Rebuilding

I like the fall. I like the mountains with their red, orange and yellow colors. I like how the days get cold and force you to wear sweaters. I even like those lingering gray days that last until spring when you see mostly branches, and it feels almost lonely as it begs you to stay inside.  But that’s not why we started to have a Halloween party. Four years ago when I looked excessively pregnant and was truly about to deliver we held our fall party on the end unit town house on the last edge of Old Town. I think we realized it was likely the last time our home would be clean and definitely the last time we’d enjoy socializing.

Every year we go through this process of will we or won’t we hold something. One year we skipped it, twice I was pregnant, and on the third I was sure it would be fun. This year we debated. I’m learning with kids how fast the scenery changes from play dates to preschool and even who is around in this transient town. This year we wondered who would come. We changed our perspective a little as we debated the will we or won’t we make it a tradition and began referring to it as our service. We’d laugh as we said it because even from the beginning we knew no one got more from it than us. Still it’s nice to feel like you can do something. It’s easier to take on the hard work when the hard serves more than just you.

So we invited everyone the way my husband does: the neighbors, the old play group, someone who just had their second child and could probably use some warm food, new school friends and someone we saw at church after a long time. I worried the way I do: the floor could be cleaner, the decorations were never unpacked, I botched the caramel apples, I should have made more food.

We bought this house not long after that first party and since then we’ve been rebuilding. We’ve taken out all of the floors, the dining room and kitchen walls and a corner of the basement along with most of the front yard. We have replaced every window and door. We still need a new stove, backsplash in the kitchen, an accent wall in the living room and a functioning master bath. All of these are good reasons to buckle down, work harder, and not welcome in anyone.

Every year I wonder if there’s enough room, but we make the best of our space. We’ve squeeze into corners. We’ve gathered blankets to make space for entertainment outdoors. Somehow we make it work in whatever state the house is in because it isn’t about that. There is something about Halloween. It’s never been my favorite. It’s about death and pretending to be someone you aren’t. That’s not really my thing. I’ve always thought it was a bit creepy. But in this neighborhood it’s this fun evening when everyone is walking around. So in our second year we caught on to the vibe. Sure we put out the candy and we walk around, but we also open the door.

Whether it’s warm or cold, the lights are on and the door is open. There is some soup on the stove. There’s a place to go for people who need one; the ones who find it convenient, the ones who come for us. Every year since we started Halloween has become a reminder of what hard work is for. We aren’t in it alone. We welcome new preschool classmates; old friends from play groups; the neighbor who comes when I call and say, “toddler tells me his chest hurts”, the same ones who once delivered Christmas dinner; the neighbor who has fixed the HVAC and replaced our water heater, the ones who are funny and caring and a whole bunch we want to know more. These people are amazing.  I love this quirky modern, old-fashioned town.

It’s December, two weeks till Christmas, and yet here I am thinking about Halloween. Because I know this next year is a time for rebuilding. It’s going to be immensely hard. This was a week of sickness in our house: a root canal, another ear infection and someone just puked (three times). It’s easy to get overwhelmed. There will be less cookie trays this year. I will be less thoughtful about presents. But we will focus on the right things. This was also the week where the stories from Aleppo threatened to break us. It has been a week or so since the Standing Rock pipeline stalled, not yet answering the question of whether people are worth more in America than oil. The tally is still running in the surge in hate crimes which just inched passed 1,000 in the month since the election.

I’m not an expert in construction, but I’ve been in places like this before. It will hurt; this finding common goals. The tasks will feel endless. There will always be more work to do. When we walk this Earth we must remember to treat every place as our home.  We have the power to rebuild it and we are called to especially when it feels scary or broken.  Details will matter like who we let in the front door, if we leave it open, put something on the stove, find space for all the people, try and ready even the darkest corner. It will matter.  This year amid all the coming deconstruction and all the pain that it can bring, I’ll be thinking about Halloween and the hope that can find us in unexpected places.

Because hope is still the most powerful thing.

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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.