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.