Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Yesterday I found my way into Jesse's email account and was halfheartedly deleting all the junkmail, looking for possible posts from friends and former debate students who might have written him (I do this about once every six months). I stumbled on his "sent mail" file and found literally hundreds of little emails of his. It was a side of him I didn't often see: casual, relaxed, trading jokes with friends, and responding to requests for time, or asking for help finding a job, or for a referral from a professor or friend. Of course there was the occasional personal complaint about "Mom" too, but nothing terrible. What struck me was how much his personality reminded me of my closest childhood friend. The dry wit, the innate kindness underneath it all. And I began to think, had I unintentionally built another version of my friend? Right down to how he complained about me-- my friend has said the same kinds of things about his mom over the years. Of course I emailed him (we are still friends, 48 years later) and his response was: The lad was very smart, had a logical mind and little tolerance for bullshit. How could he avoid it?

I wish they had known each other better. Which is to say, I wish I had known him better, and he me. I have a feeling at some point, he might have found less to complain about.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Children's Hospital

Last week a group of us volunteered a day at the children's hospital to facilitate their Pizza, Pajamas, and Painting Pet Rocks Party. I admit I was a little worried about how I'd react, but at least it's a world I now know well. I felt a little motherly toward the other volunteers: they hadn't done anything like this before. We changed into our jammies in the visitors' bathroom. There's little that could make you feel more vulnerable than walking around a lobby in your PJs. Try it if you doubt me. In the children's play room we set up the tables for paint, and the kids wandered in, some in their PJs, some pulling IV units behind them.

"That would make a good javelin" I said to one of the boys, after he complained about his IV tree, and he lit up. Turns out he had watched the Olympics, and found the field sports very cool indeed. He happily sat down and addressed his subject, a round smooth stone soon to become a caterpillar. More kids came in and we painted layers, let the stones dry while we played floor-bowling with an indoor foam rubber ball (no throwing indoors!) and some toy milk jugs. My javelin friend showed me his online world, a video game site called Urban something, where he lived out one of those virtual reality roles with any number of people (I hope it was monitored). The rest of the ladies caught on and found games to play with the rest of the kids so they wouldn't be stuck at the table watching their rocks dry for 20 minutes.

A new kid walked in after we had gotten most of the rocks painted. He was short and heavy, with a face like a middle aged man, mustache and all. His head had been shaved and you could see an irregularly shaped dent in his skull about the width of a plum. I guess the other ladies were thrown off by the mustache, because they didn't say anything to him. So I took him under my wing and made sure he got his rock painted. He favored making it into a black widow spider. So I figured that made him about 12. Let's call him "Will."

None of us asked what the kids were there for. This wasn't about that kind of thing. This was about pet rocks. Our team leader brought everything we needed, including two sizes of googly eyes. Will and I picked four for the spider (eight wouldn't have fit). I showed him how to practice his hourglass shape before he painted it on the spider's back, and then how to paint the glue on the back of the eye with a dry brush. We were done fast enough that some of the first kids who'd come in were still working on theirs, which was good, because Will had to go back to his room for treatment. I made sure to paint his initials on his spider's belly so he could come back to claim it. We stuck around till the pizza showed up, and then changed and headed home.

In the car, the youngest of us, she was probably in her early 20s, started to cry. We knew that any or all of the kids could have had very little wrong with them, a flu, a broken arm, a minor operation. I think it was the IV trees that got to her. Because for the most part, except for Will, you couldn't have picked any of the kids out as sickly. I wondered for a second what she would have made of Jesse, with his PICC line leashed to his tree. He was the one who first considered using it as a javelin.

I had to avoid looking at her, because I would have made it worse.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In memoriam

For Anthony Paino.

I pass by this building every morning on my way to work. This morning the crew had placed a memorial to Anthony on the south side of the site, with lit candles, flowers and notes. It nearly broke me. I have to find better ways of protecting myself from the fact that we die. How do you let go of the image of his mother finding out what she had just lost? I found one of the contractors on the site and asked him to pass along my sympathy to his family. The guy looked like he would really hug me and let me cry on his shoulder if I'd let him. I fled from this wanton charity of soul.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


It's not spring yet but the birds think it is. Two of them pop out of a furled awning onto the yellow sun on the sidewalk, wrestling and chirping furiously. It's too damn early to care this much about anything, even sex and territory. Co-conspirators appear and join the fray. I exchange glances with a fellow pedestrian on the other side of what is rapidly becoming a sparrow gang brawl. Birds. You could hear us both thinking it. Yes, we are so much more evolved.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

There is no right thing.

After I lost my dad, the thing I had to bite my tongue at were the number of people who asked, "were you close?" I mean, what? I'm sure the same thoughts are running through your head as ran through mine: was my grief less valuable if we hadn't been getting along? Do they mean if my parents divorced and my dad was homeless under a bridge, it wouldn't be so bad? It was made even more odd by the fact that so many people said it. My father was 46 when he died, and I was 21, home alone with him. I gave him CPR until the ambulance crew arrived. I don't think there is much greater intimacy in the world than being the pumping heart and breathing lungs of another human being. That's what I wanted to say to these well meaning folks. Imagine how that could have damaged a person (my friends were all college kids, mind you), had I painted the whole picture. The color of his face (blue), the way he sounded breathing the death rattle over and over because I couldn't allow myself to let him die once and for all.

But after losing my son, I felt buoyed by the generosity I felt in letting people say foolish things to try to comfort me. There they are, poor things who care about me, in my grief, wanting to say the right thing, but there is no right thing. Say any embarrassing thing you want to kick yourself for years later. (Mostly what they say is "I can't imagine what you're going through" -- and indeed, who could? Who would want to?) I'm not so absorbed in myself and my misery that I don't have room for you. In fact, it makes me feel better to know that by not snapping at you, I've eased your day a little, made grief seem less terrifying to you. That I've been able to give something, even at the very bottom of the pit of what I call my life. So thank you, well meaning person who has no idea how horrible my loss is. You don't have to say the right thing to me. I can see it in your eyes what you mean and that is all I need.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Surfing the blender 2

The blender is what sailors call the waters between St. John and St. Thomas, because the chop goes in all directions. It's essentially a big bowl where every wave bounces back on itself between the islands and cays that rim it. Imagine a cup of water on a speaker playing really loud rock and roll. Most of the time, the water's not rough enough to cancel out the effect of the wind, so you can manage ok in a decent size boat, if you know what you're doing. You won't find this definition online, I don't think the guys who make the tourist runs through that area spend a lot of time blogging it. They don't live in it.

Monday, March 9, 2009

surfing the blender

I'm almost afraid to write anything after the dream, to spoil the moments it gives me of peace, of feeling happy for a moment when I think of Jesse, instead of tipping toward tears. Maybe because I'm at the age when the hormones first shift from full blown woman toward, well, not so much. I get angry that people in my life ignore me now, I don't just let it slide. (I try to but) I hear a long-gone therapist telling me they don't respect me (he really did, in family counseling) and something just snaps. Listen. I can even fall asleep mad, when before, I'd have to force whoever I was mad at to resolve at least some of whatever it was before I could calm down. It's good to be able to ignore how I feel and get some rest. If I couldn't, I'd never sleep. I used to write things down if I couldn't speak to the person who'd made me sad or angry. I used to write down my dreams. Now I almost never do either. I'm not sure what I'm living for exactly. But I'm not going to live quietly.

And I almost forgot, a song that gets me through the cross currents today.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Last night

I dreamed that Jesse came back to visit. He stood at the foot of the bed, then sat down on it, smiling, looking like he did when he was 12, mischievously cherubic, his curly hair longer than he ever kept it again, and lightened by the sun. I told him I was glad he came to visit, and asked him if he was ok, and he said yes. We chatted a bit but I didn't even think to ask him if he had forgiven me, if he knew I had forgiven him, because I could see he was just happy to see me, had dropped in just to chat, and I knew by his obvious peacefulness that he wasn't angry any more. He couldn't have chosen a better year of his life to contrast with this happiness, he was so miserable at 12. I hardly saw him happy from that year until much later. It was good to hear Jesse's words, and not an echo of his father's hostility, coming from Jesse, even if it were only a dream. I think I'll choose to believe it wasn't.