Take a moment and read this chilling, brilliant essay:
“A VISIT FROM CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES CHANGED HOW I PARENTED MY TEENS”
Take a moment and read this chilling, brilliant essay:
“You haven’t written anything on your blog in a long time,” Renita said through the Memorial Day heat.
“Been trying to fit it in, but I’ve been busy,” I said then ran through my lists of must-dos-and-get-it-dones: Julia’s chess tournaments, Julia’s first grade graduation, Julia’s ballet and tennis classes, every Saturday, all the moving parts of my single mommy hamster wheel.
Since Julia I and were only in Detroit for the long weekend, Renita got right to the point, something she’s done since we were in the 5th grade:
“I was thinking that you can write about how your mom and Julia are getting older, at the same time, in different ways…and how, at this point in your life… you’re watching those two things happen at once.”
It’s always funny when non-writers give writing prompts. Sometimes I discount them, into the-been-done-seen-it-before category. But more often than not, some ideas work their way back into my brain, like a great old tune I can’t keep off rotation spin.
And so, it did. And so, I did.
At the moment I stand at the intersection of lack and overflow, of a mother who is shutting down her vocabulary, paired with a daughter ripping the throttle open up on hers, each coming by it from her nature. Yet when I spot people in their nineties still chatting away and cruising through Central Park, in movie lines, at Trader Joe’s, seniors with more than ten years on my mom, I slam into the unfairness of it all. But when I think of my friends that have already lost their mothers, some before my friends reached adulthood, one that lost her mom and her step mom to cancer, all before my girlfriend reached the age of 25, then my pity-party-whine-a-thon shuts down. Sometimes, to ease the sadness in my heart of my mostly silent mom, I allow the wave of words that spring from Julia the moment she opens her eyes, carry me.
“Do you know when I go to sleep away camp, that’ll be the longest time we’ve ever been apart?” Julia said as we slid stacks of clothes into her purple roller case at crack of dawn Saturday morning.
Sure, I’d thought of it. I just wasn’t sure she thought of it.
“Yeah, that’s true Jules, but I’ll be here when you get back. Plus, you are going to have a ton of fun at camp.”
For the final month leading up to this milestone Julia quizzed me on my kid camp experienced. I told her about the marshmallow roasting, the bellicose singing that took place on overnight hikes, of seeing a darken sky so jammed with stars my eyes darted around in wonder identify constellations, patterns, beauty unseen in the city of Detroit.
Julia nodded and then said. “Okay, so what did you do on the second day?”
As I gathered the last of Julia’s things she bounced some much off the walls, so hard, I had to banish her from the apartment. “Go downstairs and wait for RPs parents, wait with the doorman!”
She happily bolted. If allowed she would have run all the way to Connecticut. By the time I came downstairs hauling one last pair of swim goggles, water shoes, and an errant backpack, the sea green SUV was packed tight with luggage, kids and RP’s parents. One space left for me. I tucked in. And we took off for I-95.
Two and half hours later, I settled Julia into her bunk, tucking the sheets and blanket on to her bed with the help of the camp counselor.
Julia, was already embroiled in a game of Go Fish.
I stood in awe of knowing that through the recommendation of my friends I had made a good choice for my daughter. This would be her best summer ever. We said our good-byes. I hugged Julia tight. From the corner of my cracked eye, I saw three small heads, one in braids, one blonde, one brown curled, pulling a Sheryl Sandburg, leaning in, heavy. As my arms unfolded and released my daughter, a small hand reached in and grabbed Julia’s wrist.
“C’mon Julia we’ll show you the woods!”
And the threesome vanished.
I skipped down the steps of the bunk, took a right turn through the woods and headed down the paved path, sending a text to RPs mom along the way.
“All done, headed to the car.” I felt good leaving Julia in a place where she’d already made friends, where it was so green and lush.
As the road sloped down, I admired the light though a thick stand of trees. I heard a small voice rise up behind me, “Mommmmmyyyyyy….”
I froze. I turned. There was my spud of a girl, gaining on me.
“Mommmmmyyyyyy….,” she yelled with a mix of longing and love.
She ran up, arms and braids flying. “Mommy, why are you still here?”
I let out a snort from shock and hilarity, then said, “Jules, I’m walking as fast as I can back to the car.”
“Okay,” she said and skipped off.
As I neared the parking lot I met a couple that described pealing their kid off them to leave, I felt doubly grateful for my happy girl.
And that gratitude would extend further, 45 minutes later into our drive back to the city, on the outskirts of New Canaan, on a sleepy road, when RPs Dad’s car malfunctioned. I won’t go into the details here. I’ll want to do a deeper dive on this event later. But suffice to say that when the tow truck driver later surmised that it was a “Good thing we weren’t going 65 miles an hour when it happened because you guys would have flipped over,” his words held whole heap of weight.
That night, even after servings of medicinal wine, I dreamt about how the whole thing could’ve gone bad in so many ways. At breakfast, I dined with the ghost of that event, too.
“Not your time,” my friend Joi texted.
But what I heard in my head was Julia’s words:
“Mommy, why are you still here?”
Sure, raising Julia to adulthood is high on the list. And I need to get my daughter ready for school on a different level of work next semester. But beyond sending writing projects out into the world that I’ve hung on to, I know there’s other stuff that I need to tend to. But what?
Since that transformative experience on the Merritt Parkway I’ve made it my mission to catch up with old friends. I’ve been to Brooklyn twice in one week which is a record for me. I’ve had extraordinarily good time reconnecting, even running into an old friend I haven’t seen in three years, randomly, in a restaurant, while on a catch-up dinner. I haven’t eaten out this much in my own town, since like, never.
But I know it’s time to focus.
“Mommy, why are you still here?”
All I can think of to do is listen.
Mostly I hear silence. It reminds me of my mom. She seems attentive some days and some days not. But she’s still here, her mission complete. For more than 25 years in the Detroit Public School System her goal was to free as many Special Ed. Kids as she could through attentive, focused education, to get them back into mainstream classrooms. She filed her retirement papers three times. And twice new parents came to her classroom and begged her to wait until their kid passed through her classroom.
“We hear your goal is to get kids back into regular classrooms.”
And twice my mom pulled those papers back.
“You can’t save all those kids,” my dad told her again and again over, at times, tense dinner table discussions.
My mom’s response was always the same, “Well, John I’m going to save as many as I can.”
And she did.
My friend Jenny had a take on the stating of things: “Your mom did everything she wanted to do and saw that you and your brothers, and your kids are in a good place. Now maybe she just wants to eat what she wants and talk when she wants. She’s done so much for all of you.”
I heard Jenny all the way from Boston. And her edict will have to do because it gives me something else to think about other than hoe much I miss the sound of my mother’s voice. Now maybe I just need to listen. Then move my feet in the right direction. Whatever the heck that direction is.
Plenty of single moms have made, culture-altering achievements: J K Rollings created the character Harry Potter entertaining and delighting the world. Bette Nesmith Graham invented liquid paper saving typist tons of time and making herself wealthy enough to fund other single moms and artist. (If you haven’t read her bio check out at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/11/obituaries/bette-nesmith-graham-liquid-paper.html
I just hope God doesn’t tell me to move to India and open up a writing school for girls or something, at least not until Julia’s in college. Her school is just too good for us to leave just now.
In my previously, pre-mommy life, I would have no words for the Amazon Echo. None would be needed. I’ve always favored Crayola’s over computers, even while growing up beside two Joy-stick-addicted brothers in a middle-class Detroit home. I maintained my creative bent right into attending undergrad at Parsons School of Design, thanks to the support and financing of my parents. No A.I. for me, thanks.
When motherhood arrived through the adoption of an eight-month-old Ethiopian girl, my position didn’t alter. When my twenty-something nanny nudged me toward internet-ready lullabies, I declared my Manhattan apartment a techno-free zone and clung to the human version. My daughter’s toys weren’t low tech, they were no tech. However, my brother Jeffrey pushed me past my semi-luddite tendencies regarding the TV.
“You’ll be watching more movies at home…so will Julia. You need to upgrade to a flat screen and surround sound.”
I huffed into the phone,” Alright, only because I get a good deal through work.”
Days later when the system arrived, I called him tech support back in Michigan.
“Great, let’s get it hooked up now!” Jeffrey said, his voice all amped up from tech-induced adrenalin. An hour later, I plopped in a disk, grabbed the remote and clicked on the DVD button. Sound boomed from the speakers, twin dark maws, atop the TV cabinet. Images whirled across a screen so bright, so big, it seemed the neighboring apartment across the way had a good shot at enjoying, Aliens, too. “Wow,” I mumbled.
Jeffrey chuckled. “Welcome to the new world.”
But one flat screen TV does not a revolution make. My eight-month-old blossomed into a classic American kid, one captivated by all things electronic. I banished PlayStation and Nintendo determined to guard my seven-year-old against mind-numbing entertainment.
On an evening in June as hot as August I entered the cool of a West Side apartment to the twang of techno. My daughter and her seven-year-old pal tumbled across the Serapi styled rug in the living room. Silvered light slid through the west windows. All seemed beautiful, until, on a side table, among books and bowls of snacks, I spotted the source of the music, a dark tower, about two feet high.
“You have an Echo!?” I said jabbing the air.
“Sure,” the mom said.
“Don’t your kids talk to that thing non-stop?”
“Nah, they mostly play music.”
Unconvinced, as Dee hunted down loose socks and crumb-coated bowls across the living room, I quizzed her husband.
“Andy only asks about sports scores, hasn’t figured out that he can do anything else.”
“Don’t you want him to find information on his own?” I asked with a tone that implied the fall of democracy wasn’t far behind.
He smirked. “Why not both?”
Julia and I made our good-byes then headed home. But as she skipped over a subway grate, her long, lean brown legs twisted and thrilled in the simmering heat. Her mind was still back at the Richardson’s apartment.
“Mommy, can we get an Alexa?”
“We don’t need it.”
“But mommy, I lovvvvvve music and I can’t play it.”
“I know Julia.”
In the days to come I thought of how Julia, as a baby, crooned in her crib, creating her own music, of how my own musical DNA, formed by the foundation of my dad’s Detroit record shop, had been shelved once when I became a Single-Mom-in-Chief.
The parcel arrived two days later. Inside, the always-on, Bluetooth speaker. Built Artificial Intelligence. But not enough to assist me in hooking it up. After thirty-minutes I called for backup.
“Try unplugging and replugging it Ma’am,” the Amazon tech said.
Getting Ma’am, did not help matters.
“Try reinstalling your Wi-Fi password.”
I groaned, and put the Echo in a choke hold.
“Ma’ma, let us update the software from here…don’t talk to Alexa for at least an hour,” he said.
I stared at my cell. Did he just refer to a machine using a proper noun?
“Sure, I can do that.”
Three days later Julia looked up from her morning bowl of Honeynut Cheerios and asked, “Mommy, is Alexa ever going to work?”
I’d spent my days eying the shipping carton in my closet, considering sending the Echo back to the Mothership. Tech support had been a bust. Jeffrey, the early adapter, didn’t have an Echo. Besides, I needed a smart kid, not a smart home. But as I regarded my daughter’s pleading eyes, I felt something different. Something new. Shame.
I clicked off the flat screen, re-juiced the Echo, then tapped the app on my cell. I reinstalled my Wi-Fi password and preferences, then studied the setup video. Again.
“Give Alexa a prompt,” the final super read.
I winced. “Alexa, what’s the weather?”
“It’s 72 degrees in New York City.” A female voice alto. Strong yet warm. Ish.
Julia’s spoon clanged to a halt. “It’s working!?”
I smiled and nodded.
Julia squealed and said, “Alexa, play ‘Shake it Off!’”
“Playing Shake It Off by Taylor Swift, from the album 1989.”
And with that she jumped up and launched into a frenzied dance of gratitude.
The next morning, I awoke, in bed, alone. A rarity. I don’t have an alarm clock. I have Julia. I slipped on my robe, crept down the hall, and found her twirling around the living room in the pale sunlight, to the strain of strings; The Nutcracker Suite.
“Look Mommy, I’m doing ballet!”
“And Mommy watch this…Alexa…what’s your favorite color?”
“Julia honey, it won’t…”
“…My favorite color is… infra red.”
Clearly, the Echo programmers were parents.
That evening when Julia mentioned a book she’d read at school “Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop,” I realized Parker’s music could round out the story.
“Alexa, play the best of Charlie Parker,” I bellowed from the kitchen, over the rattle of pots.
Be-bop bounced through the air. A vitally important example of intelligence, I now shared with my daughter. A teaching moment was underway along with dinner. As bedtime approached, Julia absently, slowly, gathered her shoes and dolls from the floor, I looked to Alexa for help. “Alexa, play the Barney Clean-Up Song.” Barney bumbled on. Julia picked up the pace. I marveled. Muscle memory is a beautiful thing.
The writer Arthur Clarke declared that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Julia would agree. Alexa is lending a hand in providing resources for daughter’s creative passions. That’s help I welcome. And since the world has made tuning into the news a cautionary pursuit, I value Alexa in new ways. Once the goal was to protect Julia from senseless video gaming. Now I need to shield her from a world where even nature has turned conflicted and violent. Alexa is magic. Just not magic I thought I’d need. Even depend on. Perhaps, that was Clarke’s point all along.
The marathon that is motherhood has many runners in the relay, but few water stations and shade. So, I when received a new newsletter from the writer KJ Dell’Annonia about the value of ignoring some of your kids rants and raves, I had to look beyond the unwashed pot of mac and cheese, loose socks and rings of crushed Cheetos in the carpet, and click on this value advice.
Julia’s verbal skills are off the charts. So, therefore, so is her ability to launch an epic and relentless Whine-a-Thon: “The corn on the cob is too hot…. The subway car is too cold…Why can’t I have marshmallows for breakfast.”
And her biggie:
“Mommy, why can’t I have a brother, or a sister, or dog or a dad,” she said breaking it down for me as we walked to the subway station, headed to her pre-school. “Everyone in my class has at least three living things in their house. And I’m the only one…”
“Julia, that’s not true.”
“It is true mommy!”
I countered with the two other two single parent adopted kids in her class: one mom, one kid, one house.
“Theo has a dog, and Tamir just got two cats,”
I came back with the one single, divorced Mom in Class 715.
“Okay, Olivia lives with her Mom…”
“…And her Abuela.”
Not only did she use the Spanish word for grandmother for her Latina pal, Julia locked her argument with a closer, “I would have asked for a cat but I know you’re allergic.”
Two days later I gave in a got her three fish, Pinkie Pie, Blueberry and Cory, adopted from our local Petco. Three Beta fish. Two years later, only Pinkie-pie is still standing, or, umm swimming.
“You put three Meta fish in one tank,” my co-worker bellowed.
“No one at Petco told me you couldn’t! They just took my American Express Card.”
Today, it’s a sense of pride that the nicest, least-aggressive fish is the lone survivor.
Thanks to Pinkie Pie and KJ’s words, now I’m taking that same tack. I’m just trying to stay ahead of the whinny barbs, ignore more and talk less, and wait for the tide to turn. I penned a note of KJ to thank her for the assist.
“It’s not easy,” she wrote back.
Boy, was she right.
Then I remembered something I heard Whoopi Goldberg say on The View some years ago. That her kid was such a crier she used ear plugs to tamp it down.
“But what if she needed you?” another host asked.
“I could hear her enough,” Whoopi said.
Since we live in New York City, with a bottomless supply of audio assaults, screaming sirens, dog wars, and buildings that multiply conversations, so clearly I can hear every word from my bed, eight floors above, I’ve used Mack’s Soft Ear Plugs for years. Soft, pliable, and effective, they can be had at Amazon for $2.25 for six pairs.
Now I employed my sleep support as Mommy sanity support.
So, on the third day when the whining and whirled, I left Julia on her metaphorical soap box in the living room, headed down the hall into my bedroom, grabbed my ear plugs from my night stand and jammed them into my ears. Then I smoothed my hair down to conceal them. Then I grabbed her gear for day camp: tennis racket, lunch box, water bottle (half ice, half water) then I palmed my door keys and shouldered my purse and work tote.
“Okay, let’s go.”
“I don’t want to go to tennis, it’s too hot.”
“The bench is hot, and the other kids have a towel to sit on, I don’t have a towel. I don’t want to take one of our black towels because nobody has a black towel. They all have towels with Sponge Bob and Mulan and Trolls on them…”
“And Coach Simone makes us play too long.”
“Julia did you just complain about playing a game too long, I’ve seen you hang at the playground for hours…”
“But Mommy, that’s different.”
Back to radio silence.
These wonderful ears plugs got me to wonderful Harlem Junior Tennis Program, 30 minutes away by subway and bus, with a much larger portion of my sanity intact for a morning drop off. As we entered the park, Julia bolted away to join her pals warming up with rackets and bright, techno yellow fuzzy balls. I pried the plugs from my ears and popped them into my purse.
“Good Morning,” Coach Simone said, her beautiful brown glowing skin luminous in the sunlight, framed by her hot pink tennis dress. A handful of brown, pink and tan kids whacking balls into nets, some over the wide white band. The orderly pale lines of the court. The rich green field. Why hadn’t I noticed this in three days.
“Yes, it is a good morning,” I said, and smiled, wished and well, and walked away with my secret.
To receive KJ Dell’Annonia weekly email on “raising a family, having a life and loving (almost) every minute of it,” in your inbox, subscribe now, http://kjdellantonia.us12.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=101be682cae125f8735451df8&id=80abd93691
Since Saturday and the world has watched women of all ages along side men as well, come to together on issues that we believed long settled that now are threatened. The words and images have been stunning. Inspiring. To my mind a new movement has formed from the U.S. to Iceland.
I always felt regretful as a child that all the marching, and work behind the marching, had all ended by the time I came along. Not anymore. Yet, as any human being can tell you, women are complicated creatures, a fact that came to light, not once but three times since Saturday.
“I just think all those women are being disrespectful, he’s the president now…its ‘like they’re praying for the plane to crash,” my girl friend said over a glass of wine.
“It wouldn’t be a surprise if the man behind the wheel doesn’t have a pilot’s license.”
“Calling him a Cheeto is not what this nation is found on,”another added the next day.
“But freedom of speech is,” I said.
And as the dialogue continues, we all need to remember than these protests are about bigger issues than women and society. It’s about consciousness, fairness and knowing yourself worth so we can pass that centeredness on to our daughters and nieces. And those of other women. It’s about knowing you have some skin in the game of the future, whether you’re a parent or not, simply because you are here on this planet, now. Could go on but a girl friend sent this post to me that does so brilliantly. Take a moment and dive in.
Time flies. And then there are days that seem jet propelled. And in months that I haven’t written I’ve: visited ten independent New York City schools, attended 30 related events‑open houses, parent interviews, child interviews…opps I mean play dates, diversity nights, curriculum nights—mixed in with Christmas shopping, then the holidays with friends and family, and fought to assembled a two thousand piece, three-foot-tall My Pretty Pony Castle that Santa brought, and won.
( Okay, I was Santa, and it wasn’t that bad, in fact it’s pretty cute.)
Cooking Christmas dinner for my family, hosting the Holmes Family Annual Jenga Tournament on New Years Eve, MLK Day, Presidents’ Day, and tax filing. So the time and attention that frequent went to my blog, went to, say, my life.
Then came 100 day at Julia’s school.
A day I’ll never forget. Not because I’m a closet arithmomaniac, but for the creation Julia and I made for the event.
“Remember Mommy we have to make our 100 project,” Julia reminded me at breakfast, in celebration of 100 days of school.
“I do. I’ll have Natasha pick up the materials to make our project.” Then I grabbed my purse, plucked out my wallet and pealed out twenty bucks then slid the bill on to the dinning room table‑‑for the purchase of a Mylar balloon and a bag of 100 count cotton balls.
We would make the sky.
The only hard part of the day I anticipated was ditching my annual co-op board meeting so I’d have the mental bandwidth to work with Julia. The meeting is held in the building’s lobby. And there’s one way into the building, through said lobby. So one has to do the walk of shame past the board members and the other owners, just to get home, to your child, to your second job.
The hardest part of being a single parent is my inability to divide myself. And while I wanted to attend the annual meeting which covers a deep dive into the building’s finances: how many gallons of heating oil the boiler burned this winter, healthcare costs of the doormen, future projects and more all that data would have to wait for me to receive the published report.
I had a date with my daughter.
I came in the house ready to dive in. As Natasha gathered her coat and purse, she said, “I purchased quick dry glue to make it easier,” then she headed to the front door.
I couldn’t image why she’d bought glue since we had glue in the house. About twenty cotton balls in, I understood. Cotton is surprisingly unwieldy. After an hour of teamwork, and the support of a glass of Cabernet for mommy, the blue sky with clouds was really taking shape. Another half an hour, Team Holmes had completed the job. By then Julia’s bedtime had arrived. Pajamas on, teeth brushed, when I went to tuck her in, I found her room empty.
“Where are you?” I called out.
I heard her patter down the hallway and pop into her room, all smiles. “I was saying good night to the sky.”
The next morning Julia shook me from sleep with a latest balloon report, “I checked on the balloon sky,” she said. “It’s dry!”
Quick dry glue indeed.
We had breakfast and dressed, then I searched for a large enough plastic bag to transport our work of art to school.
“No! I want to carry it,” Julia said, hugging the cloud to her tiny chest.
“It would be easier to carry in a bag.”
“No, Mommy, pleaseeeeee.”
Minutes later Julia was clutching the balloon like a baby seal walking out of the elevator into the lobby.
“Oooohhh, I like your balloon,” Carlos the doorman crooned.
“Mommy and me made the sky!” Julia announced.
Then we walked out of the building and into the bitter cold March morning. Our twelve minute walk to the subway station on Broadway wasn’t looking so fun.
“Let’s take a cab,” I said.
Seven minutes later we prepared to exit the cab in front of the school. The building is very close to the Hudson River so it’s always quite windy, even on mild days, a fact that I forgot although the taxi was being pushed and shoved by an invisible gale.
I passed the driver a twenty then instructed Julia to “get out and go to the curb,” while I waited for my change. And few seconds later I heard the sound of screams blasting against the taxi’s windows. Julia. I leapt from the cab and found her hopping up and down on the cement in a frenzy. No blood in sight. But silvery tears streaked her brown face, as she pointed down the block, at the sight, the Sky Balloon, tumbling and falling down west 120th street in the gale.
I’ve seen some shocking things of late: The rise of Donald Trump in his own global reality TV show, Pluto’s demotions from a planet into a plutoid, and Bruce transforming into Caitlyn the Vanity Fair Magazine pin-up girl, but seeing my child’s 100 day project manhandled by the wind, hemorrhaging cotton balls across the sidewalk, my daughter sobbing, crushed me beyond belief.
“Grab it!” I yelled.
Julia and I took off after the blue balloon tumbling across the grey cement. For a good fifteen feet I scrambled to collect the white wounds as the battering winds shoved The Sky towards Claremont Avenue, towards the destruction that passing car tires would levy. Fear clutched my throat. I quickened my pace. Julia would not recover from seeing the death of her Sky. I had to stop it. I sprinted harder. But The Sky was too fast for me.
I spotted a man standing at the corner waiting for the walk signal, about twenty feet ahead. “Hey, HEY!” I yelled. “Grab that balloooooonn!!!!”
The man snagged the sky like a soccer ball, scooping it into his arms. I ran up to him and had to fight the urge to thrown my arms about him.
“Thanks so much!”
The man nodded, smiled then moved away. I sensed he was a parent, he knew the baby bomb was about to go off.
“It’s ruined!” Julia moaned, her face reddened and wet. “I’m the only one who won’t have a project!”
“No! I brought the glue! I can put them back on!”
“But it won’t be 100 cotton balls,” she sobbed.
I reached into the pocket of my jacket, and pulled out a wad of white.
“No, I got them all,” I lied, eyeing a few victims trapped in the near by storm drain.
Ten minutes later, after I dried Julia’s face and dropped her at the gym with her class, I was hard at work reapplying lost bits of cloud, using the top of her clubby as a work station. Passing parents eyed me curiously. I hardly noticed, my mind focused on the thoughts running like bulls through my mind. One in particular stood out, the most important balloon lesson of all: There will always be something, a lost balloon, a lost job, seemingly lost chances. There will always be something that threatens to upset the day, the child, the mom. Such is the life of a parent, especially a single parent. All I can do is make sure I have glue, and good prayers.
Twenty minutes later, I slid into The Big Sing, a monthly event the school holds, just in time to applaud the last two songs the children sang with my sticky, shiny, gluey hands. When the Head of School announced it was time for the grown ups to leave, and the children started singing and the “Goodbye Grown-Ups!” song, I made my way through the throng of people over to where Julia’s class sat.
“Have a great day, your project is on top of your cubby.”
“Why I didn’t see you here before?” Julia asked.
(Well her last name is Holmes, but still I found the question surprising.)
“I was upstairs fixing The Sky for you.”
“The whole time?”
“Yes, the whole time…Can’t be in two places at once, Jules.”
She thought about it for a moment.
“Well I guess putting the sky back together is more important than The Big Sing.”
I wanted to tell her that she would use that observation to put many things back together during her life, that she would use her spiritual glue to repair broken dreams and smashed goals. That she would one day again watch another beloved tumble way from her, trampling heart, and would have to decide whether to chase it down. Or let set it free. That wild winds would blow her good away, along with her faith in right and proper outcomes. And that she would have to make a choice every single time. Let it go. Or get out her bottle of glue and remake the sky.
This past weekend a magical vortex was created in New York City. The axis created by Halloween falling on a Saturday night, the NYC Marathon the following day, with an extra hour of much needed sleep tossed into the sweet spot center thanks to the arrival of daylight savings time.
After we slept off our Trick or Treating fun, and before Julia and I headed to an uptown Marathon viewing party, we made our way to church Sunday morning. And it was at Unity of New York that a reminder came that this Sunday, too, was different.
“Today is ‘The Day of the Dead’,” Barbara Biziou our guest speaker said. “When most of the world honors its ancestors. Let’s all take a moment and honor the shoulders we stand upon.”
Since September, my town has celebrated and honored our special dead. We face 9/11 feeling the heaviness of the past as it extends into the present. We try to shake off the day, to a certain extent, going about our meetings, and our days, and our lattes as we had on September 10th. But we cannot, not fully.
Annually, the city is asked to pause at 8:46 am for a moment of silence at the time the first tower fell. We stop for the reading of the names televised at the annual memorial service at Ground Zero. We see the portraits of friends and family, loved ones lost; the stained grief on the faces of those left to mourn. And we know, as New Yorkers, everyone of us lost someone that day.
And on Marathon Day 2015 those lost on 9/11 came back to me in a fresh way, rekindled by a poem I’d read from Next Door to the Dead, a collection from Kathleen Driskell, a Kentucky based poet.
The volume gets its name from an interesting fact. Driskell and her husband purchased an old church and renovated it into a cool, modern home for their family. Still, one of the most salient features of their repurposed home is its backyard cemetery. The family was assured that the cemetery was no longer in use. But, soon after Driskell, her husband and children moved in, a funeral party showed up, and dismantled that idea. So be it, Driskell probably thought. Artists take their inspiration from many sources. Even death.
While time and elements refilled
you with nothing but your own red dirt,
have you thought long on who managed to skirt
your fixed and final embrace?
A solder’s miraculous recovery
from the bluing fever of Spanish flu?
Or knocked cold by the back hoof
of an ornery mule,
the blacksmith, hair slicked neat and combed,
and his only suit, nearly nailed
into the box but for a pallbearer
who saw a finger twitch?
Or perhaps the remarried wife,
whose last letter cut deep,
revealing she’d really rather sleep
for an eternity next
to her first husband?
Or perhaps when excavated,
you sprang a leak and your bottom
became a bay where no one wanted
to launch a loved one’s final ship.
No matter. Whoever’s escaped you
has now long been caught.
The anniversary of 9/11 reminds every New Yorker of the grave we escaped that day, of the graves that still lie at the edge of Manhattan, the graves of loved ones elsewhere, and those that wait for us all.
Then, in September, Pope Francis came town. Followed by the runners. And citizens took to the streets, to remind one another of our better selves; that we can do better. Love better. “That our best days are ahead of us, not behind us,” as I heard from the pulpit of Unity of New York.
“Why do New Yorkers come out so strongly for the marathon?” Friends across the country ask. “Why do you watch for the last runner to cross the finish line under darkness from the comfort of your couches on the eleven o’clock news? Why do people who’ve never even laced on a jogging shoe care about a 26.2 mile race? Because the runners that travel from all over the world to pound it out across our five boroughs remind us of the importance of moving forward with positive intent. To live fearlessly and well, for ourselves, our families, friends, and the nearly 3,000 lives that perished. That raising our collective voices in support of another is one of the greatest ways to celebrate the Day of the Dead. And to leave the pondering about graves to the poets.
Infant Daughter, Marcus 2 Years Old,
Myra 8 Days
Among these tiny grave markers, I think of my own
little terrorists, my budding suicide bombers.
They shriek against inoculations, squirm, refusing
the spinach on their plates, try to swallow marbles,
run from the care of the woman who is
CPR certified. They smile when they see me
watching their plump fingers fingering the cord.
Every day, with such joy, they threaten
to blow apart my heart so utterly.
And as I watched Julia and her tiny pals lining the street of upper Fifth Avenue in Harlem, the bright sun and their inner glow lighting their faces, I thought of the above poem. And as each runner approached their awake, the children raised a rainbow of hands–tan, pink and brown–to deliver high fives, tiny, soft prayers of support, I saw their affirmations against suicide bombers delivered to all those present, running or not.
Next to the Dead by Kathleen Driskell
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