Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Once, shortly after I was married, I was standing in a movie line with my husband and as I stood there, I could feel the ebb and flow and sway of emotions moving through me, just having their way with me. I could feel my mood darken, shadows deepening and threatening to swallow me when moments before, I had been standing in daylight. I looked around at all the patrons in line, and I wondered if everyone felt as I did, the ground shifting, shifting, always. I looked up at my new husband, handsome and solid beside me, and I asked him, "Do you ever feel your mood changing moment to moment? Do you know what that feels like?" I remember he looked down at me from his six-foot-two height, his eyes full of sympathy and uncomprehension. "No," he said. "I really don't know what that's like. I'm sorry." And that was the moment, well into my adult life, that I understood that not everyone feels this treachery of emotion, this sense of having one's footing always unsure, the ground always in danger of falling away. This is how I am feeling today.

It has been a sweet interlude, these two unsupervised weeks with my husband. I found myself excited to go home and see him at the end of each day, the feeling almost like when we were just married. It was a reminder that soon our children will be grown and setting up their own households, and it will be him and me, just us two, and we have to take care of each other, love each other through whatever comes. This quiet recognition made me feel so tender toward him, and grateful, too, to have him in my life, this man with whom I can be in whatever state the moment finds me, under the sway of whatever emotion reaches up and claims me. In his company, I can be me, afraid sometimes, sad sometimes, silly sometimes, full of tears for no reason sometimes. And he is there, handsome and stalwart at my side, the ground unmoving beneath his feet.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How is it possible that she is 17 today?

"The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned." —Maya Angelou

She is our safe place. Not just mine, not just her dad's and her brother's, but all of us. She takes us as we are, she laughs at our quirks, delight in the musical sound of it, and we feel that we are seen fully and loved just exactly as we are. This is her gift. She is our gift. And my wish for her, on this her seventeenth birthday, which she is spending a world away in South Africa, teaching children who have very little in the way of material possessions, children who she says have climbed inside her heart, my wish for her on this day is that the world will mirror for her all that she is—a girl whose love allows for our failings, who is willing always to see the best of who we are, whose gentle laughter heals our human aches and makes us feel that we are home. God bless you, sweetheart, and bring you home safe. We love you so much. Happy birthday.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Notes from the Front

Our daughter called yesterday from South Africa. She said the kids she is working with in the two township schools are "adorable," she is "ecstatic" about being there, and she thinks the experience will turn out to be "life-changing." Oh, yes.

On the job front, so far so good with the new boss. She will have her work cut out for her in that she is dealing with a staff that is essentially suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, people who have learned to take nothing at face value. Still, when I went home last night, I called my mom and I heard myself saying, "For the first time in five years I do not feel as if I will be fired tomorrow." The truth is, I hesitate to even claim that thought. As I said, we're in recovery. But now one hears laughter from different corners of the floor, and people seem to be walking with a lighter step.

And even though it's still cold as the Arctic outside, it kind of feels like spring.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Fear

I have a new boss, who started yesterday, a woman with a calm and measured demeanor. But there's no time to post today, so I'll just put up this photo of my girl at the start of her first week long school trip to the farm. I'm struck by her expression, which is the same one I see whenever she gets ready to embark on a new adventure. Sweet anticipation. Open-heartedness. No fear. She's my guru.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Tuck shop sign in my little island.
"Credit allowed to person's over 75 yrs
accompanied by a great grand parent."
Only in Jamaica.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Given that I engineered first position on the parent phone tree, my daughter called us from South Africa at seven-thirty this morning to report that they arrived safely and the hostel where they will be staying is "truly awesome for realz." She sounded very much as she did the morning after her first sleepover at a friend's house when she was five, full of excitement that she was living it. I felt perfectly happy and not at all put out as I dialed the next five sets of house phones and cells phones listed on the phone tree and left voice mails that our travel group was fine. I finally roused a sleepy father who agreed to take over the calling from there.

Back on this side of the world, my aunt was clear in her speech for almost fifteen minutes this morning and we had a good conversation in which she instructed me that my daughter should apply to Barnard. My aunt spent decades of her working life there running the mail room and copying services and metaphorically opening doors for her nieces. She wanted to know where else her grandniece was interesting in applying and had she taken "that test they have to take" yet? She meant the SAT probably. I explained that my girl was taking the ACT instead, and had already posted a very decent score on her trial run last December, but would be taking it again to push it higher. This was about the place where the conversation went off the rails.

My aunt started telling me something about her 14-year-old grandson who lives in Virginia, and I couldn't quite get what she was saying. She made it sound as if her grandson had been there the evening before and had made some comment that worried her and she needed to talk to him about it. I knew I was missing something because my nephew is still in Virginia, so his grandmother must have visited with him in her dreams. But I did get one part of what she said. She asked who would look out for him (she didn't say when I'm gone) and I promised her we all would.

My son went out without his ortho boot last night, he wore regular sneakers and his ankle was fine. The bruising and the swelling are completely gone and although he still treats the injury with respect, he says the ankle feels "back to normal." He and my niece left this morning to return to school after a rather celebratory spring break, and now my true love and I are alone at home, entirely unsupervised.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

World Traveler

And she's off. We are just back from the airport. Our girl is once again headed to the other side of the world. She finished packing well after midnight, after our dinner as a family at Max Brenner to celebrate her birthday. She's sleep deprived from that and a week of over-the-top homework, but she's good. She didn't look or seem one bit sick this morning. She knocked that cold out, probably from laughing all day yesterday because the weather smelled like summer, she said. Now she's settling down for a twenty hour flight to South Africa with eight kids and as many teachers. She will turn 17 while she's there. And she will teach township schoolchildren photography and dance and other arts every day for two weeks. And she will have experiences. She hugged us goodbye at the airport and patted our backs to comfort us, then she turned towards that gate, purple knapsack slung over one shoulder, sunglasses on top of her head, and she was ready. The photo above was taken in Rome, during her summer in Italy last year. She had the same demeanor about her this morning. Making sure we're okay, but eager to get on with the adventure. Look out world.

Friday, March 18, 2011

On Knife Lake

It's a poor scan, but here is the photograph Brian Lanker took of me after our canoeing odyssey in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota's North Woods. We were there to visit the legendary Dorothy Molter, a former nurse who had spent 50 years living on the otherwise uninhabited lake islands near the Canadian border. This was in 1983. Looking at this image now, remembering when it was taken, I feel quietly blown away. It really was another life. And in 20 more years the days I am living now, the happy, heart-clutching organized chaos of getting my children launched, will seem like the poignant echo of another life as well.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Brian Lanker

Brian Lanker, the Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, died this week. He was only 63 years old. I worked with him back in the days when I was a footloose reporter in my twenties jumping on planes at a moment's notice for Life magazine.

We worked on several stories together in the eighties, including a particularly memorable one on American hermits. We hiked into the most remote locations to find our subjects, and slept on the hard ground or, when the night got too cold, in the back of a small jeep. He took a photo of me pulling in my canoe in the North Woods Lake Country of Minnesota, where we spent three days with Knife Lake Dorothy after canoeing across seven lakes and carrying our canoes on our backs through the intervening portages. I have that picture hanging on my wall. On Monday, when I heard Brian had died after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just 10 days before, I stood before that picture, and I understood for the first time how people look back on an earlier time and it can seem like another life, almost as if it was lived by someone else.

I felt sad that I didn't keep in touch with Brian after I left Life. He was the sort of large-hearted man who would have been easy to stay connected to, but I got so caught up in the raising of my children, my large extended family, the workaday grind, I let that era slip away from me.

Brian was a force of nature, a photographer who was so genuinely curious about his subjects, and so gentle and perceptive in the way he asked questions that he often helped us young reporters do our job at greater depth than we might have managed otherwise. Most photographers I worked with back then were only interested in the photograph, the interplay of light and shadow, the composition and the angles, and we reporters knew how to stay in the background so as to disturb as little as possible the scene within the lens. We knew how to watch and gather rich details of character just from the observing, and how to circle back later for the rest of the story. Brian was different. For him, the words were as important as the photographs. The words informed his photographs. He showed such intoxicating interest in his subjects that they just unfolded before him and gave everything to his camera.

Brian met his wife on assignment. When he was just starting out in the early seventies, he proposed and then photographed a story on a couple giving birth. It was his photograph of the just-born infant on her mother's abdomen, "Moment of Life," that won him the Pulitzer in 1973.

Brian kept in touch with the couple, even taking them with him to the Pulitzer ceremony. The couple later divorced, and Brian and the woman fell in love. They married and lived in Eugene, Orgeon with their two daughters and a son. Brian was such an adoring father. He talked about his children constantly in ways that left me feeling as if I knew them a little. Those children are now grown. Two of them were to be married in the fall. When they all understood that Brian would likely not be make it to the summer, they moved their weddings up to last weekend. His daughter was married on Friday, and his son on Saturday in the family home. Two days later, their father died.

He went so fast. Ten days. He was on assignment in Los Angeles and started feeling unwell. He came home and went to the doctor. By the time it was found, his cancer was at such an advanced stage nothing could be done, they said. I read that when he realized he was dying, Brian whispered, "There's just so much left to do." And now he is gone. I am honored to have worked with him. His loss makes me want to reach out to others from that time who live in my heart still, but who may not even realize how much larger and richer they made my life. I need to tell them while there is time.

The photograph above of civil rights activist Septima Clark is one of Brian's most famous. It graced the cover of his best-selling book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. "I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking," Ms. Clark said. "I consider chaos a gift."

Brian knew how to open the way for such sharing, and knew how to let it in, too. Once, he spoke to an audience about what moved him to do this book. “When I started," he said, "I thought these women would be great role models for my daughters. By the time it was finished, I realized that they were also great role models for my son. For what distinguished them was not their gender but their character, and the lessons to be learned from their lives are a living example to us all.”

Update on March 18, 2011: 
I found this editorial about Brian Lanker at Register-Guard.com, the website for the newspaper in Eugene, Oregon where he made his name after leaving his native Topeka, Kansas. I share it here because it offers a deep and true glimpse of the artist at work—and of the man: 

In 1989, Lanker collaborated with poet Maya Angelou on a book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. It became one of the most successful photography books of all time, currently in its 14th printing with more than half a million copies sold.

Every photo in that book is remarkable, but one image stands out for its elegance and place on the book’s cover—a portrait of 89-year-old Septima Poinsette Clark, the “queen mother” of the civil rights movement.

The logistics of getting that photograph were formidable. Lanker had to wait for days in a motel room in Jones Island, S.C., to interview Clark, who had suffered a stroke and was in a wheelchair in a nursing home.

In a 1991 interview with close friend and former Register-Guard sports editor Blaine Newnham, Lanker recalled the challenges: “How do you take someone in a nursing home, in a wheelchair and on oxygen, and give her the dignity and the strength her life embodied? It transcends the reality of the circumstances I had to work with.”

Lanker finally met Clark and arranged to take her picture the next day. Because one side of her face was paralyzed, he decided to profile the other. When a well-meaning attendant put her hair in a bun, Lanker waited for her regal cornrows to be let down. Eventually, Lanker had 15 minutes in which Clark was able to sit in her wheelchair without oxygen.

“I asked her to bring a hand to her face,” Lanker recalled, “and she did so in a most majestic and unusual way. I made that photograph, and it was the only one like it.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mama's Wheelhouse

My friend Leslie, who coincidentally or not is the daughter of a minister, is deeply agnostic. I'm sure not trying to convince her or anyone else of anything as I have always disliked it when people try to proselytize to me. You live the way that makes sense to you, and I will do the same, so long as we're not hurting anyone.

But God made a compelling case in my life today in the most organic, unexpected, heart-easing way. Just saying it happened. 'Cause I'm all kinds of grateful.

But of course it wouldn't be me if I didn't immediately seize on a new thing to worry about, which is that my daughter leaves for South Africa in three days. She and her group will teach the arts to kids at two township schools over her two-week spring break, and she is sick. She has a cold, which I am praying is just a cold, and will we know for sure in time? Her dad has just recovered from a tough case of the flu that knocked him down for four days. I kept thinking of a mighty oak laid low, as this man hardly ever, in the twenty-eight years I have known him, takes to his bed. He's fine now, but it would really suck for my girl to get that kind of sick on the other side of the world.

I think I must be addicted to worry. What kind of faith woman am I? My mother always says, trust your hopes and not your fears. I'm doing my best.

You are so loved.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Too Much

"As the woman spoke in Japanese, the interpreter's voice trembled in English: Her daughter was washed away. She was washed away, and she has not found her." This is from a news report on CNN today. The woman held on to a tree as the waters swirled. And now her daughter is gone. 

As the waves recede, thousands of the dead are washing up on Japan's shores. The living search among them for loved ones and the toll now stands at 10,000 or more lost in the rubble or the water. It's Haiti and Katrina and Chernobyl melding into one long nightmare. I cannot take it in. I feel a strange surreal distance. Raw. Scraped bare. Going through the motions. I want to look away. I want to gaze upon my children and locate myself in their faces. I want to close my door and hide from the grief of so many lost and searching, unsheltered from the cold. We haven't been paying attention. We've been drunk on our blessings, looking inward, not out.

The suffering is to too much. I cannot take it in.

And yet it touches us anyway.

Bodies at rest and in motion

Room and Board

On Sunday morning my son made decently poached eggs on the first try, then my daughter styled them with black pepper and chopped parsley. My niece, the pre-dentistry major, was in the background cheering them on, assuring them that these dishes would be on the menu of her restaurant when she opens it.

Then my daughter had to leave for test prep, and as she was headed to the door, my son wanted to know where the vanilla was for the French toast he was making. She stopped and rummaged in the cabinets and pulled out a small bottle and threw it to him. It turned out to be red food coloring, which he only discovered after he added it to the egg mixture. So then he found the vanilla, the bottle for which really did look just like the food coloring bottle, and he proceeded with his recipe while in the background my niece declared, "Epic! Red velvet French toast! Yes! We'll call it The Radford." 

After this delicious breakfast we all settled in for an afternoon movie. Amid the meandering chatter that attended the selection of the movie 127 Hours, my son's friend complained that at school he never sleeps. "Like last Thursday, he was up having a water fight with his roommate at 2 a.m." She turned to my son, hand on hip. "Am I lying?"

My son then jumped up from the couch where he had been comfortably reclined since finishing his turn in the kitchen and launched into a fond rememberance of said water fight, which involved both young men dumping the contents of water bottles over each other's sheets and finally stripping the beds and heading to the laundry room to dry the soaked sheets, then dousing those dryer-warm sheets some more. We can imagine the hilarity and wrestling and laughter and shouts that accompanied this engagement.

And they live in the "quiet dorm." 

"Fortunately, I can sleep on a bare mattress," my son finished with an unmistakable note of triumph.

"You need to take vitamins," I said. This was not the non-sequitur that it seemed. I figured if he was torching the candle from all sides, with classes and track and studying and parties and soccer and late night water fights, he might as well shore up his resistance.

"I don't need vitamins," my boy declared with the generous authority of a 19-year-old who is absolutely certain of what he knows and is now going to share it with you. "In America we get all the nutrients we need from our diet yet we swallow supplements by the handful, which is why we have the most expensive pee in the world. And," he added, finger stabbing the air for emphasis, "we get those nutrients even on a whack diet like mine."

I took the bait. "Which is what exactly?" 

"Ramen noodles, pop tarts and oatmeal."

"Glad the oatmeal is in there," I said.

"Yeah, that's my main staple," he said, falling back onto the couch and picking up the TV remote. "That's my can't-be-bothered-to-go-to-the-dining-hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner meal."

Good to know what our room and board payments to his college are subsidizing. 

And yet, on Sunday morning he made poached eggs and red velvet French toast for the whole family, and on Sunday night he treated us all to dinner of Brazilian braised chicken, garlic broccoli and saffron rice with black beans. Clearly, he's learning to feed himself more than oatmeal.

Truth is, I'm just happy to see him and his sister and his cousin and his friends smug and snug on my couch. They'll all be out in the world making their way soon enough.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Saturday, March 12, 2011

All that is real

The college kids are home. They make me so happy. My son, my niece, and their friend Chelcie all arrived by bus last night and my husband met them at Port Authority so our boy wouldn't have to navigate the subway with his suitcase and bad ankle. I was late at work, but managed to race home in time to straighten the house and order Chinese food for their arrival. The delivery man had just left when I heard the bantering voices of my family coming down the hall, all but my daughter, who was at a school dance. The three kids came in and fell upon the food as if they hadn't eaten in days. It made me feel as if I had managed to provide exactly what was needed in that moment. It felt simple and good.

Gosh, my boy looks good. I think he grew even taller. He's less clenched than the last time he was home. His acne is all cleared up, his face open and lighthearted, no crutches, just an ortho boot to immobilize the ankle while it heals. He came home with just a single left shoe, the ortho boot taking the place of his other shoe. As soon as he sat down he cheerfully peeled back the velcro boot straps, removed and threw aside his sock (it landed on the dining table), unwound the ace bandage and held out his leg for us to see the fading bruise like a bracelet around his ankle. Then he removed his other shoe and sock so we could compare both ankles to gauge what was left of the swelling. We crowded around and were a happy engaged audience and I'll say this: My boy knows how to heal.

Now he and his dad are watching soccer while Chelcie dozes on one couch and my niece on the other. My daughter is in her brother's room timing herself on a practice test. As soon as breakfast was done, she took my iPod Touch for a stopwatch and her test prep book and waved to us all. "See you in three hours," she said. She just came out for a break and kissed me as I sat here typing this. "It's going really well," she said. "I wish it were the actual test."

Michelle over at just eat it reminded me this morning that these are the moments that matter. These are the experiences that are true, and if we lose faith and spiral into despairing thoughts, we miss them. She—and all the rest of you here—pulled me back from the edge of darkness today. And standing in the clearing of this space, the blue sky overhead, I can see how good my life is. How all my fears are future based, dire imaginings of things that may never happen. All that is real is this moment we're living through now. And by God, it shimmers.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Broken Earth

What the people of Japan are facing today, after an earthquake of historic magnitude and a towering wall of water crashing over them in its wake, really puts things in perspective. Neighborhoods washed out to sea, more than one thousand feared dead, aftershocks, people roaming homeless, searching for their relatives, two nuclear plants leaking radioactive steam. My own preoccupations seem very small today. The dimensions of the disaster are still unfolding. (And I'm lying. I'm still spiraling. Still lost in the weeds. Other people's grief only makes it larger and more cosmic, more forgivable to cry.) Whispering a prayer.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wrought Iron

Tired and sad.

Actually I am angry and unsure, but it is manifesting as tired and sad.

We intuit so much, but can't actually know.

We absorb cues we don't consciously recognize. But the body feels the quiet cut.

We feel like shit and don't know why.

Tears brim and don't fall, because isn't it stupid to be undone by this? 

I am still figuring out what this is.

All I know is that I am not imagining it. This is real.

And to meet it, I have to suit up, polish up the armor, fight the good fight.

No matter how tired and lost and sad.

I have been in this place before. I can do this.

And I will. 

This is not about work, which is really good right now. Nor is this about my love, who has just helped me understand what I am feeling, and whose eyes filled with tears because even though he is a stoic, he feels it too. Tomorrow will bring a new morning, and even if it is still raining, I will square my shoulders and stop feeling sorry for myself and wishing things were different and I will do what's necessary. One foot in front of the other. Heart on my sleeve.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Parallel Universe

I alternate between cautious excitement at the impending arrival of our new editor in chief and being just exhausted at the prospect of having to study yet another boss, to learn her quirks and hot buttons, to remake story ideas within her vision, to prove myself worthy of staying on. I actually love my job—the wordsmithing and active curiosity and sense of rhythm and imagery that gets exercised in the editing of stories and the working with writers and designers to bring the whole realized vision to the page. But I have so little tolerance for what is unknown. I am so eager, always, to move past the preliminaries, to stop second guessing and standing apart to analyze, to get to the part where I can just dive right in and do my job the best way I know how. To know I am trusted. I have a good work ethic. I am not afraid of working hard or long. I thrill to the collaboration of people who are doing more than just going through the motions. I pray that this new editor is fueled by that, too. I have been assured that the woman who is coming is a grown up. She's a straight up fashionista, a Notable Person in her own right. She could be really great for the magazine. But I want to be done with all the finding that out already. At a twelve step program I attended in my youth, I heard a man who was looking for a job say that he prayed simply to be useful to someone. He was coming back from addiction and said it with such humility. It has stayed with me all these years. I think that is the best thing to pray for when it comes to work. Let me be useful to someone. Let me.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Wild Hearts

My son, who badly rolled his ankle last week, keeping him out of his division's regional track and field championships, had his follow up appointment with the sports doctor today. I just got this text from him: No fx. Might be able to run by the week after spring break if all goes well.

I gather "fx" is shorthand for fracture in sports world, and he seems to have dodged that fate. That's me you hear giving the long exhale.

Oh yes, all the college kids are coming home for spring break by the end of this week. My son, a college friend of his who lives overseas, and my niece will be staying in our home. My son's best friend, who lives across the courtyard from us, will also probably be hanging out in our living room, and there will no doubt be other various and sundry young people roaming in and out all week.

As much as the house will be turned upside down, and as much as our daughter cannot afford to be distracted from school work, I do enjoy such times. Let the wild rumpus start!

Illustration from Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Street Wise

My beautiful goddaughter seized the opportunity to commune with John Lennon, who she found lounging on the cobblestones. She is spending the year in Amsterdam.

Justice for Henry

Katie Granju, whose son Henry sustained massive brain and heart injuries in a parking-lot assault compounded by a drug overdose, has been fighting since the day Henry was brought to the hospital bleeding and brutalized, to get local authorities to properly investigate what happened to her son. A month later, Henry died of his injuries. Now, after months of official inaction and apparent obfuscation, Katie is telling the whole story of what transpired over at her blog, mamapundit.com.

Henry's story broke my heart when I first became aware of it. Katie Granju's firstborn arrived on this earth three days after my own son, and that made what his mother was going through so immediate for me—there but for the grace of God. What has happened since is just unfathomable. After Henry's family recovered his cell phone containing texts that explained what had unfolded, for example, officials refused to even look at the texts, saying it was unnecessary for them to follow up on the leads provided. They declined to speak to people Henry had texted in the hours before his assault, they neglected to interview Henry before his death, and they never met with his family after it.

His mother now feels she has no choice put the put everything she knows in the public domain. Please stop by Katie's blog and leave a comment. It will help focus attention to the stalled investigation and on the exploding national epidemic of children being lost to addiction to pain pills and other street opiates. And it will hopefully bring justice for Henry.

Soul Cluster

Friday, March 4, 2011

Status Update

So, to everyone who exhorted me to look for the silver linings, to make lemonade, to trust the hidden purpose to my son's injury, there is this:

We still don't know if the ankle is fractured though he had the X-ray this afternoon. The doctor is supposed to read it later today and call him if there is a fracture, in which case they will have to put the foot in a cast. So far no call, but my son says that all signs point to a fracture. Sitting in the training room icing his ankle and with his cell phone to his ear, he was telling me all about what was going on inside his joint in medical terms, and I was rather impressed by the depth and sophistication of his knowledge and the clarity of his explanations. I said, "So you're learning a lot by having to treat this injury." He said, "Well, I already knew most of it, but it really reinforces what you know when you're going through it yourself."

Tonight he is going to the NCAA basketball tournament being hosted by his school, and it occurred to me, he could meet the love of his life tonight or maybe just someone who becomes a friend for life, or he could simply have a good time with his roommates and that is a silver lining too.

He has been all over the campus on his crutches today, avoiding patches of ice, climbing up hills he never noticed were so steep before, and he seems to be getting a handle on things. His equanimity has reasserted itself. And there is also this: On his Facebook page, under his status that says, "just destroyed my ankle. Goodbye ECACs" (the Eastern Conference Athletic Championships that he was supposed to compete in this weekend), there is a growing string of sympathetic comments, from a young lady offering to redecorate his room this weekend since he will be dorm bound, to this message from one of his fellow trackies: "You may be poor in ankle-health, but seeing as roughly 30 people have already commented on this, you are rich in friends."

I think he's going to be fine.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

That Face

Falling Hard

My son was supposed to come to the city today to compete in a big East Coast indoor track meet in pentathlon. He called us yesterday afternoon excited to tell us he had qualified and would be here tonight, that the team would sleep in a hotel but he would be able to stay at home. Can you say thrilled? My husband, my daughter and I all planned to take Friday off to go and watch him. My daughter was practically levitating with anticipation of seeing her brother compete and of course, it didn't hurt that we had agreed to let her miss school.

But last night at around 1 a.m. the phone rang and woke me up. My heart stopped because phone calls at that hour don't usually bring good news. And sure enough, it was our son on the line, a sob in his voice. "Mom," he said miserably. I waited for it with forced calm. If you read here regularly, you can imagine all the places to which my worry brain flew, so I had a moment of guilty relief when he said, "I rolled my ankle really badly at a soccer game tonight. I feel like such an idiot."

But quickly, the dimensions of this turn of events became clear. Not only would he not be traveling to the city tonight with the team, and not only would his coach be upset, he would now be on crutches for the next six weeks, hobbling up and down the stairs and pathways of his very hilly and snowy campus, and he also wouldn't be able to do his job as lifeguard for open swim hours. The coach for the swim and dive team had just proposed sending him for additional training so that he could help instruct the student lifeguards next year, which would pay him more money and give him another life-saving certification under his belt—my boy collects first responder type skills the way others survey coins or stamps or your more tangible collectibles.

Well, his outdoor track season is now effectively wrecked. And one other thing. He needs to always be moving, this child. He is a kinetic being. As a student, he runs off his excess energy training daily for track, then he can concentrate on more sedentary work after. We've known this about him since middle school, when he first became involved in organized sports. He is deeply competitive, but his main competitor has always been himself, hence his emphasis on always trying to better his PR (personal record). Perhaps he might have been evaluated ADHD if he hadn't had athletics, but his involvement in regular physical activity has helped him effectively channel his energy surges, his hyperawareness of everything going on around him, which is an impressive skill when managed, a madding noise when not.

My son loves his fellow trackies. He feels as if he has let them down. My husband and I think they're all goofy, prankish ADHD kids who found a magic pill to focus the roiling electricity coursing through them. On the track field, they become laser beams of intention, their understanding of one another translating into the kind of single-minded camaraderie seldom seen outside of team sports. Once, when asked if he planned to pledge a fraternity in college, my son said, "Why would I need to? My track buddies are my brothers and sisters."

Last night, one of my son's roommates, also a trackie and an athletic training major, wrapped the ankle and helped to ice it. My son will present himself at the training room as soon as it opens this morning at nine. He says the ankle is swollen like an inflatable ball and hurts like hell this morning, and I worry that it may be fractured. Waiting to hear more.

Secretly, I feel like I tempted fate and did this. I have been writing here about my son flying, and then I put up that post facetiously glorifying the art of hurling yourself through space and missing the ground. Last night, he didn't miss the ground. He connected properly, because he always tries properly. Never mind that he should have been in his bed instead of playing soccer at midnight. This somehow feels like my fault, my hubris.

To this, my wonderful therapist who retired a decade ago or I would still be seeing her, the woman my husband and I called Saint Eleta, would have responded wryly, "You're not that powerful, dear."

One of my band wrote something a few weeks ago that stays with me (I thought it was Marylinn Kelly, but now I can't find it anywhere on her blog. If someone else else said this, please tug my sleeve): "The only superpower I desire is the ability to smooth my son's path." Yes. Yes. Yes. For both my children. But the truth is I can neither smooth nor rumple their sacred paths. They have to walk it on their own. And for the next several weeks, my son will be doing so on crutches.

She was talking to her dead brother Percy

It's been a heartrending week for my 92-year-old aunt. She fell again last week Wednesday. The home attendant who was in the home that day is an increasingly impatient woman who may not be the right person to handle my aunt's declining mental and physical condition. She is inclined to rush my aunt through everything, dressing and undressing, feeding and grooming, and my aunt does not like to be rushed. She will be sweetly compliant if coaxed, but if you try to push her she will fight you, flailing her arms and striking out and pushing back, her face crumpling into angry tears.

We've known for a while it wasn't working, but were loath to make a change. This woman is well-intentioned, and Lord knows, she weathered all those months of my addicted cousin's craziness when she was living in the house with my aunt, and we felt some loyalty and gratitude for that. But last week, when my aunt fell again during her evening routine, the home attendant called 911, took her to the hospital and then didn't let any responsible family member know she was there. She didn't even call the home care agency. She just went home. Maybe she was exhausted. Maybe exasperated. In any case we didn't realize until the next morning when the Thursday home attendant arrived that Aunt Winnie was in the hospital.

I had gone to work early for a meeting. I came out of the meeting at noon and there were missed calls on my cell phone from three of my aunts and my mother, one from the home attendant, one from the hospital's geriatric social worker, and one from Aunt Winnie's son. My heart clenched. I knew this could not be good. I started returning the calls and quickly learned that my cousin, the still-active alcoholic and addict who was removed from my aunt's home via a restraining order last fall, had called the night before and been told that her mother was on her way to the hospital. Apparently she showed up there at 7 a.m. on Thursday morning and had been sitting with her mother ever since.

I was touched by this. I thought it a poignant expression of her love for her mother, in spite of everything. Actually, I romanticized it a bit. No, a lot. But when I arrived at the hospital soon after, reality smacked me in the face. My cousin and her brother were standing on opposite sides of their mother's bed, screaming at each other. A large man was in the room, trying to calm them. I learned he was the head of security, who had been called by the troubled social workers, two small women with clipboards who I now saw standing off to one side, looking hunched and worried. Everyone turned to me as I walked in, as if I had arrived to save the day. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

I didn't even bother to be embarrassed by how my cousins were behaving. It was really way beyond that. My aunt was in the bed crying and saying something no one could understand. Her daughter was crying and yelling slurred obscenities at her brother, who now fell silent. I realized at once that my cousin was sloshed. She was neatly dressed but she reeked of alchohol, she couldn't control her volume, and there were big dark moons around both her eyes that I had never seen there before.

My first impulse was to try and calm her down. I thought everything would simmer down if I could do that. So I hugged her and kissed her and whispered in her ear, "Hush, you're making your mother cry." It didn't work. She screamed that her brother was the cause of her mother's tears and that she had been to court and overturned his restraining order and had filed her own restraining order against him. A nurse came out of the adjoining room and shushed her. The security director kept trying to talk to me and usher us all out the room. He wanted to know could we just ban the daughter from visiting. As my aunt's power of attorney, would I be willing to consent to that.

Things got kind of loony from there. My cousin started thrusting sheets of crumpled paper at her brother, slurring loudly that she was serving him with an order of protection. He just looked at them and didn't take them. He was slack-faced and untidily dressed, as if he had rushed out of his home without any sort of care. I felt so deeply sad for both of them, and for my aunt, whose last days have been so marred by the ugliness between her children.

We finally left my aunt's room and went down the hall to a supply room. My cousin, the intoxicated one, refused to come into the room, shrilling that she would not go into any room where her brother was. So we stood at the doorway and tried to talk to her, but she was much too high to be reasonable about anything. Finally, I asked her to leave and to call me or one of our other cousins when she was sober. I said we would bring her to see her mother if she was sober. She replied with a string of expletives and stalked off down the corridor to the elevators, loud and wrong. For the five days my aunt was in the hospital, she didn't return. Or perhaps she did and security declined to allow her in.

My aunt came home from the hospital last night. She now has a new home attendant, another Jamaican woman. This one has a gentle soothing way about her. The agency probably chose her for this case because she is fresh from working with another elderly patient for ten years, a woman who passed away last month at the age of one hundred and three. This home attendant seems well versed in how to handle my aunt's increasing incapacitation. And indeed, my aunt has stepped down a lot since last week, so much so that I wonder if she has quietly suffered a stroke. When the visiting nurse service came to enroll her in physical therapy earlier today, the new home attendant told them she would need a hospital bed, that she wasn't able to sit up on her own. The bed will be brought in this week. I know my aunt needs it, but my heart sank anyway, because I think that once she gets into that bed, she will no longer sit in her recliner. She will now be officially bed bound.

When I was there last night, she was curled up on her regular bed, asleep. I kissed her head, hoping she would wake up and she did. But she was different than she was even a week ago. Then, she would turn and look at me when I came in, and even if she said nothing, a light would flicker in her eyes. I realize now it was a smile, a greeting that conveyed she was happy to see me. I only understand the depth of this communication in its absence. Last night, she looked up at me blankly, nothing stirring in her eyes, and my throat felt full of sudden tears. My daughter was with me so I didn't cry. I didn't want everything sad.  We sat there and talked to her, and she tried to say something and I heard only one thing clearly. "Percy." She said his name twice. Percy was her oldest brother, the first one of her eight brothers and sisters to die. "Did you talk to Percy?" I asked her. "Oh yes," she said. I asked where she saw him, whether in a dream or in the room with her, but I couldn't understand her response.

After a while I coaxed her to go back to sleep and told her I would come back tomorrow. I kissed her, and my daughter kissed her, and at that point there was something in her eyes, a flicker of something trying to swim up to the surface of her pupils, and even though it didn't quite make it, I knew she was trying to show love.

My Aunt Winnie at 12 years is the girl on the left. Uncle Percy, 14 years, is on her right. The two children in the front are my Uncle Terrence, 8, and my mom, age 9. This is a crop from a family photo taken 80 years ago next month. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trying Properly

There is an art, or rather, a knack to flying.
The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

The first part is easy.
All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and willingness not to mind that it's going to hurt.
That is, it's going to hurt if you fail to miss the ground.
Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.

If, however, you are lucky enough to have your attention momentarily distracted at the crucial moment ... then in your astonishment you will miss the ground completely and remain just a few inches above it in what might seem to be a slightly foolish manner.
This is a moment for superb and delicate concentration.

Ignore all considerations of your own weight and simply let yourself waft higher.

From A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy