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. 

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 even 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 had asked the girl 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 that 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 herringbone. 

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 emotionally wrecky and dispirited for many months now.  Pandemic time has its own exacerbating menu of aches.    

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 travelers who have long since moved along.

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.

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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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Deaf Stone Alone

“Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that’s the way it is here.   And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head….”

— Primo Levi, A Tranquil Star

Simmering, solitary, stone alone on rocks half jutting from the Atlantic, facing bottomless sky.

I feel most at home now in these vistas, the same settings in which I felt overwhelmed to the point of fear as a child.

I am grateful to still have a home and a job, and be able to give to those who do not have such safe harbors, yet I cannot think of another physical space that is not fraught. I cannot believe it is cost-free for any of us to see our communal spaces, inside and outside, as places we no longer comfortably occupy together. Danger lies in merely breathing the same air; different wounds lie in not being able to.

I first noticed the transformations by day, as my professional community began to identify ways to minimize what must be done in human company and ascertain what can be accomplished alone and at a distance.

It quickly became apparent that it is hard to physically separate the humans who carry out a process or purpose from each other without eliding the humanity of what they do.

This is not restricted to our occupations and avocations. What do we all lose once it may be lifesaving not to sit in sustained silence with someone who is grieving, bereft, not prepared to speak? When the colleagues are missing from collegial problem-solving, the give-and-take of people with different life and work experiences at a pace that permits contemplation before setting course? How do our responses change when we do not have time to envision less immediately-evident possibilities, or even lighten a discussion with humor, when we do not have the luxury of letting our minds wander as far as they need to in order to regroup as an experienced team to tackle what is at hand? What do we lose when we need to come up with answers whose critical feature has been elevated to contact-free speed?

What do we all lose when we can no longer offer a hand or shoulder or an unbarricaded face to someone in physical or psychic pain? When we can only offer up an electronic voice to be held up by a stranger to, at the mercy of an internet connection, whisper into the ear of a dying parent? When a frightened pediatric patient cannot read the kindness of the shrouded caregivers trying to assist her?

Without the noise and energy of the sheer presence of more than a handful of people, now spread out like thumbtacks in spaces meant to hold connected communities, it is not just the people who are absent. And when we are reduced to action, to business itself, to the in-and-out tasks we must still perform, we are forced to contend with our unadorned selves. How we proceed is limited by the absence of comradery, of the shared history and understanding and burdens of traumatic work and other collective pain.

Into this continuing, exhausting breach, we may be accompanied by our own insufficiently tended demons, cast into excruciating relief because they are now our only constant companions.

******

Given the existential perils the world faces, my losses are of little moment. Still, they limit what I might have been able to put out into the world. I realized, for example, that I seem to have lost the capacity to write non-fiction about loss, which at its best someone else might then identify as communal, not something that need always be suffered alone, as I do now, adrift from communion and companionship among those whose earthly presence I did not understand I had grown so much to depend on.

Now I am only relatively confident of my identity as the green eyes above the mask and suit jacket. But even on those occasions when we physically assemble in some form, usually somewhere on the spectrum between resignation and terror of attendant risks, masks allow us to conceal so much.

Sheared off from the corpus of each of these communities, I have discovered it is nearly impossible to understand my omnipresent self. My capacity for memoir, such as it ever was, seems to have escaped me this year–problematically, because that is the stuff of this blog.

(If you have been with me here for awhile, first, thank you from the bottom of my still aching heart. And second, I apologize for the exponentially increasing spaces among posts.)

There seems no point in writing about life apart from anyone else. In retrospect, it seems telling that the last time I was able to write about my family immediately followed the small, masked, stringently-separated gathering of family members at my father-in-law’s September funeral. There I finally could share space with family, although I could not hug, or even closely approach, my own son after his reading for his beloved Papa.

Yet in these same strange times when non-fiction seems incapable of being instructive, writing fiction has become so easy as to be unsporting. Unreality composes itself at the keyboard. I am but the fingers which hunt and peck, rapid-fire, to generate stories.

At the age of nine I lived an isolated life as a less-than-welcome American in Meudon, Hauts-de-Seine, where I read Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe and tried my wee hand at crime fiction, very loosely speaking. I used blue felt tip pens to replicate rigid typeface within brightly-colored fabric-covered sketch books. My inspiration was tertiary: fiction by authors who, as far as I can now tell, had no professional experience, and possibly no significant life experience, with violent crime and its detection and consequences.

Decades later, I have become more immersed in the memories of such transgressions than I apparently can bear to process. In a handful of sleep-bereft early pandemic months and in the particular solitude of winter’s enduring darkness, some 70,000+ words of what I would have described as crime fiction materialized on my computer screen. The story might just as easily have appeared full-blown as I slept, were I a far more gifted sleeper.

It took a third-party’s eyes on the draft to illuminate this mystery, explaining that she recognized missing pieces of my life–that it was not crime fiction at all, but a biography of intergenerational trauma, still writing itself forward.

It was not that I could no longer write about lived experience but that solitude has made it easier to write from memory’s reservoir, in a different voice that extends it to a heartbreakingly whole cloth, which includes the invisible brothers and sisters who share some of the harsh experiences which transform truth into stories we can live with, in some measure. This non-fictional fiction has become the only way I can bear to commit some truths to words, to expose them to daylight in whatever ways mere language can.

Seachange wrought by the ocean’s battering force can make sharp-edged glass bearable to touch; it can subdue the razored edges of the immense cantilevered stones and jagged rocks I navigate as incoming waves present me with tidepool offerings of reflected pre-dawn light.

Living creatures are different. They may harden against onslaught, or the risk of it. Shock and tumult and the fear of their future repetition, particularly when a traumatic event was impossible to see coming, can elevate the apprehension of another impact into an immobilizing force. Embedded pain may condition our brittle, wounded selves to brace against a next blow, to hold ourselves far too rigidly together, trying not to let the fissures show. But those stress points still change the shape of what comes next.

I am learning that the steeling itself, feeling utterly alone to confront what comes next, can facilitate the next breaks, if not the next breakdown. A greenstick bone fracture heals quickly and leaves no traces precisely because the site of the injury remains so pliable that its residue disappears in the healing. A child’s bones can snap clean through, as one of my daughters’ forearms once did in a short fall from a piano bench when she was three, yet heal so completely that within weeks an x-ray will reveal no trace of the trauma; these greenstick children mercifully will not be imprinted with an expectation that the pain will revisit them.

The pandemic has taught me that all too often I remain on high alert, particularly fearful of the one thing I consciously still fear: harm to the people I love and, who, unlike their father, are still here. “Here” now means out and away, out there. The daughter whose bones healed so seamlessly is on another continent, and I have no idea where and when I might be able to see her again. I cannot hug her or her siblings any more than I can touch my ghost husband’s shoulder.

I find myself incapable of cushioning lesser discomforts by taking care of myself; I push myself until a first wave of percolating back pain becomes something immobilizing, as if ignoring what pains me is mastery and not its opposite: surrender.

Only when I am outdoors at off hours, taking stock of the gloriously unending shore and heavens, do I let myself settle as the waves cycle in, without steeling myself and my aching, surgically-rearranged spine against a next terrible blow.

In these months of transformed community, my subconscious seems to have rewritten catastrophic experience as fiction. In this maelstrom, perhaps the superficially non-biographical has become the comparatively safer place to which my wounds and memories have fled and disguised themselves as something other than my life.

Maybe this is simply a fleeting new voice for ancient communal experience that merely feels like it springs from one’s own lived years. As poet Louise Glück wrote:

I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

If at the beginning of this endless year your hope; your belief in justice, or love, or redemption; or your faith itself had fissures, then like score marks on paper they may have left you–like me–more vulnerable to being reshaped in unwelcome ways by outside forces. Without the palpable presence of the multitudes of fellow beings most of us used to walk and sit with and otherwise be among, distractions and self-protective filters of the metaphorical (non-N95) kind are hard to maintain.

But we can still safely breathe in and out to unseen others from where we find ourselves–in love, in any art at all, in service, in food, in flowers, in fiction and non-fiction, pictures, spoken and sung words, old-fashioned written letters, fabric, and photographs taken when the rest of the world is asleep. Even when it deeply hurts to put something out into the world still out there, it may speak to someone who feels equally unseeable.

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