Monday, November 22, 2010

But I'm Sure I Did...

The drawer was full of Halloween cards.

This would have been fine if it was October 15th, or maybe the 20th, but it was November 2nd. I’d dipped into the drawer to select a “Get Well” card for a friend when I discovered the distinctive orange and black collection I’d purchased a month ago.

The other day, I asked my mother if she’d received the Halloween card I’d sent her. She said, “Um,” but when I said I’d sent it a few weeks ago, she recovered quickly and replied “Oh yes.” Her voice lacked conviction, but I gave it little thought. For I knew I’d signed, stuffed, stamped and mailed those cards.

Apparently not.

Then today, while conferring over the calendar with my brother-in-law about a date to take his mother out for her birthday, I saw a notation on November 7. Yesterday. “Ruth Ann at the Olive Garden,” I’d written. Oh no. I’d missed a visit planned, discussed and anticipated for over a month to a friend from Florida who was up for a brief stay in New England.

With my heart lodged somewhere in my stomach, I called Ruth-Ann and apologized, and apologized, and apologized. She was gracious and forgiving, and we were able to re-schedule a quick glimpse on another day. But still, these memory lapses are a worry.

For me, this is not a new development. Over ten years ago, a parent at the school where I work donated a baseball signed by legendary pitcher, Whitey Ford, as an auction prize for our spring benefit. To Yankees fans, the man is a hero. Reverently, I placed the ball in the locked closet in the headmaster’s office reserved for treasures.

As the benefit drew near, I went to the closet to review those prizes in hand… and was horrified to discover that the ball was missing.

I flew into search and self-defense mode as I asked the headmaster, the director of maintenance and my office co-workers, “Have you seen the Whitey Ford ball? I locked it in the close, but it’s gone!”

Of course I could not tell the donor. No. She would have had a fit.

My sainted husband leapt to his trusty computer and checked Ebay. Yes! There was a Whitey Ford ball available! The opening bid was pricey, but we had no choice. We were in.

So were a lot of other people. Too many. We were outbid.

A week before the auction, I ran into the ball’s donor at a party. Emboldened by a glass or two of wine, I confessed to the ball’s disappearance. She looked at me, bemused. “Lea, I haven’t given you the ball yet.”

Blessed relief! But soon, recognition of the smirch on my memory and credibility was evident as I thought of all my protestations of certainty over days past. “And I locked the ball in the closet myself!” Yes. Well.

For now, I have devised elaborate systems of memory ticklers. Calendar indicators for upcoming events begin with a heads-up reminder a week in advance. Lists, post-it notes and a small pocketbook pad provide additional prods. I leave messages for myself on my home and work phones, so many that often the blinking red light will signal four-to-five messages – all from me.

I know, I know. We all have too much to think about. Everyone has tales of Alzheimer’s-like behavior. And we all reassure each other with a laugh. But sometimes I wonder. My doctor says, “At your age, this is perfectly normal.”

Humph. At my age, indeed.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What's Happening in There?

The rest of the world falls away while gathered with loved ones in a hospital waiting room. Chairs of chrome and stiff fabric. A table strewn with magazines. A clock with hands set at an impossible crawl. Each person donning the public face crafted for such vigils, a mouth that laughs at jokes and responds to questions as the mind asks incessantly what is happening in there?

Lisa, my nephew’s wife, was in labor. Two generations ago, tradition would have had the husband pacing a bright, sterile-white corridor by himself, but Trevor was in the delivery room with Lisa, working to welcome their baby, little Ava, into this world. So it was up to Lisa’s parents and assorted Sylvestros to pace.

It began well.

When I arrived at the desk in the maternity ward, the pleasant but firm receptionist barred me from joining Trevor’s Mom, Deb, and Lisa’s parents, Paul and Diane, in the labor and delivery area. She directed me to a glassed-in area just beyond the barricade of the ward’s heavy swinging doors. I took a seat in what was apparently a maternity waiting room.

“I’m a bit out of place here,” I said, my gaze sweeping a line-up of ponderous bellies. One soon-to-be-mom said, “Careful! Could be contagious!” sparking a laugh as the group took in my gray hair and middle-aged body. Another woman beamed as she caressed her belly and spoke eagerly of birth. Several others, phones in hand, sat still but for tapping thumbs, texting. A round-faced girl, quite young, confessed her fear.

Beyond the glass enclosure, I saw Deb and Diane stride down the corridor. I grabbed my bag and trotted off to catch up with them. “Lisa’s pushing!” said Diane, her smile bright. “Her mouth is dry so we’re going to get her some ice chips.”

They fulfilled their mission and headed back to Lisa, Trevor and Ava-in-transit, leaving me on my side of those swinging doors. I had barely returned to my seat when they reappeared laden with blankets, pillows, tote bags and a computer, as well as Paul, Lisa’s father, in tow.

Why so soon?

As we walked down the hall to a waiting room unoccupied by expectant mothers, Paul and Diane said nothing. Their eyes were red-rimmed and concerned. “She needs a caesarean,” Deb said. “The baby’s heart rate was dipping with each push. The doctor said they could let it go on for another hour, but Lisa would be exhausted and might not make any headway.”

“She was sobbing with disappointment and pain,” Diane said quietly as she tucked Trevor’s computer under a chair. “It’s hard to see her like that.” Paul shook his head and remained silent, his lips tight.

Unlike many expectant mothers today, Lisa had not wanted even an epidural. She thought a natural birth was best for the baby so she and Trevor had signed up for Lamaze classes. But they were disappointed. “They didn’t teach us anything practical. It was all about history and mechanics. And the video they showed? I did not need to see that,” Trevor had said with a grimace.

When I had my kids in the early eighties, Lamaze classes to train mothers for natural childbirth were routine. My husband Dave and I practiced the strategic breathing techniques while watching TV, driving and walking in the woods. My ability to adjust the type and level of breathing became automatic. I felt fearless and prepared when my contractions began – I knew what to expect. I had tools to deal with pain.

Lisa did not have that benefit, but breathing techniques would not have changed this situation: the baby’s posterior presentation called for caesarean section.

While Trevor donned scrubs and Lisa was prepped for surgery, those of us waiting talked, our wiggling feet and chatter the outer manifestation of inner pacing. But minutes passed to a half hour, then an hour, and even I knew a caesarean should be quick. What was wrong?

Diane and Deb are knowledgeable nurse practitioners, so each at one point went to the desk to seek news. They were told, “She’s not out yet.” Well, obviously.

Trevor’s father, Steve, arrived, his white hair wild from a windy ride over in his convertible. His smile slipped at hearing of the caesarean and the length of time, but quickly he slapped on his public face and told a tale of an encounter in downtown Bridgeport on his way over. While stopped at a traffic light near the hospital on Boston Ave., he saw a group of high school boys hanging out with a cute puppy. So he smiled. Presumptuous, apparently, for one of the youths snapped, “What the F*@% you smilin’ at?!”

Tension bred hilarity and we dissolved, loopy with laughter. The punch line warranted repetition. Better that than voicing the reel playing in each head, Why so long? What is happening? What is wrong?

Weary from a traffic-heavy commute, my husband, Dave, finally pulled in. Again, the brief collapse in expression before his public face slipped back into place as he learned of the caesarean and delay. We insisted Steve tell him of the dog and the boys. “What the F*@% you smilin’ at?” And we roared with laughter.

Then, from my seat against the windowed wall, I saw Trevor in the hallway. Pale, unsmiling, eyes dull.

Oh my god.

He trudged into the room with its clock and chrome chairs and pile of public faces discarded on the floor. Questions flew: “How’s Lisa? Is the baby all right? What happened?”

Trev ran a hand through his matted hair.

“Tell us. What’s going on?” Diane begged.

“Well, they took the baby upstairs for oxygen,” said Trevor.

“Oxygen? Why? What’s wrong?”

“Didn’t anybody tell you?”

We were frantic. Paul, Lisa’s father, while usually soft-spoken, cut through the cacophony, his voice clear, insistent. If this were the movies and Paul were a different man, he might have grabbed Trevor by the shoulders and shaken him. “Trevor. Trevor. Is Lisa okay?”

Poor Trevor had not slept in two nights and Lisa’s pain had been his, as close as was possible. And he’d seen too much of his wife’s blood beyond the thin veil of the sheet. He’d no idea we knew nothing. For, now, he knew too much. He said, “Well, yeah. She’s tired and sore. They’re stitching her up and won’t let me in. My god, she was a warrior. And the baby needed oxygen. But they’re all right.”

Now, a week later, Ava is dressed in pink. She has a head of black hair and soft kissable cheeks. She is healthy and beautiful and it is a joy to watch her sleep, feet crossed at the ankles, her hands - tiny hands – curled at her chin.

And we all have something to smile at.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

American Party - Fenway Park

“Fresh lemonade! Git your lemonade hee-ah!” Oh yeah! Throughout our section, hands fly up and wave as if to snag a wayward ball. The sun is savage, seemingly purposeful and angry, in radiating a heat so oppressive. The vendors drip sweat as they trot up the aisles, swinging coolers from atop their shoulders to set them on an armrest while passing drinks down the rows hand-to-hand.

Our son, Tucker, and his girlfriend, Lisa, have joined Dave and me for this sweltering day at Fenway Park. Lisa has curly blond hair, blue eyes and skin so fair the sun laughs at her 75 SPF sunscreen. So she is swaddled against the blistering heat in a white cardigan sweater, long pants and a baseball cap. Tuck adjusts his camera. I lather on the Coppertone. My husband is deep in conversation with the guy sitting next to him who, like Dave, was a pitcher while in high school.

A patter of talk ripples through the stands about such personal pinnacles of baseball glory on campuses around the country. Also recalled are moments of Red Sox history, past heroes and plays witnessed first hand. “I remember when…,” “My grandfather told me...,” “Did you see…?”

“Did you ever catch a game ball, Dad?” says Tucker.

“No, but you did, when we were here with Grampy in ’92. You got Walter “No-Neck” Williams to sign it. Remember?”

“Of course!” responds my thirty-year-old boy. “I still have it.”

Tucker was six years old when he first went to Fenway with his grandfather and Dave. With seats so close to the field that Tucker’s call to the first base coach - “Mr. No-Neck! Mr. No-Neck!” – got a smile and a promise, later fulfilled, to sign his ball.

On the field, the Sox are garbed in white and red, and around us, the crowd is in uniform too. From those stooped and white-haired to those tiny and wide-eyed, the uniform is jeans and jerseys of red or navy blue, each emblazoned with Varitek, Papelbon, Ortiz, or Lowell. A smattering of vintage shirts say Yaz and Fisk, for this park is about tradition as much as the game. Those who once came to Fenway with their fathers or grandfathers, now hold the hands of their baseball-capped little ones as they point out players or explain the score. To them, the park is as familiar, venerable and snug as a well-worn catcher’s mitt.

Maybe sixteen rows away from us, and a scant stretch of grass beyond, first baseman Kevin Youkilis hitches up his pants and scratches his nose. Wow! Youk! No one would ever call me a sports fan, but still, this close, I’m excited. And since 2004, I’ve been tearfully grateful to this team.

We’d received a midnight call from Dave’s Aunty Cam, to inform us that his father, Colombo, had had a stroke. We picked up Dave’s brother, Steve, and headed to Memorial Hospital in Worcester, not knowing what to expect. Despite a history of heart trouble, Colombo had been healthy. He’d retired a year before, played golf every week and was diligent about his exercise routine. Sure, he loved his Sapphire Blue martinis, but a drink is good company during the evening news or while watching a game.

The play-offs were underway and the Sox were holding their own against the Los Angeles Angels. As we crossed into Massachusetts and onto the Mass. Pike, signs hung on the overpasses read “Go Red Sox!” At the hospital, doctors, nurses, visitors and patients were abuzz with updates and every television suspended above an ailing loved one was tuned to the game.

As humming machines and bags of clear fluid worked to restore Colombo’s body, the Sox lifted his spirits and those of his sons. And when the team won the World Series, Dave’s dad was able to celebrate.

Today, announcements light up the big screen with birthdays and anniversaries and we applaud and whistle with our fellow party-goers. “Courtney, will you marry me?” flashes on the DiamondVision in center field, big and bold. TV cameras pan the crowd then zoom in on the couple as they kiss. A good sign. The four of us scan the stands…and there they are two sections over! 30,000 of us whoop our benediction, sharing the joy of a successful proposal. Underfoot, peanut shells crunch as Dave cracks, chomps and tosses them. I grouse a bit about littering, but he only laughs.

What do I know? At Fenway Park, that’s how it’s done.

In front of me, the neck of a woman in a Bucholtz jersey flames red. Should I say something? Of course. I offer my Coppertone and she takes it with a smile. Meanwhile, up on the screen, a family is featured. We meet the Dunns of Connecticut, a graying patriarch, his son and his toddler, plus assorted female members of the clan. Their legacy of Red Sox support passed from father to son or daughter is acclaimed with thunderous applause.

Despite the heat, it’s like a party for 30,000 – actually for 37,974, as this day is the 600th consecutive sell-out crowd. We drink our beer and sweet, icy, lemonade, snack on Cracker Jacks and peanuts, and sing “Oh-Oh-Ooooh” and “So GOOD, So Good, So good...” as the organ booms “Sweet Caroline.” We leap from our seats, arms upraised, when a cheering wave passes through. Doing one for the team.

“Colombo loved the wave,” says Dave. “He was always such a softy for that stuff…”

And so am I.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Two Septembers

Transcribing my work responsibilities from last year’s date book to a brand new one was a satisfying job for the first day of school. Each entry looked neat and clear-cut, written in blue ink with my favorite Bic fine point pen. It was a startling reminder, however, to note the doctors’ appointments squeezed in last September between my routine tasks. On one day, highlighted in bright yellow, I’d written: “11:00 – infectious disease specialist, 1:30 – plastic surgeon, 6:00 – home infusion nurse” interspersed among “Arrange meetings with the potluck supper chairs, write thank you notes to welcome committee members, and prepare for wrapping paper sale.”

When school opened last fall, concealed beneath a blousy shirt, I wore a contraption affixed to my chest that enabled me to administer home IV infusions for a breast infection. My hair was lank and thinning. Most of it fell out by mid-month. Now, it is short, gray and curly. Curly! But for a few years in the eighties when I paid big bucks for a look that my husband said made me look like a poodle, my hair has been straight. I’ve been told my locks will return to normal, but it’s fun to glimpse this very different, apparently self-assured and sassy woman, in the mirror when I pass.

The self-assurance is an illusion and the gray hair gives me pause because I do look older. Photographs of brunette, ponytail-Lea make me wistful because that girl had no idea what lay ahead. And while I know that life was not always smooth before cancer, still, I realize I believed that in living right, I carried a shield; now I know I’m unarmed.

Dave argues me on that. He says in being tested, I discovered a strength, resilience and courage I’d not known I possessed, which is true. And while the Universe failed to sweep away those invading cells, it did mobilize my Dave, kids, friends and family to surge to my defense with fortifying love and care. Dave would say that is how the universe works.

This weekend, as has become tradition, Dave and I went to Block Island for the Race Around the Block. Need I say that I was not running? Dave’s brother Steve was the token racer and we went with the usual band of dear friends to cheer him on from the hill above Champlin’s dock while sipping mudslides, a delicious concoction of ice cream and rum.

Last year, I was bald and chemo-weak on race weekend. Dave had pulled a muscle in his back and walking was painful. It was cold and rainy, empathetic weather. I did not want to go, could not imagine the energy it would require to walk up the ramp to the ferry, much less ride a bike to the Narragansett Inn once the boat docked. But our friends were a powerful draw, so scarf-bedecked and limping, we went. It makes me teary even now to remember our arrival and the sight of those smiling, encouraging faces lined up at the wharf to greet us.

The year of cancer had another unexpected benefit: focus. As a student, if I’d given it any thought, my purpose was evident: to perform well in class and on tests. As a mother of young children, it was to provide healthy meals, tub times, cozy stories and plenty of snuggles. Since my kids left home, however, my purpose has been a puzzle producing a pit in my stomach, as I wonder if I’m on the right path. Cancer provided temporary clarity: I had to do what was needed to be healthy. Eat well. Exercise. Maintain my spirits. Avoid stress where possible. It was a relief to have a goal so clear.

I would like to say the disease taught me perspective, that I no longer waste worry on piddling concerns. Not the case. Intellectually, I have a better grasp on what is worth the twist in my gut, but I’d need a new personality to banish the butterflies and middle of the night mind rush.

The other evening, however, I sat at the top of the stairs and listened while Dave played his new electric piano. He did not know I was there. I was wearing a pair of olive green hand-me-down shorts from my daughter, Casey, plus a long-sleeved brown sweater. My feet were bare, toenails painted “Cherry Crush,” my favorite shade. On the white stucco wall beside me were two family photographs. In one, a wild-west tourist shot taken in Jackson Hole, Wyoming seven years ago, Dave wore a black hat and overcoat like Maverick in the old TV series. My son, Tucker, looked handsome and dangerous as a gunslinger, and Casey and I were gun-toting barmaids in lacy camisoles and feathers. The other picture, vintage 1975, was a portrait of Dave, me, Steve and his wife, Debby, plus my nephew, Christopher, at age two or so. All of us had long hair.

As Dave experimented with the new piano’s functions, adding a brass section and strings, the music swelled and soared. I could feel the house absorbing the sound, absorbing the moment, storing it in its annals, just as those photos held onto the people we were in ’75 and ’03.

Dave at the piano, me listening, unseen, on the steps. Both of us healthy, strong, loving each other, safe. Tears rolled down my cheeks because that inconsequential moment was so poignant.

And that’s what I’ve learned. Life is precious and I want to pay attention, with every sense open, as much as I can.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Wedding, So Sylvestro

Beyond the white wedding canopy trimmed with roses, sailboats sat motionless on still water. It was hot, too hot, and the heat was a presence as real as the sweaty guests pooled in their wooden folding chairs, waiting.

Murmurs, murmurs. What was the delay?

As yet, there was no sign of Trevor, the groom, nor his brother and best man, Christopher. The guests had been content in the air-conditioned club, sipping cocktails and snacking on bruschetta. But someone – who? – had urged them outside, to wilt, to melt, under the fireball sun. Behind programs fanning flushed red faces, people whispered, “What’s holding things up?”

Has ever a couple made it to the altar without tears over guests lists, stained gowns or bad weather? Glitches seem part of the process in this rite of passage. Still, the glitches for this wedding began months ago, soon after Trevor and Lisa announced their engagement in December. They’d been together for almost a decade, so unofficial plans for their wedding - a full weekend of festivities on Block Island - had been unfolding for years. It was a shock, hard to absorb, when Lisa discovered she was pregnant.

With regret, she canceled the big Block Island cottage with its expansive lawn, perfect for volleyball. She scanned the yellow pages for venues closer to home and found the Norden Club, right in Black Rock. She contacted a caterer to talk about menus, and re-thought her gown, both the style and the size. And with news of the baby, the significance of the wedding waned. It moved down the checklist, behind nursery renovations, doctors’ appointments and infant supplies.

After three months of migraines and nausea, Lisa finally felt great. She yearned to meet the little one rolling inside her. “I can’t believe, in a few months, I’ll be responsible for another human being!” Lisa told her friend, Casey, one evening. Possible baby names, along with words for her vows, wound through her mind like DNA strands.

In June, Lisa and her bridesmaids went to a spa for manicures and massages. That same month, Trev and his groomsmen went to the Adirondacks for some bachelor-type revelry. (The stories about that outing aren’t too clear.)

Trevor’s father, Steve, his uncle, Dave and his brother, Christopher, practiced the guitar parts and words for Paul Stookey’s “Wedding Song,” a family tradition since the seventies.

Lisa and her friends selected the bridesmaids’ dresses, sleek brown sheaths from J. Crew. The groomsmen submitted measurements for their tan cotton suits. After an exhaustive search in the weeks before the wedding, Lisa found and ordered ties for the men and sashes for the bridesmaids’ that matched the periwinkle blue color of the hydrangeas featured in the bouquets and centerpieces.

Each day after work, Trev attacked projects: the nursery, the bathroom, and the canopy for the wedding. He stinted on sleep, battled stress and chipped away at his list. He was delighted that Lisa had taken care of the bridal party’s clothing arrangements. Certainly, ties were the last thing on his mind.

Trevor’s Uncle Dave, an ordained minister of spiritual humanism, had been asked to perform the service. In crafting the words to be spoken at the ceremony, he mulled over themes of resilience, cooperation, persistence and selflessness, qualities he’d seen in the relationship between these two young people.

Meanwhile, a heat wave, relentless, set in. It was hard to move, much less carry a baby and plan a wedding.

The rehearsal was casual: tee shirts, shorts, flip-flops, pizza, salad and Dave’s home-brewed beer. At the Norden Club ceremony site, the bugs were vicious: insect repellent was added to the wedding day list. Christopher’s doberman and Lisa’s yorkie terrier, Riley, yapped, chased each other and scampered in circles. Then, Riley relieved himself, front and center, on the spot where the vows would be spoken.

Hence, another item for the list: leave the dogs at home.

July 24th. Wedding Day. The flowers arrived at the Norden Club right on time Saturday morning: a bright array of hydrangeas, but they were purple, not periwinkle blue. Hot, anxious and disappointed, Lisa sent them back. The florist apologized and promised prompt delivery of the proper shade of flower.

The forecast, too, had become a worry, for the plan was to hold the ceremony outside, on the harbor. The terrible heat was already an issue and, while the predicted thundershowers would be welcome in the evening, heaven forbid the skies open at 4:00, wedding time. Just in case, Lisa’s mother decided to nudge the service forward; a phone flurry ensued to get the word out.

And so, that afternoon, the guests sat beneath the broiling sun, waiting. 3:15. 3:30. 3:45. Some abandoned their seats and sought refuge in the shade. Water was passed and umbrellas fetched to shield those of fair skin.

What was happening? Everyone wondered.

Inside the club, Lisa was desperate, deeply concerned for family and friends baking in their chairs by the harbor. In her creamy crepe gown, blond curls tumbling over bare shoulders, she was weepy and wild-eyed as she spoke on her cell phone to Trevor, who was back at the hotel, searching for his tie (for that was the hold-up; it was missing.) She snapped her phone shut and hurled it across the room. “I’m marrying a moron!” she sobbed, while Casey dabbed Lisa’s eyes, trying to staunch a stream of mascara.


Meanwhile, Trevor was a man possessed. He’d checked and re-checked the place where Lisa said he’d find the tie. It just wasn’t there and time was passing. His father, Steve, called and growled, “Where the hell are you?” Poor Trev. Everyone was furious with him. He explained his quandary, “I’ve got to find that tie! Lisa wants everything to match.”

Steve said, “Get your butt over here. We’ll figure it out.”

4:15 at the Norden Club, out by the harbor: breathing was difficult because of the heat. At the head of the satin runner, the groom was in place, along with his brother, to the left of Uncle Dave. The parents, Deb, Steve and Diane, took their seats. By then, Steve was tie-less, if anyone happened to look.

Beaming and sweating, the attendants left the haven of the club and walked down the aisle. Lisa and her father, followed, herding Emma, the tiny flower girl, who solemnly scattered petals.

Christopher sang and Casey read a poem. Dave spoke of history and looking to the future. And no one heard the exchange, although they might have noticed a shadow passing over the bride’s face, as Lisa whispered to her groom, “Trev? The lost tie? It might be my fault. I think it’s in my drawer at the condo.”

Trevor’s smile never wavered and he took Lisa’s hand, for it was time to say his vow. “You’ve become my balance for life. You see right through me and without even trying, have made it easier for me to become so many things: the man here before you, a husband, a proud father… Lisa, you really are the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Lisa responded, “Trevor, you have brought out the best in me. You have given me confidence, encouraged me to follow my heart. You have taught me to look through the eyes of others. And you have been my rock.”

Later, at the reception, stories about the missing tie trickled out, passed with trays of crab cakes and cheese. Few realized that, after the ceremony, Trevor ran home to the condo, where he found the tie in Lisa’s drawer and hid it under the bed in the guest room. Better, for now, to take the blame, for he knew how crushed Lisa would be if the mix-up was her fault. Selflessness, resilience, cooperation, and persistence: traits to treasure in a partner.

And so, despite a host of unpleasant surprises, plans, problems and people came together, like the plaits of a braid, woven tight with love and a periwinkle blue tie.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Do-Over

As I walked into the office, my co-worker, Gail, looked up from her desk in surprise. “What are you doing here?” she said. “I thought you were going to school with Casey today.”

My heart sank. How could this happen? Each morning, my head spun with lists and to-do’s from the first touch of bare feet to floor, and my daily trip to work was so automatic that I had simply forgotten. Holding back tears, I raced to my car for the ten-mile drive back to my daughter’s school. “I’m coming, sweetie. I’m coming,” I murmured. Tears spilled down my cheeks, as I pictured Casey, forlorn and alone, amidst a happy babble of children and parents bent head-to-head over art projects.

Along Highland Road, up Broadside, across Senate Street to the intersection at Route 135. Red light. For god’s sake, change! And then the long haul up Morehouse Parkway, past the golf course, through two stop signs. Endless. Endless. Oh Casey, I’m on my way.

I swerved into the school lot, parked the car and ran through the front door, down the corridor, my heart pounding, my feet pounding, into the art room.

Watercolors of lions, horses, and houses with apple trees adorned the walls. Wooden easels, their supports splotched with reds, blues, and smeared purples running to muddy brown, stood like scarecrows at haphazard angles about the room. Racks of glass jars bristled with paintbrushes. Lumpy clay animals, pots and figurines crowded the counters. Around long, low tables, parents squeezed on under-sized chairs leaned close to their children, their fingers stained rust-red with terra cotta clay. And Casey sat next to an empty chair - empty because I’d forgotten this special invitation – head bowed over her project.

Fifty years have passed since that mad rush from work to art room and still I cannot think of that day without tears. For my parental sins did not end with forgetting.

“Mommy!” Casey beamed as I scooted into that empty chair. Without a hint of reproach in her almond eyes, she hugged me, then brushed her long brown hair away from her face with her wrist and explained the day’s project. “See those boxes of stuff in the middle of the table? You can use whatever you want. You stick ‘em in the clay to make a design! See mine?”

Mrs. Alderman, the art teacher, said hello and handed me a flat circle of clay about the size of a lunch plate. It was smooth and yielding, rich with the earth-scent I loved during my own school years spent rolling and pinching and shaping to produce a frog, an owl, or an ashtray. And I remember the satisfaction, the predictability, in knowing that the clay would be dry and ready to paint by the next class, another hour of quiet concentration spent dipping a brush into syrupy colors and dabbing a face to life, a flower to brilliance. Unlike a meal, a neat room, or a pile of folded laundry, clay figures lasted.

I studied the blank circle before me, perused the box of buttons, dried flowers, feathers and twigs, and planned. I selected a few items and began.

It was fun: the feeling of my fingers damp with moist clay, the scene I’d envisioned emerging before me, my daughter bustling cheerfully beside me.

“There! I’m done,” Casey announced. “D’you like it?”

“It’s beautiful, sweetie,” I crooned. “I love the way you made the grass.” She’d had a head start and I was not finished yet, so I turned back to my clay, my pine needles and feathers.

“Can I help you with yours?” Casey said.

I remember glancing at the teacher with a quick smile. What kind of smile? Did I have the sense to be sheepish? I can only imagine her reaction as I said to my daughter, “Mm. You made yours just the way you wanted and I think I’ll finish mine by myself.”

At age eight, Casey was content with my answer; it was, after all, a response an eight year old could relate to. And my daughter seems to have suffered little from my poor behavior that morning. I have apologized many times and at age ten, fifteen, eighteen and twenty, her reaction has been the same: a roll of her eyes and an exasperated release of breath. “Mom, relax. I don’t even remember any of this. Get over it!”

But I can’t. Because I want to re-wind. I want my younger self to inch over with a welcoming smile and make room for Casey’s clay-stained fingers touching my own.

In the years following, I have tried to make decisions based on what might create a meaningful memory. Do I want to remember that I attended a meeting or that I drove up to my son’s school with my husband to take photographs before prom night? Do I want to remember (or will I remember at all) that I cleaned the kitchen cupboards or that I accepted the spontaneous invitation for dinner with friends? Do I want a clay plaque that I made all by myself or do I want a messier, more precious, version that Casey and I made together? Oh, how I want that do-over.

Too often, I can’t find my purse, my glasses, a favorite necklace or my car keys, but I know exactly where those two medallions are now. They are buried beneath layers of off-season clothes at the bottom of a red wooden chest that belonged to my father when he was a boy. It is painful to look at the reddish clay discs, but I’ll never throw them away.

In order to write this, I dug them out and realized they are almost a match. One, crafted by Casey, age eight, the other by Lea, age thirty-nine. Both are imprinted with a border of circlets, a spray of pine needles to represent grass, and a twig to convey a sparse tree. The only real difference is in mood. Mine appears wintry, while Casey’s has warmth, for she added the sun, its rays drawn in deep, straight lines.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stages of Snore Response

Sleeping, once a reliable natural process, is now a nightly challenge, a precious luxury. Falling asleep on my own, without benefit of Ambien, is cause for celebration, even a childish pride – I fell asleep all by myself! And if I happen to achieve that goal, my initial drift into slumber is fragile. While it would not blend well with our colonial d├ęcor, after last night, a blinking neon “Do Not Disturb’ sign is something I’m considering for the bedroom door.

For the past two weeks, my husband, Dave, has been exhausted, stressed and gloomy. After an hour-long commute from work yesterday evening, he dragged himself in the back door and announced, “I’m going to bed early tonight.”

But, he did not count on the Celtics.

Following dinner, as I headed upstairs to book and bed, Dave passed me in the hall, his arms laden with hangers, slacks, and an iron. “The Celts are playing and I've got some ironing to do. Be up soon,” he said, planting a quick kiss on my cheek.

Apparently, his definition of “soon” differs from mine, because I washed up, wrote in my journal and read for a bit before turning out the light. And still no Dave. It must have been a long game.

Stealth is not Dave’s strong suit when he readies for bed. I was awakened from the pleasant sleep I’d managed to slip into all by myself by his thumping, teeth-brushing and flushing. A glance at the clock told me it was 11:45. Damn.

Evening toilet accomplished, Dave snuggled in beside me, threw an arm over my shoulders and dropped off to sleep within seconds.

Not me.

I took a sip of water from the cup on the nightstand, re-applied my Chapstick and pulled the covers up to my chin. Rats. I sort of had to go to the bathroom. Not too badly, but enough to think about it. Enough to get up and trudge down the hall.

Once I returned to bed, Dave’s night noises had increased in volume. He’d moved past soft splutters to a gutteral gurgle. It was amusing, actually, and I smiled as I curled on my side and closed my eyes. A gasping, snorting transition from gurgle to full-out snore stole the smile from my face and nudged me toward annoyance. “For heaven’s sake, Hon,” I whispered, perhaps louder than necessary. I poked him gently but firmly enough to put his snoring on pause. Only briefly.

Lying grim-faced next to the sound-machine in my bed, I practiced the conversation I planned for the morrow, a conversation in which sleep deprivation and lack of consideration figured heavily. With a shudder, Dave let loose a thunderous snore which drove me to press my fingers, hard, into a muscle in his back. A deep press. A press that bespoke my growing irritation. A press that made it clear I didn’t care if I woke him.

And he stopped snoring. In fact, he stopped breathing. For a while. For too long. “Honey?” I said, my voice guilty and concerned.

No answer, but his breathing resumed.

So, I knew he was fine, but that breathless silence reversed my mood. I thought past the snores, to the dear man with whom I share basil martinis on Friday nights, Sudoku on Saturdays and on Sundays, “Meet the Press.” I thought about our wonderful kids and thirty-five years of marriage. I thought about the cold, lonely silence that was the alternative to companionable snores. And so successful was I in my maudlin meanderings that I got a little weepy and cuddled closer to Dave. Despite the fact that he was still asleep, he stirred at my touch, kissed my hair and whispered, “Love you.”

One would like to think that this cozy scene ended with me soothed to sleep, all by myself. But no. Dave wheezed and grumbled while I tried to settle in and snooze, and finally, I reached for the Ambien.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Missing Home

In the 1950’s, home for my husband was in Worcester, MA, in a neighborhood with yards bounded by sidewalks where kids walked to school though drifts of leaves or snow. He grew up in a neighborhood where cars drove slowly because kids were apt to be in the road playing baseball. He grew up in a neighborhood where kids scoured the surrounding woods for detritus treasures left by the tornado of ‘53. And he grew up with Italian grandparents who spoke little English, but whose garden flourished with the eggplant, tomatoes, onions and garlic that when stewed and simmered, made a rich red sauce for Sunday dinner.

But in September, when he goes back to Worcester for his 40th high school reunion, he’ll have to stay in a hotel.

It wasn’t until Dave mentioned this for the third time that I thought to stop what I was doing and look at him. His eyes were soft and wistful; he was sad. We haven’t been to Worcester since 2003, when his father, Colombo, and Colombo’s older sister, Cam, moved to a senior community in Southbury, Connecticut. Twelve years before, his mother had moved south to be closer to Dave and his brother. And while Dave has many wonderful memories of his childhood, my sense was that when the senior Sylvestros left town, he’d moved on too, with barely a backward glance.

Apparently, I was wrong about that.

The topic had come up because of my plans to visit my parents in Bryn Mawr last weekend. I am supremely spoiled because my mother and father are alive, still married, and living in the house they purchased when I was ten. Both of my sisters live with their families only minutes away. When I go home, my parents burst from the front door at my arrival, waving their hands and blowing kisses. When I go home, it is to the same green carpet in the living room that has always been there, to the bedspreads that covered my Mom’s twin beds as she grew up in St. Louis, to the 1938 Roper kitchen range that was in the house when Dad bought it, and to the same tricky toilets that take ages to refill after a flush. When I go home, I feel secure as my little-girl-self in the stone Pennsylvania house shaded by the two-hundred-years-old copper beech tree.

I can still go home. I can drive down I-95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, shed the skin of wife, mother and grown-up, and slip gleefully into my old roles of big sister and daughter. It feels comfortable, easy, and familiar.

This particular trip south held an added bonus: my childhood friend Edie, now a resident of Washington state, was coming to visit her father who lives in the house that Edie grew up in, a house where I spent many nights talking about boys, dancing to Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and sneaking tastes of Edie’s mother’s home-made chocolate sauce, too tempting in the pot on the stove.

“I’m envious,” said Dave. “You’re lucky to be able to go home to your parents, your house, your sisters and Edie.”

I know this well; I cherish each visit home. Like some kind of crazy person, I caress the stair railing, pat the walls and even hug the copper beech to the extent that my arms can reach around its massive girth. At night, I lie in bed knowing my parents are just down the hall. I hear their voices and tense my jaw, my fists, my closed eyes in a prayer or incantation that all might remain as it is. Home is part of me, part of my footing, as it is for most people, I imagine. As it was for Dave.

During our years as a young couple, Dave and I split holidays and visits equally between Worcester and Bryn Mawr. While in Massachusetts, we would drive past playing fields where as a youth, Dave had thrown touchdown passes, hit homeruns, and pitched as if throwing strikes were easy. We ate mocha chip ice cream cones at Pinecroft Dairy, shopped for deals at Spags and in winter, skated on the pond at Elm Park. And of course, we would have Sunday lunch at Nanny’s, which became Cam’s house when her mother passed away.

Jack, Cam and Colombo’s brother, was the gardener and while he was alive, the lettuce in the smooth wooden salad bowl came straight from the garden outside the back door. Cam would add some olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon juice, maybe a little salt and pepper, and that was the best dressing you could ask for. She would make peppers stuffed with black olives, anchovies, capers and breadcrumbs. She made pasta with slow-cooked sauce that she topped with a sprinkle of crushed nuts. “Adds a nice crunch,” she would say.

Cam once said, “You are always welcome here,” and while she didn’t need to say it for us to feel it, I remember thinking how much it meant that there were still grown-ups to take care of me.

And Dave doesn’t have that anymore.

While I am still my parents’ child, seeking approval, occasionally hissing, “Don’t tell Mom!” to one of my sisters, Dave’s relationship with his parents changed years ago. We were married a year after Dave graduated from college and his parents divorced three years after that. We had thought them the ideal couple and it was a bolt out of nowhere when they separated. Visits to Worcester, for a time, were a balancing act as we tried to give equal attention to his mom and dad, avoid ruffling any feathers, and play it straight down the middle.

Dave’s mom moved to Connecticut while his father took an apartment on Harley Drive, literally a stone’s throw from Dave’s childhood backyard. Small as it was, Colombo’s new “pad” was cozy and, along with Cam’s yellow house at #3 Stratfield Street, felt like home.

When Dave and I dropped our daughter Casey off for her freshman year of college, I worried about my life without kids to care for. As we drove away, leaving Casey to four years of independence, fun and hopefully, learning, I was envious of the open field before her. You have an open field too, I told myself as we drove to Worcester for a night with Colombo. This is every bit a new life phase for you as it is for Casey. What do you want to do now?

What did I want to do? I’m still trying to figure that out, but at that point, holding myself together was the more immediate goal and staying with Colombo eased my yearning for the end of my hands-on mother years. For me, Colombo whipped up a strong White Russian – a tasty concoction of vodka, Kahlua and cream. He and Dave sipped Sapphire Blue martinis and watched the Red Sox on T.V. I felt soothed and cheerfully foggy in my spot on the mustard yellow couch that had been a staple in Sylvestro world for as long as I had been. While Dave’s anguish over our new status as empty-nesters was not as overt as mine, it was a comfort for us both to have a parent to retreat to.

Cam and Colombo have both passed away, but I know my husband is thinking of them when the Red Sox do something great or stupid and he’s itching to call them to hoot or grouse. And whenever Dave makes stuffed peppers or stuffed squid, there’s no question Cam’s looking over his shoulder.

“Honey? Forget the hotel. Why don’t we find a nice bed & breakfast and make a weekend of it when you go up for reunion?” I suggest. But Dave shakes his head. That isn’t the answer. It’s not so much the missing bed, roof, walls and place to stay, it’s the void where the smells of red sauce, the tang of Sapphire Blue, and Colombo and Cam used to be.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pride in the Waitin' - Part III

November 7, 2008

“Helloooo,” I croon into the phone, my voice ending in a singing hoot because Devore’s message indicated that her final GED, Science, went well. “So, you didn’t think the test was too hard?”

“No, it was okay. I had to use the process of elimination and all, but I think it went fine.”

“So, we have to wait a month to get the results?”

“Yeah, ‘bout that.”

“That’s going to feel like a long wait,” I say.

“I know, but my birthday is next week and that makes me happy. You know I always dress up in a skirt for my birthday.”

“Omigod. That’s something I want to see. I can’t even imagine you in skirt.”

Devore laughs. “Well, you come to the center on Monday and I’ll be dressed up.”

“I’ll be there! We haven’t spoken since Tuesday,” I crow, “Not since Obama was elected president!”

Devore and I have spoken often of Barack Obama’s historic campaign. In fact, we used his speech on race in America as the basis for several lessons.

“I waited two hours to vote,” she said. “The lines were so long.”

“It must have been quite a scene.”

“Oh yeah. It was a scene, alright. Kids on their cell phones, textin’ or talkin’. The old people had their chairs; they were sittin’ there with their arms folded across their chests. We were all glad to be there. In fact, folks’d see someone they knew waitin’ in line who’d offer to let ‘em cut in. But, they’d always say no. Everyone wanted to wait. There was pride in the waitin'.” I could picture Devore on the other end of the line nodding reflectively as she said this. She repeated, “There was pride in the waitin’.”

“I can see that,” I said. “In waiting, there must have been a sense that you were giving to the cause – giving your time.”

“Yeah. That’s it. Givin’ your time. You know what? I’ve been keepin’ all kinds of Obama stuff since this campaign began. I’ll bring it in so you can see it on Monday. Oh! And you won’t believe this. When I got home after my Science GED on Thursday, there was a piece of paper stuck to my boot. I thought it was litter or somethin'. Anyway. I pulled it off and it was a sticker. It said, ‘You did it.’”

Goosebumps course up my arms. “You’re kidding.”

“No. Honest to God, Lea. It said, ‘You did it.’”

“Wow. That’s a message from the Universe!”

“I know! Of course I kept it. I’m gonna bring it in to show you. I put it right in my scrapbook, with a picture of Obama. ‘You did it.’”



Epilogue

And she did do it.

On November 17, Devore received her test results. She passed the GED. She is now attending Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport to pursue a career as a juvenile counselor.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pride in the Waitin' - Part II

July 28, 2008

But for the baggy trousers, Devore could be off to a tennis match after class in her white polo shirt and baseball cap, although she’d have to swivel the visor around front to lose the rapper look.

She looks up and smiles when I give her a welcome-back hug. She’s already seated in a cubicle, writing in a math workbook. “So, how was your vacation?” she asks. “You look nice and tan.”

This woman always surprises me. I’m amazed by her good spirits. I had driven over today, my stomach in a knot, wondering which Devore I would find waiting. I had pictured the Devore of November 2006, defiant and blank-eyed after a grand mal seizure prevented her from taking the GEDs. It has taken almost two years of tutorials with me and her math teacher, four two-hour sessions a week, to get her back to that point. She’d planned to take the GEDs two weeks ago. Instead, she’s been shuttling back and forth to the hospital because efforts to wean her from a medication triggered a series of seizures.

“You’ve had a rough time lately, I hear,” I say as I flump down my book bag after slipping out the orange GED language arts workbook and a pack of vocabulary flashcards.

“Yeah,” she says, playing idly with her pencil. “Yeah. Did you hear about what happened?”

“Some of it. They were trying to cut back your medication?”

“Yeah. But it didn’t work out so well. I’d have a seizure; my sister’d call the ambulance; I’d go to the hospital; then they’d send me home after I rested a bit. But I kept havin’ seizures. I knew I had to get myself to Yale. They have my records there and I figured they’d know what to do.”

“I didn’t realize you’d been to Yale,” I say. “Did somebody drive you?”

“Nah. I took the train.”

“The train! But it sounds like you weren’t feeling so good.”

“Nah. I was pretty messed up. But I needed to get help, you know what I’m sayin’? Like I said, I had to get to Yale. So I got myself over to the train station. Got on the train. Told the conductor, ‘Get me off in New Haven.’ Luckily, it only cost $1.50, ‘cuz that’s all I had. And the conductor, he let me know when we got to New Haven just like I asked him to.”

I listen to Devore and imagine the scene: I see her in a polo shirt – maybe her lavender one - baggy jeans and her brand new white sneakers. She is foggy after the seizures and shifts in medication. Energy low. But resolute.

“How’d you get to the hospital?” I ask. “You said you used all your money on the train.”

She laughs quietly, “I walked.”

“No way.”

“Yeah, I walked. I kept goin’ up to people sayin’, Can you tell me where the hospital is?’”

Her eyebrows seem to frame her eyes like hands might cup a child’s chin. She repeats softly, “I just kept sayin, ‘Can you tell me where the hospital is?’ And I found it. They ran some tests and kept me overnight.”

“You’re so brave,” I gush. And I mean it. I don’t know that I could find my way to Yale-New Haven on a good day. I don’t know that I could get myself back to this school to work on comprehension and grammar after such a setback. I don’t know that I could walk a day in her new white sneakers.

I think back to the school’s recognition ceremony in June. Devore and I sat together in the cavernous auditorium of one of the city churches. The speaker, Sharon Lewis, had talked about “WHIGMIT” moments – “What have I gotten myself into?” moments. Moments when poor choices and listening to others’ negativism hold you back. “There’ve been times when I’ve been down and people I thought were my friends didn’t support me,” said Ms. Lewis. “At first, I was discouraged and hurt, but then I said to myself, “Maybe they don’t deserve to have a front row in my life. They belong in my balcony!”

One voice, Devore’s, called out, “Amen!” to a burst of appreciative, knowing laughter.

Following the speech, awards were distributed to those most improved and those who’d passed their GEDs. The silence was heavy beside me. Then Devore murmured, “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at 1:00. I gotta go.”

“What? Can’t you wait ‘til it’s over?”

“No. Gotta go.” And she was up and striding down the center aisle. Gone.

On my way out after the ceremony, I ran into Michele, Devore’s math tutor. “What happened with Devore? I saw her stalk out,” she said.

“She mentioned a doctor’s appointment, but she’d said nothing about it before.”

“I think she was upset. She had that face on.”

That face. Michele and I know that face.

At our next meeting, Devore said, “I s’pose I owe you an explanation. I was listenin’ to that lady talkin’ about her - what did she call ‘em? Oh yeah, WHIGMIT moments, and I was thinkin’ that I shoulda been up there with the others who passed their GEDs. I waited too long to go back to school. Even now, I listen to too many people who say, ‘Why you keep goin’ to that school?’ I shoulda been up there.”

Her expression is tight, not closed, but tight.

“Omigod, Devore. When else could you have started? You’ve been here at the school for, what, three years? You’re showing up. You’ve had to deal with seizures, family issues, personal issues. These aren’t excuses; they’re reasons. You’re right on time, given what life has dealt you.”

She looks at me thoughtfully and nods. “Maybe. Maybe I am.”

Meanwhile, two months have passed and her bout of seizures may have cost her a shot at this summer’s round of tests.

“Well, let’s do some work,” I say. “We’ll review your vocabulary. Between the month-long break and your seizure-wearied brain, it may take time before you remember all the words, so don’t worry about it.”

I flip through the deck, making sure that a few of the words she has told me she knows “to the depths of her soul” are near the top so she won’t be discouraged. I hold up a card and she nails it. I flash another and her answer is swift and correct. We continue on until the pile of words she has identified correctly is about double those she has missed. I hold up a card.

“Res… resil… hm. I don’t remember that one. Can you put it in a sentence?’ she asks.

I grin. I always use the same example. “It’s what you are…” I say.

She smiles back at me. “Oh yeah. You can’t keep me down. ‘Resilient.’”

To be continued...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pride In the Waitin' - Part I

June 6, 2008

10:00 A.M.

“I’m not lookin’ to aggravate you, Jane, but I wanna take the test. I’m tired of waitin.’ I wanna take it now.”

Devore’s eyes are dark pools, inscrutable, beneath the Corona baseball cap pulled low on her brow. The shoulders of her oversized navy sweatshirt are damp from her walk to the school through the rain. She speaks quietly, but with an edge of determination.

I watch as Jane, Mercy Learning Center’s director, studies Devore’s face.

Jane’s appearance is as no-nonsense as her demeanor. Her steel gray hair is close-cropped. Her striped oxford shirt and navy-blue slacks are business-like, but casual. She turns to me and says solemnly, “There are no cubicles available. I’m due in court in five minutes. One of the other students is sick and I need to make arrangements for her.” I can guess the thoughts that go unspoken. This is not a simple matter. I want Devore to succeed. The test-taking circumstances have to be optimal. Will the stress trigger a seizure?

Jane comes to a decision. “Okay Devore, you can do the science portion. It has twenty-five questions.”

To me she says, “I’ll set you up in an office on the third floor. She can have extra time, but watch the clock so that we get an idea of the time she needs.”

Devore tucks her head to her chest in agreement. She is smiling.


10:50 A.M.

Devore sits working at a round table by the window. She is focused, but her mood is light. Taking this practice test is a step toward getting her GED, or certificate of General Educational Development.

The Corona cap is on the table. A black do-rag stretches like shiny skin over Devore’s skull. She taps the test booklet with her pencil as she tracks each word and skims the bridge of her nose with an index finger.

Beyond the rain-spattered window, eighteen-wheelers and a steady queue of cars stream by on Interstate-95. From my seat on the couch, I am eye-level with the elevated highway a block away. The hum of engines, the strained kiss of tires to wet asphalt, the shriek of a chill wind probing for entry harmonizes with the ticking clock and Devore’s whisper as she reads.

She jiggles her foot. The table trembles as she erases.

The traffic slides by, hushhhhhhh, scattering water.

Devore and I met a year and a half ago here, at the women’s literacy center. She’d just turned twenty-two. Prior to our meeting, the director filled me in on Devore’s history. “She has a seizure disorder – multiple injuries and scars sustained from falls and mishaps during seizures. She’s served jail-time. Her father’s deceased. Her mother’s in and out of rehab. Two years ago, Devore was ready to take the GED, but suffered a grand mal seizure. After six months of treatment and medication, she needs stimulation. She needs to get her brain back on track.”

Out of my league! I thought. “I’ll do my best,” I said.

At our first session, Devore’s face was impassive. She wore a do-rag, low-slung baggy jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and heavy boots. Pink patches - burn scars - mottled the dark skin of her long, graceful fingers. Thin lines crossed her jaw and neck – more scars.

She has the face and statuesque frame of a runway model, but chooses to dress like a man. “I’ve always been a tomboy,” she says.

At that first meeting she made her goal clear. She wanted to pass the GED as soon as possible. She didn’t want me wasting her time with any childish stuff. I’d read some of the excerpts in the GED workbooks Jane had provided; there was nothing childish about them.

In fact, I worried that the material was too difficult for me. I like to think I’m smart, but I was stumped by some of the questions; I had to check the answer sheet at the back of the book at least once for every excerpt.

Would I be able to help this young woman?


11:25 A.M.

Devore continues to fill in the circles in the booklet. She looks up and says, “Miss, I might’ve messed up the order.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I erased some and I’m not sure if I put the answers in the right spaces.”

“Go back about four items and see if the answers match up.”

“Already did that.”

“Okay, you can do a full check at the end.”

Discouragement tinges her words as she adds, “I’ve only done half the items of this part.”

I glance at the clock. “Then you’re right on track. Jane figured it would take you double the allotted time and it’s been just over forty-five minutes.”

“Oh!” Her face brightens. “You’re right! I forgot I was only doin’ the science section. I was lookin’ at all these other columns.”

She bends over the table and returns to work.

As I wait, I think back over the months we’ve spent together, over what I’ve learned about this woman. Devore has described arguments with her sister, confrontations with her mother. “I speak my mind. I can’t just let things pass, y’know what I’m sayin’? People tell me, ‘Girl, you got attitude. You always have that face on.’”

I know the face they’re talking about. It’s the expression she wore at our first meeting. Closed. Sullen. Intimidating. A face without light. Dark eyes unreadable, seemingly all pupil. Jaw tight. Shields up, fighting mode.

For Christmas, I gave her a copy of The Secret. The next time we met, she said, “That book’s the bomb!” and she meant it in a good way.

We talked about the ideas discussed in the book: gratitude, the law of attraction, the fact that we can control our thoughts. From then on, we started each session reviewing the events of our week, specifically, things that had happened that made us happy.

One day she said, “I saw this nature show on TV. It was about butterflies and it showed their mouths. I was walkin’ the other day and I saw the same kinda butterfly. So I followed it to try to find its mouth.” She laughed. “People musta thought I was crazy! Runnin’ after this butterfly, tryin’ to find its mouth!”

Another time she said, “This boy in my neighborhood came home from shoppin’ with his daddy. He got out of the car with new sneakers on and he was proud of those shoes! He kept sayin’, ‘I got me some new shoes!’ All the neighbors were in the street and we were grinnin’ at him and sayin’, ‘Just look at those new shoes! Just look at those new shoes!’” She smiled at the memory.

I forgot, once, to ask about her week. She called me on it with a teasing smile. “You forgot to ask what made me happy this week.”

Truth is, I don’t see that closed face of hers very much anymore. I marvel at the strength of hope’s tiny flicker that could battle the harsh elements that created that face.

How has that flicker survived?

She has an older brother, “a fine man” who works hard to care for his kids. He’s the model and rock of the family. Devore also loved her father. “We had a good relationship. He came to visit me at least once a year.” Her grandmother, whom she loved, took care of the children when she and her brothers and sisters were too much for their mother. Another friend stepped in when the grandmother died. So there were arms waiting at every step. Devore has told me, “If you lose someone, I’ve learned there’s always a special person waitin’ to take their place.”

But still, rough kids harassed her when she was younger. As a result, her beloved cousin’s in jail. While defending Devore, he shot one of those kids. She writes her cousin faithfully. “He was just a kid when he went in. Twenty-six year sentence.” As I said, she’s done some jail-time herself, but we don’t talk about that.

She has a lot on her mind. “I wanna pass my GED. Get a car. Move outta Bridgeport.” She started taking classes at Mercy Learning Center three years ago. “People say to me, ‘You still goin’ to that place? What for?”

She knows to put those remarks into perspective. “Huh,” she snorts dismissively. “Those folks’re goin’ nowhere. Still. I’ve been here a long time. I’m ready to take this test.”


11:55 A.M.

Devore rests her elbows on the table and holds the booklet up, eye-level. She murmurs as she reads over her answers. Beyond the window, the trucks and cars, a gray-white stream through the mist of rain, travel north and south.

Two Poems

Going Down?

“We should be all right,” the pilot droned.
That raised an eyebrow. “Should”?
Seatbelt signs stayed lit, as the plane
lurched and swayed,
a small toy batted by winds.
I tucked my hand in the crook of Dave’s arm,
glad of his warm skin and his presence,
glad of the life we’d been given together,
hoping this night meant not
sorrow for our kids.

We laughed with the man in seat 21C.
He was broad and bald and jolly.
We laughed, the three of us,
at sitting together and not
with the gum-snapping
blond in 17B
who’d bitched and whined at
our flight’s delay.
“Won’t she be pissed if we go down,”
the fat man said.
And we laughed.



A Toast to Appearances

Alone at his table across the restaurant,
he smiles at our shrieks and guffaws.
He leans slightly forward
to better hear the joke
and maybe thinks back
to past raucous meals--
to the teasing and laughter of children,
to his wife, then seated beside him.

At our table, over pasta and fish,
we are carefree and happy,
it would appear.
But we were drawn to each other,
supplicants seeking comfort, as
a son, a husband and a wife are sick.
Hours have passed in waiting rooms
for news too often grim.
And so, with food and wine and friends,
together, we shoulder hard times.

We lift our glasses to the blessing of health,
and beam and laugh in company.
In his tweed jacket, seated by the door,
that is all the old man can see.
He lifts his glass, nods our way,
and smiles his toast to our joy.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Parkway Connection

I dial Dave’s cell number, as I do every morning, push the “speaker” button and set the receiver on the bedside table. As the phone rings, I tug the quilts off the bed to fold them.

As he does every morning, Dave answers, “Yo Baby! How you doin?” His voice is muffled by the murmur of the car radio, the whisper of road traffic, and his unpredictable Bluetooth.

“You’re breaking up,” I say as I pull the sheets tight and tuck them in.

“Just a sec,” says my husband. The radio quiets as he turns it down. The road noise is hushed as he closes his window. “How’s that?”

“Good. So where are you?” I thump the pillows and pull up the coverlet.

“Just passing exit 42.”

“Hm. Slow going, I guess.”

“Yeah. I’m zipping along at 10 miles an hour,” he might say. Then perhaps, “Great view. I’m stuck behind a Hummer next to a particularly beat-up carcass.” Or, “Asshole just cut me off. New York plates - big surprise.” Or, “The sunrise is amazing. Gold and rose on the treetops – too beautiful. Can you see it where you are?”

No, I can’t, because I’m making the bed at home while Dave drives the Merritt Parkway south to work.

When he leaves the house each weekday around 7:00 am, I’m still half-asleep. Since I lost my hair in September, I’ve worn to bed a lacy pink nightcap embroidered with rosebuds and vines. To block any light, it’s pulled low on the bridge of my nose. Dave’s parting view of his alluring wife, therefore, is lips, nostrils and a rosebud cap.

He kisses those lips and we both say, “Love you. Drive carefully.” It’s a ritual we take seriously, for if he doesn’t acknowledge the “drive carefully” part, I rouse myself enough to call down the hall, “Honey? Did you hear me? Drive carefully!” Consigning my dearest Dave to the oft-wacko drivers of the southbound commute demands faith and ritualistic blessings.

Usually, I climb from the covers at 7:14 – the digital age allowing a precise time check. On rare occasions, I make it to the window before Dave’s Volvo pulls out and watch as he walks to the car, his computer in one hand, his travel coffee mug with a piece of toast balanced on top in the other. Sometimes, I knock on the glass pane and wave. When I had two boobs, I’d grant him a quick flash and be rewarded with his wide eyes and broad grin. Generally, I give him about fifteen minutes to get on the parkway, then call around 7:30.

Once the bed’s made, I take the phone with me to Tucker’s old room. I lie on the floor to do my exercises, Dave chatting away from the black receiver leaning against the bookshelf while I stretch, count and breathe. Dave reviews road conditions, we relate any dreams of interest, and report on how we slept. Once we’ve covered the preliminaries, we delve into discussions of school issues and intrigues, our kids’ jobs and their significant others, cancer concerns, retirement plans, and - endlessly – my anxieties. What do people do without a partner so patient?

“Where are you now?” I ask periodically.

For a long time, one of the markers for Dave’s progress down the Merritt was a stunted pine that grew in the median strip. It bent this way then that, like a once graceful woman now twisted with age. It was Dave’s favorite tree. Last July, soon after my mastectomy, the tree was cut down. Dave understands; as a Merritt driver he’s conscious of limbs falling, but still, he misses that tree.

These car chats take place every weekday morning, even though we’ve just passed an evening and night together. But when competing with cooking, side-by-side keyboard tapping, a glimpse on the way out to night meetings, or phone call catch-ups with family and friends, presence is fleeting and taken for granted. During morning calls, despite radio crackle and my abs-work-out count, our connection is strong. We focus on each other and listen.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Done... Right?

At this point, I thought there was nothing the oncologist could say that would disturb me. I’m in the final stretch, after all. A month ago, perusing the mail, much less responding to emails, was overwhelming. My to-do list was a reproach on paper, for I had not the energy to visit the attic, much less sift through old paperwork, organize shelves and haul bags of cast-offs to Goodwill. I would make it through my workday and head home exhausted; running errands or attending a meeting afterwards was not a possibility.

Gone now the lethargy of those chemo days. I’ve straightened the attic and made that Goodwill run, relishing the pleasure of pounding feet and powerful legs with each dash up the stairs. After a day of work followed by a trip to the dry cleaners and the grocery store, I can’t help but smile when I arrive home, sling my purse over my shoulder, grab a shopping bag in one hand and a full complement of clean shirts in the other, then nudge the car door shut with my hip.

But for my edgy-lesbian butch hairdo, I’m back.

This busy, competent Lea is a much-missed old friend and oh, I welcome her! My chemo treatments ended in November, thank god, and the Herceptin drips, which will continue until August, have no side effects. I feel great and, to all intents and purposes, I am done with this cancer.

So I thought.

During my last visit, Dr. Lawden called me from the infusion room into his office for a consultation. I sat in a beige chair, my IV stand with its bag of fluid tethered to my chest by a thin plastic tube. The doctor asked about neuropathy, or numbness of the hands and feet, which I was delighted to report, was not an issue. “Still active?” he asked as if perhaps, despite his directive that I exercise forty-five minutes a day, I’d opted for indolence. I nodded, masking a mental eye-roll.

We discussed diet and sleep patterns and he checked my fingernails. I haven’t bitten my nails since I was a kid, but another charming chemo manifestation is wavy, peeling nails. Who knew? I find myself gnawing away like some anxious teen and my nails look awful. “Part of post-chemo recuperation,” he said.

With mutual smiles and the closing of a manila file, we wrapped up. I was on my way down the hall, pushing the IV stand before me, when he called, “Lea! Wait! I forgot to discuss the main purpose of our consultation.”

I had no reason to be suspicious.

“We need to talk about hormone therapy once your treatments are over,” he said.

“Hormone therapy?”

“Yes. Chemo is generally followed by a course of Tamoxifen.”

I’d heard of this drug, but it had nothing to do with me. I was done. I thought that after surgery and chemo any cancer that had a chance in hell of causing a problem was banished. I should have learned from all of this, however, that nothing is certain.

I am not one to talk back or question, and certainly not to a doctor, but I’d had enough of bad news and flattened spirits. “No one mentioned further treatments,” I said, my arms crossed defiantly across my chest.

My tone must have given him pause, for he said, “I thought I’d covered it; sorry if I didn’t. You’ve had a lot to absorb. I’m going to research your case some more. Weigh the risks and benefits…”

“Risks?” I cut in.

“Yes, well. As I said, I’m going to study your case and then we’ll review the specifics of maintenance.”

Maintenance? Damn.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Cat's Life

Our cat, Fuzz, is dying. Five days ago, he started refusing food, even the enticements of well-mashed tuna and the bowls of milk that he’d nibbled and lapped, listlessly, for a few weeks now.

I took him to the vet last month when his usual voracious appetite, the-appetite-that-compelled-us-to-feed-him-separately-from-his-sister-Raven-because-he-was-such-a-pig, had waned. Blood tests indicated kidney failure, so he was put on a diet of special food and anti-biotics. For a while, he loved his new regimen, but that interest faded too.

He is weak and disoriented. The soft gray-striped fur that once swathed a corpulent body hangs loose from his bony spine and haunches. He staggers to his water bowl, compelled by muscle memory perhaps, and sits and stares, without drinking.

Still, he surprises us. Even though we’ve been carrying him up and down stairs to spare him strain, three days ago I had to fetch him from the top of the water heater – a good six feet high. And more recently, after he’d slept for twelve hours straight and we felt sure the end was near, he jumped on our bed in the middle of the night.

When I hold my old friend, I can feel his heart beating beneath my fingers and I am moved to tears at the mysterious force that compels that rhythm, a force beyond health, beyond sustenance.

Sixteen years ago, Fuzz and Raven were born in our house of a lovely, but promiscuous black cat named Melissa. In her youth, she lived free because her owner was constructing a house across the street and the two camped out regularly in an old red barn on the property. Our daughter, Casey, befriended them both, but we cautioned her against loving a cat who regularly crossed a road. The builder, as it turned out, offered Melissa as a gift, but we were a dog family, and our 100-pound malamute, Kody, was unpredictable when it came to cats. Actually, she was predictable and that was the problem.

But, after a lengthy and cautious period of adjustment, the two animals made their peace and Melissa moved in with us. Soon thereafter, we noticed she’d gained weight. About the same time, we saw a handsome, rakish, lady’s man of a tiger cat hanging around the barn. Now that she was ours, Melissa’s days of outdoor roaming were over, but evidently she and the tiger had shared some good times. Our new cat was pregnant.

We loved to hold her as her belly grew, feeling the flutter-kicks of tiny kittens – new life! - beneath the rapid beat of their mother’s heart.

Our children, Tucker and Casey, were at school when Melissa announced it was Time. She wove about my legs, yowling, until I followed her to the spot she’d chosen on the third floor, a gap between the wall and an unused toilet in an unused bathroom, far from Kody’s keen nose. I gathered a large sturdy box and a wad of towels, fashioned a soft nest, and then dashed to the car to pick up the kids so they could witness the birth.

And so, we were there from the beginning when Fuzz, Raven, and their two siblings joined us in this world. Toby and Cow Pie found homes with my mother-in-law and a friend. Raven – ebony black like her mother, and Fuzz – a miniature of his wandering gray-striped father – stayed with us.

Even as the tiniest kitten, Fuzz established himself as the alpha male. He shoved his litter-mates aside while nursing and grew fat and brassy. There was no question that we would keep this adorable fluffy cat with his long white whiskers. Raven, meanwhile, was the runt; she would have died if we hadn’t held her brothers at bay to give her a chance at the milk. She is sleek, beautiful and elegant now, but as a baby she was scrawny and we suspected she might have brain damage.

Meanwhile, Kody seemed to sense that something new and alluring had taken up residence; she spent a lot of time sniffing at the door to the third floor stairs. But we were careful that the babies remained safe, away from the dog.

At least, most of us were.

It was Dave who introduced Fuzz to Kody. The cat was but a handful, and my husband was cuddling him when our malamute entered the room. Holding the cat cupped close in his hands, Dave allowed the dog a sniff and a peek. That was all it took and Kody grabbed the kitten by the head and tossed him in the air. Dave suspected his own days at the house were numbered as he reached out, terrified, to catch the baby as it fell.

But Fuzz was purring, unharmed.

An odd friendship formed with that first encounter. The two animals would nap snuggled together when not enjoying their favorite game, a re-enactment of their meeting, called “Kill the Cat.” As visitors watched, horrified, Kody would take Fuzz’s head in her mouth and swing him about on the floor… and Fuzz loved it.

As Kody neared her end, at the age of fifteen, the two cats kept her company, curled by her side on a royal blue dog bed. Dave snapped a picture of the three old friends together the day before Kody died, but the camera jammed. We assumed the picture was lost.

Weeks after Kody’s death, we picked up a packet of pictures at the camera store. As she flipped through the shots, Casey gasped and said, “Look Mom, they’re kissing you!” Somehow the lost photograph had survived, superimposed on another picture of me with two friends. Ghostly images of Fuzz and Kody flank me and appear to be kissing my cheeks. A loving good-bye from the Other Side.

While many cats are aloof, Fuzz is companionable and responsive. If a welcoming lap is available, he takes it. If a body is curled, cozy, for a snooze, he snuggles into the crook of an arm or the curve of a knee. If one of us is sick or sad, he can sense it, and arrives to offer warmth and comfort.

Of course, he and his sister leave us presents as well. Recently, I picked up a tuft of shredded beige yarn kneaded by cat claws from my grandmother’s hooked rug. I transferred it to my other hand and reached for another loose cluster on the floor. I was inches from the nondescript scrap of brown when I noticed the eyes. Two eyes staring at me, mid-scrap.

It was a mouse scalp with eyes. This is not the type of gift that I like, beloved cats.

Melissa passed away years ago, hit by a car when she slipped out a basement door mistakenly left ajar during a furnace cleaning. Tucker and Casey have grown up and left home. For awhile now, Fuzz and Raven have been the kids we come home to, but Fuzz is leaving soon.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Plenty of Company

Long before cancer threatened me, I fretted, worried and plucked at life. What was my purpose? Was I on the right path? My to-do list stared me down like a stern parent, hands-on-hips. While I stewed and roiled, others, it appeared, went smoothly through their days. My friend Gail listened kindly to my rants and cautioned, “Don’t judge your interiors by others’ exteriors.”

And then, in May, I received my diagnosis. Now I did have something to worry about. Fear and uncertainty shadowed my soul while all around was soft light, windows open, leaves pale green. More than ever, I felt alone as everyone else joyfully welcomed spring.

One Friday, Dave and I drove south on I-95 having left the hospital where I’d had an IV anti-biotic to combat an infection. Dave’s phone buzzed with a text message from our friend Sharon. He was driving, so I checked the small screen.

“A group from school is meeting at Ash Creek and she wants to know if we’d like to join them.” Mentally I leaned toward a knee-jerk no.

“What do you think?” said Dave.

To my surprise, I responded, “Might be fun. Let’s do it.”

We swung off the ramp and drove to the saloon. Our friends were gathered, as usual, at a long table toward the back of the restaurant beneath a punched tin ceiling, swooping long horns and a pair of mounted chaps.

As Dave and I pulled up our stools, we were greeted with broad smiles. Hallie was well into her cosmo, Sharon was sipping a margarita, Deb had a lemon drop martini and the boys – Matt, Steve and John – were polishing off a pitcher of PBR’s – Pabst Blue Ribbon beers.

The room was crowded with bald paunchy guys in tee-shirts and jeans, muscled young men in tee-shirts and jeans, and shapely women in tee-shirts and jeans. The air buzzed with good-natured chatter, anchored by laughter from our table at the end of the bar.

I gazed at my friends – happy, laughing, seemingly carefree - and thought that if I were anyone else in the restaurant, ours was the table I’d envy. But I know the stories behind each bright-eyed smile: Hallie and Deb have both lost sisters, Sharon’s best friend passed away last summer, Matt’s girlfriend is scheduled for heart surgery, and Steve has prostate cancer.

Of course, I had no way of knowing what worry the guy in the Grateful Dead tee-shirt tucked to the back of his mind while meeting his girl for a beer at Ash Creek. And the sassy woman with the full red lips chatting with the bartender? What might her silent sorrow be? Exteriors. Hm. They tell so little.

With my hands cupped around my margarita, I took in the scene: Hallie’s head thrown back in laughter, Sharon grinning, Steve and Dave touching mugs in a toast, Deb calling the club on her cell to sign up for spinning class. A warmth of understanding suffused me as I realized that we’re all in this together. We are each other’s comfort and company during the hard times that are, as much as love, part of life.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Weight Lifting

Rain taps at gutters and rushes through leaves, wet drops course down the windowpanes. At mid-afternoon, it is dark as dusk and I feel heavy and sad. Is this a reaction to chemo or to my barely fuzz-covered head? We’re supposed to go to Block Island today and I just want to curl up on the couch and cry.

For years, Dave and I have loved this annual “Race Around the Block” weekend when his brother, Steve, runs ten miles or so while we sit drinking mudslides, a frozen rum treat, with friends on a hill overlooking the sun-flecked harbor. Block Island is AWAY and since Dave’s father’s internment in the nursing home and Steve’s cancer diagnosis, this tradition has been a wonderful escape.

But this upcoming weekend has hovered like a cloud on my horizon. So much of the joy of being on Block Island - taking the ferry, free-wheeling with friends, riding bikes, and beaching – involves wind-in-the-hair fun. Involves an uncomplicated diet. Involves sun.

The label on my amber bottle of anti-biotics says “avoid sun.” It also says, “Avoid alcohol.” My oncologist has suggested I avoid fried foods, white flour, white rice and fats. That knocks out fish n’ chips, chocolate chip pancakes and ice cream – the usual Block Island fare. Avoidance plays a big role in my new regimen; Block Island is all about embracing – fun, friends, food, and wind.

That wind alone has me panicked. Usually, I love its many forms: the banshee wind shrieking through a crack in the window in the bathroom at the inn, the wild hair-tossing stream on the ferry, the soft, cooling, breezes while riding my bike past meadows yellow with golden rod. But I worry about wind and my head-gear options. I don’t want salt and damp to wreck my wig and I’ve only worn the scarf twice at home. How small a flick of wind would it take to carry that flippet of fabric away leaving me large-eyed, bald and mortified?

I hear Dave honk the horn in greeting as his car pulls up outside our house. I meet him at the door, watching as he walks stiffly after sitting in traffic for an hour and a half during his commute. I’ve washed my face, but still my eyes are swollen and red.

My public face is a source of pride. Even when despair has held me under, I’ve been told, “It must be nice to be upbeat all the time.” I’m skeptical of book passages in which moods are revealed in a character’s eyes. Hah. I know how easily they are masked. Unless allowed to be so, eyes are not windows, but I don’t have to fake it for Dave.

“I don’t want to be this sad person you come home to,” I tell my husband as he pushes open the screen door.

He slides his computer onto a stool by the kitchen counter and gathers me in his arms. I snuffle in his hair; my tears soak his shirt. At first, he just holds me, saying nothing.

“We don’t have to go,” he says quietly.

“But maybe it would be better to be with the others. Maybe I’d feel better once we were there. I just… I just… I worry about the scarf and the wind.”

“I know. Let me check the weather and the ferry schedule. My vote is we go tomorrow and settle in here tonight. We could do Chinese take-out for dinner.”

I whimper into his shoulder. “I’m not very hungry. How ‘bout a salad?”

“A salad would be perfect. I’m not hungry either.”

He has saved me again. Granted me permission to give in. Don’t need to be brave or cheery or chatty or strong or a good sport. What would I do without him? And that spurs a new onslaught of tears because I really don’t know what I would do without him. I am afraid to even peek in that shadowed corner.

Once I calm down, Dave goes to check the weather online and - he says with a grin – to change his shirt.

“No worries about leaving today, Lea,” he calls from his post at the computer upstairs. “They’ve cancelled the ferries.”

Saved again. I’m not to blame for this postponement: the heavens have given me leave to hole up.

* * *

We wake to overcast skies and drizzle. It’s 7:24 am. I still don’t want to go, don’t want to leave this cozy hollow between the sheets, don’t want to ride the ferry or my bike in the rain. Don’t want to meet up with friends while I’m wearing a scarf.

“What do you think?” says a snoozy Dave.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“Well, how do you feel?”

“Okay.” (I’m not being very helpful.)

“What if we skip the bikes?”

“Skip the bikes?”

“Yeah. Would you be more comfortable if we take cabs instead once we get to the island?”

I feel a trace of weight lifting. “Hmmm. No bikes. Usually that’s what I love about being there, but yeah. That’d make a difference.”

“All right. That spares me from loading the bikes on the car. I’ll check the ferry schedule again to make sure everything’s running.”

We get out of bed and Dave heads to the computer while I grab our rolling overnight bags from the hall closet. I turn to my bureau and open a drawer. One night only, but it could be wet, cold, or hot. A small pile mounts on the floor – underwear, shorts, capris, socks, a tee-shirt, flip flops. I’ll wear sneakers, a sweatshirt and raincoat for the trip over.

“We might have a problem,” says Dave as he walks slowly into the bedroom. His hips are skewed to the side.

“What’s wrong?”

“I ducked my head to miss the beam on the stairway and wrenched my back.”

Oh no. Dave’s back is tricky and once a year or so, it goes into spasm. His face is grim as he stalks rigidly around the room trying to stretch it out.

“This is ridiculous,” he hisses. “I chopped wood last weekend, worked out last night and exercised my back every day this week, and I can’t walk down the stairs without hurting myself?”

“Have you taken any Advil yet? Okay. I’ll get some. Plus an ice pack. Your bag is right there. What do you want to bring?”

“I can do it,” he says through tight lips as he hobbles to his closet. I dash from the room to get the ibuprofen and ice.

The ferry departs from New London at 11:30. Advil-stoked, ace-bandaged, ice-packed and breakfast-fortified, we set off from the house at 9:30. “We have plenty of reasons to stay home,” says Dave, “but nine reasons for going…” and he lists the friends and family awaiting us on the island, “Steve, Deb, Hallie, Buck, Len, Mary, Joan, Janet and Art.”

* * *

As the ferry rides to the crest of each wave and glides down into a trough before mounting the next swell, a number of our fellow passengers turn ashen. All the restrooms are occupied. White seasick bags appear like mushrooms after a spring shower.

I am chemo-punky, devoid of energy and enthusiasm, but blessedly not nauseous. We’d nabbed a booth of stiff red upholstered benches upon boarding and have spread our back packs, books and water bottles about on the table between us. Our overnight bags are tucked in close so as not to trip passersby. Dave is practicing mind-over-matter, willing his back to resist another spasm.

I pick up my book, but it is too tiring to hold the pages open so I give up and slump back against my seat. Dave writes a word in his crossword puzzle – in pen, in capital letters, as is his custom.

Four little girls race up and down the aisles, their blond ponytails bobbing and swinging. It’s exhausting even to watch them. A woman two rows over combs her abundant hair up into her fingers and wraps it into a knot. I bet she doesn’t think twice about all that hair. A young couple sits spooned together in the next booth. The woman wears a green plastic necklace festooned with four leaf clovers. Her eyebrows are raised, her mouth twisted in a grin as she peruses her issue of “Cosmopolitan.” How lovely to delight in something so simple as a magazine article.

After an hour or so, the ferry bumps into the dock on Block Island. Dave slides gingerly from his seat and shakes one leg. He adjusts his stance and leans over for his bag. “I’ll get it, honey, “ I say, reaching for the handle.

“You’re not supposed to lift anything either,” he says, but actually, it makes me feel better to help. What a sorry pair we are, crooked, scarved, tremulous, and irritable. I’m glad our kids aren’t here to see us reduced to this gimpy, wincing couple.

We follow the line of passengers down the metal staircase, onto the deck and out to the pier, our bags clattering on wheels behind us. Standing at the end of the walkway, behind a portable fence, are all nine of our reasons for coming, waving to us in welcome.

My sister-in-law, Deb, comes forward to hug me and whispers, “I spoke to Kathy at the Narragansett’s front desk and arranged for you to have a private bathroom at no extra cost.” I am wordless with gratitude. Usually, we use the communal bathroom in the hall and I like the youthful flexibility that implies. But the side effects from my anti-biotics make a convenient bathroom desirable and I had worried about lines of disgruntled guests forming as I monopolized the restroom.

But Deb has taken care of that - another worry gently taken from me.

And then, a literal lift, Joanie grabs my bag and hoists it to her shoulder.

“You’re so dear,” I say, “but it’s light. I can handle it.”

“I know you can, but let me do this. It would make me happy.”

And so, for a moment, but for the weight of fatigue, I am unburdened. Still, there is the matter of transport to the inn. I wonder where we catch a cab?

“Hey babe. I’m going over to check out the mo-peds,” Dave has left his bag with Art and is limping across the driveway to the awning-ed shack that houses the rental shop.

“Are you kidding? I thought we were going to take taxis.”

“Nope. I want to be mobile.”

A few pounds of worry re-establishes residence on my back. To the perils of wind, I add speed, accidents and helmets. “Dave…”

“Relax. It’ll be fun.”

I feel limp and out of place, a gypsy refugee in a lavender paisley scarf. Dave is gone. The others have not moved, but the mood has shifted to one of next steps. Their bikes are lined up, ready to go.

“Um, I guess we’ll catch up with you at the Narragansett,” I say, turning toward the rental shack.

“Okay,” sings the friend-chorus brightly. Easily, they spin their bikes around, flinging legs up and over to mount up. Oh, the energy. Was I ever that light?

Dave is checking out helmets when I reach him at the shop. Having made his choice, he heads out to the parking lot. Listless, uninterested, I try one heavy, ill-fitting black shell after another. Oh, who cares. This one will do.

Out on the lot, Dave is riding a snappy-looking silver mo-ped. He circles cautiously, then applies a hint too much gas and whacks into the barricade of hay bales lining this section of the parking lot. He stops and grins, singing out, “C’mon babeee! Get on!”

I am ever attuned to my husband’s moods and I perk up at his obvious cheer. Once the rental agent is satisfied as to Dave’s driving competence, he releases us to the road.
I hug Dave’s back, my arms around him, my hands tucked into his belt, a motorcycle mama in a scarf and black helmet.

“I love having you close like this!” Dave yells over his shoulder as we skim past Victorian hotels, strolling tourists, tiny boutiques and the sea. Life is all around me and suddenly I realize that my own is not on hold for the next three months. Pills, chemo and worry may be part of my days, but friends, outings, mudslides and mo-ped rides are still mine to savor.

Agile and free-wheeling with the aid of a motor, Dave laughs with the joy of the ride and I smile into his back.

Where has the weight gone? It, too, has taken off.