Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rules of the Road.

If we weren’t in a Babylon standoff, this would be a good time to make casual mention of the professional camaraderie he shares with my late husband. Even mentioning the fact that he is my “late” husband might be helpful. Except that right now it doesn’t really matter what I have tucked away in my arsenal of feminine wiles because it is clear that he is not amused. 

At all.

And yet here I am, standing in the middle of a medieval cobblestone street wedged between the tiny car zipping us around Northern France and the irritated gendarmes glowering up at me from their unimpressive car of official importance. Irritated gendarmes who happened to turn down this tiny cobblestone street lined with tightly knit and not-quite-straight medieval buildings at the same time that we did. 

Going the wrong way.   

We have managed to ride the Paris underground, drive the city’s maze of fast-moving one-way streets and navigate small villages bursting with flowers, husbandry and centuries-old manor houses and cottages. We didn’t sink in fabled quicksand, jumped a car parked so close to the French Coast that if the wind blew any harder it would have gone into the French Coast and we’ve proven that tow trucks are no faster on this side of the pond than they are on the other. But it is here, in the labyrinth of this windblown seaside town’s walled and winding streets, that Fodors, Vodafone and good behavior have abandoned us.

I’ve asked a garbage man, an electrician and a surly waiter. We stopped in the middle of a road and accosted a lady out for a stroll. And I am fairly certain that when she turned to look for traffic and my face filled her window, the woman in the parking lot locked her car doors. The man parked in the alley was in my direction-seeking sights until we pulled close and realized he appeared to be busy with his toolbox. Which is why standing in the middle of this road with the long arm of the law glaring at me is on par with the American thunderstorm brewing in the little Twingo behind me.

“Vous parlez anglaise?”



If you’ve been following along, you know that while challenges do not become me they also don’t get the best of me. And getting back in the car without a well-defined route to the beachfront retreat that is the entire – and only – reason we are lost is not an option. Mentally evaluating my options as I stand in the intersection of foreign irritation and friendly fire, I have no choice.

A smile. A flutter. “Directions, s’il vous plait?” Return to the smile. Flutter again. Movements that are as comfortable as a wet sweater or a pair of shoes two sizes too small. Watching his gestures and listening to his partner’s laughter I realize that no matter what happens in life, there are some things that never change. Like the way a smile can stop traffic.

And get you a police escort to the front door.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Leavin' on a Jet Plane.

“You promise you’ll be back? Because I will miss you if you don’t come back and I don’t want to be sad again.”

She’s made me pinkie promise this before. In between packing sweaters and socks, panties and pants, tees and hair ties, we’ve wrestled with homework and talked about the best part of the day just as we always do. We’ve talked about behaving while I’m away and what treasures I’ll bring back.

As we packed and prepared, the house continued the warm soothing cadence of the normalcy we have found. But as the days dripped away and “soon” became “now,” we all wrestled with the anxiety that comes with opening this new door. There have been speed bumps along the smooth path of good behavior and teary moments that are less about why Draculaura can’t fit into Tinkerbell’s clothes and more about the unsettling of what has settled.

This was a vacation that was meant to happen before he disrupted the flight path and left us standing at the gate with extra baggage. A vacation we were to take as a family to a white, sandy beach and that is now my personal sabbatical halfway across the world where, in an ironic twist of fate, the verbal currency is the language of lovers.

We’ve never been apart for this long. Eight nights. Nine days. Tomorrow morning I will kiss their cheeks and remind them of all the ways that I love them and then I will leave on a trip I have counted down the days to. A trip meant to recharge and rejuvenate, ancient cobblestones and gothic cathedrals replacing the soothing lull of the waves. They will be fine and I will be fine, and the days will drip away until I am home again with treasures in hand and stories to hear. But perched on the toilet seat listening to her fears and “did you knows” as lavender bubbles float with her giggles in the steam I am already in the air.

Coming home.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Sound of Silence.

I had never heard anything so loud. 

Standing in that dark night, I suddenly understood the sound of silence. It wasn’t the calm of a stolen afternoon. It wasn’t the cozy quiet of an evening alone. It wasn’t the airy rush in my ears as my shoes counted miles in the dark. 

It was the sound of 3,000 voices being silenced.  

Ten years later, we are all remembering where we were when the world stopped turning. We were making breakfast and settling into the school day. We were in hospitals waiting for our first to be born, and sitting around polished mahogany tables planning product launches and negotiating takeovers. We were buckled in on runways and soaring above the ground that was shaking 30,000 feet below. We were on our bicycles and in our running shoes. We were walking down sidewalks and sitting on freeways. We were in newsrooms reporting on images beyond belief, and we were watching as bodies fell from the sky and darkness shrouded the city that never sleeps.

We were living. And then in one collective gasp, our voices went silent with theirs.  

Thousands of miles away, we were not among those who lost someone that day. I had yet to discover the searing pain of loss, but I imagined how those who lost loved ones that day felt as they watched the towers burn and fall. The frantic phone calls that went unanswered, the tears that began and would not stop, and the desperate search for hope that the ones they loved would emerge from the darkness.

But of all the voices stilled that day, I wondered most about those who stood behind the 343 firefighters and 72 police officers who died fighting for others’ lives that morning. Men and women who believed in something far greater than themselves. Men and women with families. Men and women who, but for a difference of geography, were like my husband. I woke him that morning, mere hours after he had come home exhausted from patrolling the streets in the dead of night. He was gone before I got home and I stood alone in the dark listening. Listening for what we had lost and for what we feared might come. Listening for him to come home.

Standing in the darkness I listened for sounds that were not there, waiting for the chill of despair and death that had settled in the air above us all.

But in place of the morning’s violent embrace, quiet warmth wrapped its soothing arms around me. In that dark night, from sea to shining sea we answered the call that came from a lonely Pennsylvania field, an American fortress and towering beacons of prosperity and promise. One by one, we vowed to stand strong for everything that had been lost and for the voices that went silent that day. With each unspoken vow to remember and to rebuild, a spark emerged until the horizon was aflame with a new day and and we emerged from the ashes. We are living again because we have vowed never to be silenced again.

Because their voices are alive within us all.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Six. Eight. Ten.

In 12 hours she will be six years old. No longer a baby or a toddler, she is turning the corner from little girl to not little and not big. 

In 12 hours she will have lived half her life with him. And half without.

This year will bring the same milestone when my son turns eight. It marks what would have been our tenth wedding anniversary, and the year that I became older than he will ever be. They are bittersweet milestones, distant markers that I have been sharply aware of even as they have softened with the passing of time. The first milestones cut deeply and the second were unpredictable, marked by hidden tears, eruptions of anger or numbing ambivalence. But it is these milestones that have loomed largest on the horizon – they are the point at which the hourglass is equal in measure to the life we lived with him and the life yet to be lived. 

I have never said the words out loud to them, and yet I know they are not unaware. She reminds me often that she had just turned three and that she is now six, and that three plus three is six. Or that six minus three is three. More often it is the addition and not the loss – three plus three rather than six minus three – she notes, a subtlety that underscores the progress of time. Progress that we have all made and pages we have turned on our own and together. Watching her eyes dance as she asks what it was like when she was born and what she did and what we said, I realize that celebrating this birthday is as much about celebrating another year’s growth as it is celebrating how far we have come. 

Pushing the soft waves from her forehead, I am reminded of the first night we kissed her tiny brow. The last night that he kissed it. And all the nights since. This little girl, as tempestuous as she is gentle, has shown us all how to embrace loss, to defy it and to rise above it. She has taught us all that it isn’t the passing of time that matters. 

It’s how that time is passed.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hand in Hand.

“I had none cards today. And none cards all week! Can we go to the store right NOW?!”

She’s been home for all of five minutes and has been waiting all week for this moment. Secretly, so have I. Ahead of us is an afternoon of girl time filled with glitter and delicious smells, sparkly things and cookie breaks. An afternoon filled with the warmth of her hand in mine and the sound of her laughter. 

For years, I’ve watched from a quiet distance as women talk about the afternoons they spend with their daughters. Pedicures and manicures, movies, shopping and dance classes – notches in the belt of motherhood that left me ambivalent, irritated and wistful.

Just when life had settled and she had aged enough, the bottom fell out. While mothers around us celebrated the mother-daughter bond with definitively female pursuits, our days were filled with the pain of rebuilding our broken world. Things that had once come easily became insurmountable challenges and simple pleasures were forgotten in the melee. Instead, we bonded over something far greater. Our bond was one of loss and survival, strength and resilience.

While some urged us forward too far and too fast, I discovered how deeply a mother’s instinct runs and how strong we both were. Where some saw childish anger, I saw something deeper. Where some laughed off teasing as just childish antics, I saw how deeply and permanently their words cut. Where some saw willfulness, I saw determination and a future filled with possibility. Where some saw too many tears, I saw a little girl who didn’t understand why he wouldn’t be there to paint her toes after bath time.

I see a willful little girl determined to live life on her terms.

Watching her eyes sparkle, I do not regret the pedicures and shopping trips missed. I do not regret the late night tears and stories in the dark. I do not regret the years I lost in my own life to repair the foundation of hers. Because we are walking through each new door hand in hand.

Even when those hands are Snickerdoodle sticky.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Watching the Ball.

A wall of yellow jerseys and black shorts. Cleats on feet too big for the awkward limbs they anchor planted firmly in the dirt. Faces hidden deep beneath helmets and visors. Voices deep and gruff, mouth guards in place. 

And each one reassigning parts supposedly frozen in place by uncomfortably tight spandex. In perfect unison.

Long before my son was born, my husband was already plotting my conversion from hockey-loving Canadian to female football fanatic. Not that he was the first – I sat through more college and professional games for college boyfriends than I care to remember. I even spent a little time with somebody who actually played college ball and even that didn’t dial me in.

To be fair, my husband wasn’t the only one with an agenda for change. The terms of our marriage included an agreement that he would grow to love hockey. That it involved beer, chasing a fast-moving object and grown men alternating between finesse and brute force guaranteed his commitment. He wasn’t devastated when the NHL added ice girls, either.

I chose ice over grass by accident. Sports weren’t present during my childhood – my father had other interests and neither brother played. I remember my Dad showing me how to throw a football, but it wasn’t until high school that I learned what sports meant. I spent my high school years at boarding school, where I excelled in my ability to get caught breaking the rules and, when forced to or on a whim, my grades. It was there that I was hit with the puck (and not just figuratively). But it was rugby and soccer, not football, that dominated the grassy fields. For my husband, a world away, grassy fields were home to the boys of fall.

The first football he brought home was small and I would watch as they would race around the couch during halftimes and commercials, a missile tucked underneath a tiny arm. And then another football and subtle comments about clubs and coaching.

Sitting here on the sidelines under the Friday night lights, I have to admit there is something about football. It’s not the polished professionals. It’s not grown men yelling at little boys as though the Superbowl is on the line. It’s definitely not the endless fundraisers and snack commitments. It’s not strapping on shoulder pads and snapping on helmets. And fall football in Arizona is like playing overtime in the devil’s kitchen, so I assure you that it isn’t the opportunity to redraw my tan lines from the sidelines. 

It’s the light in his eyes when he knows it was a great play and the bubbles bath he asks for because his legs are sore. It’s watching him discover something new, about the world and about himself. It’s the boy who, like his father, tries to rub his sweaty head on me. It’s the boy who wants ice cream after practice and French toast on game day. It’s the boy who wants to start every practice throwing a ball. 

With me.