strange divide

 
My first cousin died last week. She had breast cancer. It was an aggressive kind. It started with a bug bite that wouldn’t go away, turned infection that turned into enough of a nuisance that she went to the doctor where she was told the bug bite is one thing, but the mass they found is another. She died a year later.

She would have been 60.

When I told my kids their cousin died they squinted to recall who she was. “Did we ever meet her?” I strived to describe the less than a handful of occasions that they may have — my wedding to their stepdad on a boat ride around the intercostal in Florida; maybe that time we went to San Francisco (where she lived) for a bar mitzvah; or two years ago at my mother’s 70th birthday. She wasn’t there. By they met her daughter.

It occurred to me that it wasn’t that they didn’t remember her, it was that they didn’t know her.

When she died my mother texted me. I was about to take a bath and I sat on the edge of my bed with a towel on my lap picturing her face and her dark curly hair. When was the last time I saw her? I had vague memories of walking through Bergdorf’s in New York City when her first daughter was born. She was a new mom. We leafed through the sale rack while she nursed her baby daughter in the dressing room. I was at her house once. It was over the bridge from the city, and even if I tried I could not remember what her kitchen looked like, her furniture, or what hung on the walls.

I cried when I got the news she passed away, but I still took a bath and taught my classes. I did walk into the kitchen to relay the news to my husband. He was in the living room watching Sports Center with our son. “My cousin died,” I said in the doorway with the towel still in my hand. The air felt as if it had just been punched. It was then I cried and walked back into my bedroom. My husband followed and sat beside me. “I am so sorry,” his eyes were sweet. There was nothing else to say. I felt sad for losing her and for not knowing her enough and now it was too late.

The rest of the day felt slanted as if a constellation had permanently shifted. I was affected, if in anyway, energetically. I hesitated to share the news of her passing with friends or students. I couldn’t bear the forced sentiment of a pained face for the brief seconds the news of her death deserved — only for that expression to fade as soon as our conversation ended with the student walking away grabbing for his phone.

This same week a close friend texted me that her mother suffered a massive stroke. I read the text in my car as I was backing out of my garage on my way to a private in the pouring rain. “There’s this strange divide,” she wrote, “between normal life just moving along and this other “thing.” I knew exactly what she meant — those moments in my life I have woken up to news that irrevocably changed the course of my day, my week, my life. There is the me who is aware of what must get done – I must make my kids lunch and drop them at school and teach my class and write this email but these things are not without the knowledge that something has happened that makes these daily tasks seem no longer important or even relevant. But also makes these daily tasks seem more vital than anything in the world.

And on the same week, another dear friend shared that on a bike trip through Italy one of the friends she was traveling with suffered a fatal heart attack and died on the first day of the trip. She was riding ahead with the wife of the friend who died. I pictured my friend, so poised and thoughtful and in pain in some beautiful part of the world. In honor of their friend whom she described as a “passionate cyclist,” they continued on with the trip. I imagine the potency of that silent ride as they made their way through the foothills of Tuscany holding the grief of their lost friend, and his now widowed wife. Being home was where she reported the loss felt the hardest.

And this too: A woman I knew, an old friend of my husbands’ who once took a train to have dinner at my house in Connecticut — just had a double mastectomy. She was documenting her experience on Facebook. I have been following her pre and postoperative condition. She recounts her journey with such tenacity and elegance, I felt my own body twitch when she describes the “spacers” in what are now the holes where her breasts used to be.

And this was all just last week. Not to mention the faces emblazoned on the news of young children whose small bodies are perched up against wire cages like puppies in a puppy mill. The outrage and rants pouring out on the social media feeds I am following were hard to scroll past. My only comment: “unfathomable.” The, there is nothing to say in the face of all this that people endure and endure and endure as I wake up and find the energy to take out the garbage and sit with my son while he does his homework.

Life in all of its beauty, it’s immense deep colorific beauty— especially right now with the garden boxes on my tiny urban balcony boasting with color and productivity; with the sun finally shining hot in a city that spends more than six months shrouded in gray and cold—Life is never not fragile, is never not marching on in spite the illness, that fall, that crash, that being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It makes me want to put my head down, place my hands on my heart and be better.

mothers pray

The other morning, I opened the refrigerator to grab the cream for my coffee and with the carton still in my hand, I was seized by worry. Thoughts entered my mind like a vapor and I had an urge to pray. Holding onto the handle, with the fridge door still open, I leaned back a little, squeezed my eyes shut and I prayed.

Please, let things work out.

I was worried about things: My children. Their happiness. Their safety. Our precious little life. I notice this happens from time to time. How prayer visits me when I am doing the dishes or putting the leash on the dog or taking the potatoes out of the oven. Anytime I realize I am here and my children are no longer at arm’s length, I close my eyes.

Please, let things be ok.

Last week, there was unexpected news. It wasn’t tragic but it was enough to stop me in my tracks and ask a higher power for help. There was old worry that came seeping into my life like an unwanted solicitor. The older my children get, the more that I pray. I pray that I never get phone calls or blood tests back or knocks on my door that tells me there is danger, there is pain, there is something wrong and I am so far away.

I pray for protection as they make their way in this world — this world that will inevitably and not so gracefully at times burn them, hurt them, roil them, test them — they way it has burned, hurt, roiled and tested and reared me in different ways, and at unexpected times. I pray to help my children stay clear of the burn. To have them learn their lessons, but not the hard way.

I pray because that is what mothers do when they can’t fix what they wish they could. I pray because I can no longer lift my kid up on the counter to kiss and make it all better and send him on his way the way I used to when a scraped knee sent him running, open arms toward me. It is so hard not to have that power anymore. To not have proximity.

I pray because I have learned as I have gotten older that prayer feels way better than worrying about things I can’t control.

That prayer gives me something to do when there is nothing I can do.

That prayer is my best attempt at helping myself not go there.

It is the thing that says this may help somewhere between the joy of becoming a mom and the hazy confounding mystery of what it takes to be a mom. It is the antidote to the self-punishment I inflict for not saying the right things in the right way. It is the pause that picks me up by the collar and tells me I can try again when I have failed at tuning the dial just right that would deliver the right tone, that would dispense the wise advice that would have the pre-cognition to know not to say anything but to just stand in the doorway with the bigger nervous system when my young son breaks down over what he can’t have, or my middle son side steps over what he might afraid to handle, or my eldest sleeps through what is too difficult to face.
Prayer holds me up in the doorway.

I think of my own mom. I am only seven years older than she was when she lost her mother. I can’t fathom seven years ago without my mom. Without her closeness or her guidance as I went through divorce, or biopsies, or moving again.
I can fathom, maybe a glimpse a taste of what it must feel like for her to watch her now adult children make their way in the world that can burn and sometimes break our hearts.  And I wonder if sometimes she prays for us before she pours the cream in her morning coffee.

Why write at all?

It’s terrific Tuesday, the nickname I give this one day of the week where I have nowhere to race to anytime soon. I have hours stretched out before me until I have to get dressed and I guard these hours with vigilance. I do not volunteer to sub classes or leave the radius of my neighborhood on Terrific Tuesdays. It is reserved for something I have come to value as priceless — doing nothing. Or in the case of today —writing —which to my frustration lately feels interchangeable with doing nothing.

I attempt to write about a conversation I had with my son back in July when we were outside on my balcony wearing tank tops and sandals.

The piece isn’t going well. I am no longer clear why this exchange impressed upon me some kind of necessity to write about it, but as I sit with my laptop staring into endless space I consider this idea questionable.

He tells me he has regret over a major time in our lives. What comes to me is hearing him say, “It wasn’t worth it. I delete a description of his shoulders and his hand gestures. It feels off to write about body language. There’s something else I am scratching at. There is some other reason my consciousness solicits me to write about this point in time. But I am off key. I don’t know for sure how I know that or even if I could trust my judgment — it’s just a feeling that overcomes me. The creative process feels both haphazard and yet, necessary.

I stay with the piece despite my confusion, my ambivalence, my utter hopelessness — feelings that derive less from this little scene I am writing and more from thinking about my other work, my manuscript which is saved in butchered sections somewhere on my icloud. This used to be work that I took as far as seeking representation. Work that I am on the verge of letting go of. Retiring. Forgetting about.

Does my writing need to lead anywhere? If my writing never gets seen, published, celebrated does my writing exist at all?

I am not that far away from slamming my laptop down and giving up. Especially when my thoughts deliver existential doom: What is the point of this? Where is this going?
Is this worth it? I could be doing other things with my time.

I am pulled back to the balcony and my son. I stay. I wonder what is underneath this? I remember his face. I write, his past still haunts him. I write about how I want to knock the heaviness off of his back “I have learned to be tough,” he says to me in a kind of it’s me against the world way. I want to challenge him. To change his mind about what tough really is.

I wait for another arrival of words to come out of the air and press on the feelings that stayed with me long after our conversation. I go back to that deck. It isn’t enough to say that I was sitting beneath him, crouched on the deck. He was in the chair. It isn’t enough to say that I almost interrupted him mid-sentence. It isn’t enough to describe how worlds were moving inside my body to accommodate for the space a mother needs to provide for her grown-up son to voice his truth.

That feeling. (There has to be a better word than feeling). I trudge through to find specificity. The detail lies not on the outside- not on the deck chair nor the way he held his hand over his glass. The scene is inside. The being of this world and myself. A presence that whispers (and sometimes shouts) how this moment matters, it reveals, it is the world beckoning for me to take notice of how much of life there is to take in. . . and write toward.

I am sorry. Thank you. I love you.

This morning my husband asks me if I used his razor.

“No,” I lie.

“Are you sure?” He asks again. He treads carefully. He wants me to come clean but he also knows if he pushes too hard I might turn against him—a behavior I have been known to resort to in some cases like when the moon is full or I when I am being irrational. He knows this about me. He also knows that I am trying no longer to make this be the case. I want to be better than that.

He approaches me more as friend than foe. Despite my mounting guilt, it does not go unnoticed that he is doing an exemplary job communicating. This is one of the many things that I love about my husband. He is always self-improving.

I, on the other hand, feel as if I have just slipped back in time. No longer the vulnerable open-hearted wife that I have nurtured into existence over these past months — I was now sixteen years old with only two choices in front of her: Keep up with my lie or get in trouble.

I grab a sponge from the sink. “Well, I did use it but it was a while ago.”

He wants details. “What would you say a while ago is? Three days? Yesterday?” He stands in the hallway and I am a few feet away at the counter. I search my memory and retrieve the moment I used the razor and tried to match the scene with the day of the week. Was that Wednesday? Would that be far enough back to claim it was a while ago? I change the subject. He walks the dog. I look down the hallway and decide to vacuum.

I drag the vacuum out of the closet. Was it so hard to tell him the truth? Was it too uncomfortable for me to face an innocent lecture on hygiene? Or was it an unwillingness to surrender to one of life’s greatest prayers:  I am sorry. I think about the enumerable playdates I hosted at my house over the years. Stubborn children with crossed arms. A broken toy. Me standing there pleading. You can say it, I would cajole. Just say I am sorry and you will get the toy, the cookie, the remote control back. . .

I think about the time I used to rip tags off of purchases after my husband asked me not to spend money. “Is that new?” he would ask when I walked into the kitchen wearing the new sweater or a pair of boots he did not recognize from our life before. “What, this?” I deflected. “I bought this a while ago.”

I cannot tell you how many moments in my life I wished for a do-over. The moments I wished I had reigned in an impulse, put the credit card back, the phone down, did not hit send, asked before taking. It is only now, being older, and calmer, and less likely to be thrown around by life’s crazy pushes when I see the spaces in my day where I can be better to the people I love.

It isn’t always perfect.
Sometimes I take without asking. I fib. I lose patience with my mother. I remember her telling me she used to do the same with her mother. I can hear her in the kitchen getting short with her on the phone. “Ma! Enough already!” Her mother died when she was 40. This week I turn 47. I tell my friends who are a decade younger they are approaching the best decade of their lives. I mean it.

Maybe all the years of breathing on a yoga mat. Of being practiced. Of noticing myself in relationship to everything and everyone around me. At 47 it is easier to admit I am wrong. That I don’t know. That I made a mistake. To stop explaining myself. It is easier to accept the consequences of my actions because I am less likely to act without realizing the weight of a consequence. I am more able to see the ripple effect of my words, how they can trail into generations ahead. I more apt to pause, constructively. To keep my pulse in the future I am bumping up against. This might feel better right now, but what about in an hour, a month, a year from now?

And as for the moments that I regress, those times I welcome a visit from that me of the past who still likes to take charge and stomp around the house with her fists in the air. I tell her I am sorry I wasn’t more present for her when she needed me. I tell her we no longer have to worry about seeking approval the way we used to no matter the cost. I thank her for showing up until she softens in my arms, quiets down and lets me love her.

Quality not quantity.

My son is here. Here is the two bedroom apartment in Chicago where I moved over a year ago with my husband, my eight-year-old son, the two dogs and the cat. Here is not where my middle son lives but here is where he visits on school vacations, and a few long scattered weekends throughout the year. Before he arrives I make sure he has his own toothbrush in his bathroom, I buy him shaving cream and a razor and the 2-1 shampoo he likes. I buy his favorite cereal.

Last spring, he had his junior prom and I was not there to take photos with the other moms. His dad sent me the photos via text. Look at our boy! He texted. And there he was in a tuxedo with a red vest handing a rose corsage to his prom date— a girl I didn’t recognize. When I received this text I was at a friend’s house for dinner and I showed the picture to my husband. “Look!” I said. “Look at him,” and he did and smiled and went back to his conversation but for me, the ache of not being there for this lasted well into the next week.

Every day I have to get used to not having my son live with me full time. Some days it feels okay enough. I justify me being here and him being there by telling myself it is good for him to live with his dad, to live in one place for his last two years of high school. He spent most of his entire life living in two homes. His dad and I divorced when he was barely three and while he and his older brother were shuttled back and forth, I practiced adapting to time away from them. After dropping them off at their dad’s, I would eventually appreciate returning to a much quieter house for a few days. By Sunday afternoon, I would be ready for them to come barreling into the house with all their noise and sports equipment and backpacks and boy smell.

There are days where the weight of not living with my boys hits me hard. When I fill out certain documents or school forms I hesitate to write that my son’s’ primary address is not my own. A low point: I once lied and refused not to write my own address on the line that asked for “address of primary caregiver” or “permanent residence of child.”

When a student or new friend asks me about my other sons’ whereabouts, I say they are in college which is only half true. It feels more reasonable to admit out loud that I moved to a different state at the same time that both of my boys went off to school. It feels less complicated than having to explain that one still lives back east with his dad.

When I speak with my friends and their young children whine for them to get off the phone and pay attention to them, I hear my friends’ frustration for having to get off prematurely, but they do not hear my slight envy. It’s the middle of the day and my apartment is as quiet as an ashram.

When my son was little I did all the mom things. I sat with my mom friends in big backyards while our children played on jungle gyms and swing sets and I huddled over my son while I cut up his hot dog and squeezed the ketchup onto his plate and wiped his hands and face and deposited him into the bath with his bath toys and soapy water and read him Caps For Sale and kissed him goodnight. If you would have told me that this mother would be the same mother who 13 years later chose to pack up her home and live away from her children I would have said, not in a million years. When people ask why I moved, I look off into the distance and wistfully repeat, “It was just time.” The past few years of heartache and money issues and poor choices come flooding into the air. Perhaps my boys who watched me struggle more than thriving, perhaps they understood in their own way that it was time for me to make a change before it was time for them.

The weeks leading up to my move my son would come into my room and sit on my bed. “This is really happening?” He would say not sounding upset, just in mild disbelief. I stopped with the bubble wrap and tape and looked at him. “Mom,” he said over and over again those weeks, “I will be fine! It’s you who I am worried about!”

The day of the move I met both my boys for breakfast. We went to the same local diner where I used to carry a portable high chair in my arms and attach it to the table where my son’s legs would dangle from the leg holes and we would play tic tac toe on the paper placemats until his pancakes arrived where I would stuff huge forkfuls into his mouth and hand him his sippy cup from my bag.They were planning their day — Going off to the gym later that afternoon. I was relieved that the magnitude of me leaving did not hit them hard enough to distract them from their basketball game. That at the time they laced up their sneakers I would be crossing state lines, following my husband who drove the Uhaul which housed the entire contents of our life now. At this breakfast I handed the boys some of their winter coats and sweatshirts that had been hanging in my front closet; and despite trying to convince my husband we should have some of their stuff at our apartment in Chicago, he looked at me sympathetically and explained that the boys actually might need and want these things at their dad’s for the coming season.

I hugged my boys goodbye in the parking lot and held them longer and tighter than I usually do. They were smiling and shuffling me off like two normal teenagers who needed space from their mother’s coddling. “We’re fine mom!” And it seemed that they were as they walked together to their car already onto their future day.

It’s been almost two years since the move. I FaceTime weekly with the boys. I sit in my living room and watch their faces pop on the screen. I see the posters in their room hanging above their head. Often they are multi-tasking while we talk — but I don’t mind. For me, it’s less about the content and more about just being there with them while they are living their lives. They have both shared on occasion that they miss being able to just come to my house. “Why are you a plane ride away now?” My son asks almost hypothetically. We are still getting used to the way our family feels. I have to ward off the expectations I used to have about what now defines me as a good mother — a definition that certainly did not involve leaving. I have to stop comparing myself to other moms. I I put my hand on my heart most days to offer myself a little compassion.

The days leading up to their arrival my mood elevates exponentially.  My oldest couldn’t come this time but my middle arrived on Passover. It’s his third day here on a seven-day visit. We sit on the couch most of our first day together watching stand-up comedy, something that has become a kind of ritual for us. Inside my mind I hear my mother’s refrain, it’s the quality, not the quantity that matters. She worked full time when I was growing up and when I would lament to her about not being there when I got home from school she would offer me that line with a hug. Now, it is one of my mantras.

I absorb my son’s visit into my bones. The weight of his legs resting on my lap. He is now the entire length of my sofa. The sound of his phone chats drifting into the living room. His size 12 high tops by the door and the extra plates in the sink to be cleaned. My mothering — distilled down to the absolute essence, redefined, transplanted but no less of a calling.

I am no longer breathy or belabored by the physical presence of young children but now find solace and beauty in remembering even a sliver of what that life used to be.