After #Orlando: A Letter From Mother to Son

It’s 4 am and a crescent of light falls near your left temple, as a whir of chilled air fills the room. You are snuggled next to me–your slight, warm body curved round my own–and I hear the sweet sounds of your suckling; the rhythm, so delicate, nearly lulls me to sleep.

I know when you’re finished, you’ll sigh, turn your head to the side, and push your lower lip out in tender protest. I will carefully remove the pillows from beneath your head and lift you toward me as our breath becomes one. And then, stepping from bed, I’ll carry you silently to your crib while patting your back in time with the beat of my heart.

In those last moments before sleep, you will hold your arms to your chest and then, like honey from its dipper, peel them away in one languid movement, leaving them prone at your side.

This sweet image, of your wide-open arms, is what stays with me as I hear of our nation’s latest tragedy.

I think of them and imagine a night of dancing and fun cut short by a hailstorm of lead. I think of them and imagine innocents begging for life, folding themselves ever so small, attempting to disappear. I think of them and imagine terrorized souls hiding in bathrooms and a/c vents, cowering beneath tables, chairs, and bodies. I think of them and imagine receiving a text, as Mina Justice received from her son, Eddie:

Mommy I love you

In the club they shooting  

Trapp in the bathroom

Call police

Im gonna die

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In these wee hours, I think of your wide-open arms, your innocence, your precious life and feel a familiar warmth on my cheeks–a warmth that solemnly whispers:

You can’t protect him, no matter how hard you try.

I wish I could tell you no harm will come to you, sweet boy. That as long as you choose love and light you will be saved from hatred and darkness. But none of us are afforded such certainty.

Not. One.

There will always be those who choose the strident siren of violence over the softer strum of dialogue. Who find justification for hostility and intolerance in the pages of sacred texts and the name of sacred beings. Who mistake fanaticism for faith and forget the human element of humanity. There will always be those whose very existence is in direct opposition to your own.

And in moments of chaos and grief, when it’s easier to hate, I beg you: please don’t. Choose love. Be stretched by it, dear one, and grow in it.

Every parent’s worst nightmare is losing a child. I know that in a way I didn’t before.

Whether lost through accident or malicious intent, outliving one’s children goes against the laws of nature and much higher laws of heart and soul. It is unnatural, unthinkable…

and simply
unbearable.

Today, 50 sets of parents are living that nightmare.

Today, 50 sets of parents are remembering their child’s sweet slumber.

Today, 50 sets of parents are remembering their child’s wide-open arms.

F. I. F. T. Y.

So, this evening, as I lay you in sleep’s warm embrace, I’ll pray for those affected by such senseless brutality and those with the power and privilege to stop it. And then I will pray for you, my sweet. For your life. For your heart. And your wide-open arms.

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Spring’s Sweet Arrival

A gaggle of geese return to our street each winter
while migrating from one place to another.
They arrive in January, around my husband’s birthday,

and I am surprised to find them behind our house,
honking like cab drivers in traffic. Most leave with
babies but one pair can’t manage to have any;

I’ve watched them sit for years on a wet nest of death,
warming unhappiness. It is only when the other
geese swim past them, proudly displaying

a line of live chicks, that they realize they have
failed again, their eggs silent beneath the love
of their feathers. My neighbors and I don’t agree

on much but we all watch these geese from our
windows, with binoculars sometimes, our breakfast
growing cold on the table. We wish the unsuccessful

ones would have a season of luck, their eggs healthy
and well placed, for each of us has known the pleasure
of spring, the way it feels for something closed

to open: the soft, heavenly weather of arrival.

“Geese” by Faith Shearin from Moving the Piano.

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For nearly eight years, my husband and I have been the “unsuccessful ones”, our “silent eggs” s.t.i.l.l. beneath the weighty love of expectant feathers. We have looked upon the happiness of countless friends and loved ones. We have cried tears of joy with them. And have tried to see ourselves not as passed over or less fortunate, but as richly blessed…in ways meant only for us. Parts of our journey were heartrending, others life giving, but all have contributed to our present moment: five weeks away from parenthood and a complete and utter shift in life as we know it.

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During this sacred time, an inward turn was necessary. Instead of sharing the threads of my heart in this space, I’ve shared them, both written and spoken, with my child. I have pondered who I am becoming and how that person seems both foreign and familiar. I have imagined our new normal. I have hoped. Prayed. And I have embraced a running current of gratitude for that which we don’t yet have.

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As part of the loss community, the elusive happy ending is never far from one’s thoughts, but my mantra over these past eight months has been:

Be. Present.

I haven’t wanted to get ahead of myself.

I couldn’t.

I didn’t.

So I’ve stayed.

Here.

P.r.e.s.e.n.t.

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In my absence, many of you have reached out in love, concern, and friendship. Please know how deeply your sentiments are felt and how grateful I am for your affection and connection.

As any new parent, I’m unsure what the coming weeks and months will bring (and equally unsure what this space will become–bear with me on that, please). I simply (or not so simply) hope to be both the mother I’ve envisioned and the mother baby M so richly deserves.

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An Open Letter About Time

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Dearest Reader,

I received a call four days ago. It was one of those calls; the kind that even the phone knows is bad. I was told my father couldn’t speak or move. He had been found that way. “The ambulance is on its way,” she said. “We’ll call once we have more information.”

In the car, I looked through my phone and changed my background to one of him and me. Then I went and listened to my voicemails. The most recent was him saying “You’re never available.” then a click. I couldn’t move–couldn’t breathe really–and began thinking: What was it he said again?  I take what money and put it where? And where are those documents? And then I call whom?

I thought of the little black dress I had bought months ago. The one I was supposed to return, but didn’t. I thought about how scared he might be. I thought about why I was in Indianapolis instead of with him. Why I hadn’t called once we’d reached the hotel. By my calculations, if I would have, it would have been minutes after the stroke hit, buying him and his brain precious time.

I thought of many things.

I thought of how my father was a snipe hunter. How he befriended them and lured them into his confidence. For those of you that know snipes are birds, good for you. At four years of age, however, I was told they were monsters (think of Stripe from the Gremlins, but more vicious, flanked by 20 of his closest friends) that hunted naughty children.

The snipes appeared whenever I was bad, which was pretty often. They laid in wait in the refrigerator the morning after I failed to eat my broccoli. They were concealed beneath my bed after I’d told yet another lie and nipped at my nightgown until I made it safely to the bathroom. Dad said they wouldn’t follow me there (a No Snipe Zone, I was told); nonetheless, knowing they were out there waiting was simply too much. I had a snipe-induced accident right there on the bathroom floor.

They were also known to vacation in the shrubbery framing our suburban home. I never saw them, but I smelled them and Dad confirmed their presence daily. My five-year-old best friend was so terrified of them and, yes, of the peeing incident, that he tiptoed home when they were around, preferring to carry his Big Wheel instead of riding it.

I thought about how Dad was well known, but not well liked in our neighborhood. Most people feared him and for good reason, including freckled Johnny. He was the bus stop bully who tormented my sister to tears. I’ll never forget the day Johnny went too far. Dad took off in his car, Johnny on his bike (not good odds for Johnny). Suffice it to say, Johnny never bothered her again.

And then there was Christmas 1984. Dad warned that Santa didn’t bring presents to little girls who bit their nails, that his trusty elves, employed year round, would out me to Santa and ruin my chances of a big haul. But nothing fazed me: not the threats, the Stop-zit regularly applied to my nails, or the sparkly Michael Jackson gloves I’d been made to wear to school.

When the day of reckoning arrived, my sister and I, clad in matching rainbow-cuffed Maui outfits, made the swift descent to the living room (okay, so her descent was swift. I hobbled down the stairs, through a minefield of Idaho potatoes.). I neglected to see the tear-streaked faces of my family then, at least one horrified, the others merely entertained, as my Dad placed an emergency phone call to the big man himself. He got Mrs. Claus instead who told him there just might be an elf in the area who’d take pity on my poor nail-biting soul if I promised never, ever to chew them again. Of course, I agreed (at four, you don’t quite grasp the finality of never, ever), after which I was sent upstairs to wait on Santa and a random elf’s good graces.

My presents finally arrived and, no, I never bit my nails again. But I never looked at potatoes in quite the same way either. I’ve made my peace with them now, but there was a time when just the sight of one made me cry. In fact, for about three years, I wouldn’t touch them, not even French fried type, which I loved nearly as much a chocolate ice cream without the chocolate syrup (the syrup puts it in a whole other category).

You can imagine my surprise then–after the snipes, the elves and the payback to neighborhood bullies–at seeing my father lying in a hospital room, stripped of any of his usual antics: no scheming twinkle in his eye, no pots of interest to stir. I watched his chest slowly rise and fall. Machines crowded the room. Tubes ran up and down his body—life giving tributaries feeding his heart—as he lay there, completely prone and tumescent. All I could do was stand and stare, praying for him to finally speak and say something funny and yet disconcerting, which only he can do so masterfully.

His hair, recently cut and still parted in that way that neither confirms nor denies boyish charm, was a soft place for my hand to fall. Nostrils, normally flared in defiance, did so involuntarily as his face turned toward the sound of someone or something familiar. The lights, turned down low, cast a sullen glow over him and I felt fear. Stabbing. Hand-wringing. Fear.

As I stood over him, noticing the deep crease in his left earlobe and the shallow pulse in his neck, I thought nothing of the man he hadn’t been. Nothing. Every harsh word exchanged, every disappointment, every hurt, vanished. All I could see was my father. And what surged my heart in those moments was simply this: Who will he become if he survives? And who will I become if he doesn’t?

Standing there, I thought about him teaching me to fish, to dance and to play dashboard drums. I thought about him lying next to me and holding my hand as I suffered our second miscarriage. I thought about the bills that arrived afterward and him handing me an envelope with an invoice slip inside; only one word was handwritten there: paid. I thought about listening to the Oldies and him quizzing me as to who was crooning.

And then I thought about time. How, depending on our stage in life, we either have too much or too little. How it is one resource that once spent, we never get back.

The truth is we each could be one car ride, one phone call, one smile, one I love you away from crossing the starry veil of this life into the next.

One.

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So today, I ask you to do something:

Forgive. Ask to be forgiven.

Speak. Be silent.

Make that visit.

Make that call.

Have that conversation (the one that could change everything).

Stop waiting.

And make time.

Me and Dad_pic monkey

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My name is Hollis (Part One)

We suffer losses, and it is such a Hobson’s Choice as to which one is the deeper cut. Those losses caused by death final and fatal and the ghosts that haunt from that place. Or those losses that linger and will not die and have the good grace to become ghosts.  – Charissa Grace White

Mr. Jankowski is addicted to licorice.  I flip open my notebook to page 10.  117 Spring Lane.  No name Jankowski: seen twice.  Last time on April 19 wearing pea green pants, a long denim shirt worn through at the elbows and horrible sandals.  Should not wear sandals, I had written, toe nails like machetes.  Refer to Dr. Goldberg, retired podiatrist, 402 Briar Patch Ct.  Then I added, addicted to licorice.  No one should eat that much licorice.  Refer to Dr. Bowman, retired physician, 223 Bluebonnet Circle.

I put my notebook back in my pocket and chewed my pencil a little while I surveyed my street.  Ms. Phillips had already brought out her trash.  By now she was sipping her Clamato juice and dancing to Julio Iglesias’ greatest hits.  She had been a prima ballerina and still donned pink tights, a black leotard with plunging back and a thin pink belt to exercise three days a week.  “At 81,” she said, “I deserve the weekends off.”

I like to visit her on Mondays.  She makes a pan of chocolate covered marshmallow cookies every Sunday and allows herself only one: her devotion being too great and her leotard too form-fitting to annihilate the pan.  She told me if I don’t come over, she’ll have to throw them down the disposal and no 11-year-old with a heart would ever allow such deliciousness to meet such a horrible end.  So, I make sure I’m there to do my part.

Booth Brantford lives two doors down from No name Jankowski.  I visit him on Tuesdays.  He lives in a two-bedroom ranch and the way he ties back his curtains make his house look like it’s winking.  He was married for 65 years to Barbara Ann McClusky.  She died last year, two days after Christmas and one day before their 66th wedding anniversary.  He’s been a mess since.  All he eats are microwavable meals, when he eats, and he’s worn the same sweater for five months now.  Barbara Ann knitted it for him before she died and he can’t part with it.  At least it’s been washed, but a navy blue snowflake sweater in mid-June is alarming.

When I visit he tells me about how they met and when he felt his love starting for her. He said it’s like a seed of longing was planted in the center of his heart.  As is bloomed, he realized he couldn’t be without her.  He found himself dreaming of her silken hair and how her slender shoulders would feel beneath his heavy hands.  How he could sit for hours watching her, already having memorized the slightest details of her frame and face, like how her right eye had more green specks than her left and how the birthmark at the nape of her neck reminded him of four-leaf clover.  It wasn’t really.  Just a reminder of one.

He likes to show me pictures too.  They had four children together.  Two didn’t live much past birth: one had a lung disorder; the other was taken by rheumatic fever.  The two that were left are grown now.  The oldest is a lawyer in Brooklyn, who, according to Booth, sold his soul for a condo in Manhattan.  The other is a playwright with an addiction to sadness.  They never visit, which doesn’t seem to bother Booth, but it bothers me and I’m sure it would bother Barbara Ann.

On the other side of me live Marty and Irene Buchanan.  They are transplants, like many on my street.  They’d spent most of life in Dallas in the restaurant business. Morty was the sole-proprietor of Mort’s BBQ Pit.  At the height of their smoked empire they had six locations and even bottled and sold their own sauce.  He told me what was in it once, but I’d been transfixed by a spider spinning its web (that’s not learned, you know; they hatch knowing how to do it) and missed the last three secrets to the sauce.

I think Irene was truly beautiful.  She has the softest looking skin that creases in places it should:  around her mouth for having laughed and around her eyes for having cried.  Her cheeks are perfectly round and always rose-colored.  I know it’s natural because she doesn’t wear makeup, Morty wouldn’t hear of it.

They never had children; she miscarried nine times.  The doctors never did discover what was wrong, so she took it that she was.  She named each of them and collected seashells for them, neither of which she told Morty.  He’d scream and yell about the nine vases of strategically placed and meticulously chosen shells around their home.  He didn’t know, couldn’t have known really, that they were shrines to his children.

She’d told me once about a friend of hers who had lost a baby.  Every year on the anniversary of his death she’d release 16 butterflies, one for every week of his life.  Irene couldn’t understand it.  God had already taken him so far away.  Why would she let the butterflies go too?  I thought of answering her question, but knew it was the sort you asked not expecting an answer.  The answer was in the slump of her shoulders and the wetness of her eyes.  I saw that too.

My house is in the exact middle of our street, which is perfect for me.  A noticer.  I live with my grandparents, Nan and Pop, in a retirement community in Florida.  I’ve been here for four years, after cancer took my mother and booze took my father.   Nan and Pop are special and not in the way the kids at school call me special.  They say it as a bad thing when I know it to be good.

Nan was a therapist, so she’s always encouraging me to talk about my feelings, which sometimes I do, but mostly I don’t.  I think she wants to try to right with me the wrong she feels she did my father. “Hollis, you know you can tell me anything, right?,” she always asks after she gulps a little of the air lying around.  She gets a look a little like a crappie I once caught and waited too long to put back in the water: eyes too wide, cheeks sucked in.  It pains her to say my name, I know; it reminds her of my father since Pop became Hollie long ago.

Nan makes me breakfast every morning: fluffy sourdough French toast with a little vanilla and a lot of cinnamon; thick-cut smoked bacon, which she always arranges in a heart on my plate; sausage links; a grapefruit half with a piranha-teethed spoon; strawberry pinwheels and, when I’ve been really good or she’s really sad; steel-cut oatmeal swirled with raspberry jam and chunky peanut butter.  Pop has eaten this way for nearly ninety years.  He thinks things like high cholesterol and heart disease are eventualities of a life well-lived and tells any doctor he meets just that. “When death comes knocking, I hope it’ll let me finish my French toast,” he says.  And he has every confidence that it will.

Like most of the homes here, ours is a ranch.  It’s painted a slate blue, that reminds me of my mother’s eyes, with big white shutters.  There are flower boxes beneath every window, some with berry-colored impatiens and others with miniature roses, and a red door with a silver-plated knocker.  Hanging outside the kitchen window are Nan’s wind chimes.  She gets lost in a sea of bubbles when they play, washing the same dish again and again.  Sometimes, when the wind is sleeping, I run my finger lightly across the front of them anticipating their canorous pings and tings.  The sound is soothing, just like Nan says.

My room is the best room in the house (for obvious reasons).  Nan said I could do whatever I wanted to the walls and even volunteered to help me paint.  On one wall, I have a Scrabble board with the word combinations needed to make a 2,044-point move using the SOWPODS dictionary and the word sesquioxidizing (it’s not in the normal dictionary, but it should be).

I’ve always been into words.  They fascinate me really.  At age 6, I started reading the dictionary.  I started with the letter a, which is an obvious beginning, and have continued since then.  I study and memorize seven words a day, since people smarter than me say that that’s the magic number.  By my calculations, that’s about 12,775 words to date, give or take.  But, when I feel like I’m going at a snail’s pace, I let myself pick a word from elsewhere, like the SOWPODS dictionary (I know it’s a little renegade, but it seems to work) to let the color back in.

On another wall, I have a painting of Einstein, which I did myself, and one of my favorite quotes of his: The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  Actually, it doesn’t really look like Einstein; it looks more like Amos Slade from The Fox and the Hound.  But whatever.

On the third wall, is a painting of my house.  The house where I lived with my parents before Mom got sick and Dad got lost.  Nan and I had a picture to paint by, although I didn’t need one.  I even remembered to put in the tulip garden Mom had planted and her garden maker: what is for you will not pass you.  She spent hours out there, especially once she found out the cancer had come back.  I think that’s why those flowers bloomed long after they should have died, like she did.  I think they lived off her tears.

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Want What You Already Have, Be Who You Already Are

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My mother-in-law is here from Brazil. Her mission is two-fold: take care of me and make me better. So far she’s done well. She’s been tough when she’s needed to and soft when she’s wanted to. She’s made parmesan potatoes and corn soufflé. She’s made beds and folded laundry. She’s washed dishes and hung curtains. She’s sat with me, pretending to understand American TV. I’ve sat with her, pretending to understand Brazilian politics. She’s made me laugh. I’ve made her cry (good tears). And sometimes—just a few times—she’s made me crazy. Those moments fade though…

My love for her never does.

We have a quiet understanding. Our hearts’ songs are the same. I was reminded of that last night as we chatted in the darkness about life and love. Hope and dreams. Betrayal and forgiveness.

She told me her greatest deceptions. And I told her mine.

She reminded me of her childhood. How she was nursed by a maid because her mother was too busy with her siblings. And how she never formed a bond with her afterward.

How her father, a handsome German who saw life from the bottom of a bottle, fired his pistol into the night sky to scare his children into submission. Or scare himself into sobriety. She wasn’t sure which.

How she led a small army of children through Criciuma, setting tires on fire and climbing impossible trees. How she played Hide-and-Seek in the caskets lining her mother’s funeral parlor and once saw a dead child there, thin and fragile like an eggshell. How she snuck off to visit the gypsies—she loved their skirts and scarves—and learned to eat glass and swallow fire from the traveling circus performers.

How her mother all but sang, “When I catch you, Estela. Oh, when I catch you.” And what happened when she finally did. She should have been scared. Really.

How she married too young, became a mother too young, was traded for another too young. And how she spent four years in bed grieving a marriage and a life that never was.

A person she never was.

And how finally…

she. woke. up.

At nearly 70, she answers to no one, which, according to her, is both a blessing and a curse. She wishes her marriage had lasted. She wishes to have someone with whom to share dreams, a bed and a homemade chicken dinner.

Because alone is lonely. She reminds me of that. And in the same breath tells me marriage is a flower that needs the sunlight of hugs and kisses; the pruning of patience, kindness, and forgiveness; and the water of love and respect.

Then she tells me my heart seems lighter and asks if I’m truly happy. I tell her I am. And I realize it’s not a readied response. I mean it. And I love that I do. Because every day I remind myself to want what I already have and be who I already am. Not to wait for greatness, but to make it. Not to fall prey to the idea that I’ll be happy when…

I have an L-shaped couch,
thinner thighs,
OR
a baby in the nursery.

Because those days might never come. And maybe (although I can’t see it) it’s to my benefit that they don’t.

Maybe it’s a horrible lie that: If you want it badly enough and work hard enough, it’ll be yours.

Maybe the truth is: Some dreams aren’t meant to come true.

And what if you wasted all your time, thoughts and tears on the illusion of “when”? What if you rented out all the precious space in your heart and waited…

and waited…

for your happiness to simply (or not so simply) show up?

My mother-in-law did. For a long time. And I think we all have, in one way or another.  We have all been plagued by the gracelessness of dissatisfaction, the deep pit of discontent.

So now, in those heart wrenching moments, I imagine my mother-in-law as a child, climbing the towering trees and dancing with gypsies.

I remember my own past: playing baseball and Kick the Can on Tiverton Court, catching fireflies and praying for the streetlights to sleep just a bit longer.

I also remember my present: deeply loved and richly blessed.

Period.

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