Fear Herself

I cannot move,
Paralyzed by fear,
The kind of dread that brings tears to my eyes,
Steals my breath and appetite,
Makes my heart race toward a refuge I cannot reach.
I’m afraid of uncertainty
Financial loss
Emotional loss
Compromised physical safety
The vulnerability of my children,
Afraid of the future
And evil everpresent,
Threatening
Abuses of power too many to count.
Overwhelmed,
I sit.
My breath is shallow,
My jaw clenched, afraid to speak,
Afraid to say nothing.

Then fear herself takes a seat.

She rests her hand – surprisingly small and warm – on my trembling knee.
She waits.
I meet the gaze of her gray eyes,
My daughter,
I’m sorry.
I didn’t intend to frighten you.
I just wanted your attention
For a moment
To point you in a different direction.

She releases her grip
and is gone.
I reach for the comfort of her presence
And discover that she has left me
A compass.

Tuesday Light

I was going to take the day off. No real reason, just several lame excuses.

Then a friend asked me to be sure to post this week because her Tuesday gets off-kilter if I don’t. Truth be told, I feel the same.

So I tried. I started a half a dozen different starts. And deleted them all.

Then the septic pump broke.

Again.

I thought maybe that would be a good enough excuse.

But still.

I start again. This time with some constructive avoidance: I read a few paragraphs from a book I occasionally find inspiring, and there was a story about some dude – he’s like a chef on a cruise ship – and he’s made this gorgeous meal for everyone on board, about four thousand people, and no more than three minutes later his entire staff starts complaining that they’re hungry and there’s nothing to eat, except for one boring loaf of bread. And the chef-dude is completely flummoxed. The pastry chef is whining that the maître-D forgot to bring the appetizers, and everyone is yelling and bickering like children in the back of a station wagon with no air conditioning. And the chef-dude says, Seriously?

The entire staff stares back at him blankly, as if he’s speaking to them in Greek. And he says, Don’t you people get it? We are all in the same leaky boat.

But they don’t get it. So the chef-dude exhales a huge longsuffering sigh, and he picks up the one, woefully inadequate loaf of bread, and he says, Whatever you do with love and gratitude blesses everybody. And that’s enough. Even more than enough.

And then he goes back to his day job.

So now I’m thinking about how gratitude and love never get stale. I start writing down a few of the things I’m grateful for in my life – friends who motivate me and family and children and my silly dog and a pretty day – and while in the process I think of a few more – my favorite Tuesday yoga class and dark chocolate and and Pinot Noir and a sense of humor about my septic situation and a life partner who will spend Valentine’s evening together with me at parent teacher conferences featuring eleven accomplished and generous individuals who care about my kids. And I smile. And then I laugh out loud. Because there’s a lot of joy in this leaky boat.

***

Wishing you strength and light on your healing path. And more light.

Birthday Developments

It’s Sam’s birthday again, and what dawns on me is that this fact does not take our breath away today as it has in years past. It’s like this: The boys went to practice and school as usual, and I’m home addressing a little plumbing issue. I don’t mean to minimize the problem, the “backup” is definitely the most urgent and offensive matter I will resolve today. I wonder aloud whether Canadian homes are on sewers or septic, because the answer to this question might inform my next decision. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the emotional significance of the day is not weighing us down.

And then there’s this: I’m standing in the garage while the rooter works on the obstructed pipe, and I start cleaning out a box we had stuffed into the garage years ago. We crammed quite a lot into boxes and tucked them away because we just couldn’t deal at the time, and then we got distracted with life and kids and lots of good stuff, and the boxes seemed to multiply while we weren’t looking, and now, much to my chagrin, there is a veritable mountain of crap in the garage, most of which needs to be shredded or donated or trashed. It’s not a particularly enjoyable project, so we often avoid it, but the task is more appealing at the moment than my plumbing problem, so I take a deep breath and remove the lid from the box.

I find some costume jewelry that I had forgotten about, an old photograph of one of the boys with Santa, and the check register from the weeks shortly following Sam’s death. Some of the entries are exactly the same as my current on-line bill pay records: telephone, water, gas, electricity, the pediatrician. Others are much less routine: one for the mortuary, and another for the emergency room doctor who signed Sam’s death certificate. These two entries are in my mother’s distinctive cursive, her protective hand evidenced in this careful detail. Friends, too, leave their supportive marks in my check register. For example, one check reimburses a friend for the groceries she bought and put away in my kitchen, and another check reimburses a college friend for gifts she had purchased on my behalf. What is not evident from the face of the check, but what I know, is that she had spent an entire week with us before Christmas, cooking for us, shopping for us, wrapping gifts and decorating, leaving her own very young sons in order to care for mine, and for me. She has recently won a national science award for her work in mechanical engineering, but in our house we know her for the egg noodle soup she made when we were under the weather. We still make the soup that we call by her name when illness strikes. I put the check register back in the box. It suddenly seems too precious to shred.

Meanwhile, the plumber finishes his work, and I am released to resume my normal programming. I stuff the entire box back in the garage for later.

But there’s also this: My husband Tim has taken each of our four sons on a college visit for their 16th birthdays as part of our family undergraduate motivational plan, and now it’s the baby’s turn. Each of the older boys remembers his college tour with dad fondly, and so far the plan seems to be working. Our oldest is now a college graduate and living on his own, putting him squarely in the lead for favorite son. The diploma and the independence also make him the envy of his younger brothers. All part of our plan.

So today, on Sam’s birthday, Tim is picking up the so-called “little one” immediately after school and heading straight to LAX to catch a plane for the weekend. It is undoubtedly the best gift we could offer to Sam.

The boys are living with joy, determination and love. They are looking forward much more than they are looking back. They do not forget Sam, and in fact, they often think about his academic path and which parts they would like to imitate (as well as which parts I would prefer that they didn’t). They wonder what he might think or what he might find amusing, but none of this hinders their progress. Our boys move onward.

While Tim and one son are en route to the mid-West, I am at home with another of our sons. We raise a glass to Sam and eat one of his favorite meals.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And birthday celebrations.

The Telemarketer’s Regret …and Mine

You might think that 10 years after her death, Debbie no longer gets phone calls. But she does.

We still have a telephone line at the house. I’m not entirely sure why. The only time we use the number is when we call our local pizza joint for delivery. They have our address and usual order saved under the home phone number. We hardly ever answer when the home phone rings, we only have one telephone with a cord plugged into an actual jack, we rarely remember to check the voicemail and when we do, most of the messages are a combination of clicks and static. Any family or friends trying to reach us will call the office or our cell phones. It seems like the last few times I bothered answering the phone, the “voice” on the other end was recorded or on delay, so I hung up.

I answered the phone again the other day. I’m not entirely sure why. I might not have been in the best, kindest, calmest, most level-headed frame of mind, having just scrolled through a variety of inflammatory political Facebook rants. I took a deep breath and committed my first subversive act of the morning: I got out of bed. And then I blew it. I happened to be right next to the house phone when it rang, so I picked it up. The voice on the other end asked to speak with Deborah.

I did not subject the unsuspecting telemarketer to my own partisan and incendiary thoughts du jour, although she might have preferred that conversation. Instead I said, “I am so sorry. Deborah died in 2007.” Those words might not appear terribly acerbic sitting there in black and white on the page, but they were delivered with some bite. I said two-thousand-seven so slowly and emphatically that year remained suspended in the ensuing silence, like a tangible speech bubble hanging in the air between us. There was a long pause. And then a click. She didn’t call back.

I usually deliver the news of Deborah’s death to the unwitting representative on the other end of the line with a little more gentleness, and the caller often apologizes and promises to update their records. It’s likely that I am giving this brief interaction too much thought, but I don’t feel good about it. The fact of the matter is that you never know what somebody else has going on, and I don’t know a single detail about the woman other than that she called my house. She doesn’t know that I feel protective of my husband and kids, even if I am justifiably annoyed at the outdated record-keeping. Life has its way of forcing strangers to bump into each other, and these exchanges do ripple around the world. I like to think how we interact makes a difference and that I could initiate a happy little wave. In light of the fact that I still receive both mail and phone calls for Debbie, it would be reasonable for me to expect that I will continue to get correspondence pretty much from here on out.

My mother reports that when she gets such calls for my father, she tells them he’s out at sea. Maybe I’ll try that next time.

I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve received recently from friends who are facing significant crises: being widowed or divorced, the death of a child, the illness of a parent, or the illness of a child and the death of a parent, a career change, a move, crippling fear, the questioning of faith, lack of direction, an empty nest, a sense of powerlessness. These crossroads are not inconsequential. Maybe it’s the perimenopausal plague. But these issues of life and death, these questions of whether we are spending our time doing the things that are most important in the time we have left seems to be pressing on several of the hearts of women I count among my closest friends. I’m a lot better at fielding these calls.

One friend in particular is struggling to find her way, and I do my best to encourage her. She feels like an overqualified underachiever, a sentiment I am altogether too familiar with. There is a temptation to look at my life and to wonder whether I’ve really accomplished anything. I’m not sure how, precisely, one would measure the value and the impact of a life. We just have to show up and do our best. As Anne Lamott says, we get our work done, one inadequate sentence at a time.

The prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” is as much about living in the moment as it is about grace. The phrase could just as easily read, “Give us this day our daily work,” because having purpose and meaning is essential. Or “Give us this day our daily invitation,” because sometimes we need a little guidance. Or “Give us this day our daily hug,” because every day requires moments of love, encouragement and gratitude. Ten years from now I might look back and see my efforts taking a defined shape, but for today I need only accomplish this day’s task.

It’s not exactly glamorous.

I’m sitting at the dining room table with my cup of tea and my laptop, and my fantasy of working while the boys do their homework in my general vicinity remains unrealized. I left the office early to pick up one child from school, and the cup of tea he asked for is quickly becoming tepid on the kitchen counter. He sat down for a minute and fell sound asleep. The life of a teenage student athlete. I’m contemplating drinking his tea. Or giving up on my project altogether and doing something even more pointless, like matching athletic socks. The high school senior is awake and has surrounded himself with all the tools of engagement – his iPad, binder, mechanical pencil and a textbook. But then I hear a burst of laughter from the next room, and I suspect that he is not, in fact, working on his economics assignment.

I remind myself that it’s not my job to do all the work. I only have to do mine.

The next call comes on my cell phone from a number I recognize. A familiar and much-loved voice says, “Hey! Guess what?” I cannot help but smile. The boy and I have come a long way. Ten years ago, we were strangers. Today we are family. Together, one day, one conversation, one invitation at a time, we have created our own mother-son relationship. Which is a beautiful thing in this world. And no small accomplishment.

I’ve done some things well and failed at others. I am a work in progress, but the telephone will undoubtedly ring again, and I will get another chance to create a kinder, gentler ripple.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And telephone calls that make you smile.