I guess you could say I carried a torch for him, well at times it was just a tiny flicker of light cupped in my hand to keep the flame alive in the gale that was my life. Other times the fire burned so brightly I had to turn my eyes away and wipe the tears. We count almost 50 years as we look back over the decades of our relationship. For most of the time we were on other trains headed to other places, but on occasion we had a minute to sit in the waiting room and catch up before the conductor called all aboard, a summons for one of us to go. We left reluctantly, always looking back and wondering, what if I asked him/her for tomorrow? We now discover that our mind reading skills were abysmal and our best interest would have been better served by being forthright rather than honorable.
When I think about yesterday I always see first his hand reaching for me, pulling me to him. Then I remember his mouth and the words he said, the ones that bound me to him forever. “I have always loved you and I always will. You don’t realize how special you are. You could do or be anything you desire.” I was too young and hell bent on self destruction to listen to my heart and his. I let him walk away, back to his wife and family feeling like I was in a god damn country song.
We almost waited too long, but in a series of events that makes me believe in miracles, here we are sitting at our table, in our apartment, breathing in each other’s contentment. Aside from the passion we feel is the serenity of perfectly matched biorhythms, homologues childhoods, parallel journeys of discovery and the continuous unveiling of shared values we both arrived at independently. Here we are finally free from the lies of our lives, with no regret for all the bullets we took to protect those dear to us, only the ones we would have stepped in front of had we seen them in time. There will always be a bittersweet edge to our days because of the things we cannot change, but they are balanced by a new definition of love, the one that we discovered in each other.
Do you recall that psychological experiment in trust that where one person was required to fall backward and let the other catch them? It was a popular sit com comedy foil where Charlie Brown like characters would try again and again to believe that this time things would be different, but they always found themselves on the ground feeling hurt and foolish while we laughed at the running gag. Take it from someone who has been down there more than a few times, it’s not as amusing from a horizontal vantage point. Each time I picked myself back up and blamed my own stupidity, but what is most surprising is I never learned enough skepticism to keep me from trying one more time. When he came to me this time I believed just as sincerely as I did when I was 17 and I let myself fall.
Most of the stuff that we broke on our way to each other will heal and some will end up stronger than before. Those things that cannot be mended were always beyond our control anyway.
The sunset never looked so beautiful.
I carefully opened the letter you wrote me
The one in which you enclosed your still beating heart
And the silver dagger
Upon which you had painstakingly inscribed,
No expectations, no pressure.
I turn the blade over in my hand and feel the raw power
Of a weapon intended only for killing
And with a curious finger, touch the carbon sharpness.
A splash of crimson appears on the pure white of your epistle
Right beside the words you wrote in French
Je t’aime tourjours y e’ternal
Which, if memory serves me
Is a very serious declaration of love.
And deep in the soul of my soul
Where that dark empty place has always been
Comes skipping on a stone
A laughing splash of light.
I left my fear of heights somewhere along the road
I didn’t notice it was gone until I came to the last bridge
Stretched across the sky between the mountains.
I don’t know where I misplaced it, but I do remember where I first found it,
My nails clawing at the bricks and clinging to the flimsy metal rail
Halfway up the lighthouse tower facing the Atlantic
Thirty-eight years ago come March
Perhaps it died while I was sleeping
Like some ancient holocaust survivor brought down
Because he stepped off the curb into the path of a bus
Perhaps it withered away from neglect
Forgotten in the closet of my mind
Like last year’s fashion
Now I stand here staring down the abyss of my life,
Well except for remembering the Mother’s day
My daughter and I laughed, cried, and got drunk together
And the morning sun found me bleeding and sticky with wine
On the sofa with no memory of how I got there.
She got religion somewhere after motherhood and marriage
And lost her memory of all the days we wasted
Doing stupid and loving things together and separately.
My nightmare of driving off the end of the bridge in Baltimore
Was the portent of a death I wanted long, despite my laughter.
I don’t know why she loves me not
Now that I have chosen to live.
The sky pulled me close this morning
Embraced me with its fluff of clouds
I could not help but hug back at such a spontaneous and unexpected pleasure.
My child declares me dead
And holds her breath until I disappear
Not as charming at 30 as it was at 3.
Of course I blame myself.
That long dark summer when she was lost at sea
I ached and threw money like confetti
And ran incautious through mortal peril
To bring her safely home
When she returned from the nearly dead
I slew the fatted calf and invited the world
To come marvel at the wonder of a woman-child who glittered when she walked
And sucked all the oxygen out of every room
None left for me
I held my breath and waited for her to notice.
Now I regret the path I took a decade past
But cannot un-walk it or make her turn
To see me, Desolate
When I told her I was going
The mask of her face held briefly to grief
Then rose to anger. Now she holds to her rage and pain without pity.
And speaks of me as dead
But the sky knows she lies.
The clouds flirt with me and make a sound like happiness
I laugh out loud and blow kisses.
The wagons are almost loaded
I point my heart to the west
The hands that pull on my clothing fall away
As we start to roll.
The road lengthens behind me,
The shadows of forty years
Dance behind me in the dark woods
Right beyond the ring
Of the campfire light
It’s almost 2 AM, too early to wake, but Paris and hunger has roused me from a restless four hour nap. I recall very few times in my life that I have been too excited to eat, but the last few days before my trip have been so packed with preparations and anticipation I have lost track of even meal times. Now with my suitcase ready for zipping, my traveling outfit selected and my job put to bed for the month, my stomach wakes me complaining. I cannot decide it it is too later or too early to eat, but after months of being too bound by responsibilities to take time for myself I find that more than food, more than sleep, I need to write. So, let me tell you about Paris.
In Kentucky where I was reared, many early pioneers left a stamp of incongruent place names across the young wilderness, names that were doomed to be twisted into unrecognizable pronunciations by the uneducated tongues that followed them into that dark and bloody land. My high school French teacher did nothing to dispel the ignorance in myself or my classmates concerning the butchered names. The rules of pronunciation that I learned in class were not applied locally. It was my first husband that made me aware that the Versailles Highway and the palace of the Sun King were spelled exactly the same way, but that Louis would have gone into the French equivalent of a hissy fit if he heard the locals speak the word. We even named the largest city in the state after him, Louisville, but I can almost see his sneer if he heard it spoken. Hopefully I will not see the same sneer Sunday morning when I arrive in his native land and open my mouth.
In an effort not to rise above my raising I have diligently fallen asleep for weeks with the headset Rosetta Stone sent me wrapped around my head whispering barely remembered words from long ago. The only thing I have learned for certain is how to ask politely for the toilet and a translator to understand the directions to same. Last night I admitted to a bit of terror along with my excitement. Come what may however I will be on the airplane in six hours, ready or not.
I wish I could say I yearned for Paris as I sat eagerly on the front row of Mrs. Render’s French class but truthfully I just wanted to be anywhere but in Beaver Dam Ky. It was later that Paris assaulted me, so deftly I am uncertain of when the blow was struck. I do know the longing is there and a bit of it seems to be in many of my friends and acquaintances, for when I tell them about Paris they get a dreamy look in their eyes. Some say, well, the people are rude I hear, or the city is dirty, but under it all they know romance waits there in the air, in the water, in the food, and especially in the language. La ville éternelle m’appelle, et je vais…
When I was pregnant with my first child I had no idea what being a parent would be like. I moved through the months of changes in my body with awe and amazement, from the first butterfly flutter of movement in my abdomen to the definite thud of tiny feet and hands. I was so young I didn’t really consider my expectations about motherhood, but I do remember the first time my newborn was brought to me in the hospital, wrapped in a tight little blue blanket, looking and smelling like he had been freshly dry-cleaned. I sat in bed looking into his perfect little baby face feeling like Mary holding the Christ child. When I brought him to my breast and the sweet little rosebud mouth latched on to nurse I was earth goddess, with nourishment flowing from my very soul. After about 5 minutes of this fantasy he let rip the most horrendous gassy noise, filling his diaper and turning that lovely baby powder smell to a sour stench. After I got over the shock of the moment, I started laughing at myself. Seems like my little flight of the imagination had not taken into account the reality of an actual live human being. Even after the 12 hour labor with all it’s accompanying indignities and discomforts, and then the final frantic rush of an emergency C-section, here was the moment I became a flesh and blood mother instead of the soft out of focus dream variety.
The actuality of our children does come as a surprise. We daydream about what they will be like and what our reaction to them will be, so it is a bit of a shock when they turn out to have the same proportion of faults and strengths as we do ourselves. Raising a real human rather than the fantasy one is a humbling experience, making us face things in our own character we would just have soon left undiscovered. When I was carrying my daughter I had a friend who was expecting shortly after me. This was her first and only venture into motherhood, having started a bit late in life with her second husband, a man who was supporting his two from a first marriage. My friend had just as many opinions on rearing children as she did on every other subject. I grew a bit weary listening to the constant stream of subtle and not so subtle criticism directed at how I was rearing my two boys, and how superior she would be when her little carbon copy arrived. The child had her diet, toys, friends, and career picked for her in utero. No candy, cookies, or sweets ever, and if grandmothers did not comply they would not be allowed to see the child. No dolls for her girl, only educational toys of a more masculine nature to prepare her to take her place in the high stakes world of tomorrow. Private school, so she would meet a better class or people, hopefully descendants of Pilgrims and Presidents, then on to an Ivy league university. She would study to be a doctor, and not just any doctor; she had the specialty all picked out, ear, eye, nose and throat. I forget why, money probably. Her husband, as down to earth and practical man as you would ever want to meet, said without expression, “The whole world is waiting for you to have this baby dear.”
I was on the phone with her when her water broke. I knew that because she started screaming and it took me a while to talk her down. My own newborn was in my arms and my 2 year old was playing on the floor, so my physical presence wasn’t going to be particularly helpful. I told her to hang up the phone and call her husband and the doctor, but not to panic (the universal admonishment), because she would have plenty of time before the baby arrived. She called me back 10 minutes later to ask me what she should wear to the hospital. I told her it wasn’t necessary to make a fashion statement, but she might want to grab a towel for the car seat before she left.
She called me the next day from the hospital to tell me her baby girl was the most beautiful one in the nursery, and I told her I was sure she was. That would not be a lie. After spending many hours in labor to push something as large as a cantaloupe through an opening normally the size of a soda straw, the effort causes a photo shop glow to form around the object of that exertion, and temporally blinds the mother to all but her own offspring. When I was introduced, I the first thing I noticed were the Dumbo like ears sticking out from the bare little football shape head that newborns acquire on their tortured route through resisting flesh and bone. Mom was standing there with a beatific medicated smile and Dad had the shell-shocked look of a man just recaptured after a jailbreak. I kept my congratulatory statements vague and diplomatic.
In about six months the baby turned into a fairly decent looking infant, and after many years she became a beautiful young woman. In the intervening time my friend, the micro manager, did everything she could to enforce the rules she had made, but to little avail. The child turned out to have the inflexible temperament of her mother, constantly begged for snacks and sweets, was sent to the office on the very first day of kindergarten, struggled with her school studies, hung out with a bad crowd in high school, and decided she didn’t want to got to college. When the child came to our house she played joyfully with my daughter’s endless supply of pink plastic girl toys, the ones I let my child pick out for herself. Once her Mom suggested we should go back to her house to play, but the wee one protested that there was nothing to do at home. When my girl went to get cookies for a tea party, Mom had a look of panic on her face, but finally relented. We sat down with coffee and my friend related regrets about her own wasted childhood where she ate a lot of sweets and snacks, struggle with her school work, hung out with a bad crowd, and decided against college. I bit my tongue, offered her a fourth cookie, and held my laughter until she went home.
It is a shock when our children come to us not a blank slate for us to write on, but wired with abilities and personality often similar to our own, our spouses, or even the in-laws we deal with only grudgingly. I was not immune to this discovery process. Once I was lamenting to my mother about the amazing musical talent my middle child had on the violin and how frustrating it was that he never practiced.
“I had really hoped one of my children would become an accomplished musician,” I said to Mom with a sigh.
“I always wished the same thing myself” she retorted.
Being a good parent is learning how to let go, first of your belief that your child will be perfect, then the hope they will be like you only much better, then the misconception that they are yours to mold at all. Somewhere between diapers and dating I relaxed, gave up my expectations, and really began to enjoy being a Mom. There were dark days when I abandoned all but hope. That is when I realized the essence of the parental role; give them unconditional love, keep advice to a minimum, and if you can stand it, let natural consequences be their teacher. Just when you finally get the knack of the parent thing, they are on their way out the door, suitcase in hand, eager to make the same stupid mistakes you did when you were young. Despite all I’ve learned, and how differently I reared my own brood, it what really kills me knowing now that my mother was right when she said, “You won’t understand until you have children of your own.”