Saturday, March 28, 2009

Birthday Girl!

Our freshly minted fifteen year old took this pic of her birthday cupcakes with her brand new camera. This close-up represents two of her best loved pasttimes, cupcake artistry and macro photo views of the world.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Hierarchy of Fun

I guess 17-year-olds have a hierarchy of what's important. And I suppose it's normal that it differs from their parents'.

So here's the deal. We are taking our son to a college upstate this weekend, where he will engage in workshops and other activities, including an interview on Sunday, all designed to help the school decide whether he should be one of 15 kids selected for their scholar program, an honor that carries with it a full tuition scholarship, and annual all-expense-paid trips to other countries to do good works. It's a great school, his two cousins go there (the freshman loves it, the senior loved it once, but is ready to graduate to more citified pastures), and it's high up on his/our list of Really Good Options for college. In fact, if he gets into the scholar program, he will most likely go to that school.

The college is a five hour drive north of New York City, and we had planned to leave in the early afternoon tomorrow. Our daughter, who turns 15 on Saturday, is coming too. She has resigned herself to spending her birthday traipsing around a college campus for the sake of her brother's future. More likely, she will go hang out with her cousin, the freshman, which could be fun for a 15 year old. So far so good. But then our son tells us that we can't leave till much later, because he's agreed to give a talk on friendship at the freshman retreat at his high school. His friend Jack is running the overnight, and tapped him to give the talk, which starts at 5 p.m. No problem. We'll just leave after that and drive in the dark. I like that he told Jack yes.

Serving his community. Good.

Not so fast. With teenagers, the situation is always evolving. Just now, at 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, he called me from school. His friend Jaime is turning 18 this weekend. I held my breath, ready to burst. I just knew he wasn't going to propose staying home so he could go to Jaime's party. Turns out he's still in possession of his faculties. Most of them, anyway. What he wants is to go paintballing with Jamie and a bunch of their friends tomorrow (school is closed for the freshman retreat).

What? But I thought you had to give a friendship talk at five? He spoke to Jack, he tells me, and Jack said, no problem, I'll find someone else.

Ditching his commitments. Not good.

Jack no doubt understands the hierarchy in which paintballing with your friends takes precedence over giving a talk on friendship to a bunch of freshmen. But I'm having trouble with it. And here are a couple of other things I'm struggling with. Paintballing is dangerous! They make you sign papers that say you won't sue, even if you die! Still, he's played paintball before, and I'd probably get my mind around his doing it again. But the paintballing place is three hours upstate! A bunch of 17- and 18-year-old boys, with spanking new drivers licenses, are providing the transportation. Are you starting to see my problem? Plus, how can he guarantee that they'll tear themselves away from an afternoon of fun to get him home in time for our five hour drive back upstate to his scholar interview?

But mom, it's the guys last outing together. After this, we all scatter. You'll have other chances to get together before school ends, I promised him. No, he insisted, this is it.

A psychologist once told me that teens have two, and only two, time frames--"now" and "not now." I tried to remember that and not debate the point. I also didn't say no right away, though I wanted to. Instead, I am going to talk it over with my husband, and together we'll decide. Nothing like a unified front to weather a teenager's displeasure when he doesn't get his way.

Update: My son just texted me. He's not going paintballing after all, and he's back to giving the talk. Don't know what changed. Maybe Jack couldn't find anyone else. In any case, crisis averted. I so appreciate that my son got to this decision on his own. Good man.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Visual Feast

From the wonderful photography blog by Christine Lebrasseur (see link on my blogroll). She expresses such visual and technical range in her work. Luminous color. Moody, mysterious black and whites. Intense, surprising, close-in crops that seem just right. Enjoy.

Balancing the Universe

My son got his first college rejection last night. Yes, it was from Binghamton, the most affordable "Public Ivy" in the nation, which fielded 30,000 apps for 2,000 spots this year. Even for out-of-staters, the tuition is only eleven thousand, and for us in-staters, my boy could have enrolled for the eminently reasonable price tag of six thousand. But it was not to be.

My son said he didn't mind getting rejected. He noted that the letter was gracious and "let us down easy" and he hadn't wanted to go there anyway. (But later, I heard him tell his friend on the phone, "Binghamton can blow." So it did sting a little.)

My husband says it's good for him to get rejected somewhere after eleven straight acceptances from other schools. He says it brings a balance to things.

I say if they didn't accept my boy then they didn't see what was special in him, so why would I want to entrust him to them anyway?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Papa Bear

Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, August 2001. If you look, you can see me reflected in the sunglasses, taking the picture, and the blue water of the bay behind me. This is one of my favorites. The kids still hang on their dad like this!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Her Portion of Pain

My mom called from St. Lucia this morning. She said she was feeling down. I asked her what was wrong and she started talking about two of her best friends from high school, women I grew up calling aunt, two sisters, both of whom were stricken with Alzheimer's, both of whom died last month, two weeks apart. The daughter of one of the sisters, let's call her Claire, had been on the phone with my mom the evening before, aching at her motherlessness. She told my mom that she hadn't known the death of her mother would hit her so hard, given that her mother had already spent a decade in a fog of forgetting.

"Mom, you miss your friends. Sometimes you just have to let yourself feel sad," I offered. "Yes," she agreed. "I'm sad."

We talked for a while after that, until Stella, the wonderful woman who takes care of my mom when she's in St. Lucia, called her to breakfast. Before my mom hung up, she mentioned she had a date to play bridge that afternoon, and that she was hosting the whole bridge group the next day. My mother, now 87, lives to play bridge. I knew that by the time she held the first hand, she would be okay.

But after our call, I found myself brooding a lot about Claire. As a child, I was in awe of her. She was so stunningly beautiful. Tall and much too thin, with the coltish gait of a future model, she had a long graceful neck, a jawline etched to perfection, dark haunting eyes, cupid-drawn lips and small even white teeth. Her skin was the color of velvety chocolate, with a burnish that made it look lit from within. She had a big fluffy afro that stood out around her head like a halo. As if her extraordinary looks weren't enough, she was also brilliant in school and a kind soul. She was older than I was by six or so years. As a chubby 10-year-old, whose lace-edged socks were perpetually sliding down into her black patent leather mary janes, and whose dresses would forever ride up at the waist, never falling smoothly the way other girls' dresses did, I used to sit watching Claire from my corner and imagine what it would be like to be her. I just knew her life would be perfect, because she was perfect.

The script didn't go quite the way that I thought it would. To begin with, Claire's father, a brilliant scholar himself, had died in a car crash when she was just three. His loss, I would later realize, had indelibly marked his family. Much later, I came to understand that Claire's gentleness with others, with a shy clumsy girl like me, for instance, was the result of her never wanting to inflict any sort of hurt. She knew intimately what it felt like to be hurting. And there was more pain in store. In her first year of college, she was assaulted one night on the way back from the dorm's communal bathroom. She left soon after, fleeing the landscape of her pain. She went to England, and enrolled in university there. She met a man whom everyone loved. She sank into the comfort of him, and they got married. But it turned out that she had felt so sexually safe with him because he was gay, his love for her chaste. Her heart once again broken, they divorced.

In the meantime, her genius older brother was accepted to do graduate work in physics at Princeton. Two intensely troubled years later, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Despite ongoing conflicts with his professors, and his own disillusion, he finished his degree, but hardly worked a day after that. Her younger brother, the baby of the family, was an astonishing artist, but as a teenager, he became mired in drugs. Thirty years later, thin and handsome with regal silver dreadlocks that fall to his waist, he is still in the thrall of them.

As her brothers' lives unraveled, Claire's professional life moved ever forward, her trajectory sure. She entered the diplomatic service, as her mother (also a radiant beauty with an incisive mind and an abundance of social charm) had before her. She rose in the foreign service, through high-profile posts in strategic places. But the day came when she could no longer deny that her mother's forgetfulness was something more troubling, and she packed up her glamorous life abroad and moved back home to be with her.

Eventually her mother had to be moved to a nursing home. Now, Claire was back in the house of her childhood, but she wasn't alone. Her two brothers lived with her. They depended on her. At work, hundreds more relied on her leadership. She met with foreign dignitaries and made sure her nation's interests were put forward. She was elegant. She was tough-minded. She was a star.

What we can see of other people's lives is never the whole story. It may not even be part of the story of how they see themselves. But I think I understand now why my mother hurt so much this morning. Her heart was breaking for Claire, who it seemed had been so blessed in this life, but whose portion of pain had been at least equal to the extravagant portion of her gifts. And now Claire had lost her mother, the touchstone throughout her life, having already lost her once when the fog had first descended.

My mom says that Claire lives is fear of getting Alzheimer's herself. God forgive my presumption, but I wonder, would the forgetting be a mercy?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Truth, Lies, Trouble

I had lunch today with an old friend. Without putting her life on blast, let's just say she's going through a lot. 

"You know how they say God doesn't give you more than you can handle?" she said as we sat down. 

"Well," she continued, "it's a damn lie."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Happy Birthday, Uncle Charlie

Today is Uncle Charlie's birthday. One year ago, the cousins brought cake and balloons and pretty birthday plates and napkins to his home to celebrate his 92nd birthday. He was still walking to the corner to get his paper every morning, and sitting in the lobby with his friends from the apartment building every afternoon, waiting for the mail. But two months after that, he had a heart attack and the home attendant called 911. The EMS came, they rushed him to the hospital, and two days later, a resident called me (as his health proxy) to say he had tumors all through his lungs and liver, and did the family want him to be treated? My uncle didn't want treatment. He just wanted to come home. Three weeks later, he did, and he never really got out of bed after that.

By July, we brought in a hospital bed and at-home hospice care was put in place. The hospice nurse ordered oxygen and morphine by August. Family members and friends came by and sat with my uncle for hours at a time. He always raised a hand in gratitude, and made the sign of the cross to thank us. He could barely speak. Everyday, my mom read to him from the Bible. At night, my aunt would shuffle down the dark hallway to make sure he was still breathing (my aunt and uncle have had separate rooms for decades), and we worried she might fall. They didn't have nighttime home care then, just their daughter who was troubled and more often than not didn't come home.

The family had planned a big September gathering for my aunt's 90th birthday, and now we feared my uncle wouldn't be there to celebrate it. My son and daughter sat with him sometimes. There was the night in late August when his breathing was so shallow we thought he would die. My mother and my husband, blessed souls both, stood on either side of him, silently praying. I told my children to go in and tell him goodbye. They kissed his forehead and held his hand. This was the man who had baby sat them when they were little, falling asleep in front of the cartoons so that they could make popcorn and jump on the beds and generally wreak joyful havoc. This was the man who drove my son to school for two years before he could take the bus on his own. This was the man who would always reach into a drawer or coat pocket to pull out a gift for them, candy, a small clock, a delicate figurine. Their eyes filled with tears. But Uncle Charlie held on.

Family members flew in from Florida and Vancouver, drove across the bridge from New Jersey, took the train up from Virginia. On September 7, the party went off as planned, with balloons and little cousins darting between the legs of grown-ups, playing children's games with no sense of life declining in the furthest bedroom. A few at a time would go in and sit with my uncle, chatting softly with one another, stroking his hair, holding water to his lips, covering his hands with our own. It was strangely peaceful in there. All the days until the day he passed on September 19, 2008, his room was the most serene place in the house, and you couldn't help feeling he had lived a good life, he had been generous to his family, and now he had made his peace.

My aunt once said of my dad, "He had a dignified death." Now I know what she meant. Uncle Charlie had a dignified death, at home, with his family around him, slipping gently away.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Charlie. I hope you're loving it where you are.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

College Home Stretch

Things are starting to shake out now in the college quest. My son is entering the home stretch is this process, and as my husband predicted, the choices are becoming clear. He's been admitted to ten schools, but as we are discovering, the acceptance only feels real when it's accompanied by real money. A lot of doors are closing. Some we are closing voluntarily. Others are being slammed shut in our faces.

There's the great engineering college that gave him a good solid financial package, but he isn't really feeling them. There's the public university in another state that he was deeply passionate about, but their financial package arrived yesterday, and it was a paltry sum, with a $29,000 span of daylight between what they offered and the actual cost of attendance. Then there's the school that's come on strong in the late innings, the one upstate that he applied to only because two of his cousins go there. He sent an application almost out of family solidarity, barely considering it a real option. But they gave him good money.

Now they've selected him as a finalist in a scholar program that gives up to full tuition. He has to go for an interview weekend at the end of the month, and I'm worried that I'm starting to hope too much that it works out. The more I read about the program, the more I'm realizing how great an opportunity it would be for my son, the annual trips to other countries to work on community service projects with his group of 15 scholars, the chance to stand for something, create something, with a group of fellow travelers around him.

It's scary to really want something, but on the other hand, I have never deeply wished for anything connected to my kids' education that did not come true for them. I think the universe recognizes and rewards commitment. I think it hears when I'm praying for something that will help my children grow, and my whole heart is involved. So now, I am starting to wish for this, really wish for my son to be chosen for this scholar program. I'm starting to pray that he will want it for himself, because only then will give himself over to all that it offers. Please, God.

Monday, March 9, 2009


My mom, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, January 24, 2002, surrounded by her grandkids (the youngest was not yet born). We celebrated with a big family party at my cousin's airy, art-filled home in Nassau. My mom's five sisters and one living brother all flew to be with her. So did cousins, nieces, nephews, friends. We came from all corners of the hemisphere to celebrate her. I'm sure the spirit of my dad was there, too. This picture of my mom, flanked by my daughter and son (left and back) and my brother's daughters (right and in my mother's lap) is one that for me, captures the loving intergenerational bond that is the gift of the big, sprawling, fiercely connected family I was born into.

Spring Break

It's Spring Break and the young ones have descended on our home. Our two nieces, one a senior, one a freshman, both of them in college upstate, arrived Friday night. So did my son's best friend, who's been a regular in our house since he was four, who's now at a boarding school in Connecticut. The mood in the living room was festive, even though my daughter, still recovering from her three-day illness, crawled in between her dad and me by ten p.m., a new fever raging, her head aching, her body wracked with chills.

In the living room, the young ones kept going till past midnight, talking and laughing and regaling my son and his best friend with stories about what their lives will be like when they get to college. In my room, I see-sawed between smiling contentment at the sounds coming from our living room, and clutching worry that maybe my girl was sicker than I had thought.

Saturday morning, one niece (the senior) left early for the airport, on her way home to Antigua for the week. My son and my other niece (the freshman) were sprawled on two couches in the living room, wrapped in blankets, unconscious to light or sound. I padded to the back room to check on my daughter, who we'd marched to her own bed around two a.m. The fever had broken. She was cool and clammy and sleeping peacefully. My heart swelled with relief.

By noon, my daughter was at the hair salon with her cousin, being washed and deep-conditioned and blow dried, getting ready for her friend's birthday dinner that evening. One of my niece's college friends, unable to wait till she was done with the hair salon, joined her there, and waited for her and my daughter, then trailed them home. In our kitchen, my niece checked on her red laptop to see where the movies were. They decided on Confessions of a Shopaholic, dinner first at Toast, then a cool stroll down Broadway to the theater. The rest of us headed out, too. My husband, son and his best friend went to see Watchmen, while I went to dinner with my friend, Leslie, girls' night out. By ten p.m. everyone was back home, and the impromptu house party started all over again.

On Sunday, two more of my niece's friends arrived in town, and in our living room. My husband made dinner for everyone, portobello mushroom parmesan and baked potatoes. My daughter, buried under a mountain of homework that she missed due to sickness, took a break and made key lime cupcakes. They sat in all their extravagant deliciousness in their fan-paper cups on the counter, picked off one by one by ravenous young people (and my husband and me).

My niece, the freshman, grew up in Jamaica. Her closest friends, the ones who spent Sunday in our living room, making my son's evening (although he was chill and chatty and careful not to be too ga-ga), are from various parts of the world: Taiwan, Puerto Rico, Australia. At a certain point it struck me that they were one Black, one White, one Yellow, one Brown, all the colors of Benetton. Beautiful, every last one of them.

My niece, who seems about 12 years old until you look into her eyes, appears to be the leader. They cluster around her, look to her to decide what they'll do today. This is the niece who spent every August in our home, who is like a sibling to my children. This is my brother's first child. It makes me happy to see her in action. Lively, funny, assertive, kind. Playful as ever with her cousins. Protective of her friends. Easygoing with her aunt and uncle. But when did she get so confident and grown?

Friday, March 6, 2009

What You Need, Give That

From the author Mary Pipher, as quoted by Ms. Danielle LaPorte on her fabulous and inspired blog White Hot Truth (see blogroll link). 

Since the beginning, we have asked the same questions:

Am I safe?

Am I important?

Am I forgiven?

Am I loved?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


When I feel anxious, I like to look at pictures of houses and imagine the stories unfolding inside. I always imagine sunlight streaming through, the gentle pursuit of an artistic life, easy companionship, musical laughter, the heart at peace. This red door and purple fence are doing it for me today.

Sick Child

My daughter has been throwing up since before daylight, and now she's weak and shivery and a crumpled puppy, rolled up under the covers, fitfully asleep. I refuse to leave her like this. I want to be home to ply her with tea and crackers and soup, to rehydrate her little body. But oh, the angst of missing work in these times. Just staying home and taking care of my girl feels like a fireable offense. My performance review is tomorrow, too. Okay, take a deep breath, because this is how it is. There is nothing more important in this moment that being here with my sick child.