Play It Andante, Play It Allegro, Just Play On

At the edge of the piano bench, my feet dangling, I watch your hands fly across an orderly length of black and white keys. A whole story in sounds rolls over and through my smallness. Light filters though the living room windows and upon our arms and legs and faces. Your features are composed of sweetness and subtle strength. Full of the music. I am at ease, round with love for you. Music is added magic, creates a conduit that feeds me good things.

I am five years old but you, Marinell, my oldest sister, are eighteen. Grown up already. Our baby grand piano is a meeting place for the entire family but sometimes I get to claim a space by you, alone. Often I lie under the piano on taupe carpeting and lay my hands on the dark wood underside and the vibration fills me with pleasure. I see your feet work the brass pedals and sometimes sneak a hand there, a game of not getting caught by your shoe. I later try to play as you do, notes of intention and affection. The music comes out rough, unadorned.

When you play your cello, though, it is different for me as listener. I hide behind the big chair by the heat register. I already know this is an instrument I want to play–two sisters do so I will make the third. But your way with it sweeps me up in a storm of emotion that fills my insides too full. I cannot get enough of it even with a house full of string players.

The piano allows me to be closer to you. Observe. Sing along with my light voicing of notes. You don’t shush me, smile a little. When the songs are popular, not classical, I know some words. Sometimes the whole family finds its way around the piano. We sing in four part harmony. I have never known singing without harmony and find my place with a submerged melodic line. (At church we sing this way in a pew close to the pulpit and everyone turns to look at us: the Guenther family, singing as if in performance. It cannot be helped, this is our way.) You sing, too, but barely above piano’s voice, my offerings.

Your hands are an extension of who you are, capable, graceful, assured or so it seems. I see them type words fast and rhythmically as if it is just another musical instrument–around 120 words a minute I learn years later when you work for lawyers. Long fingers such a blur of energy. I try this myself, typing up a strange mess but when I slow down, each round letter key pressed slowly, it works though the small words mean less than what I want. But I most gravitate often to the roll top desk in the basement with its cubicles and drawers, pencils and paper, a hand me down that now fits just me.

I cannot keep up with you. You flit here and there on narrow feet and sometimes I pad after. You are somewhere “out there”  so often. And you are already reaching some apex of typists and musicians without my knowing what this means. I hear it, see it, sense it. You even play softball well, running like a flash of wind. Then you are Homecoming Queen. What that means is that you are chosen as the special girl in your school. You doff a glittering crown and fancy dress and get to ride on a huge float around town, people waving and hollering. I am in awe of your beauty like the rest, how can one not be, a smile that dazzles, deep dimples, hazel eyes that hints at such depths and inner light?

You watch over me, youngest of your four siblings, like a parent ever aware of my presence, sometimes irritated with my frequent shadowing. I have come to expect you to be nearby even more than our mother despite your busy schedule. I wait near the doors of the house. Spy on you with boyfriends. Watch you get ready for school events or concerts. You work part time at a fine clothing store, manage to save money for several cashmere sweaters. I open your dresser drawer, smooth them carefully before I am caught and scolded.

When you leave for a faraway college on full music scholarship, I may not cry but it feels like weeping inside, as if you are pried from me. I have no way to follow. In two years when I spend time near you, it is utterly different. You marry unexpectedly, not to a good man. Are gone awhile, then back in town again for a couple of years. I still watch you, feel your glowing heart as your soft face is marred with worry. I try hard to avoid his reach, try to circle back to you. We are still sisters but apart; I miss you. Observe from afar, now wary, afraid. Then you pat my hand, put an arm around my shoulders, hug me briefly. You let me rummage through your velvet lined jewelry box, try on too-big rings with pretty stones and clip-on earrings that are like delicate flowers. I wait for the music to return. You are quieter than ever, surrounded by the family when you visit us. And then you move to Texas. Alone, for a new beginning, back to music, better work, better friends, our music professor uncle who helps you forge a different path.

Many years later after I’ve married too soon, perhaps as well, you generously open your door to me despite your busy life with family and everything else. Shelter is needed until my husband, children and I find a way to move out on our own. Two weeks becomes two months. You are rooted in Texas after marrying a musician/ computer guy, are raising two bright-eyed daughters who are as good and capable as you. You work in an office by day then play your cello for symphony, the opera, quartets and trios, and may be most at ease on stage. Your restless fingers have learned embroidery and crocheting for relaxation, the tidy beauty of it.

It is a hard time for me, not enough to stretch enough. A small, airless dwelling. A man who’s gone often, brings home too little money or patience. A man I yearn to be with but who has anger in his blood, words that hide or fall out in sudden fistfuls. Times of aching stitched together with dashes of wonder under a searing Texas sun. Rescuing my four year old daughter from fire ants and her own silence; terrified as when my toddler son jumps into the apartment pool, then dog paddling not drowning. I take a menial job scooping ice cream and at home I swim with the children through deep blue water, escaping heat of day and savoring cooling dark of evening. Our skin turns nearly brown as bark. I sing to them, tell stories, write terse surreal poetry that bruises me, wears out paper with dreams and secrets. You, sister, try to not weep, a finger pressed to your lips, when I at last tell you more of the truth. You bring food, alert the church during Christmas. It humiliates even as it nurtures. I long to deserve better.

By the summer, we say good bye. It feels again like a pulling apart from you. My family migrates back north to help with house building for my in-laws, one of whom is dying. And my husband and I try to fix fissures, span the canyons we cannot bound across, anymore. To rekindle passion, even tenderness that first brought my husband and me together. It is ice- and -storm-riven country, lonelier than ever despite other miracles of earth. We remain hungry for so much and it is not to be.

Time is bargained with, lived in and through. I embark on each day as if it is transport to purgatory or a glimpse of heaven. I write some and drink more; you send me cards with birds and flowers. I love my children more as they grow taller and I grow thinner. College calls me back to a way of thinking that can welcome opportunity.

The drumming of time moves us on and we jump to its demands.

You also make big changes, move to Seattle area while I marry again and live almost like a nomad with my second husband, going where each next promotion takes us. I find work a fine balm, writing a salvation, my children a beloved cause I would die for. For many years we were not often enough in touch–we let the space billow. I worked to survive; you lived a far better sort of life and that discrepancy was widening. But events conspire so that I at last move nearer to where you reside (as well as two other siblings). It is the place I have dreamed of since youth, having lived there for a time at nineteen: the great Pacific Northwest.

When I visit you and your new husband– your ever-quipping, old high school sweetheart, a pilot–in the redwood house on a slope of Cougar Mountain, I am struck by your laughter, its volume and frequency. You are different, softer but sunnier; I haven’t yet dissipated my somber ways, am still too thin. We wander from room to room. This house suits you despite shady, towering evergreens which make you sneeze. Contemporary, it sprawls with its many windows and a huge back yard that is half deck and pine needles, half pickle court (who has even heard of that?). Your bedroom has an attached spa room with sauna that I am invited to enjoy. The fire in the hearth warms us all.

The piano is in the formal living room  and I again watch your lithe hands play as I sing old standards, rusty and embarrassed, happy to be making music with you. I no longer sing for anyone else but you nod at me, smile. I can never tell you what this means to me, but you know. Eventually you play your cello; you remain a consummate professional, paid with money and admiration. I am still moved. My own cello waits in its sealed case at home; I vow to play it more. But what could be envy is this loosening inside, a deep relief that we live close to one another.

We sit on the expansive deck, gab as we eat breakfast or lunch, sip iced teas. We hew out a trail through our thorny pasts, find one another again. I find myself laughing with you as if human life is brimming with goodness and feel more convinced it is so. I breathe tangy breezes, we putter about; there is such gratitude that you reap joy here. That I can witness it, a beautiful thing. That we have time to know one another more again, to cover lost ground.

Over the next twenty-some years we grow closer than I imagined. This, even though we have divergent philosophies on a few big topics, inhabit different lifestyles. I visit you often as is possible on the mountain; sometimes you visit my city. We take good walks, shop like goofy girlfriends, go to a few concerts, catch up on our separate events. Toss about ideas, build more camaraderie with our husbands. You are like a bright bird who has traversed faraway lands. I have been a few interesting places you’d never have found even with compass in hand. We talk of men past and present, how being women is a burden and a gift. We share news of family, gossip some, swap favorite books and films and music, tell each other interesting stories. Look out at all that greenness and clear light. Laugh.

You and I also share woundedness, scars that qualify us as at least minor warrior women, just two among so many warrior women. There is forgiveness of the past and easy retrieval of blessings. We offer hope when at times it seems stretched to its tearing point. We share similar health issues so call each other: “Hi Sis, one more crazy/tough/unexpected thing has happened. It’s always something, such is this life,” and can make light of such mortality as we commiserate.

We can request, “Pray for me (or this situation)” and know it will get done. We each recognize prayer as an indestructible raft that carries us through tamed and wild waters, that infuses us with peace and courage. We are as certain of God’s Presence in this life and our own selves as we are of love of our children or our healers, the arts and nature. We can find it in the resonance of colors like turquoise and iris, in a filigreed shadow cast across land, a common bird on the wing.

I can call you anytime and know you will answer that call; you know I will answer yours. This is how much I trust you and care, big sister. A lifetime of this. More than many get.

But now you are not here.

You called me nearly three years ago, right after Easter to tell me you were so happy to know that life–the soul’s life, our true life, as we said– is eternal. I heard the stark foretelling in your voice. You were going to leave. Two days later and you were in the hospital. A week later you were gone.

This is a very short history. I could add how you tended the flowers in the last house (one with few trees, more brilliant light): as if they were needing your protection and affection, as you offered all. How–though you spoke more frankly and emitted a heartier laugh as you got older–your voice was still shaped by that rich quietude that had drawn me even as a child. When you looked at me, you discerned much more. When you listened, you heard what was not spoken. When you reached out to me it was always just enough. I hope I was  enough, too, for you. No longer a kid or only a sister by blood but a loving friend by happy choice.

Your birth date is coming up, early March during more unveiling of springtime. I suspect you are happily ever after as you thought you’d finally be. I feel the radiance of your smile and I know it’s so, Marinell. Save me a place on a phantom bench. One day I’ll be finding you again.

Marinell life pics 001
Marinell as a young woman

 

Joshua’s Fourth of July

Fourth Of July Fireworks

For most Americans, the fourth of July is a beloved national holiday, a time to once more note pride in our “can-do” attitude as we kick back and bask in the pleasures of summer. Families and friends make merry and enjoy an age-old thrill in firework displays that remind us of our country’s hard-won independence. But for my family, this date holds other meanings.

In summer of 1997 my son, Joshua, and youngest daughter, Alexandra, had already arrived in suburban Detroit to visit family and friends. I flew from Oregon to join the clan. We gathered together my five biological and non-biological children plus three grandchildren. A photo shows five children (most in their twenties) who grew up together squashed on a couch, smiling, a motley beloved crew.

Joshua (23), Alexandra (17) and I then travelled to mid-Michigan to my mother’s. My father had passed and my mother, in her mid eighties, was considering selling my childhood home. We enjoyed one another and reminiscing. Joshua was going to visit his father farther north when Alexandra and I left. He would be water skiing, boating, doing all the things he loved outdoors and catching up with his father and paternal grandmother.

It was two days before the fourth of July. We had finished eating another good meal at the round, umbrella-topped table in mom’s pleasant back yard. I was sad to leave but my vacation days were few so I readied for the airport.

My son and I briefly embraced. He said good-bye, his engaging smile a flash in the sunshine. He was twenty-two, tan and toned like the natural athlete he was, at ease in his skin. Clear blue eyes glinted with liveliness and mischief as they had since he was born. He wished me a safe trip and I, the same for him. Then, deep within me I felt a deep quiver of fear, an alarm. I studied him, held his gaze, spoke again the words I often said to my children, a mantra, a prayer, a blessing: “Be wise, be smart, be safe.” I shook off the anxiety and left, wondering. Praying as I flew home.

Two days later in Portland, Oregon on the fourth of July, my home phone rang. It was Joshua’s paternal grandmother. There was an accident. A motorcycle accident. Joshua was riding, not even that fast –his father heard it happen from the house–but as he rounded an easy curve on the gravel road, the motorcycle had slid, hit an electrical post, then flew up so he was thrown from the bike.

In critical condition. Taken from the rural hospital by ambulance to a major city trauma center well over an hour away. He had many unknown internal injuries, had a crushed jaw, tongue bitten almost in half. But the helmet had protected him from more grievous ruin. She didn’t know more yet but it was so much it barely sunk in. I suppressed a scream.

I got on another plane, numb, trembling, then calmed as I prayed, my mind filled with images that I tried to banish. I knew he was hanging on at that time. I didn’t know how he would be if he survived.

And when I first saw him, he was my son and yet not exactly, his broken body not yet as familiar to me, while his inner spirit held on, even severely shaken. He lay in the intensive care room strapped to a bed that was in an elevated position, his lean length swollen and bruised, his jaw barely moveable. I understood specialists were waiting to see what would develop, that a clear prognosis was not offered. There were lost and broken teeth, chin and jaw; the rest of the damage was internal. His eyes were changed by pain and confusion that rolled out in waves to me. I touched his hand, shared all the love of my heart, carried in a message from my soul.

In the waiting room everyone was together again. My children but also two ex-husbands, Joshua’s oldest friends, my mother, other family members. We embraced. Wept. Mostly we were devoid of words, beyond expression of feeling. We were terribly still, then restless. Prayerful and stunned.

I thought over and over: I should have warned him. I knew something was not right as we parted ways. I thought: Joshua, you must bear this and you must recover. I thought: I will be here no matter what. The prayer was simple: Hold him close, save his body, salvage all who he is.

Anyone who has had to keep watch over a loved one in a hospital for a long period knows the contradictory features, how time vanishes yet feels like molasses. How misery takes turns with a stalwart calm. Fear runs high only to be overcome by love and hope. And when the days become weeks, it becomes a familiar routine, oddly adaptable, a pattern imprinted so all that exists is those rooms, that child, the patience you gain in order to endure and have faith can go forward. Beseeching God, accepting there are things you cannot comprehend. Each moment faced as it arrives. The soothing moments melt away in sorrow. Peace finally arrives when one more day passes without more bad news.

Joshua, the child who had boundless vigor and curiosity and high spirits, was altered partly by his own stillness. We talked a bit but often we all just sat, watching a little tv. Massaging his feet. Helping him drink water. I would read to him, hold his hand. Music sometimes played. My mother came every day she could manage to be there. Joshua’s father and ex-stepfather visited daily. No one left him alone any longer than could be avoided.

Over the next few weeks Joshua hung on, went through rounds of x-rays, MRIs, blood work, IVs, endured indignities and countless consultations. There had been damage to the spleen, a bruised pancreas, a kidney injured that was now dying. He had fractured and lost many teeth and his jaw required surgery and a metal band to hold all together. His tongue healed more quickly. But after three weeks he was wasting away, weakened, his blood sugar haywire due to pancreatic malfunctioning. He was unable to walk alone more than a few steps. If he didn’t have more sustenance, did not metabolize better, he would grow even weaker. His doctors and surgeon didn’t speak of the future, much less with optimism; they were surprised he had survived, at all.

I was not. I knew his fiery stubbornness and passion for life, how he felt God. And I knew God’s healing power never stopped working. Many prayed for his recovery, kept vigil. The presence of Christ was about us; I felt the warmth, that strength of love.

One day I came to visit and Joshua shared something that changed everything.

“I had a vision, mom.”

“You did? What sort of a vision? Or was it a dream?”

“A vision,” he said firmly. “I was in the desert. I met a shaman who offered me a peace pipe. We sat before a fire and he told me I needed to hunt for meat. I can’t just lie here. I have to change things. In order to heal I must eat meat and other good foods, not just what I am given. I have to tell the doctors I need meat and vegetables. I must gain strength to get up and walk or I won’t make it.”

His eyes were weary with chronic pain but luminous. He was adamant about the vision’s instructions. He had been fed via IVs, more recently had some soft food and more liquids–that was all he could manage, they said, due to damaged major organs, mouth and jaw. When his doctors came again, Joshua informed them he would now be eating what he knew he needed. Or he would leave. I didn’t say anything to discourage him. I knew all his life he seemed to display unusual capacity to heal himself and that he prayed for his own and others’  healing. He was so certain. I believed, mostly, and I definitely trusted in God’s wisdom.

He also refused surgery to repair injuries to pancreas and spleen and to remove what they insisted was a dying, shrivelled-up kidney.

He contradicted them. “My second kidney is hurt but alive. It’ll function fine again someday. No cutting. Let my body heal itself. Let me eat.”

The surgeons and internists listened. They debated and then they agreed. When do hospitals accept that a young man has a vision of healing? But they did not refuse to use regular menus. They pureed and blended ingredients and he fed himself. Each day he seemed more energized. The room lost its shroud of sadness.

Within less than a week he stood on his own, walking with difficulty but with determination, IV stand in hand. Slowly he made his way up and down the hall, longer and farther each time. I witnessed one moment as the full reality of his injuries hit him, tears coming, questions about his choices voiced. And I was overcome with my private grief about not insisting he not go up north that day. I knew I couldn’t have stoppped him but it haunted me. He was living in the present yet worried he might not manage all he wanted to do in the future. But it was clear he was on his way back.

I left when he was eating and walking more confidently. He told me he expected to be back in Oregon before the end of summer and his doctors began to see it his way. After five weeks in the hospital, he was released and after recovering a bit more at his father’s, he returned to Portland.

There were a few phone calls between us and his surgeon. She told me they had never witnessed such an event before, how Joshua simply stated his vision and what to do. The faith. His healing. She said they all admired his spirit and she expressed sincere caring and best wishes.

This is not quite the end of the story.

Before Joshua’s accident he had worked as a commercial painter at a big company. But he had also been pursuing his dream of becoming a well-known skateboarder for years. Constantly active since childhood, he was attracted to individual sports such as snow and water skiing, BMX biking and karate. He had practiced tricks on his skateboard when it was not yet a mainstream sport but considered an edgey rebel’s way of life. He had made great progress, his name ws circulated, but not as much as desired.

After he came home, he stated he was going to become an outstanding skateboarder. He planned on being sponsored by sports companies, competing all over the country and being in skate videos. It gave us pause. It seemed less than likely he could carry on with life without further health issues. He’d had a head injury. More surgery was due for jaw, teeth. He was still healing internally. (We wouldn’t know about the badly damaged kidney for years until he had a minor snowboarding injury that required an x-ray. They found both kidneys, though one was a little smaller, functioning well.) He had a great deal of strength, balance and flexibility to regain, in time.

But my son took charge of the dream and succeeded. He has competed many times, has sponsors including Nike, ACE Trucks, Roughneck Hardware, OJ Wheels, Diamond Clothing, 151 Skateboards. He has appeared in countless skateboarding videos. Photographs of him skateboarding have appeared in over forty national magazine issues. He has had nine skateboards emblazoned with his own name. He still skates today and is, yes, a residential and commercial painter. And a devoted father, a music and art maker, a nature lover. One who still prays for others’ healing, too.

So another Fourth of July is coming up, seventeen years later. We don’t much speak of it though I see him often, so I asked him if I could write about all this. He was fine with it. He has lived other interesting experiences. Life goes on. And whenever an alarm goes off within me, I pay attention. I speak of it. If I am wrong, it matters little. If I am, it might save someone regrets or worse.

My son, who goes by Josh Falk, is getting older but not slowing down much. When he teetered on that precipice above life and death he found a way back to solid ground. I know all prayers upheld him. His faith in Divine Love has deepened as it has informed his living day by day. And his heart? Strong as a warrior’s, tender when it matters most.

Joshua's smile

IMG_3284