The world is crying. With rain.
Time shrunk into single themes.
Shame time. Guilt time. Loss time. Hate.
Folded onto itself, like the press of an accordion.
Each fear, for instance, experienced at once.
All the ways we are wrong.
No room for breath.
Expanding the folds of time.
With the rain.
On Crucifixion Day, I think of therapists–all those who make sacred the pain of others. Of social workers–who advocate for those who suffer. Of activists–who champion the cause. Of teachers–who point the way through. Of artists–who awaken the soul of hope. Of politicians–who define the course of a nation.
By Easter Eve, I found my mind, petal soft–the gift of a day of meditation with Tara Brach. By Easter morning, there is a personality Resurrection. Petals crushed by grasping.
I missed Easter once before–in 2007–during a training. I wasn’t nearly as sad this time (my kids are older now), but I did mourn the absence of ritual until I realized that I had been delivered an even better Easter Basket:
Deep presence… my rich chocolate bunny;
Beginning again (and again)–my egg hunt;
Tara’s jokes–color-full jelly beans; Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health–the basket;
300 students–the grass of consciousness; Tara Brach‘s Loving Presence weekend–received.
“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said — no.
But somehow we missed it.”
That quote, or one very much like it, was tacked above my desk in the apartment where I lived during my senior year at the University.
I wrote it down on one of my study cards because of Carol’s brother Dave.
He fell asleep at the wheel.
Dave was just a year ahead of us in school, and we had been at a party together the week before.
The enormity of the fragility of life, at an age when we were supposed to be immortal, shook me, and put me into an early depression at a time when I was meant to be living high.
This quote returns to me now, 30 years later, when I visit another college friend. After another accident.
I sit off to the side in the crowded sanctuary with her profile in view. Her hair, once tight and curly, dark as night, is now silver like the moon, straight and streaming.
My mind flashes back on other times together long ago. On silent walks across the campus in the snow. On late nights that forced us out into the hallway outside our dorm rooms to whisper about life and love and what to do about both. A train across Europe. A ferry boat. The streets of London.
While her teenage children grieve the loss of their father, I think back to when she and I belonged to ourselves.
If we knew then what lie ahead, could we have taken another step forward?
We would have said — no.
And yet, if we could go back, knowing what we know now, I wonder if we’d change a thing.
cream butter and cream cheese thoroughly; mix in sugar and add vanilla and nuts
if it seems dry, add a little milk
(my mother’s recipe)
I remember the first birthday cake that I ever baked. It was my father’s thirty-second birthday.
It was also the first occasion that we celebrated in our new home on Connor Rd–a steep hill lined with duplexes, reserved for officers. We lived at the very top, and looked out over the base and into the embrace of the Highlands above the mighty Hudson River.
Years later, many, many years later (but before Homeland Security), I returned to West Point to discover that I could no longer see the river from our place. The view had been obscured by trees–ones that had only just been planted when I first arrived on the base at the age of 11.
It was the mid-seventies, and my mother was still baking from scratch (sometimes), and sewing our costumes for Halloween (all the time), and keeping our house immaculately tidy–except for now. Now, she was crying in the tiny bathroom off the small kitchen which was just like all the others in this row of Captains quarters.
Beneath us, on the flat stretch below, were the First Lieutenant’s homes–somewhat smaller, and without a view, but nicer than those beneath them–in the apartments assigned to Second Lieutenants.
We would live on this base in this duplex for 3 years, until my father became a Major, which wasn’t enough of an advancement to get us one of those fancy homes with the big lawns and the screened porches. My father used to drive us down those tree-lined roads, which were closer to the Academy and the Chapel; and sometimes, he’d even venture into the exclusive cul-de-sac at the heart of West Point–reserved for Generals.
My mother hadn’t left yet. Hadn’t woken us girls up and carried the youngest ones out to the car sleeping, and then silently winded her way through the base, past the Generals’ homes, and out the gate, into Highland Falls; where she pulled up to the curb at the liquor store; and I held my breath; before she drove 4 hours in the dark to her hometown at the shore.
On my father’s thirty-second birthday, in mid-September, she hadn’t mustered that courage. Instead she was weak, and weepy, like a dog.
In fact, when I think back to this day, I think of Tigger–the dog that belonged to my baby sister once she was grown. I remember hearing her scold Tigger once, and then I watched, as Tigger bowed her head, slinked into the bathroom, and hid there until she was absolved.
My mother was hiding too. She had been hiding for a long time. Hiding pain. Hiding the bottle. Hiding from my father.
On this day, he banished her from the celebration at the kitchen table saying, “You don’t belong here, Mommy.”
She was drunk.
Because she was drunk, I decided that I would be the one to make the cake.
Carrot cake was my father’s favorite, and my mom made it every year with that cream cheese frosting and pecans.
It was a tall order for my first try. I never made it to the frosting.
The cake sat there–flat–on the table between us. Stiff, like clay, in our mouths. Especially after we sang Happy Birthday, Daddy to the sound of our mother’s shame echoing off the walls of the tiny bathroom.
A teenager from my son’s highschool was killed in a car accident yesterday afternoon.
My son missed the bus home, and now we need to find him a ride.
(At least he’s alive.)
When a child dies, it doesn’t matter whether you know him or his mom, it hurts deep inside.
My son missed the dinner I made for just the three of us.
(At least he’s alive.)
On Facebook, fellow teenagers pour out their hearts on Daniel’s wall: “We’ll miss you buddy.” “I can’t believe we won’t see you again.” “You’re the man.” “Rest in peace.” “I wish we hung out more.” “I only talked to you once or twice.” “I was such a bitch.” “I can’t imagine life without you.”
Daniel’s mom posts her son’s picture with the words, “Beautiful boy.”
Lloyd never calls me back to tell me when he’s getting home.
(I need to know he’s alive.)
Daniel’s grandmother was in the car too, and she’s just made it through a night of surgery.
My youngest son, Aidan, left this morning for his class field trip to Cape Cod. He’s only eleven.
(I hope he’s alive.)
Facebook mirrors the dichotomies of our lives–one lost and another’s just begun. Babies born. Hearts broken. Lost puppies found. All day long.
On this particular day, I’ve watched the posts of relatives make their way to Costa Rica for my cousin’s wedding. The Houston airport. Philadelphia. New York. Each about to intersect in a celebration of joy which takes place at 11:11 on 11/11/11.
While at the same time, Daniel’s wall continues to fill with voices from near and far, converging to say… goodbye.
At the tender age of 7, my family left the East Coast for the Rockies–and I spent an entire summer at the sea with my grandparents before heading west myself.
During the ensuing years of my father’s surgical residency, I would fall in love with Colorado, but those solo months at the shore were a time of utter bliss for me. Instead of being the oldest of 3 (and later 4, and then 5 and 6…), for one splendid summer, I was an only child in a home with two adults who adored little else but me.
Forty-years later, this time still serves as a touchstone of self-awareness and expression; but as a mother myself, I’ve begun to question its place in my life, especially when I wake with a migraine after a vulnerable night with memories of this summer flooding in.
One big question I have is this: How was it possible for me or my parents to be separated for that long?
Despite a healthy dose of autonomy, my own children would never choose to spend an entire summer away, even at ten, let alone 7–and, I myself, couldn’t bear it, no matter how nice it would be to have one less child.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember feeling homesick, not a bit. In fact when the day came for me to fly out to the Rockies, I had to be yanked from under the covers of my grandparents’ bed; and later, at the airport, ripped from their arms. I cried so hard on the flight that the attendant slapped me in the face. (Such was the seventies.)
Weeks later, I found a letter that my grandmother wrote to my parents, saying that my Poppop had to wear his sunglasses out of the airport because he was crying so hard. I carried that testimony of love with me in my pocket and unfolded it day after day to read on the black top under the bright sun at my new school–the school where my third grade teacher put tape on my mouth. When that letter became so creased that the words began to fade, I penciled them down on an index card to make them (and me) last.
Time passed and the long, dark winter settled in, until I became so numb to feelings that I’d imagine some awful fate taking the lives of my grandparents just so I could cry.
At night, I would dream of their home and find myself back in their bed. That dream came so often that I began to think that it would transport me–if only I could remember to hold tightly to the bed post before I woke.
My own boys adore their grandparents just as much as I did; but in the end, they want to go home with me. At age 7, why didn’t I want to be with my family?
Interestingly, my grandmother was an alcoholic; and my parents knew that, but that didn’t stop them from leaving me in her care.
Nana didn’t drink until after 5 and so I was well tended–until dinner–when the food was half-cooked and she’d send me to bed with the sun.
On the nights when she went out on the town with my grandfather, she left me alone. Hiring a babysitter would be wasteful when I’d be sleeping, she said. The police and fire stations were right across the street; and “Tiger” was in the house (even if he was a Poodle.) It made sense to me, even if I did feel small in that big house all by myself.
Nana would tuck my tiny frame into the safety of her big bed and let the sound of the air condition hum me to sleep. As night fell, I’d watch the lights of the passing cars circle the ceiling as her four walls darkened.
Nana’s house sat on Pacific Avenue. Brick, with white columns and a manicured lawn. There were 3 bedrooms, two baths, and a parlor and sun porch on one side, with a large kitchen and equally large dining room. There was a dumbwaiter that ran from the second floor to the basement for laundry, and an “out” kitchen for storage, and a place to clean clams or crabs or turkeys. In the new addition, there were more bathrooms, a sprawling den lined with a dozen closets, and a large dormitory above the garage.
The “dorm” is where my father and his brothers slept when they were boys, and it was there that I was sent to sleep when I had friends or cousins over—-seemingly miles away from the master bedroom.
My home base was my Aunt Barbara’s old room right across from my grandparents. It had pretty yellow striped wallpaper with ruffles and bows–hung especially for her 16th birthday (while she was away at boarding school.) There were heavy drapes hung above each window, beyond which I could see the rich green ivy that climbed the brick.
In the summer, the radiators made nice perching places–especially for the countless stuffed animals that had been won on the boardwalk. There was a blue tub in my very own bathroom, and my grandparents had their own too, but I knew no boundaries between us.
I never tired of climbing up to sit on the counter beside their sink, looking at myself in the wall-length mirror; and opening and closing the medicine cabinet so that I could see countless me’s between the two reflections.
From the deck off their bedroom, I’d look straight out at the ocean, just a few blocks away, and then turn to see the bay in the opposite direction.
Down in the basement was my young Uncle Jeff’s room where he hung dark posters on the cement walls and lit up the space with lava lamps. There was a kitty in a box, and sometimes Uncle Jeff would take me and the kitty on a ride downtown or up to the Boardwalk Chapel where he’d give out flyers for Jesus who found him before he went to Viet Nam.
My Poppop wasn’t around during the day, but once and awhile he’d take me along to the hospital, and the nurses would give me cookies and milk while he did his rounds. On the weekends, we’d visit his friends and I’d drink gingerale while they shared something stronger. In the evenings, he might take me out for Chinese or for ice cream; and everywhere we went, he was famous–and by relation, I was too. “Hello Doctor!” the shop owners would call, practically begging us to enjoy as much as they could offer, free of charge.
On Sunday afternoons, Poppop took me up in his little plane and I would drink a small bottle of Coca-Cola from the red machine outside the hangar. I don’t know if I was air sick or if it was the smell of carpet inside the new plane that bothered me, but either way I delighted in being above the world with him.
My Nana took me out as well, but not as much, and I don’t remember going many places with both of them together–except for the Yacht Club. There my Poppop would laugh and dance, while Nana got drunk, pulling me onto her lap to lavish hugs and kisses while she told anyone who would listen just how much she loved her oldest granddaughter. I liked leaving her there and wandering up the stairs to the fancy veloured powder rooms where children didn’t belong. From that vantage point above the main hall, I could see my Poppop’s oval-framed face among the previous Commodores who portraits circled the walls.
Even though I was only seven, I knew how to be a “young lady” so my Nana did bring along with her Women’s Investment Club to our “River Place” in Delaware. There they cooked up lobster and crabs and played cards at the felted poker table upstairs–which even had places for drinks and poker chips. I wasn’t allowed at the table, but before I was sent to bed, I got to watch them play.
I also got to go shopping with my Nana and my great-grandmother. My Nana insisted on finding her mother an appropriate blouse for an upcoming occasion. She settled on a silk one, in cream, with a large ascot at the neckline. Waiting in the car, I discovered that I didn’t like shopping even if I knew how to be a lady; and that a great-grandmother could seem like a child in the presence of her grown daughter.
Sometimes my great-grandmother would visit us at the shore; and she and I would sneak out to the corner store for bubble gum which we would hide deep in our pockets and chew behind the book shelves in the den so that my Nana wouldn’t find us.
Most days were shaped solely by seven-year old me. After breakfast, I’d head to the beach with friends, go out to lunch at Snuffys (where my grandfather kept a tab for me), and head over to the ballpark in the afternoon to eat Resees Cups with my friend Debbie whose mom ran the concession stand.
The world was clearly my oyster.
Imagine the joy of shaping each of your summer days without the interference of parents. My own boys would be in heaven!
Or would they? I often look back and wonder how a seven-year old survived with such little care.
I crossed streets and went about the town on my own. I went out too deep into the ocean and a big wave took me down. My friends didn’t notice because they were all taller than me. I could swim, but I almost drowned. Ever since, big waves have frequented my dreams.
In truth, there was some structure to my days. There were swimming lessons and sailing lessons. There was a week in Atlantic City with my great Aunt Jane, and overnights with my mother’s family who lived nearby on the “other” side of town.
That grandmother was an alcoholic too. But unlike Nana’s nightly cocktail hour, “Gram” only drank on the weekends when she wasn’t cooking for the priests out at the Retreat. She’d start on Friday night and drink through Sunday, taking to her bed with a bottle and a pile of books. Both grandmothers were uncharacteristically warm and loving when they were drunk, even if it was over the top.
At Gram’s house, there was no dinner time or bedtime and I could stay up well past midnight, watching old movies like, Arsenic and Old Lace. I could drink black tea with loads of sugar, and I could climb the fence and run over to the seafood place by the bridge for crab cakes; and chew as much bubble gum as I wanted.
One night, when a big storm was coming up the coast, Gram and my mom’s sisters found out that my Nana was leaving me home alone. They took turns calling to offer to have me overnight, but in the face of their concern, my Nana dug her heels in. Once she left the house, they descended upon it and sat with me in her bedroom until her car pulled into the driveway. I fell asleep equally fascinated and fearful of both the thunder and the commotion that my care had caused between families.
If my parents welcomed a summer with one less child, particularly one with a strong independent streak who talked incessantly, they paid for it when I arrived back into their lives that August.
For I had expanded into a world of wild abandon, to the likes of Pippi Longstocking and Huck Finn.
Somewhere around the birth of my third sister in the subsequent summer, my mother started drinking, and my nightmares shifted from waves to fire and back again. Steeped in the sorrow of my lost summer at the shore, and without a clear sense of my place in my family, my feelings of freedom and love were transmuted into loneliness and responsibility.
I spent the ensuing years, begging to return to the sea, and when that miracle of miracles finally took place, seven summers later, my grandmother was killed in a car accident on a bridge just before I arrived.
Though my family had already resettled at the shore by this time, I had been left behind to finish school and to serve as a summer camp counselor. I stayed with our neighbors–a thirty-something, child-less couple, who gave me the very first room of my own and treated me like one of them.
That was the first time since I was seven that I had a sense of self outside the definition of family–and it felt good, and essential and life saving–and then criminal, upon the news of the tragedy that took not only my grandmother’s life, but those of her three card playing friends, my dear “aunties,” who were all on their way to an event together.
A few months later, my mother gave birth to my fourth sister and then the next year, to my fifth; after which my parents’ marriage disintegrated and my mother started drinking again. At 20, I extracted myself from family once more, putting the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean between us. While I was abroad, my mother’s mother died, but she never called to tell me.
And that is how fire and water, and freedom & loneliness, belonging & guilt, and got tangled up between me–and the sea.
“The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms.”
Once I drain a story from my soul, I feel refreshed, even if weary. Fire Drill was a traumatic memory to shake loose, but I rose to the challenge, knowing that I would be the better for it.
And yet, when finished, I felt the same: Tense, contracted, frightened.
“What’s wrong?” I ask my husband, “Why didn’t it work?”
He doesn’t answer because he is too moved by the post.
I’m honored when my writing moves others, but I depend on it to move me first. When it doesn’t, I wonder if I’ve lost my touch; which then leads me to question all of my “work”: Maybe my effort at healing is in vain, and I’m simply dishing up more drama.
These are the questions I share with my therapist when we examine the ancient fear lodged in my body. She encourages me to return to the cellar and to write my way out–this time, from the inside.
And so here I am…
The place that I feel in my bones is a crawl space under the stairs of our house. Although it is completely unfinished, my neighborhood “club” holds its first meeting there, momentarily delighting in the cave-like secrecy.
It isn’t wet, but it is damp. The concrete floors and walls are rough and cold. Though we are children, we can’t stand, and even seated, we have to duck to keep the ceiling from scraping our sculls.
I came to the cave with the innocence of a child, but in the course of this single night, both the world and I darken with age.
Returning there in my therapist’s chair, I hear her say, “You might have numbed yourself to avoid further fragmentation.”
At ten years old, I am certain that the reality of death will shatter me into pieces. Even numbed, I encounter every fear that I have ever known: Nuclear Holocaust. Murderers. Hansel and Gretel’s forest. My own mortality. Hell.
I freeze them all into place, in my belly, so that I will never feel them again. But their poison makes unexpected appearances at times of crisis so that I find myself inexplicably shaking as if frozen cold.
I hadn’t known then that I could let them go. I hadn’t known that I could face their terror and survive.
I thought I had to hide myself.
If only there had been someone’s kind arms around me. If only I hadn’t felt so abandoned and alone.
Despite the horror, I head down the stairs to the cellar of my childhood and find myself trembling in the crawl space.
I wrap myself in a warm blanket and gather myself into my arms.
I don’t try to hush the anguish away because there is no hushing about a boy whose whole family perishes in flames.
I stay there with me, holding vigil with the pain, until the light of day.
And then I take my hand, and together we head out of the cave to search for the beauty that always manages to recreate itself in the most unexpected places.
It’s amazing to me that a sound that causes my heart to race and my head to pound does nothing to rouse my slumbering sons.
I imagine I slept like that too. Before I hit middle age. Before the kids were born. Before.
Were there even smoke alarms in houses when we were kids? (“We” meaning all those growing up in the sixties and seventies or earlier.)
I can remember “fires,” but not alarms.
The first one came the Sunday that the whole family went to church. My dad, an agnostic half-Jew/half-Protestant; and my mother, a lapsed Catholic, blamed the fire on their unusual attendance. They never went again.
Four fire trucks were dispatched, and one of our neighbors, a teenage football player in a leg cast, threw snowballs into the flames until the fireman arrived.
It was the sashes to our Christmas dresses, placed too closely to the furnace, that caused them to ignite.
We were actually at home–upstairs in the living room, with the orange chair, and the fish tank, talking about the novelty of attending church together. Usually my parents sent us along to Sunday school without them. I was maybe ten, which makes my younger sisters, 7 and 4 and 1.
I think my father smelled the smoke first and went down to check it out, hollering up to my mother to call the department. (There were no portable phones on every floor back then.)
Ironically, my father had just enacted our first “fire drill” the week before to prepare us for such an event. Unlike the drill, we proceeded simply and safely (though anxiously) out the front door.
Not so, the other family in our small town outside Denver. Only one was safe, and he was thrown out the window into his grandmother’s arms. Luckily she lived in their converted garage apartment.
This little boy went to my school, and although I didn’t know him, his story lingers in my memory, thirty something years later. It still stops my breath to tell it–whether to my therapist or here, this morning.
Tommy’s older brother had roused him out of bed, threw him out the window, and went back into the flames for his sisters. They were in the shower–a last attempt for safety or maybe it was his mother that was in the shower and his sisters were in bed. I don’t remember where they found the father.
We had another one a few years later when we were visiting my grandparents house. It was the room where I was staying that burst in flames, eating away at my clothes in the open suitcase and burning through the walls to the brick exterior of the house.
Fortunately, I spent the night at my aunt’s place down the street where I was babysitting younger cousins. But I remember the phone call in the middle of the night. It was the fire department urgently checking on the whereabouts of family members. I remember the dark street and the flashing lights, and everyone standing outside in their robes. I remember my grandmother trembling, insisting it wasn’t her cigarettes that caused the fire.
She perished the next summer in a fiery car wreck.
It’s this history that’s tripped every time a smoke alarm goes off–which ours seem to do way too often despite the lack of cause. My husband changes the batteries regularly and vacuums out the dust as needed, but still they wake us at night, particularly in the summer. I suspect that bugs are attracted to their light.
And while the alarms no longer trip the anxiety that kept me awake for hours, I do notice my breath constricting and my body tensing, even the next day.
Not so my boys who sleep right through the whole debacle of their father running around the house at three in the morning to discover which alarm has triggered the others, leaving them scattered around the house.
I try my best not to think about it. Maybe we don’t need an alarm in every bedroom and on every floor on just this night–or however long it takes him to solve the problem this time.
But I have to admit, that although I can fall back to sleep, the sight of a smoke alarm on the table instead of where it should be, takes me back to ten years old.
The night after Tommy’s family died in the fire, I shivered in fear under the stairs of my house. I had taken my sleeping bag there to the cement crawl space in our cellar and stayed there all night until the sun rose and lightened my fears.
My own son turned ten this week and I worry that he has fears that keep him awake at night. I hope that he’ll reach out to me to comfort him, rather than tremble alone; but there seems to be some necessary gulf between parents and children as we come of age.
So instead, I head down to the cellar of my childhood, and find my own ten-year old self there, under the stairs; and listen to her fears and write them here, in the hope of softening yet another layer of memory as we tremble in each others arms.