Now and at The Hour…

mom 6 mos pregnant

my mother, with her firstborn Nan inside her

Do most people believe in ghosts? I think they do, if by ‘ghost’ we mean that sudden sensed presence of one now departed. In fact, show me the person who claims never to have had this experience; never to have ‘heard from’ such a one.

I know I did, once. Only once, but I ‘heard’ all right. It happened about three months after I lost my mother, who died very suddenly, right before my eyes.

She was 80 and I was 38 and still a child myself in some ways. All I knew was that living my life without her seemed impossible; she was still that much of a parent to me.

She had a pragmatic kind of sense that she expressed with a wonderful bluntness.

Take the time I called to tell her we’d be welcoming a 19-year-old Austrian girl into our home to help care for our baby while the older children were in school, she laughed right out loud.

“Great! Now you’ll have FOUR kids!” she said, and come to think of it she was right about that. I felt such tenderness for this sweet young woman, so far from her home in the Alps, that my ‘office hours’ as a listening mom never ended. A full 90 minutes after I was supposed to be at church for choir practice, say, I’d still be sitting on the front hall stairs with one of them, whether the seven-year-old, or the nine-year-old, or the 19-year-old, listening, listening, car keys dangling in one hand – ‘til it got so late I knew the only lights on at church would be the outdoor ones illuminating the steeple.

She was pretty frail by then and she could hardly see, but she weighed in on things just the same.

“An aging actor in the White House?” was one tart remark from the spring of 1980.

Another: “Cookies IN the ice cream? Isn’t that going a bit far?”

Every week I would drive the 20 miles to my childhood home to see her and if I was ever delayed because of a deadline she’d be equally frank.

“Just write anything!” she would cheerily say on those occasions, even knowing that the wonky, stay-up-all-night-doing-homework daughter she had raised could never do a thing like that.

She loved to laugh. here she is the day she came home from the hospital with a broken hip that would keep her out of work for a month. Still smiling, as you can see.

mom nan '67 mom broken hip

Twenty years after, with Nan beside her

Eventually, she moved to a wonderful assisted living facility in my town – and brought her renegade ways with her: Once during a fire drill there, with sirens blasting, she buttonholed her best pal Alice, who was obediently caning her way toward the elevator. “Never mind that nonsense!” Mom told her with a wink. “Come, we’ll hide in my room here, and have some sherry!”

Ah, she was something. And what a hole her passing left in my life. In the weeks after it, I listened for her on every frequency I could think of. Where WAS she?

I heard nothing for months. And then I had this dream:

In it, she and I were descending a wide flight of stairs; kind of sprinting down them, in fact, with that galloping rhythm you develop when you do that.

I suddenly realized what was happening. “Mom you’re RUNNING!” I said.

“I know, isn’t it great? I’m not old anymore!” she said back.

And that was the dream. It lasted maybe two seconds.

Still, it comforted me.

And in these weeks with so much stirring and returning to life, the thoughts of powers beyond our ken? Well, those thoughts comfort me still.

Nan says goodbye to Mom

and twenty years after that, as Nan looks upon her face one final time

Road Trip

st joseph's hospitalI had to drive 100 miles on that cold short day and already it was 3pm.

I stopped first at my local gas station where the attendant always speaks to me in such a friendly manner.

“How was that funeral you went to?” he asked.  “It was in your home town, you said.”

“The funeral was really beautiful, but it was sad seeing the changes there. I went past a hospital that they’re tearing down now. I had to drive by twice to get it through my head that it would soon be gone.” As I spoke my thoughts strayed to the times we visited my mother there when she broke her hip, and our cheery aunts and uncles kept coming with sherry and little crystal glasses to drink it from, talk about your vanished world!

“The whole building was laid open,” I told him, “like a dollhouse, only with the roof gone too. It’s hard to see change like that, you know?”

“I know,” he said. “Oh, I know!”

He did know. Of course he knew. We are all refugees from the past.

I began my long drive then, and noticed after just the first few miles that the large box I had dropped on my foot just before leaving home was still ‘with’ me. Though it hadn’t hurt much at the time, a sharp pain was now radiating up my leg and into my hip..

I saw I had no choice. I would have to use the last of the fading light to get off the highway and buy some sort of analgesic.

This I did, literally limping into the first discount drug store I passed. I grabbed some Tylenol gel caps from the ‘pain’ aisle and limped out again, heading for the fast food joint next door in search of water to wash it down.

“What can I get you?” said the young woman behind the counter. “Oh, what’s wrong?” she added, reading the look on my face.

I told her. She gave me a big cup of water, no charge, and just as I was tipping back the two capsules she stopped me.  “That’s Tylenol PM!” she cried, half a second before it had gone down my throat, thus saving untold numbers of motorists from sharing the road with a seeming narcoleptic.

I thanked her and got back on the highway.

There was traffic by then and it had begun to rain.

An hour passed. Two hours. Finally, just ten miles from my destination, I stopped to gather myself a bit and elevate my foot.

I chose the 99, a chain restaurant. I love all chain restaurants, for so many reasons: The breezy manner of the wait staff, the speediness of the  service, the way they know right away that yes, you would like some popcorn while  you’re looking over the menu and so they just bring it to you.

I ate and looked around and slowly my stress level ebbed.

And when I saw the little girl gently leading her blind grandpa by the hand to the booth their family had chosen, the stress went away completely. It went away because there,  near the end of my long day, I realized what its lesson had been: That we are not alone in this life. That we too are led, escorted in a way, both by those we love and by kindly strangers.

This all happened last week. It was a good lesson to end the year on.

the tylenol pm

Death in December (Lighting Their Way)

parents cradling their newbornOn this one-week anniversary of the killings in Newtown comes this  last meditation, which appeared all  around the country as my column for the week. Peace of mind and rest to us all on this day of Solstice. From here on, more and more light, we pray…

The weather has been warm for December, though the lilacs are huddled down in my yard as if bracing themselves for what New England has taught them to expect of winter.

At this time of year, all growing things bow earthward, their heads tucked under their wings, so to speak, in preparation for the assault of killing cold.

Yet still the assault has held off. The other day the air felt so moist and forgiving the branches of the forsythia began swelling into life.

It reminded me of a winter day like this when our friends welcomed a baby into the world.

The delivery had been normal, and the child was a beauty. All seemed well – until his color changed a few hours after the birth.

He was X-rayed and CAT-scanned, hurriedly placed beneath the microscope of modern medicine. It turned out his heart had not developed properly—not in the early months when Nature means for a heart to grow whole—and not later either.

He could not live, our friends were told. He might not last the night. His small pump of a heart could not sustain the effort necessary to keep him alive, the doctors said.

But this is not just a story of loss.

It is a story of love, and what love can do.

The baby lived four days. His mother kept him in her room at the hospital. Grandparents arrived from out of state, and his two-year-old brother was brought in to meet him.

They rocked and talked to their child. They greeted him like any family would greet it new­est member.  They said,  “Here you are, finally!” They said, “It’s us: the ones you have been given to!”

They held him and said their hellos. They held him and said their good-byes.

They took the short time given them to love this child, and  put it to good use.

Without ac­knowledging the darkness ahead, they sunned him in the light of their love and it was easy for them to do so.

Why?

Because he was here today. Because that’s the most any of us can be sure of: that we’re here now, for a while, to carve out a bright place in the surrounding darkness. To connect with one another, just as these grieving families in Newtown are doing now.

Like that doomed newborn, their children surely had felt love in their time here. And I don’t doubt that in the place where they now reside, they hold in their immortal souls the memory of how rich a thing it is to dwell upon this earth.

It is a memory given them by their families and their community,  families and a community dissolved now in grief.

To bury a child is a crime against nature, they say, a cruel twisting of the natural order.

It can only feel strange and unnatural, like warmth of days on winter’s threshold.

But winter is winter and death is death. Children do die, and the earth dies too and the grass turns to brown. The book of our lives is shot through with sad chap­ters such as these.

Yet death is not the story’s title. And death is not the chapter’s close.

It’s what is done in the face of death that makes the tale worth reading. It’s forsythia buds swelling in December. Or people like the parents we grieve with this week, lighting their children’s way, with their candles and their prayers.

Ladders

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.

 

As the Funerals Continue

Today, as the funerals continue, I think of the first time I heard the song Suo Gan, sung by a very young Christian Bale in Spielberg’s heart-rending 1987 film Empire of the Sun.

It’s an Old Welsh lullaby, always sung in Welsh and the translation of one verse goes like this:

To my lullaby surrender, Warm and tender is my breast
Mother’s arms with love caressing Lay their blessing on your rest
Nothing shall tonight alarm you, None shall harm you, have no fear
Lie contented, calmly slumber On your mother’s breast…

I won’t say more now but only offer for us all imperishable music,  the lullaby itself,  from the throats of these youth:

First the Mourning. Then, the Work

from a window's upper sash

When I wake mornings, I look out the window and across the street at ‘my’ trees first, which are not mine at all except in the sense that we come to think of as ours all  the things we truly love. I see them bare and bony right now, though they toss with buds in spring, and are all ruddy at the top, like kitchen matches, in the fall.

Watching them yesterday as the sun edged up over the horizon, I saw something I had not noticed before: cast into perfect silhouette by the horizontal rays of its rising light the familiar peaks and gables of my own house, sewn like Peter Pan’s shadow onto their barky breasts.

It startled me, as a reflection caught and given back to us in passing shop windows startles; and it reminded me of something, elusive at first, but then coming clear: Old photographs taken at the dawn of my life, in those dear quiet days of the corduroy overalls and the very-early suppers.

I have these photos, as everyone else does, piled in a shoebox, recording us children costumed for some school play, or rosy-cheeked in snow. And in many of them, more than our photographer-grownups ever intended, appear, lying in the foreground across the swath of green lawn or white snow, the shadows of the grownups themselves, with the hairdos and hats of another era, heads inclined and shoulders hunched in concentration over the small magic boxes of their cameras.

They thought to record us. I see now with keener eyes that they also recorded themselves.

Thus do we sense the light press of our presence in the world, I thought yesterday when I woke: intermittently, and almost by accident.

But we are in the world, and we can do more than we think.

Watching the outpouring of emotions here on the internet stands as testimony: we can rid our society of gun violence. We can make the world safer. Think of the saying widely attributed to Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This next week: the mourning. Then, the work.

The Last Fun Day

On the last fun day we had together, we built a race track that these two had given to our little guys. They waited this long to bring it forth, knowing it would be a big hit after things had settled down some. After the little boys had done simpler things, like climb into this unfinished cabinet and make twin bunk-bed forts there. After they had worked on their Lego sets for hours and done all the puzzles and cooked up the Shrinky-Dinks.

All my life I wanted to replicate the family feeling I grew up with when my sister Nan and I had a mother and a grandfather, a pretty young aunt coming over every day to work at the family business and the real stars of the show, those ancient great aunties, one in the chair where she sat in her old-lady shoes with her stockings rolled down to her ankles and the other scooting around in her dark blue Keds, making the beds and the jelly and the chicken ‘n dumplings 90% of her waking hours and only then sitting, when her 90-year-old legs begged her for a little time off.

When we came into the kitchen there were always people there, our pretty Aunt Grace with her light high voice like a bell or our mom with her contralto growl. (Was it the cigarettes or was it the irony she cloaked herself in to keep pain at bay? ) Great Aunt Margaret when not saying her beads, would beopening her mail: ten thousand solicitations from the world’s unfortunates. (“I‘m dead with praying for the blind orphans!” she once cried.) And Great Aunt Mame, a spinster since she stopped looking in the 1880s, would be snorting at the engagement announcements in the paper. (“For every old sock there’s an old shoe!” she would tartly pronounce.)

The women cooked all week for the one man in the house, our grandfather, who came home from some bland emeritus tasks at his law office to sit in his wing chair and read his histories and biographies, carefully cutting the pages open as he went with a pen knife once belonging to his own dad (seen here as he looked newly arrived from Ireland in the early 1850s.)

How keenly do I miss these many now! How more keenly still would I miss them had I not been able to make a family very similar to that one I grew up with. By which I only mean to say that for the last week there were nine of us together under one roof, ten if you count that unborn baby. And when our kids were kids it was the same: every room filled with kin, both ‘real’ and ‘honorary’ such that at night to the owls passing high overhead this house must have seemed to billow with our common breathing.

Anyway, here’s the race track in motion. That’s our first ‘honorary’ son Dodson and his Veronica admiring it to the left, and our youngest ‘child’ Michael doing the same to the right. The little guy in the middle, named for ‘my’ David, has the last word, that as far as I’m concerned, can stand for this whole ride of mine through life:

“That was awesome!” you’ll hear him cry at the end. And yes it was and I hope I have the sense to say so too.