My nephew, Reid, died the first week of December. It was several years ago but once more he appears in the middle of my mind. His living and dying: both were hard, both perhaps longer than he wanted. I will never know. In truth, I understood him less than I imagined though I felt his burdens’ weight as I talked with him. He took refuge in my house awhile after one hospital stay; I took him to 12 step meetings. He was carried along by and troubled by life –powerful emotions, a puzzle of thoughts, and demons of addiction–until he was in his forties. He had a passion for life–music, skateboarding, movies, reading. Much more, and so many things unknown to me. I loved him as I knew how; we all loved him, yes. But despair can outweigh all the rest. Reid plunged from a bridge into the swift Willamette River, into silent darkness of a rainy night that was moving toward pale morning.
Really, I wanted to share, as usual, outdoorsy rambles, attractive pictures. But I find I cannot. Instead, I have found a few winter pictures, quite unlike the views outside my windows right now–green, damp, sunny to partly sunny with more rain on the wind. But they feel right: snow is quintessential December in my dreams. I burrow in this month between outings. And candlelight, oh, the flames tinting the greyness orange and yellow. It is a gentled magic, steady but mutable, rich and clarifying.
There is something about snow and candles that move me in unique ways. Still me. Then rouse me.
December’s onset brings Reid back to me a little. (It also, conversely, brings to me my mother’s December birth date: juxtaposition of death and birth dates is like seeing two birds of different colors and flight patterns move across the sky.). I can recall his smile when he was convivial, happy, at times–for a time. His eyes bright and dancing. And then, the obdurate pit of sorrow. There is our enduring complexity of family ties and lovingness. And this being alive-ness, and remaining alive, too, when others leave.
We have had or heard of too much death this year, I know. But, seemingly irrelevant to this post, I still want to offer snow. But to consider its shapeshifting beauty, its softness, its welcoming spirit, its austerity and daunting challenges that can offer victory. Like when I ice skate and fall and start off once more. That long slide on the toboggan, uproarious with laughter, into glittering white fluff, or a crunch of iciness. Oh, I long for it sometimes. It doesn’t snow much where I live in Oregon–though Mt. Hood dazzles me in the distance all winter long on my walks. But I grew up in snow, heaps of it, five foot drifts of it in the Michigan country. I made small houses of snow. So when it snows here I return to the shimmer and drift of winter’s wild glory. It eases a knot in me.
It somehow brings Reid to mind, too, hands stuffed in his packets, a half-smile, solemn eyes. Maybe it is the blood we have shared: cold plains of northern Midwest, the mountain and valley greens of Oregon.
The candles here are for Reid. But I light many for others, as well. And want them lit just for darkened days and nights, so they may be ignited with simplest joy more often, and for a prayer for peace shared among those of us who remain. Sit with that flame and remember: we have such capacity for hope and courage.
This year has been so much more arduous than what we expected. Millions in the world suffer from depression and though 2020 has brought us all to moments of great uncertainty and worry, too many feel pushed to the very brink. Suicides have increased greatly during the pandemic. If you feel suicidal or know anyone who shares suicidal thoughts, or mentions even a vague, possible plan to die, please seek help now. If you know someone who needs even kindly support, offer a listening ear, a helpful hand. There is nothing better than the community of humankind when moved to support and aid one another. Let’s be present for each other as much as we can–no charity is too small a thing–and listen to our own hearts as much as possible.
The stories shared by our remaining brother
gave tribute to places sculpted by vastness,
drought and heat that could kill;
trees like beautiful spirits;
people crouched in expectation;
nights woven with soft netting and rent
by lions’ talk that elicited screams.
My safe skin tingled though far from Africa.
Earth is lush with danger and amazement.
In that place, life and death appeared simpler.
Orxyes, wildebeests, hippos, antelopes, leopards,
each name a bright bell rung around our table.
Rare tracks of the black rhino,
such zebras with curious children,
tiny frogs click click clicking under star-struck skies.
It is enough to make me abandon other realities.
Enough for my breath to be stilled not by loss
but adoration of prodigious designs.
Our older, lost brother would marvel over warthog, antelope.
After all, he and wolves knew one another;
we both admired their songs, endurance, loyalty.
He gave consideration to all manner of beasts.
I recalled more exotic countries–ones
mapped by the fierce intellect and feeling that
our lost brother had inhabited, full of more tales.
And the Mexican village to which he had longed to return,
with its colors singing, hands rough but open,
breezes like kisses as his saxophone,
clarinet or flute stirred dust and birds,
his living finally distilled, vibrations
no longer wounding heart nor disrupting his soul
…nor taking from him the best he may
have had yet to offer us. To himself.
That old frontier was a dream of new music
birthed of quietude, a calm wrested from forces
feverish, half-sorted, but that he owned.
I am audacious about God, about possibility,
so venture to report he has made his way.
He left us to the minutiae of time left,
to our capricious attitudes,
urgent manner of sentience.
I can say he seized hope near the end of his road.
It answered me as we hugged a last time;
his arms were weary but they were right.
Now our remaining prayers are loosed,
notes and words fleeing on May’s generous sweep,
a promise carried on shear of wind above
his music room, the rest of us
left with ache of love and wondering.
Why, sometimes, bother to write at all? Words have their own impulse to sound themselves, like small and large gongs shuddering under our hands. But mostly tonight I write only because what else can I possibly do?
My older of two brothers, Gary, age 79, had a massive heart attack Thursday night or Friday morning, then perhaps another, and was placed immediately on life support. Then passed this morning, with our help. We sat hunched about, stood staring, immobile, wept and wondered, spoke to his likely unhearing ears, held his hands or feet. And so soon! he was gone.
My brother of magic music hands and hard-headed ways and large living. A well-educated man and a self-taught man, a person who could not get enough knowledge.
I had just visited with him three days before–after he had been ill for several months and in hospital often. But that day he seemed so far from the verge of death. No, he was so much better than he had been in many months, in all known ways. Clear and more at ease, his severe congestive heart failure and bi-polar illness episode well treated. Thinner, a man once tall and broad-shouldered now smaller, folding in and out as his gestured and leaned.
Hearing this tonight, now: his saxophones and clarinets and flutes talking mad and mellow music; his buoyant singing tripping over tables and faces, those great old standards, swing, Gypsy jazz. Sizzling, shuffling, deep dipping, high scaling notes; the swirl, punch, laugh of the wild and pensive being you have always been.
I want to say: Speak to us, tell us the plaintive truths. Tune up the atmosphere with songs made to be freed. Make a ruckus but not a terrible one, an ebullient one.
You could say anything. Raw or tender, frightening or confounding, irritating and illuminating and just plain curious and so riveting to me.
My brother’s photographic memory, phenomenal, the vast ranging information, philosophy and science, arts and politics and world history, a myriad opinions and dreams and intuitions and more. The several hundreds of films he critiqued, copied, shared. The music he mentally cataloged, spoke of with eloquence, voice rat-a-tat-rat-a-tat, slip-sliding along: it mesmerized me sometimes–as it did even him. I would call and sing a song’s–jazz, classical, pop–first few measures and he would tell me its title, give me the words if they were forgotten. My own phone wizard of music quizzes.
He was the first one who read my first attempt at a novel and when he said how much he appreciated it, how he believed in my writing, I was stunned, as he read a couple books or more a week, and read diverse choices, read well. He could understand my story’s or poem’s underground lives, the crisscross of meanings. Like he also knew I was a dancer who mostly didn’t dance. A singer who cut off my love affair with music to survive in the greater and much harder world.
And I knew more of him than he thought I knew and he knew this eventually. But I also knew very little, much less than what others even said, the good and the not good. I was just watching, hearing in my own way, from soul and gut. And I only write what I know, what I feel; what else can we offer but our own truth…
Welcome to my house, I said (what matters to me is being blood). Welcome to mine, he said. So we came/went and enjoyed.
His baked beans, his ham and potatoes, missed already. His cigar-smelly, liquor-in-a-glass, sweat-tinged, tiny music club room in the back yard. Instruments galore, whole and in pieces, stereo and radio, small open window so the chickens could pop in and out of his place, then his partner’s studio. His good bare feet took him everywhere. White mane of hair and rumpled hats. The fascination with not only instruments but cars and motorcycles, like Dad. Appreciation of small things, the value of what was used and tossed that he then took apart and repaired. How he liked dogs and cats, their very animal-ness, his affinity. Cared about the forlorn; I have heard them speak of him. Loved his partner’s good rich art and her–so long.
I don’t know how I cared for someone this much, about whom I usually saw so little. He left home for University of Michigan when I was 7, got two degrees, taught at a prestigious college and worked at mental health clinics. But later he lived right down the street.I pass by their house every day almost. I have stopped in on a whim. and it was good to greet him, share a hug, sing a little tune. He thought I might perform with his band some years ago. No, but I heard them play several times, so good I danced, a happy fool, in my chair.
Did we always see eye-to-eye? No, but please, forget those tenacious family issues, everyone has them despite best attempts at denial or correction. Everyone can say yes or no to what they want to hold close. I have so much learn, but being a family member is something not hard for me. Maybe because I trailed along behind the four older ones, I’ve loved them from close to the ground with its gravity, closer yet to the heart because I am the person I am. And I cannot not love with entirety, little pest sister who grew up to be this person, a full human being.
We had that perfect three hour visit last Tuesday. It truly was. So long it had been. I was so glad he was up and about though shaky-legged, that he shared such conversation as hoped for. I got to take him to the grocery. We talked possible vegetables and the preference for darkest chocolate and bad-tasty chicken strips and three big cartons of puddings as he zipped around in an electric cart. I could not get him to buy oranges but did get him to buy bananas. We laughed as he drove fast but not too fast to tip over displays; he had good corner control. People smiled, nodded at us; we smiled back. He was so appreciative of the deli man’s careful way, making up a whole new batch of chicken strips for him. The lady next to us suggested it with a twinkle in her eye. Gary liked that. He said the big box would last him the week; the savory-greasy aroma gave him a grin.
And yes, the talk of musicians and favorite places in Mexico where he still wanted to live, maybe November he’d get there again, that was paradise to him, heat and colors and simpler ways. Then, old friends he had seen come and go, people who had worn shirts and socks he had given them, why not, and money, it comes and goes, it’s the way it should be. And what of my writing now, what would come later, what did I think? Write, Cynthia, keep going.
Finally, his not being able to play music, anymore. Heartache, dulled under resignation. And of God, once a useless topic to him, now of meaning. An eruption of so many possibilities.
His round hugs and three kisses the last day, happy at last. And: see you next week for the ultrasound,Gary! And I was thinking of how soon Marc and I would make a pot of good pasta and hefty salad for our table and Gary would be able to join us again and we’d all talk like we had all night long. we’d all prayed. It felt like an answer to fervent prayers.
But we never know anything for certain, we do know that–then are surprised.
This is what I miss tonight: what we will not now do together, what could have been possible since he got better… after the interminably long illness stopping things, separating all…How time and opportunity have faltered and forsaken me once more. Though it is finally accepted, anyway. With appreciation– for what we’ve enjoyed, or never get over it.
Did he leave, finally, the material world because his music was to be played and shared no more? Or he was just worn out, finally burdened by breathing, the surfeit of song and sorrow and stitched up things? Such agony he knew, such joy. It can be soul-tiring to live hanging onto a grand bright kite of life and looking down to see a whole messy, stupendous scene yet still ask relentless questions with no definitive answers. Then, finally, to become servile under the dictator of illness. And under the new rules of aging that no one truly briefs you about, it’s often just everyone for themselves calling out an embarrassed help now and then.
And the bullying of the years’ errors, what a villainous thing it can be. I know some of that waste. Hard to proceed without assistance or it can drive you to the edge. We all need it or are lying to ourselves. He got the help–despite his intention (with his daughter’s insistence and devotion to his aid). Our prayers, my good Lord, how hard can one pray…. Are we not all worthy and unworthy and ever needing transformation? I believe God saw his hand out and came forth and my brother opened the windows and then a door. It changes things. It did change things.
Life is carried in many ways here. Can feel like a back-bruising pack of odds and ends, dreams and demons, wounds and wonders. Shadows. Miracles. Breaths un-breathed and hissed and whispered, heart beats jumping and waltzing, finally resting on a too-long pause…
You, my brother: done here.
Yes, that Stairway to the Stars, Gary. Come on now, sync with the new rhythms. Flee to peaceable places. The Light loves you no matter what, I swear to you the angels speak in a kaleidoscope of tongues, sing crystalline choruses, are like jewel-bright fires dancing as the pathway opens.
It all will be revealed, now go.
Going up now, don’t let go of those who love you until a sonorous bell rings long and loud, then you will see.
And here I am waving, Gary, I am waving at you, still.
I am fascinated with the tall windows behind his large head. They are curved at the top. Arched is the correct adjective, my mother would have said after a barely discernible sniff, as if the wrong word carried a slight odor to it. But these are three in a row and more elegant than most, multi-paned. Trees are sectioned as if in stages of design. I like to study them as he studies me. But it is the light that finds me at last and then I am dazzled, unlocked.
I look at him then. His glasses have the barest of frames so appear to be windows, too, balanced before often unblinking eyes. I think of him as Captain Sorensen, but have never told him that. Since the name hails from Norway or Denmark, he may well have ancestors who sailed big ships. Instead of near water, though, we are landlocked in a small university town. He teaches psychology twice a week and otherwise does this–sorting out people’s lives–for a living. Listens to people like me.
“I took a walk, and ended up at the floral shop this morning,” I tell him. “To get flowers, as you suggested. I came away with dried lavender; that seemed enough. I don’t want to get in the habit of planting flowers in a vase on my dining table. It seems extravagant. You know I dislike extravagance for its own sake. I prefer the spareness of my rooms. I like the light to land on floor and walls as if on an empty stage.”
He tilts his head and a silvery mop of hair rustles out of place. I wonder why he doesn’t get regular haircuts, if his wife prefers it that way or he just doesn’t care. Perhaps both. I touch my own hair at the nape of my neck; it just curves over my shirt collar. I need a trim.
“You know by now that I love authentic beauty. But beauty tends to fade if you take it out of its natural environment. And I feel an absence of clutter in a human life renders the truth of beauty more vivid. In nature, more can be more and it all works well; I do study it. But a bundle lavender in a ceramic vase is good.”
I know he is waiting to hear more of what I managed over the week-end. Did I meet with a friend? Did I leave the apartment at all before Sunday night? Or did I try to paint, sitting there for hours on end? Feeling mad.
“Renders truth more vividly… ?”
He does that a lot, what I call parroting or parroting plus something else . It would be annoying in anyone but Captain –okay, Dr.– Sorensen is doing what he was taught in order to encourage me to spill my concerns. I would tell him things, anyway. It’s less forbidding in the coolness of his large, high-ceilinged office, his leather chair across from mine as if we are equals having a pleasant chat. Such a reasonable tableau, I think, though rather obvious. And he looks his part. Do I, I wonder?
“Well, renders more of beauty, is what I said but yes. Truth. It requires clarity, doesn’t it? How can I discover any thing when distracted by too much pressing around me? Painting is a miracle of light and color that seeks the canvas. I need little else. Well, it used to be that way until Mother died. Now the place can feel…too open. A surfeit of blankness.”
“I’ve thought of it all more, finally. Her. The gaps in my memory and then sudden recollections. The hallway where we hung our coats, a low shelf for damp or dirty shoes with slippers handy if needed, and that brass umbrella stand. Then the room just to the right. It was a sitting room. It was too formal to be any else, really, but that is where she met people just as if it was still the nineteenth century, standing on formality as ever. The house, yes, but why did she cling to the past so? And it had such objects in it, all the porcelain bowls and showy flowers in heavy cut crystal, small statues and overwrought furniture. If a fire was lit it was finally suffocating, I don’t know how anyone could bear being there for long. Maybe that was the point. She kept most people at a distance, in their places.”
The good Captain is looking at me but it feels less like attention, more like probing.
“Yes, me, too, sometimes. I didn’t know differently, it was how things were. Father was gone most of the time. I think of him as a benign visitor, really.” I take in a sudden breath as his face floats into mind’s view. Face gaunt and lined, a slightly bulbous nose, eyes sharp and intelligent but so bleary from all work he did in too many countries. “A nice man who was full of small admonishments: remain studious, make him proud, get adequate exercise and rest.” I look toward the windows again as light illuminates dust. Fairy dust, Greta had called it with eyebrows raised. “He was an adviser more than a father, unlike Mother who not only oversaw things but tended us well in her fashion. Or perhaps that is what fathers are meant to do.”
“And your mother…”
“You know–she was important, as well. She oversaw committees, on various boards. She was a docent of the art museum. The last being a good thing; I got to go any time for free. Mother made things happen in town. And my brother and I entertained ourselves. Greta and Mary were running things in the crucial sense.”
“The nanny and cook.”
“Yes. Long gone, as well, who knows where.” I glance back at him as I consider my next words. “Look, there is something I have to say for once that is important.”
“What you say is always important.”
I put up my hand. “We both know I spend a lot of time intellectualizing about things, nice tidy boxes. Her death is not yet easily approached. So I waste a lot of time while you are obligated–paid–to steer me in right directions, so here we are again on a Monday morning. My mother is the point at which we ever return. She died. I am left numb, perhaps stunned. But today I need to tell you about the picture.”
Dr. Sorensen’s eyes widen in curiosity despite his skill at remaining mostly unreadable.
“My brother, Ernst, sent me a photograph. A few, actually. Only one interests me right now. He’s cleaning out things he got from her house, and is moving to Ecuador soon–did I tell you that?” I study a few branches of deciduous trees beyond the windows, imagining sunshine warming bark despite chilled winds that still swept over all. I often paint tree-like forms– always natural forms, rarely humanoid.” But this particular photograph…”
“It means something.”
“Yes.” I anchor myself in the moment and know he’ll appreciate what I offer. “It is taken perhaps in the forties, at the end of the war. I’m guessing… but it’s my mother standing at the end of an alley, in a foreign city–it simply appears foreign, how can I know? And there’s a man, in suit and hat. His hand is at her back.”
“Your father? Or was that before they met?”
I lean back into the smooth mold of the caramel colored chair. “I’m not sure. They didn’t reminisce. But it isn’t our father, no. There is this bold light above–it seems nearly evening. strangely hard to be certain– and behind, outlining their bodies, profiles.”
“Ah. And what do you interpret from it all?”
“They’re…kind of smiling.” I plow my hand though short bangs. over the top and back of my head. I am starting to get a headache, need air. “They look pleased to be there; she looks, I would say, happy…lovely. The photographer, Brassai, became famous; he was mostly around and about Paris. So it was likely France–or elsewhere. She studied abroad, traveled a great deal as a young woman. And yet I do wonder when and where it was.”
Captain Sorensen of my psychological fate seems suitably taken aback. He has waited for weeks for me to speak of something that can unlock more, that will turn the tide of my mindless melancholy. I have felt swamped by life yet at a loss for what usefulness. I am an artist, that is the one thing I know, but have stared at a blank canvas every day for three months.
He leans forward, hands folded between his knees.
“So, your mother had a somewhat curious past.”
I nod, then lower my head, press fingertips to eyelids and stave off a sweep of dizziness. It passes quickly.
“But my mother and that man–seeming so…cozy? Not at all like her.”
I shake my head to clear it. The sun has come out strongly now, billows in the room, and dark expensive furniture seems to lighten in both hue and heft. “I’m going to go home now. I need to look at my paints and smell the lavender.”
“Time’s up, in any case. Are you feeling well enough to walk home?”
“Yes, I’m quite alright, just tired. Until next week.” I rise with a fluid and careful movement, pick up my backpack, nod at him, exit.
He is watching me depart, I know. He told me once I appear and leave rather abruptly. Not the first time that’s been said. But this time I feel as if too much is left in that room, as if the information has divided and now part of it is owned by Dr. Captain Sorensen. As if who I am along with my feelings left a residue. I am not much at ease with this. I want the photograph and what it means to open carefully, entirely in my particular reality. Alone.
The canvas, four by four, mocks me at first. Paint tubes and palettes are on the drawing table to my right. Brushes in the large blue jar on a black lacquer tray atop the ancient brocade ottoman. I am perched on a paint-dripped wooden stool, toes caught behind the second rung. There is a steak of white that barely registers on the stretched and primed surface. I have mixed a greyish-purplish tint; my brush in hand hovers in the air. I have for some time preferred black and white and ivory with gradations of same. The paintings have sold well enough for me. I have a solo show in two months, little to put in it.
These velvety shadow shapes take over yet they also resist being painted. Or I resist. I know the painting will somehow yield to my mother’s gauzy, hidden life, the unexpected part trying to make itself known. The one I never expected and that Ernst insists he always suspected.
We talked earlier. Ernst had called me.
“She was rather too amenable regarding Father. It didn’t make much sense but perhaps it was their way, the culture. He must have been difficult to live with; he was rarely there and when he was, forever thinking of diplomatic work, of colleagues, of minute health concerns. He seemed to forget her more often than not. Us, for that matter. How could she not care more about that? It didn’t fit together, add up, her unruffled surface and such success despite cracks that must have appeared in such a facade, even if unknown to most.”
Being older, being a mathematician, he always weighed things better than I although we end up talking in similar ways–perhaps because we had just one another for playmates for so long. But it wasn’t a jolt to him to find the photograph, to turn it over and see our mother’s handwriting: With S. while visiting Eva and Ott.
“But did she even know Father then?”
“Must have.” He cleared his throat delicately.” I think I know who he is.”
“I knew Stefan, of course. Didn’t you? The man who met them when Dad was at the Sorbonne?”
“Sorbonne?” My head swam again. “Oh, he studied there a very short time, way before we were around. I had forgotten that. They later lived in the U.S, of course, and I forget all the places they were before that. But what about this Stefan?”
“Maybe you weren’t born…well, I would have been seven or eight. You would’ve been two. He stayed awhile when he came, I recall. They played cards, talked interminably…liked drinking wine til late.”
“How on earth would you recall all that–you were so young.”
Ernst was silent, as if reliving a moment. “Because I have a good memory and I snooped about. And he was the first to try to teach me chess. Uncle Stefan, I called him.”
“Oh, I thought Father taught you.”
“Father did teach me after he realized I was capable of learning. But Uncle Stefan encouraged me enthusiastically. And then it seems he wasn’t around much, by the time I was perhaps ten, when I was getting a good at the game.”
“I didn’t have the fortitude to compete with you.”
He laughed his quiet laugh. “True. You were also too busy crafting pretty books or set designs for your funny plays, anyway. We each had our own passions even then.”
I smiled though he couldn’t see me. He had long lived in San Francisco; I, an hour out from Chicago. “Oh–was I funny then or are you mocking childish creative impulses?”
“Sometimes you were, Isabel, you still show a glimmer when you emerge from that notorious self-absorption.”
I said nothing to that, then asked that he email me anything else he recalled from those days.
“I mean, what if it wasn’t Stefan but someone else? Do you recall what he looked like?”
“Not so much, maybe, but time had passed, ten years or more. Well, something was there, however it happened or who it was…”
Now I take the paints and place the confoundment of her life and death, this ache onto the white space, smear it this way and that with fast strokes upward, outward. I think of Mother with her dourness the last ten years, how hard it was for her to see less well, then to hear smatterings of sounds. She told me she had lived longer than she’d hoped. Died at eighty-five and not too slowly. Father had preceded her by six years, a mountain car accident. She’d say Why was I left with so little to do when I never have been able toabide boredom?
She–the woman Marlene, who was my mother–was the sort of person whose presence required getting used tot: her subtle haughtiness off-putting, careful diction and measured manner of speaking formal even when she didn’t mean it to be. It was her upbringing, all that damned breeding, she complained, which circumvented efforts to be fully welcoming and welcomed more as friend than society matron. I could see her light eyes, how icy they appeared until she laughed, a glorious rush of sudden delight. She had a light, careful manner, was big-boned and yet softened by surprising padding as she aged. I have heard I resemble her.
“But you weren’t hard to know once, everyone loved you, Marlene,” Father half-muttered under his breath.
My hand wavers in the air. I put down the brush. When did he say that, or did he say it? Was it the last year he was alive, when we gathered for Christmas? And what had been her response? I couldn’t recall. She may have laughed it off or asked if anyone needed anything else as she left to get dessert.
I continue working, a line, ripple, daub here and there, following the dancing drift of my hand. Shadows and revelations, a primordial sludge with emerging forms. All the slippery, shape-shifting paint tackling a vertical surface, at my command. The bottomless emptiness I’d felt becomes more of that slow sense of fullness I am used to feeling when painting. It has been so missed that I dare not think of it except at the periphery.
Time passes. The day’s light changes from voluminous and sheer, then broadens to alter all with a precocious golden sheen. Finally there is comes a seeping of night into day, an eking of slate blue into the clear air. Gradually veils of glimmering fall away from my world. I turn on an overhead work light, keep painting the rise and fall of what comes to me: a small part of an abstract map I now recognize as littered with a tangible lostness and foundness. Big and small deaths, with faint eruptions of renewal. New territory.
It was a rare love that once captured me and love that left me clearer if also emptied, my dear. If not for you and Ernst, what would have been left?
A tingling at the nape of my neck and I swivel on the stool, sweep the room with eyes and mind but of course, nothing, no one. It is something she’d let slip or wanted to say, now making me recall.
I feel her voice again, the measures of a slow-building andante, then a rapid allegro of speech. Echoes of her living careen into my own, right there in the small spotlight as I stand shivering. And my painting blazes at me with her startling shows of good will amid the silence of unshed tears. I cry for myself some. About what I lost before I was able to more fully accept the company of my bright, difficult, mysterious mother. And for her, what she’d had and then did not have.No one knew what she had longed for, even at the end. Until now, as I realize S. was a saving moment of joy.
I can’t imagine what this did to my father, to their marriage. But that picture: it spoke part of the truth.
“I have started to get up at dawn to paint a little before teaching, then go back to it later as I can manage it,” I inform Sorensen, today just Dr.
He doesn’t look or seem so much like my good Captain, just a competent therapist. Oh, I can see him on a boat alright, thick crown of hair streaming in the wind–and think a good painting may some time reveal such elements of water and wild wind in hair with some spot of utter stillness–but it was his life and entirely apart from mine.
“Painting again, how is that for you?”
“Good. I might be on to something. Either way, it’s wonderful after three months of nothing.”
The arched windows wink in a hint of early spring light. Perhaps someone has cleaned them. The trees look ready to show off a little.
“And I thought about the photograph. About who it might be.”
“You learned more?”
“It may have been Stefan, a friend of both my parents’. But somehow I think not. I suspect it was someone different. Ernst found the picture in an envelope, taped under an ancient Federalist secretary in her storage unit. He recalls Stefan–the man taught him chess at an early age; I barely recall his name and not his presence. Yet it could be Samuel, or Silas or Siegfried, couldn’t it? We don’t know. But he looks at her with sweetness and tenderness.”
I reach for my backpack, then ease out the photograph and offer it to Dr. Sorensen. He looks closely at it a few moments, turns it over, read the back, then hands it back to me with care.
“It does appear they mattered a lot to one another.”
Relief. Not misgiving or confusion or even a deep slice of grief that has threatened me day and night for some time. Just to know that even Dr. Sorensen sees it: my mother, beaming at a man who reached for her in a way my father rarely had. Her beauty in her feeling and response, different from what I knew her to be.
“Love happened at least once. Perhaps twice. That is quite enough to know.”
The light from the windows fades as gathering clouds scuttled by. I close my eyes and then I see my childhood bedroom. Two mammoth windows arched at top, the dove grey and white silk curtains pulled back so that the outdoors was just beyond my paint-stained fingertips, there beyond my balcony. I look around and it’s like being there, enveloped by those colors, shapes, that great familiarity, inside a calm whorl of time and space.
I can smell paint and fading roses and then the heady French perfume my mother always wore.
“Isabel, dear–are you finished with that marvelous little painting yet? I want to show your father before he flies to Madrid to visit his ill second cousin, Silvestre. You may meet him one day. I hope. Now, that picture?”
I turn around. She frowns at my messiness, then she changes with a wide smile, hands held out for my art.
I once more open my eyes to meet Dr. Sorensen’s, full of intense interest.
“It’s what matters in the end, I gather. That love can happen at all in this world.”
I stand up; he stands, too. We shake hands and I say I may call him again, then pivot and head for my studio which is my particular beloved, my own crafted life. Alone. Free, for now.
The stillness within me is punctuated by vagaries of thought and sensation, an upwelling of feelings. They arrive following days of a deeper quietude, the sort that language cannot translate with succinctness nor a rudimentary grace. It all lives in a surround of consciousness, yet I am full of not-knowing. Limited. Time even seems defined by an existential awareness of separateness, not constant but clear. And then a sense of merging with humanity visits me and I am plummeted into a morass that also cradles in a primal way. This isn’t a new experience; it has become too frequent.
I have put this off, my usual mid-week essay, a genre that allows me to tackle and examine a variety of ideas, of internal and external interactions. A genre I love because of its strictures and demands. The words shape facts while the reality I experience gives rise to a flood of connections. Somewhere within this there is a brief communion as I strive to remain loyal to the truth as I know and understand it. Yet whenever I have begun to write of the facts of this topic today, either blankness or tears have marred my physical, intellectual and psychological vision. I have to leave to others the task of reporting and investigating acts of terror but still I want to put in words…something…and this is all I can offer.
On the last very early Sunday morning, a massacre occurred in Orlando, Florida. It is worldwide news by now. Such information travels across the globe so fast that we can know and yet not know really, so we hear, try to absorb and wait. I, too, have let information in bit by bit, even when not wanting to know. Then I stared at blank pages begun on my PC. I don’t much comment on national or world news; I am not writing a political blog. But this is also other than that.
While this will be repeated many times I will add my voice and my agony: why again all this violent death? The terrifying end of 49 human beings, leaving survivors–the wounded, the traumatized–to go on living with it every passing moment? This is again more grievous loss of life that seeks and cannot find a way to contain the keening. It seems stullifying, unfathomably so. A reminder surfaces at moments, a minuscule comfort: that people somehow manage to go on. To endure what was imagined as unendurable. To mine the treasure of love, anyway. To root out compassion even in the dark, thorny places. To grab onto a shred of hope and not relinquish it despite the poison that can render us exhausted. We still know how to put into motion an intention to become braver, stronger, wiser even as the rage against causes of suffering ebbs and flows.
On Sunday afternoon, despite the specter of fear that slips about, despite the stunning grief that descended on our country once more, my husband and I went down to our city center to the waterfront. We have a river walk along the Willamette River. The annual Rose Festival has begun and lasts a month, a time when thousands of tourists visit in search of not only our world famous roses but also our food and coffee and micro beer, arts and entertainment, and the extraordinary beauty around us. I wanted not to see the arts and crafts market or the festival midway fair so much; that has been done and done over the years. And I have often studied the big ships that set anchor in our port to be admired. I have also witnessed the dragon boat races many times, thrilled to do so, cheering on all vibrant teams.
It may seem selfish to go out and about, as if it could be just any walk after tragedy such as this. But it was hard to do–the weight of it. I needed to make my body a part of this world. Dawdle in the sunlight. To breathe the early summer air that was saturated with sounds, with natural and man-made smells. To walk and feel the muscles in my legs, the pumping of my heart. To feel the vivacity of life humming and dancing about and to join in. I wanted to be around people, just enough. To stroll through palpable laughter, hear strangers calling out to one another in fun and excitement. To see youth riding scary carnival rides only to soon be safe again; watch children climb into and wriggle out of their parents’ arms. I had to watch our river, friendly and commerce-busy and finally intersecting with the mighty Columbia–those miles north and south I have walked countless times over decades. To visit the cafes and little garden areas and the old and new architecture I know so well. I wanted to love my city as it has loved me, for Portland has been a nurturing and energizing home for my family. We just wanted to walk without a fear that blocked our curiosity, and we did. We never know when our paths will end so until then, we go forth into the moment.
And it turns out I did want to do all the things I’ve done. So I offer you a brief portion of last Sunday afternoon. After that news. After those taken had left us and as those still living were tended to far from here–this, my city which mourns, too. May we not forget either the living or the dead. May we find moments of grace amid wreckage, and share a balm of small kindnesses. And go into the world and walk with life, for life, despite the risks that always accompany this human living.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson