Things Break

That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
–Leonard Cohen, Anthem

***********

Sometimes, things break.

******************

It is her favorite mug, the one with the cherries on it–a thick piece of crockery, sturdy and cheerful.  It came from a local potter who’s recently closed up shop, so there’s that little ping of irreplaceability: This is a piece we will never see made again. It keeps her coffee wonderfully warm.  It is the perfect curved shape to cup with both hands, to spread warmth from palms to soul on days when warming’s needed.

And then she drops it one morning, watches in awful slo-mo as it spirals toward the sink. A big chip flies off the base.  The handle detaches with a sharp, painful crack.

She picks it up.  Oh, this is silly, she thinks, as tears spurt,–silly to mourn for a mug!

**************

The bicycle, thick-tired, unglamorous, sits covered with cobwebs and forgotten in the old garage–a building never, in her tenure here, used to shelter a car.  One day she thinks about bicycling, jogged by a scene in a movie.  Thinks, I could clean up the bike and screw a new basket onto the handlebars, and I could pedal for odd groceries, and to meetings.  Just for fun.

She grabs a pair of gardening gloves and the keys to the garage, and she goes and drags the bike from where it cowers in a far back corner.  She brings it out into the light.

And, oh, it looks sad.  The paint has flaked and the rust encroaches and the seat is flopping, barely hanging on, like a child’s desperately loose tooth.  She crouches down and tries to spin the pedals and she sees that the gears are obstinately, willfully, rusted in place.

Broken, she thinks, and she remembers riding, her son (now almost thirty) in the child seat on the back, both of them laughing at the wind whipping their hair.  She remembers riding that bike to work down the brick streets of a little college town–she can still feel the thrumming of thick rubber on bumpy brick.

She has left it for so long, and now she wonders if it can be fixed.

***************

It is such a stupid lie.  He stares at her, defiant, insistent, and she stops, frozen, unable to respond.  The silence is his undoing.  Had she spoken, had she argued, he could have drummed up righteous indignation, defensive protection, but her lack of words pries off the veneer.  He begins to cry, and the truth comes out, bitter and ugly.

He reaches for her, repentant, but she gathers the frothy cloak of her silence around her, and she turns and walks away.

Can we ever get past this? she wonders.

And then she thinks: Do I want to?

****************

Probably nothing, says the doctor, but let’s just check to be sure.  He uses the word biopsy.

Broken, she thinks. Is this broken? Her hand moves inexorably toward that bland and painless lump.

****************

Things break.

Sometimes, they can be mended.

****************

She sits at the table with the mug and the pieces, and she rolls the mug gently in her hands.  Maybe, she thinks–maybe, she can do this.  She uncaps the glue–oh, it’s pungent!–and she dots the contacts of the handles, presses them to the raw breaks, to where they split from the mug.  She holds it, patient, eyes far away, thinking of a recipe she saw in a magazine, of new curtains for the little bathroom, while she waits for the glue to seep and spread, to send tendrils back and forth in the porous interior of the pottery.  Tendrils to rebuild this well-loved mug.

She sits for five minutes, holding the pieces tightly together, and when they seem to have become one again, she repeats the process with the shard from the base.

***************
Danny from the bike store comes out to the parking lot to help her.  He wrestles the bike from her roomy trunk, sets it on the ground, puts the kickstand down, and steps back. He is silent for a moment.

“I’ve seen worse,” he says, “and this was a good bike to start with.  Worth fixing, if we can do it.”

He pulls a little tablet from his pocket and hunkers down.  His fingers, rimmed in black from all his intimacy with the greasy parts of bicycles, touch the rusty gears.  They trace the brake lines, caress the wheels, ride up to the handlebars as he stands and shifts. He stops for a moment, just looking, and she has the sense he is seeing the finished product in his mind’s capable eye.

Finally he turns.  “It can be done,” he says.  He scrawls a figure on a sheet of his little notepad, rips it off, hands it to her.  “Take me the better part of a month, but I think she’ll be good for another twenty years.”

She puts the piece of paper in her wallet and shakes his hand.  She agrees that this will be worth the wait.

*****************
She meets him in the therapist’s office, and they sit down warily side by side.  He is staying across town; she has surprised herself by enjoying the solitude, the freedom to shape her day.  Some nights she eats a bowl of cereal in front of her computer for dinner.  Others, she cooks up a wonderful stir-fry with vegetables that would appall him. The house is clean and there are long stretches where the anger and betrayal recede, and sometimes she thinks, I am a capable, single, woman.

But there are other times, to her chagrin, when she wonders if he’s all right.  If he’s managing.  She knows his weak spots and his doubts and his need for company.

He is subdued and pale and seemingly eager for the therapy to bring them close again, and so they begin, cautiously, gingerly, looking to see if what’s been badly rent can be slowly, carefully mended.

*****************
The doctor’s face swims into focus.  She is groggy, still punch-drunk, but his words come through the haze.

Looks like we got it all.

Words appear like a banner in her waking brain: Let the healing begin.

Sometimes,–with care and skill, with the investment of resources and a big dose of mindfulness,–sometimes, things can be fixed.

****************

Sometimes things break.

They break, and they can’t be restored to their original state.

But they can be put  to new use.

*****************

She pours steaming coffee into the mended cherry mug.  But when she slides her fingers through the handle, she feels an ominous slipping. Sure enough, with a wiggle and a twist, the handle comes clean from the mug.

She sighs and pours the coffee into her second best mug, puts the cherry mug sadly into the sink.

But later, home from work, she realizes just how much she loves looking at those bright and brazen cherries, loves the shiny shape of the mug and its cheerful, upbeat colors.  She washes it out and dries it carefully.  She takes it to her desk and gathers up wandering pens and pencils, and she ceremoniously morphs her favorite mug into her favorite pencil holder, a pleasant thing that she’ll still use every day.

*******************
It was a cheap bike in the first place; the price for repairs that Danny quotes is far beyond what she paid for it.  She can, he points out, buy a really good bicycle for less than that cost.

So she bundles the old bike back into the trunk and she drives home.  She pulls it out, sets it up on the black-topped driveway, and she ponders.  She fills a bucket with hot soapy water; she scrubs the old friend down and lets it dry.

The next day she spray-paints it white, uniformly white, from tires to handlebars to basket.

That weekend, she parks it in the front yard, maneuvering it to a completely upright status with sunken blocks concealed on either side of the tires.  She lines the big old baskets–one on the handlebars, two on either side of the back tire, with moss, and she fills the moss with rich, loamy dirt.  She plants the brightest petunias she can find and adds some trailing ivy that waves down the sides of the baskets and sways in the breeze. When the winds lifts, she thinks, it almost looks like the bike is in motion. 

It is cheerful and pugnacious, and she can shop now for a new bike that will serve well her augustly seasoned status.

*******************

Therapy has helped them to be civil, to understand what each of them needs.  But it has not brought them back together.

She revels in her independence, and she thinks now of a condo, a place with no yard work but with enough room to entertain and a kitchen that will allow her to explore her increasingly adventurous cuisine.

He admits that he doesn’t miss her in THAT way, that his interest in his pretty young colleague grows exponentially.

They still have the ability to hurt each other, even while they lose the means to make each other happy.  They work with the therapist; she helps them come safely through those woods.

Because, of course, there is Tess, who is only twelve, and who dearly loves them both. Needs them both; needs them to be civil and caring and moving forward, and moving without bitterness.

It is cautious and awkward at first, but they are both committed to the quest, united in this, if in nothing else.  It requires constant work; it requires mindful vigilance, but they come through.  Where once there was a marriage, a warm friendship begins to grow.

She sees Tess, who has been tense and worried, begin, at last, to relax.

*********************
There are ways to bypass what must be removed, the doctor tells her.  He sits down next to her, shows her a glossy diagram.  They’ll just remove this, re-route that, take a little of this from there to repair what’s missing here…and voila--she will be disease-free and fully functional.

She stares for just a moment at the chart in his clean, clean hands, stares just long enough for him to clear his throat uneasily.

And then she begins to laugh.

He looks at her, warily, and she explains.  She’s a great believer in re-purposing, she tells him.  She just never thought she’d be applying the concept to her innards.

***********************
Sometimes, things break.

And sometimes, they can be mended; sometimes they can be re-imagined.

Other times, nothing helps.

*************************
The mug shatters on the concrete patio, explodes into tiny needling shards too small to do anything but pierce and harm. She sweeps them up and throws them away.

*************************
The rust seeps through the paint, the tires are bent; the bike leans precariously.  Even as a planter, it is untenable.  She puts it out on Big Trash Day; the boisterous sanitation guys throw it into the masher, and she can hear, from where she sits with her writing and her morning coffee, the grinding as her dear old bike is mangled and eaten.

*************************
He has made fervent promises; he does not want, he vows, to lose what they have built together.  She even–where was her head???–sleeps with him again.  The next day–the next DAY: what is wrong with him??–she discovers that he has cleaned out her savings and maxed out her credit card, and her friend Bessie sees him canoodling cozily with his new young thing at the coffee shop.

She is bereft and impoverished in more ways than just financially.  She needs the chance to rebuild.  Resolutely, she dials the lawyer’s number that Bessie found for her. There is no fixing here: a clean break is called for.

*************************

The doctor sits with her in the quiet after their talk.  They have walked a long road together–she has walked it with hair and without, walked it seemingly plump and healthy, and walked it clearly gaunt and exhausted.  He has taken her midnight calls and talked with her through other patients’ appointments; he has been honest and caring and innovative. Together they have tried everything they could find to make her healthy.

And today, he has admitted that they have come to the end of all that doing. They have walked together to the limit of the options.  They are standing at the end of the road, standing together at the lip of the abyss.

But only he will turn and walk back down that road. He grips her hand, as the firm friend that he’s become.

She thinks:  I am going to die.

She thinks: No more treatment.  I will be able to taste my coffee again.  I will be able to sit in the sun.

That is one of the things she has missed the most–sitting in her tiny backyard garden, watching the squirrels fight, enjoying an occasional hummingbird visit.  Her friend Roger has built her an amazing bower with roses and daisies and cone-flowers and trailing ivy; he fills it in each year, sweet man that he is, with splashy annuals and fragrant herbs.  It is her favorite spot in the entire world.

And now, soon, as the medications leave her weary body, she can sit out there again.  Take her books, take her colored pencils.  Take the healing naps she has longed for so much.  Just sit in the sun and prepare.

The end of fixing, she thinks, will lead her back to light.

***********************

Things break.

Things break and sometimes, with long and careful work, they can be mended.

And if they can’t be mended, sometimes they can be re-purposed, becoming something vibrantly new.

And sometimes, broken things are just that: broken.  Broken beyond repair, beyond use, and the decision has to be made to let them go.

Their leaving opens a space, and in that space, there may be growth, there may be silence.

There may be, for a miraculous little slice of time, the chance for bright clear light to shine.

*********************

Sometimes, things break.

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Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

*******************

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

********************

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

********************

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

****************

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

Loolie: Passages and Card Stock

‘Grow up and be strong,’ I told her! ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do!’”  Loolie slumped in her chair, one hand on her heart, mocking herself. “‘You are just as capable of living on your own as anyone!’

“Oh, honestly,” she said to us. “What the hell was I thinking????”

We were halfway home to Loolie’s from Cleveland where we had just, with great fanfare, optimism, and confident smiles, with many hugs, fist bumps, and happy hoo-rahs, set Loolie’s daughter Kerri up in her own little off-campus apartment. Kerri got her bachelor’s degree in education in May, and she’ll be studying for her master’s for the next two years.  Cleveland’s not so far from Loolie’s that Kerri can’t be home within two and a half hours, and, since that child was a toddler and her physical disabilities were being discovered, Loolie has been preparing her for independence.

But now, the time for independence had come, and Loolie wasn’t liking it so well at all.

We polished off our fries and sandwiches, and, like a phalanx, we surrounded Loolie,–TJ, Jeanne, Peggy, and I,–and marched off to the two cars we had brought.  In addition to Kerri’s, they had been loaded to impossible depths, loaded like those clown cars on old TV shows that kept disgorging people and stuff.  Now the stuff was all neatly packed away on Kerri’s shelves and in her closets, the one ‘people’ Loolie was worried about was 100 miles behind,  and those cars seemed impossibly empty.

In the Hyundai, zooming through the black night on I90, I recited a litany of goodness to Loolie.  Good school–great graduate program, progressive and exciting.  She nodded. Good kid, Kerri–smart, savvy, and mature.  She grunted. Good parenting, I added; she had done a wonderful job of getting that girl ready for the  rigors of grad school and handling her own apartment.

That’s when Loolie started to cry, quietly and deeply.  She cried all the way to her house.

******
TJ and Jeanne met Peggy, Loolie, and me in Loolie’s driveway.  TJ, smart girl, had two bottles of wine under her arm, and we did our military escort drill again.  We marched our girl into her house, to that table we’d sat around hundreds of times; we poured wine, and we sat with our friend during a huge and incredible life change. Loolie  had gone from “My daughter Kerri, who lives with me,” to, “Oh, I hope that child calls tonight” in the course of one short day.

We didn’t say much; there wasn’t, really, too much to say.

After an hour or so, Loolie said, “Okay, my friends. You have to leave me to begin this new life.” She hunched forward, listening to the silent house.  “I’m going to take a long bath and wallow in self-pity.  Then,” she picked up the wine bottle that still had maybe a glass left in it. “Then,” she said, “I’ll finish my business with this guy and put myself to bed.”

We did not want to leave, but Loolie insisted. We finally, reluctantly, went, but we were all back the next morning, dragging the Loolmeister out for a hearty breakfast.

*******

Oh, it was hard for Loolie to let that steel-and-gossamer web stretch to include separate housing/different city for her baby girl.  She had been the perfect mother for Kerri, who, in addition to needing a wheelchair for mobility, was quiet, thoughtful, and just a little bit shy.  Loolie taught her daughter to examine things critically and to make up her own mind.  She taught Kerri to be her own judge of what she could and couldn’t do, and not to let other people dictate the limits to her.  Loolie had bulldozed past bullies, school systems that were slow to cooperate, and even family members who wanted to insulate Kerri with cotton batten to keep her safe.

Loolie had taught Kerri to think for herself, and in those first weeks of Kerri’s grad school, she kicked herself for it.

Not that Kerri knew.  She would call and say, “Mom!” and share some revelation the day had brought and Loolie would celebrate with her, in just the right tone, and for just the right length of time.  Then, she’d send her daughter off to whatever–studying, laundry, a meeting with friends at a pub.  She’d hang up with a cheerful, “Miss you, baby girl, but I’m proud of you to the moon and back!”

And then, Loolie told me, she would cry.

***********

Whether Kerri was also putting a good face on for her mama, I don’t know, but of course passing time has a way of abrading even the roughest edges.  Kerri was soon absorbed into the rigor of her program, and Loolie had work and projects and people to manage.  When I talked to her, she told me the waking-hours tears had dried up.  During the day, she showed people cell phone pictures of Kerri cooking a spaghetti meal for new friends and expounded on the great program she was in, the wonderful grant money her brilliant daughter had received from the  awesome college she was attending, the heady way she’d plunged into an exciting new life.

And during the day, said Loolie, she believed it, too.  So she went to bed around 11, fell soundly asleep, and bolted awake at 2 AM.  And then there was no going back. She paced.  She cried.  She wrote long despairing letters to Kerri which she immediately ripped  up.  Finally, around 5, she’d fall asleep again for an hour, and then she’d start the day on four hours of interrupted sleep.

“Call me,” I said firmly, and a couple of times, in those dreary dark hours, she did, and we talked through the emptiness.

“I need to see a doctor,” she admitted, “maybe even a therapist.”

The doctor gave her a sleep aid, which left her groggy all day and gave her vicious dreams. She flushed those.

The therapist was wonderful; she helped Loolie to put it all in perspective, to build on her overwhelming pride in her daughter.

But still.  She was awake, every night, at 2 AM.

We worried, the four of us did, helplessly looking on, anxious to support and comfort our friend, and we visited as often as we could, and talked almost every day.

Then a week came that we didn’t hear from Loolie for three days,–none of us did; but when she called, finally, she sounded better than she’d sounded since Kerri moved.

Had she gotten her sleep rhythm back? I asked her, and Loolie said no.

“But you know,” she told me, “a lot of women our age have sleep issues.”  So, instead of stewing about not sleeping, she had decided to use the quiet night time.

“Remember that blog link you sent me?” she asked.  “Jodi’s? With all the wonderful homemade goodies and handmade cards?”

“Of course,” I said.

Jodi’s blog, Life Inbetween, (http://lifeinbetween.me/2015/08/23/lovely-as-a-tree/ ) is amazing.

“Well,” said Loolie, “I’ve taken inspiration.  I’m making my own greeting cards.”

But, she added, she was using all recycled materials, saving magazine pages and ribbons and doodads.  She’d made a lot of cards to send to Kerri; she was sending one a week.  She had a little stockpile, she confided, just in case the card-making slowed down any time soon.

“How big,” I asked, “is a ‘little’ stockpile?”

“Oh, you know,” dead-panned Loolie nonchalantly, her comic timing perfect.  “Maybe three, four hundred cards.”

We snickered at first, then let it build until we were full-on helpless with laughter.  We were both in tears when we got off the phone. I was picturing Loolie next to a tilting tower of cards that said things like ‘Hi, Honey!’ and ‘How’s my baby girl?’

Two days later, a handmade card arrived in my mail. The outside cover said simply ‘Thank you.’ (It was a green parchment-y card; Loolie had coordinated an upside down pizza ad for a background,and somehow, oddly, it looks great.) There was a bold red heart cut from construction paper on the front too.

Inside the message was simple: I made it through this because I have the best of friends.

Thank you

TJ, Jeanne, and Peggy got cards too.  Loolie didn’t have to thank us, but of course she knew that, just as we all knew that Loolie would hit her grief and loss and fear head on, let herself feel its full impact, then–as she typically and always does–come roaring back. We know, too, that when any one of us has to take the rugged path to letting go, the Loolmeister will be there to walk it with us.

That, as Loolie said gruffly at our latest spaghetti feast,  is, after all, what friends are for. Then she cranked up the Grateful Dead; ‘Touch of Gray’ throbbed and we put down our silverware. It was time for the Old Girls Singalong, and we belted out these words with their pointed, particular meaning:

I will get by I will get by
I will get by I will survive

One More Sailor Sounds the Bell

Grandpa Angelo with Alexander, his youngest grandson
Grandpa Angelo with Alexander, his youngest grandson
Monday night, at 11:15, Jim knocked at our bedroom door.

“My stomach feels funny,” he said.

I sat up, poised to go into full mom-mode.  “How about a Tums, buddy?” I asked. “Would that help?”

“It’s not that kind of funny,” said Jim. He paused and then started to say something, but before he got very far, Mark’s cell phone rang.

It was Jim’s big brother Matthew, who, joined by his cousin Jeremy, had been sitting a loyal vigil at his Grandpa Angelo’s bedside. Matt was calling to tell his dad that the vigil was over; Angelo had made that final passing.

“Oh,” said Jim, softly, and he went back down the hallway and closed the door to his bedroom, needing to be alone for awhile.  Somehow, I think, his stomach had been letting him know the news Matthew shared over the phone.

******
Angelo was 94 when he passed peacefully from this life into the one that comes next.  He was a patriot and a family man.  He was a hard worker who believed in the value of education.  He was someone who didn’t give up, who cherished his faith, who was passionate about his interests.
******
Memories, stories, images, tumble…

I think about working with Pat, Mark’s mom, at the bookstore. Long before either of us thought we’d be connected by marriage, we were friends. I was a just-out-of-college, newly married, party-loving kid then; so were many of the crew.  Pat was maybe early forties; she trained us and she tolerated us, and one night we persuaded her to come out with us after work.  She let her husband know, of course, but Ang probably figured she’d grab a cup of coffee and be home, oh, maybe 45 minutes to an hour later than usual.  By 11, he was calling my home phone, a little frantic, asking my husband if he knew where we could be.
Where we were was the Park Pub; we were sitting with big drinks, sharing wedges of a giant roast beef on kimmelweck sandwich. We were laughing and munching and telling tales and confessing hopes and fears and great loves and disappointments, and Pat was gently riding herd on our exuberance.  She got home around midnight, I think, and the next few times Angelo came into the bookstore, he narrowed his eyes at me–a wary, speculative look.

Later, when life had shifted in unexpected ways, and Mark and I were dating, I would ask for an ashtray when I visited Pat and Ang.  I smoked while Mark and I dated and in the first part of our marriage.  Ang would get me the ashtray and talk about his own habit; he only smoked, he told me, when Pat was pregnant.  So he smoked for four of the first nine years of their marriage, from the early fifties to the very early sixties,–smoked while waiting to welcome Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy.  By the time a wonderful little surprise, Mary Ann, joined the cast in 1970, the need seems to have ebbed; the boys don’t recall Angelo smoking in anticipation of Mary’s birth. (Mark, 16 when his baby sister was born, confesses to being mortified that people of such advanced years on the planet could be having a baby. “ Mother, how COULD you? At YOUR age?” Pat remembers him saying.)

I remember rollicking meals with the family and an ever-changing cast of guests around the big dining room table that Ang inherited from his mother, another Mary, whom everyone in the family called ‘Ma’.  Ma bought the table from a peddler in the Depression era; the peddler shopped his wares from a horse-pulled wagon.  He’d load up the wagon and make his slow way from Buffalo into the outlying areas, stopping to see if housewives needed chairs, a sofa, a bed-frame.  Ma needed a table that would seat her burgeoning family. Ma and Pa–Grandpa Joseph–had ten children; the twins, Vincent and Theresa, died shortly after birth. The rest of the children,–Tony, Frances, Joe, Angelo, Lucy, Sam, John, and Russell, in that order–grew up strong, hard-working, and hungry.  They gathered around that table–stretched by up to eight leaves–for many years.

Ang remembered Saturdays at home and Ma baking bread and simmering spaghetti sauce.  For lunch she would flatten out a big hunk of dough, spread some of her good homemade sauce on top, grate cheese, chop meat–homemade pizza to feed her hungry kids and her husband, who worked hard at the railroad before coming home to tend his amazing garden.

Ang learned to make the sauce.  He and Pat were ahead of their time; they shared household chores, and Pat used her amazing customer service skills to pursue her own career in retail sales.  Ang would come home from the plant; Pat would leave for work; Ang would feed his own hungry horde.  But on Sundays, the whole family gathered together around Ma’s table.  Friends and extended family were welcome; there was always room for one more.  Mark’s college buddy Frank, who attended the Culinary Institute and cooked at the Tavern on the Green for a time, rhapsodized years later about eating lasagna at that table. The best he ever had, swore Frank stoutly, nothing to compare, before or since.

Now the table belongs to Ang’s baby girl; from Mary to Mary: a full circle.

Matthew, at Grandpa’s side for that final passage, wrote on his FaceBook page:  One more sailor rings the bell….farewell and following seas, Grandpa….
Matt served in the US Navy Presidential Guard, choosing his Grandpa’s branch of the service.  Ang served during World War II, on the Fletcher-class destroyer, the USS O’Bannon.  It was a ship that had a plucky and determined crew, and they saw a lot of action.  Famously, though, the O’Bannon miraculously avoided a confrontation when a Japanese sub surfaced within hailing distance.  A crewman was on the O’Bannon’s deck, peeling potatoes.  Somehow, he had the presence of mind to take the roughly grenade-sized spuds and begin lobbing them rhythmically at the submarine.  It submerged and left quietly,–not, I guess, interested in taking any chances.  The potatoes saved the O’Bannon that day, and she and her crew served honorably in many actions.
Angelo in Navy
Angelo, a young sailor on the USS O’Bannon


The war left a lasting impression on Angelo; he wrote movingly of his abhorrence of armed combat when he inscribed copies of the book Action Tonight, by James D. Horan, for each of his children. (Action Tonight detailed the O’Bannon’s World War II journey.) But Ang retained his deep love of country, and he kept close touch with his shipmates, attending reunions and sharing correspondences.  In November 2014, the local veterans’ association honored Ang in a special ceremony.  After WW II, medals which he had earned were somehow never delivered; he finally accepted those medals at age 94, in front of his family, friends, and admirers.


Jennifer, Angelo’s granddaughter, also serves in her country’s military; her Grandpa was very proud of his smart savvy granddaughter, an officer and a helicopter pilot with the US Army.

Ang and Pat believed  in education.  Ang himself never finished high school; in Depression days, boys from big families often didn’t.  They left school at 14 or 15, they got men’s jobs, and they contributed the money to their families without quibble or bicker.  But Ang and Pat were determined that their kids would go to college.  They couldn’t afford fancy residential schools, but there was a good SUNY college within an easy commute. All five kids earned their bachelor’s degrees there. Ang and Pat provided a roof and food and a car to get back and forth—and plenty of life lessons.

They might have been commuter students, but Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy all made a real effort to be part of college life. And on Friday nights, that might mean partaking of the partying that was so much a part of 1970’s college culture.  They would crawl home in the early wee hours, sometimes to a chorus of birds greeting the dawn, and stealthily creep up the stairs to pass out in their beds. They needn’t have worried; their concerned parents had just the right hangover cure. 

Pat would vacuum at 7 AM; Ang would clash pots and pans; the boys would be rousted from bed to perform early Saturday chores.  Mark tells tales of mowing the dewy lawn; clipping the hedges that surrounded their football field side yard; scraping and painting house and garage;–all on a couple hours of sleep. He said he always had a really bad boo-boo head.  He said he never realized until then that sweat could actually smell like beer.

In 2001, Ang saw a blurb in the local paper that said a program was being set up to give high school diplomas to WWII vets who’d left school to go to serve their country.  Ang called the number. ‘Am I eligible?’ he asked.  He explained he had left school to work, only later, in his twenties, serving in the Navy.

The woman he spoke to gently told him no.  The award, she said, was only for those vets who actually quit high school to enlist.  Ang said he understood and hung up the phone.

Several days later, an article appeared in the paper begging the gentleman who’d called to inquire about the diploma to call back. After talking with Ang, the woman had been unsettled; she investigated and found that Ang WAS eligible.  He received his high school diploma that year, standing straight and tall in the  auditorium, applauded by family members and an SRO crowd of clapping community members and students.  He was 81 years old.

The stories about Angelo swirl as the family sits at the kitchen table–childhood escapades, work stories, memories of standing with Angelo in the basement, running the intricate, multi-gauge miniature railroad he’d set up over the passage of many years. There’s the story of the car Pat turned down to marry Ang, who was 14 years her senior; her brother offered to buy her a convertible if she’d abandon the idea of  the wedding.  Pat and Ang were married 61 years. The sons in particular remember hopping to it when their father began to utter the words, “By the Christ in heaven…” Mary Ann has her own stories to tell,  the cherished baby girl, the pretty teenager whose dates had to pass a tough, tough scrutiny.

Memories flicker and flash likes snippets of old time movies, out of context, out of order: Grandpa and Number One at the town dump, rescuing metal Tonka trucks left carefully at the edges by those whose kids had outgrown them, taking them home to sand and refinish, creating a dream of a fleet for a kid with a dirt pile.  Angelo with his eight year old daughter, come to the store to show the mom what they’d bought. Grandpa with a warm, pudgy hand in one of his, flowering plants carefully balanced in the other, walking toward the graves of his parents.  That picture morphs quickly, flipping through the years–the pudgy toddler gradually becoming a tall, handsome, young man, but still at the cemetery every year, still at Grandpa’s side. Angelo at Christmas, passing out decorative wooden wheelbarrows he’d painstakingly crafted in his basement workshop. Grandpa and granddaughter, barely old enough to sit by herself in a lawn chair, having a long serious conversation on a hot summer day, while her big brother buzzes energetically around the yard. Grandpa with any one of his beloved grandchildren, driving his little tractor around the lawn.

There are many ways to take stock of a man’s life; one of them is to count the number of grandchildren who post on Facebook, when he passes, that they have lost their best friend.  Ang took infinite pride in his wife, Pat, and his children, Mark, Joe, Stephen, Tommy, and Mary Ann. He was a kind and fond father-in-law to Patty and Phil, Susans and Pams,  a devoted grandfather-in-law to Julie. He was a loving brother, uncle, and friend. But in grandfathering, he seemed to come fully into his own.  He had unflagging time, love, and patience for his grandchildren, Matthew, Brian, Jeremy, Phillip, Bobby, Jim, Jennifer, and Alexander. He delighted in his great granddaughters, Alyssa and Kaelyn.
Angelo, Jeremy, and Matthew, c. 1983
Angelo, Jeremy, and Matthew, c. 1983

He lived a long, hard-fought, wonderful life, did Angelo, and he passed from it convinced he was going home.  In the days and weeks and months to come we will, I hope, be able to write the stories down, to take scattered fragments and anecdotes and create a narrative that gives an inkling of just how rich the life, how lasting the legacy, Angelo leaves behind.

But for now–now I hope that man of faith is where he firmly believed he would be–at a long, many-leaved, celestial table, enjoying, maybe, some pasta and sauce with his parents and the siblings who’ve gone before.  Friends who’ve also made that trip are welcome, I know. As each of us contemplates that departure, we can do it knowing that no matter how many people crowd around that table, there will always be another leaf to add, another chair to pull up.  Plates will be passed from hand to hand; the newest guest will be given silverware and a napkin.  A glass of wine will appear on their right. 

There’s a great loss, of course, but great comfort in this: Angelo’s home with his parents tonight, getting things ready.