Family Calling

At my father-in-law’s burial today, my nephew will be reading Psalm 23 for him, as my father-in-law did for my husband, his only son, more than ten years ago.

******

My father-in-law, who was the youngest of five sons, married the Lady in the Red Dress.

Legend has it he attended a dance when he was a student at Boston College Law School, and glimpsed a beautiful brunette in a red dress as she swirled behind a column. When a nursing student who spoke with the French-Canadian long-voweled cadence emerged, he asked her to dance–and only then realized it was a different young lady.

And thus, in turn, my own life’s path was formed.

They went on to marry and have five children of their own: first my husband, followed in roughly Irish twin increments by four sisters. I am told my husband displayed only the lightest dusting of disappointment by the time the youngest arrived and no brother was to be found. But he was by temperament well-suited to be the one retreating to a quiet room of his own amidst the mysterious cacophony of sisters.

Somehow my father-in-law was in complete equipoise within this very full household of little girls, so foreign in many ways to his own boyhood, spent in the same Massachusetts county just outside Boston. Both stoic and expressive, practical and extravagant, contained and available, bound to his faith but understanding of those who did not practice it, financially canny and prone to wildly splurge (always on others), hardworking and relaxed.

I met their son when I was sixteen. At what now seems an achingly young twenty, I married into this second family: I grew up more with them than I had in my parents’ household.

When, a shade over 25 years later, my husband received a diagnosis that left me unable to speak, my undoubtedly devastated father-in-law arrived at our shell-shocked household to brave Route 128 and drive us to certain surgical confirmation of what we already knew was ahead.

He read my soul and said six words.

“You’ll always be my daughter, too.”

******

Two-and-a-half years after his only son died–a period that, like nearly each 2020 day, seemed both intensely compressed and unending–he suffered a catastrophic stroke. My husband Jim, the compassionate and skilled doctor, was not there to help navigate his care and sooth his and the rest of our souls. It has not infrequently astonished me that my father-in-law was able to endure the extreme hardships which piled on.

I’ve grown to wonder whether he held onto these years with us in order not to subject the rest of us, and especially all of our children, to another profound loss so soon.

******

I cannot imagine that he sang to his children when they were young, but I remember when my first daughter was on his knee, and he sang to her one of his customized jigs as she stared at him intently with bottomless brown eyes (“Little Emma, one shoe on and one shoe off“).

Only the first five grandchildren then graced his world, and he looked up at me and Jim and mused, perfectly content, “I’d just like to see how it all turns out for them.”

And then he was here when their father was not, for milestones when they would feel that aching absence, as they chose and graduated from schools and entered into important relationships and began to find their ways as young adults.

I realized only in speaking to my children after he passed away that, like his son, my father-in-law taught me many things I could not fully understand until looking back at his life.

Among these, he taught me the breadth and meaning of a calling.

It was so easy to see a calling in a career path, like that of my father, who was born to be a theoretical physicist. There was simply nothing else he could have been: he was called to a life of the mind that was profoundly internal, making practical things like remembering meals and rearing small children–particularly yours truly, having grown up with no sisters–far more mysterious than the mathematics of the universe. My father dwelled alone where his attention was: provisionally in his office at school or at home, as slightly more traditional family life transpired two floors away, but really in the limitless invisible of the cosmos, even as his physical world shrank down to a single bed in an overly-shaded room as Parkinson’s ravaged his body and tinkered with his mind.

Since their early childhoods I’ve seen the seeds of my sons’ and daughters’ devotion to assorted STEM fields. I thought a calling was similarly evident in my own attempts to do justice within work I have never viewed as only a job.

My father-in-law ensured every one of his children could receive the education they needed to do the work that spoke to them; a lion’s share has dedicated their professional lives to teaching. They all are parents in enduring marriages conducted by a rotation of Franciscan priest uncles from far Northern Maine. Papa Dick supported his family by enduring a daily commute on the Southeast Expressway for decades, working with great accomplishment and contentment in an accounting firm, moving to D.C. for six years, and retiring back to New England when our second son was born. He and Grandma Jackie had downsized; they up-sized when they moved back. With more than a baker’s dozen of grandchildren yet to arrive, they found a place that would have space for all of them.

Three daughters and brothers-in-law also settled within easy driving distance and began raising their families. We would go to Papa Dick’s house every Sunday for family dinners after multitudes of cousins exhausted themselves playing games on the lawn, eventually settling in groups all over the house. Some, thumbs locked in cupid mouths between bright cheeks, napped in cribs under Grandma Jackie’s quilts; toddlers cradled newborns on the big yellow couch as parents hovered within lurching distance; some clustered around early-generation computers in Papa Dick’s new office, its walls brimming with family pictures. And above them always hung the hang-hammered silver letter “G” his own little boy had forged for him in elementary school. Many moves later, it was still on the wall of his room when he peacefully passed away.

Once we parents were dramatically outnumbered, having had to move to zone defense against so many little people, there were occasional incidents–like the enduring mystery of the pencil-stabbing of Papa Dick’s well-worn leather footstool. (There is a lead suspect, as it were.) He would put on a stern show, but I think even the toddlers could sense the shimmer of laughter. Nothing in life delighted him like these grandchildren, and there was no greater gift he could have given them than the bonds of friendship and love they forged on those Sundays.

It isn’t, I realize, that his work was or wasn’t his calling. And perhaps a calling isn’t what we do so much as who we are.

His calling was his family.

It broke his heart to lose his son, but he never lost faith and never broke. While my husband was alive, Papa Dick’s voice never even wavered in my presence; it caught only once, as he read Psalm 23 at his son’s service and the rest of us dissolved.

And only once, on a parental radar frequency that instantly lifted my body from the couch where I sat stroking my younger daughter’s hair, did I hear what he tried so hard to contain while being strong for the rest of us. My children and I were in our living room, next to the room in which my husband’s body still lay, when two of my brothers-in-law solemnly accompanied my father-in-law to see him.

If Dvorak’s Stabat Mater were distilled to a single sustained note of abject grief, that was the sound.

But then the note evaporated. My brother-in-law told me much later that they had gone from there out onto the porch and my father-in-law was himself again, talking in his measured baritone, which was also his Jim’s, and assured that his son was in no pain and with God.

Though my father-in-law lived a generation longer than his son, they both had in common the completeness that comes with the absence of regret. No different calling would have suited either. Both their lives, long-lived and not, are causes for continuing celebration.

Neither would have done anything differently, in making any choice that mattered.

Especially inviting the Lady in the Red Dress to dance.

Posted in Love and Loss | 3 Comments

Emerging Orange

March 22, 2021

Dear Jim,

Serendipity sent me just minutes up the street from Carney Hospital yesterday morning.

Of all the gin joints in the world and the Commonwealth, that was where I had been dispatched: within a short walk from our first house. 

Of course I had to take a swoop through our first neighborhood once my task was completed. Even the angles of those streets seem to have changed. Almost every lot has been built up, often stories higher. The corner green lot is gone.  The pink house is still, or possibly again, pink. The Eire Pub is still there.

I did not see anyone at Larry and Becky’s house across the street. I thought of their New Year’s Eve open houses, and especially the time when you took my hand and we walked across to their house after I woozily stood from our couch. We walked into their garage, where the guests spilled over, and Larry, surrounded by dozens of animated children, asked, “So, when are you two going to start having kids?”

And you immediately answered, as I did my best not to grow an even more intense shade of Grinch green while you took the beer he handed you: “We were thinking around the second week of August.”

And grinned that grin. 

And Larry smiled that smile, and Becky came over and hugged me.

They were more excited than my parents, who for years tried unsuccessfully to suppress their certainty that they were not old enough to be grandparents.

This year, I have thought that if I only I could get vaccinated in time, maybe I will be able to go into the room with my mother and her nurses one more time.  Maybe something other than my voice would unlock some other memory to connect her to part of all she has lost. She survived her initial infection, but no longer recognizes herself. She has pictures of you and our sons and daughters in her room.  I wonder sometimes if in some corner of her mind she still thinks with a smile that she is not old enough to be the grandmother to all her amazing grandchildren. For a long time she still asked me about you and I pretended you were fine and busy at work because it broke my heart the time I told her you had died years ago, and she was so sad but then forgot within minutes and asked me about you all over again. I thought I could at least keep you alive for her if I no longer told her the truth.

Or so I thought, until the day I told her everyone was fine, but minutes later she asked me if I worked, then asked if I was married. It is possible that the nature of my silence gave everything away, because I long ago perfected silent weeping, and of course she could not see that.

Her intuition outlasted her memories.

Minutes later, when I could breathe again, I called her back, and realized she did not recognize my voice after all. She said she thought she had “made the girl on the phone sad” when she asked about her husband.

******

It’s been quite a year.

I’m still not strong enough to navigate this without you.     

******

Yesterday I slowed only briefly when I reached the front of our first house, on the middle of our street.  It has not changed nearly as much as its surroundings, but it has changed far more than the school up at the top of the hill, which I rounded on the way to and from work at the very same first job to which I returned after you died. The comradery of the place and the work in which I started out, and of all the people I have worked with along the way, has always made work feel like another home.

I have been so lucky in my life, too.

Additions have been built to many of the houses on that street, but not ours.  The house is no longer painted in mustardy tan, a shade my subconscious finds impossible to hate, and that I find utterly innocuous—even charming — in an occasional Presidential suit.  You had that suit jacket that was only slightly darker, shot through with an almost invisible cedar tweed.  Our old house is now painted a lovely deep ash, the color of tastefully weathered Nantucket shingles, or of a beach twenty-five minutes before dawn as the tide comes in.

I have learned quite a bit about color and light, especially at the shoreline, this past decade.

Instead of the black shutters, which I suspect were not hewn of anything found in nature, the house now has a daring new exterior look: the shutters are painted in the deepest rose, almost crimson but not quite, the color you would get if you melted bright pink petals into dark ruby blood.

I did not cry when I went by our house yesterday.

******

I went to the ocean this morning to look for you.

If it were any other day, except perhaps your birthday, I might not have ventured to the beach this time.  I have been particularly achy and dispirited, for many months now.     

There was no cloud cover and no incipient color along the wall of blackened blue.

Only a band of orange light, eventually, threaded itself along the horizon.  No riot of color.  No anthropomorphic clouds. 

I might not have bothered.

What would be the point in a nearly black and white shoreline and a monochromatic strip of sky….even if they were rendered in our, and now one of our children’s, school colors?  

******

This day, this month, this past year and then some, does not seem possible.  It is not the pandemic that defies imagination—that was of course a matter of timing, and response and duration and how they correlate, and you would have been managing all that for a large community.

The impossible part is that you have not been here with us for a decade, for that enormous a part of our children’s lives. 

Just.

Not.

Possible.

******

Before sunrise the mustardy-tan sand is true black before it turns to shades of gray, variegated along the depth of the softened oval footprints of absent travelers.   Sometimes, depending on the clarity of the light and the phase of the moon, clusters of bone-white seashells will shimmer underfoot.  Driftwood turns from brown to black, into looming, twisting, angled limbs waiting to snag me if I move too quickly and am too focused on the horizon, as is my habit when I see harbingers of an intense sunrise.

I hate to miss the explosion of color into clouds.

I already knew I would not see that this morning.

But I looked and I saw you, and of course it was you I was looking for.

Serene you, not the cacophony of blazing light I usually seek out, especially in the rushed early morning hours before work.

Open, unlayered, honest.

Quiet, contemplative, secure.

No noise or distraction or blinding light.

“Your gentle soul,

Your large and quiet kindness;

Ready to caution and console…”

The poem our daughter read for you, ten years minus four days ago.

We have different sunrises, you and I. 

But I noticed something else this morning, when the sun finally rose.

It was no longer all black and white—your favored photography form—below the horizon, and color only above it, even if this time it was subdued into a demure band of clementine.

I saw the marriage of heaven and earth and sea, as I had in the peaceful pastels at the Irish Sea when a shell filled with your ashes fluttered there at daybreak. 

Once the day officially arrived, it was no longer made up of my sky and your earth.

Their light and promise was intertwined. 

When the sun appeared, a hyphen on the horizon, just enough lemon orange began dancing on the waves and sand that I could look out without having to squint into and steel myself against this calendar day.  Instead of the neon pinks I usually gravitate to before dawn, the alchemy of your sunrise left a wash of rose-garnet under my feet as the waves receded from sand that was no longer black.

Soft color mixed into the day ahead as the night seeped out into the light, again, even today. 

And always.

Posted in Love and Loss | 4 Comments

A Layered Valentine

 An onion, or two, for Valentine’s Day.

“Not a red rose or a satin heart,” as poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote. Nor “a cute card or a kissogram.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with those.

But it is both so much more simple and so much more complicated to give and be given any tangible gift of love.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Love is often linked, aptly and sometimes egregiously, not only to light and dark but to food and drink.  Comfort foods which harken back to the idiosyncratic home cooking of childhood, at least for those, unlike my own sons and daughters, lucky enough to have grown up with a competently sustained culinary oeuvre.  Obscenely costly symbols—authentic Champagne, caviar, pure 24K gold itself shaved over Black Forest Truffles as insular and dense as volcanic rock.   Family recipes handed down for better and for worse.  Flourlesss chocolate wedding cake.  Fresh cardinal-red strawberries and purple cauliflower.  Friends who make and feed us the only foods we can manage to eat in times of abject grief.

In my experience, rarely had love’s layers been called to mind by the sulfenic acid particulates which aerosolize as one dissects a vegetable.      

But on my counter sits a stalwart couple: a towering purple onion listing slightly over its companion, a small golden onion, as if giving shelter. They have long outlasted all their brethren, delivered to me by a friend not driven to distraction with anxiety at the thought of going inside in winter to purchase daily bread. Only their surfaces are slightly worse for wear, separating along sepia fissures at their translucent outermost layers, furling ever so slightly, more like Rilke’s unending rose petals than the chafing away of our own perishable brittle epidermal layers, cracked by sub-zero cold. 

Although I unceremoniously felled some of their brethren, I do not plan to do harm to these companionable Alliums. 

I consider them my Valentines. 

Early in the pandemic, knowing both of the exceedingly difficult anniversaries which inhabit my outsized winters and in-house medical issues (soon to be compounded by my mother’s CoVid diagnosis), friends from work began driving significant distances to bring me food. 

After a scale revealed that I had dipped down into double digits, another friend drove from two states away to deliver troves of healthy food, including bountiful salads someone had endured quite a lot of volatile red onion vapor to adorn. . .along with a not inconsiderable amount of my favorite less healthy treats. The sustaining bounty arrived on my birthday, and again to fortify me for the hollowed-out holidays which followed.  My brother brought me highly sweetened booze, just in case, to toast my birthday and Jim’s, although of course Jim does not age.  A friend sent Maine coffee to warm my mornings, and then decaffeinated coffee once I had to forgo the real thing.

Writ large, multitudes, alone and in countless communities, continue to risk their own health to continue to provide meals and groceries to those in need of them.    

A century ago, in the pandemic season of her time, Julia Neill Sullivan, at 72, cooked pots of food in the small cottage on Ireland’s west coast where she had raised thirteen children, hauling meals across a stony field to those stricken by influenza and too weak to feed themselves.  More than 50 million people perished worldwide, but her own grace in her remote corner of the world ensured that others would survive. Generations have followed them.

Suffering and deprivations are immense.  It is hard to know where to begin, and daunting to consider all that we cannot heal or fix—certainly not by ourselves, and maybe not while we still walk here.    

But the gift of grace is ours to take as far as each of us can carry it.  It is exponential and enduring.  Trauma can unfold and carry its scars across time, but so does the grace “to help in time of need.”

In his last newspaper column, at the end of May, Jim Dwyer wrote about those who at their own peril now come to the throne, to feed the sick and those whose calling is to minister to them.  He also gifted us all with this final sentence about what Julia Sullivan did a century ago: “In times to come, when we are all gone, people not yet born will walk in the sunshine of their own days because of what women and men did at this hour to feed the sick, to heal and comfort.”

Food is not, strictly speaking, love, but the impulse and the calling to bring or serve sustenance to someone else is. We all need, and may be called upon to give, any “provision for the way” that we are capable of giving. 

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Birthdays of the Dead

Iceland 1430

I wrote this post five years ago, while leaning on one of many pairs of crutches (the coolest among them, with built-in reflectors) I accrued as I quite literally fell to pieces as a half-decade younger widow.  Back then I had all our beagles by my side and underfoot; now Rufus and Brady have joined Jim.  It is one of my favorite posts, though I could not say why, and now something of a birthday tradition for him.  He would have loved everything about Iceland….

 **********

Earth-smoke and rue. Ashy gusts burst and thin and billow again, like those trick candles that can’t be blown out.

Today is Jim’s birthday.  Our birthdays, in different years, fell only ten days apart, both feeding into holidays our family now celebrates more in miniature.

We now live in a small house on a postage-stamp lot. My vehicle has shrunk considerably, the mighty mom van traded out for better gas mileage, fewer seats, and barely enough space to contain a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Even the beagle has downsized.

The Lilliputian scaling is apt for a surviving spouse of my fairly petite dimensions.

Jim was at least a foot taller than I. His mark on the world remains large.

I just had follow-up x-rays at the hospital where Jim worked and was a patient. The orthopedist was checking on the status of healing bones (a story for another time, having to do with the cliff-side tail end of the adventure during which I took the photographs above and below).

Iceland fall 1827

 

The hospital receptionist, whom I did not recognize, asked me about the daughter who accompanied me on my recent adventure. My husband’s name came up.

“Oh,” she smiled.  “I was wondering if you were related to our Doctor Glennon.”

English does not seem to have a word for a smile accompanied by tears not of the happy variety.

Our Doctor Glennon.”

He wasn’t just ours–mine and our children’s–and I am glad for that. He was a loving and loved friend, a brother and son and uncle and cousin, a physician, a sharp wit and a gentle prankster, a masterful photographer, a musician, a Little League coach, a Boy Scout troop leader. Nearly five years, unfathomably both compressed and vast, since he died I am glad to know that he belongs to others as well, and that they still think about him too.

When you go to bed, don’t leave bread or milk
on the table: it attracts the dead--
But may he, this quiet conjurer, may he
beneath the mildness of the eyelid

mix their bright traces into every seen thing;
and may the magic of earthsmoke and rue
be as real for him as the clearest connection.

 

As a transitive verb, “rue” occupies the same bittersweet ground as regret–which, like guilt, seems to me to lodge grief’s emergency brake into place: things not done or said in time cannot be done or said.  Unasked questions will never be answered.

I am not without regret.

But I like to think I am also more capable now of viewing the other side.

As a noun, “rue” is a yellow flower, a medicinal herbal balm–calling to mind the “secret belief/in perpetual spring“–the faith that “for every hurt/there is a leaf to cure it.”

 

Rilke’s native German provides a homophone shared by “eyelid” (Lidern) and song (Liedern).  His roses’ folds are like closed eyelids, the sleep of death, but also luminous and unending.

Like the resurrective rose in Rilke’s self-authored epitaph, like the pairing of death’s earth-smoke with rue of the healing variety–perhaps even something like Schroedinger’s cat–the dead are at once two seemingly opposite things: seeing but unseeing, dark and bright, buried and wandering.

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

icywindow

I wait in my driveway in the morning dark while ice crystals on my small car’s windows melt into swirling aquamarine waves. Days earlier I had watched towering blue ice calved from a glacier and shadowed by coral sunbeams.

Get out there and look around. It doesn’t have to be across the ocean; just pick up the crutches and go out the door.” I can still hear him, uttering words he never spoke.  “And next time listen to your daughter: hiking shoes with traction,” he reminds me, not unkindly.

Sulfurous earth-smoke and yellow healing herbs.  Snow dust and storms.  Dark gray skies and heart-shaped clouds. Sunlight and a perigee moon.  Your bright traces are everywhere.

Happy Birthday, my dear.

 

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