pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: holding your breath

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?

breath, suspended…

teddyhanddrawn heart

i prayed so hard these would be the words i got to write, and so i begin with this, the thank you prayer…

the call came just as i was sitting and reading a story i wrote long ago, a story about my mama’s breast cancer. funny, the tricks the universe plays. i thought little of it when the old phone announced on its screen that “northwestern mem” (the hospital) was calling. i’d had a 3-D mammogram the day before and i figured they were calling to give me the official “all’s clear.”

i was wrong.

it must have been mid-sentence in a sentence that suddenly seemed to be taking far too long to get to the point that i realized this might not be the call i’d wanted. i’m pretty sure i felt my heart slow with a thump. the nice lady — they are always nice on these calls — was telling me something about asymmetries, telling me not one but two spots on both sides looked suspicious. (she might have used a more innocuous word than “suspicious,” but once in the call-back landscape, a girl hears what she hears, and i heard trouble).

that’s when the breath-holding began. call backs in the middle of a long hot summer are not for the faint of heart. i’m pretty quick at sizing up danger, and i sized up this one, all right. first words that leapt from synapse to synapse were these: “oh no, too soon. the boys still need me.” for one, there are two years of law school still to go, and i’ve got my seat at graduation on mental reserve. i intend to be right there, and not wafting as some long-gone memory of a mom-turned-casper-the-friendly-ghost. and for two, the so-called little one still has a year left of high school, and right now he’s in the middle of tryouts for varsity soccer, and i was not about to let a single hiccup get in the way of that already-breath-holding adventure in steep climbs. so i sealed my lips and said not a word. (i only whispered to one or two girlfriends, and of course to that blessed fellow who hears most but not all of the daily headlines from my self-published worry gazette.)

long story short: not a minute went by during those long seven days when i wasn’t weighing the odds, hedging my bets, begging the heavens that this whole thing turned into yet another close call.

the hospital that wanted the second look could not fit me in for a week. my doctor insisted i go straight to second-look central, and not dilly around with one of the satellite operations where maybe, just maybe, the scrutinizing wouldn’t be up to her very high standards. of course, that scared me. i was scared, too, because more often than not i’ve sailed through these annual exercises in getting squished in the chest. i’ve had a call-back or two in the past, but it’s been awhile and nowadays the machines they use are so super-duper and soooooo very fine at peeking into every nook and cranny, i figured that if the darn newfangled machine saw something fishy it was a fish meant to be seen.

the weekend was long. so were monday and tuesday.

at long last, on the day that happened to be my second-born’s 17th birthday, and the first full day of his long-awaited, much-fretted soccer tryouts, i had to dart out in the middle of the day for my unexplained five-hour absence. five hours?!?!, you say. yup. that’s how long the darn poking and peeking around ended up going. they’d called me in for so many rounds of pictures, with varying degrees of specificity and technicians muttering, scrutinizing, apologizing, and then trying hard to hold a poker face, that by four in the afternoon when they sent me from pictures to ultrasound, i figured i was cooked. i’d started imagining how i would look with no hair and no eyebrows, how in the world i would break the news to my beautiful boys. i waste no time in the shallow end of the pool, when i can go straight to the deep end. and deep end was me.

i’d seen six rounds of technicians, and a phalanx of high-vision docs before anyone finally muttered the holiest word i’d heard in a very long while. “we’re not seeing anything worrisome,” said the very very nice doctor in charge, letting loose a week’s worth of stored-up breaths from my lungs. and suddenly, after brushing away the tear or two that couldn’t keep from falling, my whole world turned colored again.

but before the colors washed back in, before i could hope in my head for an extraordinary ordinary weekend, i’d tasted the magic — the most blessed blessing — of savoring even the smallest dab of everyday sacred: the gathering with friends over the weekend, the first sip of prosecco, the sound of the birds through the kitchen window, the sound of my firstborn’s voice on the other end of the long-distance line. not a single frame of being alive was passing by me unnoticed. or un-savored.

there’s a sharp edge to living that comes when you’re scared, when you’re thrust unaware into counting the hours, into marking off life in short-term brackets.

it’s a variation on electro-shock therapy (the sort to the soul, not to the brain): you’re jolted awake and at highest attention when flat-out fear comes to roost. i know it’s not altogether healthy, and not the wisest way to fritter away the days. but i make the most of it. i consider it a trial run, a crash course in counting every last decimal of all of my blessings. i use the siege to sift through my life, to weigh the ways i spend my hours. to crank the dial a notch, and make each moment count in duplicate, even triplicate.

and then, when the whistle blows, when the lifeguards tell me the long wait is over and i can breathe once again, i make more than a mental note. i drop to my knees and promise aloud i’ll not take this — not any of this — for granted. i stand at full-throttle attention, drinking in the ones i love with all of my heart, savoring the dew of the dawn, and the stitches of stars in the dome of the night.

the world is bristling with color this morning. and i am blessing each drop.

thank you, dear God, for this day and this hour. i’ll not waste it, i promise…

what keeps you from wasting a day? 

practice realignment

those calls do not always come in the form of a phone ringing, but this one did.

it was early monday morning, i was minding my business, taking a stroll on the round-about that is the basement treadmill. phone rang. i answered.

“hullo, this is the lynn sage breast center at northwestern memorial hospital,” said the voice on the other end of the line. i felt a grand canyon of unanswered question gouge into the empty space between her last utterance and the silence that fell after it.

“yes,” i finally spoke up, voice creaking, begging to know what was coming next.

“the radiologist…,” i heard her say, then something about my last mammogram, the one two weeks ago. “abnormal… they’d like you to come back… as soon as possible.” so flowed the hyphenated string of words, the sound of my heartbeat drowning out whatever came between.

and so my week began with a crash and a boom. we scribbled in the appointment, the voice and i. it would be first thing the morning after the fourth of july independence holiday.

next up, the pounding of the digits on the phone face. tried to call the mate. he wasn’t there, and i wasn’t leaving that message. so i called my mama. rounded out my life list of swears-in-front-of-my-mother with a new addition, the f word. glory be to the heavens, she echoed it right back. it was a morning for firsts, all right.

and so began a 72-hour trip to heck and back.

that’s all it takes for a girl with an imagination like mine to see her whole life unspool before her eyes.

you thought you were headed to cambridge, i sassed myself. not without an oncologist’s phone number tucked there inside your pocket. you thought you liked your curly wild silver hair? imagine it missing. and so it went, through most of the week.

i saw fireworks through eyes that wondered what the morning would bring. i took a shower and barely glanced down, for fear that the sight of those troublesome lumps would make my knees buckle under right there beneath the pounding beads of shower stream. i pictured myself sprawled out on the couch in the bay window of the cambridge three-flat. wondered how i’d lug the groceries up the stairs. wondered if chicken broth and saltine crackers would be the mainstays of my cambridge foodstuffs.

it’s the reality check that tumbles us to the ground. it’s the fear of God that shakes us to our core. it’s that rare-enough interlude when we feel the world as we know it slipping through our fingers, when we can’t quite close the gap, can’t contain the fall.

i can’t say that it was wasted time, not at all really. it’s that top-to-bottom accounting of one’s life. weighing out all the bits, sifting through to what matters, what matters fiercely.

why, setting the table seemed a joy. grilling vegetables, pure pleasure. holding hands with the ones you love. listening to my college kid speak these words: “not you, mom, you’re invincible.” standing in front of the mirror, deciding that unruly mop atop my head, it’s who i am and i am not about to surrender it. not without a tussle anyway.

i consider all of it a practice drill for sizing up the joint. it’s not a bad thing — how could it be? — to take inventory of the whole of your life, to divide it into piles, this here’s essential, this does not amount to a hill o’ beans.

and in the end, all that mattered was boiled down to one short list, one simple prayer: dear God, let me live out my days being a mother to my holy blessed children. let me be there, God, on the days when they need me most. let me get that little one straight into high school, please. let me filter down into their backbones and their spines. let my sparks of light illuminate the darkest corners of their soul. dear God, give me sunrise skies in the mornings, and starlit domes at night. let me dwell, quiet, in the garden. let me smell the roses on the climbing vine. dear God, let me walk beside the ones i love. let me hear their voices, peals of laughter; let me brush away their tears when next they fall. dear God, give me the simple joy of sitting together at breakfast, of taking to the front porch with a tin of pie and two forks. give me blueberries piled high. and the unbroken blessing of a day without a worry.

but most of all, dear God, give me one more round with my little boy. he’s not ready yet to run without me at the finish line.

and sure enough, i signed into the special room yesterday morn, the one at the end of the long hall, the one already filled with too many other women with too much worry etched into their cheeks, their eyes, the corners of their mouth. we sat there, a sorority of holy desperation.

until at last they called my name. pointed the way down the long hushed hall. there, behind a door marked “A,” as i went to set my coffee mug on the top shelf of the skinny locker, as the nice lady handed me the hospital gown, instructed me to leave the ties in front, before i saw it coming, the coffee came tumbling down, all over me, on my once-white t-shirt and khaki shorts, dripping down my knees, straight to the tops of my garden-stained toes.

“may that be the worst thing that happens to you today,” said the nice lady, as she grabbed a hunk of tissues, mopped me up.

a long dull 45 minutes later, after the ladies with the magic wand pressed it back and forth, over and over, across the top of the lumpy place, at last came word that in fact the coffee spill had been the worst of it: “go home,” the attendant said.

simple as that. it was all over. the radiologist read the images, determined nothing lurked there.

“that’s it?” i asked.

“that’s it. you’re done.”

i climbed off the table. shoved open the door. walked back to the locker where my stained clothes hung.

i spent the rest of the whole long hot day whispering these simple words: thank you thank you thank you God. thank you, one more time, for the breathtaking chance to wrap my arms around my boys with not a worry in the world.

in the end, that was it, the only prayer that mattered. and the one that, this time, was wholly answered.

what was your last close call? and in the end, what’s on your short list of most essentials? the things you cannot, will not, live without?