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Tag: tender heart

the sharp edge of vulnerability: a hard look at love

OR waiting room

once those double doors swing open, and the last thing you see is the back of the head of the someone you love, flat on a surgical cart, a bag of clear fluids flowing into a tube into a vein in the arm you’ve held a thousand thousand times, it’s impossible not to feel your knees go a little bit weak. as if the wind has just been whooshed out of them.

so it happened this week. when someone i love, someone i will always love and have loved for more than half of my life, was wheeled off to a surgery that would take less than an hour — though time barely enters the equation when love and goodbye and surgical blades are stirred in the mix.

you surrender. submit to the forces of medicine. pray the surgeon had a good night’s sleep, and a sturdy bowl of oatmeal besides. but mostly, i was washed over in a sense of how precious is every last filament and fiber that is the substance of that someone whose voice, whose story, whose dreams and heartaches i know by heart. i was washed over in knowing i would stand in the way of anything — any thing — that stood to hurt that sweet blessed soul. i found myself picturing him as a young child, how tenderly i would have cared for him, long before knowing he’d become the man to whom i’d wed my life. i leapt forward through time, pictured the thousand frames of moments as he and i have carved this long path that is ours now. pictured the hard choices we’ve made. the moments we’ve wept in pure joy. the hours when silence marked the hard negotiation of the heart and the soul, when humility and a willingness to soften might have been the only thing that saved us, allowed us to move forward again, the pas de deux of a promise made, and promise kept, over and over.

surgery does that. the sharp edge of the scalpel soon to be put to this person you love. waiting rooms too. you sit, fueled on old coffee and cable TV, absorbing snippets of anguish and blessed relief all around you. “fatty growth, totally benign,” you hear from two seats away. the surgeon pulling off his blue paper surgical cap, the son — or the husband, or merely a very close friend; biographies are absent here and don’t much matter, not really — collapsing into the not-so-plush back of his chair. “we’re worried,” someone else whispers, loudly enough that you all but nod in unison, a whole chorus of we’re-worried communion. and when at last you get your own good news, the news that it’s over and all is well, a woman with a wrinkled face and tight-curled hair, hollers across the room, “hallelujah!” she beams, rejoicing right with you. then, as you stand up to unlock your knees, grab your coat and your cold coffee, she closes the moment with this benediction, “have a blessed rest of your day.” and so you stop to kneel down beside her. to echo her prayer in your very own whisper.

love is the thing that saturates every cell of who you are, especially when long cold corridors and locked double doors stand between you and the someone you love. you think hard about the fragile hold you have on this thing called your life. you begin to scan the hours, consider how deeply you take it for granted that morning will come, sheets will be thrown back and the rhythms of day after day will begin all over again.

the sharp edge of love is worth pausing to consider. just yesterday, as i was turning pages in a book, i came across this one declarative sentence: “what she did best was love people.” it prompted me to ask, without pause, in our one simple life is it enough to love and love well?

candlelight dinneri thought of that question the whole rest of the day — as i put drops in the eye of the someone i love. as we turned out the lights, and kindled the wicks when dinnertime came, because lights were too bright, lights made it hurt. i thought of that question as i tucked him under the covers, slow-cooked a fine dinner, and snipped and gathered red-berried stems into the old cracked pitcher on the kitchen table. because yesterday i was reminded sharply and in no uncertain terms what a treasure it is to love someone your whole life long, and to love that someone as well as you possibly can.

what does it mean to you to love well? and how did you learn?

tables turned…

ice puppet

since tuesday, i’ve had a fever. i’ve been achy all over, and moving slow as slow can be and still qualify as movement.

i’ve even taken to my mattress a couple afternoons, which — around here — is unheard of. but the most amazing thing unfolded one of those afternoons, the first one when i was stretched out and aching and hotter than hot. a young lad came to my bedside and insisted he was the fever fixer. he had a plan, he said, and he set out to execute.

from down the stairs and around the bend, i heard the klunk of ice cubes being procured. i heard the linen closet squeaking open. i heard the old metal tray being pulled from where we store those sorts of things. and then i heard the hobbling sound of my sweet boy — the one with one leg in a brace and one arm in a cast — i heard him climbing the stairs.

he appeared at my bedside on that hot july afternoon bearing a tray that held a dripping wet washcloth, a cup of ice chips and an apple tucked pertly in a white souffle cup. before i could say a word, he slipped his cast-less hand into the puppet of a washcloth, one of those terry-towel hand puppets meant to make bath time for little ones a theater of suds.

this particular washcloth, the one that was always his favorite, happens to be a hippo. so my bedside attendant stretched wide the hippo’s mouth, grabbed two cubes of ice, and proceeded to anoint my forehead in this icy, dripping bath. next, he reached for my wrists, and up and down my arms and legs. “you’ll be okay,” were the only words he whispered the whole long while. over and over, he repeated: “you’ll be okay,” as if the words alone were incantations, as if a prayer aloud.

a few minutes into this anointing of the sick, i finally mustered the breath to ask: “who taught you this?”

his answer: “you.”

i felt a tear roll down my cheek. it’s true, yes, that a wet washcloth applied to fevered brow has long been wielded here for curative effect. and ice chips in a cup, often dripped with honey, has long been an apothecary staple in this old house. but never in my life have i been as gentle, as determined, as tender as that boy was to me. the tenderness he learned from his papa. of that i’m certain. i, too, am learning tenderness — all these years later — from my sweet boy’s papa. it’s a lesson without end.

while the icy rinse didn’t make the fever go away, it decidedly worked wonders. for days now, my sweet boy has attended me with his hippo and his ice cubes. i asked him amid one of the icy rubdowns if he’d ever thought of being a doctor or a nurse, because he certainly had the healer’s touch. nope, said he, explaining, “i don’t like blood, and i’m not good at science.”

the marvel here is that we often think the long nights we’ve spent on bathroom floors with a retching or a fevered child, the midnight hours when we’re the ones knocking ice cubes from the freezer, we think of those, sometimes, as invisible hours, times that heed no notice. what we might not realize is that in that transactional moment, when ice practically sizzles on a fevered brow, when a kid who’s so sick he can barely open his droopy lids lets us slip an ice chip to his tongue, what we’re doing is so much more than knocking back a fever. we are quietly, and without folderol, teaching something sacred to the essence of being human. maybe fevers and flus were invented for the simple purpose of one someone being invited to try to heal another.

the marvel here — the reminder that came in dripping ice cubes this week — is that there is a life-and-death curriculum unfurling here in the quiet of our humdrum little lives. our whole life long we are teaching and learning that most magnificent of golden rules: love as you would be loved.

not a minute is wasted. not a lesson lost. little folk and big folk alike are paying attention, our hearts attuned to those gifts, those moments, that lift us, inch by inch, to a higher plane. we love, and so we are loved in kind.

i remembered this week that i am ever teaching, and lessons are ever being learned, even when i don’t think a single soul notices, nor pays attention. so i’d best try to live as tenderly, as full of heart, as my sweet child is teaching me to be.

that kid and his ice cubes, they more than did their job. in fact, they melted me. and my fever, too.

what lessons in kindness and tenderness have molded you, stretched you, carried you to a higher, sweeter plane?

boy, becoming…

teddy fitting room 13

he is trying it on, my boy in the three-way mirror. trying on what comes next: the gulch between boyhood and manhood. the years when certain nicknames are dropped and stuffed bears get tucked away in shadowed boxes. the years when bedtime comes later and later, long after mama’s in dreamland. the years when testing the fates begins to occur. the years when it all — sometimes — comes crashing deep down inside.

my little one is no longer. he’s 13 today. and while the statute of limitations on that tender name — “little one” — has worn out its welcome, i feel the urge to mark the moment here at the chair with a swift look back at my muse, the one whose moments i captured here where words are the butterfly net, here where the tenderest heart took hold in the cracks between letters.

my little one was all of five when the chair first pulled up to the table. he was a kindergartener who hadn’t quite figured out how to hold onto a pencil. or tie a shoe. or string all the slashes and blobs on the page into what might be called words. he climbed into bed, back in those days, outfitted for battle, slaying monsters with light sabers — all while he slept, apparently.

he went off to first grade here at the chair, armed with red hearts in his little jeans pocket. i kept one, too. mine was in my pocket, and all day long through the torturous hours of school, we squeezed on our wee little hearts, a morse code of the very best kind — “i love you.” “i miss you.” “i’m right here.”– were the messages we squeezed back and forth.

my little one and i went for moon walks. we gazed at the stars. and i captured his wonder.

captured his questions too, his questions without answers. “mama, what will happen when i die? will you die? will daddy die? who will die first?” the rat-a-tat-tat of truth-seeking missiles.

over time, and once he realized the world beyond his doorstep was occasionally reading along, he issued a declaration: i wasn’t allowed to write of his wisdoms and ponderings and wobbles and blips without first submitting draft form before the committee of one — the committee of T. he would read, rule, issue edict: publish or no.

what i’ve found — in that magical playground that is the stringing of alphabet letters into words into sentences into thinking out loud — is that the surest way to discover nooks and crannies in your own heart, and in the heart of the one you attempt to capture in brush strokes and shadings — not unlike the art student sketching the pose of the deftly-draped model in the drawing studio — is to circle back, again and again over the years, to put it to paper, to trace over and over again the outlines, the depths and the illuminations. to stand back over the years, and to see what you’d not seen on first go-around. to hold in your hand the faintest yet sharpest glimpse of the child who populates your hours, your heart, your deepest imagination.

to fall in love all over again is a gift to whomever beholds it. i fell in love, over and over, holding my little one up to the light. and now, my little one is at the brink of something quite big: he’s adding a “teen” to his numbers.

thirteen soft august eighths ago, i was perched in a hospital bed, cradling my very own miracle. the babe who defeated all odds — at every step of the odyssey, from conception to birth canal. i remember how keenly i studied him. his delivery had had a few bumps, the sort that can steal your sweet dream and turn it into a nightmare. in the flash of an instant. in a heartbeat skipped.

prayer — and the mightiest push that ever there was — delivered him. a babe in my arms at 44-and-3/4 years. take that, doctors (and actuarial tables) who swore it would never happen!

all these years, that notion of something outrageous, the blessing of beating the odds, it’s held me tight in its focus. i’ve a gift, we’ve a gift, all of us who melt at the tender words that ooze from that heart, or the way he rubs circles soft on your back. he’s a gift, the boy now crossing the great gulch to manhood. here’s praying we draw on all of our wisdom, and acres of love, to guide him safe to the other side.

bless you, sweet T. happy birthday. and with all of my heart, thank you. thank you for coming along….

one of the blessings of having typed here all these years, is that i’ve managed to capture a string of word snapshots: my boys growing up. and they are among the most precious treasures i know — the boys, certainly, but also the snapshots. i never set out to frame these moments in time, but that’s what’s happened. and it’s why i back-up and back-up. why i wish i could carve these in stone, so no cyber-thief, no computer blow-up, could ever steal these fragments of my heart. 

but since you don’t come to listen to me ooze about my beautiful boy, i thought i’d leave a little birthday present for anyone interested in the art of paying attention. here’s a glorious passage from robert bly, observing a caterpillar. it’s so exquisite in its powers of focus and concentration, i just thought i’d leave it out on the table — a morsel in words — for your delight. savor.

A Caterpillar on the Desk

by Robert Bly

           Lifting my coffee cup, I notice a caterpillar crawling over my sheet of ten-cent airmail stamps. The head is black as a Chinese box. Nine soft accordions follow it around, with a waving motion, like a flabby mountain. Skinny brushes used to clean pop bottles rise from some of its shoulders. As I pick up the sheet of stamps, the caterpillar advances around and around the edge, and I see his feet: three pairs under the head, four spongelike pairs under the middle body, and two final pairs at the tip, pink as a puppy’s hind legs. As he walks, he rears, six pairs of legs off the stamp, waving around the air! One of the sponge pairs, and the last two tail pairs, the reserve feet, hold on anxiously. It is the first of September. The leaf shadows are less ferocious on the notebook cover. A man accepts his failures more easily-or perhaps summer’s insanity is gone? A man notices ordinary earth, scorned in July, with affection, as he settles down to his daily work, to use stamps.

“A Caterpillar on the Desk” by Robert Bly, from The Morning Glory. © Harper & Row, 1975. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

and what such magnificent observations have you made today?

how you say?

the index card, it turns out, is a benevolent slip of paper. scratch that; make it “essential.” the index card, goshdarnit, is wholly and utterly, upside down and sideways, an essential slip of paper.

singular or plural, the card — all alone, or in a stack — is not merely one hot commodity at our house this week.

it is, they are, three days into this experiment in trans-atlantic comradeship, our deeply-held lifeline, our saving grace, the very bridge between blank stares, jet-lagged silence, flat-out confusion, and bumbled attempts at groping for the missing word.

were it not for those blank-faced 3-by-5’s, we might still be standing by the fridge, the cold air swooshing out, trying to figure out if our little german friend was asking for the milk (Milch) or the juice (Saft). or, perhaps, all he wants is one shiny red apple (glänzender roter Apfel).

see how tangled this might make you?

for months now, ever since the german teacher sent home a note asking if anyone had a spare bedroom, or an extra place at the table, for a little german friend, our new-to-german fifth grader, a boy who just this school year found himself without a brother in the house, has been counting down the days, till his occasional penpal arrived from Deutschland.

and arrive he did the other afternoon, as that great blue-and-golden bird, the lufthansa 747 glided onto the runway, and unfurled our little friend.

he marched through customs, backpack on his slender shoulders, through the swinging doors and straight into our hearts, my little one’s and mine.

he is blond and sweet and oh-so-shy. he is not so certain of his english words, and we are nearly clueless when it comes to german. he giggles and his cheeks turn pink as i try to figure out the words, try hard to use the sounds that he uses when he says what’s what — time and time and time again.

so no wonder, then, that i have grown quite fond of my ever-dwindling stack of index cards, and pen and sticky tape.

before i’ve even bumped into a noun, i am grabbing for my card and pen, scribbling english, and awaiting its german twin.

thus, two tongue-tied boys and i, we’ve turned this house into a veritable post-it board, with white cards dangling from every surface, candlestick and knob. we’ve slapped a name on everything from OJ carton (remember now, that’s the Saft) to the morning’s newspaper (Zeitung).

it is a bit clumsy, of course, and makes for conversation interruptus. but, all in all, it works. and we are getting along, if not smoothly, well then beautifully and bumpily.

it is quite a gift (one that’s landed in our laps), we’ve swiftly discovered, to open up our house to a little lad from far away. it stretches the human heart in ways this world so deeply needs.

i shouldn’t be surprised to find that, yet again, my mama-hen instincts have kicked into high overdrive. i lie awake at night worrying about the little fellow. listening hard for any peep. i dash to the grocery store to fill the bins with everything i’ve figured out he likes (yes, salami, chocolate, and apples; no, to ham, bananas, raisins). and i ask him endlessly if he is tired (müde), hungry (hungrig), and Gut geschlafen (did he sleep well)?

i am, after two nearly sleepless nights, considering a simple cure for all the world’s ills: what if we left it to the mothers to construct a paradigm for peace?

what if we all reached our chubby hands into some global hat, and plucked out the names of other mother’s children? what if we took them in, for a week or two at a time, and felt the thump in our hearts as we worried over them, as we fed them, and smoothed their sheets?

what if we all struggled to not only learn each other’s words, but also to see the world through each other’s eyes? what if, deep in the dark of night, we heard a child whimper, a child who was not our own? what if we tore off our bedsheets and stumbled to where that sound came from, and pulled someone else’s sleepy child’s head into our own tender ample arms?

what if we loved each other’s children as if they were our own?

might that not glue this shattered globe back into the solid whole that it was meant to be?

i am thinking much about that as i stumble my way through these 10 clumsily translated days.

my little one has found a friend, one who doesn’t speak in paragraphs or even sentences at a time. but one who does speak the universal language of the soccer ball and smile.

and i’ve found, i do believe, an ancient and timeless truth: love a child, any child, and the keys to heaven belong to you.

even if that needs be scribbled on a humble index card —  liebe ein Kind, jedes Kind, und die Schlüssel zum Himmel gehöre zu dir.

have you ever found yourself feeling tender of the heart toward someone else’s holy blessed child?

a season for soooooo sorry

it was more or less the usual bumbling that comes when a boy and a backpack are tumbled together. things that are supposed to get stuffed inside, aren’t. where they go, nobody knows.

only thing was, the clock chimed eight as we discovered the spelling list was nowhere to be had. which led to the discovery that the whole dang homework folder was missing in action. which led to the theorem, posited by young boy, that since none of the above was anywhere in this old house, it must be somewhere in the depths of his school desk. without prompting, he confessed: “it’s pretty messy, i probably couldn’t find it.”

which led to the low moaning rumble that sometimes comes from a motherly creature when she is trying to decide whether to yank out a clump of her very own hair, or grab the car keys and hope against hope that one of the nice janitors will wander with mop and bucket past the schoolhouse door, just as she and her little one are banging away on the glass.

not willing to spare any more of my curly white locks (okay, so maybe they’re silver), we went with the latter, the option with keys. flew through the door, into the wagon, and sputtered along till we got to the nearly-dark school.

from the start, at least one of us knew deep inside that this was an exercise in utter futility. but we banged on the glass anyway. it makes for a loud impression when hoping to teach that one oughtn’t race out the school door without packing essentials.

alas, no janitor. no mop and no bucket. just us banging and hoping. soon watching hope whirl down the drain, and turning at last back toward the curb and the futile-mobile.

once home, i told the little one to sit down with a pencil and try hard as he could to remember the 22 words on the list. or at least four or five.

while he got to work with the pencil, i sat down to dash off a note to the teacher. explaining why the quiz on those words, the one on the morrow, might be a bust.

that’s when a lined sheet of notebook paper came shooshing under the door. i looked down and saw only two words, under the heading, “MY WorDs.”

is that all you could think of? i called to the invisible someone who had shoved it under the door.

“look at it,” the invisible someone called back.

is that all you could remember? i said again, frustration clutching my throat.

“look at it,” said mr. invisible.

and so i did. i picked up the page, and there on the back was a lopsided heart. and another one tucked in a sentence up at the top: “I (heart) you.”

his rumply letters continued: “I am soooooo sorry I’ll make you brekfast and coffe love Ted :)”

be still my lopsided heart.

be still my heart that couldn’t care more for the two extraordinary spellings there in the note.

through tears i leapt up from my chair. chased that irresistible speller straight up the stairs, where i grabbed him and kissed him till he melted to giggles.

then i stood there melting myself.

that he would leap straight to “sorry,” rather than pout or huff ‘n’ puff about how it was only some words, lined up in rows.

that he would hightail it straight through repent, and onto repair–“I’ll make you brekfast and coffe.”
all because of some runaway spelling words…

the child had grasped, without pausing for punctuation, without worry for vowels in absentia, the heart and the soul of atonement, of yom kippur, really, that somber string of breast-beating moments that is launched at sundown tonight.

it is all about actively mending the brokenness. not just whispers of hollow apology, but picking up thread and stitching sanctified wholeness. weave and reweave.

just yesterday i was talking to a wise and wonderful rabbi. we were talking about teshuva, the jewish principle of repentance–repent and repair–the centerpiece of these days of awe, of the day of atonement.

“i have sinned, and for this i am heartily sorry.”

the words of the prayer of contrition of my little-girl days.

catholic or jewish, jewish or catholic–is it not all a great swirl, a soup of humble i’ve-wronged-and-i’ll-right-it?

and it came tumbling in through the crack beneath my door last night, the wise little confessor with the wobbly printing, and the words that couldn’t have been cobbled together in more heart-melting fashion.

brekfast and coffe and sorry and love.

and isn’t this some sweet season of awe, when the 9-year-olds among us can teach as profoundly as all of the rabbis? when the scribbled words on a half-crinkled page of notebook paper can speak to us as loudly as the words of the great books of our ancient traditions?

“I am soooooo sorry I’ll make you brekfast and coffe”
 oh, my most blessed child, you’ve taken my breath straight from my lungs, from my heart, from my whole.

we thought it was spelling words we were missing last night; in fact we found deepest religion, a subject often best taught by the youngest and wisest among us.

the ones whose hearts are, still, tethered to heaven.

may this be a blessed season for sooooo sorry for you and the ones you most love and forgive and forgive…..

dear chair friends, an announcement of sorts: after years of wishing it seems i am about to start cobbling chair sorts of thoughts into columns for my newspaper. only you won’t find them in the pages of the actual paper–not yet anyway–but rather over on the tribune’s website, in a corner called tribYou, under the heading “lessons for life.” my ramblings will find a place there once a week, on one particular day, though that’s not yet been decided. and while it won’t be nearly as intimate and close to my heart as the words that spill here, nor will it be as sacred a circle as the ones who find their way here, it will be something altogether new for a newspaper, and it is borne of the spirit of what we all celebrate here–the knowing that life offers lessons in the everyday, in the wisps of moments and thoughts and unfoldings. i’ll let you know soon as the first one is posted.

but before we go, one question for today: do you have a story to tell about an i’m sorry that wholly took your breath away?