Loss

While flipping through old albums at my parent’s house, I came across a photograph of two little girls posed on the steps of a grand Kentucky farmhouse, each clutching a flower-girl basket in white-gloved hands. One smiles boldly at the camera; the other smiles admiringly up at her. In some ways the scene was just as I remember; in others, the discrepancy between memory and reality is laughable.

In my memory she is sophisticated, almost grown up. In the picture she isn’t more than six years old. I remember how elegantly she scattered the petals, and that while I ran out half-way down the aisle, she still had a good reserve of flowers in her basket as we turned to watch the bride process. Sure enough, the photograph reveals one very empty satin basket, and one covered with a layer of rose-petals.

She was taller, of course, and I remember thinking her dress was very short and feeling sorry for her, that she didn’t get to wear a long gown. But the dress in the photo is a very respectable tea-length. Mine, to be sure, sweeps the ground, just a bit too long for my three-year-old frame.

I remember very little about the wedding, but I remember adoring her. I was the oldest in my immediate family and not used to being around bigger kids. She was kind, holding my hand and teaching me what to do, full of the maternal confidence of a small child with a toddler. I remember being aware, when the wedding festivities were over, that I would never see her again. We’d been friends for only a couple of days, but it was the first strong never of my young life, my first foretaste of the grief of later, more significant separations.

More than a year later, my family took a sailing trip in the Chesapeake, from Baltimore to Annapolis, where we stayed several nights on the boat. In the mornings I would stand on the deck, supervised by an adult cousin, and watch the ducks paddling about the marina, feeding them with scraps of bread. “Have you named them?” my cousin asked me.

“Only that one,” I said, pointing out a large drake whose iridescent head was just cresting the water, and giving the name of the other flower girl.

He laughed, “That’s a boy duck, you know.”

I was indignant. He was right, but the biology lesson spoiled something more significant, something ritualistic, a belated tribute to that first separation, that first hint that sometimes love doesn’t conquer all obstacles and goodbyes are forever.

Even at four years old, of course, I knew that the naming a duck would not make me miss my friend any less. I don’t know quite what significance I attached to the christening; perhaps no more than a desire to substantiate my grief. A silly and wholly insufficient gesture, of course. But then, in all the ensuing years and losses, I’ve never found anything better

Two Years Later

First she was a rumor.  A guess, extrapolated from snippets of telephone conversations that I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on. It was none of my business and I speculated without seeking confirmation, a little embarrassed to have overheard at all.

Then she was a secret, one I was forbidden to share even with those who had more right to know.  And though my confidence was a matter of professional necessity rather than privilege, I was nevertheless pleased, gratified by the evidence of trust, excited by the sheer magnitude of the knowledge I was privy to.

After that she was an announcement:  weight, length, gender, and name.  She was The Big News, shared around the office: initially statistics, then a face in a photograph, wrinkled and red with dark eyes and a remarkable mop of straight black hair. I fell in love with her in those first pictures, received by email and text message. I was no relation, but somehow felt as possessive of her as an aunt – a kinship born in the days when I shared the secret of her impending arrival.

Finally she was a small, present person, cuddled close and cooed over, the recipient of little gifts and bestower of imagined smiles.  Her parents took it for granted that she would love me, and when she was old enough to know who I was, she seemed to take it for granted too.  We played clapping games at her first birthday. When she was taking her first unsteady steps we spent a summer afternoon exploring the campus. She fell in the fountain under my supervision, but both she and her parents forgave my negligence, and really, it was a fine adventure.

Now, at two years old, she’s growing up.  She is tall and thin – like her parents – and precocious and happy .  She is the joy of her family, the answer to years  – indeed decades – of waiting, the culmination of hopes and prayers.

As her mother and I visit over lunch she eats her macaroni patiently, occasionally inserting her own oddly-relevant observations. Ours is a quiet, intense conversation between women who know the struggle (to paraphrase Eliot) of waiting without hope of the wrong thing and clinging instead to the presence and promises of God, the working out of all things truly to good.

The little one glances up with a smile to repeat a word she likes, oblivious to the catch in our voices or the deeply aching love in the words of her mother who lays a hand on the head of this long-awaited child, “look what He’s given.”

And as I look I am offered broken crayon: “Atshee fix.”  I peel away the paper so that she can use the colored wax and hand it back to her. She bends seriously over her child’s menu, carefully scribbling blue in bold strokes. Will she know, I wonder as I watch her, just how much of a blessing she is – not just to her family, but to all of us who know her?  She is, like Isaac or Samuel, a tiny, perfect sign of God’s faithfulness and goodness to those who love him and are called according to his purposes.

Adventure

He’s twenty-five now. Whatever age gap separated my life from his has closed fully. Our love of surfing has led to real conversations as we wait between sets, and his advice is often good and wise and comforting.

Sometimes he even calls me just to chat.

“How come we’re such good friends all of a sudden?” I ask over the phone as we make our respective commutes home from work.

“Because you finally like surfing and stuff. I had to wait for you to stop being so boring and become an interesting person.”

What he probably doesn’t realize is how much I owe my un-boring-ness to him.

Without him, I might not be totally boring. I would still love the beauty of the world and still have the broad curiosity that served me well in my academic pursuits. But without him I’m pretty sure I would observe and comment from the sidelines.

Left to myself, I would be a distinctly unadventurous person. I have the oldest child’s over-responsibility mixed with a natural caution and tendency to worry. Left to myself, I might have developed a penchant for luxury and comfort. I might have been the sort of woman who talks about having an “active lifestyle” when what she means is that she runs to stay thin and her biggest adventure is the local 10K.

But I’ll never know, because I wasn’t left to myself.

The thing is, no matter how frightened you are that your Dad will push you over (again) when he’s trying to teach you to ride a bike, you can’t let your little brother learn before you. And when you are not-quite-seven years old, standing on the high dive and the pool looks like it is miles and miles away, the only thing that really forces you to work up the courage to jump is the knowledge that he’s been begging the swim instructor all week to let him jump, even though he’s not-quite-three.

But then the thing is, when you jump off the high dive you aren’t thinking about the baby at the foot of the ladder any more. You’re thinking about the speed and the breathless excitement and the smoothness of your entry into the deep water. And even though you proved yourself in the first jump you find yourself jumping again for the sheer joy of the adventure. And then you try to dive.

And as you grow up the same thing happens again and again – plummeting from cliffs into cool mountain streams, climbing trees, taking the steep hill on the mountain bike without using your breaks, skiing down slopes you’re pretty sure you aren’t ready for, scrambling up a boulder, dangling your feet over the edge of a precipice.

For a long time you’re doing things to keep one step ahead of your little brother. But eventually that is no longer possible – he’s a man now, taller and stronger and faster and more athletic than you by far. But that’s okay because each of those adventures he “forced” you into developed your own sense of adventure.

Now I know the thrill of paddling out into big waves, the excitement of the speed down the face (and even the exhilaration of falling). It’s not that I am no longer afraid of things high or steep or fast (although I’m pretty sure he actually isn’t). But I discovered I LIKE that sort of fear, somewhere along the way I became adventurous in my own right.

I will always love long walks, long books and long conversations. There’s adventure in the quiet things too. But I’m glad I’ll never quite be satisfied with those. I’m glad I wasn’t actually left to myself.

Another Family

It is not the nicest drive on a dark winter night, dark even before you leave the office. The canyon is pleasant enough in the fading twilight. But then comes the freeway,  slow crawl amongst headlights and taillights  – loneliness exacerbated by the abstract crowd around you. Then the busy city street through the San Fernando Valley which certainly doesn’t look like its going anywhere you’d want to go: past a low, square building selling tombstones and masonry, bright neon lights of fast-food restaurants and corner liquor stores, a strip club on the right advertising discount lap dances.

Once off the busy street you find yourself in a dark neighborhood with bland mid-century houses: utilitarian, unimpressive. A couple rights and lefts more and you pull up in front of a house that you recognized even on the first visit. This one is set apart from the others by attention and love – welcoming landscaping, bright light pouring through the frosted glass ichthys (ichthyses? ichthyss?)  in the wood-framed front door.  You ring the doorbell and then there is an open door and open arms and a welcome home in the darkness of winter.

It is their home, but as long as you are here it is your home and this time of year – and this time of life – it is nice to find home wherever possible.  It is a good home to find when you come on your own to talk about life, when you need to be comforted or corrected. And it’s also a good home to find when you come along with the rest of the family and you don’t need anything in particular except love.

On that sort of a night there is laughter and chatter and rich Cuban accents. The daughters and sons-in-law ask about your work and your family in genuine effort to know you better. The grandchildren are happy to have a new playmate, a new ear for their stories, a new seat-mate at supper.

The meal is loud and full of laughter as the daughters tell stories on their mother, interrupting each other with details and she laughs at herself along with the rest.  The older of the grandchildren listens with increasing skepticism as her grandpa tells a story. Even if a grandfather is a priest, you still can’t believe his tall tales. And you grin at him and say “she knows who to trust in this family” and he laughs “She knows to trust no one in this family” and she says “uh huh! Grandma!”

And with desert there is a frosting fight between the uncle and the five-year-old and she comes to show you the smear of sugar on her nose, dimples deepening when you pretend like you’re going to lick it off for her

These  friendships are still new, and you are a little surprised at your own comfort. You’ve heard before and said before, that the church is a family; words like “brother” and “sister” tossed around until they seem trite.  But tonight, almost for the first time, that doesn’t feel like an idea or an analogy.  Tonight it seems like mystery and reality.

Behind the reality of fellowship and the joy of laughter, all the stresses of life remain, different for each but real for all (except, perhaps, the five-year-old).  Being together doesn’t make them go away, but it is good not to bear them all alone.  And as you say goodbye after dinner, you thank them and you thank God that, for tonight, your sorrows and joys were welcomed into the mix.

The Garbage Truck

On 6th Street in Arlington, the trash gets picked up at about 11:30 am on Fridays. I know this at all because, for two little boys who lived in a modest, bright two story house on that street, this moment was a genuine highlight of the week. When they could hear the truck coming, slowly making its way down the street, they would run to the glass storm door to watch. And when the men jumped off the truck in front of their house, they would begin to wave madly, grinning and jumping, until their adoration was acknowledged by their heroes in navy coveralls.
 
I wondered nearly every week what those men thought of this little ritual. Little boys often like trucks and loud noises. But more often, the objects of such joyful admiration are firemen or perhaps construction workers. Maybe in this case their attentions were captured because the garbage men were there every week, only steps away from ordinary life for small people in an ordinary house. I am sure that when they were hired these garbage men did not expect any groupies at all, even if they were very short and sometimes sticky ones.  They probably expected smell, grime, weather and daily drudgery–a hard job with almost not cultural appreciation of its difficulty.
 
I no longer spend Friday mornings in Arlington. But I think of the waving and the grins whenever I start (a little impatiently) to follow a slow garbage truck down a city street. Heroes. And my mind drifts a bit further back, to an aquired memory, not even properly my own.
 
See my family drives Fords because my grandfather worked for the Ford factory in Buffalo. Even though the necessities of the Depression stopped his education after eight short years, by his retirement he was doing a job that now requires a degree. But there were earlier years when there were five children and not very much money. And so, after shifts at the factory, he worked another job, too, as a garbage man on small town NY streets. An image of him on the back of the truck, taller perhaps than he was in real life and straighter than my last memories of him, plays over the mental soundtrack of one of the last conversations I had with him, which was how to work hard in a new job you didn’t like yet. 
 
I like to think those boys were also cheering for him.

The Surf

The sun is setting earlier and earlier and this cove is a bit of a drive even from Malibu or Camarillo.  Tonight, the ocean is nearly flat, no swell to lure people from comfort or convenience despite the beauty of water still summer-warm and mild afternoon breezes and deep red setting sun. There aren’t many out this evening, and most who are, are mostly sitting.  But not all.

Mira! Mira, papa! 

He paddles her toward the wave- too late to catch it and she squeals as they break through the whitewater. She sits, gripping the nose of the board with her knees. He lies behind her paddling them through the surf.  

Another wave approaches and he rolls off the board, swinging it around toward shore and giving her a shove into the wave. In a second she’s on her feet, wobbly, riding the wave only to the bottom of the face before falling and then paddling neck-deep in water as the surf pulls the heavy board away from her.  In a second her father is there, helping her back onto the board, paddling her back out through the surf as she shouts excitedly in Spanish.  

She sees me watching and waves, grinning.  She is small and blond and tanned – perhaps seven years old – with a gap in her smile where she’s missing a tooth.  Her father listens to her chatter, offering a few pointers (at least I think that’s what he’s doing, though my Spanish is too rusty to keep up).  

Listo?” he asks, and she nods eagerly, beginning to paddle long before the wave approaches, pure joy on her face. 

They are leaving as I walk back to my car.  She still chatters with hardly a pause. At their pickup, she holds up her arms and he swings her onto the bed and begins helping her take off her wetsuit, laughing as she tells him whatever it is she’s telling him, wrapping her skinny, shivering body in a big towel and pulling her close.

Today, this is what they both want most in the world. Perhaps as he holds her, he worries about losing her as she grows up, that there will come a day when she will be too busy to surf in the evening with her papa. He knows already what she hasn’t realized yet, that these end-of-summer days aren’t endless.  That someday she’ll be too big for him to set her on her feet on a tailgate, too big to share a surfboard.  

If I had more confidence in my Spanish, I’d stop and tell him not to worry, that even though days of bigness and business will come, no matter how hold she gets, there are always times when the thing a girl wants most in the world is to go surfing with her daddy. 

The Voice

link to part 1

Every Sunday they pray. This is not unusual for a church. What may be more unusual is the generous and unwieldy time to voice specific needs beforehand. The requests are short: “There was a bad accident on the 219 this morning. They had it shut down. We should pray.” Or ongoing, a battle with cancer. Sometimes the story is longer, more complex, or told with choked tears. The voices range from the pastor’s wife to those of the children who are don’t realize that this is an odd practice in a public service to those who, though nervous, are driven by a need for help. Each one is carefully recorded in a book and will be remembered at a prayer meeting later in the week.

After everyone has been heard, the congregation moves together, joining hands across the aisles. There is no drawing back, no sitting quietly removed.

The pastor is a tall, thin man in his eighties. Though the congregation may wear jeans or even sweats or camo, he is always in a suit. It is held to his bent frame with suspenders, always giving the impression his proportions defy the best efforts of a belt. His hands over the years have twisted like the branches of a bristlecone pine, a realized metaphor for time and wisdom. His voice can be quite soft. And of late he sits to converse with people after the service, preaching having drained his lessening stores of energy.

Yet, as he firmly grasps the hands of the two men next to him, his voice rings out at the end of the prayer, needing no microphone. “Our Father…”

Without prompting, the others join in, but it is his baritone guiding the many. The conviction of decades of faith resounds through the words: “thy will be done.”