Feb 14 2012

Waves of Love

I waited until Short-pants and Buddy-roo were dressed and downstairs, fully involved in their breakfast. Chances were good, once they’d reached that point in the morning, they wouldn’t return to their bedrooms until after school, when I’d be long gone. I tip-toed upstairs and slipped the Valentine stickers under their pillows, each with a little heart-shaped message. I straightened the bedding thinking maybe they wouldn’t see the little gifts until it was actually time to crawl under those covers, prolonging their surprise. I’d also addressed and stamped a couple of pink and red envelopes. They were in my bag, ready to be put in the postbox at the airport, hopefully to arrive in our mailbox at home, on Valentine’s Day.

We all walked out together, De-facto carrying my suitcase down the stairs. It’s rare that the four of us are out the door at the same time in the mornings, typically only one of us (usually De-facto) accompanies the girls to school. This time, they accompanied me to the taxi-stand and issued hugs and kisses and nearly-tearful goodbyes while the driver hoisted my suitcase into his trunk. They stood there, waving, while he waited for the light to change and allow us to plunge into the traffic.

This is the custom in our family – and don’t ask how it started, it’s just what we do – when you see someone off, it’s required to stand steady and continue waving until the car that’s whisking them away is no longer visible. I think it’s a lovely way of saying we don’t want you to go, but we do want you to go. You’ll be missed, but we’re excited for you and your adventures ahead.

The light took a long time to change. The traffic was heavy and slow and unwelcoming to a new vehicle. De-facto and the girls kept standing there, waving at me. I studied them, from a distance, as they were obliged to wait and wave from the other side of a green construction barrier that framed the repair work on the sidewalk between us. There they were, those people, their lives intricately interwoven into mine, everything mixed up together: our DNA, our dirty laundry, the pile of shoes by the door. That tall guy and those two bean-sprouting girls. That’s my family. And I love them.

Hope you’ve all got good people to love. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.


Feb 7 2012

Hundreds of Heavens

Two years ago today, my mother took her last breath and I began the process of putting my knowledge of her, and my love for her, into the folds of my memory. Ramping up to this anniversary, I’ve been thinking a lot about her last days, and how remarkably courageous she was, opening and closing that last door.

She was too pragmatic a woman to stir up any drama, and opted instead to put her life in order so that task wouldn’t be left to us. She marched stoically to her grave, much to the bewilderment of the undertaker, who confided in her when she insisted upon an appointment to discuss the details of her own funeral, that he “wasn’t accustomed to speaking with the deceased.”

Last night an email in my inbox, titled only Goodbye, linked me to Toddler Planet, a blog by Susan Niebur, astrophysicist and mother (among many other things, I’m sure) and cancer survivor – until yesterday, when her husband posted the news of her death. I never met Susan, but I read her blog, the posts of which elicited small gasps, sighs, and tears. You may have noticed the No Princess Fights Alone badge in my sidebar, placed there as gesture of quiet support, but also as a reminder of how life dishes out surprises, good and bad, and there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I and other such reality-checking sentiments.

I’m sad to learn that she’s gone. I wonder, where has she gone? And when she gets there, wherever it is she’s going, will she run into my mother? My college roommate’s father died within a few days of Freddie Mercury, and she had this fantasy about their encounter in purgatory’s green room, the two of them making small talk while waiting to be called in to meet their maker. She held a position of some influence in the music industry and imagined her father, upon learning of Mercury’s occupation, launching into a proud fatherly pitch, as he was prone to do. “Oh, you’re a rock star? You must have known my daughter, she works at MTV!”

I think we’ve all imagined – whether we believe or not – what an afterlife might look like. My heaven has the same dark-blue-and-pink-flowered wallpaper that hung my parent’s dining room. In fact, my ancestors are seated around the dining table; my mother is in her customary place and my father at the other end of the table with all my grandparents seated between them. There are a few empty chairs, waiting for my siblings and me, I presume, but sometimes they are taken by other friends who’ve passed on and who occasionally pass through my vision of the afterlife. Timmy, a childhood sweetheart who died in his mid-twenties, his silver-capped tooth in the center of his grin. Dilts, who died of a brain tumor six months before my daughter didn’t die of one, carries his old Smith Corona typewriter and offers a mischievous shrug to beg their pardon for placing it on the table. Even De-facto’s father makes an appearance from time to time, lamenting to my father that they never got to meet Short-pants and Buddy-roo.

My mother didn’t believe in an afterlife. I asked her point blank, “what do you think will happen to you when you die?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Life will just end.” Then, probably in response to the display of dismay on my face – because maybe I wanted her to believe in something – she’d rattle off all the good and interesting things that happened to her. “I’ve had a such a beautiful life. It doesn’t owe me anything.”

The renown atheist Christopher Hitchins wrote a number of essays on this subject, and gave interviews that were especially poignant when he was dying of cancer. He said that the hardest part, for him, was being told he had to leave the party knowing that it would go on without him. He also wondered – and I paraphrase, because I can’t find the link where I read or heard this during the flood of articles about him after he died – if heaven wouldn’t be someplace awfully dull, that the sustained condition of bliss over such a long time as eternity might be terribly tiresome.

It’s a valid point. Literature isn’t any good if there isn’t some tension. Wouldn’t it be the same for the afterlife?

As a devout pluralist, I’m open to any eventuality: a monotheistic-ruled paradise or an eternal dial tone. Or reincarnation. Do we come back in order to learn new lessons so our souls can evolve? Then we’d get a vacation from the boredom of a blissful heaven. But if you were an American, is your reincarnation shorter? Do the French demand a lifespan that’s the equivalent of all-of-August? Do you have to earn your vacation? Can you opt out?

I’d like to believe in something like a blissful afterlife. But I don’t know what happens to us after we die, and in the absence of knowledge, I feel that any guesses I make are fictional. But I’m not disturbed by believers. I respect their faith, and might even admit to envying it.

Maybe we need heaven because it’s hard to imagine that someone you love could simply cease to exist. Maybe there isn’t one heaven. Maybe each one of us has our very own heaven, mine with its ornate wallpaper, someone else’s rests on a cloud or it’s a long stretch of sand with waves lapping against the shore. Maybe heaven is for the living, a place for us to keep alive the memory of people that we don’t want to stop loving.

If that were the case, there’d be hundreds of heavens – or more – for Susan Niebur. It’d be like looking up at the night sky, every heaven like a star in her beloved universe, a twinkling remembrance of her and her courage. And there’d be just as many heavens for my roommate’s father, and for Freddie Mercury, too. And for my mother, yes, hundreds of heavens, each one fashioned in the faithful imagination of every friend and colleague, and everyone in her family, all the people who adored and admired her, and who still miss her so much. Thank heavens, we have a place to keep her.

~ ~ ~

Susan Niebur spent five years battling inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that presents without a lump. I’m making a donation in her memory. If you’re inspired to do the same, you can donate here.


Jul 25 2011

Missing Terribly

They removed themselves from the dinner table while De-facto and I lingered with our wine. One washed the dishes, by hand, in the low sink that breaks my back but perfectly suits their half-sized bodies. The other dried the plates and glasses and put them away. They chatted and sang, laughed together in the way of intimate friends. Once the dishes were finished, they retired to the other end of the long main room of our country house.

Short-pants sat on the couch and opened one of the 17 books she received for her birthday. Hunched over, she fell into the pages of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If I’d wanted her attention I’m sure I’d have to call her three or four times to pull her out of the story. Buddy-roo elected to sit in one of the child-sized plastic chairs and then she, too, opened a book and began to read. She is not an avid reader like her older sister, but when she reads its with full concentration, carefully enunciating each word out loud. I know she prefers the medium of cinema and video so I’m careful not to nag her to read. But when she gravitates to a book on her own like this, I feel supremely satisfied.

I made a mental note of the scene: the two of them with their heads bowed as if in prayer, plunged into the world of words and stories, the rough stone wall of the country house behind them, the backdrop of a perfectly serene moment.

This is when it feels good to be a mom. When you know they’ve been running around in nature all day, galloping through forests and fields, hunting for blackberries and running down the road to visit the lambs, spending more than half the day outside in the fresh air, using only their imaginations to play, and to top it off their after-dinner the activity of choice is to sit with an open book and read. This is when mothering feels satisfying, when for a slight moment I think I might even be a little good at it.

This is also when I think if only my mother could see them. There are too many mental snapshots of the girls that I would paste in an album dedicated to her. The last lucid sentences from my mother, before she stopped talking and later stopped breathing was a lament that she wouldn’t get to see the girls grow up. “I’m so curious about who they’ll become,” she said.

Already they’ve grown so much, I know she would be tickled to watch them, to see their distinct personalities emerging, to witness their passage from little girls to big girls and, soon enough, to young women. It just doesn’t seem right. She should be seeing this. She should see them now, and later. She should see them grow up.

Some days, surprisingly, it doesn’t cross my mind that she’s gone. She was never the kind of mother that demanded front and center attention. She never railed at us for not calling or coming to see her. She was busy enough herself and appreciated – even applauded – that we had busy lives, too. She never required our daily concern, not until the very end, and even then she was probably the most independent patient in the history of hospice care. That I might pass a day without thinking of her isn’t so surprising. It’s that when I do think of her, nearly every day, it smarts. I’m still startled that she’s gone.

My thoughts of her are often funny, like a silly memory of a family joke and I can see her sitting at the head of the table laughing or rolling her eyes in pretend-perturbation when the joke was on her. Sometimes they’re maddening, those reflective moments when I realize I’m more like her than I ever expected I could be. Sometimes poignant, when I’m touched by something I know would touch her, like the vision of her two granddaughters happily reading to themselves. Sometimes it’s just wishing I could see a unread email message from her, bold and bright in my in-box, with news of her travels or a question about the girls. That was our day-to-day banter, and I miss it.

I wish she were still here. I wish she could see them, know them, watch them, love them as they grow up. Maybe wherever she is, she’s doing all that now. I don’t know. All I know is that it’s terrible that she’s missing all this, and that I miss her, terribly.


Mar 17 2011

Bee-line

Hand in hand we walked across the bridge, oblivious to the Seine beneath us or Notre Dame’s buttresses stretching out behind us. We were too absorbed in the volley of our spelling practice. I’d pronounce a word, and Short-pants would spell it out. Another word, another spelling out.

“P-R-E-F-E-R-E-N-C-E,” she spelled, with pride, “because the vowel you prefer is an E.”

It isn’t really, and I don’t favor any letters of the alphabet in particular, but these are the sorts of devices we came up with to correct the mistaken words, funny little stories or tricks to remember the spelling. Short-pants was batting nearly a thousand, the only word she missed on the walk to the Paris Spelling Bee was the word feud, which I realized we probably hadn’t quizzed her on because it’s short and therefore ought to be easy. These are the words that get you, the ones you don’t bother to study. And feud doesn’t follow the when-two-vowels-go-walking rule, so it’s tricky.

“Do you know what feud means?” I asked her. She didn’t, so I told her, “It’s a fight that goes on for a long, long time, like a feud between two families that lasts for generations.”

“It’s like the vowels are fighting,” she said, “because the first one’s supposed to do the talking but instead the second one is.”

That’s a good way to remember it.

At the school where the preliminary competition was held, English prevailed. The French don’t really do spelling bees, and this friendly contest is organized by three anglo-oriented organizations: Gifted in France, the Roaming Schoolhouse and The American Library in Paris. That library is a resource that I forget to use. It’s too far away – across the river on the other side of town – I feel like I need to take my passport to get there.

We ran into only two acquaintances while we were waiting for the competition to start. The spelling bee is not obligatory and none of Short-pants classmates were keen to participate. But she was; her enthusiasm from participating last year had not waned, despite the fact she hadn’t made it beyond the first round. She’d been eager to sign up again and appeared to relish the occasions when we’d grill her on the words, not all of them easy. Salutatorian? Eviscerate? She’d rattle off each letter and then I’d say, “Do you know what it means?” The answer was usually no, so I’d try to make an easy definition for her, one that might help her remember the spelling. We’ve learned a lot of vocabulary over the last weeks, too.

The preliminary test was a written deal, so the students assembled were prepared to write twenty-five words and ten bonus words for tie-breaking purposes. The shortlist of finalists compete orally, in a stand-up-and-spell event which is coming up this Sunday, March 20th.

Children and parents milled around, last minute quizzing and pep talks before the students were invited to enter the classrooms for their test. I heard one woman round up a gang of girls, one can only assume that she had a couple of daughters and maybe she was chaperoning some of their friends – it was hard to tell and I hadn’t paid much attention until I heard her say, “Okay let’s rock it, girls. I didn’t come here today for nothing.”

Indeed, spelling is a competitive American sport.

My parting words to Short-pants, I’d like to think, a bit more reserved: “You’ve worked really hard. You’re ready. Go give it your best and try to have fun.”

“And relax!” she added, parroting something I said to her the night before. That was my father speaking. He’d counsel me to prepare for a test ahead of time, and then, the night before, go to a movie, just to relax. I never managed to follow this advice, but I always thought it was a good idea.

~ ~ ~

“How do you spell significant?” My sister’s response when she heard the news that Short-pants had qualified for the final round of the spelling competition.

“S-I-G-N-I-F-I-C-A-N-T.” Short-pants rattled off the letters, and this wasn’t even on the new list of words she had to memorize. Between the list for the first written round, and another list for the final oral round, Short-pants has perfected her spelling of nearly 600 words during the last two months.

My sister seemed genuinely impressed.

“Do you know why I asked?” she said. Short-pants couldn’t guess.

“I was in a spelling bee once, too. That’s the word that kept me from winning.” My sister, just like De-facto and I, had brushed close to victory in the final round of her spelling bee, but had been knocked out of the competition by a word she would then spell correctly for the rest of life.

Short-pants laughed out loud. “Oh, like mama misspelled alcohol and papa went down on crocodile.” She proceeded to spell both words without error.

~ ~ ~

I’m a long way from home. It took me 26 hours in the air and three travel days to get to New Zealand. Twelve time zones ahead, I watch the sun rise on a new today while I know it’s setting on yesterday back in Paris. I picture De-facto and the girls going through the evening routine of dinner and homework while I’m getting dressed for the day and heading to breakfast. It feels like I’m in the bow of a long, long boat, with the rest of the world aft in the mid-ships and stern. There’s even a digital delay; every morning I wake to dozens of emails that have accumulated while I slumbered. I answer them and then my computer remains quiet until the evening. It’s rather nice for concentrating and focusing. A bit eerie, though.

I’m not a whinging traveler, I take great pleasure when I’m en route and I have never minded traveling alone. This trip has put me with good colleagues and intelligent company. I’ve been on a bushwalk around the geothermal reserve park at Hells Gate (so named by George Bernard Shaw because going there shifted him from atheist to believer); I’ve been treated to a Māori hangi dinner and cultural performance that threatened to be touristy but ended up just being delightful; I saw the southern cross, and I understand now why I came this way.

But I have to admit – possibly due to the unfolding catastrophes in Japan – I’m feeling a bit uneasy. When things go haywire in the world, I think it’s a natural instinct to want to draw your loved ones around you. Only my arms won’t reach that far.

Because of the time difference and my busy agenda here, the overlap of awake and available windows for chatting with my family are narrow. I’m left to spell out my affection in emails. Because of the distance traveled, it makes sense to stay on a while (with De-facto’s blessing) to visit friends I’ve long wanted to visit. But that means I have to send my “you worked hard, give it your best” pep-talk to help Short-pants gear up for this weekend’s spelling bee via Skype. I’d rather be closer. But I’m not.

So I’m hoping you might help me out. Would you leave an encouraging word in the comments section for Short-pants, to let her know you’re rooting for her to do well at the spelling bee? A little support, advice, affection, some cheering-on, whatever comes to mind – it’ll help me feel better about missing the event, and it might give her a boost until next week, when I get to make a bee-line back home.