Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chosen for a Reason.

A soldier starting his deployment with Chosen in the spring of 2007 had roughly a one-in-two chance of getting killed or wounded before the end of his tour. 

He was the one who broke his arm, has scars in both eyebrows and split his lower lip wide open. As a teenager he ripped the cartilage of his nose apart and as a young adult managed to shoot himself in the knee. So when my little brother announced he was enlisting, I was sure it was a mistake.

But it wasn’t. And then he was gone. 

He left a boy, awkward and proud. Not sure where he would be sent, we hoped for one and dreaded another. One of Airborne’s Chosen he was dispatched to the worst that Afghanistan could offer, his fractured missives giving us a glimpse into a place and a horror we couldn’t fully grasp. Bella, Ranch House, Wanat. Places we would never see and that he would never forget. He came back wearing battle-weary fatigues and steel wristbands bearing the names of fallen friends. Dates and images engraved in his memory.

We were all besieged in the last months of his deployment, each day dragging into the next. A summer under fire. So close to home and yet so far away, his notes relaying the anxiousness that permeated their days. Waiting to be attacked. To fight. To come home. Hit in the final days of his tour, he stayed to fight alongside a family fused by the bonds of war, refusing to leave until those that remained left as they had arrived – as one.

My husband calmed the storm, assuring me that he would be home soon. And suddenly he was. But instead of a hero’s return, he came quietly in the night traveling halfway around the world to rescue me from my own loss. I watched as my children clung to the spark of light that came with him, his boyish humor still embedded within the man he had become. I felt him watching me, the hardened soldier surveying the battlefield. No longer the protector, I became the one watched over.

He drove me back from the funeral home in the dark, the quiet measure of his voice belying the pain of his experience as he prepared me for the days and the months ahead.

“Is this the same?”

He left a boy, but returned a man. I knew what he had seen, what he had suffered, but I would never truly know what they had all left behind in that place. I needed to know whether the man beside me was the soldier who had lived through hell or the little brother that had been there as I grew to love the man I had lost. Or was he both? After everything he had seen and the fallen friends he had grown up and fought beside, recovered, mourned and vowed never to forget, he turned and looked at me for the first time in that long, lonely car ride.

“No. This is family.”

He left to fight for something far greater than all of us. He came home to fight for me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fishing for Signs of Life.

I have never wanted a pool boy as much as I do at this very moment. 

That’s right, I said it. So let’s just spend a second or two indulging this little fantasy, shall we? Hours spent lounging poolside in a bikini that you have worked all winter long to squeeze into. Frothy liquid concoction, high-powered sunblock and summer’s must-read release on the side table. A not-too-perfect man to apply lotion to those hard-to-reach spots.


So, you can keep that version because I want a pool boy so that he can actually tend the pool. Like right now. Because I am more than a little concerned that if I fall in I might accidentally come in contact with it. And by it I mean the swollen lizard that is frozen in a grotesque pirouette at the bottom.

Did it not see the mouse? What about the other mouse? The tarantula that was sent flying over the wall? (Don’t judge me – it was early so the odds are slim that anyone was walking down the sidewalk. And for those of you keeping count I can now say that I have, in fact, used the shovel.)

It’s not that I am squeamish. I’m not. Any scorpion, cockroach, millipede or centipede that might consider crawling in usually ends up on the wrong end of my Swiffer, and my husband was willing to bet on me if “Survivor” was ever gutsy enough to drop contestants at one of the poles. It’s just that there is no one on whom to foist the task of recovering this slimy little creature.

Something inconvenient, expensive or beyond either my physical or technical capabilities has continually interrupted the already disrupted cadence of our lives. Like the broken garage door opener that left us stranded outside. Or the fire alarm hard wired into the ceiling and repeatedly short circuiting, well out of reach even from ladder’s highest step. The burnt out TV light bulb was an unpleasant drama that stretched for weeks. Plugged toilets, jammed garbage disposals, replacement refrigerator filters and car problems. Small creatures at the bottom of the pool.

When the sun sinks and the garage doors open on our street, it reminds me of a secret society meeting. The rolling wheels of trash cans a signal that a meeting has been called and garden sheers, leaf blowers and oil pans are the instruments of formality. They search for hammers before disappearing back into their houses to hang pictures that have waited too long to be hung. They return to carry trash bags to the curb and I wonder how many small creatures are inside. I notice the recycled boxes of replacement filters, new appliances and furniture “some assembly required.” I see their irritation and I hear the invisible, frustrated and weary voices that sent them out here.

They think they know frustration and weariness. But they are not standing here angrily fishing for signs of life.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

No Man Left Behind.

If we move, what if all of my stuffies don’t fit in the car?

Mommy won’t be devastated, that’s what if.

At last count, my daughter had exactly 237 stuffed animals and dolls. Bunnies and kitties categorically outnumber all others and a well-loved and formerly cashmere-soft bunny we found for her first Christmas reigns supreme, but each of these little friends matters.

When one goes missing a man-, er, stuffy-hunt is unavoidable. (I still hear about the unicorn and that one disappeared almost a year ago.) Trying to make room for the holiday season, I quietly removed a few from the bottom of the pile. She hadn’t played with them in months, but an all-points bulletin was issued by morning.  

The point is she knows each one. And judging by the gravity of expression and tone, she is ready to go to the mat on their behalf.

I had hesitated bringing up the idea of moving. The more that people had tried to remove us from the pain with the suggestion that we leave and never look back, the deeper my heels had sunk. We needed to stay – this was our home. Their life, our life, with him was encased in these walls and I hoped desperately that even at their young ages being in this house would ingrain those memories. The overwhelming need to keep him alive for them kept me from leaving the pain of his death behind.

As time passed the cold, hollow emptiness of each hallway and corner gradually gave way, laughter replacing tears. “Remember when Daddy was standing right here and his voice sounded funny from the balloons and we were laughing?” “I remember when Daddy was stinky and he jumped in the pool with his clothes!”

Staying was the right choice, and it was the only choice to make. But now that we have absorbed every memory in these walls and learned to laugh again, there is a spark of energy and excitement in the air. The possibility that we could start fresh in a new place has made us all wonder.  What if?

237 stuffies would apparently come along for the ride, that’s what if.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Under Pressure.

Freddy Mercury has had my ear all week. If a guy is going to sing to me, I’d rather he not be in a wickedly flared jumpsuit open to his navel and erupting in chest hair. But Freddy it is and Freddy it has been all week. And he hasn’t even mixed up the play list. 

Under Pressure, indeed.

As a kid, I loved the movie “Raise the Titanic.” I actually thought it was true, a bubble my father waited a little while to burst. I wanted to see the ship that had sunk so far and was raised again, irrevocably damaged but strong enough to complete its original journey. The tension as the submersibles slowly descended miles into the dark, some not surviving the water’s insurmountable pressure. I have been enthralled by the unsinkable ship ever since.

My son is reading a storybook that takes place on the Titanic. I popped the bubble right away when he asked if we could go and see it. His response was immediate and matter of fact. “Why don’t they go and get it?” I explained things like water pressure, broken hulls and disintegration. “Why can’t someone fix it?”

Because something that has sunk that far and suffered that much damage can’t be brought back.

But what if it could? My recognition of water’s power – that it could be beautiful and terrifying, soothing and vengeful – began with that movie. But what riveted me was the idea that there was still hope. That this beautiful, impenetrable and defiant vessel could emerge from her watery grave.

We live rapid-fire lives, with careers that demand no less than 60-hour work weeks enabled by immediate and constant access we both provide and demand. To expose our children to a future with no limits, we overwhelm them with activities and expectations. We are pushed and pulled by families, personal passions, careers and bills. We are a pressure-hungry, pressure-driven species.

The intensity of before seems so trivial now that I am viewing it through the intensity of after.

Loss crushed us beneath its weight and then returned like waves that randomly crash on a reef before settling into a rhythmic ebb and flow. It’s as though I have been existing under water, my surroundings muffled and emotional pressure crippling me. Breaking the surface, I float until life returns in spades.  

I am still riveted by the hope that something so irrevocably damaged can emerge from the depths, wearing her wounds with pride as she continues to move forward. I am driven because I know it is possible.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blown Tires.

You aren’t paying attention. What are you going to do when you get a flat?

Call you, of course. Except that I can’t call you, which is why I am in bike maintenance for dummies class. In cream cargo capris and a white T. Not smart, considering that the next 60 minutes will cover lubing, degreasing, repairing and inflating. 

I am here because I am now the sole owner of a garage filled with bikes and bike parts, tubes and tires, canisters filled with suspicious looking lubricants, pieces of chain, racks and pumps. We have road bikes, mountain bikes, trainer bikes, BMX bikes and tagalongs. And an unusually high number of zip ties.

I once went looking for a Phillips head and inner tubes erupted like trapped snakes from a drawer. Tucked at the top of a hallway cupboard I discovered every worn, broken and sweat-soaked helmet my husband had ever owned. He had 37 cycling jerseys hanging in the closet, outnumbered only by race and cycling t-shirts. Two drawers filled with sleeve and leg warmers, chamois shorts and bibs, skull caps and gloves, rain gear and socks. I found race medals in drawers throughout the house and his Camelbak insert in the freezer. An orderly stack of number plates in a garage cupboard. Bag balm in the medicine cabinet.

Suggesting he pick up a hobby seemed like a good idea at the time.

In less than five minutes, the instructor has deflated, re-inflated and checked for leaks and holes the tires on two entirely different bikes, tossing out references to tire wrenches, purple something and white lightning, lining the rims, pinch flats and dollar bills. Maybe I could just get the number for the American Bicycling Association’s roadside service?

No, because he loved his bicycles and so does his son. And I’ve seen the same glint in my daughter’s eyes now that she is riding on two wheels. It’s why I spend Monday nights at a dusty track, why I laugh when my son tells me that he prefers to ride in the dirt because “it feels good,” and why I avoided teaching my daughter how to ride only because I should have been watching him do it.

It’s why I’ll be sitting in my living room with a dirty tire long after my kids are in bed trying to figure out what the instructor just did.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Pipes will Always Call.

A bowl of peanuts wrapped in paper-thin skins reminds me of my grandfather, his swollen knuckles and rough hands a reflection of the hard life he lived. The smell of a pipe is always followed by an echo of the wet cough that ultimately took my other grandfather’s life. Swedish Fish bring back images of summertime and walking with cousins to the corner store for penny candies.
Peanuts, pipes and penny candies.

This week we watched a remarkable young man receive the Eagle Scout distinction from the Boy Scouts of America. A year ago, I knew nothing about scouting except that it was time consuming and therefore I wanted nothing to do with it. Our schedule was already stretched beyond capacity. So, when I was approached to be on the receiving end of an Eagle Scout project, I didn’t realize what it entailed. I now know it means a great deal and the formality of the evening made that clear.
I expected to celebrate a young man’s achievement. I did not expect bagpipes. I was not prepared for bagpipes.

Funerals steeped in formality are breathtaking. Beautiful expressions of sorrow and pride, with rigid formations of uniformed peers honoring one lost from their ranks. The flag folded with precision and presented on bent knee. Shots fired in salute. The cry of the bagpipes.
The melancholy wailing begins in awkward loneliness and swells in celebration and grief, a sound that fills your soul and moves you to want to become something more than you are at that very moment. For a widow, it is something entirely more painful and enduring. Like a stain, it lingers in your memory long after you leave the black dress, wreaths and dress uniforms behind, a constant reminder of what has been lost.

I don’t know why I turned to my son when the bagpipes began. The flash of pain crossed his face and vanished so quickly that it almost wasn’t there, and in that moment I realized that he had heard the pipes only once before. On a day when there was no escaping the depth and finality of our loss. As much as the sound has left an indelible mark on my soul it has left an even deeper one on my children.

I knelt down and whispered as he reached for my hand – “Never forget. Daddy will always live here in your heart.” I pulled him close and covered his racing heart as the pipes swelled inside mine.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Still Breathing.

Remember – don’t forget to breathe.
The boy standing chest deep in front of me has had a smile the size of the Grand Canyon since I arrived and if I wasn’t utterly committed to this, I would offer to remove it for him. This is exactly the reason that, for most of my life, the only use I have found for a bathing suit has combined lounging in the sun with a good book.
And yet, here I am. Cold, wet and slightly irritated at the man-boy that happens to be in charge at this very moment.  Don’t forget to breathe. As if I could possibly forget.
I blame this on my husband and while my own personal jury is still out as to whether or not he is looking down from somewhere, I do know this. If he is watching, he is probably kicking back on some cloud with his trademark grin and tossing back a cold microbrew. (That’s right, my heaven serves beer.) Standing here in this pool preparing to propel myself through the water with grace – and by that I do not mean the frothing mass that you see on the Discovery Channel when crocodiles descend on their prey – is on the long list of things I am now learning to do now that he is gone.
To be fair, he is not entirely at fault. My ability to sink like a rock has been cultivated from an early age. My childhood was spent above the Arctic Circle and unless you had an interest in hypothermia, there wasn’t a need to take a dip in the ocean. By the time I landed in warmer climes I had reached those awkward teenage years when wearing a bathing suit had the potential to permanently scar your psyche. Worse yet was the fear that you might earn the unfortunate nickname “Flounder” because that was exactly what you did while wearing that bathing suit. Almost exclusively, I managed to avoid pool activities throughout my entire high school career. Don’t ask how – you really don’t want to know.
But now that my own personal lifeguard is no longer in residence, learning to swim has landed at the top of the must-do list. I should be able to fish my children out of the pool if necessary, not the other way around. There is also that pesky never-shrink-from-a-challenge character flaw of mine. One friend has suggested we tackle a sprint triathlon (I am pretty sure that “flounder” is not a race category option) and yet another is ready to put money down that I will find a way to wriggle out.
Putting on this lycra suit – designed to keep everything in, but only if you have the agility, strength and willpower to get your body into it in the first place – was both mortifying and liberating. For me, swimming lessons are the wide-awake equivalent of the dream that you are standing naked in front of high school assembly. Except that right now I am not dreaming and, let’s be honest, when you are in a bathing suit you might as well be wearing nothing at all.  
But with the suit, I also pulled on something else. Like Batman when he dons the cape, except that he has all sorts of fancy gadgets and toys and all I have is a faded beach towel.
Putting on this suit and getting into this pool was something bigger – another step in the reinvention of me. A reminder that I am still alive, that there are so many doors I haven’t yet opened, and that I don’t back down. It was also a reminder that the reason he and I meshed so perfectly was because we both shared the same passion for life. Yes, he would be laughing at me right now. I can almost hear him. But he would also be challenging me, not just to dive headfirst into something new and daunting but to rise above it and succeed. His approach to life? Go big or stay home.
So here I am. Cold, wet and secretly relieved to be wearing a suit tight enough to keep everything in place while flailing.       

Saturday, May 7, 2011

No Card Needed

Dear Mom. I love you because your smile sparkles like the moonlight and because your hair is beautiful like the stars. Love Spencer
Hallmark might want to keep an eye on my son.
He is only 7, but how many grown men would come up with something this good? And, even if they did, few could match the purity carefully written in the neatest letters a first-grader can muster. It is hard not to tell everyone – I admit, I rushed to share with my Facebook friends right away – that it was my son, without any well-meant adult guidance, who wrote this.
But, it wasn’t the card that made me pause when it tumbled out of a dirty backpack along with the tattered remnants of the school day. As I read it I realized that this is the first Mother’s Day that my children truly understand who I am, who we are, where we have been and where we are going.
When my son was born, Mother’s Day became expensive and expected. The typical dinner or lunch at a restaurant filled with extended families, flowers and a gift. All too often, more money was spent on that day than I would have preferred and when I looked at the tables around us where frustrations were building and children, frankly, only wanted to be at home playing, I realized that I wasn’t really enjoying Mother’s Day. Why couldn’t I just get a nap and four hours of solitude?
Then my daughter arrived and the day’s importance multiplied. By then the glow of new parenthood had dulled. My husband still went above and beyond, but something had changed. We had always believed that what mattered most was our time together and, while gifts and cards were nice, they really didn’t define who we were as a mother, a father and a family.
When your children are young, birthdays and Mother’s Days are defined by someone else. Whatever is planned or bought for Happy “fill-in-the-blank”-days is a guided process. But as they grow those three little words – Happy Mother’s Day – begin to have meaning. They start to understand who you are, and at the same time you begin to understand who you are as a woman, a wife and a mother.
To be blunt, I have not enjoyed the second weekend in May for the last several years. Or birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, Valentine’s or any other of those days that are inescapable. Mother’s Day has given me a particularly sour taste.
Exactly why I dislike it could be analyzed and dissected any number of ways. My motherhood is deferred to those with seniority and while others celebrate their yearly holiday from motherhood with pedicures, flowers, shopping trips and well-deserved naps, I am greeted with an uncomfortable anger. None of those things mattered when someone was here to offer them, and really they don’t matter to me now. It is simply that the person who made me a mother, and who celebrated me as one, isn’t here. And yet his absence has shown me how strong I can be, both as a woman and as a mother.
Those breathtakingly simple words in a handmade card Dali himself would find beautiful reminded me of something I have always known but that was somehow lost in the debris following my husband’s death.
Motherhood isn’t celebrated on one day – it is in every first word, skinned knee, late-night cough, uneaten dinner, unexpected hug, abstract crayon drawing and “love you, Mom!” Motherhood is not simple, and it is not easy. But it is beautiful, powerful and rewarding. And, as much as motherhood defines you, you define motherhood.
Sometimes it takes the unconditional love of a child who feels safe, loved and free to remind you that motherhood is celebrated every day. No card needed.