Friday, May 15, 2009

My left foot

There's a lump on a tendon in the arch of my foot. The podiatrist thinks it's a fibroma, so I went for an MRI of my foot today at lunch, stuck my foot in the machine and fell asleep. While the machine hummed around my arch I dreamed that I answered a door, and as I opened it, it became the door to our family home in Ohio, and there was my dad, smiling. Grayer than I remember, a little shorter. I hugged him and said, "you know, we never really cared if it was $60,000 or $20,000, we just wanted you here." And he hugged me harder, as if to say, "I know that now..." but before he could answer I woke up. The machine was still humming.

On the way home, someone from Jesse's law school called and said, "I've been thinking of you and Jesse all week. Jesse would be graduating now, and the dean wanted to mention him in his speech." She read me her notes, but I could barely hear over all the traffic. It sounded fine, whatever it was. Right before we signed off she blurted out, "and I'm, I'm sorry." "Thanks," I said, trying to sound as warm as possible.

Just last night I was out with friends from Slate's fray, and one of them, in response to some wisecrack of mine, said, "except my mother's dead." "Well, there you go," I said. And then I caught myself in the same spot my existence puts everyone else. I looked at him, thinking, did I say the wrong thing? Was that stupid? Did he lose her recently and I fucked up? He looked back at me as if to say, don't worry about it, and we moved on in the conversation, but I can't help thinking: I know when I'm ok with making light of my orphanhood. But I can't know when it's ok to be light about someone else's, even when they present it lightly. Death's territory begins at the edge of every word.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Happy birthday Jesse

This time 25 years ago I was sound asleep with you in my arms, after 33 hours of labor. You were born at home, with a midwife, a couple of my friends, and your dad to help. She laid you on my stomach and you looked up at me, wide eyed. Everyone clapped, till the midwife told them to be quiet for your sake. For the first few moments your father and I had been afraid to touch you, you looked so fragile. I didn't realize how small you would be, even though at 8 and a half pounds, you were a pretty big newborn. The midwife had to coax your dad to pick you up and give you your first bath, then hand you gently back to me to nurse.

At the time we both believed that we would be perfect parents, that we would be able to give you an ideal childhood, free of the mistakes our parents made. We were as stupid as any young parent can be. Worse because we refused to believe anything anyone else told us. We thought we were smarter and better than anyone.

This morning I couldn't help flogging myself remembering that Green Day song, Time of Your Life. In my blind arrogance I really thought I could give you that. Now I look back and I can't think of a time after you were 10 that I could credit myself with giving you anything like a happy childhood. No matter how I tried it turned out painful and wrong. Like the year your birthday fell on Mother's day, and I called you in Michigan that Friday, in case you were leaving town-- I didn't want to miss your birthday call. Then on Sunday you called to wish me happy Mothers day and chewed me out for not remembering your birthday. I started feeling as if there were nothing I could do that wouldn't hurt you, no matter what choices I made. I don't know how conscious you were that you were always looking for reasons to be angry at me. I don't think you understood what had been done to you to make you look at me that way, always looking for the flaw, the proof that I somehow didn't love you, that I couldn't be trusted.

And now I realize that your distrust of me was a mirror of my distrust of the world. We each labored behind our own warped glass, unaware that were weren't seeing things as they were, or as we wished them to be, we only saw through the filter of our fear and ignorance. In my case, everything your father said made sense because it fit my fears and foolishness. In yours, you were too young to know any better, and I didn't know how to reach out to you past what you were brainwashed into believing.

There should have been time for us to work through all this. There should have been decades and second and third chances.

The minor victories weren't enough. I'm sorry.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Emptying Grandpa Milt's place

It's not fun, going back to a place full of that many memories, after the owner has died. I can't help feeling like I'm violating it just by being there. My brothers in law seem to have their emotions in check, but I'll look at one of Milty's guyaberas, or his captain's cap, and start crying. The younger one teases me for this. I don't blame him. It's easier to keep your cool if you make fun of someone else for losing theirs.

I'm helping them empty it out. First we took out tons of papers and things no one would ever need again. Then we cleared out everything the real estate agent told us should go, so we could use the rest to stage the place for sale. They painted it, and photographed it with a fish eye lens so it looked enormous. The middle brother had to stop them from including a shot of the Hudson no one could have seen from that window. You'd have thought we were in a boat, not on the 16th floor.

Today, more bagging of things. I'm to get several pieces of furniture. They want me to take more, but I can't find a place for all of it, as nice as it is. Some of it is probably too nice for my loft. But I can't stand the idea of anything that pretty, or that meaningful, getting thrown out. My husband will probably freak when he sees the two stone pillars, but I'm taking a stand. They're beautiful, I've always admired them, and now I'm told I can have them, that I should take them. One is darkly veined white marble, one is a greenish alabaster. Milt had an eye for good lines. My own grandparents had so many beautiful antiques, and when they passed on, my aunts and uncles fought over them and tore the family apart. My dad was the family peacemaker, and he had been gone for decades. Now they're calling the police on each other, and my grandparents entire inheritance has gone to lawyers. So this peaceful transfer of goods, of the symbols of family, of the dead, is more than ceremonial to me.

I guess in a way, taking these things binds me back into my ex's family, unites me with my children's grandparents again. They're a symbol of what was and no longer really is: the brothers in law were never very close to us, not the way Milt and Julia were. I don't think Jesse's brother is ready to understand what it means to say, that was my grandmother's, that was Milt's. Maybe it's foolish to take pride in things. I'm sure it is.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Let in your dead.

A few years ago, I stepped out of a grocery store on third ave, into a cold, half drowned, windy day, one of those throwaway afternoons when everyone wishes they were anywhere else, or at least home; only to be overcome with the sensation that I was my dad, alive for this brief moment, embraced by this amazing wind, the rain's delicate fingers tapping my skin; exultant to be carrying bags of food, to see the hundred kaleidoscopic grays of the sky and leafless branches. The music of of tires on rainy asphalt, again and again. I could feel each person who passed me by as if they had brushed against me and whispered something only they knew. I could see how the day would unfold but what matters was I was here, on third avenue, alive, even for this moment alone. Reprieved.

I'm told that New Orleanians are a bit too comfortable with their dead, with death.(I hear the post-burial second line bothers the hell out of folks from out of town, when it's associated with an actual funeral.) I suspect that's one reason Rice set so many of her novels there. But I wouldn't give up my relationship with my own dead, even if it's really a relationship with parts of myself that they represent. Too much would be lost in cutting them out of my conscious world. That doesn't mean I think it's ok to be preoccupied with loss.

I'm afraid, I think, to let Jesse that far in, to give him the reins as I did my dad. It's already so unbearable to have lost him, and to have lost him in so many ways. In trying to get to know who he was as a young man (in those ways that parents can't know their adult children), I've sometimes asked his friends to tell me things about him; but it's not the same. Not knowing reminds me too much of how far apart we'd grown, of the destruction of trust we were helpless to prevent.

Jesse and his girlfriend had broken up two months before he died, but they had remained close friends. She has become family in a way; she and my sister are friends, as are she and I. I think she'll probably need more time to work things out for herself, but nothing would make me happier than to see a picture of her with her new baby on my photo wall, right next to the one of her with my sisters' baby, from a few months ago. We're the only people she can mourn Jesse with, and I have no inclination to protect her from her own process and feelings. I do however, think twice before asking her to help me with mine.

I'm trying to settle with going back to times in his life when we were closer, when he and I really let each other in, and to connect with him that way. I know what he loved when he was younger. I know what hurt and what he admired. I don't know how it is that I knew my father better than I knew my son. I knew them both almost exactly the same number of years. How is it that these bookends of death have placed themselves in my life?