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Tag: saying goodbye

the sodden state of summer’s back-to-school days . . .

it’s been getting heavier and heavier all week. my heart, that is. the boy i love—or one of ‘em anyway—is heading off again. one last time. to school, that is. we’ll be playing follow-the-leader, interstate-style, this weekend, when he pushes off with a trunk filled to the gills, and i follow not far behind with a wagon equally jammed. i’m enlisted only for my skill at hospital corners (a nurse’s way of tucking in bedsheets), and my knack for stuffing things in the teeny spaces that qualify as dorm-room closets. 

all week, amid a blur of other complications, i’ve felt my heart grow heavy with tears not yet spilled. the country roads the whole way home––just me and some fine book on tape––will make for a bucolic sponge for salt-water spillage. 

that boy is the best of company, that boy of the very big heart and the disposition best described as super chill, and ever animated. the boy fills this old house, and every heart in it.

so, once he’s left behind, back here at the homestead it’ll feel hollow once again till we get used to the long pauses of silence, till we get used to a room where the door isn’t sealed shut to hide the disarray inside. 

a wise someone once told me that if i thought high school blurred by in a blink, i’d find college blurred in half a blink. and so it is. eight years after dropping off his big brother one last time, it’s time for the caboose to part as well. this is it: the end of tuition checks and dorm vernacular, the end of considering time in back-to-school and semester allotments.

there’s perhaps a better chance that this one will find his way back home, to call sweet chicago the place where he belongs. but till then, nine months will trickle by. 

it’s the leave-taking that always bumps me up. the saying goodbye is not my strong suit. my trouble in that department dates back to when i was five and my papa got a big new job in a city far away, and every sunday night for the rest of a school year, he slid behind the wheel of his turquoise ford falcon and headed down the drive while i sat slumped on the concrete stoop there in the garage. i remember crying till my cheeks hurt. and going to bed with tummy aches. till he came home on friday nights.

nowadays i cry while spritzing the bathroom mirror, and when luring dust bunnies out from under the college kid’s bed, once he’s emptied it, once he’s faded into the faraway. then i try to find my way again, to find the joy in silence, in the slower pace with which the fridge and pantry empty, in the fewer loads of laundry. in that bathroom mirror that never splatters.

it’s come and go, all life long. and we’re wise to make the most of those blessed hyphens in between.

in the weeks ahead, i’ll be busy plotting my new cloister garden as a six-foot wall is being erected (straight through a chunk of what had been my garden, and hard up against our once-breezy screened-in summer porch) even as i type. i’m thinking of it as my monastery wall––the cedar barricade shutting out all the troubles of the world. but the thing i’ll miss most is the slant of sunlight at the twilight hour, as the great orb sinks low and the shafts of light get long and longer. it’s a golden glow that makes my summer porch seem gilded with celestial stardust. 

and because the last round of page proofs got delayed till next week, i’ll fill my quiet hours with the intense concentration those pages demand. and then it’s off to the printer as i await the day the box of books lands plop on my doorstoop. 


cook’s corner: here’s a truly nifty thing i bumped into this week (if meat lovers thrill to find a way to use every bit of the beast, from tongue to tail, then we who love the produce patch thrill just as mightily to find there’s more to the vine than just the fruits!). as one with a plethora of tangled vines, and one who sniffs deeply of my finger tips after plucking my daily tomato harvest, this enlightenment brings double the delight from those vines. and it’s all about the leaves…

How to Cook with Tomato Leaves

Tomato leaves contain 2-isobutlythiazole, a compound responsible for the plant’s distinctive aroma. Commercial tomato products, like ketchup, often include an isolated form of that compound to boost fresh tomato flavor.

If you have a garden full of tomatoes, though, you’ve got a great source of 2-isobutlythiazole right in your backyard. Here’s how to use tomato leaves to boost your sauce’s flavor.

1. When you harvest your tomatoes, pluck a handful of leaves from the plant.

2. Toss the leaves into the sauce and steep them for 10 minutes.

3. Remove and discard the leaves. 

Taste your sauce, and you’ll find that the tomato flavor has been both heightened and made more complex and earthy.


commonplacing:

from poet and pacifist William Stafford, found in his son Kim Stafford’s intimate portrait, Early Morning: Remembering My Father:
every day Stafford would write a page in his journal, his response to what he called “the emergency of being alive.” 

we are all of us deep in the emergency of our being alive…


a little bit of Buechner, in memory of the blessed man who died at 96 on monday. 

Frederick Buechner

a few years back, in 2016 to be precise, i counted a new collection of writings from theologian frederick buechner, with introduction by anne lamott, as one of the best books for the soul that year. his death this week made me pull that review from the shelf, and perhaps it’ll prompt you to pull a bit of buechner from your own bookshelf or that of your nearest library. 

Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner

By Carl Frederick Buechner, Introduction by Anne Lamott, Frederick Buechner Center, 170 pages, $15.99

Maybe once a generation, once every few generations, someone is born with gifts literary and sacred, in equal brilliant measure. A translator, perhaps, of the highest calling. One who can at once lift our souls and our sights, by virtue of the rare alchemy of the poetic plus the profound. Therein lies the prophet. Therein lies Frederick Buechner, at 90, one of the greatest living American theologians and writers.

In these collected works, Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner — a table of contents that includes excerpts from his Harvard Divinity School lectures, The Alphabet of Grace; a searing essay on his daughter’s anorexia; a seminary commencement address on the hard truths of pastoring a flock of believers, doubters and everyday sinners — we are introduced to, or immersed in, the depth and breadth of this rare thinker’s literary and soulful gifts. 

Anne Lamott, in her introduction, admits to being blown away by Buechner’s capacity “to be both plain and majestic” at once. She ranks him side-by-side C.S. Lewis, then declares, “No one has brought me closer to God than these two men.”

That alone might make you rush to pore over these pages. What I know is that this world sorely needs a prophet who reminds us to not give up our search for holiness amid the noise and hate and madness all around. Buechner, though, says it in words that work as poetry, shimmying through the cracks, burrowing deep within us, reverberating long after the page is turned. He writes: “We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths. It is the function of all great preaching, I think, and all great art, to sharpen our hearing precisely to that end.”

And it is that very sharpening that we find, paragraph upon paragraph, page after page, in Buechner 101


poet’s corner:

two poems worth pressing against your heart…

Field Guide

Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious element of all,

I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards pigeon feather
floating on the tension of the water

at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,

hovered over it, then lit, and rested.
That’s all.

I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page

in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know

where to look for the good parts.

––Tony Hoagland

Moon

The moon is full tonight
an illustration for sheet music,
an image in Matthew Arnold
glimmering on the English Channel,
or a ghost over a smoldering battlefield
in one of the history plays.

 It’s as full as it was
in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby’s face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth’s bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.

 And if you wanted to follow this example,
tonight would be the night
to carry some tiny creature outside
and introduce him to the moon.

And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand.

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees
in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.

––Billy Collins


listening nook: because i’ll be coursing through the countryside in my red wagon this weekend, i’m bringing my reading nook on little discs. here’s the stack assembled from the library shelves:

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean: i once was graced to work alongside Norman’s son John, a fine fine bespectacled gent with a much quieter, more studious demeanor than many of the newsroom characters. his father’s masterwork  stands as one of the great “evocations of nature’s miracles…and a probing of human mysteries.”

The Abundance, Annie Dillard: a landmark collection from the writer i consider my north star.

Five by Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald: i’m ever trying to expand and deepen my knowledge of the American canon and F. Scott deserves more of my attention. 

Dear Ann, Bobbie Ann Mason: mason, like me, is a kentucky native, so i feel it my native obligation to inhale her prose and her poetic ways of unspooling a story. i read my first bobbie ann mason so long ago, and it’s been ages since, so where better to reacquaint ourselves than the rolling countryside of the heartland we both call home?

Wallflower at the Orgy, Nora Ephron: ephron makes me laugh so hard i’d best keep an eye out for rest stops along the way. en route to one parents’ weekend, we listened to Heart Burn, her tale of woe from her years married to and divorcing from none other than journalistic legend Carl Bernstein. we loved listening so much we were sort of bummed we had to stop the car in ohio, where our kid was a freshman in college, and couldn’t roll along till, say, the atlantic seaboard, where we could have gotten a few more hours of ephron under our belts….


a bit more buechner, because there’s never enough:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else 
is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that 
is often just what we also fear more than anything else. 
It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . ”

Frederick Buechner

and with that, this week’s edition of the chair gazette is a wrap. question of the week: how will suck the succulence out of summer’s august sweetness?

college kid this week, on the brink of one last back-to-school.

equinox of the heart

My heart is in equinox. Equal parts light and shadow. That’s not necessarily an out-of-the-ordinary state of affairs for the human vessel that holds all we feel in a day, in a lifetime. But it’s not usually so amplified, not usually so stark.

On the one hand, I am counting down the hours and minutes till a boy I love, the first one I birthed, comes home for the first real time in years and years. The first time in as long as I can remember when he won’t be squelched by the pressures of (in reverse chronological order) bar exam, law school, admission to law school, wrangling a classroom of hellions for the year he was teaching on the mean streets of Chicago, and before that pushing against the deadline for an honors thesis that somehow stretched to 300-plus pages. He is—in three days and two hours—packing a Portland apartment into a moving van, and one day  and six hours after that he’s boarding a plane, crossing the Rockies, the Great Plains, and the checkerboard of farmland that is preamble to landing at Chicago’s O’Hare International. 

He’ll be here—for the first time in six years—for the Thanksgiving feast. And Christmas, and the turn of the new year. Then he’ll move on, to New York City, where once again he will take up his pen and his law books and clerk for a federal judge. And all that time, all the weeks when he’s here, the first order of business will be simply to breathe. To sleep in the old room at the top of the stairs, to trundle down to this old maple table, to cook by my side, and walk along the lakeshore where we all go to think when our thoughts—and our souls—need every square inch of the infinite sky.

And, on the other hand, the man I married three decades ago, the man whose life has unspooled next to mine for the best of my years, he’s off on the Jersey Shore, in an old quirky-but-endlessly-charming house at the edge of a pond. He is there all alone, except for the movers who are coming in shifts, day after day, to empty the house of every last trace of the long lives lived there. The house will be bulldozed before spring turns to summer. And it’s his job, as the only son, to attend to its final hours. He is packing up the last of the dishes found tucked in a cabinet no one had known, finding nearly lost treasures slipped between books on the shelves (his parents’ ketubah, or marriage “contract,” signed in ink in January of 1955, and almost sent off with a load of donations), taking one last long look out the living room window, watching the sunlight and the swans on the pond. 

It’s a house that has played an anchoring role as a central character in the narrative of the long lives lived there. No one ever imagined it wouldn’t be there, high on the ridge at the top of the slope, peering down on the pond. The footfall of at least a century and a half are pressed into the stairs that twist up to the bedrooms. Sixty-five of those years belonged to my husband’s father and mother—he in his white bucks or his Keds, a gentleman of old-school sartorial splendor; she in her size-10 flats (never heels, for she never wanted to tower too tremendously over the little children she taught, as a woman of considerable height). 

My husband, who has long taken to heart the tenet that architecture shapes lives as lives shape the architecture, is not one to bid farewell to timber and bricks (both of Revolutionary War vintage) without a significant lump in his throat, and a piercing in his chest. I saw how his eyes went dark, the sadness not hidden, when he said to a friend the other day, “It’s like another death.” It’s the last one of its chapter. Six years ago, the sartorial one breathed his last, and just this July, so did the schoolteacher. Each time, my husband and his sister scattered the ashes along the holy ground that is the edge of the pond.

I can barely imagine how hard it will be to turn the key in the door that one last time. To walk down the steps, turn, take one last look. To drive away, down the lane, the white clapboard gardener’s cottage disappearing into the distance. To know, after 64 years, he’ll never come again. 

And so the shadow is thick on the walls of my heart, and the light, too, is dappling, is falling in splotches. The equinox of the heart is not uncharted terrain, but oh it makes for gingerly treading. 

Thank you for listening. It is hard, so hard, to say good-bye.

funny that i wrote this in caps, up till now. i’ve been writing and writing all week, and i guess i’ve fallen back into work mode here on the keyboard. for me caps are like wearing my big-girl shoes, lower case is kicking ’em off, shuffling around in my slippers. i’m letting it stand, as a salute to the ones i love…

photos above by blair kamin, on Shippee’s Pond, fair haven, new jersey.

the boys i love, the one coming home tuesday on the left. standing in the front yard of their grandparents’ house on the day of their grandmother’s funeral.

how often do you live in equinox of the heart, and might it be–in many ways–the natural state of the vessel that contains so very much of our love, and our joy and our hurt? so much of our lives are equal parts light and shadow. how do you find a stillpoint?

yet again, i turn to the ellipses…

Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 10.56.47 AM

i just realized that the ellipses — that trail of ink blots across a page — is perhaps my preferred punctuation. i’d been thinking, all week, that today would be the period at the end of a particular sentence. but then i realized, like so many things in my life, i prefer my punctuation in multiples, an abundance of dots rather than one. i prefer the soft close to the abrupt end, the holding on to the letting go, the voice fading into the distance, one last echoed “i love you” before it all falls to silence…

the boy i love is leaving today. flying to what is, in many ways, home. back to law school, back to friends who populate his thoughts, animate his days, friends to whom he’s stayed connected through the pings of his phone for the last 17 days, ever since he bounded down the escalator at o’hare international and folded me into his very big heart.

i know he won’t be back soon. likely not till next christmas. and that, to me, feels like a very long time.

which is why i’d been thinking of this as the period — punctuational stop sign — at the end of a particularly sumptuous sentence. two-plus weeks of late-night conversations, and the signature boom of his feet bounding down the stairs sometime mid-morning (or later), when the night-before’s leftovers would be pulled from the fridge, considered ponderously, studiously, in ways you might expect from a cerebrum in training, and then, only then, transformed into something distantly related to breakfast (or at least the feast that ended the long night’s fast).

neither he nor i nor any of us, really, has moved too far these past days. we took our cues from mother nature’s deep freeze, and burrowed under blankets. we are in some ways sated (there is only so much hibernating, so much foraging for leftovers, and even the fraser fir is starting to droop), but with each passing day of this last string of days i felt my heart taking charge here. my heart got more and more leaden. my heart sometimes seems to double in weight. it doubled this week. and, yes, yes, snappy vessel that it is, it will soon return to cruising mode, it will come back to equilibrium. life will go on. dramas will come and will go. my heart, bless it, will play right along.

but right now, in the page-turning time, when this one sweet spell is still within my hold, and i know the letting go will come before the day is done, there at the concrete curb amid the crush of traffic at the double-glass doors marked “departures,” i am decidedly sputtering. wiping away a tear or two when no one is looking. reminding myself that this is what comes with modern-day motherhood. this is how it is to love a kid who is out doing the very thing you spent hours and days and weeks and years teaching him to do: stretch his wings, leap. wait for the soaring to come.

i will, of course, return to my everyday mode, the one where i now live with a heart in two places. the one where i pay as close attention as i’ve always paid to the heart that formed inside me. even when it’s 764 miles away.

indeed, as happens in a life that runs only in one direction — forward — i will live my days emphatically, be pulled into this narrative or that, very much in the here and the now. heck, in the past 36 hours alone, one of us got a newly-minted driver’s license, another scored a summer job, and another blew out another year’s birthday candles. the new year brings a percolation of promises and plots in the making…

but on my way to finding my bearings, in the midst of putting balm to the sting, i will immerse myself in what’s come to be my cleansing ritual, now woven into the choreography of every departure: once home from the airport, i’ll climb the stairs and turn to the room there at the top, the one where my sweet boy has stayed, the one that once was his little brother’s. i’ll change the sheets, vacuum the alphabet rug, dump the towels in the laundry. i’ll prop the pillows, and set it all just so. the room, then, will be ready, will be waiting. awaiting his someday return…

whenever that comes…the room and my heart will be ready…

at this cusp of the new-born year have your days been filled with goodbyes and teary departures? endings sure to follow beginnings…and what are the ways you’ve found to soothe the hurt, the missing of someone you love?

when the gentlest, dearest sounds of your day are gone

DSCF2348_2

some days when i write, it feels like i need a crane to hoist my heart out of the deep-down depths, to vault to the heights where the words deserve to be. this is one of those days….

it’s been five days now. five days without the sound of his front right paw rubbing against the back-door glass, when every morning at dawn, his shadow etched against the fading darkness of night, he’d be waiting for me, waiting for me to let him back in, our night-prowling cat, to let him get back to the business of roaming this creaky old house as if it all belonged to him, his acreage to do as he pleased, to rustle under the covers here, to climb into the laundry basket, the shopping bag, the shoe box we accidentally forgot to put away. to plop himself squarely onto whatever book or newspaper we were reading, whatever keyboard upon which we were trying to type, shoving aside all distraction with his furry insistence, as if to say, forget that, pay attention to me.

it’s been five days since i’ve heard the faintest trot-trot-trot of his little cat paws, descending the stairs, coming round the bend to where he knew he’d find me, letting out one of his signature meows, the ones we’d learned to read as if particular declarations, and so we’d do as he ordered every time: feed him, scoop him into our arms, open the door to let him out into the garden he guarded so well and so long.

tiger boy and his tiger cat

tiger boy and his tiger cat

it’s been five days since we’ve heard the lap-lap-lapping of his tiny sandpaper tongue, scooping up the droplets of cream with which we indulged him (or, truth be told, the water from the bowl of the toilet he considered his own private pond). and it’s been five days since i’ve heard the sound of his four-pawed leap to the hardwood floor from the very high bed of the boy who’s never known a day without him, the old striped cat, the cat who came from the farm, the cat with more adventures than a conquistador or even huck finn. the cat we called “turkey” for short, the cat whose very long name — turkey baby-meow-meow-choo-choo-hi-cat-bye-cat — won him a contest just this year at a faraway vet school, where the vet students (one of whom used to work at our long-ago animal hospital) were asked to submit the best pet name they’d ever heard — well, sadly, finally, after nearly 19 years, our sweet little cat is no longer.

turkey baby meow-meow etcetera lay down and died on pi day, monday, the 14th of march, 03.14.16. curled up in a ball, face turned to the stars, he quietly softly slipped away, a dignified death for a most dignified fellow.

and it’s the absence of sound — those soft, barely-perceptible sounds, the ones that beg your keenest attention — that is so deafening, that amplifies the ache in all our chests, that defines — at least in small measure — the volume of the hollowed-out hole in each of our hearts.

in the blur that this week has been, here’s what happened: sunday afternoon i found out my dear, dear friend had died, and because i’d been asked to write her obituary, i slipped into that writing zone where i lost focus on nearly everything that wasn’t the words i needed to type to tell the world who she was. i do remember that later that night i scooped up the cat as he meowed at the bottom of the very steep stairs, and i carried him up to the bed of the boy doing homework beside the bedside lamp. as i walked in the room, the boy scooted over, away from the light, clearing a space on the sheets and the pillow. i asked what he was doing, and he matter-of-factly told me, “oh, that’s the side that turkey likes, so i’m getting out of his way.” when i countered that, actually, he — the boy with the hours of homework — was the one who needed the lamplight, he shrugged it off, said, “nope, turkey gets the side he wants.”

that’s the last that anyone remembers.

and then, monday, not long after dinner, when i bent down to scoop up my backpack, to head out the door to drive a carpool to soccer, i eyed the little cat bowl still piled with bits of the food that he crunched whenever he needed a nibble. and that’s when it hit me: i hadn’t seen him all day, or at least i suddenly didn’t think i had, though i couldn’t clearly remember. delaying carpool departure, i zipped through the house, spot-checking each of his usual places, an itinerary i knew by heart: atop the sleeping bag in one bedroom closet, under the bed blankets in the other boy’s bedroom, curled on the heated bathroom floor, snuggled on the bean bag by the back door from which he surveyed his lair. one by one, the spots came up blank. our cat was not in the house. so we took to the alleys, combed them up and down, back and forth till close to midnight. (i managed to squeeze in my carpool duties, worried the whole way, resumed my search with headlights on high beam once back home.)

and then, the next morning, in an early morning volley of email about wholly other matters, i mentioned to my across-the-street guardian angel of a neighbor that “on top of everything, we can’t find turkey.” and that’s when she shot back the news that felt surely heaven-sent: that reminded her, she wrote, that a friend of hers had mentioned seeing a cat who looked sick the day before, and it was somewhere down our very block. i had hardly finished sweeping my eyes across the words when i was out of my seat, and halfway across the room to the old tin bucket where we kept the cat’s mud towel, the one we’ve used a hundred thousand times to wipe off the rain or the snow or the puddles of goop he padded through, on his way to the door where he waited, always waited.

i ran out the door, and down the sidewalk, eyes trained on the distance, murmuring — almost a prayer — no, no, no! and then the lump i’d passed the night before, the lump that in the dark had appeared to be a pile of leaves, it wasn’t leaves in the early morning light; it was dear sweet turkey, curled in a little cat comma, his paw up and over his eyes, his face pointed up toward the half-moon, still fading against the early morning’s soft sunrise.

a whole 18.5 years after he trotted into our lives, he was gone. i wrapped him, and carried him home. my arms shook the whole way. we all huddled in the front hall, at the foot of the steps, and we cried. the little one’s knees went out, as he crumpled onto the stairs, and his face contorted in grief.

not one of us didn’t cry, and cry hard.

and just like that this old house is missing some of its most essential sounds. and surely an immeasurable chunk of its heart.

i heard the boys shouldering each other’s heartache. i heard one say to the other, “he was like our third brother.” they both said, in unison, as i carried him, stiff, into the house, “he was my best friend.” a cat can do that — a cat can be so loyal, so loving, so there when you need him, everyone thinks he or she is his favorite. DSCF6964

the older one, the one who rode out to the farm with me back in october of 1997, back when we were convinced there’d never be another babe in the family, he’s been around for every one of ol’ turk’s big adventures: the time he got stuck in the drug-dealer’s den just down the alley; the time he leapt and then tumbled from the third-floor skylight, and lived to tell about it, staggering along the gangway, dizzied but unharmed except for a droplet of blood that dribbled down his little cat chin; the time he was missing in action for six unbearable days, and then, minutes before the very-sad firstborn was supposed to shuffle off to his very first day of kindergarten, that old cat came bounding up the back steps like he was the hero in a hollywood western, the sheriff who rides to the crest of the hill, bringing on the cavalry, just in time to kill the villain, just before the credits roll and the sun sets on the five-hanky movie.

the little one — only 14 to turkey’s 18 years, six months and 21 days — he had never known a day without that old cat. when we moved to cambridge, mass., for a year, the little one said he was happy to tag along, but he had one non-negotiable caveat: “i’m not going unless turkey comes too.” and so, we tucked that old cat in a nifty little carrier, slid him under the airplane seat, and made him an apartment cat for one (rather miserable, far as he was concerned) year of his long and storied life.

so here we are: bereft beyond words. the reminders are tucked in a thousand places — the cat toy peeking out from the basket, the stacks of cat-food cans on the shelves of the pantry, the old navy bean bag still streaked with clumps of his fur. bit by slow bit, i’ve been subtracting, cleaning the shelf of the cat food, washing out his bowls one last time. i’m trying to think of these awful days as lessons in grief, and the insolubility of death. no matter how hard you wish, you can’t bring back the pit-a-pat paw sounds. can’t muster his face, with the ears perked just so, there at the glass still streaked with his mud prints.

it’s the valley of mirage and phantom echo, the raw and early hours of grief, as you imagine, make-believe — for an instant — you’ve just caught a glimpse, or just heard the sound.

it’s deafening. and deadening.

and i know that time, the sacred balm of all of life’s deepest heartaches, i know time will bring healing. i know the day will come when the thought of that old cat won’t sting quite so piercingly, the way it does now.

and so, for the second time this week, i am writing an obituary. and while the loss of a most blessed friend and the loss of a furry one are in no way comparable, i’ve realized this week that death is death. and “little deaths,” too, loom large, and they hurt sometimes in ways that riddle each hour with excruciating moments of missing.

and, yes, it’s only a cat, but a cat over time, a cat you’ve known and nuzzled and loved across the arc of your entire childhood — across the days when no one else understood your sorrows, and no one else curled across your chest, or slipped warm against your pjs quite the way your cat did — it makes it achingly hard to catch your breath, to steady your knees, to find your way forward without him.

our garden will be so empty this spring. the whole landscape is so empty right now. and it will take a good dose of time till we’re breathing deeply again.

i was thinking i’d write an “ode to one exemplary cat,” but for now i might simply point you toward posts from the past: in chronological order (he’s been a recurring character here at the chair over the years) the hunter (2007); starting the goodbye (2010); when the cat comes limping home (2011); and “will he make it home?” (2013).

if you’ve a furry or a feathered or a slippery or a hard-shelled friend, give him or her an extra squeeze today. and listen close to those sounds that animate your day. the silence will break your heart when those blessed little friends are no longer…..

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dear turk, we loved you dearly. as sweet will said when he kissed you goodbye, “thank you.” thank you so very very much. xoxox happy hunting wherever you are. love, all of us.

and to louisey who insisted we needed the little striped farm kitten so willie wouldn’t grow up alone, and to dr. jane whom we adored and who tried to convince us a roaming cat wasn’t such a good idea in the bustling big city but fixed him every time he got into a fix, and to all the friends who’ve loved him, and not minded — alicia! — when he ambled in your back door, and made himself quite at home, despite your trembling fear of all things furry, thank you and thank you for ever and ever amen.

“can we have a day?”

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hand-in-hand with my firstborn

 

willie and bam making willie brussels sprouts ala christmas 2014

side-by-side with my firstborn, all grown.

if i sound insistent, urgent, imperative today, it’s because i am. 

it couldn’t have come at a more ordinary moment. we’d been motoring about the utilitarian landscape, the backroads of suburbia, past big old houses, and strip malls, threading our way through the tangle of morning rush hour. the other car was in the shop, so i was the designated deliverer. i’d dropped one child at the schoolhouse door, the other was about to dive into a day at the courthouse, where he works twice a week, defending the otherwise undefended. i’d just mentioned that i really didn’t mind driving all over creation. didn’t mind the banal scenes out the window. didn’t mind the cold coffee tucked in the holder beside me.

we’d been laughing since the older one leapt into the car — minutes later than we needed to leave, socks not yet on his feet, his coffee cup sloshing. we’d thought we’d be late, as in the little one marked “tardy.” and for a minute there, we were cranky. or at least i was. but then the sockless one got going, got us laughing. the little one practically spit out his oatmeal, he was laughing so hard.

and so it had been for 25 minutes or so. pure straight driving and laughing, and trying not to spit out mouthfuls of oatmeal.

all i’d said was i didn’t mind driving one bit. didn’t mind clocking a good ten miles in a sliver of time when i could have been curled up with coffee and the morning’s news.

and that’s when my firstborn chimed in: “could we have a day when the two of us just bop around all day? a whole day? we just get in the car and go where we go?”

the sentence shot through the air sealed in that car. shot straight from his mouth to my soul.

the request couldn’t have been simpler, purer.

mom, could we clear a long stretch of hours, just one day’s stretch, and could you and me burrow into that sacred cocoon of time, could we savor the hours together? could we stitch together a plain old ordinary day of doing the things we love — just the two of us, in slow time?

right away, i heard and i felt the whole of that question. the layers and layers. a longing i too had long known — to spend an unbroken stretch of time with someone you dearly and deeply love, hearts sealed not by virtue of itinerary but simply by the gift of no one or nothing else getting in the way. because all you want is to be entwined, to travel across the hours, together. because all that matters, really, is proximity of the most soulful kind. is time, shared.

by the end of the day, the question couldn’t have been more profound.

by the end of the day — not more than a few hours later, really — i’d gotten word that a very dear friend had taken a terrible turn. her cancer was running amok. doctors had told her — with a rapidity that left us all breathless — that there was nothing left to do. they’d stop the chemo, they’d send her home.

or they had hoped to, anyway. now, it hardly looks likely.

and that was yesterday. this morning i am getting back in my old station wagon, and i am driving downtown. to a hospital. i am going to say goodbye to the woman who has long been the bravest traveler i know. she crossed the globe all on her own, in a trek that stitched her shattered heart stronger than ever, in a trek that taught her thousands of lessons i’ll never know. my friend is blond, naturally so, and as she glided through the dirt-packed roads of africa, then india, and china, and bali, she cut the most exotic figure. she laughed, the deepest soulful laugh, whenever she talked about how the children had flocked to her, stroked her hair, this otherworldly creature who’d dropped into their midst. she loved being surrounded by children, my friend who never birthed her own. my friend who stood beside me at my wedding. my friend who drove me to the hospital the night my bleeding would not stop. my friend who over the years learned the ways of indigenous wise women, and who once, on the eve of my own awful surgery, wafted me head to toe, heart to womb, with the smoke and the incense of the bundle of sage she pulled from her satchel, her medicine bag.

this is the second time in six months, i am saying goodbye to a blessed and beloved friend.

i know how both would answer the question: “can we just have a day?”

the answer, the imperative, is this: seize the day. seize it now. make each hour holy. do not allow the hour to fritter away, charred bits of time, lost to petty and insignificant slights.

can we just have a day?

can we just have a day to seal our hearts, to savor the joy, the truth, before it’s tugged away from us? can we revel in each other’s laughter? can we find the delight as we look out at the world passing by? can we taste deliciousness, taste the whole of it? can we dive deep into the well of each other’s company, each other’s undying love?

i can hear my friends now, both reaching up from their hours of shallow and shallower breathing, i can see the look in their eyes, the insistence, the impatience: seize the day, seize the hour or minute. seize the time that is yours. and be guided only by love. pure and simple.

please, take this day. and make it holy, pure and simple.

please whisper prayers for safe-keeping for my beautiful friend. please please, hold her in all the light you can muster……

the courage to come back. one last time.

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

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

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

By Barbara Mahany

Most of all, it took courage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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