Wednesday, August 31, 2011

You Had a Good Look.

Watching him swagger through the gate, his little sister half walking, half running to keep up, the image library flips to that very first “first” when the start of school wasn’t just the start of school. It was the start of something new for all of us.

A few short months after his father’s death came his all-important fifth birthday, a moment he had been planning since the day after his fourth. Then the first “after it happened” summer vacation. And then the start of kindergarten, a milestone that children mark in time and another moment when I would stand alone flanked by pairs.

The night before his very first day, we carefully chose the clothes and laid them atop unscuffed shoes. Folders and pencil crayons inside a new backpack and a lunchbox waiting in the fridge. Tucking him into bed, he looked up at me and asked for one thing.

“Mom, I really want a mayo sandwich for lunch on my first day.”

Mother Hubbard’s cupboard was nearly bare and a generous amount of peanut butter and jelly was already holding the last two pieces of bread together. A deal was struck. While he was at school, I would get the necessary supplies. I had a 30-minute window between conference calls. Five minutes there, five minutes back, and 20 minutes to get in and out.

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

We measure loss in tears, cards and passing days, but death’s insidious companion wraps its serpentine fingers around you until you become an empty shell, your senses obliterated and your vision cloudy. Like a medical-induced coma, we move numbingly through each day until the raw edges stop bleeding. I don’t remember the details of the first days, weeks and months. I find messages sent that I don’t remember, pictures taken of days that are cloudy and vague. Featureless faces crowd my memory.

Like the one standing between me and that deli sandwich.

“You had a good look and so I thought I would take a chance. I see that you are not wearing a ring and I thought perhaps you are available and so I thought I would take a chance.”

Tick tock. My tongue went silent while his gained momentum. While he lauded my attributes and took a chance, I seethed inside, angry at the man who should have been with me at the gate that morning. The man who loved the way I looked on a sleepy Sunday morning as much as he admired me in 3.5-inch peep toes. The man who had laughingly promised I would never have to date again. On that first day I realized that was no longer blissfully oblivious.

"You had a good look and you weren’t wearing a ring so I thought I would take a chance. But now I am wondering if perhaps you are taken?”

Staring up at him, my palms gripping the handrail of the cart, I dipped my toe in the dating pool.

“Um, my husband just died?”

And with that I snatched my toe out of the water and watched him back away, arms upraised as though I had just whispered the words “syphilis” or “leprosy” and made a mental note to see if I know a lifeguard. Because this is going to be long and painful and I clearly don’t know how to swim.  

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Choosing Wisely.

“You promised you would be there. Everyone else had a Daddy and Mommy. I had no one!”

It was the final performance of his kindergarten year. Despite everything, I arrived as people began spilling out of the auditorium doors. Long before I found him crumpled on the bench, my tears began falling as I realized that I could not get this moment back and that my work had once again wedged itself into our life. Looking at his tear-stained face, I knew in that moment that everything we had dreamed about had changed.

It had to change. They needed it to change and I wanted it to change.

It had been so simple before. We’d build the house we wanted, not simply buy the one available. We’d have the family we dreamed about, children that would be the best of us and better than us. We’d enjoy the simple things in life and experience the rest it had to offer. We’d enjoy our work, but it would not define us.  

He loved his career, a job that little boys imagine and that others embrace as men. He was invigorated by the challenge, dedicated to the principles and driven by the possibility of change. Each day was one of unknown risks that we both accepted as a reality. But the love he had for his family was deeper than his passion for the job and he easily shed each workday and its trappings.

But where his job posed unknown risks, mine was the one that held the most opportunity.

It was the one that could mean an earlier retirement. It meant no extra jobs for him and more exploration for them. It validated the first degree and the second. It erased student loans and car payments. It was the difference between a yard with a pool or one without. It was the one with the long nights at the keyboard and hours of work on the weekend. It was the reason I was late for dinner, a dinner inevitably interrupted by the grating ring of the phone. It was the reason I stood in my bathroom before dawn listening to angry people I did not know scream into my ear, on a morning that I did not know would be our last together.

He made the frenetic pace possible, survivable. But without him it exhausted me and stole from them. And now we are standing on the edge of a decision that will decide our future – an adventure in a distant place that drives my career forward or the comfort of the familiar and a decision to slow down. We’ve been standing at the fork in the road for days, knowing that there is no wrong choice and there is no right.

There is simply the choice of choosing wisely.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This Court is Now in Session.

“One, two, three, eyes on me!” My chatty fashionista is suddenly silent.

Interesting. This never happens at home, no matter what comes out of my mouth and at what volume. 

It is the first day of school. A day when kids accessorize their mohawks, fauxhawks, Justin Biebers and Taylor Swift ringlets with crisp new clothes, backpacks and notes on summer vacations, who grew the most and who thinks who is cute. A day when parents beam, watching their brightly polished children through tear-filled eyes and wishing they could stop time before they are watching them drive off to college. The day after the day when both kids and parents are united by one simple thought.

Summer vacation can’t end fast enough.  

The last day of the school year is not the last day of school. It is an entire week before the last day. Classrooms are cleared and backpacks are sent home with a year’s worth of forgotten artwork, worn pencils and tattered folders. From that point forward the hourglass begins. At first, the days pass lazily by. But the sands of time are fickle and lazy days vanish in the late summer heat. Somewhere in between casting aside old book bags and choosing new ones, close quarters leave parents and children hot under the collar until you are finally standing on the threshold.

Of a new year. New classrooms. New friendships. New teachers.

My daughter has waited for this moment all summer long. She picked her first outfit, packed her outfit and planned how the first day would unfold weeks ago. Standing here watching her, her shy smile at odds with the impish light in her eyes, I wonder what she will discover today. As I blow her a kiss and she waves me away, I can’t help but wonder.

Should I bring red or white to the parent-teacher conference?  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sharp Corners.

“Mommy, why is he giving you that?”

Their movements are sharp and controlled, almost beautiful in their pained restraint. They lift and snap the cloth, edges perfectly aligned. With each careful turn they draw closer together, their eyes never parting as white-gloved fingers mark the folds. Bold stripes vanish among the stars.

I don’t remember this. I don’t remember the folding of the flag.

I don’t know if I should. I don’t know if it is among the images that have vanished into the fogginess or if I did not see it. I remember the smell, the heaviness of its oddly triangular weight. The timbre of the voice still echoes deep within that place where memories are hidden, but I cannot see the face nor can I hear the words spoken. I cannot see any of the faces from that day. I still hear the shots fired, bullet casings that remain tucked within the folds. I know the precise moment my hand left my son’s knee to receive it and I remember the words we exchanged while the air around us was silent.

“Sweetheart, they are giving us this to remember your Daddy and because he was a wonderful policeman. They are celebrating him for us.”

“But it is making you cry and I don’t want you to cry. I’m going to be just like him when I am bigger.”

“You already are, lovely boy. You are already are.”

There is something final and inescapable about that moment, the weight of the folded flag pulling you further into your despair as the solemnity of ceremony forces an acceptance of the end. There are words of celebration and remembrance, love and bonds that death can never sever, and images and memories that bring laughter to teary eyes. But it is the flag once draped across the coffin and now folded sharply that sharply reminds you. It is all you have left of the body you leave behind that day.

It is the last gift.

Watching them move, a silent ritual both painful and proud, I wonder if it has the same musty smell and if the fingers receiving it feel the coarseness of the threads. I wonder if the ones they kneel respectfully in front of truly hear the words, or if they will become sharply defined images and sounds that linger for weeks and months before being tucked away in the deep recesses of their minds where memories that sting are carefully saved.

I wonder if they will ever look at a flag flying proudly without wondering.  

Friday, August 19, 2011

Operation Golf Tango.

I wish I could stay here forever. 

For four perfect days there have been no bills, no cleaning, no laundry, no errands, no phone calls, no emails and no dishes. No deadlines, no appointments and no nightmares.

There have been quiet walks in the forest and raucous roughhousing, adventures in berry picking and panoramic views. Campfires and canoes. Paddles slicing through water and arrows whistling through air. Childish laughter and frogs in the dark. Rainstorms in the night and solitude in the morning.

Tomorrow it ends. But tonight, under the glittering stars, I can simply be.

She’s tucked into her sleeping bag with the bunny that has watched over her every night since we watched her eyes light up that first Christmas so long ago, her eyelashes resting on sunburnt cheeks long before the tent flap closed behind me. Boyish laughter rises in the air as silhouettes dance on the tent wall just beyond the campfire’s glow. In their company he has discovered for the first time that he is not alone. Watching their eyes light up as wild horses came close to nuzzle their hands and mushrooms were discovered in musty tree roots, a week of simple pleasures and adventures has taught us all about stepping back, slowing down and looking forward, even if only for a moment.

Sitting around the fire on this last night before we have to return to reality, our laughter rings through the night as theirs begins to fade. A week ago, we knew each other in passing, if at all, but we are leaving here as friends. It isn’t days filled with capsized canoes, muddy shoes, homemade ice cream, sunny hikes and marshmallowed fingers that sealed our collective fate. It’s not the simple words “no signal” that forced us to commune with nature and each other. It’s not the dining hall or the rows of sleeping bagged cots. Of all the moments it is this one that sparkles the most.

Being here was like looking through a window to the past while stepping through yet another door to the future.

Each year, a new year at boarding school began with a camp like this, a retreat where we learned new things and about each other, forged bonds and created memories. New friendships and memories that had less to do with canoeing and everything to do with the emergence of adolescent misbehavior, first kisses and items not served in the dining hall.

Decades later, camp hasn’t changed. It’s still about salvaging pride without a hair dryer, about leaving the daily grind behind and pushing ourselves outside the shelter of our comfort zones, about little moments that stay with you long after the tents and cabins grow dark and lonely, and about forging friendships. And just like in high school, the creed remains the same.

What happens in the woods stays in the woods. Especially if it involves sequins and requires a code name.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Don't Rock the Boat.

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

For his entire existence, my son has been fueled by an engine that spends its time in one of two gears – stop or go. And stop only seems to happen at bedtime. Otherwise, it is go, go, go. 

I’ve actually thought about whether or not a seatbelt could be installed to keep him upright and forward at the dinner table. While my daughter cozies up for movie night with her beloved bunny, he migrates from sprawling to sitting to the fridge to the bathroom to the left side and to the right side. He even spends time sitting on the back of the couch. He’ll spend hours playing with his Lego, but only after I’ve spent 30 minutes arguing with him about why he should. He likes the quick leapfrogging of checkers and not the methodical plodding of chess. He prefers the speed and physical engagement of hockey and football to the waiting game that is baseball. He loves to read, but only because he has my knack for efficiently and effectively devouring words on a page. He does not like to wait and his impatience can be relentless. 

Note: In an ironic twist of fate, I now know how my husband felt when I asked him to take the garbage out over and over and over. In my defense, he would have complained less about me overfilling it if I had had to ask less for him to empty it.

But for the past few weeks my son’s energy has fueled his anger and frustration and we have argued about everything from what he says to what he does. So, when my son decided that he would be Captain Sparrow to my Mr. Gibbs I double checked the buckles on my life jacket, debated the merits of arming him with a paddle and clarified the rules.

Don’t turn around. Don’t drop the paddle. Don’t rock the boat.

But the energetic boy who likes to remind me that “we’re active kids, Mom” discovered a third gear in the bow of that canoe. As we pushed back from shore the angry fire he had stoked and that fueled my own was doused and we both slowed down. For hours we glided between lush canyon walls, talking about everything and nothing while our paddles moved in unison.

After weeks of being at odds, we found common ground on the water.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Counting Sheep.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I ask the Lord my soul to take.

I can’t remember the last time I slept. Truly slept. The kind of sleep that traps you in sweet oblivion and leaves you energized and relaxed when you emerge. The last time I let sleep wrap its arms around me, pulling me down into the cool sheets and soft pillow. The last time that I closed my eyes and didn’t feel panic’s tight fist wrap itself around my heart. The last time I didn’t fight to stay awake.

The last time that I didn’t wonder, even briefly, if the sound of my breathing would vanish in the dark with his. 

Lying on the stretcher I watch her every movement. Plastic tubes uncoiled and wrapped around my ears, gently blowing air into my lungs and feeding my body. Her hands move quickly and her eyes stare into mine as she makes small talk. Wordlessly, I listen as she tells me that that we will begin when the doctor is ready and I see the question in her eyes. 

I’ve done this before, but everything is different now.

“Are you nervous? It’s okay, some people are pretty chatty and others are nervous and don’t say very much. But it will be over before you know it and we’ll be here the whole time.”

The words are trapped inside me and my chest tightens as panic begins its all-too-familiar assault, the sound of my heartbeat roaring inside my head like waves crashing relentlessly against a broken reef. As I stare at her I hear the unspoken words that she can’t truly understand. That the sanitary smell of healing reminds me only of death. That the plastic bag holding my clothes is the same plastic bag that carried my husband’s home. That when they placed the band around my wrist it was as though I had been shackled. That I have not slept in days. That I spent yesterday writing letters to my children that would tell them how much they were loved.

The room begins to soften and I want to tell her that I cannot do this. That I cannot go to sleep. That I must wake up again. That I must stay awake for them. That if I stay awake they will never be alone. But the words are trapped inside, crushed under the roar of my heartbeat.

She wraps her hand around mine and the tears begin to fall as I give in to a slumber I can no longer fight.   

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Holly did not go this Lightly.

It seems fitting that I am in a store known for its bullseye, considering that the only thing in my crosshairs right now is the restroom sign on the opposite side of what I consider to be a fair substitute for heaven. 

We’re in a love-hate relationship. I love the all-in-one convenience of this bright and cheery wonderland, but I hate the relationship it has with my bank account. I never manage to get in and out in less than 50 minutes and without losing Ben Franklin and a few of his friends along the way. Today, however, might be the exception.

Target is my Tiffany, a dazzling display of treasures where, yes, I can have breakfast courtesy of that saucy little siren from Portland that likes her morning grinds. But today coffee is off limits. So is breakfast.    




I am, however, allowed to have water. And four entirely evil little pills. And a lovely potion designed to polish my intestinal track to the point where it shines.

I’ve been given an early ticket on a ride that makes grown men weak in knees. A ticket I would rather not cash in, but that two young children who have already lost half of the parental equation compel me to redeem.

After memorizing the texture of the baseboards and listening to the unabated mayhem erupting down the hallway, a window of opportunity opened up. And like Holly and her little blue boxes, I simply had to surround myself with bottles of sparkly water. All I needed was 20 minutes and a quickly negotiated truce in the toy aisle. But I underestimated my children. And my temporary lack of intestinal fortitude.

And I am certain that Holly didn’t drink GoLytely for breakfast.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Call of the Wild.

What are you doing?”

I don’t know if we are standing in a canyon, small valley, subtle crevice, hilly pass or the bottom of a deep river that dried up a century ago, but I do know that the group is catching up and this view of nature was not on today’s itinerary.

We’ve already climbed 111 metal steps straight up, bringing us to a spectacular view above the entire forest. Yet to come are wild raspberry patches, a visit with the resident mycologist as he digs for pungent fungal treasure and a magnificent view from the top of the 1,000-foot rim that this beautiful forest is rooted in. But first, we are in the midst of a gentle hike and picnic lunch in the woods.

“There’s something in my pants!”

This is exactly why I don’t see any reason to drop trou in the woods unless absolutely necessary. It might have a little bit to do with those ghastly bug tales my father liked to share every now and then, like the one about earwigs crawling into your ears and eating their way back out. Or the bag-clad bucket that served as our indoor outhouse for one or two of my childhood years. (There were also one or two late-night-and-unsanctioned-boarding-school adventures that involved uncomfortably close encounters with things that crawl through the forest at night, but I think my Mom reads this so it’s probably best if we don’t delve any deeper here.)

The idea that anything could crawl, touch or pinch me there is exactly the reason that my idea of camping includes a solid agreement with Charmin Ultra Soft and the ability to flush. You would think that my daughter – the feisty free spirit that insists on bringing fashion to the forest – would feel the same way.

You’d be wrong.

If the choice was hers she’d run naked through the forest, stopping only to collect mushrooms, flowers and small animals. So when she decided to answer the call of nature behind an abandoned cabin, I simply waited until she re-emerged with that smile that is part imp, part cherub. Watching her wander along the trail in front of me, her little hands lingering on buttery petals and her eyes chasing butterflies, I hope that she is always this free. That simple treasures light up her eyes long after childhood fades. That she lives life as deeply then as she does now.

Watching her fish, I hope that whatever is in there is botanical and not entomological.