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Flow

19 Feb

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“We Americans are trained to think big, talk big, act big, love big, admire bigness but then the essential mystery is in the small” — Jim Harrison

We were away, and it was much needed.  Doubt had crept in.  Our little world had taken a turn and much of the unspoken support we relied upon had become suspect.  Along with the broken snow shovel and old clothes, friendships had become frayed, and as if we were traveling familiar terrain in an unexpected snowstorm, we had come up short, lost in a sea of white, unsure of the direction home.

Walking along the Delaware, we swap Heath’s camera back and forth.  The hills are quiet, and the river speaks a language I don’t know, hiccuping, groaning, and burbling its way through a world slowly becoming solid.

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We see things differently.  Heath fascinated by the small and near, while I look for sweep and curve, trying to take it all in.  But his eye is good, finding the beauty at his feet while I continue to scan the horizon.

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Comfortable with the stillness of the day, he’s a pleasure to walk with.  The incessant banter of our life at home has settled down, and we listen to the water and the wind as he walks on, stopping occasionally to look around, as if searching for signs.

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Watching him, I search for signs myself.  What does he see?  In a brain whose synapses gather and splay like a flock of birds, what does a snowy day in the Catskills look like?  How does it feel?

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People are hard, and those that appreciate us are rare.  That’s true for anybody.  The natural world, though, that’s something different.  Perhaps it’s where we can best appreciate ourselves.

I hand him back the camera and he snaps the shutter, catching me unaware.  Taking a moment to check the image, he nods, and walks on.  I catch up, and walking beside him, we follow the river home.

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The Distance

6 Oct

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“It isn’t what’s left to do at the end, it’s the things left unfinished along the way.”                                                     — Deadwood, by Pete Dexter

Driving in darkness, I hug the road as it rises and falls through the night.  We plunge downward and as trees blow past, I am in a mountain pass, my mind creating walls that can’t possibly exist, for this is Wisconsin, and surely we are surrounded by farmland.  But the road tells a different story.  Veering right, my headlights glare off the window of a small cabin before sweeping back to the asphalt, trees, and the staccato white line I desperately try to follow. Tired, I flash my brights whenever possible, scanning for those little bounces of light along the roadside.  Because the deer are out there, and tonight they’re feeling lucky.

*     *     *

When we were kids, my siblings and I would occasionally find mom face down on the laundry room floor.  Familiar with the situation, we would stand around her.

“Mom?  Mom?  We know you’re joking mom. Mom?  Come on, mom, get up.”

And still, she would remain motionless, to all appearances having suffered some sudden cardiac episode.  This would continue until someone’s voice took on an edge of panic, and then her body would begin to quiver, the movement growing ever more convulsive, until, finally, we’d realize she was laughing.  Releasing the sound as she got to her feet, she’d laugh so hard tears would come to her eyes.  And while down through the years this story has been met with universal horror, it’s always made me proud.  Even at a very young age, when it came to death, no babies we.

 *     *     *

Having eluded the deer, and found our hotel, we continue on the next morning, refreshed.  Unable to find a diner in downtown Janesville, we settle for a chain restaurant out by the highway, the kind of place where the portions are huge, but it seems they occasionally run soup through the coffee maker.

Chicago is Chicago.  Rain, road construction and the slow tide of humanity crawling down through the northwest suburbs, past the rusty overpasses and the neighborhoods of my youth.  Occasionally I miss it.  There’s no better place to make friends, and of course it gave me Amy.  But nevertheless, Chicago and I never warmed to each other.

Back on familiar ground, we fly.  The Skyway, Gary, and around the lake into Michigan.  That great gray swath of the world where the steel plants have been silenced but the smoke never seems to go away.  Cars, campers, exits and boats; a great world of motion that always seems to be going fishing.

And then we’re at Mom’s house.  A quick repacking, hiking boots and dirty clothes boxed up to be dropped in the mail, and off to the airport.  But even before I reach the counter, they tell me my flight has been canceled.  The storms, currently raging over Lake Michigan, have followed us all the way from South Dakota.  There will be no flight home tonight.

 *     *     *

When my father died I was not nearly so well prepared as I’d imagined.  It effected me in ways I still don’t understand.  I know it created a distance.  A safety zone, as it were, from the people I love.  My kids have chopped this down a bit by simply refusing to recognize it.  And Amy, trail-blazer that she is, has grown familiar with the terrain, and is willing to cross it when I cannot.  But my mom, my sister and my brothers are still out there, loved, but at the distance they were placed by a fourteen year old who could not bear another loss.  Each of us, in our ways, living these past 38 years with slowly mending hearts.

But we’re not alone.

From the unexpected death of Amy’s father, which started this journey, to friends along the way, and their stories of prairie wind, blinding snow, and the sudden loss of the people they’d thought to spend the rest of their lives with, we are not alone.  From the families of others, further back, buried beneath the mud of a collapsing dam, to the loved ones of those lost in the violence of a place and time that valued gold above human life, we are not alone.  And with the stories of a family who struggled, built a life, and died, leaving quiet houses, a few gravestones and the fields they worked, we are not alone.

*      *     *

You know when you drink a lot of coffee in the morning, and about an hour, hour and a half later you really need to go to the bathroom?  You know what that’s called?  Prostate cancer.  — Lesson from my mother

Our first days on the road, I was struck by her calm assurance.  Like a bird aloft in strong winds, her mind, of late, had seemed unable to settle and find rest.  But the woman beside me was different.  Seemingly free of worry, she was less a mother, and more a friend.  The comfort of her presence was palpable.  The ways in which we are alike, and the simple pleasures we share, brought days of quiet enjoyment.

But on our return the serenity slipped away.  When I pointed this out, she replied, “Well that’s normal.  To return home is to return to your worries.”  Which I understand, but can’t agree with.  Home is a refuge.  I struggle to make it so.  Where did I learn this if not from her?

*     *     *

It had rained, and the cabbie splashed along the quiet streets of my neighborhood.  He was chatty, which I enjoyed.  I love how easily people talk here.  If the best journeys bring you home, I was glad of his company these final few blocks.

He pulled up to the curb, and as I grabbed my bags I looked up at our house.  Not a worry in sight.

 *     *     *

A few weeks later, in response to something I posted on my wedding anniversary, my mother writes:  “I feel your love for each other when ever I am around you!”

Pleased, I think of Amy, and the gentle chaos that is our life; of Hallie, and the feeling I get when she sleeps across my chest, and of Heath, and how my love for him seems to never stop growing.   Then I write, “When it comes to love, I had two very good teachers.”  And, by just a bit, I feel the distance close.
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Sycamore

22 Apr

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“Why is the cross the symbol of Christianity?” 

“Well, it’s supposed to signify the sacrifice Christ made for all mankind.” 

I know, but it doesn’t really seem like much of a sacrifice.  He was only gone for like a week.”          

—  Conversation with Heath, shortly before our trip to Oklahoma

I notice the tree as we pull into the driveway, its hacked limbs struggling over the roof and into the sky.  John and Sue bought this house shortly before I married their daughter, and the tree over their back deck shaded our wedding festivities, a party for which her father and I drove to three different places, including a gas station with a smoker out back, to get just the right assortment of barbecue.

They’ve been waiting over an hour for the ambulance.  Battling pain and plummeting blood pressure, John is struggling with both his illness and its treatment.  I call the ambulance again and go back to see him.

“Hey John, how you doing?”

“Oh, I’m doing OK.”

We talk for a moment, and he does seem, not great, but OK.  Heath has been worried, so I ask, “John, do you feel well enough to see Heath for a moment, he’s been asking about you.”

“What? Sure, sure, I’ll talk to Heath.”

When we return, things have changed.  Now in pain, Amy is helping him back onto his pillows.  Not recognizing the situation, Heath begins.

“Hi Pawpaw.  I’m sorry you don’t feel well and that the chemo is making you sick.  Dad says you’re even having hallucinations.”  Amy shushes him with a look, and I lead him back out of the room.  Through the front door I see the ambulance pull up.

In the days that follow, while the rest of Amy’s family camp out at the hospital, Heath, Hallie and I take care of her parents’ house.  I open windows, tie back curtains and lift shades.  Heath plays video games while Hallie and I watch T.V., walk down to the mailbox, or play catch out on the driveway.  Amy calls, we visit the hospital, and then return to await more calls.  Two days in, late at night, I get the one I don’t want.

I don’t want to tell Heath his grandfather is dying, but I have promised never to lie to him.  So when, in the darkness following Amy’s call, he asks again if his Pawpaw is going to die, I wait, remembering Amy’s firm denial of the possibility only hours earlier, and then, looking into his open face, say “Yes, it looks that way.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it buddy.”

After a moment he breathes, and with his breath comes a high, animal sound like nothing I’ve ever heard.  My ten-year old son is keening.

“No!” His face is a grimace of teeth and tears, his voice a howl.  “Nooooo! Are you sure?  Is there no chance?”

“I don’t think so Heath.”

“No chance at all?”

“I don’t think so.”

And then he starts to pray.  I have never seen Heath pray, but he is praying now, laying on his back, his knees pulled in toward his chest, his clenched hands held above him.

“Please God.  Please!  Don’t let my Pawpaw die. Dad, do you believe God answer’s prayers?”

I hesitate.

“I believe he hears them.  I don’t think he always answers them the way we want.”

“But there’s a chance.   At least there’s a chance.”

“A very small one.”

“Well what are the rules?  Are there a limited number of times you can pray?”

“No, no.  You can pray as many times as you want.”

Though still crying, he is quieter now.  If he prays more, I do not hear it.  We must have slept, for when I look out the window the sky has begun to lighten.

“Dad, do you think God will answer my prayer?”

“I don’t know buddy.  But I do know it was a really good prayer.”

Silence.

“If Pawpaw dies I don’t know how I’ll ever be happy.”

The evening skies of Oklahoma go a fair way toward making up for everything else.  As the day cools, the air slides from a clear robin egg blue down into warmer pinks and oranges while the wispy clouds shade into gentle swipes of purple and gray, a vibrant display that, for a time, makes everything below seem irrelevant. Occasionally on such evenings John and I would talk, sometimes on his front porch, other times out back beneath the shade of the sycamore.  He’d always want to know about Heath and Hallie, his kiddos.  But though the skies are lovely over the following days, we don’t have a chance to talk again.  John does not make it home.  It’s just the kiddos and I.

The Monday after the memorial service a hard rain sweeps across the neighborhood, great gusts of wind snap limbs, damage the back fence, and struggle to carry away the stubborn old patio umbrella no one wants to run out and close.  After years of drought, the storm is too late to save the sycamore, and serves only to remind us of the danger it poses.  Sue tells me that over the past summer the tree “just burnt right up.” She couldn’t water it enough.  But she hates to see it go, for one limb is still alive, covered with buds and young leaves, offering the hope of a bit more shade in the days to come.

Sad for a few days, Heath finds happiness again in the family he loves.  He’s a different kid though –  more open, more present, and more thoughtful.  He won’t talk about John, though.  It makes him too sad.

Amy and I don’t talk much either.  Every time we try, I feel my own distance.  She did ask if I believe in heaven and, shamefully, I dodged the question.

But should it come up again, I’ll tell her that I don’t feel like her father is gone.  He’s here with me, much as he always was.  The conversations we had, the times we shared, and the solid feeling in my chest that I have for that man are strong.  Whatever he taught me is there.  The confidence he gave me as a husband and father is there.  He is with me, he is real, and he is not going away.

Heath and John Easter 2013

Walking the Dog

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Kindred

24 Feb

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I sort of split 50-50 between thinking I’m a complete twat, and the other half thinks I’m fucking brilliant… — Gavin Clark

Gavin Clark died last week.  Sadly, until his death, I had no idea who he was.  I met him through Shane Meadows’ film, The Living Room.  Beginning like a goof between buddies, Shane visits Gavin’s home, catches him still waking up: messy kitchen, the familiar routine of trying to get organized after the kids are off to school.  With some prompting, Gavin begins to talk about the project they’re working on, a concert in his own living room, as a first step toward overcoming his fears as a performer.

Immediately endearing, it took me some time to realize that this sweet, struggling man is also brilliant, his singing surpassed only by his songwriting.  Messy kitchen, unpaid tax bill and all, his songs took me to places I have long neglected.  A gift from a stranger, a friend I had never met.

Later I found myself telling Heath, (who’s running for 6th grade student representative on a platform of extended electronics time, computer classes for the 6th grade, and an end to racial and sexual discrimination) that whenever he finds something exciting, something that sparks his imagination, he needs to hold on to it, because people will tell him it has no value, and that his focus needs to be on working hard and making money.  This will be a lie, I told him.  Those sparks are what we live for.  Those moments take us where we need to go.

That evening Hallie wrecked my desk. She was sly about it, waiting until I was outside shoveling snow, nothing but cuteness and good intentions when Amy came down to find her quietly drawing.  But once the coast was clear, she muscled the desk drawer off its runners and onto the bed, scattering notebooks, paper clips, pads, pens and highlighters everywhere.  When I found the mess she had made, Hallie was all innocence, and took my scolding with big brown eyes and a quivering lip.  “OK daddy,” she said, looking up at me with tear-stained cheeks, my noble, six-year-old, pony-tailed martyr.  And then she shuffled off down the hall, no doubt planning her next bit of destruction.

As I listened to her pad away, I gathered up the pens and paper, replaced the drawer, straightened my desk, and sat down for a few minutes.  I dug out the details for that new journal that was calling for submissions, ran through all the half-finished blog posts I’d been meaning to get to, and took another look at that short story that had started so well.  And I thought of my friend Mark, who drowned when we were six, and my best friend Randy, who I haven’t seen for forty years, and all the other people who were so important to me, and who I never see.  I wondered what they were doing, and if they ever thought of me.

And then I thought: I’m as adult as I want to be.

And I began to write.

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Alone Again (Naturally)

11 Jul

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Cigarettes and beer on a warm summer breeze. 

To this day, walking the streets of New York, I’ll turn a corner and bam!  There it will be: that essence of summer 1972.  And I have to stop, because, for a moment, I am nine years old, sitting on the porch of our Lake Michigan cottage, holding my little Sears & Roebuck 9 volt transistor radio, listening to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally.”

It’s an odd song for a kid to fall in love with.  A father dies, a mother dies, a young man’s abandoned at the altar.  I believe suicide may be contemplated.  But none of this really matters.  Because it’s not the words so much as the gently loping beat, like the saunter of a sun-kissed girl walking along the sand, a melody with the quiet insistence of waves on a shore,  and that distinctly English melancholy of something beautiful coming to an end.

Cigarettes and beer.

It was a crazy summer.  My cousin Joni, sixteen and wild, had run away to California, only to turn up several weeks later, with a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue tucked beneath her newly unshaven armpits.  She would play “California” and then solemnly intone to whoever would listen, “It was just like that.”  She was so cool.

But even cooler was her friend Memphis.

First of all she was from Memphis.  Second of all she would take driftwood  and turn it into art, painting it with a big letter “M”, and clouds, and seagulls and stuff.

But mostly, she would talk to me.

We’d sit on the porch as the sun went down and the beachgoers across the street packed up for the day, and in her exotic southern accent she’d tell me stories.  Like how her sister had been home sick one time when she heard that her boyfriend, whose Camaro Z28 was the baddest car in all of Memphis, was stepping out on her.  How her sister had pulled on her bathrobe, tied a scarf over her rollers, and headed out in search of that Z28, and how, finding it parked outside a local burger joint, she had stopped the car, walked inside, and dropped her boyfriend’s date with a single punch.

And we would talk about girls.  She tried to get me to believe that the prettiest weren’t always the nicest, and that I should always give the less attractive girls a chance.  I didn’t really believe her, but I lied and told her that I had a crush on a girl who wasn’t very pretty at all.  She smiled.

And as the night settled in, and the rangers locked the gates and began their patrols, we watched the spotlight on their pickup sweep across the darkness, while the adults inside the cottage gathered around the big table, talking and laughing, playing cards.  The breeze lifted the hair from Memphis’ face and I stole a glance as she looked out across the water.  It was 80 miles to Milwaukee.  Too far to see.

 

Heath came to me last night as we were getting ready for bed.  Having mistakenly tried to eat ice cream from a frozen scoop, I am holding a bloody washcloth to my lips.

“Dad, can we go out on the porch and talk for a while?”  There’s an urgency in his face.  He’s afraid I’ll say no.

“Sure.” I mumble, getting some ice for my lip, which is beginning to swell.  “Go on out on the porch.  I’ll be right there.”

The fireflies have finally arrived, and as I join him they glimmer up and down the block.

“There’s one!” he shouts, jumping up and following it around the porch.  Fascinated by this little piece of light, he is every inch the nine-year old.  But soon he will be ten.  He borrowed my sandals for the first time this week.  Still puppyish, he is growing into his feet.

We talk about his first day at summer school, his new teacher, his friends.  When things go quiet he pushes for more.

“Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

Struggling to maintain the conversation, he leans on the professorial cadences he finds so comfortable.

“Dad.  Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

I laugh, because of course there’s too much.  And then, gently, I say “You know Heath, we don’t always have to talk.  We can just sit together and enjoy the evening.”

“I know, but I like to talk.”

So we do.

 

In a few weeks we will return to Lake Michigan, and a town that is in many ways unchanged.  But it won’t smell the same.  Most of my family are gone now, and sadly, they took their packets of Kools and their Pabst Blue Ribbon with them.

But, for my kids, there are two houses, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins galore, as well as porches, sunsets and the breeze off the water.

I heard years ago that Memphis had become a nurse.  I’m not sure where.  But I like to think she’s still out there, telling stories, painting driftwood, and giving sage advice to precocious lovelorn little boys.

Her hair was auburn.  She was sixteen.  I think of her every time I hear that song.

 

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Rivers and Streams

6 Jun

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Britta Seaton, née Slaughterback, was born in 1888.  She lived in a little house in Lawrenceville, Illinois with a Mynah bird that could talk.  A small man with an outsize temper, her husband was both an alcoholic and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  Her life could not have been easy.

Rebecca Bell came from Wales at the turn of the last century, building a life in a new country and raising a pack of boys in the process, one of whom married Merle Ball of Brazil, Indiana, turning her, as she always liked to say, from a Ball to a Bell.

Merle’s father was a section boss on the Indiana railroad.  He had beautiful handwriting, and he drank too much.  She left home at fifteen, taking with her a strain of bitterness that would run through the rest of her life.  The anger in her voice was undiminished as she described, eighty years on, standing in the cold outside the local tavern, waiting for her father, as man after man stepped outside to relieve himself in the snow.  She outlived her husband, she outlived her children, and as things unraveled she lost much of herself.  But she never lost that memory.

Gladys Seaton, daughter of Britta, also fled a drunken father, only to flee again from the abusive uncle who had taken her in.  The eventual mother to six daughters, she ran a string of diners and coffee shops.  She smoked like a chimney and drank coffee in much the same manner.  Born in 1909, she wrote a letter to her children and grandchildren on the night of the first moon landing in which she marveled at all she had seen.  Outgoing and vivacious, she never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  And in the end, even death couldn’t stop her.  A great believer in the afterlife, for a year or so after her passing she would occasionally appear as a shadow, a scent, or a bit of mischief-making, whether checking on her grand-babies, or teasing and terrifying the daughters she had left behind.

One of whom was Barbara “Bobby” Stressman.  A beautiful, playful woman, she started dating my father when she was fifteen, lost him when she was thirty-eight, and was left to raise four children alone.  She remarried, taking in her mother-in-law, Merle Bell, as well as her second husband’s grandson.  Her children grown, she continues to care for others.  It seems to be her mission.  She told me once that as a very young girl she was taken by friends to a revival meeting downtown, where, with a certainty belying her age, she walked down the aisle and accepted Jesus as her savior.  I’d never heard  that story before, but when I see her now, volunteering at the hospital, or caring for a dying friend, I can’t help but see that same little girl, all by herself, taking the first steps on a journey that would last a lifetime.

From these women came my daughter, who tomorrow turns six.

They are, of course, but one tributary, for flowing north out of Oklahoma and Texas comes another just as beautiful, and certainly just as strong.  But this is the stream I know, for it also flows through me.  And on this day it is good to remember that despite all the obstacles that have stood in its way, it continues to rise anew, cold and clean, bubbling forth in the early morning light.

 

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Tumbling through Brooklyn

30 Jan

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People say time flies when you’re having fun, but that’s bullshit.  Time just flies.                                                                     — Heath Bell

The plan had been to walk Brooklyn, Coney Island to Greenpoint.  An early start with a stop for breakfast in Red Hook, and then a beer in Greenpoint, at that little place on the corner.  In this way I would mark the day.  So come the morning, despite a sore head, a late start, and little desire for a beer at any point during the day, I head out the door.  Coffee in hand, I take my seat on the train, and as the wheels begin to turn the world blurs past.

 I don’t know how to reach him. 

The train takes forever.  The initial pleasure in skipping work fades as the commuters disappear,  leaving only the Brooklyn bound: tired mothers, complacent children, and one very large, angry leprechaun, whose headphones are not taking him to a calmer place.

Even though I see myself in him all the time.

Coney Island is a sad place on a winter’s day.  Bereft of people, the remaining attractions hug the boardwalk like so many dinosaurs, asleep at water’s edge.  Dreamland, Luna, and Steeplechase are long gone, replaced by housing projects, empty lots, and sky.  The few old buildings left along Surf Avenue continue to fade, making room for  an Applebee’s and other improvements reminiscent of a highway rest stop.  A runner passes me on the boardwalk, shirtless in the cold Atlantic wind.  Older guy.  Tough or just crazy?  I vote both, and head inland.

The difficulties in maintaining a friendship, and the inevitable sense of betrayal.  A process of years in my life; minutes in Heath’s.

Once known as the Road of Dreams, Stillwell Avenue is now a bleak strip of auto repair shops and the occasional decrepit house whose demeanor hints at more prosperous times.  A waterside inn perhaps, built along Coney Island Creek when it flowed all the way from Gravesend Bay to Sheepshead, creating an actual island.  Now gray and salt-stained from the spray of traffic, it looks barely inhabited.  I pass by, looking for hints of life, and then continue on, crossing a bridge over the creek’s stilled waters.

How many times has Amy said “Please don’t go away from me”?

Over the next several hours I chip away at the grid, zigzagging through the streets and avenues, progressing at a glacial pace on my journey of discovery.  What do I discover?  Brooklyn’s big.  And Bensonhurst goes on forever.  You heard it here first.

It’s what we do.

Toward the end, hours late for breakfast, legs leaden and feet blistered, having slogged past the auto shops and porn parlors beneath the roar of the BQE, I know I should quit; find a train and head home.  But I don’t.

Not caring.

And then, finally, turning left at the first opportunity, the startling quiet of Red Hook.

Buoyed by familiar landmarks, I head in the right direction, but, strangely, the community fails to materialize.  I see the projects, the parks, the silos, and even the damn Ikea, but the battered little houses where Brooklyn’s more adventurous denizens raise chickens and children in what feels for all the world like some dusty little prairie town are nowhere to be found.  Until suddenly they are, disrupting my sense of geography by appearing at a completely unexpected angle. Having arrived at my destination, I have no idea where I am.  

* * *

He appears as I take off my coat, standing awkwardly to one side, shifting slowly from foot to foot, lost in his own living room.  

“Hey, Heath.”  I toss the words gently, as if they don’t matter, and I wait, not sure if he’s heard me.

And I’m standing at a screen door as my dad tries to coax me into a game of catch.  Embarrassed, because I’m not good at catch, but torn because I know I’m disappointing him,  I cannot bring myself to step through that door.

After a moment, Heath looks up, walks over, and puts his arms around me, awkwardly, as if he’s afraid to complete the hug.

“Happy Birthday, Dad.”

I pull him close.

“Thanks, Heath.”

Looking over his shoulder, I see Amy shake her head.  This was not prompted.

I continue to hold him as long as I can

We feel more than we can show.

And then, without a word, he’s gone.

 

Heath and I Buddy Walk 2012

Photo of Coney Island from http://www.city-data.com 

An Actress of Uncommon Stature

15 Nov

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The performance begins without prelude.

Quietly at first, as we await our breakfast, Hallie catches sight of herself in the mirror and begins to chatter, rapidly but softly, with an intense staccato that slowly builds as, with virtuosic restraint, she works her way, rung by rung, up to the emotional highwire where, finally, she releases all in a swooning crescendo, her arm sweeping the sky as she falls away in a blood curdling “Noooooooooooo!”  A brief pause follows, and then she strains against the straps of her booster chair to check her reflection. Pleased with the effect, and the attention she has drawn, she drops back into her seat, spent from the culminating moments of her five-year old Medea.

But wait! Gathering her energies, she takes a breath and begins again. Initially terse, she launches into a finely wrought internal monologue, a soliloquy of intent.   Passionate, yet controlled, my daughter is rapidly developing into an actress of uncommon stature, her brilliance taking us all by surprise. Certainly, genetics has played a role, but she is now far beyond any gifts inherited from Amy and I, and her talent is all her own.  As a result, in some instinctive fashion, she has gone back, far beyond the modern canon, beyond even Shakespeare, to the primal works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Not yet regal of bearing, she has, nonetheless, thrown down the gauntlet, challenging the great classical actresses of our time with her staggering combination of intensity, intimacy, and emotional commitment, all expressed with a banana-smeared face and only the rudiments of language.

For Hallie will speak in only the simplest of sentences.  Stubbornly refusing to use three words when one will do, she has expanded this approach into her own unique and rapidly developing oeuvre through which she proves, with each and every performance, that words are merely an adornment to great acting, a crutch for those who lack her artistic rigor and wide open heart.

Suddenly quiet, something shifts, and Hallie enters a different world. The intensity is still there, but it’s combined with a wry sense of amusement, a fatality which, in one so young, is both disturbing and mesmerizing. Could she possibly be…? Yes! She has moved on to Baby John, the youngest Jet in West Side Story! What am I witnessing here? Is she performing in back to back productions? Or has she interpolated the two plays, creating an extraordinary mash-up through which, with her loudly erratic personal rhythm and no sense of pitch whatsoever, she can deconstruct the American musical in a manner that challenges the very boundaries of theatrical convention?

The food arrives and Hallie settles in, glancing across to the mirror and smiling to herself as she begins to eat her scrambled eggs.  Fully aware of the ground she has broken and the ambitious heights she has yet to scale, she is an innovator to her toes, and I fear for the resistance she will meet. Luckily, though, our daughter is fearless, and cares nothing for the critics. Performing only for herself, she alone knows the perfection she pursues.

The rest of us are just lucky to catch a glimpse.

Hallie zoo

Grand Haven, Summer 2013

16 Oct

Grand Haven Postcard

The week has almost passed and I have yet to see a sunset.  I’ve missed them all.  Every single one.  I love my family, but moving all four of us in any specific direction can be a bit like turning an ocean liner.  And as our vacation draws to a close, my patience has worn thin.

“I need to get out.  Just for an hour or so.”

Thankfully, Amy agrees.  As I head for the door, I add, “Hey Heath, do you want to go for a walk on the beach?”  And miraculously, he says yes.

Walking beneath the planks of the porch above, and then climbing the wooden stairs, we leave behind the cool green world of our cozy apartment, tucked down the side of a wooded dune, hidden in the trees which surround The Khardomah, a ramshackle 1870 hunting lodge turned boarding house where we’ve been spending our week.  Heath and I cross the quiet street, and as we head down the gently curving road we pass the original Highland Park cottages; the Loch Hame, the Bonnaire, and others, built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when this land was nothing but forest and sand, and far enough from town that, for a time, it had its own trolley line. 

As we round the bend, Lake Michigan opens before us, a vast, inland ocean whose sudden appearance down these steep, curving roads, never fails to take my breath away.  We look out over the beach, windblown under dense gray clouds, extending north to the town’s most famous landmark, the South Pier, its dark candy red lighthouse temporarily shrouded in the gray primer and netting of a late summer paint job.  The green flag on the lifeguard stand flaps in the breeze, indicating it is safe to swim, but the water is largely empty due to its unseasonable chill.  There had been red flags earlier in the week, not for riptides, as is usually the case, but for hypothermia, and while I did not swim on those days, the water remained cold enough throughout the week to give me a chill that was hard to shake.  

From the top of the hill we make our way down four long flights of stairs, through the sand and dune grass, to the road, where we stop to check for cars, then skitter across and into the parking lot, before kicking off our shoes and stepping into the clean, white sand, cool now this late in the day. The water writhes beneath the overcast sky, a chaotic world of gray and white, and the sunset looks hopeless.  But as we approach the gentle roar of the shoreline, the evening breeze ruffles my son’s hair.

I ask him if he wants to walk down to the pier, and he says “Sure.”  And so we begin.  Walking easily.  Relaxing into each other.

A pair of jet skis scream from far out in the water, their noise, amplified by the open distance, seeming oddly loud to be coming from such small bouncing shadows.  Heath asks what they are, and I tell him that, basically, it’s a couple of guys flying around on floating jet engines, and that on a day like this it must be a pretty rough ride.  He asks why anyone would want to do that, and I tell him I haven’t a clue.

The water is cold against our feet, and Heath is timid at first, skipping awkwardly back up above the waterline every time a wave rushes in.  But slowly, he acclimates, growing bolder and stepping further out into the cold, reveling in his own courage. 

“Oh My God! I can’t believe how wet my pants are getting”

“Well, here.  You need to roll them up.”

I step out into the water and roll his long shorts up above his knees, soaking mine in the process, his laughter contagious.

Heath has Asperger’s Syndrome, and, as a result, so many things have been difficult to share.  His mind is sharp, and his passions are strong, but his palette is limited.  Going outdoors is troubling, exercise is not his friend, and moving him beyond a computer screen is a battle gently waged on a daily basis.  And yet here we are, on a whim, walking the waters of my childhood.  And with every step I can see something inside him ease.

The jet skiers call it a day, their sputtering, high-pitched whine fading into the distance, and as the light begins to retreat, we make our way down the beach, passing three boys who have built a small mound of sand, and are now wrestling about, each one struggling to be king of the hill.

At the pier I show Heath a shortcut up the rocks, and having reached the top, we follow the battered concrete out from the shore, walking beneath the catwalk, passing  the last few tourists as we make our way around the lighthouse and then out toward the foghorn, its deep, melancholy moan, one of my first memories, long ago replaced by a smooth sonic “ping “.  Stepping around its squat red bulk, we come to the end.  Three fisherman, their equipment scattered about, stand before an infinity of water and sky.  A reel hums as a one makes a cast.  His sinker plops as it hits the water and disappears into the darkness. 

As we head back toward shore, the lights are coming on in the cottages, stars among the hills.  Reaching the end, we scramble down to the sand, and Heath heads back to the water, greeting the waves as long lost friends, kicking at them, and delighting in the galaxies that explode off the ends of his feet.  Looking back, I see the pier lights come on, and notice, up above, in the northwest , a small opening in the clouds, it’s edges stained orange and red, the colors beginning to leak across the sky.  Heath continues on, wading up to his knees, smashing at the rushing water. 

Both brooding and vibrant, a vivid rose now dusts  the turbulent blue-gray clouds in every direction.  And then, with no visible movement, the gray is vanquished altogether, and everything above me goes pink.  Neon as far as the eye can see.

“Heath, look!”

Suddenly the lake ignites, the sky illuminating the water like fire on foil, blazes of pink dazzling the crests of the dark blue waves, mirroring the sky to the point that for one dizzying moment, I cannot tell them apart.  

“Heath!” I cried

“Yeah?”

“Are you seeing this?”

“Yes.”

Catching up to him, I wrap my arms around his chest and gently turn him toward the light.    

“This is the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen.”

But even as I say it, the color begins to recede; the pink melting to orange, the gray closing in.  I hold him for a moment.  We watch, and nothing seems to change.  But when I look away, and then back again, everything is different.

“Heath, have you ever heard the phrase ‘in the moment’?  Do you know what that means?”

“No.” He replies, slipping from my arms and returning the water.

Following, I do my best to explain: the past is gone, the future never arrives, so all we have is now.  How much he takes in, I can’t be sure.  But in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

He’s already there.

Grand Haven pier 

 
 

To Play in the Rain

26 Jul

This gift will last forever, This gift will never let you down… 

  –-Glen Hansard

Last night, at bedtime, I could feel the pull of the night air.  I stepped out onto the porch and looked out across the sky. Pale blue with hints of pink, and thin gentle clouds that rose into small,  fairy-tale mountains as I turned to the north.  A breeze on the warm side of cool brushed past the leaves as Hallie followed me out. “Wow,” she said, looking up at the sky, her hair dancing across her face.

Crawling out of the water that morning, rivulets coursing down my body, I rolled onto the catch basin, too tired to lift myself completely out of the pool.  Slowly standing,  breathing hard as drops of water hit the cement, I slowly made my way across the pavement and up the stairs to my t-shirt and towel, every movement intensely felt in my tired muscles, happy now only to walk, after swimming so far.  Is this, perhaps, why we left the oceans behind us? The sheer pleasure of moving in a different way?

The summer’s been lean.  After a couple years of abundant money and too little time, I’ve had to learn again how to live with the opposite.  And for the first time in ages I feel as if I’m having a summer.  My life is made of wind and water, heat and rain.  The sun rises and sets before my eyes, and as the days grow shorter, I am happy to sit on the porch with my little girl and say wow to the sky.

Swimming, biking, and eating ice cream; childhood pleasures that have always cheered me.  But this summer I long to add another.

I want to play in the rain.

I want to dance in puddles with my daughter, chase kayaking leaves with my son, and laugh with my wife as we both get soaked to the skin.  It’s been a while, and I’m sure I’ll look crazy.  But that’s okay.  Embarrassment holds little sway in my life these days, it’s just another enemy of joy.  And joy is what I’m after.  It is, of course, all around me:  in the motion of my body and in the air that I breathe,  in the clouds in the sky and the laugh of a friend, in the attention of my son, the touch of my wife,  and always, always, always in the eyes of my daughter, where the world never fails to inspire, befriend and renew; and where love abides for all she beholds.