Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dream Girl

“I asked her friends to tell me about her. They said her name was Jacqueline.” Dave shook his head and continued, “I can’t think of the last time, if ever, that I’ve heard that name, but when I heard it, I was euphoric. I said, ‘I love that name!’”

My husband smiled broadly as he described his dream, a dream-like-a-movie kind of dream in which he fell in love with a girl named Jacqueline.

She did not sound like someone to arouse jealousy. “She was short, really short. And not especially attractive,” said Dave. But the joy of new love - that sparkling, can’t help-but-grin feeling – lighted his face as he told me about her. He was bemused himself, it was obvious, by the lingering delight that held him.

It is testament to my confidence in Dave’s devotion that he can point out hot babes and cute butts ad infinitum and my sole response is to agree or disagree with his judgment. It is testament to our love that he can inform me that the admittedly adorable young waitress serving our drinks wants him, and I merely concur, noting that I, too, had noticed her yearning. It is testament to his character that my only reaction to his mood, made buoyant throughout the day by the warmth of this new dream-love, was pleasure at his exuberance.

Because I know him and I know he loves me.

He tells me, every February, he does not believe in Valentine’s Day. He says every day is Valentine’s Day. To an extent, he makes that so. Whenever one of us travels, he writes a poem and wraps it around a piece of chocolate, a poem and chocolate for each night we’re apart.

He also has loving rituals for milestones such as our children’s birthdays. The day after his dream of Jacqueline was our daughter Casey’s birthday. We were on vacation in Florida and on our way to dinner at Ristorante Mediterraneo when Dave announced, “We have to make a quick stop.”

I knew the reason for his proposed trip to Whole Foods and said, “Don’t worry about it this year, Honey. We’ll be late for our reservation.” He gave me a look and of course, we went to the store.

I’d already noticed a card lying on his bedside table at the hotel and when he rejoined me in the car after completing his errand, the shape of the grocery bag suggested a bouquet of flowers.

He saw my raised eyebrow as I glanced at the bag and said, “What? Don’t expect anything. It’s a baguette.” As if. I knew the tradition. There would be flowers and a loving card waiting for me when we returned to the hotel.

We left Whole Foods and drove on to the restaurant. Dave’s eyes were sparkling and a whisper of a smile played at the corner of his lips. Some might assume he was planning his surprise. I knew better.

“Jacqueline…” I teased.

He laughed and gushed, “I love that name!”

We both cracked up. What fun that this dream so entertained us.

A dream can also taint a mood. A few nights ago, I dreamt about work, about planning the benefit, talking to a parent of one of our students and bluffing my way through the conversation because I couldn’t remember the woman’s child. And then I missed my first class, even though I don’t teach anymore, and discovered I’d lost my schedule so I was late for the next class as well. What a nightmare.

I woke with a knot in my stomach. All that anxiety, sub-consciously delivered. Luckily, Dave’s dream successfully banished mine. I turned on my pillow to see that Dave was awake. “Any word from Jacqueline?” I asked.

He grinned back at me with bright eyes and exclaimed, “I love that name!”

Where do dreams come from? I like to think they’re messages; the Universe calling while we’re resting, receptive. Or maybe even deceased loved ones lending a hand from the Other Side. But Dave claims they’re simply “debris of the day.” He’s a psychologist, so he should know. But then, where did Jacqueline come from?

This morning, Dave woke me with the Sarasota Herald Tribune in his hand. It was open to the Arts section. He said, “Check out the front page.”

I rubbed my eyes, confused by his insistence. Staring back at me from the newspaper was a woman by Picasso. She was weird and blue-black and cock-eyed like many of his paintings. Her nose was in profile, her cheek triangular. “Um, Picasso?” I said.

“Read the caption.”

I squinted at the tiny print underneath the picture. “Head (‘Jacqueline’), Pablo Picasso. 1960.”

Jacqueline! Dave hadn't mentioned his new love was blue!

But, oh, we love that name!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Candle Flame Friends

Suddenly, all went black. The green radiance of the oven clock died. The ever-present hum of the fridge was silenced. The comforting rumble of the furnace shivered to a halt. The velvety dark of the January evening enveloped the house. Power outage.

I noted my calm with satisfaction. What a grown-up. Feeling my way through the kitchen to the dining room, I ran my hands along the fireplace mantel and into the side cupboard to retrieve a box of matches. With the tiny flame at the tips of my fingers miraculously dispelling the darkness, I lit candles in two glass lanterns and the candelabra on the kitchen counter. It took one flame to light the way; only one flame to ignite many. The night remained at the fringes, but I was encircled by a warm glow.

The world seems a dark place right now. We need some good strong flames.

Despair is easy. The newspaper pounds out gut-punch stories and Yahoo pops open with horrific tales of the number dead in suicide bombings in Iraq. I don’t bother to watch the news anymore.
After his beating by the LA Police, Rodney King said, “Why can’t we all just get along?” It became a catch phrase, almost a Saturday Night Live joke, and I wonder about that. Is coexistence among humans such an impossibility that the question is ludicrous? Why can’t we get along?

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the Turning Point in Piermont, New York, to hear John Ghorka with my friends Joan and Polly. I had never heard of the musician, but Joan loves his music and I love Polly and Joan. Plus road trip therapy sessions are always a wonderful purge; when two or more women gather, there is healing.

Following the concert, we walked the causeway jutting into the Hudson River. Once past a series of landscaped condominiums, the way assumed the look of a tree-shaded country road lapped gently on either side by the river.

Seagulls crossed the sky in long, slow glides. We were three bright candle flames glimmering at those we encountered.

We smiled sweetly at an elderly Asian couple who had stopped to sniff the blossoms of a tiny apple sapling. We chatted cheerfully with a young Australian lugging a backpack. We even beamed beatifically at the mortified apologies of a fisherman who came oh-so-close to snagging my cheek on his squiddy hook in a careless wind-up to his cast. We folks of the causeway all got along fine, for all of our shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities. What’s the matter with the rest of the world?

Having said that, many times those with every reason to snuff their flame have blessed me with their light. In the nineties, I went on several trips to New York City with The Midnight Run, an organization that provides donations of sandwiches, soup and clothing to the homeless. Vulnerable under newspaper blankets, men and women startled awake at my whispered greeting were gracious in their appreciation. “God bless you for this. I wait all week for the Run.”

At Mercy Learning Center, a women’s literacy program in Bridgeport, there is not a woman enrolled who does not struggle against daunting odds to raise her family and pay the bills, yet they persevere, and their spirits shine. There are loving, hopeful hearts even in those where hope has been stingy in casting her rays.

As Polly’s van, Therapy-on-Wheels, rolled homeward from Piermont, we mourned the massacres in Rwanda and Darfur. Joan’s eyes were liquid wells of compassion while Polly’s flashed fire at the cruelty. These are my candle flame friends, and we smiled in thinking of ourselves as trembling little flickers, bending to pass our flame, one to another….

The dark pushed away, wick by wick.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Twenty-Five Years? How Can That Be?

For twenty-five years, I have, fairly enough, considered my daughter, Casey, my baby. She may be 5’ 7”, curvaceous, and sassy, but she still has the almond eyes, kissable cheeks and bee-stung lips of her infant self. It takes me a moment to process, therefore, when I flounder and she offers counsel, wise, adult counsel. Of course, she know what to say; she’s compassionate and smart, with a quarter century’s experience to draw on, but I have to remind myself that she’s grown up.

Casey is an actress, born to drama. She can produce real tears on demand. As a toddler, as a little girl, well, into her twenties, crying was tops in her repertoire. One time, when she was tiny, she was sobbing inconsolably. My mother said, “Dearie, you’ve got to stop. You certainly do cry a lot.”

Casey sniffed. The sobbing ceased. She considered a moment. “You have to admit I’m the best crier you know.”

Her worldly entrance was dramatic as well, even beyond the inherent drama of birth. My waters broke six weeks before my due date as I stood on a bridge chatting with my friends Wendy and Chris about stories of women who’d broken their waters in embarrassing places. Seriously. I swear this is true.

Once I ascertained that the trickle down my leg was not, ahem, a little “accident,” I prepared for the hospital and told my two-year-old son Tucker I’d be back in a few days with a baby.

It didn’t go that way.

Doctor Hoffman was conservative and admitted me to Greenwich Hospital in order to give the baby more womb-time. Because the placenta was no longer intact, the doctor wanted to preserve as sterile an environment as possible, so he said, “No visitors except Dave.”

The hospital staff encouraged me to walk a bit, for the sake of exercise, so I’d stroll to the nursery to visit other mother’s babies and bask in the germs of other mother’s guests.

On one occasion, I lay on my bed as a pink-uniformed orderly with a wild tangle of gray hair mopped the floor of my room. Every now and then, she coughed in her hand as I tried to hold my breath.

A nurse passed by the door, glanced in and stopped. “You’re back,” she said to the orderly. “Are you feeling better?”

“No, not really,” replied the sharer-of-germs. “I just decided that I need the money.”

Hospitals. What can you do?

It was 1983 and I’d studied Lamaze, read countless books and planned to deliver naturally. I’d foresworn alcohol and aspirin throughout the pregnancy, all the better to nurture my little one. While in the hospital, I developed a cold, the nastiest cold I’d ever had. Was the mopping lady or some other person’s visitor to blame? I was afraid the congestion would hinder my ability to breath deeply, then shallowly, and then pant-and-blow during the different stages of delivery as I’d been trained. No problem. A regimen of daily horse-choker-size pills was prescribed. So much for the purity of my body.

Hospitals are tricky places.

A month passed as I waited for Casey in the maternity ward. Dave brought in gourmet dinners to supplement the hospital fare. He brought in my sewing machine so I could use the time constructively. I stitched up bumpers for Casey’s carriage and a bedspread for Tucker. I walked laps in the corridors, rubbing elbows and exchanging air with passers-by as I sought to jog my girl loose.

What did my little guy, Tucker, think about my disappearance? Dave brought him in for a few visits, but I wasn’t allowed to hold him or pick him up. It was confusing and sad for both of us.

Meanwhile, my mother and mother-in-law were taking shifts, staying with Dave and Tucker. A toilet-training effort was underway, and Tucker was bitterly resisting. He was angry and uncomfortable and was not about to surrender what little control he had left in his world.

Enough. Enough. I’d had it with coughing cleaning-ladies and other people’s visitors. Plus, I’d visited with any number of babies born three or four weeks early, so I knew my child would be fine. I needed to get home to my son. If Dr. Hoffman was not willing to induce me, I would slip into my clothes and slip out the door.
As it was, rebellion was unnecessary.

I was induced at 8:00 AM and she arrived four hours later, on March 22, 1983.

Dave and I didn’t know that ahead of us lay “fuffy flies” and sore “froats.” We didn’t know how much she’d love her pink bunny. We couldn’t foresee all the tea parties, Barbies and “Tapio Tids,” her beloved Cabbage Patch dolls. We had no way of knowing about dance classes and boyfriends, friends, concerts and plays, much less waitressing at SBC and her new life in the city.

So many blessings our bundle has brought us. Happy Birthday, dear Casealace!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Death by Email

I scroll down, disbelieving. The words just don’t stop. It is an effusion of suggestions, a list to top all of the lists with which I have ever burdened myself. A “we should do” extraordinaire. I’m not sure that I have the strength to maintain finger pressure on the mouse until the end. I want to grab a traditional japanese sword and commit Hari-Kari on the spot. I had slipped to my seat before the computer at 9:30 P.M. for a quick email check. It is now 11:02.

In the 1990’s movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” the cheery blip signaling new mail was a happy indicator that a friend was trying to get in touch. It was the electronic equivalent of that outdated communique, the personal letter. Meg Ryan’s eyebrows lifted with pleasure at the sight of Tom Hanks’ transmission. If it were only so!

Now that red signal glowers menacingly as if to say, "Come and get it sweetheart." I click reluctantly and through weary eyes I see a gloating “36” emails in my inbox. 36! I could cry. I pray that the majority is happily deleted porno that has wormed its way into my mail: Tammy providing the means to increase the size of my penis, or some massive missive from the National Democratic headquarters.

It is a plethora of environmental alerts, letters to write, petitions to sign, congressmen to contact. There are forwards from well-meaning friends, a few that are genuinely poignant or funny, but too many that end with the injunction to “send this on to fifteen more friends or you will receive bad luck within a week.” Argh! I do not fault my friends too much. I understand that sneaking superstition that hovers in the air, daring me to disregard the warning, defying me to delete. Do I perpetuate this bittersweet vine of life lessons ending with voodoo compulsions, or do I tough it out and brave the consequences? Yes! Delete! Check back with me in a week.....

I stumble, beaten, from the seat before my tormentor, near tears in my weakened post-email state. My husband Dave admonishes me, “Why do you do this to yourself? Just delete them.”

“I can’t! I can’t! What if there is a personal note tucked in at the end that begs a response? What if there is an alert I should be alerted to?”

“You have to chance it. Look at you! You’re a wreck!” says Dave. Sad to say, it’s true. You may be reading this, smiling to yourself, empathizing to an extent, but it's all true. E-mail will be the death of me.

When the postman was the only source for mail, there were external cues, evident in a brief flip-through, as to the contents of each piece. Sorting was easy. As the decades have flown by, the letter pile has become non-existent, the bills a constant, with the junk mail growing exponentially. But it is disposed of in a trice, lickety-split, into the recycling bin.

If only it were so with email.

You are probably solidly in Dave’s camp, thinking, “Oh please! What’s with the high drama? Just delete what you don’t want.”

The thing is, the contents of each email are not always clear. The title on the subject line can be deceptively alluring. You have to open to discern the topic. Plus, on our old computer, the screen may go blank for a minute or so, a shimmering flicker of miniscule numbers on the lower left hand screen the only indication that it is working, working, to pull up all 949 k’s (whatever they are) of the message. Sometimes the wait is rewarded with some lengthy piece of sentimental pap, perfectly geared to a menopausal mess like myself who will sniffle and bawl, as intended, by the final scroll down. Other times, the computer will surrender and freeze. Usually this happens when I am doing a quick email check before leaping into a day spent blissfully writing. Thus can a mood, but moments ago calm and beatific, explode into a screaming frenzy. “I’m just going to check my emails” can be the innocent signal of impending breakdown.

Many evenings that started with the pleasing promise of an empty square on the calendar page have been lost to email. A free night! These are so rare that I sometimes scrawl “BUSY” in those open blocks as added protection should a call come in for a last minute meeting that someone feels I simply must attend. “Hi. Let me look at the calendar. Ohhhh, I’d like to come, but I'm ‘BUSY.’” Unfortunately, a little white lie printed on the calendar cannot defend against a quick email check. It has often happened that this seemingly innocuous phrase has spelled the end of an evening spent together as a family.

On the treasured days when my daughter Casey is home from college, she begins, ends, and punctuates her day, with a staccato barrage of Instant Messages. We lost our son, Tucker, to the computer long ago. I read a Dean Koontz novel where a mother went in to check on her son who had been just a tetch too long computer-side. She recoiled in disbelief upon finding her offspring, eyes round and metallic, arms extended like two vaccuum hoses fused to the body of the demon computer. It is not as far-fetched as it sounds. It’s just a matter of time for Tucker.

I saw this coming. I forbade an Internet hook-up in our house, but I was over-ridden and you see what has happened.

There must be a solution. We could assign one email night per week per person. Or maybe confine all emailing to one night with scheduled appointments? We'll figure it out. In the meantime, I'm just going to run upstairs for a quick email check...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thanks for the Batteries

For Sylvestros, there are no clean departures. We lurch from home in fits and starts, my daughter Casey and I always making it first to the car. Then we wait while Dave scurries about collecting (if all goes according to plan) his phone, his keys, his wallet, his watch, each of which has been placed in a separate location. His first segue to the car, while promising, is no guarantee. He takes his seat, hands on the wheel, but invariably leaps from the car at least once. He makes this exit quickly, without explanation, as if hoping we might not notice.

“What now?” we wail, a whiny chorus.

“I forgot my sunglasses, the directions, my water bottle…” whatever. It is not uncommon for us to reach the dip in the road before the stop sign at Morehouse Road - Casey and I holding our breath, hoping we’ve made our getaway - only to have Dave smack the wheel in frustration. If I’m feeling bitchy, I ignore this obvious invitation to inquiry hoping that by so doing, we can proceed. This strategy rarely works.

True to form, our initial foray to the car to take Casey back to Merrimack College for her sophomore year was aborted with my husband’s announcement that he‘d forgotten the batteries to his camera. With a sigh, Casey and I exchanged our oft-repeated eye-rolling look and trailed him back to the house. I’m not sure why we all went inside, but those missing batteries are the only reason we were there to receive my cousin Jenny’s call.

“Mom’s sick – riddled with cancer. It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.”

Aunt Barbara had broken her hip in the spring and had been slowly, too slowly, recuperating. But dying? How could that be?

I thought about our phone call a month ago. I’d asked about her hip. It was sore, but she and Uncle Ding were looking forward to their upcoming visit to Bridgehampton. She filled me in on her daughters, Jenny and Julie. I gave her the update on Mom and Dad, my sisters and nephews. It was a long, companionable phone visit with nary a wisp of premonition.

We last visited Aunt Barbara and Uncle Ding at their home in Greenwich in June. Enthroned on multiple cushions, Aunt Barbara looked beautiful. We gathered on the patio by the pool with Julie, her husband, Sam, their four-year old daughter, Carter, and Jenny. We chatted as Carter, a ray of joy in human form, danced her way into the water.

What had been a pleasant but uneventful visit was now memory-lit with Aunt Barbara in high relief. Had her smile hidden a secret fear? The cancer was far along once she was admitted; how could she not have known?

I hung up the phone and told Dave and Casey the news. We decided to detour to Greenwich to see my aunt on the way to Merrimack. As we drove the Merritt Parkway South, I remembered my childhood attempts to soften Aunt Barbara. She and I had not always been close.

Uncle Ding, my mother’s brother, adored us. He was ever willing to produce Disney-perfect drawings of Mickey Mouse for his admiring nieces, or to join us in tide pool explorations along the shore in Weekapaug, seeking crabs and periwinkles beneath the kelp.

I was eight when he brought his slender, blond fiancé to meet the family, and she was reserved from the start. My attempts to win her over were modeled on the “pigtails in the inkwell” method of courtship, and perhaps leaping from behind a chair to shriek “Boo!” in her face did not translate as the endearment intended. She reacted always with exasperation. She had been strictly schooled in hiding her own youthful impulsivity and was impatient when my exuberance spilled over, splashing into her space.

She was a tight one, so different from Uncle Ding. Their match was a puzzle, and perhaps over time, it became a puzzle to them as well.

* * *

Through extensive renovations, Greenwich Hospital has shed that dreary hospital look. The richly appointed corridors of deep green carpeting and cream-colored walls warmed by mahogany trim seem more in keeping with an elegant cruiser. Uncle Ding looked so tiny, waiting for us at the end of that long, tasteful corridor. The illusion of walking Titanic’s halls was complete in décor and my sense of dread.

“I’m all right,” he said as he hugged us tremulously. “I’m going to be all right.”

Aunt Barbara was always so done. When we’d invite them for dinner, I’d say pointedly, “We’ll be in jeans, totally casual.” Still she’d arrive in a snappy red pair of Talbot’s slacks, a silk blouse, embroidered slippers and gold accessories. Due to neck surgery a few years back, she walked like a dancer, ramrod straight. But she and I had made our peace with the quirks we’d found in each other and could talk and talk and talk. This unadorned Aunt Barbara, lying in bed in her pale green hospital gown, was even more beautiful, but she bore the gaunt, resigned look of a prairie woman eyeing an uncertain future.

I wormed my way through the network of plastic veins threading from her nose and fingers to give her a kiss. Spent though she was, her “Hi Sweetie!” sounded chipper and loving.

She was tired, and snapped in annoyance at dear Uncle Ding as he fumbled to put the oxygen tube in her nose. “I love you, Ding, but you’re a nudge.” Later, when I related this scene to my cousin Julie, she was amazed at this almost-loving statement. The bar of affectionate exchange between my aunt and uncle must have been set lower than I’d thought.

There were rules to this visit: only one person at a time in the room besides Uncle Ding, and Aunt Barbara’s own demand that there be no tears. Casey and Dave were in the hall awaiting their turn. I struggled to honor Aunt Barbara’s wish as I gave her a kiss and told her, for the first - and last - time, that I loved her. Without even a hint of good-bye, she said in a business-like tone, “I love you too, but of course you know that.’

And I realized that I did.

I am grateful for Dave’s absent-minded ways, for those forgotten batteries, and for the Power that maneuvered us back to the house in time for Jenny’s call. In the face of so much that seems senseless, it is a comfort when things appear to happen for a reason, where grace is granted in the most ordinary ways.

We were given our good-byes…and she died the next day.