Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Afasari, Gone

Afasari lived two buildings away from ours. He used to play in the courtyard with my son and the other children in our complex. He was older than my son by 3 years, but my son was tall and Afasari was a scrawny kid, so it never really dawned that they were different ages. He was a wild child, the one always careening around the courtyard on a borrowed bike or scooter, doing wheelies and other stunts, never wearing a helmet. He was East Indian, with burnished amber skin and an unruly thatch of shiny black hair. He had two sisters who never seemed to come outside. But Afasari was always in the courtyard, sitting alone on the benches or bouncing his basketball on the asphalt. He drew the other kids out of their homes because there was always someone out there with whom to get the party started.

My most vivid memory of Afasari is not one that makes me happy to recall. My son's friend Eugene was visiting us on a playdate. He and my son were 9. Afasari was 12. The three of them were downstairs in the courtyard playing, and Afasari was being very mean to Eugene, denying him the ball, calling him names, trying to exclude him. I think he resented him as an outsider. Finally, my son had had enough of it and suggested he and Eugene go upstairs to our apartment. When they came in, I looked at the boys crestfallen expressions and asked what was wrong. They told me Afasari had been making fun of Eugene. I marched the two boys back downstairs to the courtyard, where Afasari was still bouncing the basketball. He was alone now. I went over to Afasari and told him he needed to apologize to Eugene. Stunned and chastened, he did. He was really all bravado and fake toughness and not at all beyond deferring to a mother figure. The three boys decided to resume their game.

Then, the summer he was 13, Afasari announced that he was going away. His said his mom was sending him to live with his aunt in New Jersey. His mom was a single mother who worked long hours, and she didn't like that he was alone so much. He wasn't happy about moving, but what could he do, he shrugged. That was the last I heard of him. Until this weekend.

In fact, Afasari had moved back home in his late teens. I never ran into him in the neighborhood, so I didn't know. Maybe I wouldn't have recognized him. He had grown extremely tall and was very thin, with a mustache. I probably would not have realized it was him.

Sadly, on Sunday afternoon at about 3:30 pm, right as my mom and I were getting money from the bank ATM around the corner, just after we put our son on the bus back to college, Afasari climbed to the roof of one of the 21-storey buildings in our complex and jumped.

Many people saw. My friend who lives in the building he jumped from, was in the laundry room and heard a loud thud. Loud enough to make her run outside. There she found one of her neighbors, a tiny, elderly woman, shaking and screaming, "He just jumped! He just jumped!" My friend ran to her neighbor and put her arms around her, but was careful not to look where she was pointing. Already the security guards were running to Afasari, but it was too late.

Later, I heard that he had been battling depression for years. I felt so sad that I had never known that, and that I had never seen behind the scrappy wild child to the boy who must already have been hurting inside. I wondered if that day when he was being mean to Eugene he was really wrestling with his own bad feelings, and my towering over him and insisting he apologize was just one more moment when he felt dominated, buffeted by life. I wonder if there was another way I could have handled it, or if I should even have inserted myself at all.

I don't know that anything I did could have changed anything, but I'm so sorry that I never even knew to try.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Playing with Sevita

The president and his niece Sevita during the family's Martha's Vineyard vacation last summer. Babies and children love this man. Look at the trust and delight in little Sevita's pose. (Photographed by Pete Souza on August 25, 2009)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"In the city. Be home soon."

My son arrived at around eleven o'clock on Friday night to spend the weekend with us. He took the bus down from his college in upstate New York, along with two friends both of whom live in Brooklyn.

He and I had an argument of sorts before he arrived. Earlier, I'd called to find out what time his bus was getting in. My husband and I had a dinner engagement and I was trying to figure out how long I could stay as I wanted to be there when my son got home (you get all the best stories when your kid has just walked in the door). He sounded extremely harried the first time I called. "Mom, I can't talk now! Later." Click.

I took several deep breaths and waited till he was supposed to be on the bus and called again. He sounded just as tightly wound. "Mom, stop asking when we'll get there! We just got on the bus. We missed the first one. Go to dinner. I have a key!"

"Are you okay?"


"What's wrong?"

"I'll tell you when I get there."

Anyone who knows me knows my mind immediately raced to a million worst case scenarios, which of course meant I had to know what was wrong right then so I could start fixing it.

"Tell me what's wrong," I insisted. "You're on a bus, you're a captive audience, tell me now."

"Mom, stop. When I get there." Click.

I knew he wanted me to think the bus had entered some tunnel and we got cut off. But I also knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had hung up on me. For the second time. I was furious. I tapped out an text message with all the speed my fury imparted.

"That is the second time you hung up on me. That is just rude. Don't you flipping hang up on me again."

A moment later, my phone dinged. His message: "Not in the mood. Need to stop pushing to find out wats wrg. Don't relli feel like coming home anymore."

I was crushed.

And I felt manipulated, angry, rejected. We often seem to rub each other wrong, my son and I. We are so temperamentally similar yet so far apart sometimes. He is impatient with me, and maybe he feels that I am ... too smothering? too anxious? too insistent? ... with him. In that painful moment, when all I knew was that my son no longer wanted to come home, I was keenly aware of how very patient with me my other child is, how kind she manages to be to her mother. And how difficult it must be.

Tears stinging my eyes, I tried to compose a text that would not escalate the situation.

"I'll stop pushing. I was mad and hurt. We're all looking forward to seeing you. Sorry that you seem to be upset about something. Your family is here for you even if you don't feel like talking. See you later. Love."

I made myself not fill the hours of silence that followed with another text (the bus ride from his college takes five hours). I showed our exchange of text messages to my husband when he got home and he just shook his head ruefully, veteran that he is of many past dust-ups between his wife and son.

My husband and I made ourselves pretty and went out to dinner as planned. We had a lovely time. We were on the rooftop of one of our friends' apartments, dining by candlelight, the towns of New Jersey sparkling across the Hudson River and a clear night sky overhead. One friend's college freshman son had come home for Rosh HaShanah the weekend before, and she expressed how wonderful it was to see him, how well he was doing, how reassured she was, and I was truly thrilled for her but also quietly sad about the less than auspicious beginning of our own first visit home from our college freshman son.

The chilly night eventually drove us indoors, and we soon took our leave. Walking to Broadway with my husband to catch a cab home, I heard my phone beep, indicating messages were waiting. In the taxi, I checked them and there was this from my son:

"About 2 hours away. Sry about earlier. Just a bad day and wanted to sleep. Looking forward to coming home."

And later, this: "In the city. Be home soon."

I started not to reply, but then texted, "Can't wait, son."

By the time he walked through the door, we had both forgiven each other. I knew because he greeted me first, enveloping me in a long-armed hug and holding on for long enough to communicate his apology. I held him back, communicating mine.

Then he greeted his dad, who clasped his head and shoulders in a loving man hug. After that he hugged and twirled his sister in the air and hugged his cousin, the recent college grad who's been living with us for a month now. Then he noticed the new couches. "I like 'em," he said, "but how do they sleep?" At which point he dived onto the loveseat and curled up in his usual position, head on the chair's rolled arm, knees sharply bent, and pronounced, "Really comfortable!"

He regaled us all with stories as we all gazed at him with our various expressions of adoration. My daughter sat cross-legged on the kitchen counter and just looked at him. My husband joked that he was happy to have a little company in the testosterone department, he'd been living in a "chicktopia." I reminded him how close that word was to "utopia" and we all laughed. I noted that my boy had, in six short weeks, turned into a man. A little thicker and more defined in the arms, broader in the shoulders, about an inch taller, almost level with his dad at six-foot-two. His jaw seemed more chiseled, the hair on his chin no longer just a scraggly shadow but a real clipped, neat little beard. And he seemed happy, confident and in charge of himself. A man.

As for the reason he'd been so cranky on the bus: He and his friends had missed their ride (he was racing to catch it when he hung up on me the first time) and had to walk to the bus terminal, and as a result missed the first bus and had to take the later one, then he'd been caged in behind a woman who insisted on reclining her seat practically into his lap, and she kept pushing it back, refusing to accept that his knees weren't going anywhere. He had been rushed and frustrated and fighting to keep his cool, and then I called and started pressing him. Nothing more than that. Certainly not the dire scenarios that had immediately leaped into my head, which I won't go into here, so ridiculous they were.

After we all visited for a while, some of us trooped across the courtyard to my mom's apartment building so my son could say goodnight to his grandma, who'd been waiting up for him. Then at midnight, he went out to meet up with two friends, and I went to sleep. I slept through the night, too. I didn't wake once to wonder if my boy was safe out there in the city, which stunned my husband. (I'm growing up.) And in the morning, I padded out to the kitchen to make my coffee, and there he was curled on the couch, a blanket over him, asleep in the spot he has been for so many nights over the past few years, in that very same pose.

I rubbed his head and kissed his forehead and felt so much love for him fill my chest. But I didn't wake him. I let him sleep, content just to know he was home.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


My son is coming home for a visit from college this weekend. I'm so excited to see him I could practically levitate. But of course, I will contain myself. I will act merely casually happy so as not to suffocate him. A bunch of his friends at different colleges are coming into the city this weekend, too, so I'm sure this trip home is about them, not us. Nevertheless, we will find a moment to sing him happy birthday over cake and candles, as he will be 18 one week from this Sunday.

You know, when your kid goes off to college, you go into a kind of mourning. It almost like the phantom ache from a missing limb. You just hope and pray he makes smart choices, is kind to his friends, is purposeful about his studies and enjoys his life. But other than sending money, there's hardly anything more you can do.

My husband and I are also having dinner under the stars (as in, on the rooftop of our friends' apartment building) on Friday night with a bunch of friends. Our progeny are all in high school or college, pursuing their own lives with increasing degrees of independence, and we are feeling a loss of community. You can tell because when any one of us issues an invitation to get together, the rest of us happily accept.

I think we're all in transition, glimpsing the empty nest looming in our future and the need to reinvent our calendars. And we understand what this moment feels like for one another better than anyone.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leaps, Cartwheels and Dreams

Today, our new living room furniture was delivered, a sofabed, a loveseat and an armchair to replace the broken down, torn, cracked and faded leather furniture that had lived in our house for going on ten years. I confess the battered pieces embarassed me when my children and my nieces brought friends home, even though it was those same said children who had brought the furniture to its sad condition.

Picture my son leaping onto the sofa from one side, one foot landing on the arm for an even better launch and landing. Now multiply that by hundreds of leaps in the course of a boy growing to young manhood, add somersaults and cartwheels from my daughter, always finding a sure landing on that furniture.

And of course, there's the loveseat that has been my son's preferred place to sleep throughout his high school years.

Yesterday, three men from our church came and took the old furniture away. Before they arrived, I was awash in sudden sentimentality, despite my plotting to replace those pieces for years now. A Labor Day sale finally did the trick, that and the thought of my son or my niece possibly bringing new friends home from college for Thanksgiving. Not that my children have ever cared about that broken furniture. I feel so shallow sometimes that it bothered me so much. But now, the leather loveseat which holds the invisible imprint of my son's dreams is gone, and in its place is an expresso-colored microfibre number that I hope he'll find as comfortable.

So, nothing is ever simple for me. I love the shapes of these three new pieces, but now I am wondering if I should have got the olive color instead of the expresso. I was thinking, of course, that the expresso would not show dirt, but perhaps I am in denial about the fact that my children are no longer in a phase of life when that matters. They are practically grown. Should I have gone with my first instinct in color? Then again, that would have made my living room furniture the exact same color as my mother's. Nah, expresso it is.

Top photo: My daughter when she was 9, executing one of her perfect cartwheels onto the leather couch in better days.

Second photo: My daughter, two days ago. Old habits die hard!

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Child Looks Back at 9/11

My daughter had just started second grade on September 11, 2001. She was 7 years old. Five years later, in seventh grade, when she was 12, as part of a class autobiography project, she wrote a remarkable piece about her recollection of that day. To mark the eighth anniversary of the tragedy, I am copying that chapter here.

Remembering 9/11

My friends and I had the feeling that we were on top of the world. Partly because we thought we were so mature and partly because the weather was so perfect. It was our second day in the second grade. Perfect temperature, perfect sky: bright blue and not a cloud in sight. Everything was in a happy state. It stayed that way till the warm afternoon or maybe just before lunch, but either way, outside the window you could see the sun high in the sky, proud of all the light and warmth it was producing. We were reading a book during story time and either the lower school director or the student teacher at the time called Jay, our second grade teacher, to the doorway and whispered some piece of information with a look of dismay on her face. We were completely oblivious to the conversing teachers; we just saw it as a time to chat with one another until the class resumed.

Then Jay came back, with a thoughtful look on his face, only, this was a thoughtful expression that held some dread. One by one the class seemed to settle down, sensing something, worried about what had just happened. Jay spoke in slow motion, word by word: “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” A panicked look spread across some of the faces, those who knew what the World Trade Center was. I asked my friend Akene what had happened. He explained that the World Trade Center was the two Twin Towers. I felt destroyed. I had seen the Twin Towers in the distance my whole life. I had drawn pictures of them from the roof of Akene’s apartment two years before when Toni-Leigh, our kindergarten teacher, took us to visit the farmer’s market and we had lunch at his house nearby. It was practically impossible, those two secure structures had to remain in the sky forever, they were glued to the sky. Without them, the sky would be lonesome, even with hundreds of other skyscrapers. And besides all that, my dream had vanished. All I wanted was to be able to visit the towers, see what was actually inside, and experience the whole thing. Now they were up in smoke with a metal plane sticking out the side of it.

Jay had his hand on the top of his head pushing back his little spikes of hair and he seemed to be exploring the thoughts inside his head with alarm. He told us that parents would be picking us up or we would get home somehow, maybe by a teacher. Kids started disappearing as parents appeared. And then my dad came. I felt protected at that moment, like maybe we weren’t all going to die.

People scurried outside while hints of the beautiful day still slightly remained. I heard a deep silence in New York City. Rare, I think to this day, that all the noise, pollution of cars and people would disappear for a period of time. I would remember it though, all the way home, all the people walking in silence through the park, walking to Broadway, and making our way home. I had to keep reassuring myself that we weren’t all going to die; that a plane wasn’t going to attack all of New York. I remembered how before we left school, Jay had announced there was a second plane that hit the second tower, and that he felt our parents should explain everything to us. I didn’t want to break the tense silence between me and my dad on the way home. I couldn’t comprehend anything going on. I just knew it must have been serious if we had to leave school.

That night, I tucked under my mom’s arm with my knees pulled into my chest, making myself a ball while she watched the news and the horrible clip of my two dreams falling apart, dying. Finally, I asked what had been on my mind the whole day, “Mommy, are we going to die too?” My mom looked somewhat horrified. But she replied in a calm voice, “No, they have no interest in us. They were trying to get back at our government. They think our government did something wrong to them."

“Oh,” I replied, but what was really on my mind was, did the people in the towers do anything wrong to them? Did the people on the planes that crashed do anything wrong to them? I was afraid to go to sleep, and I heard planes overhead all night in the dark sky, which always made me jump. I wanted to cry for the people who died. But I didn’t because I thought I needed to be strong.

A few years later, my mom showed me some of my old work she had found in a drawer in my room. It was from the pre-K or maybe it was from kindergarten. It was a story I had dictated about a picture I had drawn. I remembered it vaguely. It was about something bad that made the Twin Towers start to fall over, but the big wind came and blew it back into place. I had drawn this picture and told this story before anyone had any idea that the Twin Towers might be in danger.

Now that more years have passed, people often share their stories and experience of that day. We all remember that perfect blue morning, turned to disaster.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Seven Million Wonders

"There are no seven wonders in the eyes of a child. There are seven million." --Walt Streightiff

My daughter takes portaits of herself, as if she's trying to fathom who she is, how she appears to the world. "Your daughter is strange," she noted on seeing this picture. Strange and wonderful.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Subway Day, Coney Island Night

Sometimes, all it takes to get in the flow of your life is to say yes to an invitation.

On Friday, we closed early at work for the Labor Day weekend. It was the last weekend of freedom for my daughter and her friends, all of whom start school next Wednesday. She wanted to go to the beach. She and two friends and their mothers are creating a tradition of going to the beach on the last weekend of summer. I say creating because last year was the first time they did it, but they had so much fun they promised one another to do it every year. I love these kids, who have been my daughter's friends since they were all 5 years old, and I love their mothers, who have become dear friends of mine over the years. But I wasn't able to go on their beach outing last year; work intervened. So when my daughter begged me to join them this year, I decided nothing would stop me.

Problem was, I had to finish editing a story with a writer who is particularly painstaking and this was our last round before the story shipped. This woman is actually my favorite writer to work with. I love her work ethic and microscopic attention to content, her insistence on testing and testing and testing the voice and development and internal integrity of a piece. It matches my own preferred way of working as an editor, which is really old school in the current fast paced environment of publishing, but this writer and I have preserved a corner in which we can still work in this way. And you know what? Our stories always win awards. Every single year, we collect an small armful of plaques for the stories we worked on together.

Since we both believe this story we're working on will be another award winner, I didn't want to give it short shrift. Plus it's a heartwrenching subject (can't say what here; it would be tanatamount to giving away state secrets). Suffice it to say, I was experiencing one of those moments when you're determined to do everything fully, and maybe there aren't enough minutes in the hours to make it work. But I managed to finish up and dart out at 4:30 to meet the crew on the R-train platform. We were headed to Coney Island.

I hadn't even told my husband I was going. I texted him from the subway: "On the train to Coney Island with ______." He texted back: "You're on the train??? How did that happen?!" My dislike of the subway is famous. I am known for traveling the city in yellow cabs instead. For me it's moments of meditation (inside a taxi all my own) versus moments of claustrophia and hectic-ness (inside a crowded subway car). I wrote: "My daughter asked and the company is great." He sent back: "Our daughter is really working this only child angle!"--a reference to our son being away at college and our girl having us all to herself. He added: "Have fun."

The others were laden with bathing suits and blankets and towels and snacks. All I had was my two empty hands. It didn't matter. I bought everyone bottled water on the boardwalk, and we set up on the sand near the water. Lounging on blankets, the three 15-year-olds, two girls and a boy, munched on corn on the cob and peanut butter sandwiches and fruit and boiled eggs, while their mothers settled back to catch up on our week. The conversation was easy and meandering. While the teenagers were in the water, we shared stories of crazy things we'd done in our youth, changing the subject when our children arrived back and flopped down next to us, picking it up again when they left to stroll the boardwalk.

At one point, another text came in on my phone. It was from the writer I'd worked with earlier. She wrote: "That was a great edit today." Somehow, that added to the moment I was having. It was just beautiful on the sand as the dusk came down. The air was cool and salty. In the near distance, the lights from the huge Coney Island ferris wheel were a glittering circle, and the neon from the other rides dotted the night. The moon rose full over the water, and on beach and boardwalk and pier, every type of humanity was illuminated by it.

On towards eight-thirty, the kids came back from their adventure on the boardwalk, brimming with stories of odd characters and sponteous events that had transpired there. The fell against us, each child leaning againt his or her mother, comfortable and dozing in and out of the chatter. We mothers smiled at one another as we stroked their heads, each of us aware that this breezy evening under the moon, the waves breaking hypnotically against the sand, the carnival music and lights in the distance, was special.

We tried to wait for the fireworks, which happen every Friday night in summer. By nine, the beach was crowded with locals and tourists encamped for the display. But it was delayed because of the minor league baseball game at the stadium way down the beach. Finally, near ten, we gathered up our blankets and towels and bags and headed back to the subway. Waiting on the elevated platform for the train back to the city, we suddenly saw the sky explode with blooms of color and light. The fireworks had begun, and from where we stood on the N-train platform, we had a thrilling wide-angle view. It seemed even better watching from the subway platform with other straphangers; it was more authentically New York somehow.

Afterwards, we took the train back to Manhattan, arriving home near midnight. My daughter and I jumped onto the bed, waking my husband, who had been asleep. We regaled him with stories and he teased me again about actually getting on the subway. Soon, my girl went off to check her Facebook and I drifted off to sleep. It was, all in all, a really good day.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I can't sort out what I'm feeling these days, but here's what's salient. 1) My son is a freshman in college. He doesn't call. I guess that means he's adjusting fine. 2) My niece, the recent college graduate, moved in with us till she can find an apartment. She got a great job at a great salary and is thrilled to finally be living in New York. 3) My mom is here, in her treehouse apartment across the way (I call it that because the tree tops brush her window in a lush display). I try to see her every day, as she's emotionally steadier when I do. But sometimes, that means turning the hours inside out to create the time. 4) My daughter is spending a lot of time with her different circles of friends. Lots of different influences there. I need to stay connected. 5) Money is more tight than it has ever been, and I am not appropriately stressed about this. 6) My being in the office 5 days a week has me losing touch with friends, and with the necessary errands of my life. I mourn for the years when I worked two days from home. How do people do their lives working till eight or nine or even later every evening? Not possible. 7) Mostly, I miss my son. And I'm brooding on the fact that I will never again have a full view of his life. Just as my parents didn't know the half, or even the quarter, of what my life was like after I left home for college. 8) Lots of feelings, all of them streaming together. Confused.