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

Dear Sister. Comma.

I still remember the day we first met. The night before I was strangely nervous, wondering what you would think of me. Had you heard enough stories to have any expectations? Did you want to like me too?

We met in the cafeteria of a Smithsonian, which was then more your home territory than mine. I don’t remember which one, or what we ate, or even anything about my brother besides that he was there. Mostly when I left I felt relieved. I didn’t know if he would marry you, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hate you if he did. Selfishly, my first criteria had been whether you were one of the impossibly polished girls who made me feel like I’d failed Glamour 101. You looked like you could be our normal, which wasn’t actually very normal at all.

Later I visited the two of you on the hillside campus where you went to school. Then I thought that I could talk with you and laugh with you. Those were big pluses, too. And then I found out you didn’t have pierced ears either.

By the time he called, one hot July night, to tell the story of how he asked and you said yes, I was glad for more than just his sake. But I don’t think I grasped that summer, or even for years afterward, just how glad I was.

Maybe the first time I realized for sure was when you and he showed up together, met me, laughing, at my car when I arrived to a family function to show me the card that I’d filled out at your wedding. I gotten down a “dear” and then your names and then a comma. Nothing more. Distracted by something in the rush of the pre-wedding morning, I’d stuffed the card in an envelope and given it to you anyway. This belonging together started working itself out then; you forgave me, laughed, and will never let the story die.

Flash forward a few years. There is one awful Christmas full of funerals and car accidents and snow that keeps coming and coming. We are together in a car going to one of the family events where there will be tears and food and another step through weariness and toward an attempted Christmas. Suddenly, the wind shifts and heavy snow becomes an unyielding wall of white. The car is surrounded. I yell, I can’t see anything. You say, I know, me either. There is time enough for ripples of fear and then it clears and we go on.

Then this fall. My semester schedule means I probably won’t come home till Thanksgiving. Over the phone you say, aww, you should come back before the semester is really busy. We want to see you before then. I take the we as more than polite syntactical maneuvering. The two of you want to surprise me with long-awaited news, but the fact of mutual company is so established it doesn’t occur to me to be suspicious.

See when he married you, you were then part of my life too. I realized this in theory, but not in fact. As the years go, we move, sometimes with hesitation but always forward, into this fact. And so from strangers to sisters, part of always there.

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.

Verona

You found that you slept in later in Verona. Perhaps it was the soft, November light, filtering through a sky that was not sunny nor cloudy but simply grey.  Perhaps it was the coziness of blankets and the coldness of tile floors, or the way your friend left so quietly without waking you and there were no sounds of conversation or traffic to let you know it was morning.

But eventually you did wake up and then there was rich espresso in a tiny mug and a slice of a traditional Christmas cake for breakfast and time for reading and time for prayer and when that was done a city to explore. You had your own key and turned it four times in the lock and walked down the stairs and onto the street which was old and led across the bridge to the medieval church and from there opened into other narrow, cobbled streets between ancient buildings past frescoed chiesas and through crowded piazzas where street vendors sold roasted chestnuts and cups of fruit and cheesy souvenirs of Romeo e Giulietta.  And in the morning it was fine to be surrounded by the people you could not talk to and to listen to the flow of a language you did not understand, and eventually to make your way to a coffee shop and shyly order a ciocolato calde.  Then you were overwhelmed by the barista offering flavor options in Italian and you ordered caramello not because you love caramel, but because you understood the word, and when you shyly asked “e panna, por favore?” you were relieved, when you got the steaming mug, that it did come with a generous serving of whipped cream. 

But when you were done with your thick chocolate you began to feel a little lonely in the crowds of strangers and then it was good to walk home and to find, when you turned your key in the lock that someone was already opening the door from the other side, and there was your old friend to welcome you back and years of conversation and silence to catch up on.  Long ago, you had lived together in a crowded dorm with many other girls and the conversations and pranks and tears and whispers had been taken for granted. Now you each lived on your own in quiet apartments that were sometimes wonderful and sometimes lonely and for this week you were both glad to have a roommate again. 

In the afternoon you wandered out together through the city and now you were not lonely in the busy streets because you had a friend and because your friend was also your bridge to the rest of the people. She could explain to the man behind the counter that you were Americans and where you were from and could translate for you the flavors of gelato or the items on a menu and would order for you when you were not sure what to say. And when you were tired in the evening you would wander home together and sip tea or Prosecco and nibble on dark chocolate as you read together silently and companionably, but then again the silence never lasted long, because what you were reading would remind you of something and you would read it aloud and then you would be an hour into a conversation that had meandered across years and continents and subjects. And sometimes you would have no response and the conversation would fade to silence and other times you interrupted her and other times she interrupted you but that was okay because the interruptions were as good as the silence and the silence as comfortable as an answer.  And around midnight you would go to bed and whisper together a bit more before you fell asleep, like children at a slumber party, and then you would say goodnight and sweet dreams and she would say sognid‘oro and you would sleep well and soundly and wake up the next morning to begin again.

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 Professor

I revisited my alma mater last week, the first real visit in seven years. I wandered hallways haunted by people still alive and well in other parts of the country, but lost forever as essential pieces of this world, as essential parts of my own life. And, indeed, I am lost to them. Even the faculty had dispersed, scattered by bitter disputes and unsatisfactory resolutions.

Only two professors weathered the early storms completely, and that with a dignity that earned our respect.  One has remained a friend and a collaborator on projects throughout my graduate education and beyond; the other I hadn’t seen since I left.  As I went in search of the latter, I felt suddenly shy.  It had been a long time, and I’d given no warning of my visit.  Besides, he’d had many students since my time, and the three core courses I took from him hardly place me in the memorable category.

But he saw me through the window before I had a chance to knock on the door and jumped up to greet me with immediate recognition and pleasure.  “What brings you back?” and “Welcome, welcome!” waving me into his office under the arm that held open the door.  I’d forgotten how tall and how very thin he is, cheeks as gaunt as Lincoln’s and not at all hidden by his sparse white beard. He has aged since I was his student, but in such a way that I realize he was not so old then as I thought he was.  Now with crinkled eyes and short – but nevertheless unruly – hair, he more than ever fit my image of a professor, lacking only a tweed coat and pipe to complete the picture. As I settled myself into a shabby easy chair he offered me a cookie jar full of chocolates, just as he did the first time I came to office hours, and for a moment I felt very much like that seventeen-year-old freshman.

“You look very well,” he offered, “very healthy, very tan; California is good for you.” I laughed, knowing very well how unhealthy I looked in college. We exchanged pleasantries and I surveyed the still-familiar office. He’d added more bookshelves, and while everything seemed neat enough, the crowded room  gave an impression of barely constrained chaos.  After the briefest moments of small talk, he leaned back, pressing his fingers together and to his lips and closing his eyes thoughtfully.  His arms and fingers are very long, and his gestures slightly awkward but predictable, familiar even after all this time.

Quietly and politely, he began to ask more detailed questions about my life, my family, about loneliness and love and faith and doubt.  I remembered sitting here many years ago, with a tissue pressed to puffy eyes as we discussed a crisis of faith and he offered quiet words of assurance in place of answers to doubt.  A decade later I find the same assurance as I again fight back tears. He recommends a book to read – a little pamphlet by Tim Keller on self-forgetfulness – and takes out a 3×5 card to write down things he can pray for on my behalf.  “I won’t pray for you forever,” he admitted apologetically, “But do feel free always to ask.”

When I stood to leave he waved absently and turned back to his computer, without so much as offering a handshake in farewell, but as I closed the door behind me, I saw him pin the little prayer card he made into a space above his desk.  And in a moment and for a moment that small gesture of love from a professor to a former student made up for all the frustrations of those early disputes and of later embarrassments.