I was 18 when I began keeping vigil with all that was lost; which is to say, I began writing.
My youngest is 18 now.
His older brother was home this afternoon for a quick half-hour, just in time to hop in the car with his father and head south to my husband’s family home 300 miles away.
I waved from the mudroom as they pulled down the driveway and then Aidan and I turned to empty the dishwasher. As I was bent over the silverware it hit me. “All three of you share something I don’t,” I said.
Turns out, it’s hard to give your kids something you never had, and not for the obvious reasons.
While it’s been healing to offer the kind of upbringing I needed, it’s also surprisingly painful, especially now that they’re the age I was when there was hardly a home or parents to turn toward.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about moving. Far away. By myself. Like the time I lived in London or the time I backpacked through Europe or the time I went out to the Rockies. At 18 and 23, my boys are like bookends of the age I was then. It must be time.
Integrity is one of several paths. It distinguishes itself from the others because it is the right path, and the only one upon which you will never get lost.
I came across this passage in a framed print at the second-hand store years ago, and slowly it wove itself into our family fabric, especially as my boys entered adolecence and I asked them to recite it again and again.
I leaned into that instruction myself, intuitively, 30 years earlier, after a miscarriage, as I prepared to leave my first teaching position. A colleague remarked on my diligence with the end of the year paperwork. “Why bother,” she said. “You’re leaving for Vermont.”
It was something I would hear echoed, again and again, each time I left a job, a rental, a relationship.
Tonight I looked for jobs across the ocean.
What must it be like to have a home to which you can return? I wondered this as my older son sat beside me on the stairs before he left with his father. “I’ll be leaving right away when we get back on Sunday,” he said.
I marveled at how he could “drop-in” to the familiar sights and sounds and smells of a lifetime, and then be on his way again, securely rooted and released, without any need to grasp or hold on or catalogue the memories before they vanished.
The restlessness I feel inside is almost unbearable. UPROOT, it says, UPROOT!
I don’t want a house or a husband or a community.
But I’ve cultivated a lifetime of tools that enable me to stay with what hurts and what is uncomfortable and what makes me want to run.
I became a mother this week on a rainy day much like today, but I don’t remember getting wet. What I do remember is my acute embarrassment.
“Please don’t use the sirens,” I said to the ambulance driver.
(Doctor’s daughters don’t do emergencies.)
I don’t remember if Casey rode up front, but I do remember asking if Mary could join me in back. It turns out they were relieved to have a midwife on board.
I watched as the farmhouse and the barn and the Deerfield River feathered from view and we approached the village where I’d moved to teach school two years earlier; but I don’t remember much else except for the mountaintop that we climbed on our way to the nearest hospital, thirty-some minutes away.
As we bounced over Hogback Mountain, I looked out at its three-state view, while the young EMT, fearing a delivery, attempted an IV into my right hand. But she needn’t have worried. I had already told the baby to wait, and although my contractions had been steady and strong since my water broke just before dawn (a good thing since my husband was heading out the door to go fishing for the day… before cell phones), I hadn’t experienced a single contraction after stepping inside the ambulance.
“How far along are you,” my sister asked when I called that morning to apologize. She’d sent her 9-year-old on a plane from Florida to visit us for two weeks and I had promised not to go into labor during his stay. “First babies always come late,” I reminded this mother of three, so eager was I to see my nephew.
“Well, it must be early labor,” she said, “You’re too calm.”
When Mary arrived shortly after that call, I asked if she’d would mind waiting to examine me, so consumed was I by contractions.
She made the same assumption about the progress of my labor given my steadiness.
When she finally did check my cervix, there were three surprises.
“You’re 8 centimeters already,” she said, astounded. “And something else.”
The something else was what resulted in several phone calls to area hospitals and then an ambulance ride down the river through the village and over the mountain toward the big town.
“I am not going out on that stretcher,” I told the EMTs when they arrived in my kitchen. “I don’t want to upset the neighbors.”
Casey had just come in from hanging the diapers on the line, and before we all left out the back door, I pointed to the doughs on the counter. “Will you put those back in the freezer,” I said to him, feeling a pang for the meal we would never share with our home birthing team.
“I bet this is a boy,” I’d joked to Mary in the ambulance, given that I had been told by more than one intuitive that this baby would arrive “after” my due date (not almost two weeks before it) and that the baby would be a girl.
Mary later told me of the third surprise, that instead of a head, she’d felt testicles.
And although I hadn’t experienced any contractions on the ambulance ride, coaxing the baby to wait, she later told me that my labor had indeed progressed. I was fully dilated by the time we arrived in the emergency room.
“She’s in labor?” the front desk nurses said, as I was wheeled past them.
“She’s still in her street clothes,” two others said, as they looked into the examining room where I was lifted onto a bed.
I looked these women up and down too and had thought them orderlies, but one would turn out to be the surgeon, who did her own examination.
“Small,” she pronounced.
“Adequate,” Mary countered.
“Unproven,” she said.
They stood at the foot of my stretcher disputing the capacity of my pelvis.
“Calm,” Mary offered, of my demeanor.
“I’ll give it two hours,” the doctor said. “But the results could be tragic.”
They looked from each other toward me.
“Can I have a minute?” I said.
I motioned to Casey to join me in the bathroom. I closed the door. I kept the lights off.
I had miscarried twice before. Bled through the early months of this pregnancy too. Had Braxton-Hicks beginning at 5 months. Had planned a home birth because I’d fallen in love with a midwife named Mary who told me that she took my little baby home with her each night in her third eye, each and every night.
I had felt so peaceful there in our little farmhouse beside the mountain. The morning’s cloud cover created a cocoon as I labored at the edge of our bed, the skylight overhead where we watched the stars at night a comfort too, the door to the balcony over the brook open to the air, and this blissful feeling between contractions that my mother told me I’d find if I paid attention to the spaces in between enveloped me.
“Remember, you and the baby want the same thing,” my mother said, having birthed 9 children without a single miscarriage or epidural.
She was a Christmas baby like my great aunt, while I followed on the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and her grandson was apparently arriving on the Assumption of Mary, coming early to do so.
I opened the bathroom door to bright lights and urgent faces, remembering my bare feet on our soft pine floors, Mary kneeling in front of me, pressing her thumbs into my shin, lending exquisite relief during a strong contraction.
“We’ll take the c-section,” I said.
And then I remember the very last contraction I experienced.
“This will sting,” said the anesthesiologist who arrived in the operating room with a nurse and his long needle while the surgical team scrubbed like I had once done with my father and to whom I had just recently said, just as he had said to me: I never want surgery. (We would each have surgery within 48 hours of each other this very week.)
“Can you wait a minute,” I said to the anesthesiologist, laughing at the absurdity of his warning about the epidural. “I’m having a contraction.”
In the end, they had to yank the baby out of the birth canal so ready was he to be born through me instead of removed by them.
Protocol would not let me view the delivery, but they did let me see him for a flash before they whisked him to the examining table under the bright lights where they pronounced him healthy. Protocol also prevented me from him until the anesthesia wore off.
I’d only had anesthesia once before. Wisdom teeth. The same-day surgery room was set to close and I still couldn’t wake. My roommate, a nurse, in fact, arrived to drive me home while I continued to doze, and she cared for me through the night, ice on, ice off, so unable was I to rebound from the drugs. I was managing a seaside restaurant then, and a guy called the next day for a job. The restaurant had given him my home number. I was furious. Now that same guy accompanied our baby to the nursery while I was sewn up on the table and sent alone to recovery where I strived to wake and feel my legs so that I would be taken to the 4th floor to be with my baby.
I woke this morning feeling similarly drugged, to the sound of rain and a heavy cover of clouds, and although I wanted to rise and write before walking up to Sunday scones at Whetstone Ledges Farm, the absence of light made it difficult to stay afloat, and so I slipped back down under the surface of consciousness again and again.
“Do you feel your legs yet,” the nurse asked, as she covered my shivering body with more and more blankets. To this day the last two toes on my left foot are numb.
When I finally did meet my son, he was tightly wrapped in a blanket with a knit cap on his head as if we had never been one. I put up my hand as the midwife approached with him in her arms. I wanted to see Casey first. We had become parents, apart from one another, instead of at home in on our own bed. He held our baby first, for more than an hour, after I had carried him inside for 8 months.
I don’t remember if the rain lifted that afternoon when I held my son.
I remember feeling that this was Everything.
I remember knowing that nothing would ever be the same.
When I fell back to sleep this morning, I dreamt that most of the tomatoes on the vine in our garden had ripened, just in time for son’s return to celebrate his twenty-third birthday.
His name was meant to be Lila, after my grandmother, who died tragically at the age I am now.
I don’t know when it occurred to me that Lila and Lloyd share two L’s.
Twenty-three years old.
The twenty-third psalm was her favorite and read at her graveside. I think of it every time I walk the road past the silent repose of the Whetstone.
I like the version Bobby McFerrin sings.
“Beside the still waters, She will lead.”
Lloyd has surprised us lately, wanting to be home each year for his birthday after a couple that he spent away with girlfriends.
It’s unfathomable to me that he doesn’t live with us anymore. That the flesh of my flesh is not mine forever. That neither of us would want it to be so.
He was here last Christmas too, for an extended stay, during which we joined with old friends around a fire overlooking the Retreat Meadows as the sun set over the water.
We were deep in conversation with friends when I felt a swoosh past our circle of chairs, and my eyes followed a woman who, with a flourish, removed a dark cloak.
I lifted my phone and zoomed in to capture the beautiful blues and creamy whites of her wimple and habit but I couldn’t make out what hung from her neck and around her waist.
Her presence seemed to rivet me alone, and I’d lost the conversation, despite the company of my son and my oldest, dearest friend.
Instead, I stood up and crossed the space from the fire to her table beside the waters.
“The Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa,” she explained, pointing to the medallion that hung from her neck.
“My sword,” she said standing, of the beaded rosary that dangled from her hip down her left side, “To fight Evil.”
I shared my family’s Mary connection with her, my mother’s Christmas birth, mine on the Immaculate Conception, my son’s on the Assumption of Mary, and even my husband’s on the Feast Day, upon which my mother died.
“You are a Marian family,” she pronounced, and I smiled, thinking how some people enjoy certainty and others questions.
I returned to the fire, taking a seat across from from my friend with whom I attended the same Catholic Highschool. She had recently given me a nightlight that had belonged to her dear mother, and I almost thought to discard this plastic statue of Mary when after plugging it in, the bulb sparked and went black.
But upon removing the plug from the statue, I saw three small words under its base:
House of Lloyd.
Later, as the light faded in the sky over the water, the woman in the dark cloak stopped by our circle on her way out, asking:
“Is this the one born on Assumption of Mary?”
She looked directly at my son Lloyd and said:
“You are consecrated to Our Lady.”
It was he who once saw the blue light shimmering on the land alongside the Whetstone Brook upon which we would later build our home. He was just a boy then.
“It’s blue like the light over Uncle Lenny’s bar in the barn,” my son said, not knowing the word fluorescent, and referencing his first home, the place where he was conceived and practically born and where he watched his little brother come into the world upstairs in the little farmhouse beside the brook just weeks before his grandmother died on the Feast Day of Mary.
“The Blue Lady is here to help you,” my new therapist said, when I came to her grieving the loss of my mother.
I hadn’t been sure about the purchase of the land upon which I stood with my son until that day when I was told to whom the land just across the pond belonged.
My husband took this photo of me when we were out at a cafe last summer which is a rare feat. Not the cafe, which is a regular feature of our weekends now that the kids are aging out of our lives, but the photo. He rarely thinks of photography and so we have albums filled with family photos relatively absent of my existence, except for the annual shot of me lighting the birthday cake for one of my boys.
“You look so pretty today,” he said, “Can I have your phone?”
I always believe him, but then I look in the mirror or at a photo and it’s just me. Nothing special. Or more often worse than I imagined or hoped for, like this one.
I really didn’t like this photo, and I still don’t like it, but you know what, I don’t mind it now like I did before, and it’s only been a year.
I take this as a good sign because typically it’s like a decade before I appreciate a photo that I really didn’t like at first.
From time to time, I wear the cameo that Mrs. Upperman left my father.
She also left him a rocking chair and a large tin of pistachios–red, tan & unshelled.
At 16, I was surprised to find that my passion for pistachios was eclipsed rather than enhanced without the effort of finding just the right one to crack open.
(And who had ever seen tan pistachios?)
But maybe I’ve remembered it wrong.
Probably Mrs. Upperman didn’t “leave” the pistachios to my father along with the cameo and the rocking chair (and the furs!), but sent the large tin over at Christmas or Thanksgiving, or maybe the pistachios, like the many other arrivals, were from another patient altogether.
It was easy to adore a man who saved you, particularly if he was tall and handsome and young.
And if you were such a man, it was increasingly difficult to spend much time at home where despite your male birthright, your societal status, and your dashing good looks–you were not the star of the show–not with your teenage daughters, not with your wife who was turning the hormonal corner from sacrifice to self (even as she continued producing your babies), and not with the endless tasks to be done that came and went with any pistachios or applause.
My mother left the cameo in her jewelry box, and so I borrowed it from time to time, until one day I didn’t put it back.
I don’t think she would have worn it anyway. She never touched the furs either. Unlike my father whose family presided over one the largest homes on the avenue, my mother came from “the other side of town,” off a pot-holed side street, where 8 children crowded into a house that leaned up against a motel and shared its backyard fence with a bar.
“Your mother was the prettiest girl in the high school,” my father said.
“I had a single dress all through school,” my mother told me, but she wasn’t complaining; she rarely complained.
Bonnie, aka. Loretta Cecilia Kelly, was without expectations, which made her the perfect fit for a man who was accustomed to snapping his fingers for a pen, and expecting a hot dinner on the table no matter the hour of his return home, and who regularly brought operating room nurses to tears as they tripped over his every command (which was just the right place to harvest his replacement wife after my mother, at age 40, had the audacity to want more than a cameo role in her own life, and so without voice, offered a scandalous resignation instead.)
“That’s not the Philips!” he would shout, and I never knew which one was, no matter how many times he showed me.
I still don’t want to know, and apparently neither did my five younger sisters, which was something I discovered when I returned home for a visit and came across a fierce and familiar scolding in the garage with one of my youngest siblings.
I still prefer my pistachios in the shell, but now without the color red.
With SpRiNg comes renewed attention to my insides as I recommit to what I want on the outside.
I’m curious about your relationship with disappointment.
In a New Year chakra clearing, I gained some clarity around the way I linger with and lay disappointment onto the men in my home.
It was a painful visual, but it also leads me into compassion for the disappointment I must carry inside. My sense of my father’s almost constant disappointment in me. The weight of disappointment that my mother and grandmothers carried.
I’m no longer willing to be the legacy bearer for that burden.
This sweetly complements my intention to cultivate satisfaction–inside–with a moment to moment practice of saying “Yes,” to what ever arises–on my path, or in my psyche–as an invitation instead of a problem, as something I greet without abandoning, rejecting or shaming myself as “wrong.”
I suspect the practice will be a daily one for the rest of my days.