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Kindred

3 Jun

 

This is what I remember.

Dave’s Robin, I’m Batman.

The candy store with Aunt Barb.  Pop, candy, gliders and parachutes.

Breaking down just shy of Mackinac.  Fan belt on a Sunday.  Sitting under a tree while Dad waits for the mechanic to get home from church.  Dave curled up in Mom’s lap.  The wind in their hair.

Amy coming home for the first time.  Dad holding her in the air. Her giggles.

Crawling all over me as I try read.

The time she stopped breathing.

David falling off his bike on the way to Quik-Pik.  Scratched watch and scraped hands.  So angry, because now Mom will find out.

A thimble-full of soda, Dad’s popcorn and Carol Burnett.  Sitting in our pajamas, laughing on the floor beside him.

Blood through the hands that rush Amy inside.

“Don’t pick her up! Don’t pick her up!”  But he does.

The cast on her leg.

The weight of it.

The scar that wraps all the way around.

Years later, making her up, pale and bloody.  Walking her to the neighbors.  “I think something’s wrong.”

Scouring the beach with Dave for butts.  Kools.  You get them wet and a number appears.  If it’s smaller than 32, you win.

Smoking corn silk on the back porch with our corn cob pipes.  Earlier attempts at rolling our own had not gone well.  We used toilet paper.  Singed eyebrows, burnt bangs.

Yanking a perch out of the water so hard it flies, wrapping round and round the catwalk.

All the toys under his bed.  Unopened and untouched.

Terry (and David).

The endless games of bedroom basketball.

Chewing with their mouths open, smacking away.

Amy disgusted beyond belief.

Which was the point.

All of us holding out the army surplus parachute when Rod takes off, running like hell as the boat guns it, then sitting down hard as the harness takes his legs out from under him and he bounces across the beach and into the lake for a face full of water before finally, finally lifting to the sky.  Swinging wildly from side to side, he’s almost makes it.

Terry with a golf club.  Just a kid.  But we run for our lives.

Swapping his empty glass for David’s full one.  Repeatedly.  Dave never catching on.

Barb’s funeral and David disappearing.  Karen finding him, walking him through it.

His swim across the lake.  Me rowing beside him.

Our walks through the woods.

Staying with Amy and her roommate when I move to Chicago.  Robbing the same apartment months later when he stiffs her on rent. A camera.  Some cassettes.  Back when cassettes were worth stealing.

Her dating a drummer.  Me pretending it’s OK.

Leaving David at Connolly Station and running back to Moore Street to get the best price on Toblerone, because when you’re in Dublin and you can’t walk, that’s what’s important.

Genoa, lost for a while, then finding the restaurant.  Tasting both pesto and gnocchi for the very first time.

Separating the next day so he can rush back to London to catch his plane home.

Such a long way to go all by himself.

Driving out from Chicago on the weekends.  Breakfast with Dave at the Village Kitchen.  I order the Z:  2 Hot Cakes, 2 eggs, toast, hash browns, and choice of meat.  For a while, those weekends are home.

Canoeing before his wedding.  Salmon racing through shallow water.

The deer I see the morning after.  Standing in the mist.

Moving us to New York.  Getting that couch up the stairs.

Blue blazers, khakis and the walk to Khardomah.

My wife holding up her phone so Amy, too pregnant to fly, can hear the sounds of her little brother getting married.

The closeness.  And the laughter.

Like nothing else.

But the storm’s coming across the lake, and the wind’s whipping the curtains as thunder rolls out of the west.  In the darkness, visible in flashes,  David is asleep in the bed next to me and Amy’s on the cot against the wall.  Terry’s down the hall with Mom and Dad, but the thunder will have to get much louder before I run through the darkness to join them.  Aunt Barb’s by the stairs, Gram’s across the hall and Aunt Pat’s one room farther along.  All of them asleep, but near.  So I cuddle in and close my eyes, and never once imagine it will be any other way.

 

 

 

 

Wayward

11 Nov

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A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.  

This kind of stuff is advanced US citizenship.  – David Foster Wallace

What if what you do to survive kills the things you love? — Bruce Springsteen

Earl Stressman, the son of German immigrants, worked at a creamery and did construction around Grand Rapids, Michigan, living in rundown houses, fixing them up, and then moving his family on once they sold.  His wife, Gladys, whose roots run too deep into the tangled terrain of Appalachia to even begin to unravel, ran a series of small coffee shops with her six daughters to help make ends meet.  The fourth of these, my mother got her high school diploma and was married a year later.

Ralph Bell, the son of Welsh immigrants, worked nights at the Grand Rapids A&P warehouse while his wife, Merle, raised two daughters and a son.  Their house had two bedrooms and my dad slept on the couch.  Saving money from his paper route, he bought a car and went to community college, got a job with General Motors, married my mom and moved to Detroit.

Three hours across the state, Detroit didn’t seem much different from the world of my cousins back in Grand Rapids.  While aunts, uncles, and eventually cousins, took jobs with Steelcase, opened restaurants and drove trucks, my suburban neighbors worked their shifts at various auto plants, chauffeured for the Ford family, or ran their Dunkin’ Donuts.  My dad went to work in a suit and tie, but most collars were still solidly blue.

At Christmas we’d drive back across the state and celebrate with both families.  My mom and her sisters had six boys in two years, and as our ages tripped into double digits we formed a loose, mischievous pack, sneaking away from the gifts and the eggnog to hurl snowballs at the passing traffic on Plainfield Avenue.  The slam of ice on metal, the red flash of a brake light and we were off, kicking up snow and laughing as we ran, god’s own outlaws.

And then we grew up – jobs, military service, marriages, kids, divorces and death.  I got into the college by the skin of my teeth, left home and rarely got back to Grand Rapids.  But when we’d meet, however infrequently, those little boys were never far away — Gladys and Earl’s grandbabies, four generations off the boat and spoiling for mischief.

During my lifetime Detroit withered and died, and the consequences rippled across the state.  My childhood world faded along with the factory jobs and I miss it to this day.  But what I miss most is the humor, kindness, and unspoken love that wove its way down through the generations.  It’s the gift of those who brought us here, outsiders all, wanting the same things we do today – a safe home, good work and a family to love.  And while there’s no going back, if we’re lucky we can carry that gift forward in the people we love, and the lessons they teach.

My aunt Bonnie died this past winter.  She was something.  Queen of the realm with her cigarette and Diet Pepsi, she was irascible, opinionated, funny as hell, and as long she walked the earth I had a home, no questions asked.  Her passing leaves my mom the last of the Stressman girls, a loss she feels deeply.  We all do.  Prickly, raucous and outspoken, those six women didn’t always get along, but their love for each other was fierce, and the respect they earned unquestioned.

Bonnie’s family held a memorial service this summer, which was more like a family reunion, as she would have wanted.  My cousins’ band Tenderfoot played, marking the event as they have so many times throughout my life with the songs my family loves.  Some of my cousins were there, some of them weren’t.  But it was a blue-sky summer day and it was good to be together, as it always is.

I don’t know much these days.  I don’t know who we are, or why we do the things we do.  I don’t know.  Humor, love and kindness, that’s all I got.

But I’m haunted by those boys, running through the snow and laughing like hell, with the world before us as we disappear into the night.

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Durant Station

14 Sep

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Durant is situated at the intersection of U.S. Highways 69/75 and 70, fifty-two miles east of Ardmore and seventy-six miles southwest of McAlester. Occupation of the townsite began in November 1872 when a wheelless boxcar was placed on the east side of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway tracks. In 1873 Dixon Durant erected the town’s first building, a wooden store, on the east side of the boxcar. Named “Durant Station” for his family, it was shortened to Durant in 1882.    — Oklahoma Historical Society

I tease Amy that she comes from a desert state.  Growing up, that’s what I assumed Oklahoma to be; a vast wasteland of parched earth and the lined faces of those who had tried to farm it.  The truth was more familiar.  Another town that seemed to revolve around the chain stores and fast food restaurants out along the highway, while the once vibrant downtown limped along on the strength of its few remaining businesses.  Another community that no longer wished to commune.

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Heath doesn’t see it that way.  For one thing, a couple miles down the road is Okie Donuts, where, I kid you not, they make the best donuts in the world.  Heath used to ride out there in the morning with Amy’s dad for coffee and a Boston Creme.  Now I take Heath.  The owner treats him as a special guest, having come all the way from New York.  And then there’s the donuts: light, fluffy, and sweet, but not too sweet.  Good sweet.  The kind of sweet that gets you out of bed at 6 AM, because if you’re too late all the maple will be gone.

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After donuts, we drive back to Durant in the early morning light.  The highway’s faster, but we take the back way, just like Amy’s dad.

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Farmers are talking outside Wright’s Drive-In as we roll into town, sipping coffee in the morning sun.

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Downtown the buildings still stand, soaking in the light and giving back the warmth and color of their red clay bricks.

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And somewhere in the past, a button-nosed girl is buying a ham salad sandwich at Durant Drug and stepping into the Plaza Theater for the afternoon showing of Endless Love. As romance blooms onscreen, the streets outside grow humid and warm; humming with footsteps, the laughter of chance meetings and the sound of cars going by.  The sun is low as the movie ends, and the girl and her slightly scandalized mother step outside and make their way home, past friends and neighbors; checking the time and talking about dinner as they go.

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The sounds fade, the air grows cooler, and the people disappear.  Heath and I are alone on the cobblestone street.  The drugstore is gone and the Plaza is now an office building.  For the first time Heath grows impatient, so as we walk, I try to paint the picture for him, attempting to bring to life a town I never knew, but which did so much to create his mom.  He listens, he nods, but he’s ready to go.

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The heart of Durant may be battered and worn, but I don’t think it’s moved out to the highway.  It’s not in the McDonalds drive-thru, and it’s not at the Waffle Shop, and it’s sure as hell not at the Walmart.  No, it’s still downtown, where the old facades continue to glow, beautiful and resilient, like Amy, her family, and so many of those formed by this place.  The heart beats softly these days, forgotten by many, but it’s there:  fifty-two miles east of Ardmore and seventy-six miles southwest of McAlester, just east of the old boxcar, waiting for those with ears to hear.

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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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Little Town

18 Sep

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I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.  — Laura Ingalls Wilder

Morning comes early, and South Dakota is empty.  Pull off on the side of the road, stand in the middle and take all the pictures you like.  No cars to the east and none to the west.  Just the sky, luminous and new.  But I’m hungry, and the diners are not leaping out at us.  Few people means even fewer restaurants and on this crack of dawn Sunday morning they are hiding themselves well.

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Thank god for Huron, home of the worlds largest pheasant, behind which Mom clocks a combined bowling alley/VFW hall with a little clump of cars parked out front.

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The Plains Dining & Recreation Center, whose breakfast menu includes The Haystack, The Hot One and of course, Klazy Eggs.  My diner instincts are good, but Mom’s the master, and sometimes the best cup of coffee is the only one you can find.

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A few miles further along we come to De Smet, South Dakota and the home of Laura Ingall’s Wilder.  The family’s final home, De Smet is the setting for Little Town on the Praire, The Long Winter, and These Happy Golden Years.  The house they rented upon their arrival is getting a new coat of paint this morning.

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While a couple streets away the house Pa eventually built stands quietly amidst more contemporary neighbors.

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But the land they homesteaded, just outside of town, is breathtaking.

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A memorial to the family and their times, it has a quiet dignity and a strong sense of the beauty to be found in everyday things.

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And the world they exist in.

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The Graveyard is not far, and we stop for a few minutes.

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We’re quiet, separating to explore.  The wind rustles the leaves, and after a time I follow Mom up the hill where we look beyond the graves to the surrounding farms.  And then, remembering the distance before us, we get back on the road, heading across Minnesota and into Wisconsin, where dinner is waiting with family of our own.

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Dark Clouds, Blue Water

1 Aug

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She looked at that buck and said “I would love to shoot you,” and, you know, he looked back at her like he understood.  —Conversation overheard this morning Char’s Café, Bruce’s Crossing, Michigan

Leaving New York in the darkness, the quiet morning streets of my neighborhood are like that frayed old blanket that you love for its warmth and comfort.  The flight gets off late, but travels fast through a morning sky of dirty clouds.  Smoky hobgoblins hang in the distant gray.  Chicago bristles in the gloom, the dark buildings flipping me off as I fly past.

Connection made in time for the short hop back over the Lake and into the sun.  Lunch with my brother and we hit the road.  The first gas station we stop at has a live bait refrigerator.  Michigan.

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Nine miles into the U.P. we hit a long stretch of route 2 along the northern edge of Lake Michigan and pull over so I can wade into the water.  I climb back into the car and mom pulls back into traffic, the wind hitting my arms, the sand on my feet not yet dry.

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Joyously empty roads and a sun that doesn’t want to set, the U.P. is magic.  Like stepping back in time to when there weren’t so many of us,  and the world not quite so damaged.  Mom and Pop motels and motor courts abound.  Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert could be just around the next bend in the road.

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Diner Breakfast, followed by a completely unnecessary bakery stop.  Cinnamon rolls and Blueberry turnovers.

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Judy Garland’s birthplace, just because.

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Abandoned liquor store in Crookston, Minnesota.  At the other end of town mom sees a house from a dream. “I kept trying buy it” she says.

And there’s talk, lots of talk.  More in the morning when we’re fresh, less as we grow tired.  But these conversations are marked by their ease,  for at this point the road seems long, and our time together endless.

And now I must sleep, for tomorrow we cross North Dakota and on into eastern Montana and Mom wants to be on the road by 6:00am.  Luckily, I’ve booked us into a lodge with a bar.  I can already taste the beer.

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Road Trip

29 Jul

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When I was four years old my mother gave me my first camera.  It was made of plastic and took 120 mm film, which I had to mail off along with a small amount cash to have developed.  Later that year we took our first family vacation, driving from Michigan to New England.  It was there I took these pictures.

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Cape Cod

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My Mom and little brother David at The Mayflower

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Kennedy’s grave

When Amy’s father passed this spring, I was talking to my mom and she mentioned that she had planned a trip to Montana, but her friend had backed out because she didn’t want to drive.  She thought it would be boring.  Mom disagreed.  She wanted to get out on the back roads, eat at little diners, see something of the country.  But she didn’t want to go alone

“Wow,  I should go with you.”

“Oh that would be great.  Would you?”

Um… I would.

So, this coming Friday I fly to Michigan and we hit the road.  I have a new camera, and hopefully some time to write.  So I’ll be posting on the fly, doing my best to keep you all informed.

I have not spent this much time with my mom in 35 years, and though I’m looking forward to it, I already miss my family.  And both the world and my mother are far from predictable.

So check in frequently, keep me in your thoughts, and prayers would not be turned away.

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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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Big Magic

22 Sep

Central Park

Falling in love is small magic, a beginners sleight of hand.  With a little time and patience anyone can do it.  Marriage is something more:  A time-release miracle, performed in tandem, naked on a high-wire. Friends and relatives offer a toast as you climb the ladder, and then go their way, leaving the two of you to walk out alone, exposed, your lives in each others’ hands.  And while this is very brave, it’s not yet miraculous,  for alchemy takes time.

Saturday began early, crisp and cool, as we made our preparations for the Buddy Walk, the yearly Central Park gathering of the nicest families I know, and the day we join with friends to celebrate Hallie.  Heath hates this, of course.  He has to leave the house, spend hours outdoors, walk great distances, socialize in a loud communal atmosphere with limited technology, and all because of his little sister.  “Why God?!”  he cries, his hands aloft like a latter-day Tevye, “Why must there be so  much walking?  Why must there even be a Buddy Walk!?” And then he does his best to close out the world, burrowing beneath a sweatshirt, and desperately trying to find something, anything, to do on his tablet.  For Heath, we call this being a good sport.

As we move through the day, the clouds come and go.  Far more social than I, Amy is in constant motion.  She greets, she organizes, she chats.  I hang with Hallie as she gets her nails done (tasteful pink) and her hands painted (“Star,” she says, pointing solemnly to her left hand; “Heart,” she says, pointing to her right.).  Spending the day within a few feet of each other, we barely speak, and as the afternoon winds down, and our friends disperse with hugs and thanks, we make our way home to prepare for her brother Tim’s annual cook out.  More food, more wine, more friends.  A day of love, friendship, good food, and a little too much wine.

Sunday is our anniversary.  No gifts, no dinner, no expectations.  We can barely get off the couch.

Eighteen years ago I knew little of magic.  I just thought I was lucky.  I had met this sweet, funny, beautiful woman, for whom I felt a love stronger than any I’d ever known.  I offered my hand, she took it, and together we climbed the ladder and stepped out onto the wire.

The wonder of a good marriage is that there is no illusion.  It is very, very real.  And very pure, for it’s a miracle you create solely for yourselves, using only what you’ve learned from each other.  A mutual act of strength, humor, joy and grace, performed fully cognizant of how many times you’ve kept each other from falling.  And it’s so much fun.  To this day, nobody makes me laugh like she does.  And the magic just grows with each passing year.

I’ve always had trouble seeing myself.  There are moments of clarity, but most of the time I struggle.  Perceptive with others; I am, to myself, an amiable blur.  But for eighteen years Amy has been my mirror, unrelentingly showing me my best self.  A simple gift of incredible value.  And the biggest magic I know.

 

Amy

 

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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