Thursday, April 24, 2008

Spring...and a Baby

A wrought-iron mother wren with her baby at her feet perches on graceful vines encircling a fluted glass vessel. The little vase struck a chord with my Mom and she gave it to me when Tucker was born. Mom loves lilies of the valley, and it was early May, so she filled the vase with a few sprigs from her garden before coming to help out with my new baby.

It was springtime, and the earth prepared for Tucker’s arrival. In the fuzzy greening of trees, the sunshine glow of forsythia, and the pink clouds of magnolia emerging from gray wood seemingly dead only last week, God was saying - as surely as if He had hugged me - “Be happy.” And I was.

Lavender lilacs and lilies of the valley lent their fragrance to the warm, gentle breeze. Tiny sparrows that passed March in mute pecking swung proudly on twigs and composed melodies. Brown-headed cowbirds chortled bubbling liquid songs and the mourning doves cooed like a mother’s soft soothing. Warblers called from the treetops with trills, chirps and cheeps. Brother Wind, the woods’ winter alto voice, harmonized with the soprano songbird chorus. Mates were sought. Nests were readied. My baby was on the way too.

I’d been a poster child for pregnancy, and perhaps, a vexation to my fellow students in Lamaze class. Where Tucker curled tight in the womb, front and center, other mothers waddled, cumbersome, expanding on all sides. I felt great, gained little weight, and couldn’t wait for birth-day to come.

Labor, for me, was a glorious crusade – a good one, without prisoners or weapons. There was blood and pain, but the prize was a baby, and I was well trained for the fight. With the current preference for epidurals, Lamaze has lost favor, but in the early eighties, it was the way to go. It was an invaluable education, and when my contractions began, the pain held no fear. I knew the significance of the sensations at each stage and was ready with a corresponding strategy. As the contractions grew stronger, I pictured my little one, struggling along with me. Soon we would meet, face to face.

I had not been aware that I had expectations as far as the sex of the child. Yet, as a girl from a family of girls, I must have felt that this little traveler, so familiar – yet not – would be female. When Doctor Hoffman, the welcoming committee, caught the baby and announced, “It’s a boy and he’s perfect,” I was surprised. I was also surprised that this son of a WASP mother was so definitively Italian. I didn’t recognize him as my under-the-heart-in-my-heart companion right away.

He resembled my husband, Dave, so thoroughly. Thick black hair was slicked back from his face. His battle down the birth canal showed in puffy cheeks and pouches under his eyes, like Dave after a long commute. And like Dave, his aunt Cam, his father, Colombo and grandfather, Michael, the baby’s nose was pure Sylvestro, rounded and substantial.

The name “Tucker” is not as unique in this new millennium, but in 1980, it was precious and new. It was round on my tongue, soft as a baby’s kissable cheeks, and the "r” at the end was a cozy burr. There was pride and love in the very utterance of the name, bound as it was to this little boy.

But, oh the fatigue following the eighteen-hour delivery! I had eaten only tea and toast since the contractions began, and after all that hard work – triumphant work – I was beat. So after snuggles with Tucker, and stitches for me, the nurses spirited him away and I fell asleep.

At 4:00 A.M, I awoke in the dark, achingly lonely for my other part, the other heart that had beaten under mine for nine months. The yearning I felt for him was a new kind of pain, and I was keenly aware of the void in my body where once he had been.

Now, he is twenty-seven and living in Boston. For Mother’s Day, he took me out to a chocolate buffet brunch. He knows me well; it was an excellent choice.

Tucker no longer looks like Dave; he looks just like me and my father. Do I sound smug? He has Dave’s brains and sense of humor, and has started his own business. He has a wonderful girlfriend named Heather. But he is farther away than I would like him to be, and when spring comes around with its fuzzy leaves and lilac scents, it feels like I’m awaiting his birth.

When the lilies of the valley push up through the soil, I go down on my hands and knees and bury my nose in the clusters of white bells. God is proclaiming, “Be happy,” and I am….. but I wish I could hold my little bundle again.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Three Short Stories of Comfort: They Are Here

[All of these stories are true and happened within the last 12 months.]

Alex warmed up his arm. He rotated his shoulder and surveyed the field. The stands. The Green Monster. The scoreboard. He’d vowed as a child that one day he would play for the Red Sox. Today, he wore a Hudson Valley Renegades jersey, but he was pitching from the mound at Fenway Park.

“I wish you were here, Mom,” he thought.

“She’s out there,” his Aunt Debby had said, and he hoped it was true.

His mother, Lindsay, was a force. She was a tall woman, blond, and always Florida-tan; the one at a party who, given half a chance, would be doing gymnastic flips in the air. Her favorite song was “Build Me Up, Buttercup” and when that tune played, she’d grab a mike and belt it out along with the vocalist.

Lindsay was a nurse practitioner in the old-fashioned mold – going to her patients when they needed her. Had toxins from the near-fatal staph infection she’d picked up from a little girl a few years back killed her? Or did she catch something while working with the injured and homeless in Homestead, Florida following Hurricane Andrew in 1992? The cause of her death wasn’t entirely clear. She died a few days before Christmas two years ago, and it was still hard to hear carols without feeling the despair of that time.

Alex looked around Fenway and smiled. “You’d want me to enjoy this, Mom, and I will!”

The Renegades lost, but Alex’s pitching was strong. His fastball clocked 92 mph, shutting the Lowell Spinners out while he was on the mound.

The loudspeakers crackled, the organ bellowed a song. “It can’t be,” thought Alex. But it was. “Build me Up, Buttercup.”

Well. That was quite a coincidence.

The next day, the team played Lowell at their home field, a half-hour north of Boston. After the game, a little girl came onto the field with a CD player. She was pleased to entertain the crowd with some karaoke.
This’ll be good.

She pushed the start button and Alex couldn’t believe it. “Build Me Up Buttercup.” Is this for real?

After she finished her number, the announcer thanked her. “That was wonderful! Now, what is your name?”

“Lindsay,” she said proudly. “My name is Lindsay.”

* * *

Dave fiddled with the radio, trying to tune in the AM station. It was baseball season and his tedious commute passed unnoticed when he was able to follow a game.

This season was hard though. Lonely. From the time he was little, spring meant playing catch with his Dad, being coached by his Dad, hooting and hollering at plays on the TV with his Dad. When the days of catch and coaching were memories, and miles lay between him and his father, the phone lines between Worcester and Easton were the link. Colombo hooted from his mustard yellow recliner in his apartment on Harley Drive while Dave hollered from his den in Connecticut .

For the past two years. Colombo had been confined to a nursing home following a paralyzing stroke. Still, when the Red Sox were playing, Dave would stop by with some beers, plant a Sox cap on his dad’s head, and the two would root on the team, just like always. Dave chose to believe that Colombo could follow the action, but it wasn’t clear if he was just parroting as he echoed Dave’s cheers. But they’d been together. And now, Colombo was gone.

Last night, Dave dreamed about his father. He couldn’t remember the particulars, but his dad was whole again, and grinning that smart-ass grin. Dave blinked. And blinked again. It had felt like a visit. It was good to see him.

Colombo died in February. He would have been eighty-two on June 14th.

The announcer’s voice was scratchy as Dave listened from his car on the way to work, but its rise and fall was familiar, soothing. A game on the radio – a constant in his life.

Just as constant, the goddamn traffic. Dave loved his job, but the commute was a killer. Twice a day, he’d take his place on the Parkway, to creep along with his fellow Volvos, Hondas and Toyotas. “It’s like being on a train, really,” he’d tell his wife. “You get to know the drivers, other cars, even license plates.”

That’s what made this particular plate stand out.

He was listening to the game, thinking about the dream of his Dad. His eyes strayed to the license before him.
“Colom 6 14”

Colombo’s birthday.

* * *

The girl whirled through the room, arms wide, smile rapturous. With eyes fixed on the empty air before her, she spun, hair flying in wisps across her face. Laughter was her song as she circled the room.

“What a lovely dance!” said her mother, Ann.

“We just made it up. Me and my friend.”

“Your friend?”

“Yes, silly. This little girl right here.”

As if a graceful finger traced a path down her arm, Ann’s skin dimpled. She shivered, and smiled.

“I don’t see her, Sweetie. Can you describe her for me?”

Ellissa grinned at the air, and shrugged, her message clear, "Don’t mind my Mom. You know grown-ups." And then patiently, as if Ann were dim-witted, for heaven’s sake, Ellissa said, “She has long blond hair and she’s eight – just my age. Her dress is pretty – white with pink flowers. And she’s happy. Tell her parents. She’s happy.”

The phone jangled and Ann started, then reached for the receiver. Ellissa skipped from the room, one arm outstretched, hand clasped.

The voice on the line was raspy and moist. Ann’s friend Theresa said, “Just a minute. Let me get another Kleenex.” There was energetic blowing before Theresa returned to the line. She shared a cubicle with Ann at the office. “It’s just so sad…”

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Mr. Hawkins won’t be in for a week or two. His daughter was killed in an accident. She was a lovely girl. Did you know her?”

Ann shook her head, no, forgetting that Theresa could not see her.

At the silence, Theresa went on through her sniffling, “Just eight years old. With such pretty long blond hair.”

“She’s happy,” whispered Ann, “Tell her parents. She’s happy.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Feeding the Fire

[I wrote this last week as a funny rant, although it's certainly true. What is my deal? Often I wake up with butterflies without any real cause. In talking to friends, I'm not the only one. In fact, my friend Joan and I went into NYC on Sunday to hear author Anne Lamott. Anne spoke of waking up in the morning to find all of her worries sitting, waiting for her, on the bed. "They'd been up for awhile. They'd had their coffee. They were bored and wanted to chat." The audience of 1000 cracked up. We'd all been there...]

I awake this morning to spring sunshine and bird song. I’m cozy in my bed. Casey is coming home today and this evening we’re going to hear Idina Menzel at the Fairfield Theater Company. It’s my writing day and I can’t wait to get started. Classical music is playing on the radio. All is more than well, but my stomach stirs with a tiny, niggling angst.

What is it? What is it? I scan my brain. Is it Eagle Hill’s benefit, my annual spring crunch? Have I neglected anything there? Is everyone else on top of their To-Do lists? Oh, I must remember to call Mick, the tent guy, about the permits. I should write that down and call myself at work and leave a message so I don’t forget to take care of it tomorrow.

Could it be the sorry state of the world? Is the sight of this lovely day, nature going about her business, troubling me because of global warming? Maybe. Is it the Iraq war? It could be that.

That reminds me; I need to get some Barack Obama signs and bumper stickers. I should make a note to call Val and find out where she got hers. In fact, I should volunteer to work for his campaign. As soon as I’m finished writing this, I’ll find out how to contact his headquarters and give them a call. What if I forget?

It’s probably the writing that’s bothering me. I’ve sent essays to Newsweek, The Sun and Chicken Soup and haven’t heard back from any of them. But that could be a good thing, right? If I’m serious about this, I should send pieces out regularly. I’ve got to get those two book proposals ready and research agents and publishers. Do I think this will happen by itself?

In the big picture, am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing? Maybe this anxiety is a sign that I’m not. I make myself crazy trying to read the mind of the Universe. I spoke to a psychic, but didn’t believe her. “Am I on the right path?’” I asked and she said, “yes,” but who is she to know?

Maybe it’s because I haven’t started working on a toast for Dad’s birthday yet. He’s going to be eighty and this is important. What can I say that’s meaningful enough? I’ve got to get on that; it’s a month and a half away!

Hm. That went well. My quick mental search for the source of anxiety’s tiny flicker amassed enough fuel for a roaring blaze. Worrisome thoughts whirl in a tribal dance, tiny warriors waving shields and spears stomping around a brewing cauldron.

I reach for my self-helper of the moment, Dr. Wayne Dyer. He speaks to me through his book, The Power of Intention. He tells me that problems and To-Do lists are unending as long as one is alive. He says I should not take myself so goddamned seriously, and be at ease in my incompleteness.

The little warriors slow their dance. They lower their weapons and take a break.

The only thing that is sure, is now. And now is pretty good.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Start the Slide Show

[This essay was written about a vacation several years ago. There are references to my husband's father, Colombo, who was living in a nursing room having suffered a debilitating stroke.]

It would have appeared that we required no lessons in leisure. We lay warmed by the sun on royal-blue loungers, our books cast aside – too much effort to read. Dave was snoozing, I was daydreaming, and the cranes had stopped by to gaze at the vast expanse of the Gulf.

Well, I can’t really attest to their goal. I’m not sure how cranes pass their time when not eating. These seemed to be presenting themselves for our viewing pleasure. Like runway models unveiling this season’s fashions, the cranes unfurled their pale gray wings and turned a slow pirouette. Hold your applause, please.

With heads imperiously high, long slim bills upraised, they stalked past, their gait impossibly slow. One reedy leg would lift in imperceptible increments to near body height, the webbed foot contracting, knee bending, body arching slightly forward, leg extending, descending, weight shifting, foot splaying upon contact, step. Repeat. There was ample opportunity for copious photographs, although we could not actually capture that astonishingly slow stride. Still, I have added these embodiments of unhurried patience to my mental slide show.

Our Florida trip reaped several new slides: the cranes of course, Dave’s beaming, “I’m on vacation” face, and the E.T. smile of the baby sloth. He made his debut during a rainforest documentary seen during our rainy-day visit to the Mary Selby Botanical Gardens. He clung to his mother’s belly as she beat the cranes at their slow-motion game in her lingering, lumbering, climb to the forest canopy. Her little guy looked for all the world like he was two sheets to the wind, so moony was his smile. As soon as I saw him, I knew he’d be a valuable addition to my show. That contented grin could soothe the most frenetic of anxious stomach butterflies.

Florida-Dave is the star of my show. Always, he is my sounding board, companion and comfort. It is good to have a psychologist on call. But, he also plays that role for the kids at school, our families and friends. And now, Colombo’s hard situation has drawn on Dave’s reserves, as he pulls out the stops in cheering and caring for his father. Dave is generous with his heart and time, and that takes a toll.

In Florida, he sets down his burdens, and the elements do their soothing work. The turquoise Gulf bathes away the sadness and the sun’s warmth banishes the pallid tint of winter’s chill. His smile is broad and white against tan skin, his hair wild and unbrushed. For Dave, “I’m on vacation,” is a statement of soul more than fact, and I treasure this slide above all.

When I was little, I imagined a blissful adult world of self-determination. No one to tell me what to do, bedtime when I felt like it, snacks when I wanted them. So many precious years of my youth were spent yearning for adulthood, and now I envy the carefree years of youth. Neither perception is accurate – even Peter Pan found that magic pixie dust was insufficient for flight. To initiate lift off, you have to think happy thoughts.

Sometimes I have to work hard to drum up those thoughts. Images of Colombo drooping in his wheelchair, wistful yearnings for my babies, and anguish over the situation in Iraq take a lot of space. My friend Joan has said, “I don’t like spending too much time in my head. It’s a dark place to be.” I know what she means. As a result, I have acquired an impressive library of self-help books. The volumes speak with one voice on three key tenets – Be grateful. Be kind. Think happy thoughts. The words are more erudite of course, but the message is the same. It is easy to cower in despair in this shrinking world of terrorist attacks, global warming and personal tragedies. But my thoughts are mine to control, and when darkness overwhelms, I insert a new slide.

Far more definitive than the amorphous “think positively,” the creation of my mental slide show has involved selection of auto-smile images from a lifetime’s storage of peak moments. Little Casey and Tucker dancing naked after their baths, the sun-flecked waves off the beach in Weekapaug, Mom and Dad cozily reading in their beds, Dave grinning as he paddles his kayak. I lift visuals chosen for slide status from the memory current that blends and dilutes as it merges with the ocean of the past. Each “slide” is a sure-fire happy thought, held for retrieval when I need to balance the blues.

Many of my slides are from nature. While my world spins with unexpected jolts and painful adaptions, there is a comforting certainty that all is unfolding as it should in nature’s balance, cycles, and purposeful connections. The touch of bee to flower, the pickings of scavengers, the deposit of waste that secures a seed in fertile ground. Despite man’s fervent efforts to divorce himself from these rhythms, I believe the ancient wisdom that says we are all connected. My slides remind me of the patience, purpose and joy of which we are a part.

When the daily whirl stirs my stomach, I release the butterflies to flutter skyward, and start my mental show.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lessons from the Hot Tub

Every morning, my head-clearing, arms-swinging, supposed-to-be-light-hearted walk twists in discouragement as I bend to collect a filthy mélange of foil snack packs, Smirnoff bottles and beer cans thoughtlessly flung from passing cars. What would the teary Indian of the 1960’s advertisements that shamed my generation into avoidance of littering make of today’s disregard for roadside cleanliness? People are pigs. That’s what he’d think, and rightly so.

Perhaps I am a victim of a sensationalist press, but a scan of the Connecticut Post reaps a discouraging array of political chicanery, rape, corruption and shootings, day after day after day. Again, I think, people are pigs. I mean no disrespect to an animal that is both intelligent and fastidious, but the humans who have earned the title consistently fuel my fire.

The Universe, however, has challenged my allegation with liberal examples to the contrary. If people are such pigs, why am I surrounded by so many exceptions? My husband, Dave, is, objectively speaking, the best person in the world. My parents are loving and generous to a fault. My friends, associates, and family are rich in heart and creativity, and I have been fortunate to produce two wonderful children in Tucker and Casey. Still, I have weighted the scales with the merciless bad news bias of TV anchors and daily news against my limited personal experience, and concluded that I am blessed in my circle, but that people, as a rule, are indeed pigs.

I have to give The Universe credit for persistence. Much as Nature abhors a vacuum, The Universe seeks to right wrongs. As messy as a March snowmelt, the inaccuracy of my assessment was, apparently, an obstacle to cosmic harmony and required remediation. Re-establishing Creation’s even keel, happily for Dave and me, involved a trip to Florida for a sojourn at the Hilton on Long Boat Key. More importantly, it entailed hours spent in the sorrow-soothing, angst-ridding, false-pronouncement-banishing bubbles of the Hot Tub.

Even on those days where the sun shone golden, long-fingered palms swept the sky, whipped by incessant winds. The gentle gulf was not herself. Her normally clear azure waters were stirred to the choppy green of her Atlantic cousin as red tide blooms elicited the staccato coughs of a T.B. ward from the hardy souls prone on the chilly beach. Determined to return home with a healthy Florida glow, Dave and I were among those goose-pimpled, sand-blasted loungers during the prime tanning hours. What joy then to concede around 4:30 or so that it was time for a Planter’s Punch sipped blissfully from the tumultuous froth of the Hot Tub.

The first evening, we were self-conscious about the half-naked others sharing our roiling bath, so we focused on each other, the delicious warmth, and our tasty drinks. No lists, no emails, no phone calls, no obligations. “We are on vacation,” Dave announced, though the words were unnecessary. It was clear in his bright pouch-less eyes, frowzled curly hair and beaming smile. “We are on vacation!”

We tried initially to pretend that those other red-flushed faces so intimately sharing our watery space did not exist. But, you know how it goes – womb-like warmth, tropical rum, a sky streaking red as the sun lowers – you can’t help drawing those strangers into your rapture. “How great is this?!”

Mary from Massachusetts looked so much like our friend Pamela that we were comfortable with her before words were spoken. We chatted about her plans to take her kids to Disney World and regaled her with tales of the Haunted Mansion and The Pirates of the Caribbean. We laughingly recalled Casey and Tucker at ages three and six, goofy in their red plastic sunglasses adorned with Donald and Mickey faces. We described Casey’s fear of the purple hippo in “It’s a Small World” and.... um, her fear of every ride actually, except for the carousel. We came to know that ride well, thirty-two turns worth, as a matter of fact.

In talking with Mary about her future plans, we lovingly revisited our past.

Chip and Mary-Blythe joined us for a soak, having recently weathered their daughter’s spinal operation to correct scoliosis. We were all parents together, immersed in our bubbly brew, as we winced at the fear of sending a child under the knife and we basked in relief at the successful outcome.

Talk meandered from kids to pets, from Chip’s irish setter to our dear old malamute, Kody. We chuckled to hear of Chip’s mother’s surprise when the tiny, reddish puppy presented to her as the spaniel she requested, grew into the irish setter her kids wanted. The Hot Tub crew got a kick out of our tale of the life-long friendship between Kody and Fuzz the cat, surprisingly established when Kody grabbed our tiny kitten by the head and tossed him skyward. Fuzz landed purring, as opposed to dead, and this disturbing activity became a game enjoyed by both. Weird.

By the next evening, we were all old friends welcoming newcomers into our Hot Tub cocktail party. An intriguing couple – lovers? business associates? father and daughter? - settled in. He was balding, well-furred and beyond portly. She was pale, far younger, and reticent. We talked about their life on a houseboat in California and dipped into our mutual dissatisfaction with the Bush administration. When my environmentalist soul made its appearance, it turned out that the quiet female partner had the same concerns. We shook our heads over man’s disregard of the planet. I didn’t say it, but it hung in the air – people are pigs. We touched on our hope that there are reasons for everything; that all will turn out as it should.

As the pool lights came on and the sky darkened, some of the tubbers headed off to dinner. Dave and I were shriveled prunes, but it was toasty and companionable and we were on vacation! There was nothing we had to do. So, when a Casey-clone with her brother and friends came for a dip, we turned to them for a peek into some other life stories.

With long, dark hair and almond eyes, her 22nd birthday coming up on March 19th while Casey’s is the 22nd, we were amazed at the parallels, even as I reminded myself that there are no coincidences. We are all soakers in the Hot Tub of Life and there were reasons that we’d been brought to share these waters with those passing through.

Casey’s clone was a nursing student. She told us about her friend Tom, stationed in Iraq. She spoke of her fear when he signed off their calls, “Gotta go, gotta mission.” She giggled in describing the contents of the weekly care packages she sent him - Oral B Brush-Ups, undies, funny post-its and stuffed animals.

The yellow “Support Our Troops” loop affixed to the tailgates of SUVs, Neons and Caravans alike gained a face as Tom and his worried friend entered the growing ranks of my morning prayers. Tom could be Tucker or my nephew, Trevor. My new Hot Tub friend could be Casey herself – or me, worrying about my kids - or any era’s mother worrying about loved ones at war.

All told, Dave and I put in a day’s worth of hours soaking in that tub. Cozy and happy, we met people from Minnesota, New York, Florida and Colorado. Some nights, after we’d showered and headed to Tommy Bahamas for dinner, Dave would moan that he’d forgotten to introduce himself, to get a fellow tubber’s name. I wondered about the protocol on that; at what point between entry and the slide past half-naked self-consciousness would you go for the handshake and formal i.d.?

For me, this first-name-only blending was better. I realized that under our clothes, our coifs and our accessories, we are more alike than different. We are parents, whether worried or celebratory. We love our pets, our friends and our homes. We want to be happy. Most of us want the world to be peaceful and healthy. We want our loved ones safe.

While the sampling was not expansive, it was certainly random. The results are in – most people are good.

I believe that there are few chance encounters; there will be ripples from our hours spent soaking. I hope that Mary and her kids had fun at Disney World and that Chip and Mary Blythe’s daughter heals well. I hope Tom comes home safely, and that life is good to the dear girl who reminded me of Casey. And I hope I remember to picture, when people are pigs, the good people parade at the Hot Tub.