Liquid Courage

New England daffodils do not do well in storms.

Rain seeps in and they seem to give up, becoming one with the the weight of it. Pale  yellows dissolve into cadaverous shades of early frostbite.  Tea-tinged white turns translucent and becomes one with whatever lies beneath.

Tulips, which follow the daffodils in quick succession, seem to be the youngest child among their flowery brethren.  Rather than quietly making room for the next incoming flora, they become spectacularly, raucously undone by rain.  They send out distress signals, flares of bright twisted petals, and co-opt their more reticent neighbors as Victorian fainting couches when the clouds can no longer contain themselves.

Talk about raging against the dying of the light.

Some tulips remain aloft even after losing themselves by half, a sprinkle of stamen facing the world, chaotic innards utterly exposed, an architectural model of a flower.  Some suffer from accelerated aging, and within a week of blooming their soft new petals mottle and turn to crepe. Where daffodils melt like tissue paper into incipient hosta beds, tulip petals gulp liquid until they contract into gnarled clumps.

 

A few watchtower irises have just arrived but already encountered sustained seasonal storms. Their stalks have not bowed. Their falls are unencumbered, fluttering freely. They contain storms’ residue into discrete pearls which gather on saffron signals atop their purple petals. Through different angles they glitter and refract the riot around them when the sun comes out again.

It is no mystery which one reminds me of my husband, whose Mother’s Day gift to me this year is the seasons’ subtle rhythms.

I clearly was the daffodil for quite some time, but I think I’m making some progress through the tulip stage, perhaps someday to be in companionable peace among my fellow post-storm wanderers.

 

 

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God’s Golden Eyes

IMG_7947 (2)

 

March 22, 2018

 

Dear Jim,

I was awake long before you would have hoped for me.  It snowed yet again, though a far less fearsome Nor’easter than this month’s past three.  This morning I was in one of my favorite places, just beyond ocean dunes only miles from home.  Somehow we never stopped there together, although we brought our children just north and south of this stretch of the Atlantic.

The sun broke through bruised clouds like a spotlight, unveiling in a vast murky marsh a single gold-eyed snowy owl who turned to look straight at me before promptly closing his eyes to resume napping.

Subtlety still is not my strong suit.  A few years ago I picked up a novel because of the lacuna embraced by its title, The Inheritance of Loss, and discovered an author I wish I’d found in time to pass along to you.  She described a mother whose son had left only for another continent, who “was weeping because she had not estimated the imbalance between the finality of good-bye and the briefness of the last moment.”

We thought it was some devil
Who put the crying in goodbyes
Until we found ourselves staring in God’s golden eyes….

 

Seven years since the hospice nurse came into our home to check signs she knew would be absent.  “Dr. Glennon, I’m just going to check your pulse now….”  I can still hear her  speaking in the same gentle cadence she would have used with a living patient.

Of course, I’ve seen you quite a bit since then.  I saw you at our children’s graduations, at Jazz’s wedding, at my father’s bedside.  I see you wherever I wander alone taking photographs.  I listen to the music you left me and to music you didn’t have a chance to hear in the traditional way.

In the middle of the night, I may watch you go
There’ll be no value in the strength of walls that I have grown
There’ll be no comfort in the shade of the shadows thrown
But I’d be yours if you’d be mine
Stretch out my life and pick the seams out
Take what you like, but close my ears and eyes
Watch me stumble over and over

 

I’ve taken your place as best I could for all you would have spared me.  I’ve learned, if sporadically, to do the less backbreaking chores you did.  Finances still give me agita, but I muddle through.  I’ve raced to emergency rooms with our kids–and our dogs.   I had the conversations you would have had with my dying father.  I stroked sweet Brady’s caramel fur as you would have done with much steadier hands while he peacefully breathed his  last breaths and I told him he’d get to run off leash with you.  I see you doing that right now: my mind is treating me to a full-color view of you two in what seem to be the fields of Northern Ireland just short of Giant’s Causeway.

After work last night I found tangible evidence (easily capable of definitive forensic testing) that Rufus had been a very imperfect boy during my absence.  (You might have noticed the new return address, the scene of that recent crime.  After I’d moved, your sister told me you knew I’d need to.)  This morning he looked dolefully at me–though I recognize that’s a fine line away from the “are you sure you haven’t forgotten my mom-is-going-to-work treat?” face.

I told him, “Be good.  Be the beagle master would want you to be.”

I’m sorry I didn’t work harder on being the person I should have been when you were here.  I’m sorry I was such a blubbering mess from the moment you were diagnosed.  I’m sorry I didn’t find your photographs for you.  I’m sorry for everything I didn’t adequately treasure.

But of course you didn’t think there was anything to forgive, because that’s the stuff of which you were made.

We did the best we could, no matter how hard, we tried….
Like babes we come whining for some forgotten sin
Surprised to be shining just like diamonds in the wind
Every facet so perfect, every cut the proper size
When we find ourselves staring in God’s golden eyes

 

That day you came home  for the last time I told you I’d miss you every second of every day.  I caught the micro-wince flashing across your eyes.

I think I understand now: it’s not that you thought I was exaggerating; it’s that you knew I wasn’t.

You didn’t want the yawning space of the rest of my life to be defined by the constant undercurrent of missing, the pull of dark negative space.

You hoped I’d find a way to understand you’d still be with me, keeping me imperfectly afloat.

Love always and always,

S.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Who Tells Your Story

Back Story

When I travel around New England to speak at Schwartz Rounds in dozens of hospitals,  I usually mention that Jim would have told his own story far differently than I.  Although it was never his choice to leave us, I view it as a sacred trust that he left his story with me to tell.

When I began doing that, the lyric some of you are internally playing right now (“You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story“) was but the seeds of a melody in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mind.

And akin to an as yet unwritten song, the story Jim lived out wasn’t a story yet, not even when it appeared to end.  It remained a moment-to-moment maelstrom–what Margaret Atwood termed “a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood.”  She explained: “It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.  When you are telling it . . . .”

Like all true stories, it changes from telling-to-telling.  This is the guiding principle of “The Moth” (where, at an evening of stories about “Coming Home,” I described Jim’s last days): true stories told live, without notes, never having been memorialized in writing.

“True” is, in this sense, superfluous.  Unlike the Herculean effort it takes to keep track of lies, you can’t ultimately lose the thread of a true story or forget how it ends; you tell it differently.  You add and subtract, rephrase and reframe, refocus on different portions.

It has occurred to me only very recently that this is also true for wordless stories, like those told by photographs.

One of my great lingering regrets is that I maintained such overwhelming quantities of flotsam in the attic of our former family home that I wasn’t able to unearth the old negatives and black-and-white prints Jim had made in college.  He mentioned during his last weeks that he’d like to find them.  He had an amazing eye for photography, and although he eventually persuaded me to join the digital age, he retained a soft spot for the days when he had developed his own film.

Somehow, after he died, he put the camera he had always carried into my hand.

I didn’t find his missing prints until I finally cleared out the massive attic when we moved  the year after he died: an empty boardwalk receding into ocean marshes in one of his favorite places on the South Shore of Massachusetts; sparsely populated winter vistas on the college campus we shared; a half-sunlit glassy puddle on Nassau Street.  Because we shared these places, I know their back stories.

As in the endless series of photographs I would take once he was no longer here, I noticed he had focused on enduring landscapes  far more than on the casts of beings who sometimes wander through them, and that he primarily photographed animals other than humans.

A photographs tells at least two sets of stories.  If I  know the photographer or recognize the setting, to some degree I filter what I see through what I already know.

Another kind of story can be told by a glimpse of an unfamiliar place with no recognizable faces, like the interruption in a pure blue sky where storks had created their own capital by building a nest atop an ancient Roman pillar.

Life continues among the ruins.

A juvenile stork peeks out into a setting sun as his proud parent arches back like an Olympic athlete, a split second I was lucky enough to see when–thanks to Jim–I found myself across the globe with a camera in my hand.

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Purple Chimes and Valentines

Sweet as” was in the glossary I picked up from fellow travelers during my recent adventure.

It’s a New Zealand term of assurance: all is well, “no worries” (a phrase that now hits my ear as  well-meaning  but oxymoronic, a double-negative coupling of “no” and  brow-furrowed “worries”; like being told not to envision a pink elephant, if I’m told not to worry, I’m going to worry).

Where “no worries” comes to a declarative full stop, the object-less “sweet as”  is gloriously open-ended, and calls to mind all my (slightly belated) Valentines.

The list is, as we say in the business, not limited by enumeration.

Sweet as….

My friend Barbara’s face when I first saw her, not knowing she’d made the long trip, downstairs at Phillips Church after hundreds of people had paid their respects and filed out.  (She does not know that the purple glass chimes she gave me years ago now hang on the window overlooking my Brady’s garden.  Their gentle clinking restores the missing sound of his bright blue tags as he made his way from flower to flower.)

The friend who told me he’d be there in ten minutes–from another state, on a traffic-filled holiday weekend–when I desperately texted that I had to make an unbearable decision about my beloved middle beagle, then dispensed (and even re-collected) a stream of tissues to me in the aftermath.

My newest friends, who made me laugh harder than I have in years, picked me up when I slipped on Morocco monkey ice (story to come), taught me Australian card games, and tried fruitlessly to contain me from overspending my dirham.

George, a wildly busy colleague whose wife had died when his children were very young.  He always took my calls, called me when I had been silent too long, and knew when it was time for me to go back to the job I loved.

Joe and Diane, who showed up to help me move a daughter into her freshman dormitory  when Jim could not, and who took all of us into their home when the same daughter graduated.

A network of people I’ve never met in person, who take the trouble to read my blog and leave me messages about posts and share their own thoughts.

Friends who sent me flowers on Mother’s Day and after my father died, who helped my children when I could not get to them because of competing crises in other states and countries, who shared their own heartaches with us and helped us see “the size of the cloth.

G., who secured for me the music for Jupiter and in whose office I knew I could always appear and get my bear hug without needing to speak.

Bethany, whom I met getting ready to go on a great big stage where we both told our stories, and arranged for me and my son to hear a long sold-out John Hiatt show after I told her the story of the golden CD my husband had burned for me years before I found it.

Jim’s lifelong friends, who visited him when he was sick and brought him a touchstone of their shared past, and who still invite me to their family events and allow me to be a part of theirs and their children’s and even their grandchildren’s lives.  Jim’s family, who became my family long ago.

David Subnaught (so-dubbed  to distinguish him among many distinguished college Davids), a classmate of Jim’s who flew from Colorado to the East Coast to be there for my eldest son’s graduation two months to the day after Jim died.

Tineke, my best woman, the first person I called.  She literally fed me, cooking from scratch  the only things she knew would tempt me, when I could not manage even that.  Best man Jon, who drove to us on the night we finally brought Jim home bearing pictures he’d taken the night before our wedding and had us all laughing so hard we may have unnerved our children.  Randy and Judy.  Dr. Bob.

You know who you are.

 

 

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