It’s our daughter Alissa’s fortieth birthday. My first impulse was, “That can’t possibly be true!” My second was to remind myself that it will be my seventieth birthday this year. My third was to sit down and stew. All the cliches about time flying whizzed through my head. I didn’t like that most of my reactions could have been written on a Hallmark card. I wanted mine to be unique and all my own.
I still remember that moment when, in the hospital during a tropical storm in New Orleans, I gazed at her for the first time. And you guessed it–love at first sight. Her cries were something new, something never before heard because they were the cries of my child in my arms, hers, her very own. I know that at 2 a.m. when she started letting out a racket that could wake the dead, I wondered indignantly, “Someone ought to take care of this baby,” and then I suddenly realized that someone was actually me and I better step up to being a mom, not a kid anymore. Someone else was taking my spot.
There are glimpses of memories of her giggling, learning to sit up, learning to crawl, learning to walk. Her little behind wiggling in her diaper. I can see her dancing and singing into her toy microphone, blond hair flying, big green eyes full of everything new, full of first times, full of potential and future.
Then the divorce, the sadness, the realization that no matter how I tried I could not protect her from the shit life throws at you. But her resilience astonished me, her drive for a good life, her acceptance when I dropped a new dad and three brothers in her lap. I wish I could go back and make that easier, too, wish I could have had more time, less stress, more money, shorter work hours.
So many things I would do differently, so regretful of mistakes I made.
Then I suddenly sat up straight with an epiphany. That baby, that day in that tropical storm, she survived it all with grace and humor and ambition and kindness and love and anger and hard work and strength of character because she came like that, into the world; I got to watch her grown and be. She became a mom herself, and she is shouldering that new role as she has always done, with, “This challenge is here, let’s get busy making the best of it.” I relaxed finally and felt a release. It is her turn now, mine to just watch and applaud. Mine to smile and clap. I felt a shift, a moving over, resignation, an acceptance that my job is done and that I must have done something right.
Sometimes endings happen without fanfare,
it's just over.
No celebratory toast
no gold watch
no kiss goodbye.
The electric door swishes open.
You inside, me outside.
No awkward goodbye,
no promises we know we won't keep
The air is different, thinner.
I float ahead on zero gravity.
gentle snap of heart strings -
no blood, no pain.
You inside, bustling, busy.
Me outside with nothing pressing,
no one expects me.
I might soar away
like a helium balloon released
by a willful child.
So easily severed, this bond,
like cutting a raspberry with
a sushi knife.
We don't even turn back to wave goodbye.
You on to the next task, the next headache.
Inside, through the window
you button your jacket
against the air conditioning.
I face the sun, relish it’s warmth.
Life's ties so easily broken.
Laugh, at this cruel joke.
I skip away elated
no longer related.
I want to simplify my life to have more time to do things I love…
What things are frivolous enough to drop? Is it the minutes watching goldfinches fight at the feeder, no, hardly that.
I’m compelled to witness tiny black wings battle the crowd, an eternal combat for enough nyjer to survive another day. And I am their quartermaster filling feeders, scooping black sunflower, millet, and safflower in great piles as the chickadees watch from swaying branches.
So, I must do that.
Well, what then, what should be stripped? Is it tending to terriers? Three sets of eyes fixed, anxious, waiting…waiting…waiting. The squeak of pleasure when I give in, set the computer aside and scratch behind their ears.
No abandoning that.
Should I expunge my hours writing? If so, this bit of text would never emerge on this page, in this dawn light at my desk.
Forego time with my grandchildren…their pink faces growing every time I turn my back?
What should I erase? Is it reading lovely novels? Is it plumping the pillows on the couch? Maybe I could resist the smell of homemade bread, whole wheat with sunflower, honey, and flax?
Should I flake out on my glorious hour of yoga…delicious shavasana at the end? No Namaste?
What do I delete? How do I choose? Do I cut loose beloved friends, wash my hands of foremost family?
Where is the manual, the guide to live an uncluttered life?
Do I kick my hiking through wildflower-strewn-meadows to the side? My husband? He of many intimate years?
Is it podcasts that need to go?
Or should it be my loom? Should I pack its warp and weft and throw it over? Stop caressing the soft wool as under-over it emerges into a living marvel?
What is it that I can sacrifice for efficiency, peace of mind, and order?
Then the revelation, the circle…
What would I do with extra time found in a trimmed-down life? I would observe the chickadees, scratch the terriers, write, frolic with my grandchildren, amble with my husband, chatter with friends, devour a novel, lose myself in podcasts, I would dream weave on my loom.
And I’m right back where I started…how do I find time to do the things I yearn to do? I’ll go watch the goldfinches, have a slice of warm buttered bread, and chew it over.
This Sad Spring arrived, daffodils, lilacs, baby squirrels, peonies, grass growing. I admit to a renewed amount of energy and relief that the sun is out longer and vaccines are in more and more people’s arms. But along with the child-like enthusiasm for the temporal yellows, purples, reds, blues, and verdant greens, I have a lingering sadness, a loss that twists around my life like a wisteria vine.
Even Spring herself isn’t as whole-hearted as usual, she arrives sotto voce, as though compelled to apologize for her flamboyance; she keeps herself in check. She slips in, bridles her dervish energy, no super bloom, only allows a quiet, dignified, slow evolution from darkness to light. This year, spring breezes wear a black mourning band.
How many of us are gone? How many lives now vapor, now a forgotten photograph, now stardust? Some close to me; I hear their voices still, see their hand stroke the dog, their mirth at catching me in a gaff. They wore their hopes on their sleeves, now rent and turned to ash. And there are thousands I do not know, but all, all their departures generate a vortex, a contrary spinning gust that uniquely chills this season.
There are other things I mourn, not deaths per se, but loss nevertheless. Gone is the naïve belief that “It can’t happen here,” that “Common sense will win out,” that empathy is universal.
I once believed that if a man couldn’t breathe – all my countrymen and women would rush in to feverishly fill him with our glorious air.
There is a theory in sociology that we all are surrounded by a Phantom Community which includes all the people who have influenced our lives for good or evil, even though they are gone. It’s as if their influence never leaves us, that we act and respond to what we believe they might say or expect of us.
My Phantom Community is vast now and they whisper when I least expect it, when my guard is down, when I hike through the wide Engelmann oaks or the creosote bush, or the Coulter pines. I scramble up over a rock and I hear my father’s advice, my acting teacher’s put-downs, my baby’s dying cry. They guide my hands as I plant the iris bulb from Boulder, feed the birds like Grandma, when I steal a view of Mexico, when my mind drifts to Albuquerque, to Youngstown, to Gunnison, to the relentless statistics on the news.
Sometimes I rush to shut them out, tell them to take a rest, to relax, I can handle it on my own. I look to the future, to examine the baby-blue-eyes wildflower, to laugh and shake the dust out of the rugs, to prune the roses, to watch for the return of the black-headed grossbeak…and stubbornly, every night, I fill two bowls for my pair of feral cats though one has disappeared.
The Golden State is gray. I traveled by car from my home in Julian to San Rafael, California, a trip that is just far enough to need two days, but with COVID-19, it’s a necessity to make it in one.
When I left, I foolishly thought that a few miles to the north I would escape the slate air of the Valley Fire. But then I arrived down wind of the Bobcat Fire, then the Dolan Fire, then the Creek Fire, then the Apple Fire and next the Lake Fire. As I freed myself from one, I entered into another, the ash, the color of lead, drifted like singed feathers. The sky moved from one tone of oyster to another, light, dark, lighter, darker.
“It’s the palette of cremation,” I thought as remains of giant redwoods, evergreens, sage chaparral, tawny deer, and unlucky beige mountain lion all succumbed to the pyre.
“What am I breathing? A carbonized ancient bristlecone pine needle? Charred particles of a bear’s intestine?”
I picnicked under stone haze at Tule Elk Preserve, animals brought back from near extinction, now with growing herds.
“For what?” I thought. “To watch as the flames approach and decimate them once again?”
“Shake it off,” I said out loud, “it isn’t Armageddon.” But I threw in a sere aside, “Yet.”
I drove on, through the cinereal Central Valley, the ground, the air, the sky all matched, all blended, into hypnotic hue.
“California is the color of chronic depression,” I thought, recalling days, free of fire that nevertheless looked like this.
I checked into my motel, stylish in its faddish gray paint, black exposed iron, its interior facing windows.
I had seen, now, every possible variation of that mousy, smokey, dingy color and thought this was my fate until the fires passed, until COVID-19 passed, until, if ever, my grief over Ellen passed.
But that next morning, late morning, I woke to a world that was night-in-day and ghoulish dark-room red.
Confused, dizzied, flummoxed and unglued, I proceeded with what now felt like absurd tasks, leaden.
The immigrant worker in the grocery store looked at me, anxious black eyes as she fluttered her hand on her chest. “I don’t know,” she said hand still fluttering, “It hurts in here, this sky, it makes me hurt in here.”