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Category: family

Summer’s Light

Perhaps it is the middle of June, but out  here on the island, the weather has finally just reminded us of what summer feels like.  We’ve shed our jackets and dug out our shorts to swelter in the heat.  I finally covered our porch in potted plants that I think might actually survive the night temperatures now.  At last, the weather matches the long hours of sunlight that have been making bedtimes with Baba more than a little insane.

“It’s NOT bedtime, Mama,” she says every single night.  “Look, it’s still daytime.”

“Alexa,” I ask our Internet overlord, “what time is it?”

“It’s seven o’clock,” Alexa says, backing me up with her calm and robotic voice, as though hours and minutes are a thing that Baba actually cares about.

“ALEXA!” Baba shouts.  “IS IT DAYTIME?”

I feel this is a good time to mention that nothing in the baby books prepared me for parenting a three year old.

 

 

And yet, I’ve caught the itch too – it’s impossible to do all the sensible things that you know that you should when the world is glorious and filled with light.  And it sure it hard to go to bed after spending far too many hours convincing your toddler that she really does need to lay down and go to sleep right now or…

OR…

ORRRRR….

There is no or.  Although absolutely every neighbor and every book confirms that this is a sign of my inept parenting, the three year old is in charge, as it apparently illegal to actually staple her to her bed.  Between bedtimes and potty training, my life has been consumed by her needs.  By the time she finally gives in and accepts unpleasant states like lying down and closing your eyes, it is generally about half an hour before my normal bedtime, which is just not enough time to settle down and relax.  And so I stay up far later than is wise, night after night after night.

I know they warned me, but this motherhood trip sure is intense in the first few years.

 

 

I was walking home from the train station the other night, enjoying the glory of the sun still out and about, when I suddenly thought about how I am now only a decade younger than my mom was when she died.  She was absurdly young, but women in my family have a tendency towards overachievement, and racing to the finish line is no exception.

But then, the inevitable next thought always comes:  But I have not yet done what I always knew that I should do with my life.  I have published only one story.  I have written the majority of several novels.  One of them should even have a finished first draft by the end of the, dare I say it, by the end of the summer.  But it’s hard to not to despair that it has taken me so long to get this far.  What if the same thing happens to me and I leave all of that work incomplete?

My Beloved is approaching retirement in the next decade and so we are beginning to talk realistically about what that next stage of life will look like.  How will we afford it?  Can I retire anywhere near the same time?  When I was younger, I thought that I would retire early – or at least semi-retire – because I wanted to travel. But travel in the way I had pictured has lost much of its appeal, as my life grows to make my home the place I really want to be.

So perhaps not that.  Perhaps I will retire just to find a second career.  I’m not certain.  But I know that whatever I do, it will be arts based.  That is who I have always wanted to be: someone who creates something that matters to other people.

But what does even that look like?

 

 

Like most fiction writers, I dream a lot about what would happen to my life if I managed to write that best-selling dream novel.  Who does not?  Isn’t it fun? Just one success and then your money worries go away for the rest of your life.  Get optioned by Hollywood and then pay off your house.  You’ll take the lump sum of your earnings that year and invest them in ways that keep turning the money into more money.  Maybe you’ll take a part-time job, just to keep the brain cells flowing.  Maybe you’ll work on writing your next ten novels without having to balance another full time job.  Maybe you’ll spend your days just sitting in the garden, enjoying the kind of time you never used to have.

Creativity needs space and time.  Executing the dream, the work of the doing, that takes time too.

At the end of the day, every dream I have is really about freedom, not money.  It’s about being able to buy the time that I feel so starved of now, here, in my present life that sometimes feels like it’s lived entirely in service to the needs of others.  How is it that I’m spending my days folding laundry and going grocery shopping and and not doing, doing, doing the creative things that would satisfy this longing?

This feeling is only temporary, I tell myself.  It’s just a few more years before Baba can fold her own laundry and cook her own meals and won’t want me around.  How I’ll long for her then, this sweet-skinned babyish form of hers that crawls into my bed and curls against me and says, “Mama, I just want to sleep on YOUR pillow,” as if that makes all the sense in the world.

And then I will miss this time, this hard, frustrating time that is filled with a thousand small moments like that one.

And so.  So I carry on, scribbling when I can, as best I can, and trying to be gentle on myself for staying up too late, for forcing myself exhausted through the motions of each entirely forgettable day, for not doing the work that will satisfy my dreams.

There’s time yet, after all.

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I’m Mad at Anthony Bourdain

(posted a few days later)

This morning the news broke that Anthony Bourdain had been found dead in a Paris hotel room. His death has been ruled a suicide, and although the details have yet to come out, it is inevitable that it must also be related to a mental health disorder. This is barely a breath after Kate Spade was found to have hanged herself off a doorknob in her Manhattan apartment, a result of a cheerfully hidden case of bipolar disorder. But her handbags were so playful!, said every single reporter, which tells me everything about what they understand about the manic part of manic-depression.

This has been a hard week for me.

I have no affinity to either Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain, though it is always sad to discover how desperately someone was struggling, but, thanks to their suicides, I am now surrounded by self-appointed experts on mental health.  In the elevator, they talk in respectful and solemn tones about all the people that they’ve heard about–and it is clear from the careful tones that they use that it is a subject that they get to forget about most of the time. Creatives, they tell each other, truly creative people often suffer from depression. Look at Stephen Fry. Look at Robin Williams.

When you are the child of a bipolar parent, this is enraging, even though this is probably just the way normal people cope with bad news. It seems impossible that someone with so much wealth and fame should be so unhappy as to want to end it all, doesn’t it? It’s so easy to look at their lives and say, oh, if I had a few million in the bank, then I wouldn’t have the worries that I do. Money solves so very many problems.  Just not biology.

Like Kate Spade, my mom also died at a young age, and, bizarrely, ended up on national news media when it happened. Her death was not a suicide, but without a doubt was influenced by her bipolar disorder. Self-care is hard when you’re struggling to survive.

But I also know that she would have chosen to live. Some days that knowledge is heavier to carry than others. Listening to strangers talk about how sad it is, but also how unsurprising it is, to see someone with bipolar order take their life…well, it hurts.

Likewise, every time another school shooting/suicide happens, the people who want to own guns shout about how the problem isn’t guns — it’s just those people with mental health problems. I always want to shout back, to remind them that if they understood what it was like to live with someone with bipolar disorder, then they would stop thinking about mental health as something that gets cured through a one-time talking cure.  They’d know the three states:

1. On meds.
2. Off meds.
3. On meds, but the meds have stopped working.

My mom’s life was dedicated to the balance of those three, though it was generally a balance between states one and three.  She spent her whole life just trying to feel normal, constantly working with her doctors to find a pharmaceutical and therapeutic balance that would allow her to keep functioning.  She constantly chased activities and pursuits that she hoped would bring her to a state of calm happiness. My earliest childhood memory is going to stay with my father while my mom went to rehab after years of self-medicating.  Most of the next ones were entertaining myself in therapy waiting rooms and A.A. meetings.

Given a choice, she would have lived.  And that is profoundly painful to know — that she would have lived, but wasn’t given the chance.

Some days, my dead are harder to carry than others. This week they swirl around me, because there is nowhere to go to escape the many reminders of their lives.

And so.  Anthony Bourdain.  I actually know very little about him — he had some TV shows that I don’t think I’ve ever seen.  I can’t pretend to know what was happening in his life.  I certainly don’t judge him for it.  Life is hard.  But there are people whose passing creates ripples in the larger wave of humanity.  His is one of them – and the waves have brought on more grief than I was prepared to handle this week.  And so, I cannot help but be angry, because anger is so much more comforting than despair.

Rest peacefully, all of you ghosts.

 

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The American Legacy

My daughter crinkles paper, blows
on the tree to make it live, festoons
herself with silver.
So far she has no use for gifts.

What can I give her,
what armor, invincible
sword or magic trick, when that year comes?

How can I teach her
some way of being human
that won’t destroy her?

I would like to tell her, Love
is enough. I would like to say,
Find shelter in another skin.

I would like to say, Dance
and be happy. Instead I will say
in my crone’s voice, Be
ruthless when you have to, tell
the truth when you can,
when you can see it.
Iron talismans, and ugly, but
more loyal than mirrors.

from “Solstice Poem”, Margaret Atwood

 

 


 

On the radio this morning, the hushed voices of NPR reporters break the news that the largest mass shooting the country has ever seen happened overnight. The details are still sparse, but I wait for the body count. In the back seat, Baba babbles about the birds she heard singing, while I wonder what new words she’ll pick up from the radio this time.

After the barest details turn into empty radio filler, I turn down the volume. There is time later to obsess about the increasingly competitive rampages of men with guns who want to die over and over again on the front page of every newspaper. And we fall into the trap, as we must, feting the murders on every radio station and in every newspaper in terse and gently probing tones. The President issues a speech that manages not to insult anyone. On social media, the cringey and meaningless posts about thoughts and prayers are echoed over and over.

We are helpless. We are hopeless. But yet, we want to be seen having compassion for people we would not know walking down the street, because the situation is so terrible that we must be observed to publicly mourn to protect our decency. And so we perform our grief, but it feels false. How can you have grief left to give to strangers, when we’ve done this show so many times?

This season, it doesn’t even have an intermission.  Hurricane, hurricane, horror, hurricane, slow response, mass shooting, horror.

Later in the day, Tom Petty dies, because how could such a well-loved American artist live out this terrible day? Although we know by now that it is simply not safe to go to work or ride a train or dance in a night club, music had been safe.  If you weren’t French.  Now, thanks to yet another white man with far more guns than anyone should ever own, that too has been defiled. Even Tom Petty’s death is ruined, because our thoughts and prayers are already taken.

Tomorrow, his record sales are sure to spike, because that is what happens every time. And we will do nothing else. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

 


 

About a month ago, I told Baba that it was time to leave to go to school.

She says, “No, Mama. I no go school. I have to murder my tiger.”

“You have to what?” I ask, as I walk into the living room, where I find her holding a long piece of plastic across the throat of a stuffed Disney-shaped lion that we have yet to identify.

“Ehm,” I say.

“Ehm,” I say a little louder.

Baba interrupts her sawing and looks up with curiosity on her sweet and feral face.

“You seem to be murdering,” I say, in what must the epitome of good parenting.

“Yes, Mama,” she says happily. “See, I murder my tiger! Like this!  You want murder my tiger too?”

“No, baby. Murder is not nice.”

“Murder is not nic-CEEEEEE?” she asks, cocking her head with an overdone smile that usually makes me laugh.

“No love, murder is not nice. Tell your tiger that you’re sorry, honey. Then we need to go.”

 


 

We have a madness that we cannot seem to shake off.   Already the old conversation about gun control has started. I think more about personal risk.  I don’t worry for myself, because I have walked through high-risk halls on my way to work so many years that I long ago accepted the chance that some violent man will take my life. After all, I ride trains. And, in 2017, we all know that bombs and trains go along very well.

Hopefully not my one, but you never know.

But no parent considers sending their child to school without also imagining the day when that decision became deadly. Because you never know.

And this is the world that I must explain to Baba. Now she is so young that her innocence about the world constantly surprises me.

One day she took down our Bernie Sanders card from the bathroom mirror and said, “Who dat?”

“That’s Bernie Sanders, love.  He reminds us to look out for one another.”

“Who Ernie Sandbars?”

I thought a while about how to explain it. “He’s a man who wants to make sure that everyone can go to the doctor if they get sick,” I said.

“Why you no can go doctor?” she asked.

“Well…” I said, at a loss for words.

What a world I have to give you, my Baba, my innocent and feral child. And that is my deepest grief. All I can arm you with are the words and poems of the fighters and the heroes and hope that you stay as courageous
as you were born.

And do better, child. Do better than me.

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A Stone, A Tree, A Memory

When I was fourteen, I went to live with my father in Scotland for a month.  He had been stationed there for some time, but this was my first trip to Europe.  I was beyond excited to finally go to a country that I had romanticized since birth.

Being a moody fourteen year old that was prone to poetry and rambling walks, I often rose while the mist was still burning off of the lanes of the tiny village where we lived.  I would walk down to the river, through a graveyard littered with historical signs boasting about the medieval round tower on the church.  At the river, I had ducks for friends.

I was only visiting.  I didn’t know a soul in town.  And it was a small enough place that a month wasn’t nearly enough time to get to know anyone new.  And so I would walk and visit with the ducks and watch the other people, as they walked their dogs and played with their children.  It was lonely, but it was a very peaceful loneliness.

I have been thinking about that place a lot and wishing to visit it again, even though I suspect that it would not at all be the same to return there with the knowledge of an adult.  But metaphorically, my heart is there because, unbelievably, I put my other cat to sleep two weeks ago.

No, not the one I just blogged about at the end of March.  The one that survived her, my beloved, wonderful tabby Nevyn, who has been my constant friend for the last 20 years.  Nevyn of the sweet and fearless personality, who was once held for ransom (I paid!) and prone to wandering into the arms of strangers and making them fall in love with him.

So here I am again, writing a post that I have no heart to write, because I don’t really know how to be an adult without him there in my life.  I have never had to do it before.  We have been together that long.  Now, I dread walking into my house, particularly when no one is home.  For the first time, the house has no life on the floorboards, no soft feet pattering around behind me.

An 18 year old lover.

No one cares about you like your cat does.

It has been hard.  Perhaps it has been harder than it should be.  It’s been two weeks since I took him to be put to sleep because it’s taken this long to be able to look at the pain of losing my cats with any kind of insight or eloquence.  There’s a distance needed before words can form.  I’m not sure I’m there yet, but it’s a little closer today than it was yesterday.

Although it is brutal to lose two animals so close together, it is comforting to know that they weren’t without each other for very long.  They had been together for 18 years and I am certain that Nevyn felt all of the grief that I did when Morghan died.  His illness – kidney disease – began to progress more rapidly.  Suddenly, the cat that everyone exclaimed over as being unbelievably young for his age became an old man.  He spent more and more time napping on the couch and lost most of his interest in going outside.  He absolutely refused to stay upstairs, which is where Morghan had slept until her final illness made moving her closer to the litter box a necessity.  When I carried him up the stairs, he immediately ran back down them, in a burst of energy that was becoming rarer and rarer.

Nevyn Sleeping on Morghan, February 2017

I’ll never know if taking him to be put to sleep was what he wanted.  I’m told that it was the right decision by everyone who saw him in those last few days, but I can’t help but agonize over it.  The vet told me he might have had a few more weeks, if we tried to keep him going.  I know they would have been lonely.

But I miss them both terribly.  I know that there will be other pets in my life down the road, but right now it feels like I’ll never love again the way that I loved these two.  In some ways, it is like a first heartbreak, before experience makes you put your guard up the next time you fall in love.  You can never again not know how much loss hurts.  They weren’t the first cats that I’ve lost to time, but they are the first cats that I raised myself.  I paid the bill when Morghan was spayed.  I took them every year for shots and check-ups.  I worried for them when they were sick and I held them when they needed to be held.   And now they’re somewhere else, in a place where I cannot hold them any more.  I cannot protect them, which was my job for so long.  It feels like failure.

The Remembering Tree

All I can do for them now is remember them.  I brought them both home and put them in our front yard, wrapped in blankets and lying side by side under the Japanese maple, just as they were always doing for all of those years that we were all together.

Now they return to the earth.  And, somehow, the rest of us go on, drinking coffee and walking to the train, sitting in the office and doing what we always did for all of those years.  Squirrels run up and down their tree, looking for lost nuts in the mulch that covers their graves.  Songbirds — cardinals and robins and sparrows and starlings – fill the air in the garden over their bodies.  And I walk past the final resting place of my kids each morning as I emerge again out into the world.

 

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Easter Passes Me Over

I have been off of work for the last week, as Baba’s day care has been closed for the Passover and Easter holidays.  Not being a Christian nor a Jew means that this mostly turns into another one of of those holidays where everyone seems to need to be somewhere, but I’m not entirely certain where that is.

Apparently people get together for Easter?  And they eat food?  Also, sort of the same thing for Passover?

I’m not so culturally tone-deaf as to not understand that there are some significantly different religious underpinnings there, but my understanding is pretty vague.  Jesus rose from the dead; a miracle is celebrated.  The Jews were spared from the plagues that God visited on the Egyptians and were liberated from slavery — another miracle.  These are fabulous and powerful stories, even if you don’t share the faith behind them.

And I must admit that I rather like the idea of miracles these days.

These shoes were made for walkin’…on mulch.

Our celebrations were more pagan.  Baba was sent a chocolate rabbit and some bunny ears, which led to a full day of listening to Baba declaring her newfound love of chocolate. I spent the afternoon digging in the dirt in the garden and trying out my new garden shoes. (Sloggers!  Recommend!)  The house that we bought was uninhabited for four years before we moved in and the yard is showing the neglect.  I don’t know a great deal about gardening, as you could spit across the entire yard of our last house without really even trying, but I’ve taken on fixing this yard as a personal vendetta project.  I’ve been learning a lot about eradicating crabgrass and annihilating dandelions, which is very much the dark side of gardening.

Still, there are worse ways to celebrate a fertility festival than by making room for new things to grow.  Tonight, I sleep the sleep of the just, even if we still haven’t figured out how to make our mysteriously 9-zone sprinkler system work.

It has been really relaxing to be away from my normal routine for so long.  My grandparents were visiting for the week, which made my time with Baba very pleasant.  She has very much become a 2 year old, with the attendant fits and dramas that limited language and a whole lot of will power entail, and the extra adult hands around were greatly appreciated.  Our entertainments were pretty mellow, with many trips to the park and the grocery store and the back yard.  The weather finally turned for the season and, for the first time since we bought the house,  I’ve actually been spending time just sitting in the back yard, enjoying our tiny private patch of outdoor space.  I bought Baba some chalk and we’ve been working on decorating all of the bricks in the patio, which is just the sort of life goal that I’ve needed for some time.

Perhaps the lessons of Easter and Passover aren’t for my family, but all of the time together with Baba and my grandparents has felt very sacred, all the same.

 

Nap refusal is never pretty.
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Cancer Sucks: A Goodbye

I had a dream the other night about a woman who was coming after my family.  She was long haired and thin and she kept knocking on the door to our house, which kept opening, over and over and over.  I tried relentlessly, but I was powerless to stop her as she walked in and she would touched my family, wrapping her long fingernails around the face of a child that I was supposed to protect.  I was so afraid of her, because I knew that that this woman was a murderer — and try as hard as I might, I could not keep her out of my house.

I woke up, in the guest bedroom, terrified and shaking.  It took me a moment to remember where I was, as I’ve only slept there once or twice.  Each time was so that I could sleep with my younger cat, who has been very, very sick.

And that was when I realized that the woman in the dream was cancer, coming after my family again, so relentlessly.  It has been less than a year since I lost my young uncle and my brother-in-law to different forms of cancer.  And last week, on St. Patrick’s Day, our vet told me that my cat Morghan had it too.

It could be cancer or a polyp, he said.  And since she’s 18 years old, he said, we’re not going to do surgery to remove the tumor in her bladder.

No, I agreed.  We all know that I’ve been lucky to have her in my life this long.

So you have two choices, he said, you can manage her pain or we can talk about euthanasia.

Ah.

My beautiful Morghan.

I opted for pain management, though I know I will spend many hours wondering if that was selfish.  When I picked her up from her day of examinations, the vet who met me asked me if I had any questions as he explained the regimen of pills.  I know she’s terminal, I said.  I know that.  But how do I know when it’s time…?

Oh, you’ll know when, he said.

This last week has been a hard one, as I woke every morning to check on Morghan and see if the tumor had done terrible things to her in the night.  It hadn’t, and since she was still active enough to chase me around the house just waiting for me to sit down, I tried to convince myself that she would be okay, for a while at least.  Then she stopped eating. When I took her back for her check-up a week later, she had lost a full pound, which she didn’t have to lose in the first place.  When the vet tech weighed her in at six pounds, I cried again, because I had told myself that if she’d lost weight, then I’d really know that it was time.  I took her and her anti-nausea medicine home with me, but I still could not get her to eat.

When had come.

Eighteen years is a long time to share your life with someone.  I have no one in my life who has been there as long and as constantly, as steadily there for me as my two cats.  The wonderful thing about a pet is that there’s no judgement; no matter how terrible your day was or what terrible mistakes you made, your cat just loves you.  She has been there for my entire adult life, ever since I took her home as an 18-year-old to my first apartment.  She fit in my hand that day, a tiny little creature that had been dumped in a parking lot, weeks before she should have been separated from her mother.  I taught her how to bathe, to some extent, and spent hours and hours detangling her fur and picking out knots.  She was never very good at being a cat — she never caught a thing in her life — but she was a wonderful companion and friend.  She came with me when I moved around and then, finally, to New York. I cried in her fur at every terrible break-up I went through.  No matter what the problem was, coming home to pick her up comforted me, because I clearly mattered so much to her.  Her quiet purr, broken and nearly silent at the best of times, was always there.

I have never had to put a cat to sleep before.  I’ve dreaded the idea of having to make that decision for years now, hoping that Morghan would pass the way my fifteen year old cat Mushu did right after Hurricane Sandy.  My Beloved discovered Mushu outside, looking  as surprised as a cat can.  We presumed it was a heart attack and buried her under a pear tree in the yard, comforted knowing that her last moments were brief and out of doors.  Selfishly, I appreciated that I did not have to choose when, that that decision had been made for me.

But not for Morghan.  I said goodbye to Morghan in the car outside of the veterinary office.  I had let her roam free in the car on the drive over, which she took full advantage of, peering out the window and making me wonder if I was making up how sick she was.  But then I held her bony body, which had once been three times the size that she was on Saturday, and I could no longer deny that it was time.  I thanked her and kissed her and cried some more, in the quiet space of the car.  Then we went inside, where the staff were quick to usher us into a room.

Still, Morghan shook in fear, the tremors running down her thin shoulders.  I put her in my lap so that she could put her face in my elbow, which has always calmed her down.  Don’t be afraid, I said, petting her thick fur and desperately wishing that I believed in some sort of afterlife.  Please, love, just don’t be afraid.

When the vet gave Morghan the anaesthesia that knocked her unconscious, I was holding her against my body.  I felt her muscles relax as she crumpled against me, falling down onto the soft yellow blanket that I had insisted on.  I gently caught her and laid her down, pulling her tail out from under her and settling her legs into a more comfortable position.

Don’t be afraid, I said.  Please, don’t be afraid.

As the vet released a vial of bubble gum pink barbiturates into Morghan’s leg, I put my hands on her, holding as much of her as I could.  She did not twitch or shudder and, after a moment, the vet put her stethoscope up to Morghan’s thin chest and told me that she was gone.  My sweet girl had gone completely still, but her body was still warm and it didn’t seem like it could be true.  I tried to close her eyes, but I couldn’t, and that’s when I knew.

Morghan and Mushu, a lifetime ago

I brought her body home, keeping a hand on the box she was in for the entire drive.  I left her body in the car while we put Baba to bed for the night, and then my Beloved dug a hole in the front yard underneath the Japanese maple tree that made me fall in love with this house we bought.  We put her in it, placing her carefully, since when my last cat passes, it will become a double grave.

And so I carry on, holding my sweet girl in my heart, since I can no longer hold her in my hand.  When I walk to and from my door, I look at her grave and I am comforted that she is home.

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Dublin Airport Time

Dublin AirportThe flights to America leave from Terminal 2 in Dublin.  There was a time when arriving at the airport was a relaxing part of the trip.  It was a last chance to sit at O’Brien’s and have one last authentic fry-up, one last cup of well-brewed Barry’s tea before stuffing a real scone in my bag and heading back to the land of hot dogs and coffee.

Time has changed things.  O’Brien’s is not what it was.  The tea is a weak European blend that we don’t recognize.  The fruit is green and the sausages are no longer spiced in the Irish style.  The staff are eastern European, serving up a cheaper version of the Irish experience that has lost everything in translation without gaining any international flavor.  The beans are insipid at best.

But this barely matters, because we no longer have time to stop there for breakfast before our flight. New American security concerns mean that we must go through two sets of security screenings, as well as customs, before we even get to the gate.  Well over an hour later, when we’ve gone past all of that, we queue up for half an hour at the one restaurant in the American section of the airport, where I pick out a muffin that I don’t want because we no longer have time for the staff to heat up a panini.  The plane is already boarding, even though we’ve been at the airport for two and a half hours.  I swallow half of my cappuccino before throwing out the rest so that this time, thank God, we don’t end up running for the gate.  I burn my tongue.

It has been an exhausting trip, this trip back to Ireland to bury my brother-in-law.  I’ve cried a great deal more than I expected, while remembering more names than I anticipated.  My in-laws are a veritable tribe, a tribe that shows up en masse to major life events.  There are cousins and friends and adult children with children of their own, all of whom seem to remember my name.  When I ask my Beloved to clarify which cousin Mary that he had just referred to, he gives me a blank look at my dense incomprehension, then rattles off a string of names and relationships that I lose hope of being able to follow by the second sentence.  My family has been declining in numbers for a generation; I am simply not equipped with the skills to remember everyone, even after four years of marriage.  But I am getting better.

My sister-in-law brought pictures of my Beloved and his three siblings to the wake, one from shortly after the birth of the youngest and another from right before my Beloved left Ireland for good in the late 80s.  They are children in the first picture and barely more than that in the second.  The second photo hung in the family home for decades, becoming such an icon that my Beloved and his siblings retook it a few years ago.  I am so glad that they did now, though I remember being in a rush at the time, because there will never be another one with all four of them together.  That time in their lives has finished, long before we ever expected that it would.  So we passed around the pictures and told old stories to the new generation, while marveling at the changes in the family between then and now.  Baba wandered at our feet, pulling at the photographs and trying to find out what happens when you bend them.

My brother-in-law was buried on Saturday, so we took Baba and her cousins to St. Anne’s park on Sunday for some much needed downtime.  There is a playground there that is a Dublin institution.  The carved horses and cows had fresh paint once, but it has been worn off by generations of small hands climbing all over them.  Baba climbed up onto the Viking ship, which is far too tall for her, and her eldest cousin, who is a man himself now, reached up to keep her from falling.  We posed her with her two cousins, and tried to keep her still enough to get a good shot. She doesn’t understand why we would want to sit still in a playground, where there are so many things to climb and explore.  

Perhaps there will be a day, years down the road, where we’ll make another photo like yesterday’s, when Baba is old enough to understand, and marvel again at the impossibility of capturing time.

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So Many Miles to Go Before I Sleep

A winter scene, a cold creek through a snow-covered forest.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

I know that I am grieving, because poetry keeps running through my head.  A fragment here, a stanza there.  It is a dark season, made darker this week by the passing of my brother-in-law, who was a fine, big man that I’d been planning on having in my life for another 20 to 30 years, at a minimum.

Tonight, we will get on a plane, a red eye flight that will take us over the dark waters of the Atlantic.  We’re travelling with Baba and have taken enough red eye flights with her now that I do not think that I will be sleeping for the better part of 24 hours, because toddlers do not understand things like ignoring all of the distractions on the plane for some much needed rest.

There are, indeed, many miles to go before I sleep.  Many of them will be spent walking my 30-pound toddler in my arms up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, begging her to just, please God, please just close her eyes.

And I am reluctant to go and see my brother-in-law.  In April, my brother-in-law was a healthy man.  I saw him this summer, after the brain tumor had started to destroy his body function, but when he was still talking.  A seriously ill man, but an alive one, who was asking about the madness that has infected American politics this year, who had opinions about movies and wanted to tell you what you needed to watch next on TV.

As far away as we are, it doesn’t yet feel possible that he won’t be in Dublin, waiting to greet us when we get there.  I have no experience of Dublin that does not include dinners at his house, his hugs and kisses, the feeling that he always gave me that I was truly a part of the family, that the in-law part of our names for each other was just a stupid formality that only mattered to other people.  He was the first of my in-laws to call me his sister. I will never forget the happiness in his face as he did it, because it must have reflected mine.

Once I see him, then I know that it will be real that he won’t be there anymore.  Not this time, nor the next.

And I do not want that.  I desperately do not want to talk about him in past tense.  I want to keep him in the realm of “is” and not “was.”  It’s impossible.  It’s just impossible that such an alive person could no longer be with us.  It’s impossible that there will be no more beers in seaside pubs and stories of his motorcycle cop days and eating takeaway fish and chips at his dining room table, listening to the fire crackle and pop.

Cliché, cliché, cliché.  But things become clichés because they are true.

And that’s where poetry comes to save us, to say things for us in beautiful ways, to express our grief in words that seem worthy of it.

And so, Joe, let me share with you the stanzas that I’ve had stuck in my head since I heard the news of your death.  The poem reminds me of you, you who spent your weekends sailing yachts, because it was what you just loved to do.  You, who took scuba trips to Caribbean islands, who worked in Croatia for a year, who finally found the adventure you were always looking for in the love of your life.  You were never too modest to share how happy you were about the fine adventures you had! — and that gratitude, that spirit is something that we should all learn from you.  And so I think of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society, again, telling a classroom of young boys about the preciousness of each day, because you, Joe, you were the essence of carpe diem.  And so I say, to all of you…

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to make much of Time

 

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A Home Away From Home

home sweet homeSelling your house is a strange business.  We’ve had our house on the market for the better part of a month now.  Another way of phrasing that is that we’ve had our home on the Internet, where strangers get to casually thumb through pictures and judge our furnishings taste.  Nearly every day, people that I don’t know have walked into my bedroom, taking a look at some of the most personal details of my life.  For the first two weeks, before we saw any offers, I have to admit that this idea of judgement was laying heavily on me.  I am not generally a very self-conscious person, but day after day of knowing that my house was not good enough for the many people that walked through it left me feeling strangely vulnerable.

That’s emotion for you.  We’ve been going to open houses, so I know well how the psychology of a buyer goes.  We have yet to see  a house that has really excited us, for some pretty arbitrary reasons, so it’s hardly surprising that other people would feel the same about ours, is it?

We are in a buyer’s market, as well, so I know that my strange little house, with its unique architecture and zoning, isn’t going to be for everyone.  We’re in a semi-detatched, which means that we’re one side of a duplex.  It’s like a townhouse, but not when it comes to appraisals.  And that’s going to make the next week or so really interesting.

We’ve had a decent offer.  It should give us just enough money from the sale to find a house with most of the things that we’re looking for.  There are no guarantees, of course.  An offer is not a sale.  Our realtor is currently negotiating with the buyer to see if we can’t inch up the purchase price.  They could walk away.  Since there are no comparable sales, the appraisal could come back with a weird enough number that the buyer’s mortgage falls through.  Still, we’ve gotten hopeful enough that we’ve started the motions towards a new mortgage.  I’ve been looking at houses for sale for so long that I actually got bored of it, but now I’m trying to convince myself to start doing my research again.

Long Island is insanely expensive, so we’ll undoubtedly have to make  compromises.  We’re not afraid of renovations, but I have to admit that there’s a part of me that is mourning the idea of leaving my renovated and finished house and starting all over with another fixer-upper.  Our home, at this point, is perfectly customized for us.  Who wants to start that over?

I keep coming back to this image that I had as a girl of what my life would look like when I had it all figured out.  It’s just flashes — a house with a waterfront view, where waves break against a rocky cliff.  My legs, in grey leggings, underneath an oversized blue sweater.  A desk facing the window, where I would spend my days quietly writing.

In none of those images were there other people or houses.  I longed for space in the way that only a lifetime apartment dweller can.  To have a home where you don’t hear the arguments of your neighbors, imposing on your solitude?

What bliss.

Now the real estate market is down, which will help us in buying, but certainly isn’t going to net us the hundreds of thousands in profit that people enjoyed during the real estate bubble.  And, even though it is a buyer’s market, I see house after house where it’s clear that the sellers still are thinking in terms of housing bubble prices.  We’re trying to be more realistic in the hopes of selling reasonably quickly, which does seem to be working.  Still, it’s depressing to look at the top of our rather generous price range and see 70s fabulous houses on tiny lots, with neighboring houses clustered all around.  That mirrored wall in the bathroom is retro, right?  Who doesn’t want to watch themselves…well…

Obviously I will not get that wood-floored ocean-facing desk of my dreams.  I certainly won’t get that isolated house on a cliff, where I can ignore the world around me, while watching the most peaceful part of nature.  And why should I?  Wouldn’t it be selfish to hog such a view?  But I can’t help but dream of a room of my own, a space where my desk will look at something more beautiful than a basement wall.  We have to be in the New York area for now, because our careers need it.  But it won’t always be this way.  There will be a time when I can step away and find a little town where I can have my house on a hill, where I can replace my crowded train commute with a walk to the garden.

In the meantime, we’ve just booked a quick trip to Ireland to celebrate a family wedding.  Although I really wanted to go, I initially found the idea overwhelming, because there were things to plan and sort and figure out.  Then I found an apartment in Malahide, which is a quiet suburb of Dublin that’s right on the coast.  We’ve rented it, because it is near friends that we have not spent enough time near in years.  Today I found that I could think of anything but getting to it and listening to the quiet inside it.  Our house will come and go as it will, but one thing that I can count on is that I’ll be walking along the shore in Ireland in just three weeks time.  I can’t wait.

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Happy New Year!

blue_new_year_greeting_card_266209I spent the last day of 2015 switching between taking care of a sick baby, a sick cat and sorting through boxes of my mother’s things.  It’s not just my mother’s things — we are hoping to move in the spring, so I’ve spent the last week decluttering our basement storage so that when we show the house to potential buyers that it looks like a place where you can put things.  I’ve been going through all the stuff that we’ve forgotten that we owned, like fish tanks and snorkel fins and Halloween decorations, and trying to find new homes for them so that our house looks like a place where someone else can put their forgotten stuff.

Ironic, isn’t it?

The upshot is that Baba and the cat are both on the mend.  Our eighteen-year-old tabby tore out the dew claw on his hind foot on Christmas Eve, which led to him spraying blood all over our kitchen floor and being very indignant about all the antibiotics and pain medication that I’ve been force-feeding him for the last week.  He’s also been cordoned off from the back yard, which wasn’t too big of a deal until he started feeling better.  It has been Howl O’Clock ever since.  On Thursday, I strapped Baba to my chest and slung the cat carrier over my shoulder and went back to the vet for the follow-up exam.  Baba ate much of the furniture in the exam room while we waited, but the cat’s prognosis is good, even if he is still forbidden from his backyard prowling for another week.  Howl, howl, howl.

Baba is a little slower to heal, and we’ve spent most of last few nights attending to her cough. It wasn’t exactly my plan for ringing in 2016, but it is what it is. In a sense, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to ring out 2015 than to stumble around with exhaustion after a long night of baby tending.  Here’s to more sleep in 2016.

After a hard week’s work, I am also beginning to see an end to the basement clean-up. It is a fitting project for the end of the year — trolling through old photographs, journals and letters puts me in a deeply reflective mood. I’ve now outlived enough of my relatives to have accumulated  generations of memories, so many of the letters and photographs that I’m rediscovering aren’t even mine.  Now, I am saving them for Baba, in the hopes that some day she will care as much about our family history as I do.

I did find my childhood diary, which has only fuelled my recent desire to take up journalling again. For a writer, the benefits are obvious.  I have journalled privately on and off through the years, but it has been off again since Baba was born.  I already struggle with finding enough time to work on fiction and this blog, and journalling was competing with that time.  Time may be a finite resource, but I find that I’ve missed the clarity that journalling gives my thoughts and emotions.

And yet, after finding my mother’s diaries, I am not certain about leaving behind such a detailed written record for Baba to find one day. My mother died suddenly, decades before she expected to. Her journals are filled with beautiful writing, but it is clear that they were an outlet for her when she was troubled or struggling with the depression that always chased her. This isn’t the picture of her grandmother that I want to leave behind for Baba. Every time I find my mother’s journals, I can barely stand to read more then an entry or two, because I know they weren’t meant for me. I know that I should destroy them, but I also can’t seem to bring myself to do so, knowing that they might have answers to some of the questions of my early life. They provide context to my memories, which my mother might have been able to do if she had lived longer.  I was raised thousands of miles from our extended family, so I don’t have the network of shared memories from cousins and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents that so many people do.  I just had my mother, who died too soon.

In this cleaning, I found a baby memory book that she wrote for me, which has satisfied my curiosity about many questions that I’ve had this year. No one remembers when I began to walk, but my mother wrote it down for me. I found when I got my first tooth, grew my head of hair, began to sit up. I’ve wanted to know this all year so that I might know what to expect with Baba’s development. And here is a book that tells me everything!  I was so excited by this that I turned around and ordered a memory book to fill in for Baba, in case she finds herself in the same position that I am in now.

What if there are more answers, more context, in my mother’s journals and letters? I remember my mother, mostly as the grinning, silly, playful person that she was much of the time. But Baba would only know her through these very painful journal entries. That isn’t a fair picture at all. And yet, my mother kept journals from 20 years before she died. Did she want us to find them?  Could she just not stand to them go?  There are some questions I just can’t answer.

For now, I’ve put the journals and letters back in labelled boxes and pushed them to the back of our storage area.  I tell myself that after we sell our house and move that I might pull them out and read through them, but I know that a thousand things will take a higher priority.  They are journeys into the past and it is, after all, a new year now, ripe with the excitement new stories and memories to come.

Happy New Year!

 

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