It starts as a cough and a runny nose, just one more cold. My husband and I think nothing of it. I wipe my son’s nose, spread ointment on his chapped cheeks and put him to bed. Then Andy and I leave for one of our biweekly “dates”—this time at an Italian restaurant near our house, the kind of place that aims for kitsch, serving breadsticks in a brown paper bag and plates big enough for two. We dine on garlic-laden food and drink peppery Chianti and then, because our two hours aren’t quite up yet, decide to drive the long way home.
Haven is babysitting again. She lives next door with her four younger brothers and sisters, and we suspect that she finds our house a welcome retreat from all the commotion. She always arrives after we’ve put Eli to bed—which is sneaky but convenient. Haven and Eli have not met in the formal sense. Whenever she walks by our house with Rider, her little Corgi, she always smiles and says hello, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, Eli scowls at her every time. Maybe he doesn’t like having my attention diverted, even for a minute. One day soon, they will meet and get to know each other, but for the time being we’ll continue this arrangement: Eli goes to bed, Haven arrives and then we quietly slip away. He always sleeps soundly—never waking, blissfully unaware of our absence—while we enjoy ourselves for a couple of hours and Haven watches Animal Planet in the living room.
What our three-year-old doesn’t know can’t hurt him.
[Eyes blink open. Birds chirrup outside.] Hmmm … I wonder if there’s been any more blowback over the condolence call to the Gold Star widow. [Reaches for phone.]
@pamwriter: NO! DON’T!
OK, I just want to check on Puerto Rico then. How much water, electricity …
Well then, I’ll just check the temperature outside. [Reaches for phone.]
@pamwriter no, you know where that will lead
This is not fair. Not fair at all.
@pamwriter completely, eminently fair
I moved to the Twin Cities in 1989 from northern Virginia, after a very brief stint in Bismarck. The first thing I remember seeing upon my arrival, looming beneath the gorgeous Minneapolis skyline, were the stooped white shoulders of the Metrodome.
I wasn’t smitten, exactly. Intrigued is more like it. The Dome hung under the sky, puffy without seeming lofty. It didn’t overwhelm. It held my attention like a benign white whale. And from that point on, it formed part of the backdrop of my life in Minnesota.
For seven years, as a newswoman for the Associated Press, I worked under the Dome’s lumbering shadow, right across the street.
Appropriately utilitarian, the stadium held an unpretentious Midwestern charm. Its steady presence comforted me like the cordial, shambling neighbor you’d see walking by with his dog every morning.
I didn’t realize how much I’d counted on seeing it until it was no longer there.
“Look, Mom,” my son exclaimed, pointing to the yellow sheet of paper tacked to the wall. “Eight people died last month. Eight!”
We were waiting for the elevator, and sure enough, the notice of memoriam confirmed that eight residents had died in February, including two on Valentine’s Day.
“That’s a lot,” Eli said with a solemn nod. The elevator door opened and as soon as we got in he began dancing to a Michael Jackson tune he was humming out loud.
A minute later, he was skipping down the third-floor hallway, past the cafeteria worker with a dolly full of dinner trays, past a waving orderly, past a scrum of residents watching “Jeopardy!” in wheelchairs.
On my mother's forty-fourth birthday, a dozen black roses arrived at my childhood home. It was a Tuesday, and so hot the leaves seemed to hang from the trees in a liquefied stupor. The roses, which looked like little dead crows, were intended for my mother. They seemed to absorb all the light.
Whether the roses were natural, or dyed, or silk, I have no idea — though if they were natural and not dyed, they could not have been truly black. Naturally black roses only appear black, because truly black roses do not exist in nature. Only black-like. Blackish.
A black rose represents a loss of femininity. While red is the universal color of love and lust, connection to a black rose implies a loss of beauty, a gradual fading.
We can't always trust what we see.
(The Tribe Magazine)
Eli has been alive for 17 days, and today I yearn for buttermilk pancakes. My need is primal. It’s a return to unhurried pleasure, a lazy Sunday morning, something that no longer exists. For the past two weeks, when I have been lucky enough to eat breakfast, I have eaten it standing up, hunched over the counter with a bowl and spoon, stuffing my mouth like a dog.
Today, I crave pancakes. Not the kind you find at most breakfast joints, heavy and airless as manhole covers. The pancakes I make are light and crisp, tangy with buttermilk. They’re dotted with blueberries and bananas, covered with maple syrup and a dab of butter. Steam rises from their depths.
God help me, I will eat pancakes. And they will be glorious.
(Rock, Paper, Scissors)
We flew that night. Legs spinning, arms churning—boy, we moved!
It was our stock six-miler, and when we started out, we just wanted it done with. The air seethed with humidity, and the pork chops we ate for dinner still sat heavy in our guts. We had no expectations of speed, but then something changed. As we ran through the woods behind the brick library, past Cooper Junior High, up the hill where the Dobermans always snarled at us, it slowly dawned on us: We were flying.
We’d been speeding up as we went—first me, then Patti. Faster, still faster, probing for the breaking point. It didn’t come. Our breath never snagged in our throats, our legs never felt that telltale sting of lactic acid. We pushed each other, then pulled. I felt myself rise up and then return to my body, ecstatic and desperate. Even then, I could sense we were sharing a singular experience.
In my memory, the streets of downtown McLean are nearly empty. The air feels slack, altogether at odds with our speed. With a little over a mile to go, just past the broken clock tower at McLean Shopping Center, we pick up our pace one last time. That is when I finally marvel aloud over how easy this all feels, and Patti chortles back her assent.
“We’re cruising, aren’t we?” my little sister calls out, as much to herself as to me. “Can you freaking believe this?”
I hope you don’t mind my addressing you this way. You addressed me as P., after all—no last name. Although we’ve never met, you offered condolences for my loss.
The loved one in this case was my mother. Her death came as a shock. Besides occasional spikes in blood pressure, she was in seemingly perfect health until the hot day in August when an aneurysm burst near her brain stem—only hours after her yoga class and less than a year after my father’s somewhat less sudden death from cancer, although none of us could have foreseen his steep and swift decline.
You offered to ease my burden. Your company, you informed me, makes “cash offers for properties in any condition for fair market value,” which “may help to resolve [my] current obligations.” Honestly, you weren’t the first.
(Bellevue Literary Review)
In the summer of ’76, my little sister and I were shipped off to Camp Rim Rock, set beside the leech-infested Cacapon River in the woods of West Virginia. I joined the other ten- and eleven-year-olds in the Cherokee camp, a jumble of rickety cabins at the top of a steep hill, while Patti—at nine a lowly Shawnee—was stationed closer to the lodge.
I remember the overpowering outhouse smell and the way the berries in my strawberry shortcake bled into the tiny dollop of cream. I remember the gnat that flew into my ear, buzzing there for hours until it finally died. I remember horseback riding and camping and playing tetherball for the first times in my life.
But what stands out most from that summer is the song my sister and I learned there, “Obalaba Koobalaba”—one of those nonsensical chants of youth that burns into your brain and never leaves.
Some people might consider my nightstand a big, unsightly, book-covered mess. I consider it a splendid mountain of serendipity.
Consider this morning. I wake up, reach over and pull How to Meditate—a slim, gray book by the Buddhist monk Pema Chodron—off the pile. I turn to the chapter in which Chodron compares emotions to stones thrown in the water, stones that invariably send ripples—those stories we attach to the feelings welling up in us. I’m sad because my dog is sick. I’m happy because my baby took his first steps. Ripples happen; we can’t stop them. But according to Chodron, we can enter an emotion fully only when we experience it apart from the ripples.
(A disclaimer here: I make no claims on Buddhism—my meditation practice is more sporadic than regular—but I’m attracted to Buddhism’s focus on authenticity and aliveness.)
On May 5, 1929, my great-uncle Howard plunged into the choppy surf of Hermosa Beach in southern California. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the shore was littered with towels and umbrellas, families and picnic baskets.
Seagulls wheeled and cried over bone-white sand, over coins of light that danced on the water. A wide concrete pier with tiled pavilions stretched one thousand feet into the ocean. It must have felt like heaven to a boy of sixteen, churning through that salty-cool water, feeling the waves’ silky spray pulse through his fingers and tickle the downy-soft hairs of his chest.
The push and pull, the weightlessness. Fishy and rank and pure. Losing himself in it, not noticing the tug of the tide, his growing distance from shore.
(Blue Mesa Review)
Headaches. Pain. And what had we done for her? Not a thing. No letter, no phone call, certainly no visit. Inside the cramped chapel, my sister and I teetered in our patent-leather pumps and took in our best friend’s lifeless body. We stood under hot flouorescent lights, burning with shame.
Decades later, I can’t wipe the image from my mind:
A mannequin of skin and bones. A light blue dress— she never wore dresses—and untamable hair primped into shiny straightness. The face betrays her most of all. It resembles that of a porcelain doll, white and ghastly, with disks of rouge swirled over both cheeks.
Seeing Pam’s face made me understand how awful things had been for her over the previous months—months when I’d been partying with friends, pining over the class valedictorian, signing yearbooks and pondering the mysteries of life after high school.
All those months Patti and I had barely given our best friend a second thought. We didn’t have all the information, but we knew enough. The headaches, the pain. We should have been there for her. We should have realized how bad things had gotten.
(Tahoma Literary Review)
My little boy watches his grandma on a computer screen. The connection is slow, so my mother doesn't move so much as float into focus, the camera blurring years, decades from her face. For an instant, she looks remarkably like Natalie Wood, before my father breaks the spell by leaning in. He wears a faded blue Nationals baseball cap and waves a stuff penguin at the camera.
"So what would you like for your third birthday, kiddo?" my father asks in a jaunty voice.
My husband and I smile. These are relatively new words, and it still thrills us to hear our son say them.
My father, I gather, enjoys those words for a different reason: If he could bring one thing onto a desert island, it would be a few gallons of Edy's Slow-Churned Fudge Tracks. If he could cart along anything else, it would be a spoon and a freezer. In our son, Dad has found his ice cream soul mate.
(Sliver of Stone Magazine)
You wish your son could glide through life. If only he could hit all the markers. If only you could protect him from the bullies, the looks, the questions: Why does he talk that way? Isn’t he kind of old to be drooling? You want to spare him the angst, the hot shame of being picked last for the kickball team. You want him to be well-liked by his teachers, his peers, himself.
You want him to share his cookies and Matchbox cars, to resist the temptation to yank the cat’s tail. You want him to stand up for himself. At the same time, you see your child as yourself, but better—spared the heartaches you suffered, endowed with the attributes you lacked. You hold in your head two opposing wishes: that he be normal, yet also special. Maybe even extraordinary.
He’s sitting in the little red wagon, legs splayed out on the cushions, gripping his mantra tighter than the wagon’s peeling sides.
“Id okay,” my son whispers, more to himself than to me. “Id okay.”
Normally, this springtime walk home from preschool is filled with happy, half-intelligible chatter about Eli’s friends, his teachers, the songs they sang that day. But today, his voice is quavering, and I turn around to see the familiar neon green of the recycling truck. It grumbles in our direction, stops, and there is the loud clatter-crash of glass and metal—beer and wine bottles, cat food cans, pasta sauce jars tumbling into the truck’s open mouth. The noise makes Eli jump and grip the sides even tighter.
“Id okay id okay id okay,” he whispers like an incantation, his voice on the edge of breaking.
The truck starts up again, its air brakes emitting a half squeal, half belch, and this time Eli lets out a full-throated whimper.
I can’t sleep.
The lilac unlatches my bedroom window and creeps inside. It floats into bed and engulfs me with its pillowy scent.
I know I should like it.
After all—it’s a harbinger of summer. That sweet profusion of blooms proves beyond doubt that we’ve rounded the bend. Memories of its lumpen, snow-encased branches still stir, ghostlike. We shiver now, not from cold but from the soft joy of breeze against bare skin.
I want to like the lilac. I even want to love it. Its plain, tight buds—so primly Minnesotan—belie its liquor-laced intemperance. I want to open my arms and grow dizzy in its embrace.
But the lilac’s scent holds no subtlety. It doesn’t hint. It hits me full-on, like a high-pitched catterwaul, like cheap Manischewitz, like a fast-talking snake-oil salesman promising eternal life. How can such tiny blooms hold so much blowsy, naked need?
My hometown hums with unseen ghosts. After all these years, too much has changed. Nowadays they sell aqua cultured caviar where we once ate greasy pan pizza. Down on Chain Bridge Road, lattes have replaced Slurpees. But right in the middle of town the old brick service station retains its sag-roofed splendor, unmarred by beautification. Its homeliness catches in my throat.
Remember, sister, those humid nights when we ran past all this in our waffle trainers? Remember, earlier still, our terrified glee as insects crawled out by the millions? We felt that brood in our bones. Over their lovesick chorus, we shrieked and plucked their crumbling mummy bodies from brick and bark. We tossed them skyward— expecting what, exactly? They were only husks by then. The live ones were long gone, singing their soundtrack from the branches. They sang because they’d waited in dirt for the right spring rain. They sang because they’d swelled from the ground and tunneled from their skin. They left their empty pods for us to fling as their mad drive to procreate before dying filled our ears. They sang and mated and stilled—and then we flew away.