Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Things That Go Bump in the Night.

“I don’t ever want to lose you.”

It’s the witching hours when her words cut deepest, a soft whisper against my neck while tiny arms hug me tightly in a silent defiance of all things cruel and unusual. Night after night, I answer the call of her voice as it floats uneasily down the hallway, crawling under the covers to wrap my arms around her as she fights to stay awake.

Of all the ties that bind it is this bond that should never have been forged – a childish fear of the dark that death brought to life – that holds us closest.

Ever the contrarian, my daughter plays quietly night after night in a mound of covers, soft pillows and stuffed animals while my son greets the sandman before I cross back over the threshold of his room. Hours after the lights are dimmed and flecks of light begin to dance across her walls, her whispers float down the hallway as bunnies and peacocks and kittens and puppies band together in familial threesomes.

A mommy. A girl. A brother. Never a daddy.

She knows that a daddy is warm and safe and happy. But what memories remain – distant embers that burn brightly for brief moments triggered by the way light falls in the hallway, the way an ordinary object sits on a shelf, a story long forgotten remembered in laughter – are indelibly linked to the pain and confusion of loss.

For weeks afterward she drew pictures of the man that had vanished without warning, as though the carefully drawn images would change time and space. And then the man grew smaller and less colorful before taking his perch in the clouds before vanishing altogether, an image that faded into the background along with the pain. She questioned why she could not float to him with the balloons that disappeared into the vast sky above, and why he could not slide down just for a moment. As time passed she let his image return, on her terms and on occasion, in vivid color and warm context.

But with age comes understanding and the realization that childhood fantasies often remain unrealized while fears do not. She knows that there are gaps in the childhood that is shaping her, but does not understand who or what they are. Her days are filled with laughter and contentment, interrupted by what is missing when it erupts like a festering sore accidentally scratched. The world that stopped turning now spins on a new axis.

But it is the dead of night when things that can go bump do. And it is at night when things disappear into the dark. Because when daylight broke they had.

And tonight sleep has abandoned us both, because as darkness settles tomorrow I will disappear into it far away from her and from him. I cannot promise her the one thing she needs, but of this I am certain. When daylight breaks tomorrow she will be sleeping peacefully under the covers.

In my room.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Roasted by Reality.

A splash of rum. An ample roast.

It sounded divine. Our first post-nuptials holiday in a house we dreamed or and painstakingly designed, and we were determined to do things our way. Our dining table was officially a turkey-free table, without a trace of jellied cranberry to be found.

And that was the last time I cooked Thanksgiving dinner.

Not because I can’t cook a roast, and not because my turkeys don’t melt off the bone. Because Thanksgiving will always be the day when I gave thanks that eyebrows and eyelashes grow back and that the smell of charred hair does indeed fade along with the rosy evidence across cheekbones and the bridge of one’s nose.

But 10 years later I am being forced to revisit the ghosts of Thanksgiving past, because my son is determined to have a feast worthy of the pilgrims and their Native American guests. A bounty of corn. Fresh-baked bread. Mouthwatering mashed potatoes. Gravy worth wallowing in. Pumpkin pie. Stuffing. And a turkey. That must be cooked in an oven.

By me.

Thanksgiving has never been our holiday of choice, and for a decade it was one of the most important weekends of my career. Looking back on resolutions made 11 months earlier and a vow to change habits that no longer fit, comes the promise of new ones and contentment in the simple fact that it is nearly noon and I am still in my pajamas.

But if I know anything, it is this. Painful memories aren’t forgotten – they simply sting less with time. Staring at the pimply flesh of the bird I am about to violate with spoonfuls of stuffing my children will taste and promptly disavow, I also know this.

He’s already laughing. Wherever he is.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Restricted Airspace.

My eyes are burning and my nasal passages have commenced lock down. If I didn’t know better, I’d start searching for hidden decomposition. But right now all I want to do is get in and out.

Without losing consciousness.

It’s moments like this that I miss my husband. It’s not that the other moments don’t matter, but there’s nothing like being slapped in the face to remind you that you are navigating on your own. And I’ve just been slapped in the face by something that resembles being in a room with my husband an hour after a hearty bowl of chili. A burrito. Spaghetti. Salad. An apple.

The man could turn water into a toxic substance.

Stepping across the dark threshold of his domain guided by quiet even breathing, it is painfully clear that dimples aren’t the only mark of my husband’s legacy. My little boy has been swallowed up by something big and smelly and ravenous.

For months, my vocabulary has been on limited play and replay. Lift the seat. Put it down. Was that you? I’m not asking again – pick up your clothes and put them in the laundry basket. He tugs and rearranges, explaining the importance of “unsticking” to someone who really doesn’t want to know.  He spends hours in the bathroom, only to argue whether or not it’s really necessary to use soap. I’ve mastered the art of carrying soaked hockey gear pinched between thumb and forefinger, and I can no longer distinguish between an aquarium that needs cleaning and the air of the room he emerges from each morning.

Nearly eight years after he turned our world upside down my favorite moment of the day is still long after he falls asleep. Together we would tuck the tiny foot back under the covers and remove toy cars and noisy things from the folds of the blankets, whispering to each other about the little details that are magical to parents and mundane to those who are not. Alone, I tuck a foot no longer tiny back under the covers and remove books from the folds of the blankets. I kiss the forehead resting on the stuffed dog that has been his constant companion throughout the years and the tears.

And tomorrow morning the not-little smells will disappear when he wanders in bleary eyed and curls up in my arms.   

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Screw the Turkey. And the Stuffing.

My childhood didn’t include extended family descending like biblical locusts for a day of gluttony, and I’ve never taken part in a Turkey Bowl. The thought of cranberry jelly oozing through my teeth sends a shiver up my spine, and I could outlast Ghandi if bean casserole was the only thing left on earth to eat. For me, Thanksgiving was just one of those no-school-no-work-lots-of-food days.

And then I met my husband.

Who also viewed Thanksgiving as one of those no-school-no-work-lots-of-food-extra-hours-on-my-bicycle days. The first couple of years, no turkey came within a mile of our kitchen. We slept in late, went to bed early and watched football while we snacked on snack-y things and drank out of mason jars.

As soon as the vows were spoken our respective families began circling and in a pre-emptive strike before our offspring became the spoils of war, we laid out our holiday battle strategy. Canadian Thanksgiving for one. American Thankgsiving for the other. Our house for Christmas.

For 10 years we stood our ground, even as the different camps subtly campaigned for changes. Stuffing our toddling son and barely born daughter into car seats, we suffered through tantrums and screaming and pleasantries. We held our tempers as my figure received its annual evaluation, grit our teeth as cousins bullied cousins, and suffered the digestive insults of a mountain of fat and butter. And we fell into bed giving thanks that Thanksgiving was over.

And then my husband died.

Exactly one month later I made the trek to his family’s house. Alone save two screaming children, I forced turkey into a digestive track that recoiled against sustenance at a table where he loomed unspoken. A year later, resigned to the fact that everything had changed but refusing to accept that it had, the air was uncomfortable as serving spoons clinked and unspoken questions went unanswered. Another year passed and as turkeys around the nation ran for cover, passive acceptance became fiery anger as another Thanksgiving loomed on the horizon. He was gone but nothing had changed.

And with one scoop of buttery mashed potatoes, everything did.

This year there will be snack-y things and Turkey Trots, new places and snow falling. The air will be filled with laughter, not silence. We’ll throw footballs and ride bikes, and we’ll drink hot chocolate as we deck the halls. We’ll remember stories of Thanksgivings past, and we’ll feast on the things we like. 

Unlike last year, when my relationship status was served up for discussion alongside squishy cranberry jelly. Neither of which should be on the menu.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Snap Peas.

“This is your center, and this is your quarterback. Who snaps the ball and passes it?”

“The knife?”

It’s come to this – football analogies to explain the finer points of wielding cutlery. Because I am simply out of ideas. And because if I have to crawl under the table to pick up one more kernel of corn or flake of fish the resident chef is going on strike. Or we’re moving the kitchen table outside. 

It’s not that my children belong in a cave. They’re just as messy and carefree as anyone else’s kids. But right at that point when table manners and nutritional choices are instilled, our lives went hurtling off the smooth little track we had been riding along with things like routines and table manners. By the time I emerged from the haze I had sunken beneath and friends and family had taken their leave, the damage was done. The kitchen was no longer the center of our home and our family. 

It was ground zero.

In the morning it was cold and empty and at night it was heated with anger and frustration. It wasn’t just because he was gone. It was because it was his domain, relinquished to me only for the purposes of cleaning and cookie baking. When he was here, I could happily hand over the spatula to someone who truly liked using it. Once he was gone, I didn't dislike being thrust into hell’s kitchen.

I loathed it.

Months after he was gone I rushed through the dinner hour, brushing aside etiquette and the food pyramid in favor of ease and efficiency. As I rushed them through their adequately balanced meals, I avoided the table and raced through the dishes. 

Somewhere after the first year had passed I cautiously took my place, returning to what was left of the family dinner table as familiar conversations, awkward and disjointed, returned. As the second year ran its course, culinary irritation was replaced with comfortable acceptance.

I discovered utensils I didn’t know we owned and vegetables I didn’t know I liked. I learned to navigate my daughter’s eclectic food allergies and adventures were taken as they learned to love new tastes. Bananas and apples were usurped by raspberries and pomegranates, and freshly cooked meats and exotic rices replaced nuggets and fries. As time went on, the kitchen was filled more with the sound of sauté than the microwave’s incessant beeping.

But watching her march the peas down the field, knife snapping them to fork, I know that the kitchen will never really be my domain.

Because even now, there’s football at the dinner table.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Writing Stories in the Stars.

“Mom, the jets go zzzzzffffhhhhhhttttt and spin this part around and then it lifts off and goes into outer space. And this is the engine and here’s where we sit and shoot lasers. We really need one of these.”

I have to admit, the idea has potential.

A jet- zzzzzffffhhhhhhttttting-spinning-lift-offing thingy would get me all the way from A to Z and to every can’t-miss commitment in between. I could leave perpetually-late-and-missing-something behind and hitch my wagon to on-time-and-in-control. At the first sign of traffic gridlock, I could just whip out that handy little laser and clear a path. But until we find a place to put the hockey bag that has a permanent home in the back of my land-locked vehicle, sales might be a little sluggish.

This is the first truly lazy day we’ve had since August. A gloomy and cold November morning – one of those perfect stay-in-your-pjs mornings for watching cartoons under blankets by the fire – when we don’t have to go anywhere. Bellies full of homemade oatmeal and hot bagels dripping with peanut butter and honey, I can hear my daughter commanding her army of Lalaloopsy dolls from the other room while the turtle bangs around and looks balefully down on the chaos from the sanctity of his cesspool. And sprawled on his bed, I am designer to his engineer while he fashions a fleet that will take us to another dimension.

Bare toes peek out while he sits cross-legged in the center of a Lego paradise, head hunched over in determination as he assembles blocks with a boy’s image of the world around him and the one that he imagines.

He looks somehow smaller than the boy that emerged over the summer months. The one that posted the “No Trespassing” sign on his door and who insists on closed doors where once there were none. The one who blushes when I kiss his cheek at the schoolyard gate, but still reaches for my hand walking down the street. The one who wants a computer yet spends hours playing with a rainbow explosion of bricks.

“Mom, someday I’m going to build a ship just like this. And I’ll explore different worlds in space.”

“Can I come? I’ve never been to outer space before.”

“Uh huh. Look, I even made a seat for you guys. Because we’re a family and we take care of each other. You take care of me and her and when I’m big I’ll take care of you and take you to lots of places.”


“I promise. And you can bring your computer so that you can write stories about us and where we go.”

“Sweetheart, you are my story.”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Little Black Dress.

Ever since Coco dared to thumb her nose at pastels and Audrey stepped out for a monochromatic breakfast, a woman without the perfect LBD is like … well … a 40-ish man without a sports car.

It’s like having a midlife crisis and being trapped in your closet. At the same time.

Each time I’ve needed a little black dress life grinds to a halt at DEFCON 1. I’ve bought, returned, altered, worn and donated at least 50 since achieving adulthood, all in pursuit of finding “the one.” Lace, satin, crepe wool, cotton, jersey, rayon, chiffon. Sheath, shift, A-line, wrap,  v-neck, boat neck, sleeveless, quarter sleeves, capped sleeves, long sleeves. Beaded, sequined, fringed, tiered, slit, simple. Ankle, mid-calf, below the knee, above the knee, well above the knee. I liked something about each one, but never truly loved any of them.

And then my search for the quintessential cocktail dress that showed just enough leg, décolletage and delivered exactly the right body shaping characteristics suddenly became a search for something different.

Little Black Dress? Meet Widow’s Weeds.

In the midst of everything I was suddenly faced with the stark reality that I needed the penultimate little black dress. Something classic yet current. Something befitting the collision of youth, the maturity of motherhood and the wreckage of love interrupted. Surrounded by friends that gently propelled me through the motions of a search I once found irritating and now faced with ambivalence and dread, my fingers moved listlessly through the racks until I found it. Simple, black and loose enough to conceal the increasingly gaunt figure beneath. And like all the rest that came before, I didn’t love it. I despised it.

It hangs quietly in the corner, a relic that I loathe the idea of relinquishing. I’ve worn it since, always in respect and sadness and oddly comforting in its discomfort. Tomorrow I will wear it once again to remember and pay my respects to a man I did not know.

And to honor the woman in the little black dress standing silent and proud before him.