Choices, Growing Up

Unadorned

window decay

The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.” I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.

– Wendell Barry, Hannah Coulter

Growing up requires you to let go of seeing things the way you want them to be and seeing them instead as they are. I understand the same rule applies to giving thanks and, as it happens, to rejoicing.

 

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.

 

 

Change, Home

Closing Open

Over happy hour wine at the Lebanese restaurant, they tell me the first thing to do is change the locks. One of these men I have known for two decades. The other, barely half a year. Astride stools on either side of me at the bar, they hold me in the safe grip of their mirth. One says that he paid an antiquated locksmith neighbor do a crap job he had to replace as soon as the guy divorced and moved off the street. The other tells of nervously checking and re-checking doors during the early weeks. They are eons ahead of me. They have mice in the compost and weeds overtaking their lawns.
 
Mine is balcony looking west over I-66. Picnic tables, neighbors, noise, light. Plenty of sun for a zinnia. Maybe too much for basil.
 
My phone is on the bar next to a glass of pinot grigio. Every so often, it pings with another text from the realtor. Someone needs a letter signed. Funds must be wired to an address in Falls Church. We close in on a date.
 
I hug the old friend goodbye. He is heading back north in a day or two. My new fella and I walk to his car holding hands and bubbling with residual laughter. We pass a building that was not there a year ago. It is now a glinting, black-rimmed fixture on the landscape. Under our feet rumble trains on the orange line. New stairwells shoulder their way up from platforms that had no room for such change. Someone writes over the old blueprints in red pencil. The adaptation becomes a concept and eventually, a given.
 
Tonight, the to-do list has not kept pace with the fading light. Thunder bowls in dusk’s outermost lane. A strike, a muffled cheer. The second floor of the house where I live with my parents is just a degree shy of stifling. My bed is scattered with the folded remains of a trip to Florida. A suitcase gapes open, its zippers hanging limp and hungry. A heap of clothes is tossing around in the dryer. I wait for them to be finished before I decide. The choices are paralyzing. Some will be put away but some will go back into the suitcase. We just returned yesterday. Tomorrow, one carload goes to the new place. My son’s swimsuit still smells of salt. I shake sand from the perfect coral whorl of a conch shell.
 
Papers in stacks all around the bedroom floor need staples, folders, labels. I dig up one blank spiral notebook with pockets. It is no match for the task ahead but it will do for tomorrow. I tuck it into a bag with my checkbook and ID.
 
Now, the wine on my bedside table is cut with sparkling juice. I call it sangria and remember the last day in our Clearwater Beach hotel when I drank a better version while parked at a computer digging copies of old cancelled checks from 2012 accounts and squinting at the lines of a HUD-1 approval. My son was teaching himself to swim outside, arms flailing and neck bent too far above the surface as he huffed and puffed the width of the pool. My mother kept an eye on him so I could take care of landing us a home. Our own home.
 
Later, as we ate fried shrimp and grouper at Crabby Bill’s, I picked up a red ping on the phone and grinned quietly to myself. A few covert keystrokes sent first word skimming across miles to the man who had asked me to let him know the second I knew. Then, a slug of ice water. I looked at my mother and son over the ship-deck décor, its fish nets and battered wood. “Final approval just came through. We’re closing Thursday.”
 
Bug considered this news. “What does that mean?”
 
“It means the bank finally said okay. On Thursday, I’ll sign all the papers and buy the house.”
 
His face shined open into a huge grin. “Can I stay there with you?”
 
I laughed. “Of course, Buddy! It’ll be our house. We’ll live there together.”
 
“When can I see?” He asked.
 
“Yeah,” echoed my mother. “When can I see?”
 
“Friday. As soon as I pick Bug up from day camp on Friday, we’ll go straight over.”
 
As for the first day? That one is mine.
 
Now, I roll up a blanket, a candle, a coffee mug, a plate. The dryer downstairs is finishing up with a couple of spare towels. The car is stuffed and Home Depot closes in an hour. I need to buy new locks tonight before I go punch the heavy bag with the man who keeps his porch light on for me.
 
Closing is at 10:00 tomorrow morning. Electricity will be on mid-day. By the time dusk arrives, I’ll be dancing in the lowering western sun behind a door whose keys are in my hands alone.
 

Poetry

Family Tie

I said, “Help?”
And help came.
It was the rising inflection
that made all the difference,
the vibration, just a lilt, carried
from throat to ear
a request
a far cry
from the flat period
of its named
and willful absence.

This was never allowed
here, and suddenly it is
as if no one ever doubted
the need
for assistance, for reciprocity,
as if we are bound
as King said, in one garment of destiny.
As if it has always been true
even here, and suddenly
it always has.