Category Archives: Loss and frustration

Diversion: Houses and herons

My grandfather, who has been dead almost 60 years, lives on in the house he had built, a historic building that carries his name. And he lives on in Google, in the many archived electronic versions of his writings on neurosurgery. Leah told me she’d Googled him a couple of years ago, and a few entries had popped up under his name. When I Googled him a couple of days ago, I intended to see if I could find any internet images of his house. While there were no images available there was information about the house, and there were also pages and pages of his work, archived electronically, as well as writings about him. A paperback called In Memoriam: [his name], [his birth and death dates], caught my attention. It was from Amazon.uk.com, and it could be had for the princely sum of almost $50 (with the appalling exchange rate for the euro), and on an impulse, I bought it.

After I paid, it occurred to me that despite the moniker “paperback,” it’s probably his obituary, out of the newspaper, and if so, I already have a copy, folded neatly into the Bible I inherited when my mother died. Coincidently there were four Bibles, and I knew which one I wanted, the one that had belonged to my great-grandmother, with her name neatly inscribed on the front, and the date, 1887. I was afraid my sisters would want that one too, and I have never been one to argue over material things. However it was the oldest, the most worn, with yellowed pages and a ragged cover, and so I got my wish. I inherited, too, a silver dragon bowl from China (there is a fine story behind that bowl and the book my great-great aunt wrote about my great-great grandmother’s missionary trip to China, which has had a surprising resurrection, and is available still in multiple copies through Amazon.com — not reprints, I suppose, just version still extant, still circulating some 80 years later.)

But back to my grandfather and the Google search: As I scrolled through the list of entries under his name, I found a geneology of my mother’s father’s side of the family going back centuries, and made by my cousin (the son of my grandfather’s brother). I think the most common girl’s name in the family is Elizabeth, and that’s interesting because my daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth (but named after my great-aunt on my mother’s mother’s side of the family).

And there, in that family tree, was my mother, her date of birth, and her date of death, and a live link that led me to the last letter she wrote before she died, which I typed for her because she was paralyzed. And there was her voice again, so bright and filled with life, apologizing for writing a “Dear everyone” letter, relating her life since the last communication as though her journey through the cancer were just one wild and never-ending adventure, joyful, with a certain happy ending.

Beneath her letter was Dad’s notice that she “has been asleep for a week now,” written a day or two before her death, and the words, “Her passing will leave an unfillable void in my life, she had such enthusiam and interest in all things and people.” It was followed by his brief and factual notice of her death, sent the morning she died. Beneath that was a notice from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer listserv, noting her passing.

I read it, and then I took Zeke to school, and on the way back from dropping her off, as I drove the exit ramp to the road that would take me to work, I looked left, and saw a heron on the winterbrown grass, so close I wouldn’t need a zoom to get a decent picture if I had had my camera — which I didn’t. I thought of Loren’s heron pictures, how clear and precisely they capture the details of the great blue heron, the curve of the neck, the long decorative feathers that sweep down from the back of the head, the cool yellow eyes. I could see all those details as the heron turned his head and watched me drive on to work, and then the details blurred as I felt strange tears of surprise and grief and joy, all at once, fill me and overflow.

Retrospective 5: 1967 — Impossible Memories

I have always wondered about the life of the unborn. Babies feel pain. My daughter howled when her heel was pricked for the PKU test when she was a few days old. The old wives’ tale says that a happy mother brings a happy baby. I was a happy baby, the product of blissful months on the beach. Rachel was not, the product of my father’s wanderings, my mother’s loneliness and uncertainty, her cowed return to a home she had fled and an “I told you so” mother who hated the man she had married. And then there is Leah.

In spring of 1967 we are in Nashville. I am not quite two and a half. Rachel is seven months old. And my mother is pregnant again, already.

She feels well, as she always did when pregnant. But my dad has been offered a job at CERN in Switzerland. Her mother is growing sicker with every passing day. My mother has two babies and no resources for another. At some point, she sits in the doctor’s office and asks for an abortion.

He plays an imaginary violin. “You don’t want that,” he says. “Really, you don’t.”

Whether she really didn’t want an abortion and his words awoke her, or whether she simply bowed to male wisdom, accepting her fate as a woman without a mind, she folded her hands in her lap and said OK.

Thus Leah was given her chance. But since childhood this almost-aborted sister of mine has lived in horror of death, of the dark, damp, clamminess of it. She grew up with nightmares, with a jittering terror of the world around her and its dangers lurking everywhere. Still, she is the biggest risk-taker of the four of us: She has backpacked alone in Brazil, worked the agricultural seasons all over Europe, parachuted out of an airplane, squatted in a condemned London house, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. She is both anal retentive and crazywild. She is empathetically generous and simultaneously grasping, always afraid of loss.

It was years after she was born that I found out about my mother’s visit to the doctor’s office. I don’t know if Leah knows about my mother’s moment of ambiguity towards her; I haven’t dared to ask.

One other memory: We are in Switzerland in November, in our sixth-floor apartment in Nyon. Leah has just been born. She has a shock of dark hair and an indignant expression. My mother names her after her mother, who died four months earlier. And I realize, now, that I don’t know whether my mother went home for her mother’s funeral. I realize that I know nothing at all about my mother, other than some facts, and a story I weave into a fabric of my own design out of my memories and those facts.

Retrospective 4: 1966 — In shadow

Two moments rise out of memory for this year, two pieces of information that I can never fully reconcile. There is my mother, in the doorway, backlit, with me on her hip. My dad (not my father, you understand) turns in his office chair, arrested by the fall of golden hair, the silhouette, the voice. When she comes into his office, he sees the clear pale cream of her skin, the scattering of freckles across her nose, and he aches with love. It is the first moment, the first recognition. It is the last image of her he carries, for after she dies, all the others flee. He remembers her most clearly in that first instance.

My mother asks for a job in my dad’s physics lab at Vanderbilt. My dad says yes. How long before they pass beyond boss and worker status? How long beyond friendship?

The other moment is my mother’s memory. She walks into her mother’s house, a house that is now historic, that was iconic when it was built because it was made to her father’s order in the new style by a rising architect. I hold only fleeting memories of the house, of long hallways, of flagstones in pale colors, of everything angled and squared. The roof is flat. The rooms are white, and the light beams in through cool square windows, straight and hard. But this is not true now. Now the house is surrounded by trees, and everything is softened.

My mother goes into her mother’s bedroom, and stops. Does she hear something that draws her there? Does the air feel different? Disturbed? Does she expect to find her mother, ailing, there in the bedroom? She finds, instead, my father coupled with her best friend.

Where was I? In the playpen on the grass outside, perhaps. In my grandmother’s arms, someplace else? It seems I can hear the dreadful silence of my mother’s cry. She sliced through whatever it was that had kept her loving him at that moment, and sent him off, back to the house on the beach, back to the the windy gray days and the gunmetal flash of the water that she had loved.

There is a shadow over this time. Did my father and my dad overlap? My mother says no, but still, the time is full of confusion. There were letters that Rachel and I found years later, love letters from Dad, recalling the “lawnmower engine” of her little Saab in those days. Recalling me in the playpen or on her hip. Rachel? Rachel was a blacocyst, then an embryo. At some point she was a fetus. At what point? We are 21 months apart. Was my mother pregnant that day in the doorway, standing in the light? Or did that come later?

We will probably never know. It is a darkness that shadows those years, that touched me, Rachel, all of us, in a future we could not predict, back then, when I was a baby and Rachel was still in waiting.

Retrospective 2: 1964 — Commencement

My mother negotiated the boardwalks behind the houses with her belly swelling bigger and bigger, though the doctor told her she had a retroverted uterus and was at risk of miscarriage. She should take it easy. She should lie down, put her feet up. My mother laughed. She lived in a little house at the bottom of a cliff. She had to take 213 steps up the cliff just to see the doctor, and to go grocery shopping. She packed the trash out on her back. Walking down the stairs was harder because sometimes she thought she might tip forward with the weight of me in her belly; she might go end-over-end into the water below.

Those first months of her pregnancy were idyllic. Spring and summer came to the area and the water lay glass smooth with the sun going down behind the mountains across the bay. She sat on the deck with her feet up and drank wine. I know she smoked, and now I know she smoked pot too, and perhaps I turned and turned in a world thick with dreams and giddyness, there in the dark warm womb with the light shining pink through her belly skin.

She was happy when she was pregnant. The food intolerances that plagued her between pregnancies and after, till she died, quieted down in those days. She was young and pretty, and her husband was handsome and kind, and the beach was a place for hippies and long conversations and secret trysts, for finding God in the phosphorescence when they took the boat out at night.

Then fall came, the days shortening, the wind hissing across the water. Did she lug herself up the hill alone to buy food, or did that come later? There was a time it all changed; the bliss, the being young-and-beautiful.

In late October I was born. She wrote a poem years later about the birth, and gave Rachel and I a copy. How? She was dead. How did we find it? I forget; I think she came up out of some place of memory and said, “Read this.” It was an act of love.

No.

Rachel said, “Mum wanted us to have this.” She handed it over. The light blew across the room, carrying Mum’s voice. I heard her read to me, from where she had gone just days before:

Your Father’s Gift

He brought a leaf,
Gold, russet, a touch of auburn, so lovely.
I imagine him spotting it as he walked, a girl by his side, smiling.
Its beauty a reflection of hers — in his eyes.
Were they lovers already?
Dappled, dazzled, by the sun as they danced through the whispering leaves.
Chattering. Laughing.

Golden as the leaf, the sun that filled my hospital window.
Golden, shading to amber, shading to umber,
As I waited.

When he came, he brought the leaf. So lovely.
A gift to exchange for the baby I’d just borne him.
I loved the leaf.
It was only the first of many such gifts but it was the best.
Forty falls later I pick up a leaf — shades of gold and amber-brown.
He’s long gone from my life, but I remember.
And I forgive because he brought a leaf.

More shootings

Northern Illinois University. At my friend’s house, I looked at the TV, saw blood on tarmac, heard the announcer’s voice. And then….

  • A movement to allow guns on campus
  • The shooter had recently discontinued psychiatric medication
  • Five school shootings in seven days

I left the living room, went into the bedroom, and sat on the bed. I didn’t want to think about it. But the blood on the tarmac. The blood spilled. Just that image, and the words running around my head, and all the implications. And the realization that I hadn’t heard about the previous killings. And the realization that just a week before an angry boy had been stopped from entering a local high school with a gun, just a few miles from my home. And the realization that I had heard about it and not sought out any more information because I couldn’t face the thought of my daughter going to school every day in a place where she might die. And the realization that I go to school every day in a place where some disgruntled student might pull a gun on me. “I try not to make them angry,” my colleague said the other night. But a grade — a kind of judgment — might make anybody angry. And my daughter… And my daughter…

I was crying. My friend came in, held me. Was it Valentine’s Day I saw the news? The day after? I don’t remember. I just know I can’t bear to live in a country where the response to school shootings is to encourage more guns. I can’t bear to live in a country where the response to anything at all in a person’s psychological life is “take pills.” My friend tells me that there’s a movement to authorize counselors with MA’s only to prescribe psychiatric medication. That’s madness. Except for the pharmaceuticals, who profit, profit, profit, on their dangerous, mindless policies.

And I’m living in a country where five school shootings can occur in the span of a week, and it’s so normal now that it’s hardly publicized. And maybe that’s a good thing, because there are copy cat kids out there. After Virginia Tech my campus was closed for a day after a bomb threat was found in a bathroom in my building. Most of the local high schools had a spate of bomb and gun and knife threats. Then it quieted down for a few months. Till now.

I couldn’t write about it. Wouldn’t think about it. I kept avoiding thinking about the irony of our performances on V-Day and the days after, in the aftermath of more shootings. I found myself wondering was Northern Illinois U planning a V-Day performance. So many colleges do nowadays. What horrible irony: on a day set aside for love, and more recently for activism against violence, a man went berserk and killed people and himself.

I’ve been wrapping myself in numbness. It’s all I can do. I don’t know how else to deal with it. Finally, today, I read a little bit about it. I don’t want to simply pretend it didn’t happen, blithely write on as though I have turned my back. But I did. I’m doing it now. I cried and cried and then I walked out and into the dusky night and went to my V-Day performance. My daughter put on my make up (I never wear it), and covered the red eyes, and I pretended everything was OK. And nobody talked about it.

Always, in the past, there has been desire to talk about it, to express horror, to wish it had never happened. We are long past that now. After Virginia Tech, something changed. It’s just part of our day now, in the same way bomb scares used to be part of the grocery shopping experience in Northern Ireland when I was visiting my grandparents as a child. We got used to it, leaving our carts with their groceries behind in the store and walking out onto the street, into the drizzle and mist, or the fleeting sunshine. And now, now, we just move through our days, knowing that when we walk through the door into our classrooms, we might encounter an armed and angry student. Knowing that our kids might walk into a burst of gunfire. It’s a tiny hint of what people in countries like Iraq or areas like Africa live with daily. So small a connection that I feel a rush of denial when I think of it. They have it much worse. Much worse. I could be run over by a bus, could trip and fall and hit my head and be brain dead. All those cliches. In the meantime, what’s a school shooting or two in this vast country, with its thousands of schools? The chances are so small, so minutely unlikely, that it doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s just that something has changed now. In this country. In me. A way of shrugging off what once would have been unthinkable. My own institution’s total lack of reaction. The silence around the acts. My own desire to turn away, to blink my eyes clear of the blood, and walk on into sunshine, without a nod to the victims. There will be more. We all know that. And nothing can be done.

I will pray for them. I will not turn away. And we will go on. We always went back into the grocery shop in Ireland, after the bomb scares were over. We bought our groceries and walked home in the dying light, the dogs happy and oblivious on their leashes, happy for what they did have, rather than unhappy for what they lacked.

Playing chess with my mother

My mother called me last night. I was preparing to visit a friend, and had chosen to wear a dress she’d given me, a silky flowing dress, very elegant, something she had worn often. It was a coffee brown, a perfect match to a coat I wear for work that she gave me before she died. It took me years to wear the coat, because it was too expensive, too consciously classic, for me to feel comfortable in it. And it was brown, my least favorite color, the color of my school uniform from the old days in Ireland. When I finally put it on, a few months ago, I was surprised at how good it felt, the expensive material soft and almost suede-like, though it was not made from any form of animal product. It was warm, and it fit me perfectly. So there I was, dressed in a coffee-brown, silk dress and my elegant coat, planning to visit a friend, and as I was trying to pass through the door, my phone rang. I fumbled to reach it, pockets, purse, backback. But I couldn’t find it, and it went to voicemail, and then I heard my mother’s voice. She was narrating a chess game. “Pawn to b3” she said. “Knight takes d7.” I threw my purse down, tore off my coat, ripped open my backback, desperate to find the phone. But every time I thought I’d found it it was something else, a book, a stapler, a turtle paperweight, my dog’s leash. And my mother’s voice droned on, part Tennessee accent, “nahn,” she said, “fahv.” Part Irish. “Tomahto,” she said. Not tomaydo.

And then the phone clicked off, and she was gone.

The chess game was good, though. I could see all the pieces, see the skewers and pins and forks. Color-coded lines mapped out the game, the best moves, the potential mates three or four moves down the line. It reminded me of a chess computer game my friend and I have been playing. I always liked chess, though for years I knew nothing more than the basic moves and how to castle, but my friend has taught a fair few people how to play, and last week he bought a chess set for the work release program where he works so the inmates can play. He’ll teach them, patient and thorough as he always is, and maybe some of them will learn something beyond the basic moves, will be caught up in the intricacy and challenge of it and pledge to work to become better.

My friend taught his nephew, who became state champion in high school and is now a more consistent and thoughtful player than he is. It’s a race these days, to see if my friend can improve his game enough to beat his nephew regularly, and as he’s learned so have I.

But why my mother? I’m unsettled today, thinking of how clear her voice was as she spoke those words that would have meant nothing to her. I was so desperate to talk to her, and then she disappeared, and I woke into a world dominated by chess sets. Then they floated away, and only the gray morning light remained, my sleeping dogs pinning me to the bed, and my hand reaching for a phone that doesn’t exist.

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