy-turvy. and this house feels certain to burst. and the washing machine moans from over-exertion.

but for four long years i could only wish for such chaos. i didn’t dare to hope that the day would come that we’d once again breathe the same air, inhale the same sounds, delight in shared and unscripted hilarities, ones unfolding in real time, and in the same time zone.

i’m practically giddy at the truth that this kid is wise enough, and tender enough of heart, to buck the prevailing post-graduation currents, to simply and humbly move back home, for the sheer gift of deepening the bonds with his little brother, and his grandmother who is now 84, and who every tuesday of his growing up years devoted her days and attentions to him. he is seizing the days before they are gone.

he didn’t take a job in DC, didn’t post himself in the heart of manhattan. all that might come. but for now, he’s taking a pause, taking time for what matters.

back in december he told me that he was looking to do the most meaningful work in the years between college and law school, “and, honestly, mommo,” he said, via long distance, “i can’t think of anything more meaningful than being there for tedd,” his little kid brother, now on the cusp of going off to high school.

as poignant as anything this week, and pulsing too very near the surface, is my knowledge — keen knowledge — that not too many miles away i have a very dear and deeply beloved friend who is in a hospital, suffering unimaginable devastations, and she might be robbed of the chance to whirl in this very dear thing, in her children’s sweet presence, in days that tumble lazily one to the next. please God, i beg, down on my knees, let my beautiful friend and her most blessed children share in this, the holiest dance.

for me — a girl who preaches deep-breathing the blessing of each and every framed moment of time — the unanticipated gift, the knowledge that we might grab a few years we’d not known were coming our way, this feels to me like the gift of a lifetime, this sweet holy homecoming.

and it comes with its very own soundtrack: the sound of a particular footfall, sinking deep and deeper into my heart.

bless you, sweet will, and welcome back home.

DSCF1243

worry not about the tomes slid off the boyhood book shelf, they are safe and sound with me, and will soon find a home on yet another shelf, one of the many that line the walls of this old house. a prayer request: for my beautiful friend in the hospital, for gentle soft hours to come her way.

and a question: what are the sounds of your heart’s dearest soundtrack, the ones that tell you someone you love is heading toward home? or the ones that make your heart tick as mighty as ever could be?

the view from inside one mama’s heart

brothers

i know.  i said i’d take a turn north, explore the cerebrum instead of the vessel that pumps down in the chest. but, so happens, a prodigal child is circling back to his homestead this weekend, for three short weeks, for what might prove to be the last and longest time.

i hadn’t quite realized how hollow this old house feels without him. the first year he went off to college, it was all new. i hadn’t quite grasped that it was the new normal; it still felt like a blip, an oddity. i could hum along and pretend that one day soon it would be back to the way it had always been.

the second year of college, none of us were here. we were tucked in that third-floor aerie that hardly knew him. that felt small enough and tight enough not to miss him quite so much. and besides, he was only two hours away.

now, now that we’re back in the old house with the room at the bend in the stairs, his room, the room he grew up in, the one where he learned to shave, first slid into a tuxedo, the one where he typed his college essays, where his desk lamp stayed burning till too late in the night, too early in the morning, truth be told, i feel the emptiness. this old house feels baggy, like we’ve gone down in size, and the jeans on our hips are sagging, sliding clear to our knees.

it’s quiet. too quiet sometimes. oh, don’t get me wrong. i wrap myself in silence like a soft-knitted afghan. quiet and silence allow thoughts to percolate, ideas to bubble up and thicken, gain depth and nuance, not unlike a balsamic glaze, or a mound of caramelized onion.

but that prize — the silence so rich you can count the tick of the clock — comes at the cost of not hearing the laughter. not standing at the cutting board, come late afternoon, with tears rolling down my cheeks. and not because i’m chopping an onion; because the lanky kid who just strolled in the door is recounting his day, is telling me tales animated in one of the 5,000 accents he’s mastered, an around-the-world whirl from one little mouth. it’s the uncanniest gift, his knack for assembling a whole host of characters, spilling them forth, one tale, one voice, at a time.

there is nothing so sweet as a belly ache that comes from your kid doubling you over in side-splitting, air-gasping guffaws.

that kid is coming home. that kid will fill this old house, once again, with the clomp of his feet, the sound of the shower that drones on for what seems like an hour. i’ll hear the sound of his pawing through the pantry, in search of whatever will fill that bottomless belly. but most of all, i’ll hear the sound of that voice i could pluck from the middle of grand central station, that voice i can hear in my dreams.

i’ll hear the particular way he calls me “mommo!” a collection of soft consonants and one open-mouthed vowel that buckles my knees, kickstarts my heart.

even better than all of that, though, are the sounds that will come from the two who are brothers.

i realize more than ever that eight years apart is a lifetime. one is off, navigating the steep slopes of college. the other is back home, after a long year away, trying to find his way through the forest of middle school. miles and miles lie between them. most of the year, they are no more than apostrophes in each other’s stories. they intersect barely. trade two syllable texts, on occasion.

but, in the rare few weeks they inhabit the very same house, they will be everything i always prayed for: each other’s guidepost and lighthouse. they’ll curl in the beanbags, side by side, down in the basement. they’ll motor off in the old station wagon that now has no fan, no AC or heat. but it does have good tunes, they tell me. and they’ll turn them up loudly. i might even find the little one sprawled on the big one’s twin bed.

there is much catching up to do. the big kid’s learning lessons at considerable pace. the little one is starting to ask much deeper questions, questions best answered not by your mama, but by the very big brother who, in your estimation, knows all there is to know.

in plenty of ways, the two couldn’t be any more different. or at least it had always seemed that way. if i’d had two ovaries, i would have sworn one came from the left and one from the right. but, fact is, i only had one, so they both popped from the same cubic inch of real estate.

and maybe that’s why — deep down — the two of them understand the most essential brotherly truth: they’ve got each other’s backs. they are each other’s deepest allies, and fiercest defenders. it’s the truth that propelled all my prayers, in those long fallow years when month after month brought the sound of my heart shattering.

and so, as the drumbeat quickens, as the march on the calendar moves toward sunday at 5:07 p.m., central standard time, so too does the pace of my pulse. i’ll move into full mama mode as the hours unfold. i’ll do my usual dance: zip around the yard with clippers, tuck stems in a fat old vase and plop it next to his pillow. i’ll cook up a storm. polish the bathroom mirror, change the sheets, vacuum the rug. make like a long-lost traveler is returning to civilization.

if i stop to consider the calendar, if i realize that this really might be his last long stint under this roof, i might park myself at the door of his room, and stop the clock.

nah, on second thought, i wouldn’t want that. i love every inch and ounce of this growing of kids. i love the intricate layers of conversation, as it deepens and deepens, year after year. i love getting the phone calls from far, far away, hearing the stories, the life that he leads that so exceeds the bounds of mine at his age.

i love that he’ll always have us to come home to. and that his room at the bend in the stairs will echo forever the sounds of his bumbling years. the years when he was finding his way, the years when he did that under my watch.

more than ever, i thank the heavens that i’ve the little guy, too. that one more time i can reach out a hand, and help a traveler up the side of very steep hills. this old house would be so very hollow without him.

and for three weeks, three too-swift weeks, this old house will be filled with two boys, and their very big hearts, sloshing and spilling with laughter and stories and, sure as can be, some very fine wisdoms passed from brother to brother….

just as i prayed so long ago….

thank God for the prayers that came true…

the picture above was snapped the night before the big one left for college. he read a pile of books to the little one that night, as the little one didn’t want to turn out the light, didn’t want the morning to come. 

so many mornings have come and gone since then. so many more about to come…..

did you have a big or little sibling who took your hand and guided you through the world? or did you find your pathfinders beyond the bounds of the family you were born into??

ebbs and flows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

that boy won’t be home till summer.

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

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

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

who says no to the sweetest, finest invitation ever?

i did not say no.

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

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

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

no mind, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it’s a rhythm i can count on.

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

when camper-to-counselor ratio is 1:1

deep down inside, it might be that i’m form-averse. the mounds and piles on my desk, the wee thin lines on those forms that lie there demanding to be filled with endless parades of itty-bitty digits (get one wrong and your claim is denied, your application rejected), they all make me break out in hives.

or maybe it’s that i could not stand the thought of one more season slapping PB onto J just before i stumbled off to bed, brown bag sacks tucked into a long night’s chill in the fridge.

or maybe it’s a long-held opposition to big yellow buses in summer. racing to corners in flip flops and bug spray seems somehow, well, unconstitutional. who needs 8 a.m. pickup when fireflies blink till late in the night?

but really, truly, i think the glimmer of an idea was born one february morning when the weight of the college-bound brother pressed particularly heavy on the heart of the one who’d be left home behind.

and i, mother to both, was left to do something, anything, to somehow untangle this heart-twisting knot.

they say necessity is the mother of invention, but really it’s the squeeze of a child’s heart that jumpstarts a mother to invent, to scramble, to snap-click her fingers and poof up a cloud of pure powdery magic.

what if, were the words out of my mouth, what if we have big-little brother camp, if big brother 1 is the counselor and little brother 2 is the camper? and that’s the whole of the camp?

the idea, unlike most that spew from my brain, was met with immediate, “hey, yeah”s.

within the course of an hour, a theme was struck (town and country, with outings to far-flung netherplaces–or swamps–one day, and downtown to the urban grid the next).

a list was made up, if only in their heads, all the things a boy and his brother might aim to do if given a summer, the keys to the car, and no one else to get in their way (certainly not the mother who would be far from the campgrounds, typing her summer away—at least tuesdays through thursdays, that is).

and so, now three weeks into it, i am here to report that a magical spell has been cast, and the joy of the camp lingers long after the camp bell clangs an end to the camp day.

right away i noticed at dinner how the giggles had grown exponentially. all of a sudden, after so many years and so many school days of traveling in parallel, non-intersecting orbits, they had their own sets of jokes and their own shared secrets of just how they had spent their whole days. (they will not divulge just why the south georgia peanuts baseball coach, who apparently lets loose on an ump in some youtube video, makes them fall off their chairs, from laughing so very hard.)

their itinerary, so far, has been thus: kayaking across a lagoon (with grammy, the intrepid octogenarian, in a boat all her own; not a one of them drowning, thank heaven), baseball catch at the park, hotdogsandfries, a bucket of balls at the golf range (high drama there when the head of the club went flying, a whole 150 yards, along with the ball), friedchicken, squash (the game, not the vegetable, believe it or not, as the big brother attempted to teach the ways of a gentleman sport), burritosandlime-flavoredchips, and that essential of any summer, sunbathing 101 (complete with the fine point of taking off socks to keep from unsightly tan line ringing the ankle).

just last night, as each boy dove into a mound of barbecued wings (the lunchtime hankering delayed till post-baseball dinnertime), i asked about camp, wondered what they had learned as we rolled past the mid-point of their six weeks together.

“how to eat really good food,” piped up the little one, an orange-splattered chicken wing dangling from his lips.

“not like healthy food,” he clarified. “like MAN food,” he said, the emphasis his.

then, because he’s long been known for his tepid tastes at the table, he turned to his brother-slash-counselor, and asked: “here can you taste it? tell me if i’ll like it. you know my taste.”

pretty much, that’s the heart and soul of it. two boys whiling their way through a summer. one knowing the other so well, he can tell what his tastebuds would say. the other, utterly trusting.

it boils down to that little message, re-spun and retold in hundreds and thousands of ways over the course of a june and july.

by august, attention will turn to what’s being stuffed into boxes, labeled and shipped to the holyoke mountains.

by september, what happens today will be just part of the frames that click-click through a little boy’s head as he lays down to sleep, trying to get used to the sound of a house without his big brother’s typing, trying to get used to the dark that’ll come from the room where the light’s always shone.

in a year or 10 or 20, my hunch and my prayer is that those two boys i love with all of my heart, will always look back on the summer of ’11, as the one where they discovered the ins and the outs of each other.

as one taught the other how to pull the oar through the water, and the other taught one how to tell if his wings were too spicy.

it’s a beautiful thing, in the end, when your lazy ol’ mama signs you up for a camp that you’ll carry through all the days of your life: the camp called brotherly love.

the blurry picture up above was snapped as the boys made it home from the wings run, the latest culinary adventure in their summer camp that seems to involve plenty of chowing.

do you have one particular summer you’ll never forget? a brother or sister who showed you the ropes? a camp you’ll hold in your heart forever and ever?

after-school cookie therapy

the little one had his hand deep in the cookie bag when i walked in.

“hey sweetie,” i said, launching into the kitchen. “hold on. let me make something healthy.”

that’s when he started to cry. words followed tears. tears followed words. “but i had a hard day,” said the boy who is 5.

that’s when i kicked the after-school snack into super high gear. “oh, boy, let me make something special,” i said as i grabbed for the bag and the boy and a red splatterware plate. while i gathered my wares—orange, dried strawberries, banana, and, yes, even reclaimed bag of pepperidge farm brussels–i turned up my ears, cranked open my heart.

“tell me what happened,” i said, slicing orange into juicy-spoked wheels.

something about dominoes, it turned out, was the source of the tears. something about dominoes not being shared.
by now i was sprinkling dried strawberries like rain on orange puddles.

that’s when his big brother walked in. “you need a hug, little buddy? looks like you need a hug.”

as they squeezed, the big brother therapist added this: “the best way to fix a bad day, little bud, is to talk. talking fixes bad days.”

while they wrapped up the squeeze, slid onto chairs at the old kitchen table, i reached into cookie bag, pulled out buttery-crisps that the little one had already determined would sop up the hurt.

laid crisps on the plate, tucked in between orange wheels. making it pretty. some quirk in my brain thinking that pretty sops up hurt better. maybe because really it soars to a place beyond words, says someone cares, cares enough to make the plate pretty. and, sometimes, you’ll do anything—words, pretty, pepperidge farm–to sop up the hurt.

sopping up hurt.

some days that’s what after-school snack is all about. i am an ardent believer in after-school snack, depend heavily on its medicinal powers. i still remember, more clearly i think than any other food of my childhood day, the apples in wedges, the pretzels in twists and stirring the chocolatey powder into deep earthen ooze at the bottom of my green glass of milk. i don’t remember the talking. but i do remember the after-school rite.

and i distinctly remember a smart lawyerly friend, a mother of two in that smartland known around here as hyde park (home to the university of chicago and iq’s off the chart, for you who dwell outside the land of 606-something). i distinctly remember her telling me she worked part-time hours just so she could be there for after-school snack. mind you, this was one tough cookie making time for, well, milk and cookie.

some things stick with you forever. that one sticks with me.

all these years later it defines the minutes from 3:30 on, ’til the talking is done. no matter the stacks on my desk, no matter the deadline, i practically always lift my head long enough for snacks and the news of the school day.

little people have hearts, they have hurts, they have sorrows. some days they have triumphs. or just a good knock-knock that makes them laugh silly.

today it took oranges in wheels, sprinkled with strawberries. then the boy who loves cheerios thought a handful of o’s might make it more better. so we nibbled, we talked, we indeed made it all better. more better, even.

they pushed in their chairs, i rinsed off the plate. we are back to our days now. our tummies are filled, and so are our hearts.

you needn’t be a parent, nor have little birds still in your nest, to partake in the patching together of a broken heart at the end of a long day. this was our story, our story from yesterday. tell us your story of a heart being patched all together again….if you care to, of course. only if you care to…