Adagio

Most people claim that time passes too swiftly. Parents in particular. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hear someone exclaim—at a birthday party, at the worrying of a loose tooth, at the advent of kindergarten, in celebration of a baby’s first steps—”They grow up so fast!” No, they don’t. Not always. When parenting a special needs child, one with delays in development, the reverse is true. Time passes slowly. Sure there are still the loose teeth, the outgrown corduroys, the first days of school. The body grows, and time passes, but we are parenting in adagio. There is still music playing but at a pace significantly slower and often less dynamic than the usual exciting, staccato rhythms of life with children. Sometimes, in this special kind of life, time plays out like a dirge. Particularly during the frequent illnesses you have no control over, or during the IEP [individualized education plan] meetings where for several hours a number of well-meaning people tell you, unrelentingly, just how behind your child is, or during the tantrums so inappropriate that it is anything you can do to make the seconds speed by before you can leave Target. Superficial, yet critical: I have been watching the same Elmo’s World episodes for nearly 10 years. I can no longer understand parents who bemoan the passage of time; I crave it. And yet, I also fear it because with each year, my son’s age splits like a widening gulf between the years and his capabilities. My 10 year old is a 3 year old; someday I hope my 25 year old will be my 10 year old.

The hard-won gift of this glacial pace is, however, in those moments when your child, no matter how delayed, shows the mastering of a new skill. Noah did not walk until he was 3 years old. And now, over a year later, I watch him with eyes filled with awe as he runs awkwardly through the grass at our neighborhood park. He did that! It is something he did, that he once hadn’t done! And in those moments, it doesn’t matter in the least that he looks nothing like the other children running around him, that his gait is herky-jerky and he is expressing a level of glee that have most of the kids looking at him like he’s just broken their favorite toy. It doesn’t matter the tears shed or the doctors’ appointments booked or the therapy sessions tolerated. In other words, the time that is past no longer matters. No. Those moments linger like a singular note held after a bold crescendo that is so beautiful, and simple, and clear that it is physically painful the longer it is held, and yet, you can only savor it as long as it lasts. 

My Phoenix

(2008 – Noah is three years old.)

Before he was born, each moment
simmered down so simply
to: happy, sad. Now I am neither. Never
one nor the other. A haze
has settled, an eclipse cloaks
the light, and I rummage, blind,
through piles of emotions, sinkholes
of scraps, all notes on a broken heart,
searching for clues, an X on a map, a route, a way out.

The world turned grey for us. No
bright colors any more for us,
our lives whittled down with
Unmet expectations shaved off in wormlike
curls. Lost dreams drop
off behind us like so much
debris in ditches, piles of discard and disuse.

Now my back bends.
My belly scrapes the ground.
I am loaded like a beast
of burden. My weight is weighted with wants
I can no longer put to work
in the hopes of shaping a life
for myself, for him, that is measured
by capacity and not by limits.
And I am tired, tired
of sorting feelings
into orderly bins: hope love disappointment.

Yet, one day, long
after he should, he points
To an apple, red and round
on a white page. Recognition. Cognition.
And there. Oh there it is.
Like a mouse burrowing
beneath fall leaves, like a faint voice
whispering from beneath rubble, hope stirs.
And like a pale green sprout, slow
in its uncoiling, Noah unfolds.
And suddenly I believe again.

Some day he will learn
his letters, his numbers, his name.
And on those new-colt legs, he will
run with friends, run from me,
from my arms that have carried him far too long.
He will run, fly, and I will
be the first mother to cheer, to say, to plead:
Go, my son, grow up too fast.
Like they all said you would. Go.

Moments of Impact

After Hiroshima dead bodies were found of people who had been wearing printed kimonos when they were killed. The bomb had melted the cloth on their bodies, but the design on the kimonos remained imprinted in the flesh. It seems to me in later years the deep nerveless passivity of that time together had become the design burned into my skin while the cloth of my own experience melted away.

Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments

Some say they remember where they were, what they were doing, when Kennedy was shot. Of course that means they remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard Kennedy was shot. Some say the same about Lennon. I seem to recall being at Clayton and Maxine’s house, friends of my parents, staying over because my parents were out of town, when Elvis died. I can’t be sure it was Elvis, but I’m pretty sure it was. And I don’t think I remember that moment because I was any particular kind of Elvis fan, but instead because I didn’t understand why this was a big deal. To me, Elvis was only the Elvis of the sparkly white jumpsuits and ridiculous dark glasses; I didn’t understand Elvis as a cultural phenomenon. I didn’t understand that Elvis had changed everything for an entire generation. But my parents’ friends were struck, and I thought I should be too. It was the dissonance of the experience that makes me remember that moment.

I remember being in the band room of my high school when I first heard about the Challenger blowing up in the sky. Perhaps I only remember it because Sally Ride was another Sally, but I think that I remember it because I felt staggered by the realization that the brave were sometimes the least safe.

When OJ took his white SUV on the run, we crowded around a small television set usually reserved for important sports events at the insurance brokerage firm where I temped. At work, where I made copies of documents and then filed those copies, OJ was water-cooler fodder and a spectacle that brought us together for days, weeks, months, with the denouement so deflating it seemed to diminish just how new and bizarre it was to watch news happen in real time.

I had just walked into the gym the morning of 9/11. Instead of running on treadmills, or stepping on ellipticals, or hefting and dropping weights, the people in the gym that morning were standing still and staring up in silence at the silent televisions broadcasting a tower’s collapse. Rebroadcasting the moments of impact. At first, I thought it was a movie. I thought soon Will Smith or Bruce Willis would appear.

Why I remember those events from the past is anyone’s guess. Some events are so dramatic, the impact clears the every day clutter from your head and stamps itself like a brand on your memory. Other events just joins the messy brigade of thoughts marching and encamping throughout the day, denying those moments the time to take root in the soil of memory. I can’t tell you what I was doing when I first heard that Katrina hit New Orleans, when the earthquake hit Haiti, or a defective reactor poisoned the people of Chernobyl, Japan or Three Mile Island.

Seemingly solid memories bleed and reshape like oil drops in water. Tip your brain one way and the memory will elongate; close your eyes and you can drop yourself down in the moment, but it’s a bit like Marty McFly or Quantum Leap: so little control once you project yourself there. When I picture myself in the band room, in the brokerage firm office, in the gym, I don’t move and I don’t react. I only see. Maybe because if I move, I will affect history like any good sci-fi movies warns of, or I will cause the memory to shift and it will never regain its former shape, or I will peer too hard and the clearly drawn edges of the memory will become amorphous and I’ll begin to doubt everything I once thought I knew.

My mother often told the story of announcing to my father they had been approved for an adoption and would be receiving a baby, my brother, by posting the news on the red brick silo just behind our garage. When I think on this now, I simply cannot believe it. How my mother would have posted a sign that big that high-up defies any kind of logic. She would have needed a lift truck to do the deed, but in my mind, that memory of her memory persists.

I was in Mr. Buck’s 7th grade English class when someone came to the door to pull from class and tell me my mother had died. I remember it being our pastor at the door. I would imagine he had been brought there by our principal but I can’t remember him there in the moment. I think we sat in the principal’s office because somewhere in the school my father waited for me after the telling, but I’m not sure. My mind’s eye can’t see the room, can’t remember the first hug. I do remember sitting on my father’s lap in the front seat of the pastor’s car–nicer than any of ours, I know–as he drove us home, leaving my brother at the high school as he was unwilling, my brother, to let the news impact his regular day.

I can’t remember how I learned that my father had died. Maybe my brother and I were exchanging phone calls? Maybe someone from the hospital called me? How can I not remember that? But I do remember coming home (from the gym? from a tennis match?) and listening to a message on my answering machine (from my aunt? or my uncle? a message from either would have been strange as I hadn’t spoken to either of them in at least a decade) telling me my father had been taken to the hospital via ambulance. I know he lived, in a coma, a few more days. I know I didn’t travel to Minnesota to see him. I don’t remember why not going seemed the best option.

Other news also came on like a slow burn of a ditch fire, carefully watched, but somehow still wild. My son’s disabilities revealed themselves like drips into a bucket that fills surprisingly fast and overflows with a gush. By his first birthday we knew that he was not the child we’d dreamed of having. For the next three years I would fight against that reality, trying futilely to cup the water in my hands and put it back into the full bucket.

My husband’s leukemia took months to diagnose. There was always something else it could be. It was exhaustion; it was cluster headaches; it was a virus. The other possibilities were ludicrous as few suspect cancer in an otherwise healthy, downright robust 48 year old man, despite most of us worrying ourselves over cancer every day. Leukemia. Blood cancer. White blood cells gone rogue.

And maybe because it was just months ago, but I remember the moments with calm clarity. I remember sitting at home, thinking it could be leukemia. I remember telling myself that the most devastating thing is often the least likely. He texted me that they were doing blood dialysis to reduce the number of white blood cells because he had far, far too many. But no, he said, he didn’t know what that meant. It took me a couple of hours to get to the hospital. I knew he was sick, that he had been sick, that he hadn’t been who he usually was for many months. But I didn’t expect to see him stripped and bloated on the table, multiple tubes like computer cables running to a churning machine from a port in his neck, his skin blotched around the injection site with stains of dry brick red blood. Each of the tubes were removing blood from his body, pulling his blood into the machine, separating and hoarding the white while returning the red. I stopped dead at the doorway. He turned to me, knew what I was seeing, and said, “I’m sorry, honey.”

And I think that was the moment we both knew. Even before the technician from the blood center let the word chemotherapy drop from her mouth, before any doctor had warned us of the possibility, or rather, the necessity of treating his cancer immediately, no choice in the matter. The gravity of his words, “I’m sorry,” crushing the hope that anything from this point on would be easy. No, what had already been hard would now become harder. The load would be heavier and the direction of our life together less clear.

The word cancer makes people think of death. So does leukemia, though there are many stories we hear about people who have been cured with much hard work, by the doctors, by the sick. My husband has always been a strong man, a hard worker who has defined himself to himself by putting hand to the proverbial plow. He is two months into what will be the two years of the hardest work he will ever have to do. I choose to believe his body can withstand the impact of the blows. I choose to believe that his will can insure the result. I can only hope my heart’s scars have formed a strong enough infrastructure beneath the minute fractures to keep me from crumbling from each upcoming strike.

Amputations

Last fall, I visited a friend and we went to meet her lover. We found the woman squatting over her sidewalk like a clam, using her fingers like pincers to pull tiny weeds from between the slabs of concrete. She looked up with red, wet eyes as we approached, and she swiped at tears with a bent wrist, keeping her dirt-blackened fingers away from her damp and florid face.

“I miss my father,” she said to my friend, and since I didn’t know her, I pretended not to hear. During the visit, I pieced together that this day was an anniversary of his death, and that her father had died many more years ago than mine.

I have never been overcome by tears in the middle of the day while thinking about my father. In fact, I’ve never been overcome by tears at any time when thinking about my father since his death. Then and now I wonder what is wrong with me. I loved him. I had love for him.

My journal entry on the date of his death was this:

182lbs.
My father died.

I can’t be certain that I wrote down my weight early that morning and then learned of my father’s death later in the day. I can’t be certain I didn’t note that my father had died, and then sometime later that day, got onto the scale, and then entered the numbers at the top of the page like I did every day. I can’t be certain I wasn’t, as I always am, still thinking about my body’s weight, even under the weight of knowing, knowing my father was dead. I can’t be certain I didn’t grab a fold of skin and wish I could just trim it off like I might my bangs, or the fat off a roast. I can’t be certain that I didn’t just carry on after he was gone.

Last week I dreamed my father was a homeless man, strumming a guitar on the I-94 freeway leading out of Milwaukee, and I was afraid he would be killed.

Of course it was a dream because my father was dead, died of a bleeding colon. We donated his eyes to science. And he never lived in Milwaukee, nor did he ever play guitar, but I have spent the last six days since the dream wanting to rush out of my life and go looking for him, like a lost dog, like a missing limb.

The Gun

The kids unearthed the gun on an ordinary Thursday. Digging in the sand with their feet and hands like little crabs with toes calloused from a summer spent barefoot at the lake, they hit pay dirt. The gun revealed itself shyly. The intricate designs of the barrel emerged first, and the oldest child dusted away the dirt with eager fingers. This was no delicate dig but an urgent uncovering, a need waiting to be satisfied. They used plastic shovels to scrape around the edges, and more silver became exposed with each swipe.

The barrel of the cap gun was broken, half the tip eroded away either by time, sand, or rough twentieth-century play. The design imprinted on the silver barrel read, Buffalo Bill, and the parents could only deduce that the gun was old and the children who played with it had been children when they were children. The youngest boy loved the gun. He had never been allowed a gun to play with, but this toy was different. This was a relic, his mother said, and somehow that made all the difference. He could cock the lever, pull the trigger, point the gun at his big sister and not get yelled at once.

The gun was unlike anything he saw in his cartoons: laser weaponry that decimated whole planets. This gun was heavy and metal and old. Being nine, old was something to be behold. His mother, his grandmother, they were old. His sister, she wanted to be old. The villains in his cartoons were mostly old. And ugly. But not this gun. This gun despite it’s broken barrel and useless trigger was beautiful, so he held it in his palm when he could, and he hid it in his plastic fishing box below the few lures and weights his father allowed him to call his when he was called in for dinner.

By the end of the summer, he will have forgotten about the gun. At some point he will have quickly put it down on a shelf in the shed he’d been investigating to run down the dock toward his father’s boat and the opportunity to go fishing across the lake. Maybe he’d catch a big one. When his grandfather dies, and his grandmother, who can no longer navigate the many stairs from house to lake, sells and moves into a home where women in colorful smocks and hard-soled clogs will help her dress and clean, he will find the gun again. His sister won’t remember having ever played with it, even says she didn’t remember where it had come from, but he doesn’t believe her.

The gun will be smaller than he remembers. At fifteen, he goes hunting with his father, has just graduated from using a .22 to a rifle, though he prefers a bow. More challenge, and somehow more honest. The gun’s barrel is in his palm, he pulls back the lever, and pulls the trigger. The gun lets off a resonant but purposeless click echoing in the now emptied shed. He knows then that he will toss the gun into the rented garbage bin now parked between the shed and the house as he walks away. But he wishes for a moment he might bury it, bury it in the hard, hard dirt below the sand, so he can stumble upon it again as when he digs his calloused toes into the cool sand.

The Birthday Party (Stigmata)

At 41, she chose the low-cut blouse
in aubergine to wear to her party. Not
because at 40 she had gotten a compliment
about her breasts from her friend’s
drunk husband. Not because trolling
for compliments suited her. Instead,
she prayed (with little faith) by fingering her breast
bone and clavicle, which formed a cross
under the thin skin over her heart,
that her 41st year would offer less
suffering than had her 40th.

Preying on Time

I am driving, and I am happy. I am streaming George Michael’s greatest hits–Ladies and Gentlemen–from my iPhone and into the speakers of a Toyota RAV we were given by your parents, a gift, no doubt because they feel somewhat sorry for us, for the lost dream, but it has a JVC bass and a V6 engine, so the music sounds good and I can accelerate through traffic when every car seems to move more slowly than I can possible stand. I am driving from an hour spent with my physical trainer, who is good-looking but not very interesting, and so the perfect recipe for a stranger who might touch my body, watch how my body works, correctly it with a slight touch of fingertips. He costs me $52 an hour and I have been seeing him weekly for a year, and have something like 18 pounds and a more defined waistline to show for the investment. I am driving from two hours spent under the not-so-tender ministrations of my hairstylist–(I am too Minnesotan to utter an “ow” when she pulls a brush through my hair which still knots up into a rat’s nest like it did when I was 7)–who has made my long hair copper, and my eyebrows less sprawling, for $170 dollars (including tip.) I said yes, when she produced a new product from her cupboard, to be used during the dying process to increase the likelihood my hair will “take” the color, though she can’t guarantee it, because everyone’s hair is different. I justify my acquiescence by reasoning that the dye is expensive itself, so why not try to make it last; plus, any time I walk into a Target or Walgreens, I seem to buy $25 dollars worth of stuff I’d never planned to buy, so why not spend it deliberately in this way? I am heading across town, my workout behind me, my hair gleaming and straightened, the music I wrote my undergrad thesis–short stories, not all of them about love–to, this one: Praying for Time, playing in the cocoon of my car, heading up north to a shop that specializes in “ski, tennis, and snowboard” and is as high-priced as it seems. I am getting my tennis racquet restrung, possibly because my elbow has started hurting and new strings may solve the problem, but also because I have been losing a lot, losing to both better players and to players that shouldn’t have the skills to beat me. I know I am mentally suspect. I know that when push comes to shove, I tighten up, and that is why I lose more than I should. But maybe new strings will turn my luck around, lift my confidence so I can fire off the forehands that make up the majority of my game. My game. It’s pretentious for a 44 year old woman who has only been playing tennis for 10 year to refer to herself as having “a game” and no doubt I’d roll my eyes at any middle-aged weekend basketball player or early-morning round of golf before going into the office who referred to himself has having “a game,” but I spend a lot of time and money on said game, because hitting a down-the-line winner during a match feels as good to me as a kiss, and winning? Definitely as good as an orgasm. Since my husband and I have no time or energy for sex, I take what satisfaction I can get by hitting a backhand slice dropshot against that one lady who called my T-serve “out” when it was obviously in. I try not to let her gamesmanship affect me, but it usually does. I try to shake it off; I try to lighten up; I even call one of her in shots “out.” But I’m shaken. Put on the defense. Forgetting to play my game. At the shop, I see that they are offering a sale on last year’s racquet models. Spontaneously, I buy one for $125, as a backup in case I break mine–it’s becoming more frequent that I bang my racquet on the hardcourts when I make a particularly dense error–or even just break a string (which likely will never happen because I simply don’t put that much spin on the ball.) Better to be safe than sorry, and it is a good deal. I justify spending money on tennis as a way of investing in myself. I’m not thin, and I don’t run, and I like to eat too much of just about anything, but I love tennis–I joke that my last life was as a labrador because I’ll only stop eating if I’m chasing a little yellow ball–and I’m glad something gets me moving. Perhaps that one form of exercise will amount to even the smallest increase in my life expectancy, because it’s true that I can never die. I mean, I will. But, this thought, fleeting as the shadow of a hawk as it glides low over a field in search for a mouthful, a talonful, of field mouse, comes again, right then at this moment when I am so happy, when I am doing the right things to be happy, because this is a good life with a good job that allows me to buy everything I need to be happy in this and any moment, and a good marriage that allows me to the freedom to find and do these things that make me happy, but really, how can I ever be happy, knowing that when I die, when I die sometime between now and, maybe, another 44 years, I will leave behind a son who will never be able to care for himself by himself. Another new fissure is added to the many, too many, that striate my heart at that moment when I swallow the truth that there is no happy, just forgetting. A friend once told me that people are like antelopes in the plains of South Africa. We have to forget that there is a lion, a predator lurking just over the rise, or our anxiety over dying would subsume us, exhaust us for the escape. When Noah began having seizures and a futureless future was like a blackhole looming on the horizon of my life, I spent a lot of money, money that we didn’t have, in order to distract myself. Maybe that’s what I’m still doing. Maybe I’m buying back some of that lost dream. Because every life needs evolution, some kind of stone-rolling that justifies our experiences, painful or no, and we often live our evolution outside our bodies, through the lives of our children. We put everything we have become into them, hoping they stay safe, alive really, and learn from our knowledge, knowledge that has long evolved past what our parents knew and their parents knew. But my son cannot. He simply cannot. So I evolve for him. I will do what he cannot. I will be happy because I can make myself be happy, like clay into a vase that holds happy, an extra supply because maybe then my happy can be his, because unhappiness cannot not touch him as long as I am alive.