Guest in Your Heart / Writing

Open NOT Broken

Month: October, 2012

Dry Docked

The ocean doesn’t care if we are 25 or 52. The salt will still tickle your tongue and mine. The sun will shine and feel just as warm if we are middle-aged.

I am afraid our relationship is like the boat in my yard with weeds growing under and up the side. We got her on a whim for the promise of a brighter future. She practically came to us weeks after whispering the wish as she had become a nuisance to our neighbor who wanted to unload her.

We imagined being rocked to sleep by waves on open waters where our failures were docked far away. We pictured sleeping side by side as the innocent children we never got to be in our cabin’s berth where the ocean would cradle us. We knew we’d look up often from the deck to see the stars.

We fell in love fast, hard and too soon.

We imagined catching our own fish, you strumming your guitar and me writing poetry. We would navigate the waters at sunset. We didn’t mind that we would have little space to be alone when our combined children slept on floors and converted couches, that we’d have to crawl over one another to get to the galley or the head. We imagined diving off of the back of the boat or pulling the kids on rubber tubes by Martha’s Vineyard or Provincetown.

Now, I see a squirrel on the wooden rail, teak and not yet polished. Now, the leaves of the trees are turning color and falling over the deck. We agreed to change her name from “Boston Indulgence” to “Before Sunrise” but the new words have only been painted in our mind. Some say it is bad luck to change a boat name. Are we cursed because we can’t accept her for who she was or blessed because we are attached to what could be?

I climb a ladder to show friends and family the interior passing the two tanks that sit under my porch. They are meant to replace the rusty ones in the boat. But we haven’t had time to take the old ones out. They are buried under a plywood floor that must be sawed apart. Are those old tanks like our failed marriages taking up so much of the interior space that even though they don’t work they can’t be replaced? Are we, the plastic wrapped aluminum  tanks displaced and waiting to be useful? Will the dismantling and rebuilding be so difficult that we never even get to put the keys in the ignition to see if the twin engines turn over?

It’s more than dead weight that almost drowned us. It is the alphabet of despair: Addiction. Bankruptcy. Court. Deceit. Emergency after emergency. Grief. Hospitalizations. And I haven’t even got to “I”. But there has been so much more. Awe. Bliss. Consideration. Devotion. Eroticism. Fearlessness. Growth. Happiness.

You have taken me out to sea more than once. You have taught me to walk into the ocean bare foot in the fall for the thrill of chilly water. You have shown me how to float naked and let nature carry me. And haven’t I thrown you a laugh line or a life line when rip tides pulled you under? Wasn’t it me, waiting at the shore with a warm blanket when your tired body arrived on shore? We have waken up something primal, connected and familiar in one another.

How can love ever be wrong?

We sit side by side on the sea wall. We wrap legs around one another and place our feet in the sand. You teach me to skip rocks. I show you to hunt sea glass. We watch dogs play fetch and breathe in ocean air before sipping morning coffee. We have eyed the spot where our mooring will go, imagined the dinghy at the end of my street which would bring us to our boat.

Is is still possible? I don’t know our fate or the future. The past has shown me how poor I am at predicting chaos or navigating loss. I do not always know when to pull up or set down my anchor. I am new to living without a compass or a map.

Still, I can’t buy you out of your half or give you mine. We have picked out our own color scheme for the walls, bleached old curtains and washed her down. Our baby is a land-locked dream. Can she winter with patience until we make our way to her? I am not ready to give up on our dry-docked dream.


Late Gratitude

She wasn’t the red and grey flannel I wore unbuttoned and open on the warm November day when she died twenty-two years ago but I think of her and it today. I can still feel the soft fabric that warmed me. I notice the fall leaves glimmering against an open blue sky. They are apple red and brilliant orange.

Back then, they were yellow turning brown by my feet beside the parking lot of Newton Wellesley Hospital. I can still smell the dirt and feel it moist and cool through my jeans and on my legs where I sat. The air was clear and medicinal as it filled my lungs. I went outside to catch my breath after spending the night in a hospital chair beside my Nana who was on the oncology ward during her final hours battling ovarian cancer.

I remember the ambulance ride the day before, sitting in the passenger seat, and how long and awkward it seemed because it was quiet. No lights flashed. No sirens blared. We didn’t speed because no one was racing to bring my grandmother back to life. Paramedics came to drive her tired body and bone-thin face to the hospital where nurses and thicker mattresses would make her more comfortable.

Those nurses who had become familiar to our family swabbed her lips to keep them moist. They lifted her body and turned it gently so she could rest. Their eyes were warm on us but it was she they attended.

Katie, not yet six months old at the time, got the last words of my Nana who said, “The baby” as Katie started to cry. Nana lifted her body up instinctively strengthened by maternal drive before feeling her weakness and settling back into the bed.

Katie is now almost the same age I was then with a nephew almost the age she was. I didn’t know I was young at twenty-three. I felt ancient and afraid. I had watched my grandmother get thinner and paler, as chemotherapy took more of her flesh and energy, as cancer flaunted formidable power without mercy. While I could see how bravely she fought I did not understand why she had to be in that fight.

We feel alone in our pain. Grief wraps around our naked necks like a scarf. It can warm or tug, nurture or annoy as time passes depending on the texture and how tightly it is pulled. When it is fresh, it punctures, stabs, rips and guts and often the best we are able to do is hold on.

Now, I can see that even in those hardest days I was not alone. My aunt Worry who had four young children and lived in the home above Nana’s in-law apartment where I stayed would not only care for my Nana but for me. We would steal moments at Friendly’s for diet-cokes, sweets and laughs. We would joke with each other while pushing the carriage down grocery aisles. We would share music and tea on quieter days when Nana had another visitor and we had guilt-free time without her. We would share rides to the hospital when she was getting treatment or had a setback.

The day Nan died my friend Eric came to sit beside me, to let me cry out to the trees and into his arms. I never asked what he might have done instead or if he had to fight traffic or gas up to get to me. Eric was a thirty-something year old widower who had lost his own wife to cancer earlier the same year and knew deep sorrow. Despite his personal pain, he sat with me and put his red and gray flannel around me to warm me. Like love given without strings he never asked for it back and so that shirt became mine. It is woven into my memory except now I can finally see how he softened my grief.

We make of ourselves oriental rugs so those we love can walk in bare feet and have a softer path. We turn ourselves into locks on doors that need to stay closed while the business of wakes and funeral, obituaries and burials must be done. Later, if we are privileged, we provide spaces for sadness. We become the four inches above the window sill that let the air in and out.

We carry one another, with food and flowers, shoulders and space because we want our loved ones to know that they are not alone. We want them to feel supported when they lose a boulder of their being and are wobbly in the world.

And, to be honest, we rise for one another because we are reminded of how lucky we are on this particular day to be spared the loss of our own loved ones who maybe we had been taking for granted. We are allowed another chance to show our “I love you’s” and without the jolt of staggering pain to know that no one is guaranteed to us forever.

Hand Me Downs

Who let her go and how and when is what I wonder now. What time of day did she arrive in this universe? Did someone say, “It’s a girl!” in China? Was there an audible sigh because she wasn’t a boy? All I know is she was born in the Hunan province to parents with a dialect I do not know.

Wasn’t she as bathed in amniotic fluid as any other fetus? My daughter was as wet as cantaloupe seeds before scooped and carved from her mother’s pulpy flesh and made separate.

At school, a decade later, my daughter is asked questions on the first day back to school. She described her favorite summer activity as the rollercoaster ride, Untamed, at Canobie Lake Park. For her one secret wish she wrote, “To know my birth parents so I could communicate with them.” The paper is folded up in her back pack which I empty every day. She knows I will see it but does not mention the rollercoaster ride or her wish.

“Could we find my mother?” she has asked me. I am the other mother and so is her birth mother. We share the same daughter and are complete strangers.

My daughter asked me the place value of ten in the number 114 on the car ride home from school. She is in fourth grade and I have to pause. If she stumps me now what will I do in five years? Perhaps she will wish for a mathematical mother filled with reason who is not so sentimental. Perhaps she will tire of this person I am who dreams in words, swims in words and bathes in language more often than water.

I cannot judge other mothers, not ones in China who give birth and relinquish, not ones who have abortions, not even my own who had me at eighteen. I wish she had been a warm towel coming out of the dryer to greet me rather than a young girl herself but we do not choose the temperaments or circumstances of our parents. But we can choose how to mother.

Sometimes I miss the mark like last week when she wanted to show me her fourteenth backbend into a back walk over on the living room floor. I had been there, early on, spotting her and helping her and encouraging her with a knee under arched back and eventually only standing nearby and saying, “You can do it.” But once she got it, had it down and was weeks into it I wanted to keep my eyes on the computer screen and tired of looking up and up and up whenever she asked me to watch.

I remember my own hours of planting palms into sandy cement, into cold dirt and damp grass, into soft sand and asking over and over and over, “Mom, can you watch? Did you see? Can I do it again?” I wanted her eyes on me and she, though much busier than I, gave me her glances, stopped what she was doing and looked.

Can my daughter’s mother do gymnastics? Does she write? Does she have a child to mother? That baby she once carried in her belly is mine. She is my hand-me-down daughter who once belonged in body, in DNA and in geography to another place.

What hand made her mine? Was it destiny, mystical magic from a wished upon start or the action of one office manager matching up prospective adoptive parents with the next child pictured in a pile of paperwork available for adoption?

I held her in my arms nine years ago. She was 11 pounds at ten and half months. She was not a fresh to the world newborn. She came already formed and wearing only a too-big white onesie and red socks. She was limp. She could not sit up, roll over or crawl. She had a bald spot on the back of her head from rubbing it against a mattress in the orphanage to sooth herself. She still flings her head from side to side in the car when she is tired or stressed. She still rocks her head hard enough to move the bed back and forth when she can’t sleep.

Now her hair is thick and black, long and shiny as I feel it between my fingers each morning when I ask, “Pony tail or braid?” Her hairdresser says, “Promise me you will never color this hair. People pay big money to get hair like this.” The hair dresser smiles at me marveling at my daughter’s beauty. I want to say, ‘She doesn’t get it from me. Not the beauty or the hair or the intelligence,’ but instead I smile.

My job is to spot her when she’s taking a new risk, to applaud when she reaches a new goal and to help her when she doesn’t. I hope what I hand down to her is enough. I want her to feel the globe is a round exercise ball she can stretch her back against, that the planet is a place she can lean into and expect to be cushioned, that no matter where her feet are planted she is home.

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