He who has ears to hear, let him hear

Posted by on Jul 26, 2009 in Death and renewal, Spirit | 0 comments

Years ago a child the age of my son was found dead in our area under the most horrible of circumstance. I called my sister crying about this precious 6 year old boy whose last hours on earth were unspeakably horrible. She said to me, “Well, you watch your son more carefully. Nothing like that could happen to yours.” I was dumbfounded. I replied, “but it happened to this child.” I tried to explain my feelings, and as loving and caring a person as she is, she just never got it. My dear friend “Wings” wrote a post about wanting everyone in the world to care as much as she did. I do not wish to sound self-serving or self-righteous, or any of those self things I hate, but she and I are kindred spirits. I explain myself today for her, so she will know she is not alone in her feelings. I also know her life has been much more difficult than mine and her expression of her sentiment is therefore different.

Still, those that are put in our path needing love, we love. Over the years I have “adopted” a dozen or more friends of my children, let them move into my home, listened to their stories, and made sure they had what they needed to finish school and stand strong on their own. A few disappointed me, but most found their feet and moved on to be wonderful, even amazing humans. Long before I met my ever so indulgent husband I was doing the same for every waif I found on the street. I never questioned why or hesitated to reach out my hand. Often I had nothing to give but love, but love alone is usually sufficient. I feel blessed that I have been given the gift of being able to nurture the ones who have been sent to my door. Like Wings, I will never understand why everyone does not feel this way, but unlike her, I have come to accept it.

I think you all know that I am not religious. The terrible hypocrisy of Christians just rung me out and left me high and dry, but to be other than who I am would be a blot on my soul. I hate to quote the book, fearing lightning will strike me, but I suppose I took it to heart when I read, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is reported to have said it over dinner, which they call supper where I was reared. He looked around the table at his closest friends and told them how to live their lives when he was gone, but purportedly he was also anticipating my birth and yours and, therefore was speaking to us all.

Thanks God, I heard you. If I’m wrong about this whole spirit in the sky thing, and you’re listening, I just want you to know, I am not asking for anything more than what I have. To be completely honest I find the love thing totally magical, perhaps the only magic left on earth. The more I give, the more I get. I don’t want to deceive you, sometimes it hurts, but it also makes my life rich beyond measure. I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Posted by on Jul 5, 2009 in Death and renewal, Spirit | 0 comments

She was the perfect picture of rustic misery, standing by the roadside in a pouring rain, bleached blond hair tied in two hurried and unruly frizzles behind her ears. Her smoldering cigarette was cupped by her thigh, sheltered only slightly from the downpour, her other hand lay across her torso about waist high, fist clutched in a knot, as if she just swallowed something noxious. Glancing at her tight jeans and the black leather jacket that almost covered her exposed midriff, I looked about for her motorcycle. There was only a pickup truck with the driver door open parked all alone near the front entrance of the boarded up corner store. Last I remember the store had been a mom and pop grocery, but before that an ice cream shop, prior to being a feed store, and a at some point, an equestrian supply shop. Although it is only 3 miles from the house I have lived in for over 2o years, I have never been inside it during any reincarnation.

The lot sits in what appears to be the path of progress, but for some reason, likely zoning laws, progress has skipped and hopped over it all these years. Farms blanket the road on both sides, green and seemingly prosperous. I follow the woman’s stony gaze down to the black gash that stretches across a section of the corner near the road, a burned circle about 40 feet across. The headlines from last week suddenly become real, “Two die in fiery crash in Hanover County”. Like always, I start making up story lines to explain her stance, her facial expression, her clothing. It has no basis in fact. It is sheer intuition, an educated guess from years of careful observation and my propensity for chatting up everyone from an Amish housewife in Pennsylvania to the Turkish janitor in my long ago apartment in NYC. My children consider this an affliction, like some sort of tourettes that grips me, and I suppose they are not entirely wrong although I like to think of it as a writers disease.

I look both ways for traffic, pausing longer than necessary in order to hold a picture of her in my mind. She is a cardboard cutout I can cover with flesh as I drive down the back roads on the first leg of my Sunday morning trip to Arlington. She knew the people that died, not as well as she would have liked, but they were kind to her. Perhaps she met them at the WalMart store where the man worked after his retirement. She recalls a last casual conversation, a smile, a laugh, but overriding it all all she imagines the horror of their last minutes on earth, trapped inside the burning van. She searches for some reason, some divine plan, but soon gives it up as past her understanding. There is no balm in Gilead for her this Sunday morning. She stands for long minutes crying tears for them and for herself and for life’s irony. She does not use words like irony, but nonetheless it’s part of the uncomfortable and all too familiar ache that twists inside of her.

Soon she will go back to her truck, vowing to be a better person from now on, but when she gets home the chaos of her life will intrude, and like all of us, she will soon forget. Her husband will ask her where she went and why she left him at home with the kids. Her best option is to shrug and tell him quickly and honestly, but she will be filled with emotions she has no words to express. Likely the conversation between them will be unsettling, perhaps argumentative. The angry words will come as a surprise to them both.

I gathered the newspaper out of the recycle bin when I got home Sunday night. The man was 76 a veteran of Korea and VietNam, a retired police officer, a life spent in harm’s way. His wife is remember as a loving mother, devoted to her children and grandchildren. They say his van veered into the path of an oncoming truck, ran off the road, and burst into flames immediately. There is no picture of them in the paper. My only remembrance of them will be this sad woman, standing like the scarecrow of death by the side of the road, her station in life written as clearly as her private pain across her face. She does not hang her head or sigh. She stares directly into the face of the familiar enemy. She does not go home and write a poem or paint a picture of it, she simply wears it into the weeks and years to come, like gypsy gold.

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Not Quite Ready for that Rocking Chair

Posted by on Jul 8, 2008 in My Children, Spirit | 0 comments

Some years ago my oldest son, exasperated with my search to find a pair of glasses when I needed to read fine print, bought me one of those chains with the little elastic loops to hang a pair around my neck. Even though I know I’m not suppose to look a gift horse in the mouth, I was less than gracious when I realized that he actually intended for me to go around accessorized in granny mode. He was thinking practically, in that way that men do. I was thinking, what’s next, some of those old lady lace up wedge heels, a hot pink polyester pants suit with the baggy ass and a little flowered over blouse, or maybe one of those white visor hats with blue hair peaking through the open top. What he doesn’t understand besides the fact that his mom is not ready for the nursing home is the looking for glasses thing can happen at any age, and it’s not such a bad thing.

Consider this morning when I put on a pot of coffee and sat down in front of the computer only to discover that the pair I normally use was missing. Now, I can see the screen without them you know, but I’m worried about those little crow’s feet I’m making around my eyes, so I tried to think where I had last had them. Oh yes, downstairs night before last when I was cutting tile for our remodeling project. I headed down and chatted with my daughter who was trying to get ready for a busy day. After she left I mopped the floor, started the laundry, and picked up all the cans and bottles for recycling. With a basket of laundry in hand I headed back upstairs. On my second trip down to find my glasses I hung up damp shirts from the dryer, fed the cats, finished the mopping, got on my daughter’s Wii fit and found out I had lost 5 pounds on my diet this week. Yeah! I literally raced back up the steps. A short time later I realized I still didn’t have my glasses.

You can see where this is headed, and I guess you wonder how I ever get any computer time. Well fortunately on my third trip to find my glasses, I noticed them lying on the table when I stopped to dust the living room. Humm, I thought. The coffee is done and I need a cup. Maybe I’ll write for a while. Now I know I post infrequently and you’re looking for something profound when I show up, but today you are out of luck on that count. I think the message is that after all the sorrow of my recent days, I’m just happy to be here. For everything I wanted, deserved, and didn’t get there are an equal number that I am blessed with that I didn’t earn and didn’t even know I wanted. I have enough glasses that I can always find a pair, but I promise my son that if I ever get to the point that I don’t know where any of them are I will…no, wait, I still won’t wear them on a chain around my neck. Seeing that he’ll be 40 in April of 09 I might just pass the one he gave me on to him. Maybe I’ll also get him one of those jaunty hats that the old men who drive sports cars wear. Then I will stand back thank God for having at least one of my children when I was, uh, would you believe 10? Nope, I didn’t think you would.

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Mother’s Day

Posted by on May 11, 2008 in Death and renewal, Mother, Spirit | 0 comments

When I was a child, when I was a Baptist, when my mother was alive, we would be pinning on our corsages about this time on a Sunday morning. They would all be red carnations to honor our living mothers, and later I would look around the church sadly and uncomfortably at all the white ones that designated the departed mothers. My grandparents didn’t come to our church, but my mother’s mom attended the tiny chapel in Echols, Kentucky, where the only sign of civilization other than churches and houses was my grandfather’s general store. My dad’s mom didn’t go to church at all as she never learned to drive a car, had been reared as a Methodist, and was not especially religious, one of the things I liked about her. After what seemed an eternity of fidgeting on hard wooden pews in our itchy starched clothes, my parents would take my brother, sister and I out to eat in one of the two acceptable restaurants in our booming metropolis of Beaver Dam. It was a rare treat in those simpler times, a change from my mother’s roast beef waiting at home in the oven for the potatoes and carrots to be added and other vegetables to be cooked while we changed out of our Sunday best and helped Mother get dinner on the table.

This formulaic happy childhood exists for me now just out of the corner of my eye, disappearing if I look directly. Occasionally a smell assaults my nose and takes me back there in a quick flash, the wooden floors and ice cream smell of my grandfather’s store, the musty coal oil and biscuit odor of my grandmother’s house, the sweet funereal scent of a corsage, all transport me to those days of innocence. I can’t help but think about them all on this day, the tactless and self absorbed mother of my mother, the fierce and outspoken mother of my father, and the brilliant but insecure mother that reared me with a love that was deep enough to drown us all. Now they are all gone, dust to dust, and I am left to write the history the way I remember it.

Today my Mother’s day is not about flowers or church or dinner. In fact, we celebrated it yesterday, hiking the Rose River and Dark Hollow falls loop in the Shenandoah, my son and daughter in front of me most of the way, occasionally letting me lead. Dinner was an accidental discovery in Charlottesville in a restaurant that looked like a Big Boy Diner complete with a chrome counter, cozy booths, and black and white tile on the floor. It turned out to be an authentic Greek restaurant where we ate amazing stuffed grape leaves with Tzatziki, a delightful and authentic Greek salad with tons of feta, and grilled lamb and chicken on homemade pita. When I woke this morning I thought about what all of my foremothers might think about my unconventional taste, and I wondered what history will write for me in the hearts of my children and my grandchildren. I know it will be a story of love, hopefully one that knew when to let go, one where it did not take death to release a grip of control.

My girl and I sat in the back seat on the way from Charlottesville yesterday and I told her a story about the grandmother I loved most dearly, the one born on the day after her birthday, the one who may have bequeathed her a bit of stubbornness, a bit of delight. She was feeling patient and she listened to the tales of cooking stoves and flat irons. We moved on to summer evenings in Kentucky where we sat around the pool with her grandparents on the last night of our annual visit, the only time everyone finally relaxed. I questioned her about what the world could possibly hold for her and for me as we move swiftly into the future. I hold this precious minute in my hand, examine it, wish for it to last forever, and then it’s gone on the wind like dandelion fluff, to settle and grow in some unexpected place.

My children are restless today, one in Seattle with his wife, the future of our family in her body, one in Fredricksburg with a boy who wants to love her forever, one sleeping still in the basement, but soon to be gone, with only a spider’s silk string to find his way home. How I love them I cannot tell. Made of words alone, there is not a book big enough to hold the emotion. I want to thank them all today for making me a Mom, expanding my horizons, challenging me to do things I never believed possible when I was a child, when I was a Baptist, when my mother was alive.

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Rainy Days

Posted by on May 8, 2008 in Death and renewal, Spirit | 0 comments

This time of year never suits my temperament. I am too skeptical to trust the long soft days, the warm sun, the boring endless beauty of it all. Gerry, my daughter’s British father in law paid me his highest compliment on our children’s wedding day as I stood laughing under the dripping white tent in my backyard, barefooted and ankle deep in water. “You were born to be British,” he exclaimed and gave me a hug. I hugged him back and loved him from that moment on. Yes, I thought, I do pride myself on being a rock during disaster, but sometimes I wish I could relax and enjoy it when everything is going well. I’ve often tried to analyze this character trait; to decide if it’s good or bad. I have determined it makes no difference because it is too deeply ingrained to pry loose.

Even an innate expectation of disaster did not completely prepare any of us for the marriage not working out, but by the time she arrived home, my arm was steady for her to lean on until she found her feet again. She and Nick have managed to salvage a wonderful friendship from the ruins, as close as the one she has with her brothers. They talk on the phone every week and they still share each other’s joys and sorrows. She embraced his family as her own and he did the same with ours. Except for the ocean separating us we would find nothing awkward about including them all in family gatherings along with his girlfriend and her boyfriend. I’m certain his staunchly Catholic family would have more difficulty adjusting to that sort of unconventionality, but all in all, things turned out wonderfully well.

She went to Detroit this weekend, all sunshine and smiles on the outside, looking forward to the electronic music festival. She called me Friday night from somewhere in Ohio with that sound in her voice that sets off mama radar. “Bid is in hospital,” she said, in the British phrasing appropriate for the mother in law she still loves. “Nick’s in Shipley. He just called me. It’s a brain tumor Mom. She can’t speak or move her left side.” My mind flashes back through the relationship I too have shared with this lovely woman, the first time we met in there lovely family home, the bonding we all did together in August of 2005, during what came to be known as “Wedstock”, the bittersweet visit to say goodbye to those family ties a year ago this month. I allow myself only a microsecond of personal grief as I think about the faces of Bid’s children and grandchildren, but most of all, my own girl’s heartache.

“Are you okay,” I ask, knowing she will somehow feel to blame for this. She had a dream on Mother’s Day that Bid died. I know she’s thinking she should have insisted Bid go for testing at that time, perhaps before the tumor spread so far into the speech centers, perhaps when it could have been operable. It’s one of those foolish human things we all do, believing we have some control over a random universe. All weekend I have googled “brain tumor” and followed the threads past the grim prognosis for Ted Kennedy to a few places that give me hope for recovery. The odds depend on location and aggressiveness, neither of which we know at this point.

Tonight a part of my heart is in England in a comfortable modest home in Shipley. The piano in the dining room is silent, the brothers and sisters, the children and grandchildren who have come home from London, Scotland, Italy, and New Zealand sleep fitfully, if at all. It is dark there now, but when the morning sun rises it will fall first on the flowers in the back garden, the ones she tends so lovingly. They will all try to step around the empty place where she should be, but one by one they will trip and fall into it. There will be tears, but there will also be laughter, and hope, because she, the very definition of home for them all, has taught them well. For the few seconds after waking, before remembrance of the reality of the day, Gerry will think of the kettle, the trek to the kitchen and back to the bedroom with tea, the sweet moments together at the break of day, the ritual he has performed every day of their married life. Anguish will come back afresh when he rolls over into the empty space where she should be. I have no bargaining power with God and even if I did, I would have no idea what to ask. I only know life is capricious and even though the rain supposedly falls on the just and the unjust, this particular storm feels personal.

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Old Rag

Posted by on Sep 7, 2007 in All things natural, Spirit | 0 comments

It is already one PM when we get to the ranger station near White Oak Canyon, the morning squandered with chores, errands, packing and driving. The nice ranger behind the counter gives us the lowdown on what to expect from the mountain and the wilderness. We had already lied boldfaced to lady at the entrance to Skyline Drive when she asked us if we had rope to hang our food ten feet off the ground, but that was before we narrowly avoided hitting a young black bear that leaped across our path on the way up the road. We listened very seriously to the graybeard at the information center, trying to ask the right questions and get the answers that would keep us alive for the next few days. He kept focusing on how strenuous a journey we have picked. My girl chants optimistically, ”No problem mom, we can do it.” I turn to the cheerful man and say,

“She thinks I’m her age.” He smiles, but informs me, dead serious,

“If you make that climb, you are her age.” Even though a knot of fear and dread settled right between my shoulder blades, I knew from that minute on the mountain was mine.

We are both extremely thirsty, and know we have forgotten the camera, but when we head to the adjoining store we ignore a wall of photo equipment and glass cases of liquid in favor of spending thirty dollars on bear deterrents. Money well spent it turns out, but a bit myopic. A short drive brings us to the parking lot our friendly ranger has designated, and with weighty packs strapped somewhat comfortably on our bodies, we head off the eight or so miles to find a camp site. About a mile down the road I realized I have left our friend Jack Daniels in the back seat of the car. Knowing that medical emergencies might arise, it was an easy decision to sit my pack down for my girl to watch and jog back to the car. It was a long sweaty walk with full gear the rest of the way. My water was low, so I tried to conserve, although I felt myself becoming lightheaded and clumsy. The fire road we traveled through the still woods was beautiful and devoid of humans up until the moment my girl asked for me to get some snacks out of her backpack. Lifting my arms up to the top pocket, I found my head spinning and could not keep my footing. No one was more surprised than me when I found myself on the ground, struggling to lift the weight of my backpack and body off the gravel. Out of nowhere a man and his son came up behind and offered to help. I now know what superpower I want, teleportation, because if I could have, I would have vanished right before their eyes instead of lying there flailing my ineffectual arms and legs in the air like a turtle. When I unfastened the pack and stood up, the helpful man tried to lift it from the ground. I saw a flash of respect cross his face when he felt the weight of what I carried.

“Well, no wonder,” he said, leaving the pack where it lay. I shouldered it quickly, drank the rest of my water, and discharged him as rapidly as possible. When he passed from sight I checked the place that hurt, my left arm, and discovered I had a startling lump that projected about three inches, giving the appearance of another elbow forming right above my more familiar one. Eva asked if it was broken, and I quickly took stock. No, not enough pain for that, just a bit of trauma that will later become a flat fantastically colored bruise to compete with the others I am to acquire in the next few days, but I get ahead of my story.

We heard the sound of swift running water before we took the turn that brought us to the river. Thirsty and hot, the site looked like paradise. Under the shade of ancient trees was a bit of soft earth only requiring the removal and shifting of 5 or 6 fallen trees to make enough room for the tent. As few rocky steps took us down to the water, where we sat on a flat boulder, beside a natural pool, to filter desperately needed water. Three quarts later I am back in my right mind and ready to organize the campsite. My girl is as good a woodsman as I, with youth and strength on her side, so with a surge of pride I finally stepped aside and let her take charge. I started looking for a likely limb where our newly purchased rope could be attached. The problem with old growth forest is finding a branch low enough to the ground and strong enough to serve our purpose. With trepidation I finally lassoed one that was marginal at best, but tired and hungry, I decided it would do. Eva called me for dinner, a warming chickpea and sprout curry over rice made with the assistance of our newly purchased pocket sized propane cooker. Camp cleaned and food stowed in the trees, we were both sound asleep before dark was fully upon us. Several hours later we woke to the sound of a crash that cut through the constant throbbing of insect and amphibians, but neither of us named the terror that bears might be in our campsite. I lay there hardly breathing or moving for hours, listening for every tale tell sound of possible scratching or snorting, trying to plan out strategy for fending them off. My heart stopped briefly when I heard a faint rumbling noise until I realized it was the deep slow breathing of my girl’s contented sleep. Soon exhaustion overtook me and I slept, albeit fitfully, until first light.

When I stuck my head out of the tent the next morning a ranger was emerging from the jeep that was parked on the fire road 100 feet away. I ducked back inside and told her to give me a minute to put my pants on. “Works for me”, came the cheery reply. She checked our permit, our intentions, and finally the food bag, happily intact. “Pretty flimsy branch, that”, she quipped in a Minnesota accent. I told her our plans to leave tent and packs behind and hike the mountain. She looked me up and down. “Good luck”, came the skeptical retort. I added her unspoken warning to my considerable stockpile of anxiety. Several hours later, fortified with gallons of water, instant coffee, and Cliff bars, we headed toward the trailhead. Deer moved soundlessly through the trees on the gentle slope upward. Soon the ground turned rocky and much steeper. Other hikers, both novice and experienced, mingle with us on the upward spiral, sometimes passing us, sometimes waiting at the next switchback. Although the predominate age range is 20 to 30 and English the dominant language, there are children, people who look close to my age, languages I cannot identify, and one smiling Japanese family with sturdy wooden hiking sticks. I remember the father especially. Later on the path, his was the proffered hand I took gratefully as I scaled a slippery ten-foot wall of rock. I do not know who boosted my left foot up from below as my right one clung to a quarter inch depression in the wall. I only know it was a friend, one of many I would make before the day was over.

“This is the push me pull me section,” the ranger had said, as he marked the mile long rock scramble on our map back in the air conditioned visitors center. I finally understood what he meant as I squeezed through a two-foot crevice between two enormous boulders and found the only way out of a 20-foot hole was up another sheer precipice. This time there was a discernable foothold; only it was six feet up the wall and there was absolutely no purchase for a hand once the foot was there. This was the moment the bread I cast on the water those many years I spent as a scout leader came back to feed me. Chris, a strapping lad not a day over 19, an Eagle scout, got down on one knee and told me to put my foot on his leg. I protested, I pleaded, I cursed, but Chris just stood there, solid as the mountain, patiently repeating, “Yes you can,” and I did. Another hand from above reached down for mine, and I lunged my body up and over the top. I turned to him after and asked if that was the worse spot. “No,” came the honest reply I did not want to hear.

We ate our Builder bars and little boxes of soup in the rarified air of the first false summit, me believing that finally the worse was over. I was wrong. The little blue trail blazes kept pointing at sheer drops, wide gaps that must be leaped, areas where navigation was done horizontally with feet and hands braced against the ancient stone. By the end of the day I had forced my body to do things I did not believe were possible at any age. My girl and I came down the other side feeling that we had conquered the world. The trip had taken only 6 hours, covered a distance of 7 miles up and down the mountain, plus the three mile trek back to the camp site. We were battered, bruised, exhausted, and exhilarated. I pulled my shoes off and headed down to the river where Eva was already sitting on the flat rock with the water filter. After a day and night of death defying challenge, I wasn’t expecting the tiny stone that caught my toenail, ripping it from its foundation. I felt a wave of nausea wash over me as I looked at the damage. My girl and I took stock of our options. It was after 4, dark would come in a bit over three hours and we were about that far from the car, only tired already, hungry, and now, injured. Eva had twisted her ankle on one drop and had been nursing that foot down the mountain. I told her to wait until morning and hope the ranger came by again. She felt strongly that we should try to get out tonight and decided to walk to the parking lot and get the car, so she could move it to the nearer to our camp. We agreed it would be easier to think on full stomachs, so we put off the decision until after dinner.

It would have been easier to hike the three miles than to wait for her return. I organized the camp, packed what I could, and then lay down in the tent. I fell asleep almost immediately, and woke with a start to find her still gone and the sky pitch dark. I have no idea how long I waited, listening for bears, second guessing my foolishness in letting her leave alone, but when I heard a panicked voice yell “Mom” through the dark, my heart leap with joy. I opened the tent flap and saw her kneeling there, dripping sweat, her breath coming in big raspy gulps. “Sit down honey,” I pleaded. “No,” she gasped. We have to go. I saw a bear, not ten feet in front of me. I screamed and it ran, and I ran. Pack, now.” She starts stuffing everything randomly into the backpacks telling me she’ll carry everything, but we have to leave. There is no arguing with her determination, so I draw shoes and socks over my injured toe as she flattens and packs the tent. I am able to carry my own pack along the 2 mile path and we talk at the top of our lungs and laugh like lunatics, no doubt sending bears scurrying up trees along the way. She tells me of getting a ride with strangers from DC who drove her around for an hour and a half to find the car, and she tells me over and over of her terrifying encounter. She can’t wait for me to close the door of the car and doesn’t care to check the map to see where we’re going. She just wants me to drive in any direction as long as it’s away from here. A half hour later, about the time we see the sign for Charlottesville, we are already planning our next trip to the big woods.

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