Monday, September 30, 2013

Circle Unbroken

We heard their laughter and the lyrical rhythm of island accents before we saw them.   Two women - one with red lipstick and long hair, the other with corn rows tight against her scalp, both with cocoa skin - had struggled to sit atop a massive boulder on the lawn below the lighthouse and above the sea. Their male companion stood before them, holding a camera at arm’s length. Happy people on a glorious day, I thought and smiled to myself at their joy.

 “Would you like a picture of the three of you?’  Dave asked.  Naturally, they were delighted by his offer.

After they’d checked out Dave’s shots from their perch on the rock, the woman in cornrows, Ann-Marie, I soon learned, twisted toward me and said, “Is he a photographer?  Just has a way….”

Her friend, Maxine, slid to the ground and strolled over to where I sat nearby on the grass. “We have reason to celebrate,” she volunteered.  She nodded toward Ann-Marie and said quietly, “A year ago, I was with her when she had surgery.”

A few years back, I would have left it at that, but since I’ve had cancer and Ann-Marie is a woman, I said, “What kind of surgery?”  Given the statistics, it was almost a formality.

“Breast cancer,” she replied, and the sadness is, I wasn’t surprised.

When Ann-Marie joined us, I told her of our bond and hailed her as a sister.  Her nice-stranger-smile deepened to one of connection, and she hugged me tight, a hug infused with shared fear, relief, hope, and gratitude, then she settled to the grass next to me, just barely loosening her hold. 

I was half in her lap, my hand in hers, as the five of us spoke for close to an hour.  “During diagnosis and treatments, it was the circle of love that kept me going,” Ann-Marie said as she smiled at Maxine.  “The circle of love is essential.”  With our hands still clasped, her eyes locked on mine, she added, “There is no coincidence in our being here, together, in this place.”  And I knew she drew strength from our companionship in cancer, just as I had from Joanne, Dede, and Wendy.  The disease and fear might have been ours to fight as individuals, but we were not alone.

Nor were Dave and I alone this weekend; we had a date on the hill above New Harbor, so it was time to mount up.  Dave took group pictures, we exchanged emails and hugs, our three new friends headed to the lighthouse for a tour, and Dave and I retrieved our bikes for the ride back to the hill.

 For over a decade, our September Block Island gathering has served as escape and celebration. In 2008, the route to Point Judith was tagged with evacuation signs and cars, countless cars, heading the opposite direction as a hurricane blew in.  Did we postpone?  No!  Otie and Janet made the trip from Pittsburgh a day early just in case, and our Connecticut contingent barreled ahead, thrilled at the prospect of howling winds and pounding surf.  There was one brief moment on the way up, after we’d passed the third evacuation sign, when I thought, are we being stupid about this?  Forget about it!  All aboard!

In 2009, the weekend fell during my second round of chemo-loser days.  I’d just lost my hair and felt logy and sad, plus it was windy and rainy and I worried about errant gusts stealing my scarf.  Dave had thrown out his back and we were a gimpy, pathetic pair – not our usual BI selves.  The Friday ferries were cancelled, so we made the crossing on Saturday; the rest of the group – Hallie, Buck, Steve, Deb, Len, Mary, Otie, Janet, and Joan – had taken an earlier boat.  They met us at the dock, a receiving line of loving friends.  They relieved us of our backpacks, and Dave and I rented a mo-ped, a motorized means to free-wheeling, so we could keep up.

Every year, on the Friday of departure, there’s the ordeal of the white-knuckled drive down I-95, zipping along at 15 mph through rush hour traffic to make the last ferry.  Once that ferry pulls from the pier, however, there is water between us and …everything else.  Water between us and worry.  Water between us and doctors.  Water between us and the ability to take care of to-dos, commitments, and concerns. Through Steve’s diagnosis, Colombo’s strokes, hurricanes, and my cancer, Block Island has been gloriously and blessedly AWAY.

I hesitate to speak to my Sylvestros of God, but this weekend, that of Steve and Debby’s 40th anniversary, I sensed His hand in the brilliance of the sun, meadows of golden rod glowing yellow, sapphire seas, and blue skies swirled with playful wisps of clouds, a setting fit to honor four decades of marriage.  

By the time Dave and I pedaled up, most of the others were on the hill, spreading blankets on the grass, hauling a ponderous picnic table to a level spot, opening bags of chips - tortilla and potato - and the requisite containers of hummus.  While mudslides – a frozen chocolate/coffee/rum confection– are always the drink of choice, Hallie was also chilling champagne.

What would be the afternoon’s format?  No one was sure.  While this time together on the hill was a given, the anniversary layer was uncertain.  A few weeks before, Deb mentioned to a few of us her wish to renew her wedding vows.  “When we got married, I said the words I was supposed to say, but I was a kid. I didn’t get it.  Now I do.  It’s not always easy.  You have to work things through.  It really is ‘in sickness and in health.’ After forty years, I know about commitment.  I’ve lived what I vowed.”

Steve, I’d heard, was not so sure about the renewal of vows piece, but he’d bought Deb – forty years later – an engagement ring, and today, he would present it. 

Others had planned their own presentations.  Moo had flown in from New Mexico, her first trip to the Block.  She’d done some research on traditional 40th anniversary gifts and had something hidden under a sweatshirt in her bike basket.  Nelson and his wife Ann had also joined us, and Nelson had worked with the island to create an appropriate gift. 

Steve and Deb’s son, Trevor, had thought the celebration was the next day.  Oops.  So, as the rest of us chatted and sipped mudslides, Trevor sat eyes and fingers to phone, working on his toast while his wife, Lisa, and soon-to-be-three daughter, Ava, spilled packets of colorful sand on paper, preparing a bee-u-ti-ful picture. 

Because Dave is an online-ordained minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanism, a justice of the peace, and Steve’s brother, he was chosen to orchestrate events, whatever those events might be.  After Ava changed into a pale blue princess gown and donned long pink gloves with the help of two young courtiers enlisted at the playground, Dave rose to chorale our attention. 

Until he spoke, we were scattered, small groups on blankets facing this way and that, but when Dave began to speak, we naturally formed a circle, a circle of love.  Deb and Steve were the focus, at the head of the circle, but in a circle, actually, there is no head, so all the words spoken of lasting love and friendship were spoken for all of us, everyone in that circle. 

Steve’s white mane, Deb’s river of blond hair, a circle of sunglasses, a circle of soul-deep smiles that have beamed at each other and at these two people for most of those four decades.  There have been losses, hospitals, worry and nursing homes, but there’s been traying at Trinity, cheering at races, work at Eagle Hill, hunkering down for hurricanes, dancing at Captain Nick’s, trips home for the holidays, weddings, Trevor and Christopher’s concerts, strumming guitars, playing with Ava, and this shared weekend on the Block.  How does that translate into words?

We tried… with laughter, stories, tears, and hands to hearts.  We spoke of Steve and Deb’s love, their courage, their example, and their role in bringing us all together.  Dave, who accompanied Steve and Deb on most of their dates and followed Steve to high school, college, and Eagle Hill, relayed a dream in which Carolyn, our recently departed friend, told Dave “True love is a gift,” thus giving him his message for this day.  With great ceremony, Moo unwrapped her offering: an eggplant engraved with “Happy 40th Anniversary.”  Nelson unveiled a rock-solid symbol of love, a rock, in fact, found on the beach, shaped like a heart, and signed by each person in the circle. 

Trevor waited until everyone else had said their piece, then mused aloud, “How do I say thank you for all the love and caring over the years?  How do I repay all the sporting events, girlfriend advice and all the hours you lost when I was late coming home (or would fail even to come home)? What can I give you for all the times you supported me in my triumphs, and provided a shoulder when there were losses? What present is there for all the times we just sat together and shared…whatever? How do I thank you for the guidance when I was unsure of my way, and your restraint to allow me to find it myself? You nurtured my growth, yet allowed me my independence. So… what gift is enough for two kickass parents?

The answer came to me today. And no box can hold it, no wrapping can cover it.  No store had it on a shelf. My gift is not to you, it is to my little girl. I promise to care for her the same way you did for me.
And someday, just maybe she'll say, ‘How can I thank you -- for all you've done for me?’
Hopefully I get the chance to tell her, ‘Don't thank me. Thank your Mimi and Poppy. Because I'm the product of their love.’”

Whooshhhhhh.  Tears.  Tears around the circle.  Every one of us wiping eyes and cheeks as Steve and Deb reached out to their boy for hugs.  And then, thank God, Deb requested a bathroom break before the boys brought out guitars to sing.  Trevor called his brother Christopher, in Arizona, who spoke to his parents and sang along via speakerphone, as Otie, Dave, and Trevor played the Wedding Song, as it had been played at the marriage forty years before. 

And that would be a good place to end, a moving place, but Nelson emptied and upended a beige plastic ice bucket, now a drum, and joined the musicians.  Steve whipped out his harmonica and Len scrolled through words on his cell for round two of the festivities: Sloop John B, The Boxer, and Shanty.  A gleeful blond princess whirled to the music, arms outstretched as her own kickass parents looked on.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Summer Reflections Part III - Envy?

  It is an August evening, close to 6:00, yet the sun is warm, so the beach is busy despite the dinner hour. Lying on towels, teenagers bask, text, or chat while swimmers loll in the water, rising and falling with the rhythm of the waves. Sand castles dot the beach.  Some, tide casualties, are water-rounded and misshapen, like all ruins once of man and eventually returned to earth.  But around those under construction, there are shouted directions and discussion as crews of young ones haul and dump buckets of wet sand to smooth turrets and walls into shape.

Wearing neon orange trunks that match the shade of his shovel, a small boy bends to scoop sand from a widening pit dug just beyond reach of the sea’s frothy fingers.  His baby sister, in a purple suit with criss-crossed straps, sits in the hole.  Their father, ankle-deep in water, hands on hips, gazes toward the horizon while Mom sits on her haunches, forearms on thighs, smiling at the children.

These little ones do not look like my sisters and me, but there is an aura of the sixties in the scene, and the late summer sunshine bestows a halo of sepia memory to the present.    Wistfully I imagine the three of us playing with my cousins on this same beach five decades ago, with my grandmother Byeo, Mom and Dad, Uncle Ding, and Aunt Barbara relaxing in their chairs under an umbrella.  The leap to little Tucker and Casey is even easier: the baby with her dark hair and almond eyes, the boy’s lithe form, prominent shoulder blades, and possessive stance as he surveys his work.
Dave and I lounge in our beach chairs, the Boston Globe and my book within reach.  Oh, we are relaxed, and it’s possible, perhaps probable, that the young parents eye us with envy.  We are enviable, with our books, drinks, and serene companionship; no kids to watch over and entertain.

How I remember lusting after such leisure while grappling with a cooler of snacks and Capri Sun juices, a diaper bag, toys, towels, and a playpen.  The playpen was absurd, of course, ungainly and unnecessary, but I was young.  Sigh.  I was young, lithe myself, with unspotted skin, and two little ones to watch over and entertain.  Even then, I recognized how precious the time was and tried, I tried, to freeze it. 

Beach days were tiring, but joyous.  Dave and I would dig, scrape and sculpt a sand car big enough to hold two diminutive drivers and keep them happy for hours.  Well, no.  Maybe for a quarter hour at best.  And then Tucker would head off, delighted to be exploring on his own, at least while within range of a quick parental jog.

Casey loved the beach, but hated bathing suits.  She’d start the day in an adorable skirted stretchy outfit, which she’d soon wriggle out of and refuse to wear.  So she’d sit on a towel, a sweet round nudie, feeding herself shovels of sand.  Our little flower. 

When the kids were a mite older, Tucker’s Crab Restaurant was a favorite activity, usually at Dave’s suggestion.  We’d clamber gingerly over mossy rocks bathed by incoming rushes of water.  Tucker and Casey would squat like frogs, peering into tide pools, feeling under stones to tug glistening purple-black mussels free from their seemingly safe nooks.  The kids would crack the shells and submerge the soft insides to entice and feed the scuttling crabs.   

Now I stretch back in my chair, a folding backpack model with a pouch big enough to hold towels, sunscreen, and snacks.  I watch the young mom as she wades into the water with the purple-suited baby on her hip.  Chubby feet hitch up as tiny toes touch chill water.  The child’s eyes are wide, uncertain, afraid, and then she squalls, as the mom dunks her up to her shoulders. Yes, I am envious of her with her little ones to watch over and entertain, but that squall prompts a flash of whiny, less enjoyable moments.  Like childbirth, I’ve forgotten most of them.     

Our current status has allowed us a summer glorious in its wanderings, flexibility, and freedom.  We attended two weddings in June, a reunion in Maine with my Farmington friends, and a gathering with Trinity friends.  We visited Charlie and Joanne in New Hampshire, Tucker and Lisa in Boston, and, a tradition we are fortunate to have every summer, spent time in Weekapaug with family. While I strive to live in the present, I’ve felt grounded in these re-connections and the reminder that I’m not just 60-year-old-Lea, but the sum of events and people, and the girl and woman I have been in relationship with them.  Each phase has held joy as well as challenges, and what a blessing to say honestly – and perhaps with a trace of wonder – I am content where I am.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Summer Reflections - Part II - Shark Week

Since her college days, our daughter Casey has loved PBS’s Shark Week.  She says her obsession with the series began as an effort to ease, or at least balance, her morbid fear of the prickly-toothed beast.  That goal has not been realized, but when Shark Week is broadcast, Casey is on the couch in front of a TV.  It was a triumphant moment when I discovered a birthday card for her last year that depicted a cartoonish shark in just that pose, remote control in hand (or in fin, I should say) gleefully exclaiming, “Yay!  It’s ME week!”  So very Casey. 

For those who do not know, this week (that of August 5) is Shark Week.  Today, as Casey and her boyfriend PJ join Dave and me on the beach in Weekapaug, from the safety of the sand, we chat about the previous night’s show and scan the expanse of ink-blue water in search of dorsal fins or ominous shadows.

“Jaws” came out soon after I graduated from Trinity College.  I’d spent the summers of my freshman and sophomore year working on Martha’s Vineyard, which is also the setting of the movie.  One of the minor characters, a young guy who enjoys a drunken romp on the beach with a shapely blond who gets chomped by a great white early in the story, also went to Trinity.  Two too many parallels for me, and I was shaken.  Shaken to the extent that, to this day, I never swim underwater without some anxiety and the “Jaws” theme drumming in my head, and I never go into the water without first surveying the seas before me.  “That won’t help you, Mom,” says Casey.  Chock full of info from last night’s show, she adds, “They’re fast.  They come right up beneath you.  You’ll never see it coming.”

Great.  Thanks Case.

Dave nibbles pistachio nuts, grins maniacally, and flips the shells into the breeze, trying to land them on his daughter.  Relaxation is not Dave’s forte and if there is not a game of some sort in play, he creates one.  “Pistachio Provocation” is a favorite and he is endlessly entertained by Casey’s good-natured annoyance as shells catch in her hair, skip off her arm, and settle on her stomach.  “You’re a child Dad. ” she says with a snort.  “Beyond irritating.”

That’ll stop him. Not.  For Dave, such an admonition is bait, if you will, akin to the scent of seal to a shark. 

Meanwhile, PJ has been on his phone doing research on shark attacks.  He rattles off statistics that trigger my animal rights sense of injustice.  “In 1996, 43,000 Americans were injured by toilets, and 11,000 by buckets and pails.  Only 13 were injured by sharks.    You are far more likely to be killed by a toaster than a shark,” PJ continues.  “600-700 people die each year in toaster incidents versus 20 people killed by sharks.  And domestic dogs?  50 deaths per year.  But get this, for every human killed by a shark, 2 million sharks are killed by humans.”

I have no love of sharks and wish no one a maiming by those gruesome teeth, but those numbers really piss me off.  “Whenever animals kill humans, they are branded vicious killers and hunted down.  What about the innocents we slaughter every day, all the pigs, calves, chickens and baby lambs?”

There is a pained silence.  Buzzkill.  I’ve turned a little enlightenment into a soapbox moment, but still, I think I have a point.

With sighs, we turn to gaze out to sea where we spot movement, a swimmer, as it turns out. With our eyes, we follow her path as vigorous strokes propel her toward the horizon.  Finally she swings left for a lengthy lap along the shore. With admiring nods, we applaud the woman’s courage and style, but decide her bold embrace of the sea indicates she is probably not spending evenings enthralled by tales of the gaping maw of the megaladon on PBS.