Family, Home, Love, Relationships, Things I Can

96. Things I Can Witness: Sickness, Health

My mother was in a severe car crash yesterday. I say “crash” because of course it was an accident. Also, two drivers slammed their vehicles into each other. Damage and injury ensued. Crash it is.

I learned about this crash from a text. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to walk Noodle today. I’m at the ER waiting for a cat scan.” This is my mom. The request for help is ever-so-gently implied and braces itself for disappointment. Also, she cares always that others are okay. Concern for everyone else gets top billing even when she’s just wobbled out of an ambulance.

I called and texted to dead air. I was already en route (though it was anyone’s guess which hospital), having left a garbled message for my supervisor about missing our afternoon meeting. Then my mother called back.

“I’m mostly okay.

“Is Dad there with you?”

“He’s at a lunch meeting. He said he’ll come when they release me. I just got out of X-ray and now I’m waiting for the scan.”

“So you’re there alone?” I’m already turning off campus and heading north. I have to press because I know she’ll cover for him. It’s a ridiculous charade. Hell, Bug and I were their housemates for three years. She knows and I know that my father puts work first, so I ask again and she half apologizes for him even while pinching her lips at his absence.

“Oh, it’s fine. I was worried my teeth were broken, but it turns out I only had a mouthful of glass.”

We hang up and a few minutes later she pings me back to let me know my dad is out of the meeting and on his way. Sure enough, he arrives before I do, so I turn back and land at my office in time for my boss.

After a diagnosis of bruised ribs, a goose-egg, and random surface havoc, they send her home. When we talk later, Vicodin drags her speech out and she assures me she’s fine. “The shower stung a little.”

“What do you need?”

“Your dad’s here. I had a can of soup. Really. I’m fine.”

I’m sure she is, though I’m less than certain of his capacity to keep her so. She takes very good care of my father. Even around the edges of her own career, she always stocked the fridge and made the vacation plans and supported my sister and me well into our respective adulthoods. She tends to her chaotic extended family, schedules the carpet cleaning and window replacement, and feeds the cat. She keeps everything humming along.

My dad has his own ways of contributing, and I see this a little more clearly now that the fog of my adolescent daddy issues has (mostly) lifted. When my mother’s frustration with her husband’s obliviousness makes her want to explode — she was in Scotland for 2-1/2 weeks and returned to a fridge full of rotten food — she repeats her mantra: “He is a good provider.” Indeed, he is better than anyone I’ve ever known in this regard. He would have made his own daddy proud.

True to the gendered roles of his generation, my father takes care of all the outside chores and most of the structural/mechanical/HVAC aspects of the house. True to the equality rebellion of that generation, my parents work towards their financial and retirement goals together.

It is as surprising as it is obvious that my father would leave off work halfway through the day to care for my mom. In his way, he is her warm (if itchy) blanket. As she convalesces, she’ll have to give him a grocery list and remind him to take out the garbage, and he may forget to follow through on both. Even so, behind her voice on the phone, I hear his. He’s there next to her on the sofa, cracking jokes and laughing with her at Bill Maher.

For most of my life I have run in the opposite direction of my parents’ relationship. I’ve sought out intimacies that were so dissimilar, they may have been a different species altogether. Certainly my marriage was an odd imitation. It outgrew its costume in less than a decade.

The friction my parents generated in the first half of their marriage led to a separation and almost-divorce when I was in my teens. The concessions they both made to repair that rift seemed far too pricey. I have been determined to be more communicative, less gendered, more adaptable, less childish. Along the way, I’ve build expansive and byzantine and ornate and enchanted romances with people who were wildly unsuited to me.

But I have yet to build a home.

And this, I hear through the phone, is where my parents live.

My father is there for her. Sure, this comes after a pause to complete the work which occupies at least 75% of his attention. Nevertheless, he comes. And she asks now for only a smidge more than she ever hopes to receive. Sure, the longing for a more complete union is forever pressing from beneath, stretching taut the skin of her diplomacy. Nevertheless, she accepts what he has to give.

He stayed and worked from the house today. They took a break and he ferried her to the lot where the tow truck stashed her totaled Honda. After emptying the glove box and trunk, they headed back, stopping at the supermarket together to stock up. He will be with her when she starts test-driving new cars. She will be with him when they review their bank accounts to decide what they can afford. He’ll go back to work. She’ll return to her book clubs and volunteer ESL classes and (fingers crossed) walks with Noodle.

For as long as this chapter of their lives together lasts — and we all see with more sharpness today how instantly the book can close — they will be the ones who take care of each other.

Here I sit, quiet and a little stunned in the solitary place that contains the whole of me. It is night here. My son is at his father’s. The dog dozes by screen door. A retreating rain and the thrum of the interstate are the only voices that pass by. They dance at the windows then slip away.

It’s a marvel. Somehow, for all their mistakes and failings, my parents have fashioned a partnership, a love, a home. I pick up some of the discarded garments and turn them over in my hands. Split seams, yes. Stiff stays and rough hems and oversized buttons. Still, they could fit. If I arrange them to my form, if I piece them together with my own tattered wardrobe, I might find they suit me after all.

 

 

Divorce, Poetry

Offering

This is the ritual. Like smoke
braiding then falling then
choking. We fumble
chopsticks
(at least one of us does)
unwinding ribbons of cabbage and shrimp.
We are so civil. So kind.

The sun is a slow river
of lava rolling over the windshield of a car
that growls at the curb. Heat seeps in
through the cracks around the door
and eats at the legs
of our narrow table.

How can he be
so quiet? So calm?
I want to cry
out for the server to close the curtains
and turn up the chill, to cry
for the sake of noise.
I strain to say
how good it is we survived
and he says Yes, this is what we do.
This is how it is.
So I press on
the scorched balls of my feet (to stanch
the boil or start it?)
but he does not
call for ice. He does not shudder
from the quiet. He’s never known
what it is to be a woman
burned.

We rate our happiness on a sliding scale.
I felt big things
always, never anything as tiny
as a skewered curl of shrimp
poised over sweet vinegar in a tea bowl.

This man will be a friend
of sorts even though he opens the door
for me on my way in and
in the slope thrusting up
before us.
He waits
for me to step through. I want to marry
myself. If such a thing could be done,
if by walking backward
across the face
of the clock, I could take the weight
of the girl who shares my name
again
and let her lean here on this older
version. The one across the table
is old too
but I would not be so warm
or pleased
or waiting at the door
with a white smile.
I would be the one
who grips the earth
and her
when she forgets how to keep her skin
around her bones
and carry her

over the threshold.
I would reach to loosen the cord
at the volcano’s neck
and take the first step
into its spilling open
mouth.
 

Co-Parenting, Divorce

Who We Are Now

To accept your circumstances radically simply means that you do it from the depths of your soul and in every bone in your body. It does not mean that things will never change or that you are not affected by the realities of your life. Radical acceptance just means that you acknowledge reality for what it is.

From Marsha Linehan’s work on Dialectical Behavior Theory

These friends of ours, they say they are envious of our relationship. We seem to get along so well. We both flex to each other’s needs as we raise our son separately but together. I am as baffled by our success as they are. Does some quirk of chemistry allow my ex-husband and I to pull this off? Is it a blip already fading? Maybe all we’ve built will whoosh down the toilet as soon as something really life-altering jiggles the handle.

Or do we help smooth the way together by making some concrete choices about how we engage each other? If this final possibility contributes to our so-far success as co-parents (which it surely must), what are we actually doing? How can we bottle it to bolster our compatriots as they enter into their much trickier dealings with exes?

Continue reading “Who We Are Now”

Choices, Creativity, Divorce

Post Box

“You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”

– James Baldwin

I’m not married to him now.
I remember these things.
He could weave string into bracelets. Yarn into pouches. He picked up discarded wrappers and curled them and knotted them and made them into chains.

When he asked me to marry him, he brought out the ring in a box he had made from paper tucked in on itself.

He is not my husband now. I remember these things.

The soil of my own life was restive in my hands. Its thrum vexed me. It was so pliable. So insistent. It offered no clues yet demanded everything of me. As if some larval creature moved through it, the contours kept changing. I would press my fingers in halfway but pull back, plugging the divot before it had a chance to drill open a corridor in me I was unprepared to claim. I could not – would not – choose a manner of shaping, let alone the shape itself.

My very own life in my very own hands. I was confounded.

Potter, sculptor, bricklayer, farmer. Technical skill is just the beginning, all hammers and season, chisels and heat. The other work is the inversion of craft. Abstruse. Intangible. Vision? Call? It is the sense of shape before shape. It is a moment of conception in stop-action. The mind must coil around the shimmer and foam and draw from-in-with it, frame by frame, a creation splitting into its own origin.

Here is art. Here is courage.

Skill marries imagination in a painstaking process. It requires coaxing that inner membrane out, out to reside within the material at hand. Slipping. Adjusting. Aptitude falling short. Hands seeking the next nuance, the next skill to call that thing into being. And the thing, the virtual life, when it meets tool and clay, shivers without permission into forms no one ever imagined. It slips into sync with the material world as much in spite of the artisan as because of her.

This was me, holding a pulsing handful of wing and seed and licorice root, warming the rank, luscious matter that cannot be created or destroyed but is always only changing form. This was me without any idea which of the six dozen flitting shapes in my mind it might take. This was me, seeking an instruction manual. A trail marker. A sorcerer for whom I could apprentice.

He offered me a tiny folded box. It fit in my palm.

I learned to knit while we were married. A bucket of bamboo needles. Yarn by the mile. A haberdashery of hats and scarves and ill-fitting slippers.
I squirmed on the sofa. I ignored the ache. I forced my gaze to zero in on the next stitch in the pattern.
This was me, making something with my hands.
At last. Something.
This was me, turning fairytale outside-in. Deaf to the clatter of limb against wall. Surrendering to threads biting fingers, ankles, throat. Hewing my own Gepetto out of fine-grained evasion and then feeding him my lines.

My son grew into the oversized hats then grew right out of them.

The man I married looped ribbon into lanyard. He did this, as all things, without haste.
I took up those strings. I practiced those boxes. I pulled and folded.
I pretended they were mine. I wanted them to be mine. His paper box fit in my hand. His cellophane chains fit my wrists.
My fingers ached. Below me, the fecund earth roiled. I stilled the urge to plunge.

In the winters, our house, whichever one in whichever time zone, was edged in white-gold lights. He laced every corner. He installed timers at the outlets. I walked through the dark mountain frost on those blue-black nights. Miles from any town, the only cloud brushing that carpet of stars was the one I alone breathed.
I followed the bend until our house appeared on the hill. My cloud found its kin. A fire there. Odd relief: the communion of breath with ash, the shared obscuring of depth.
A ribbon of smoke, a runway of light. A place to land. The home we made.
I imagined it was ours and that I was an equal part of the Us who created it.
Our marriage. Our son. Our Christmas. Our hearth.
A rectangle of lights framed the door. A square of lights outlined the window.
Strings of light made boxes of light made chains to grip in the direction of travel.
Always, the urge to plunge. Did I admit that it was almost as strong as the one that pulled me back? Almost. Not enough.
It could have been.
Down to the creek, the glassed stone, the trout slipping down low. A canopy of mist kissing the water’s quaking skin. Somewhere near, the bald eagle in its nest. A screech on the hillside. The towering stone, the natural bridge, the dirt road twisting down and away. Down from light. Away from the frame, the flame, that steady glow.

Almost.
My son in there. I went home. Always.
Until I couldn’t.

Now, I am making the Christmas that a good mom should. My son and I drape aquamarine garland from the doorframes. We follow lines scratched deep in the vinyl.

The sound is tinny. Grainy. There is dirt in the grooves. Weeds push up through the cracks. Seeds rupture. Their dogged tendrils erode the smooth edge.

Something unfurls in the air here. It is not pine. It is not mulling spices.
Carapace and decay. Bud and birth.

The Christmas I make is my penance.
Yet no one is demanding it. No one has handed me an invoice or called me before jury.
Peers don’t speak their judgments aloud. Not now. They have their own failings to answer for.
The man who was my husband is not holding a yardstick. He never was.
The box fit in my palm. The box fits all of him. Of course it does. It is his. It always was.

The man who is not my husband still has the Christmas stocking from his childhood and he takes it with him every year no matter where he ends up on December 24. He makes sure our son’s stocking is wherever our son will be on December 24. The stocking goes back and forth like a lunch box.
Like our son.

The tree twinkles. Gifts are piled in heaps that brush the low boughs. Cards wend their way around the globe.
The season squeezes. The strings pinch but no one is here to pull them. No one but me.
I find a spade. The dulled blade is still sharp enough to split threads. To crack floorboards. To pierce ice and soil and root.

In these moments when my son is with his father, I marinate in disquiet. I look around the home we are making and see the places where we spill from the corners. The dining room table is a hard-hat zone of paint and pennies and half-written poems in calligraphy ink. The empty floor of the living room yawns wide and pulls me to dance under low lights. I write. I pace. I wander out into the night with the dog and turn my bare face to winter sky.

Christmas is changing shape. Everything is.

The material comprising the ground under my own feet still puzzles me. Frightens me. Yet this terrain I inhabit, both alone and with my son, is all I’ve got.

This is me closing my eyes and seeking the shape preceding shape. I follow its source. I feel its beat and match my pulse to that throb.

I bend. I reach.

This is me.
Plunging.
 

Art, Divorce

June 11, 2005

Wedding Cake

My son wants to know what the plastic box contains. It is in his room on the dresser where I have stashed it in the hopes of a near-future move. We lift the lid and I show him the colored paper. The stack of card stock is a jumbled rainbow of hues. Inside the lid is pasted a stylized directive: Please place completed scrapbook pages here.
 
Bug reads it out loud slowly. “What does that mean?”
 
“The box was from our wedding,” I explain. “Our guests drew pictures for us so we could remember them.”
 
From the bottom, Bug fishes one of the blank pages left from that day. A goldenrod square is pasted onto a larger lavender piece. A tiny stamp in the center of the smaller frame reads, “Your photo will be here.”
 
“How?” Bug asks.
 
“Like this.” The scrapbooks are all in his room. Weddings, pregnancy, first tooth, first steps. Tee and I hug in faded sepia on the front of one. I pull it down and nestle with my son on his bed. “We made two books because we had so many creative wedding guests. One is for family and one is for friends. This is your family too, you know.”
 
We flip past all the announcements and shower invitations. In a save-the-date , a silhouette of Tee and me leaps against a Lake Michigan sunset. A handmade flower-petal paper sports its indigo raffia bow. The booklet from the wedding day slips around in a plastic sheath that protects the lyrics to James Taylor’s “How Sweet it Is” alongside the cowboy-hat story of our first meeting.
 
Someone had the bright idea to use one of the tabletop disposable cameras to capture a few shots of the scrapbooking table. A violet satin cloth is littered with stamps, stickers, pens. Everything is so very bright. Sunburnt guests brandish markers and grins. The daisies my friend planted months in advance pop from their hand-painted pots.
 
I point out cousins my son knows now as older. He has me read their wishes to us.
 
“Was I there?” He asks.
 
“You were the reason we were all there, but no. You weren’t born yet.”
 
He turns another page. “Nelson!” he cries. “He was there!”
 
“You know Nelson?”
 
“Of course,” Bug says. “He lives at Daddy’s house.”
 
Nelson. A stuffed plush banana slug from a trip to an Olympic Peninsula lodge was a key player in Tee’s and my courtship. Nelson was present at the third and final proposal. Sometime during the wedding reception, Tee snuck the slug out of his jacket pocket and propped him onto the cake table. Nelson’s big-eyed welcome is now a sunny flourish against our melting, blue sky confection.
 
Bug slips down from the bed and goes back over to the box of blanks. He pulls the lavender-and-gold card stock from the top and settles down at his desk.
 
“Are you going to make one?”
 
“Mmm-hmm,” he murmurs. He is already in the flow. He outlines the shape of a purple butterfly with his marker. A red flower. I let him draw for a few minutes as I turn back through the album. A few cards at the back sing out their happy wishes. The rooftop group shot with all of us jumping is a cascade of smiles. Grandparents, siblings, all so much younger. They glisten and wilt and whirl and bounce.
 
I try to feel sad but I just can’t tap sorrow. It was a gorgeous day. Tee and I were giddy. I couldn’t stop giggling as I walked down that makeshift aisle my mother rolled out on the grass from a bolt of rainbow upholstery fabric. The sunflowers arching behind fiancé and friend opened their delight to me. Happiness still pulses there, beating in a subdued major key.
 
“When you are done, baby, do you want me to find a picture of you to put on the page?”
 
He nods but does not turn, still bent to the task of making his garden come to life. “Yep. And then put it in the book.”
 
“Okay. We can make room for you in there.”
 

Change, Co-Parenting

No Fixed Address

In the parking lot of the state college campus where Tee was staffing an exhibition table, Bug nursed. We sat in the back seat with the door open to a spring afternoon. Tee came around the corner to meet us, concern folding in a face usually at full sail. He moved to block us and pushed the door partway closed.

“What are you doing?” I asked. In my lap, Bug raised his eyebrows up and back to get in on the action. He didn’t lose his grip. Besides the perfunctory drape in an airplane or shopping mall, modesty had rarely factored into Bug’s mealtimes.

Tee shrugged and shuffled. “Everyone can see. We don’t know people here.”

Continue reading “No Fixed Address”