the ladder upSome years ago, when riding home in the family car from her grandmother’s house, my little girl sat up front, making the most of time alone with me her Mom, as that noisy baby slept in the back. She looked at the sky.  “If I could make a big enough ladder,” she said pensively, “I could climb there.”

Time keeps slipping for me this week. I think of the cold night earlier this month when I found myself in a florist’s greenhouse. It was near suppertime, but the shoppers there seemed reluctant to depart this damp Eden with its glass walls and ceilings all misted over with moisture.

Then time slips again to a long-ago night: Our then six-year-old had gone to bed. Downstairs, his father was playing his weekly bridge game with his pals. Elsewhere in the house, our other kids attended to the night’s homework. Then here came suddenly a sound of weeping, faint at first, but building in despair as it built in duration.

Our six-year-old appeared suddenly at my bedroom door. It was he who wept so. What was it?, I asked rushing toward him. A bad dream? He shook his head no. A pain? No again.

He sat on the edge of our bed and, after a long time, did his best to convey it: “I was thinking about death,” he finally whispered. “How when you die  you just have to lie there. Forever.”

“Ah but most people don’t believe that. None of us has been there of course, but most people picture Heaven.”

“I don’t want to go to Heaven!” he burst out. What would I do there? What do people do when they’re  there?”

I remembered an image that had comforted me once. “Well, they say it’s like a big party and everyone you ever loved is right there in the room with you –  and your old pets, and the toys you lost and thought you’d never see again…”

“But even a party can go on too long.” He shook his head sadly. “And what if there is no Heaven and you just…..end?”

“I don’t think it’s like that,” I said, hugging him now and swallowing back my own tears. “Why don’t you stretch out here a while?”

And so he did, as I busied myself nearby. Thirty minutes later, he was still curled in a tense ball.  I went over and lay down beside him; buried my face in his little-boy neck. “Listen!” I said at last. “Can you hear all those sounds? Daddy downstairs with his pals? Two kinds of music? Your brothers and sisters all talking and moving around?”

He nodded his head without opening his eyes.” Always you will have that: other people all around you. No one is alone, you know.”

“I know,” he whispered, and gave a final shuddering sigh.

He had looked over the edge into that terror. Most people look there exactly once, then get to work building a structure against it, whether you call it belief in the hereafter or faith in one’s fellow men or That Which Does Not Die.

I can’t say if  that youngest child of mine began building his then and there. I can tell you that as far as I know he never wept like that again.

In that wintry greenhouse, I watched the clerk wrapping a plant against the cold with all the care of one easing a baby into a snowsuit. So. I told myself, there is this care, then.

There are the long bars of sunlight, winter or summer.

There are the voices of others as you slip into sleep.

And then there’s that ladder, which, built of strong enough stuff and fastened with Belief, may let us climb it upward after all.


A Day for Quick Tears

I spent the last six hours of the July Fourth holiday in ambivalent enjoyment of the peace in this house, all 10 houseguests having now left, and in watching the HBO marathon showing of John Adams with Paul Giamatti as the second American President and the wonderful Laura Linney as his wife Abigail.

The day I graduated from high school I won the novelized tale of the Adams’ long marriage as the English Prize but never had the sense to actually read it. I see that I must go back and do so now if I can possibly find it. (I should be able to. We never throw anything out around here. I certainly still have the explosion of brocade and chiffon that I wore to the Holly Hop in December of that year.)

Anyway. I felt hot tears leaping to my eyes more than once as I watched. There is the scene where their grown daughter Nabby has a breast removed while tied to a bed in the family home with only a shot of liquor to dull the pain. (This is Nabby on the left as portrayed by Sarah Polley.) According to the website the facts were even worse: “Treatment was once so untenable that women neglected their disease if a lump was discovered. Their breasts became disfigured as their tumors took over their bodies. But the alternative was worse than the disease: Nabby Adams, the daughter of John and Abigail Adams, suffered through a mastectomy in which she was tied to a chair while, without anesthesia, her breast was removed. She survived the surgery only to die from the disease. This was common practice in the 18th century.”

It’s hard to say which brought me closer to tears, that scene, or the scene where Abigail herself dies of typhoid just after looking at the wondrous blue hydrangea bouquet that her husband has brought in to their bedroom. “Oh John!” she sighs at the sight of them, or the scene in which after Abigail’s death, the former President reads a letter from his old nemesis Thomas Jefferson, soon to be faithful correspondent. It goes like this:

The public papers, my dear friend, announce the fatal event of which your letter of October the 20th had given me ominous foreboding.. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medi cine. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both, that the term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit in the same cerement,our sorrows and suffering bodies and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.

We wave to our children as they leave so certain that one day soon we will see them again and their children too as more such children come along and maybe someday their children’s children as well but who knows really? Who ever knows? We can only hope that in the end there wil kindness, and an absence of pain and perhaps a view of flowers.

Foreplay Ourselves

Looks like this is Anatomy  week,  all right, Wednesday  the head, today the hand, though I guess every week is Anatomy week with these hands doing such delicate work all the time; with these sensitive feet forever analyzing the terrain and reporting back so we don’t keep falling over…

I spent two days this week on airplanes where my own hands were sure taxed, especially while yanking that 20-pound computer bag out from under the seat. They hurt a lot these days so I’m aware of them more. It’s why I had to stop practicing massage. During one of the Deep Tissue workshops I took while studying muscular therapy the teacher told me I had to build up more hand strength.  I wasn’t ever able to do that. I also realize now that I leaned in on them too much as I made my way down the back of whoever was on my table. The result after just four years: I could no longer bear the pain of working on people.

If I only I could have massaged them with my mind! I’m thinking of that scene in the 1985 movie Cocoon when the Steve Guttenberg character is talking to the beautiful alien in the indoor pool where the space-pods first opened and asks her what making love is like on her planet. In reply she has him stand at the opposite end from her, then sends this ray of light across the water which caroms around off the walls and ceilings until it lands Pow! right in his chest. His head is thrown back and he smiles ecstatically, the camera pans away to the outside of the building and you can just barely hear him saying  “If this is foreplay I’m a dead man!”

Maybe we humans are just the foreplay too. A humbling thought for all those Genesis readers out there raised on the belief that  we humans were the crown of creation.  Us the crown of creation? Us Nature’s best final project? We’re probably just one of Her rough sketches.

Now watch this  trailer and tell me it isn’t great – not just Tahnee Welch’s face in the love-making scene but what Wilfred Brimley says to his young grandson:


Remember the old 1890s Baltimore Catechism that some of us could once recite quicker than our multiplication table? It went like this:

 Q. Who created Heaven and earth and all things?

 A. God created Heaven and earth and all things.

 Q. Which are the chief creatures of God?

 A. The chief creatures of God are angels and men.

 Remember? Well, I came upon a different sort of catechism while hanging around Mass. General Hospital this past week where my doctors performed their usual funny parlor tricks, resting their tummies on my lap to peer into my nose and eyes and so on. There in the lobby they had a special booth on aneurysms with pamphlets on Defusing the Time Bomb In The Brain, a video running on a  small TV and, behind the tables, a team of kindly people to help you once you have scared the living bejesus out of yourself by stopping to read them. See if you don’t think THIS little rundown has the same matter-of-fact feeling as that primer, that Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Prepared and Enjoined by Order of the Third Council of Baltimore:

Q. What Is A Brain Aneurysm?

A. An brain aneurysm is a bubble that forms on the side of the brain artery, very much like a balloon. There are two types of aneurysms, ruptured and unruptured.

Q. Are There Any Warning Signs?

A. The classic symptom of ruptured aneurysms is the worst headache of your life.

Q.  Can Aneurysms Be Prevented?

A. Unfortunately, no!  (exclamation point theirs, believe it or not.)

Q. What Are the Odds of Surviving a Rupture?

A.  50% die outright. Of those who survive, one-third recover with some deficit, one-third with substantial deficit, and the final third may require institutionalization.

So there you have it, kids, if you had any doubt at all: We sure DO we live on the slopes of Vesuvius and either sooner or later that nice old God of Baltimore and Surrounding Towns  has fixed it so that every last one of us from the littlest sweetie-pies to the biggest bigshots, will, like it or not, ALL be together in Heaven – and there’s a topic worth peering into for sure!