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Leaves

leaves slide

As I work to finish a new post for this blog I am reminded of another essay I wrote 2 years ago, but never published. I suppose it was more negative than I wanted to focus on, but it feels like it was laying the groundwork for the essay I’m working on now. A TBT post from March 2014:

It’s one of those beautiful Virginia days- teasing me that Spring is a breath away despite the fact that just last week 15-18 inches of snow kept my little man and I house bound. An early morning rain and the 54 degree temperature has the snow melting fast and the confused and hungry birds who thought they migrated South fervently picking at the now exposed patches of soggy grass. Before I head outside to enjoy my faux-Spring I watch a segment on the Today show where NBC’s Chief Medical Editor, Nancy Snyderman, stated in the segment How Loneliness Can Be Bad for Your Health that “We are herd animals and we need each other”. Darn straight Nancy. As a self-proclaimed sensitive soul and former health professional I am fascinated by the interplay of psychological and social aspects and how they affect people, but I’ve never been as sensitive to the lasting impact of our American culture’s self-imposed spurning of actual human contact as I am now that I’m a mother.

I woke my little one up and coaxed him into a good mood with promises of an adventure. We’d been mostly house bound for the last week, because as all Virginian’s know our best asset is not how we prepare the roads after or drive in snow. I chased him around the couch giggling. I folded the bed sheets over his head. After a week inside I had only these few indoor games that held his attention so I dressed him for the snow adventure. I slid him from hip to hip as I fumbled to find which pocket I had hidden the key to lock the house door. We admired the Blue Jay on the tree my son was facing as I finally clicked the lock. We listened to the Blue Jay’s song. I never noticed how different its song was from the bird songs familiar to me growing up in the mountains of western Pennsylvania.

When my son and I are outside like this I talk about how beautiful a bird’s song is, or how striking the blue sky is, how amazing the leaves are when they turn green to yellow to red or orange in the autumn, and what the birds or the squirrels are doing. I provide words for the amazing world we live in as he learns language. Before he was born I learned not to hope for any outcome in his life, still I hope to pass on a wonder of nature and a love of life.

I carry him down the path that leads to miles of wooded trails behind our house. The snow is heavy. Like most people, it has a thin layer of crust over a thick blanket, softly melting. The asphalt of the path has melted most of the snow except for the steep winding section near our house. It’s slick so I insist on carrying him. He doesn’t object. I feel the delicate balance slipping as I walk down the snow covered stairs and head toward the bridge over the stream. I wonder if I made the wrong decision to carry him. As the incline steadies, I feel firmly footed once again. Then he’s off. It’s like he somehow knows that it’s safe to walk. This child of mine, this great adventurer has a fierce sense of calculated risks. He is so physically smart it blows me away. He was walking at nine months. Now at 15 he can run down hills, around obstacles, seemingly able to stop on a stone, slow himself when he’s feeling reckless. That’s what’s amazing to me.  While he seems to have no fear he is also so conscious to avoid life challenging recklessness.

He loves leaves- so easy to pick up, so interesting in the breeze, so made for little hands to clean up imaginary messes on sidewalks and street pavements. I can’t now remember the first time he picked one up. I can remember the last. We were walking along the path I dug where the sidewalk used to be in front of our house. The 15 inch snow was then half way up his proud little belly. He looked and shuffled. Eventually grabbed what I couldn’t see, a leaf under the snow, a sign that life can lie hidden under the heavy blanket of suffocating white.

My hope finder, again with his leaf, looked up to find a man slowly jogging past. “Dada” he called. Because, while a genius who knows many words, like other 15 month old geniuses words have a looser connotation for them than they do for us.  So by “Dada”, he meant not my Dada, but man that I want. While that man ran off without even a smile, foot heavy to crush the crunchy snow which he missed while crushing the hope of a small child who ran eagerly after him. I silently raged behind the hugs and kisses and poor explanations I used to cover over our unnatural social norm of ignoring life. He stood slightly confused; watching the hope of an encounter pass as the man jogged down a hill on which I hoped he’d fall. By the time we strolled down two hills and over “second bridge,” my pain for my son still raw, but his glee restored by several sticks. I placed hope in an old lady walking her dog in the distance. When she walked closer my son giggled and clapped, walked toward her with a bouncy kind of march. I knew he was hoping to meet her and pet her dog. I knew, as she appeared to not be talking on the phone she held to her ear, as she started to hold tightly to her leash, that she had no intention of stopping. Inspired by my extrovert’s innate desire to connect with another I asked, “Could he pet the dog?” While she nodded yes, she also walked away without the hesitation that my son held onto as his quick brain learned not to engage or to stop and admire life in all of its forms. I, meanwhile, barely contained a, “where the HECK are you Nancy? Speak your truth about our nature as herd animals! What is wrong with these people who don’t stop to look at the wonder of life?” I let him run after her because I won’t hold him back from trying to reach another. I do slow him down. I try to synchronize our experience; ask myself if he should conform so the imprint on his heart is lighter each time he’s ignored. I wonder how quickly people are made by the choices we so often unknowingly make.

Inside I also connect with my fingers, but to people in faraway places, visible only through a screen. Once classmates, coworkers and friends existed in my daily life, but now they drift into a safe distance where we no longer need to acknowledge the actions of the other. In passive interactions I sift through status updates and newsfeeds. Many old friends fall by the wayside, and in exchange I find my leaves. Families of Tay-Sach’s babies holding out for the hope that I cling to, so hard to hold onto as they weather the storm of scientific impossibilities while they fight for the lives of babies born and unborn. Without a step, without a word, even with every skill lost they still make the smallest breath hopeful, brighten even the darkest day. In the face of an unthinkable fate, they bring out people’s kindness with each one of their needs. Thank you chromosome 15, but for the genes of my husband my son would also be one of those leaves.

Two days after my last outing the sun is stronger, the snow and ice nearly fully thawed. My son started to climb up the hill the man didn’t fall down with his heavy tread. I watched as my son again looked for leaves. Neither of us turned when we heard someone approaching from behind. A gray haired woman in a long black trench coat and soft soled slip on black momma shoes stopped. My son looked up into kind eyes. She began to speak.  With a slower smile he offered his leaf. Wanting to encourage this follower of Nancy I began to explain how much it meant to me that she stopped. My son mastered the difficult task of actually sharing his leaf with our cloaked friend who explained she had three once young children. Turning her attention to my son, but with words for me, she offered the leaf back explaining that she understood a child’s love of giving and how it seemed wrong to then just toss the leaf away. He, having happily given it, did not take it back. I accepted it.  The meaning of which, not lost on me.

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Snowy mornings

snowyam

For 1,000 different reasons there’s still no place I’d rather be snow bound than this little town.

Neighbors who build igloos, friends who walk the trails bringing snow gear, unexpected stop-ins, pots of hot chocolate, sledding on the neighboring hill…

Trading notes on what’s open, sharing ingredients so everyone has food…

Counting my blessings and not my curses.

28″ of snow fall

#snowdayhoneymoonphase

#nextphasecabinfever

#Blizzard2016

#Snowzilla

 

Baby Girl’s First Snow Day

Snow day 2016

Baby girl and her dollies looking at their first snow day.They are clearly in awe of the depth of this experience. Yes, that is earth you see through the snow.

On an unrelated note there was apparently a rush on eggs at the Trader Joe’s yesterday. Please explain this to me. Do other people sit around eating dozens of hard boiled eggs on snow days?

#eggfreehome #theydoitdifferentdownSouth #perspective

When my Kitchen is Silent

Chicken

When my kitchen is silent my heart will be empty

Long before the first light of day my kitchen is bustling. Our pace slower, but our routine as precise as a restaurant kitchen where I rummage for “Os,” and fill sippy cups-one milk, one water. To the living room it’s time for cuddles, then back to the kitchen to fill oats in bowls with two scoops of water. My hands guide this toddler man as he dips and drags his measuring cup through water. When the game is old or we’ve deemed there’s enough water, we move our bowls on over to the microwave. I position toddler fingers over buttons, instruct “push” and we watch as the magic happens. Here we are gleefully proud of all we have accomplished.

Outside it’s cold on this 30th of March. I watch as gusting rain turns to surprise snow quickly covering us with a dusting. My kitchen chugs a slow, steady pace. Daddy rises late; warms his waffle in the toaster oven. I boasted about a surprise pot of coffee ready to warm him, tease he probably wants me to prepare his cup. He’s interested and off to start a bathroom remodel- forgetting his food. I am necessary to remind him as I’m needed in the living room to “help, help, help.” Gather balls, place blocks, cheer accomplishments, reenact our microwave cooking. This time chubby fingers guide mine, instruct “push” at a make shift microwave, caution: “hot,” cheer me on with a clap, clap, clap. Then time for a “cracka” break.

bread

It takes so much longer to start the bread when people are awake. I realize I may never get the rolls on. But I add the yeast, run around the couch, add the flour, turn on the toy, sneak my own cereal with sugar but not baby slurps and fingers. Until, BUSTED! We split the Os in the bowl, share the spoon and dribble the milk.

With daddy’s help an impromptu adult dinner has been planned. We prep. The bread machine is on. The stove and then the oven are set to warm.  I warm up turkey joes, mac and cheese and oldish creamed spinach. It’s my son’s lunch, but I’m so hungry I could eat my own fingers. As a reward for making it through a triathlon of tuck in, I’ll earn myself the right to toddler left overs upon my return.  I will enjoy them out in the open.

Soon the light outside is dimming and naptime is over. The kitchen smells of sweet bread and the rolls have already risen. A chicken has been basted and the mashed potatoes, daddy is preparing. The hand mixer hums into our potatoes; and smells, like always, of memories of birthday cakes and holiday dinners. Tastes of mashed potatoes are doled out by the kitchen gate in exchange for parking cars and putting away toy dishes.  My son has long been sleeping by the time the rolls have browned and the chicken has cooled for carving.

Long after the last light of day my kitchen is bustling, and I wouldn’t have it any other way for when my kitchen is silent my heart will be empty.

My husband, our resident over qualified dishwasher, is so LOUD as he cleans the kitchen. As my heels ache and my temper shortens I long for quiet. But before I can wish for days without two dinners, before I can dream of days without our food filled splat mat, I catch my breath at the thought of women in other transitions. I know one day these loud boys of mine will not ask for my help or tolerate my guidance. One day I realize there will be no cuddle breaks, no more motion translating, no snack getting, no apple cutting, no taste granting. First, I’ll wait and hope that someone will come home to dinner. Then someday there will be no more cooking dinner. One day if I live long enough and I’m really, really lucky, I’ll lose my kitchen. But, I fear the day my kitchen is silent for my heart, it will be empty.

Parting Gifts

Isamu Taniguchi Japanese garden, Austin, TX

We were twenty-five when my best friend died. We were high school friends turned, it seems, to life time friends.

We lived in a town tucked into the hills of the Pennsylvania mountains. It, like many other small towns, was forgotten by all but a few popular trends, possessing only a few well known store and restaurant chains. There weren’t many choices, not much diversity. I suppose to those from outside this cold rainy town we all seemed more alike than different. I suppose on the outside we were. She and I would go shopping separately but still end up with the same coat (different colors), same shoes, similar haircuts. But it seemed to me that she was always comfortingly ahead. She dragged me (with her tutoring) through high school trigonometry, to study for English tests that I had no need to study for, and into summer swim leagues,  her family parties, Christmas cookie making and present wrapping traditions as well as her family kitchen to chat with her mom over tea after nights out with high school friends.

We’d lounge at the pool in her back yard. Talk about boys we liked.  Invite them to join us. Make plans for night-time outings with friends. Talk about why people did things they did. Believed we could make sense of the world, so large and full of possibility. Wondered why so many others couldn’t.

I suppose our paths started to diverge when she stayed home and I went away for college. She got sick and I stayed well.

When I first left, we’d call when we could. Tim McGraw songs, stops at Sheetz (the local convenience store) and walks on the track at the local middle school made time fold and we’d fall in sync with the girls we once were. But then laughs from revisiting stories told on road trips, to swim meets or camping trips faded.  Picking each other up from summer work for nights out with friends turned into college road trips and holiday stop-ins. The cancer came and, like a cloud of mist, it quickly made it hard to see what was ahead or behind us.  I had trouble falling back in step with the path I set out on. She, who still seemed so firm footed, continued up her mountains.

I suppose from the outside we looked very different after college. I had studied and graduated, found jobs but didn’t pursue callings, dated but didn’t marry. I looked trendy and healthy. I was aware that anything could happen in life; but couldn’t move toward a single one. She fought against cancer (twice) and to graduate college. She loved, married, bought a house, had a child, found a calling, lost a sister, and postponed some dreams. Sometimes she looked sick; but sounded mostly unchanged. She held on fearlessly to all of her convictions and just seemed to climb on.

She had her mother and eventually husband call when she couldn’t. When only memories were left, they were tainted by images of hospital rooms, IVs and fear of the enormous possibilities in this wide, wide world.

Eventually, our trails no longer ran together. Every year I grew older and she stayed the same age. There was a time when I was proud of how I handled this loss. I compartmentalized. I continued. I could small talk. I could task master. I could take care of others. I could avoid reminders. I could laugh. I thought I made peace with the fact that she died and I kept living. I was composed; but I was frozen. It took me a long time to realize I’d lost my compass. That path I took to college, it wasn’t the wrong one; but I let fear guide me for a long while. Time went on, years in fact, where I wandered in circles trying to make peace with my surroundings.

One day, I started walking again. I walk on paths now under tall trees in the woods behind my home in Northern Virginia rather than on asphalt under a football scoreboard and next to bleachers. More often than not I listen to music rather than chatting. It’s harder now to fall back in sync with who I was. Some days are easier. Like fall days, with their evenings crisp when I smell the smoke from a barbeque truck at the local farmers market. It’s so easy to be fooled that they are days like the ones from my teenage years where bonfires mark the beginning of fall. The smoke, first subtle, then visible, has the power to push the misty cancer memories away. With the view of the old “us” come the memories of fairs and ethnic festivals that mark the end of mountain summer. So too comes the search for festivals and fairs in my here and now; but the now is not the same.

Now there are new people who join me on my walks. Some go with me occasionally. We walk only a few miles on these paths through the woods to a picnic with our children. More often than that, I simply walk alone to meet friends at play groups.

There are those who are walking the long haul with me. My son and I walk together most days. He, who used to love me carrying and talking at him, now runs in front yelling back at me. Still we walk together; still we cheer each other on. My husband walks with me on many family outings where we agree on the direction to be taken. But there is no longer anyone who came from where I walked from.  There is not someone I can set pace by, or pass mile markers with, who so naturally knows the route that we should be taking. It’s up to me now to hold the ground of where I’ve been.

Then there other reminders of my youthful naiveté that seem to sneak up on me and take me back to a time when we were figuring out life together on her pool deck during one long ago summer. Once I stumble into them I feel as if I’ve been chasing milestones I should have known were coming. Events I should have realized she had past.

The moment I finally understood the fear of losing my child was one such moment. Not that harm would come to my child, but the soul shaking pain of how I would feel if I knew I’d soon be gone. There are many experiences and conversations with this friend that I admit to losing in the cloud of cancer changes and in the years of not revisiting memories.  But one memory that pokes through is a conversation about loss, which at the time I didn’t understand.  Usually we talked about how she was feeling. We’d talk about the smell that Chemo left in her nose, the loss of appetite that lasted long after treatments were over, the loss of hair that made even the strongest woman feel less so and how she felt about her doctors. But one day we didn’t. We focused on fear. I remember the tears, and the words, and my not knowing what to say.

She said she wasn’t worried about her husband. He would be fine. Whether he married again, or not, she wasn’t concerned. But oh how she cried at the idea of her child calling another mother.

I lay in my own bed one night worrying if something might be wrong with me. My child approaching the age of her child at the time of her passing, I felt overwhelmed at the possibility of losing my role as his cheerleader, guide and overseer. Acknowledging that I could no longer be the one who gave his world’s most comforting snuggles or the beneficiary of post tubby time giggles and granting those gifts to another are different things entirely. I imagine the struggle of determining your last direction. If you plead with the world to love him as their own, fill with hate over the cruelty of the loss you know you’ll face, or quietly soak in every smile and giggle as you hold on to little hands for as long as you can feel them freely given.

This is my trail now. Figuring out how to be a devoted mother, loving despite the fear of loss I’ll have to walk through, knowing there is a milestone of letting go I’ll one day have to master. I take comfort in acknowledging that this path is on my road map.  I know there are many steps between here and there. Though knowing that those steps are on my route and passing them are different things entirely.

Today, I am present. I walk with my husband and son on wet ground through a foggy haze in Austin’s Isamu Taniguchi Japanese garden. We wind down stone paths into the forest just steps from the highway, but with miles and miles of difference in between. I’m mesmerized by this foreign place with its mysterious shadows. Hidden promises in unexpected places pull me through the fog down an incline into a space where deflected lights, bright flowers, tall trees and still waters urge a comfortable peace.

My son is in his stroller, which he calls “push”.  He hasn’t even asked for his truck to entertain himself before rain comes again. While my husband pushes him on, I go scouting shortly ahead to find a roofed bamboo overlook that can provide shelter from the down pour. A plaque on the outside of this tea house I find explains that the garden’s intent is to represent that man exists in harmony in nature. The tea house itself is aptly marked by the Japanese characters for heaven, harmony and man.

I wonder at the truth of this. I look down at the mist hanging on tiers of green gardens slowly descending into what a hushed hiss tells us is the road. My son is fully engrossed in the joy of this plateau. He smiles brightly. He runs around the overlook catching rain drops in his backhoe while yelling “pick up dirt!” My husband and I know enough to admire both him and the view. Pouring rain and running water pull and push us between wanting to explore and wanting to escape all that lies on those hidden paths. My son’s giggle has now grown silent as he grows impatient because we fail to explore this new world, so large and full of possibility. We are half way down the incline. We let ourselves be pulled down by the intrigue of what lies along these trails. We’re rewarded on the next plateau by the view of a wet lily pond, arched bridge and waterfall before the rains prove too heavy and we agree to retreat to the shelter of the car.

One hundred times I think of why it is I should care about this memory. One hundred and one I must remind myself that there are truths I have yet to uncover here, where I struggle to balance exploring and escaping. The secret I supposes is in recognizing that on this journey there is the need and time for both.

It’s a winding path, this journey that we’re on. Full, it seems, of unexpected stops and periodic reflections as well as slopes and hills and foggy days. The speed is not as important, as it seems, is the confidence in the direction taken and the awareness of the scenery. In the awareness of our surroundings, I believe we find that we are never really alone.

Though people leave this world, their marks on it come to us slowly sometimes. Their paths are laid, their parting gifts given, but it can take us years to reach them, let alone unfold them. In a way I suppose I’m still catching up to that old friend of mine.  The fact that I am not really alone gives comfort to the of silence walks.