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.
Sometimes you wake up and feel like you’re in the absolute wrong story. The train bell is clanging on time, there are sirens sounding like a rescue to someone out there and a couple of robins that fought for and won a spot on the last anemic elm are making good on the phrase “for crying out loud.” That’s how it sounds to me, their bird blather, though it’s probably just me. I’m no good before the third mug of coffee. Still, this is that morning when waking up feels like an off-beat, failed response to a wrong cue.
I sit by the open window, my bleary vision drifting over the city’s fancier angles and spires, then rectangular testaments to cheap but everlasting. This has been my perch for eight years and the armchair fits me, a lumpy nest. The fluttering beige curtain slaps my face like a soft hand. I close my eyes, raise mug to lips and let tongue meld with the first acidic, bright savoring. Swallow, stomach lurching. A tinge of rum from last night still sours my taste buds and glazes the far reaches of digestion. But the breeze is alive with life. Other people’s, other places’. I can appreciate it nonetheless after the tenth swallow and a dried out cinnamon roll. I pick at it, inhale the air and its fragrant messages joined with others.
I’m not what you call a slob but I’ve been given to neglect lately. I feel the weight of unwashed hair on my head and neck. My apartment is strewn with nothing necessary or good. It’s been four weeks since the last job set me free so I can feel more poor. Not that it wasn’t expected; it was temporary, like most jobs of the last couple years. Still, nothing like the defining sound of a metal office door closing, and that envelope in hand feeling too light for even the little it bears within it. It’s a small throwaway life says the paycheck for all my sweat and muscle strain while on the line, soldering wires and impossibly tiny pieces that make up parts that go into bigger ones to ultimately get airplanes off the ground. Never mind, though; it wasn’t work I liked. But it was something, wasn’t it, not this sitting here and noting layers of grime on the sill and staring at deep scratches on the ancient wood floor and going blind while studying windows that wink at me from across the street.
“Rise and shine, son. Got to look for ten new jobs today?” my father says when he calls to see if I’m out of bed by eight.
“It’s like being in a swanky hotel, getting a wake up call every morning. Don’t you have anything else to do, like feed the pigeons? You don’t have to hustle, anymore.”
“No, I got my own life of leisure, my pension could send me to the Riviera but I prefer Omaha. You need to take more action, Kelly, not wait for things to happen.”
“Okay, thanks for calling, Dad. I’m going back into hibernation mode, so don’t call tomorrow.”
“It’s get up and go time, not snooze time,” he says as I hang up.
“Bye, love you, too,” I say, tossing my phone onto my all-purpose round metal table.
I’m actually concentrating hard on the phone, willing it to ring again so I can answer, then hear someone inform me I’ve won the jackpot, come on in for an interview. The resumes I’ve sent hit sixty-two yesterday but he wouldn’t even believe that. Dad thinks it’s still forty years ago, you can always find another gig; it’s a matter of beating the pavement. He never had to even beat the pavement. He was a supervisor at the same factory his father worked so when I turned it down he worried I was some sort of fool. But I wanted to go to community college. Then he bragged on me. He was right, though, as the measly two-year degree landed me right where I am. Associate of Arts, so not a big deal in the work world.
It’s nearly ten. Mrs. Havers is leaving her apartment across from mine. She goes in late because her boss is always late so why not? She does flower arrangements at the floral shop, takes two buses across the city and has done so for years. Her knock on my door is crisp, methodical, three raps and then a considered pause followed by a hard fourth. That’s her secret knock, she told me once, so I’ll always know it’s her.
I open the door, proffer a closed-mouth grin. This is not a morning to chat or to tell lies about my success. It’s a morning like an empty stage and I’m starting to wring my hands.
Her light eyebrows, drawn with delicate precision, flick up and down like wings. “You’re up but not yet motivated, I see.”
“How can I feel motivated? No one’s called since the temp agency. The guy wanted me to try detailing.”
“Cars, cleaning up cars,” I explain vaguely.
“Oh, that doesn’t sound like you.”
“No. And I just own a bike.”
“But nice to not be trapped in a factory.”
“Maybe.” I notice her smock. “New one? It has herbs all over it like you’re going to work in a natural foods cafe. Or a gardening center.”
“We’re now selling herbs, set up a stall on that bricked area in back. It looks good out there with potted pansies, a couple of director’s chairs in yellow. I used to eat lunch there, though. Mr. Kent’s trying it out since people ask for them now and then even though it’s a flower shop. Go figure. So I thought I’d get into the spirit, look the part. You think it’s too much?”
Her dyed harsh red hair is pulled back into a neat bun; her lips are peach, as are her cheeks. The smock looks like the rest of her, tidy and colorful. She loves plunging her hands in dirt, making the beautiful even better, giving encouragement when you deserve far less. I feel like I’ve known her my whole life, like the mother I no longer have. Mrs. Havers would be embarrassed to hear that; she thinks she’s a failure in that department as she had one kid who never calls. I know that kid is missing out.
“No, you’re ravishing, as usual.”
She flashes a mock beauty queen smile, then swings the sturdy cloth bag she calls a purse so it deliberately thumps my knee. “You need to look your own part, get out there and find that job!”
“The problem, Mrs. Havers, is that I haven’t been able to find my place. The play keeps going on without me, no intermissions, no clues about my character.”
She shoves a stray carrot red hair back in place. “My, you’re quite the talker–you trying to be Shakespeare? The clue’s practically staring you in the face. You figure it out.” A quick pat on my shoulder. “Now get in the shower. Have a decent day, Kelly.” She takes a few short steps, turns around before I shut the door tight. “You seeing Milt soon?”
I wave her off with a genuine half-smile.
I’m thirty-four, not a genius, not a winning replica of a dream son. I’ve worked since I was fifteen but after nearly twenty years it’s getting redundant. What do these people expect? If it isn’t my dad or the neighbors, it’s my ex-girlfriend, it’s the guys at the bar down the block. I’m there almost every night lately, the neighborhood haunt. Three of my buddies stop on their way home from work. We have a couple of beers, they give me tips on meeting women and getting jobs, they complain about their jobs and their domestic bliss and then they go home to wives and kids. I stay on awhile, drink some more. I know this isn’t good as Lou the bartender has been reminding me when I should head home. But why? Call it depression, call it burn-out blues, call it a rut but morning til night seems one and the same. I feel myself slipping.
Well, there is this: on week-ends I perform there along with other wannabes. Karaoke, but I get a lot of applause. I can sing a bit. It’s about blowing off steam, having some fun. I look forward to it more than most things. Pathetic when you consider that.
Then a couple days after seeing Mrs. Havers, Milt the bar owner asks if I want to play piano and sing on Wednesday and Thursday nights, says he thinks I might draw more business. I thought he was joking and it wasn’t funny. I’ve always felt a reluctance, more of a rawness in my throat with a strangling sensation in my chest when I try to sing out. With a few drinks I can ham it up with the canned music. Stumble home, mind empty.
“Right, Milt, thanks for that. Of course I’m fine with the other karaoke nuts–but let’s get real, it doesn’t really require anything, does it?” I slurped a third foamy beer. “But alone? Not so much. Once, maybe. Now…”
Lou joined Milt, his youthful blondness startling next to Milt’s overripe body, his shiny baldness.
“I caught that,” Lou said. ” Really? You can sing, can’t you hear yourself? You’ve got pipes.”
“Lisanne Havers says you play piano, too–you’ve got one in your apartment. Says you’re good.”
I turned around on my stool, surveyed the regulars. John came in the door, high-fived Todd whose real estate investments were paying off at last. I wondered what cases John had won or lost in court that week. I vaguely suspected they thought I was a loser bar buddy, one more lowly factory rat scrambling among the rat kings.
“I’d like to hear you with that piano. See if Lisanne Havers is correct. I generally trust her judgment.”
I knew Milt had a longtime thing for her, imagined she’d put him up to it. I swiveled back.
“I don’t do that sort of thing, anymore. It’s been years. Since I was twenty-three or so.”
He leaned over the counter and shook his shining dome at me. “Gotta try something else, Kelly, the factories don’t want you lately. If you’re any good, I’ll give you decent change for a couple hour hours a night to start–once you bring in just ten more paying customers. Then I’ll expect better, of course, and you’ll be better remunerated.”
“Why are you doing this?” I could feel a shift, as if a time warp machine was controlling the scene’s atmospheric pressure. I was going backwards and I was about to audition for my first bar gig. I flashed on that dump, then blinked.
Milt spread his hands out. “Why not? A favor to us both, maybe.”
He had no idea what he was asking of me. I left early and went home, sat by the window and fell asleep to rattling and buzzing in my head, the tracks of my past. But the next day his words felt still like a magnet I couldn’t repel. He had laid down a challenge. The prize might be more music in my life.
So tonight I’m going in with nothing but a memory full of old standards that my mother taught me. I’m like an old juke box with no control over selections. When I sit down at the piano, notes and chords will roll out from the piano, that’s how it works. My hands will pretend they belong to someone else; it’s easier that way. And if my voice gathers force I might have to leave, because then my secrets will fall out my mouth and all will know the truth. That I need this.
I haven’t really sung–not good singing, committed-to-the-music singing– since my mother passed. She was a genuine singer, sang in back street dives, then bigger jazz clubs around Chicago and Detroit before she married my dad after he got out of the service. They moved to Omaha; well, it was where his family resided. Why she did that, I don’t know. I was going to be born, so likely for stability–who can say for sure? But not pursuing her dream nearly killed her; she drank like a madwoman. She finally vacated our home when I was twelve.
St. Louis got Marie Whiting. And they got the better parts, her artistry. Chicago got the most and best, I read years later.
Dad instructed her to call weekly or not at all. She called sporadically, saw me a few times, tears and kisses, until he put a stop to it. It was too hard. She was travelling, getting known. She recorded four albums I never heard, even when I got older and might have. I’d heard her sing for us for twelve years and it was heaven but that was her in the flesh, not a CD. Then I caught her voice accidentally on the radio. It was a jolt of happy and proud–until bitterness took the goodness of it, a landslide undoing a pocket of green valley. Only Rona, my ex-girlfriend, has known who my mother is. I live far from Dad and Omaha folks who knew her once. Rona has kept all my secrets. I couldn’t find my way to reciprocate her decent love, not when I’ve had so little to spare. I wrote a song for her that one day I may share. Way late, but why not.
My mother died at her peak, the magazines said. Breast cancer. My long forgotten aunt called Dad out of backlogged anger, then regrets. He and I went to her funeral only because I begged him. We sat in the back. As we watched the crowds gathering it was too much, a sweltering pain. We slipped away and then I went numb. We never spoke of her again.
I wonder what Dad would think if he knew I still sing a little. He oddly enough tolerated it when I was a teenager. Sometimes left what he was doing to stand in the living archway as I played the piano we kept. But he never said a word. Music was her showing up in me; that might have felt good or bad, I never knew for certain.
Of course I want to perform, that’s what anyone would think if they knew Marie Whiting was my mother, if they knew I also play piano well. They might ask why didn’t I get on with it, why did I go to community college then work in factories? I mean, factories are fine, but I had to learn that work piece by piece, my will the victor.
Am I some mental health expert? No, but I saw one after she left us and by even then I knew what was going on. What was cutting me off, what I’d lost or could lose. So maybe I’ve chosen to just get by, to fit in with family and friends, avoid memories. To forge my own path. Save my dad from more hurt, too. I’ve tried to beat down the desire to give myself away to music. Like she did. And it took and took and left us reeling.
Music the wound maker.
Still, I answer when it calls me.
Tonight I head to Milt’s Bar and Grill to play a few songs, anyway. I’m tired of repeat boredom, the same views, same failures. I might as well change something. I’m running out of cash and ideas. I have to do something and something presented itself. What’s a song or two to me? I sing for nothing at the drop of a hat, hollow songs, pop tunes that mean little to nothing, music that allows escape for a moment. I can do that much–and I can do better if I have to, can’t I?
“Why isn’t this just a regular audition?” I asked him. “How come I have to play for the patrons now before we know I can do it?”
“It’s the audience who’ll decide, as usual. You aren’t afraid, are you?” He looked me up and down. “We can call it off. Just doing you a favor.”
“You’re a scoundrel, a nice one but…”
He crossed his arms, cocked his head at me. “What’s to lose, kid?”
So now I suck in a shaky breath, dive into beery darkness. The piano is left of the small stage. No spotlights are on, per my request. I’ll sweat it out in complete smoky obscurity.
“Kelly! Ready for good times? Man, glad I got here early!” Todd calls out as I thread my way through clots of early drinkers. He’s on his second beer already.
I lift the piano cover to reveal a very worn keyboard but know it is in tune. I asked for that much and Milt took care of it. It may sound less than sterling but my own upright is a third-hand instrument. I pull out the bench, sit unceremoniously. Stretch out my arms, flex fingers. Grab the drink on a chair beside me and sip. The pop music that had been playing over speakers goes soft, then silent.
“Ladies and gents, we’ve gotten together tonight to drink, gossip and enjoy music as usual. But tonight is an experiment, as some of you know. I’ve invited a guy up here whose reputation precedes him. I give you our star karaoke singer, Mr. Kelly Whiting!”
A nice smattering of applause with some hollering and hooting. From the corner of my eye I see Mrs. Havers but she is looking down. I have a sudden urge to check if Rona is sitting in front but no, she’d call out my name even now.
I’m not prepared for the moment when everyone awaits that first note. I think I’ll suffocate. Almost get up, leave–but then I start to hear the music in my head. If I want this to go the right way so that it is a minor means to a possibly bearable end, I have to dig deep, be honest with those listening. So I am still a minute or two more. It’s best to relax into things, let things unfold of their own accord.
The cue is in me and I hear it and take action.
I set my hands in motion but as if suspended above my body. See them touching stripes of ivory and ebony keys, my head moving to and fro as my body responds. A sudden rushing of blood in my veins, lungs pulling oxygen from the ordinary world. The static inside quits. The music spins, turns me inside out. Spills across the stage and covers the room, the people. I open my mouth as if I have something that needs to be sung and it happens. For me. Whole and intact, the song erupts as if it has been saving up courage, gathering up soul and body, finding the resolution that will change it all.
It all comes back to me like a kind of natural wonder revealed. The music lives.
The broken nights and days wrapped in self-loathing–they deserve no more of me. There is something more left, it stirs and releases the music, a surge over edges and rolling outward like an offering of what still survives. Joy amid longing.
Now a spotlight floods the stage and covers me. There are cheers. All I feel is heat, that combustion of energy let loose by the music. I am in the center of a storm and I am casting for hope. And note by note I am given ownership of the tune, riding a swell of crescendos, chords and runs like honey and fire, stony rivers and shooting stars that take me into mystery. My voice opens, reaches. I barely hear the rise of applause as I move out of my own way. But I’m getting closer to where I’m more certain lies deeper belonging. Can you hear me, Marie Whiting? Hear me and know I am your son.