Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Dreams May Come.

Her cheeks are the kind that strange women in grocery stores want to reach out and squeeze, an unwelcome gesture that ranks just behind having dirt rubbed off your face with a saliva-soaked tissue your mother fished out of the depths of her purse. Long eyelashes fan the top of her sunburnt cheeks and her hair is a disheveled mass of honey-brown waves. She smells like peanut butter, strawberries, sunblock and dirty feet, her fingertips stained with marker and paint.

She is perfect.

From the very start my daughter made it clear that she would enter, enjoy and exist in this world on her terms and her terms only. Her fiery independence defines her as much as the sensitive soul it protects, a contrast that we loved as much as it exhausted us. She has his quick laughter and my tempestuous will, his passion for the unexpected and the new and my drive for perfection. She lives deeply in every moment, cascading waves of joy, anger, contentment, love and fear crashing into each other.

My son buried his pain beneath a mantle of responsibility that no child should feel compelled to bear, a silent grief I could not erase. But my daughter’s loss was an open wound, a devastation that bled onto us and consumed us with its anger and its sorrow.

Too exhausted to soothe her pain and blinded by my own I wrapped my arms around her in the dark until uneven sleep claimed us both, arms that gathered her close as she ran screaming into my room in the dead of night. When morning came her tiny hand rested on my cheek and I stared into his laughing eyes framed in my lashes.

She has learned that life can be cruel, and that cruelty can be overcome. In her words I hear my voice, and in her defiance I see mine. Still so small and yet wise beyond her years, in her I see a woman stronger than we dared dream she would be.

But watching her nestled deep in a cocoon of toys, blankets and stuffed animals, I simply dream that she doesn’t need to be so strong.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

After the Storm.

There’s a bead of sweat sneaking down the small of my back, breaking loose from its birthplace between my shoulder blades. The others are threatening to give chase at any moment, which means that I am mere minutes away from my dewy glow turning into a hot, wet mess. 

But I am stuck here for another 15. By then my beady little friends will have long since made their escape, leaving a moist trail down the back of my shirt. And sitting 10 steps away from an Olympic-sized pool is not doing anything to cool my slow boil. 

July’s onset means that temperatures and tempers reach a fevered pitch. Hot enough to tempt the devil – contrary to public opinion he has not gone down to Georgia; he spends his summers right here – the desert sears at the touch. Refreshing pools become warm baths and the eyes of electricians everywhere gleam as air conditioners are pushed beyond their limits. Too hot to go outside and too bored to stay in, children and teenagers stop celebrating summer vacation and join their parents in a silent countdown until school is back in session.

And then come the storms.

The lazy, heavy heat gives way to blue-gray clouds that roll across the sky like wild stallions on a dusty plain. Thunder’s deep bass booms and white flashes pierce the dark sky. Trees whip their branches in a frenzied ritual until the clouds relent and release their assault. In the aftermath the desert comes to life, vibrant pink, yellow and purple splashed against rich hues of green, red and brown.  

A second bead races down my back disappearing into my waistline and I realize that, for the first time, I don’t want the storms to wash away the summer heat because each day draws us closer to the end of this reprieve we have enjoyed. It gave us the chance to step back and slow down. To take stock of where we had come from, what we had been through and where we are headed. Spring melted into summer and with each day we grew healthier, happier.

We had focused on surviving the storm – until the clouds lifted and we were ready to focus on the business of living again.    

Monday, June 27, 2011

Like Cats and Dogs.

“We can’t get a cat – I’m allergic to them.” 

“So am I, but I DON’T care!”

Pets are the great dating equalizer. Dog people like dog people, cat people like cat people. I am really not sure how that first conversation went from awkward introduction to pet preference, but it did and our dogs had their first “date” before we did.

It went like this … his dog bit mine, mine retaliated and I wore an obnoxiously large swatch of bandages he had wrapped around my thumb and forefinger that evening on our actual date. Our dogs hated each other on sight. But by the end of the first year they had made peace and years later when we had to say our first goodbye, the one left behind seemed lost without his other half.

We each brought one dog to the relationship and consummated it with a third. Mine, his and ours. They lived very long lives and when my husband died, we were down to one. We watched the dog’s slow decline from grief and old age until he reached the point of no return and we were ready to say goodbye again.

So, with the exception of a turtle that enjoys living in a cesspool of its own making, we are finally pet free. I don’t have to canvas the yard with rubber gloves and a plastic bag every week, I am no longer spending more money on his food than ours, and time away from the house is not dictated by an old dog’s incontinence.

(Happy dance.)

Before you get your pet-loving panties in a twist, let me point out that I have lived with animals for as long as I can remember. As a child, we had dogs and (I think) a cat. We had a horse, deer, great horned owls and barn owls, raccoons, a hummingbird, porcupines, a skunk named Florabelle and enough snakes to make Medusa’s head spin. After that there were geckos, fish, parakeets, a team of sled dogs, fish of all kinds and an albino hamster named Snowball that succumbed to constipation. In college it was a set of dwarf bunnies that chewed through the arm of my ski jacket and all of my parents’ electrical cords. Yes, the rumors about bunnies are true. After a lifetime of testing the waters of pet ownership, I was ready to commit when I walked into a pungent barn and laid eyes on the reckless and dirty runt of the litter. And then I committed to two more dogs that lived for 15 years and a 250-gallon fish tank that flooded our living room … twice.

Which brings me to my current pet preference of “if-you-bring-an-animal-into-this-house-you-better-have-the-speed-and-agility-of-a-cheetah.” I am officially and indefinitely on pet-vacation. But my children have been campaigning for a replacement. So while my daughter is in one camp and my son firmly entrenched in the other with the outcome undecided, one thing is certain. 

They are going to need that box of rubber gloves.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Spinning Forward.

… dark fruit aromas and flavors of black cherry and ripe plum with light oak influence for a smooth, luxurious texture.   

– 2008 Red Bicyclette® Pinot Noir 

I have two very nice bicycles in the garage. That aren’t going anywhere. My rump, however, has a different plan and before it takes a permanent detour from tight and trim to loose and lumpy I need to take control. And there is nothing like committing to an exhausting outdoor activity in the dead of summer … in Phoenix.

I blame this on my husband. Lance Armstrong. The mid-summer bikini check.

It’s always July when I make a dedicated effort to commit to my bicycle. It’s not that I don’t think about doing this at any other time of the year. It’s just that unless it is priority one on the daily checklist there is not enough of me for a time commitment like that. And when I do, it’s clear that there is no love lost between my bottom half and a bicycle seat.

My husband was the cyclist. I was the runner. Looking back, I should have campaigned for role reversal. My husband's legs looked like they were carved from marble. Mine are the “work-too-hard-have-two-kids-and-this-is-the-best-I-can-do” kind of legs.

He always hoped I would grow to love two wheels as much as he did. For the birth of our son he gave me a powder blue mountain bike. A road bike for our daughter. But after long work weeks, two toddlers and his hours of spinning there simply wasn’t any time left. So the bikes became expensive racks, I stayed a runner and the most time I spent with two wheels was popping the cork on a bottle of Red Bicyclette.

But there is something about July. It isn’t just the images of sinewy legs climbing mountain passes and speeding through pastoral scenes that invade our psyche for the entire month. Cycling represents so much of the life we built together. In it he found a circle of dedicated friends whose common ground was an unquenchable zest for life and adventure. When running pregnant in the summer heat was too much, he set his bike in the house and I spun as we watched the hunt for the yellow jersey unfold.   

July is here again and I am committing – to a bottle of red and a tube of chamois butter.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gone Crazy. Come Back Later.

I live in a very small town in a very big city. It’s like Stepford inside of a New York borough. Everyone knows everyone else. And if they don’t, they’ve heard something about them. And, eventually, you hear things about someone … that ends up being you

Death teaches you a lot about the living. It shows strength and beauty and the resilience of the human spirit. It reveals warts and weaknesses, yours and in others.

I learned quickly that death bleeds far beyond a lifeless body. Fences are torn down and others mended. Strangers become friends, and friends become strangers. I watched and finally understood what it means that death brings out the best, and the worst, in all of us. Until you stand in the vortex, you only hear the words. You don’t truly live them.

The days were filled with names, numbers and offers of help from people I barely knew and, some, not at all. Friends and family embraced each other, recognizing their universal loss and trying to understand the true depth of ours. Magic hands left their invisible touch, feeding the ebb and flow and preparing the house for its moment of grace. Accounts were set up and nameless, selfless donations received. Laughter, tears and the hum of life moved us through the days as an invisible web of support and emotion took form around us.

But in the dead of night I sifted through digital half-truths, a vicious game of telephone played by people hiding behind the anonymity of their screen names. Caught between the fog and fury of loss, I debated what to do. Join the online conversation I had discovered, politely correct the facts and subtly close down the conversation through shame? Or, drive over in my pajamas and hurl tear-laced obscenities for turning my loss into an opportunity for neighborhood stature? 

I should have gotten in the car. The stories would have been worth it.   

Death taught me how to live again, separating the past and the future, strength and weakness, opportunity and challenge, joy and contentment, an exhausted child and a child facing exhaustion far deeper. It taught me that grief is not erased in months or years and that sometimes a broken toy is so much more.

And it taught me that before I run half-naked down the street in a fit of crazy, I need to post it online first. At least then it will be accurate.

Monday, June 20, 2011

20 Minutes to Eternity.

“So, what happened to the dad?”

Any man standing in line – first and alone – waiting to see “Kung Fu Panda 2” should be given a wide berth. No one can like Jack Black that much.

Now before you suggest that he is waiting for someone, let me just point out that we have been standing here for more than 20 minutes. His phone has not rung or buzzed, no one has shouted over to see whether he wants butter or not, and if it takes this long for his companion to make it through the restroom than he really shouldn’t be waiting to sit in one spot for 90 minutes anyway. He is clearly here on his own, mentally rehearsing the right way to break the ice. (I know how hard this can be. This is not the best approach.) If you think I am overly confident let me remind you, again, that I have been standing here for more than 20 minutes. Don’t ask how I know. A blind woman would know.

“He died.”

Cue awkward moment.

My children have been sitting on the floor engrossed in their handheld video games the entire time I have been standing here. They have not squabbled, bickered, run amok or sung and danced in merry abandonment at any point. And for 20 minutes I have been secretly willing that one will shove the other so that I could avoid this.

My husband and I were generally on the same playing field when it came to video games – we did not want our children to become part of the living room furniture. But a mother can only withstand so much.

Note to my husband: if you’d like to discuss this deviation from our parental plan, it will need to wait until we have addressed abandonment, nightmares, general grieving, toilet cleaning, garbage removal, bicycle maintenance, sports (category: all), male adolescence and other similar topics.

Video games have since taught me a lot about children, most importantly that a child’s ability to focus is topic sensitive. If it’s something you don’t want repeated to your in-laws, they heard every word and you can expect it will be shared at the next family gathering. If you want the dirty clothes picked up, it would be just as effective to ask in a language that has been dead for centuries. In other words, if you don’t want them to hear it they will.

Which is why I am standing in front of a man who has just scaled the world’s tallest peak only to find he left his oxygen supply at base camp.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Faded Pictures.

I just miss Daddy so much. I don’t remember being with him. I don’t remember him at all!

My childhood memories are fractured and incomplete like the faded images of a broken film reel. I remember that we lived off a rural road, a beautiful white house with black shutters standing gracefully in the midst of acres of undulating grass. I remember the gravel pathways meandering between flowerbeds rioting in color and the buttery sunshine in my bedroom, the lifeless eyes of the stuffed game in my father’s den and the jar of orphaned buttons in my mother’s craft room. Toadstools in the wet morning grass, a child’s proof that this beautiful, fragile, earthy world stretched beyond what we saw to be real.

In this magical playground my father and I would look for fairy wings, left behind after they danced on the toadstools in the moonlight. In my memories I hear his voice and he is the towering safe haven that every child sees in the man that protects them, nurtures them and guides them. As the years passed we left that magical place behind and I came to know and understand the man that was larger than life as who he had always been. My father.

I often wonder what my children will remember of theirs. Not from the stories told through the years until they are as real as if they happened yesterday. Not the face painstakingly memorized from pictures. Not from the mementos of his life saved in dusty boxes. Not from the traces he left behind in handwritten notes and scattered recordings. 

I wonder what their film reels will hold.  

Will they remember the deep timbre of his laugh and the smile that teased the corner of his lips and erupted in a passion for life that made his death that much more senseless? Will they remember his strength and his love? Will they remember racing to the door when he returned from a long bike ride? Will she remember the messy, lopsided ponytails and Sunday morning snuggles? Will he remember racing around the couch with a football and washable tattoos? Will they remember the tickle of his chin on their necks? Will they remember that last Father’s Day? Will they remember the father he was and that he will always be?

Or will they remember a stone in the grass and balloons in the air?