Posts Tagged ‘death’

The Visit

April 23, 2010


She takes the hour’s drive down to Long Beach Island, the kids in tow, under a sky dark with storm clouds and rain. Kate’s twelve-year old son Daniel, sitting in the front seat, for the first time. That grown-up inner-voice of hers playing by the rules denied him the privilege of sitting in the front seat until he’d hit the 90-pound-weight restriction and the legal age of twelve. Until today, she refused him a tradition that she herself experienced almost from infancy—not for any other reason but birth order. The 70’s. No seatbelts. Brothers bouncing around in the hatchback of a 72′ Ford Pinto, or sprawled out lying on their backs in the roomy Hornet, staring up at the telephone wires that looked like some poor soul’s flatline on an EKG. Her father flicking cigarette ashes out the window that flew back in and around the inside of the car, into their faces and hair like party glitter. Holding onto a tumbler of something or other in one hand, the steering wheel in the other. And Kate, bopping forward, dancing in the passenger’s seat, her hand perpetually affixed to the radio dial, her radio dial, as if it were a lifeline to a normal existence. Copacobana or Boogie Oogie Oogie, playing like a tiny orchestra inside a black box despite her father’s endless orders to turn it down, or for that matter, turn it off. That’s not even music.

“I’ve waited my whole life to sit up here,” Daniel tells his mother, with his arm out the window, coursing the waves of sixty-mile-an-hour winds as they cruise down a desolate 532, replete with Pgymy Pines and white sandy trails that lead deep into the forest. Kate laughs and pats his arm which is hovering over the dash. Julien is perched contentedly in the back, in his booster, strapped down, locked in, tapping his fingers on the tinted glass of the minivan.

“Your whole life, huh?”

He smiles at her. He knows it’s silly to talk about a whole life at this age. He’s just starting to put things into perspective. To maybe feel old enough to know how young he really is.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye explore the new area around him. The glove compartment. He opens it, shuffles through papers. Closes it. He puts the window up, then down. He locks the door. He unlocks it. He puts his feet up on the dashboard.

“When I was your age, my father used to take us down the shore, down these back roads, through the Pinelands, every summer. Sometimes he was drunk. Sometimes not. But Grandma would yell at him and say, ‘I need a break,’ and so he would throw me and Uncle Mike and Uncle Tim in the car and he’d take us down here. I was always the one who got to sit up front.” His eyes light up like he shares some special rite of firstborns with his mother.

Kate points to a displaced hill in the distance that is possibly the only hill in southern New Jersey. “There it is,” she says. “The end of the world.”

Her boys are used to this. It is yet another tradition she keeps intact. They fly over the hill screaming, “It’s the end of the world,” they say their goodbyes, their it was nice to know yous and then suddenly, when the car touches bottom over the other side, they act shocked that they survived. It’s all a part of the trip and a simple but clever trick to keep children from dying of complete boredom.

“Do you remember Grandpaw?” Kate asks.

Daniel says “vaguely,” and Julien says no, but that he thinks about him. In reality they remember little.  How he used to sit them in his wheelbarrow and cart them all around the yard. Or take them to the hayloft and build forts for them.  Or when his eyes filled with tear the day Kate put his first grandson in his arms. He said to her, “It’s like you’re giving me a second chance to do it right. To be a good father.”

“Well, Juli, you were only three when you last saw him, honey.”

And then he stretches with restlessness and monotony. She forgot to pack his coloring book and DS. He asks, “Do we have to go down here and do this? I want to go home.”

Daniel chimes in, “Yeah, what’s the point. It’s not like we’re going to actually see him, see him.”

“True dat,” Kate says, forgiving herself a slip of bad, contemporary slang despite being forty. “But it’s called ‘a visit’ just the same.”

She drives on forgetting the sadness, the anger, the wreckage of her life for the sake of this visit. The drugs. The drinking. The weirdos and loan sharks of the 70’s and 80’s that came to her front door looking for her father, threatening her mother with warnings that she and her brothers could go missing if he didn’t pay his debts. She tries to forget the nights she heard her mother whimpering alone in her room at four in the morning because her father hadn’t come home and hadn’t called. She tries to forget all those art exhibits and chorus concerts of hers where she looked out over the audience for that man, but never saw him. Not once. Nor ever did he come to where she sat on the living room sofa, brooding over the sad fact that Rex Smith or Lief Garrett were only actors and would probably never date her. Never did her father come to console her or put his arm around her and say, but I love you.

They get to the bridge from 72, open all the windows and fly over the Causway. The smell of bay muck and dead fish rise up from the water on salty currents of wet air. When they hit Peahala Park or Brant Beach, she never really knew when one town ends and another begins, all the street names change to states. California, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. They turn left on Nebraska.

When Kate’s dad was seventeen this was his beach. He knew this island like a clammer knows how to dig for little necks with his toes. He lived, during the summers, on Cape Cod Avenue, but life-guarded on Nebraska. And him and Jimmy, Johnny and Josh smoked Winstons and chased after girls who rented rooms in Chalfont for the summer. They drove down the boulevard in Johnny’s or maybe Jimmy’s ’63 Chevy Nova, writing songs to those girls and promising to marry them.

When he was nineteen he formed a band called the Wharf Rats and got a gig playing guitar and singing nightly at the Jolly Pound Boat in Bay Village with Jimmy and a blond named Mary. When Kate was a kid she could buy vintage postcards of her father singing with the Wharf Rats in one of the antique shops on the island. But the Jolly Pound Boat isn’t there anymore, nor is the antique shop.

When he was twenty-one he fell in love with Kate’s mother and had babies and stayed in New Jersey. He did this instead of becoming famous like Jimmy, who, in the fall that following summer, stuck to the plan and went out to Hollywood and joined the Dirt Band, which became an instant success. He didn’t become rich either, like Josh, who inherited his father’s real estate empire and flew off to India and married a sixteen-year-old Hindu princess. He just was. And that, I guess, wasn’t good enough.

By the time Kate could remember, he’d already begun drinking gin and tonics and selling copy machines, and sometimes even kiting checks when business was slow (because he had a family of five to support). And on days when her mother couldn’t take it anymore, he’d fly Kate and her brothers down to Nebraska Avenue, to the jetty, where, at low tide, there was an enclave among the rocks and there they’d set up camp for a couple hours with a blanket to protect us from the wind.They would all fit in this spot that Kate’s father called “The Thinking Spot,” and mostly, the kids let him sit there and stare out toward the Atlantic and think by himself while they crushed shells on the rocks or looked for starfish. And he wouldn’t move and sometimes he’d lower his head in his hands, and while he never said anything, they all knew he was suffering. But more than anything, no matter what conscious hurdles he was jumping, Kate told herself that she was loved.

At least that’s how she wishes to remember it.

Kate takes her sons up onto the beach, and says, “We’re here to see Grandpaw.” But the beach is empty and dark and cold for April. Daniel rolls his eyes. Perhaps he’s too young to appreciate the implied spirituality. Julien half-believes he might see a ghost.

“OK,” Julien says. “There’s no one here. Let’s go.”

It’s high tide and they can’t reach The Thinking Spot, so Kate stands at the precipice of the jetty and much like her father, she look out toward the waves, crashing onto the smooth black rocks with a somewhat melancholy expression on her face. “He’s here, boys. He’s all around us. Let me pay my respects,” she says. The little one scurries around in the sand. Daniel, on the other hand, stands by her side.

“Translation, please?” he says.

“Translation,” she say. “When you love someone and they die, you still love them. That love never goes away. It just changes. And instead of actually seeing the person again, which, obviously, you cannot do, you go to the place where he or she was buried—or in this case, where Grandpaw’s ashes were sprinkled—and you visit. And you remember. And you celebrate all the happiness he or she brought to your life.”

There’s a storm coming up from the south end of the island and the sky rumbles in the distance. There’s not much time, so Kate scoops up a handful of white sand and says her hellos or goodbyes or whatever you say to the dead. I miss you. I love you. I forgive you.

She takes the boys to grab lunch at a little place called The Bayside Diner. It’s the only place open during off-season. They laugh, they plan their summer vacation. They talk about how they’ve all outgrown the kiddie rides at Fantasy Island. And then they head home. There’s something eerie and deserted about the island in winter and early spring. Something that makes you glad the winter is only temporary.

They are quiet for a while as they head West on 72, back towards their town. Kate imagines their brains working to grasp the concept of loving someone who is dead, and possibly even wondering how it is that they can make it over the end of the world, die and then come back to life a dozen times during the course of year.

Daniel’s hand courses over the cool dashboard. He looks at the buttons on the console. And then, it suddenly occurs to him, right as Kate makes the left turn back towards Chatsworth, that the radio exists and that he can actually turn it on. How or why he comes to this realization so late in the day, Kate wonders, is one of the mysteries of who he is. But there it is. He turns the dial on the radio to 102.5, to the sound of Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Justin Bierber and the Black Eyed Peas; his music. And just like a time-lapse photograph of the opening of a flower in spring, the meaning of freedom crawls across his face and transforms his expression from curious distraction to beaming recognition. A coming of age moment unfolding in the front seat of the Honda Odyssey. Kate knows the radio, from here on out, no longer belongs to her.

“You can even turn it up,” she says, as they dance in their seats down the last of the empty roads to a song that holds no memories, but feels good just the same.

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Summer of trees

September 11, 2009

This bizarre thing was written in response to a writing project we had to do in Lauren Grodstein’s Fiction class. It’s a sestina and if you know anything about sestinas, they’re pretty difficult to do. If you don’t know anything about them, here is a little definition below. I’m not sure I did it exactly right, but whatev. It’s done. Feedback is appreciated.

A sestina (also, sextina, sestine, or sextain) is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet (called its envoy or tornada), for a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time; if we number the first stanza’s lines 123456, then the words ending the second stanza’s lines appear in the order 615243, then 364125, then 532614, then 451362, and finally 246531. This organization is referred to asretrogradatio cruciata (“retrograde cross”). These six words then appear in the tercet as well, with the tercet’s first line usually containing 1 and 2, its second 3 and 4, and its third 5 and 6 (but other versions exist, described below). English sestinas are usually written in quadratic hexameter or another decasyllabic meter. -taken from Wikipedia

I.

All my summers are filled with trees.

Here in Philadelphia.

But through broken glass and black mosaics and ragged, cold metal…

From a ground floor window, of a basement, hot and wet with humidity and stagnation he still knocks on the wall.

He knocks hard, repetitively, like the monotonous hammering of ceramic rubble from when I was a kid.

He knocks persistently, to let me know it’s time to see that dark place once again and set aside my dreaming.

II.

I run to lock the door but he has a key, and so I put to rest the dreams I’m dreaming.

Through the window stretches a limb from an Elm tree.

And I reach through the bars and out into the open and I climb the branches like an eternal kid.

I bend my knees and stretch my arms high and twist my spine up and around each branch in the beautiful, clean, city sky of Philadelphia.

And there I rest and wait, perched with closed eyes, leaning on the outer wall.

I rest through it all—the darkness, (he is right) and the sharp pain of coarse rope, fist and metal.

III.

He takes my wrists and twists them up with rope, he pulls my hair into his fist and lifts my dress, and soon I feel the click of metal.

I am untouched; dreaming

I try to tell myself, there was no knock on the wall—

No; these walls are soft and padded with real windows and a real view of trees.

I can see clear across the tops of sycamores, elms, maples, oaks; every tree in all of Philadelphia…

Gathered at the pretty feet of this here kid.

IV.

Oh, but when I was a kid.

I lived in a house of a sculptor and an artist who worked with mosaic tiles and metal.

It was right off Broad Street in Philadelphia.

I spent most of my days in a concrete yard, dreaming.

And looking up into a sky filled with the soft leaves of a hundred trees.

The only things that kept me safe, in those days, from my father, were my mother’s screams and a wall.

V.

My room was in the far corner of the basement next to my father’s workshop; he and I separated only by this wall.

And when he had too much to drink he’d knock and scream, hey, kid!

And breeze in with his artist’s tools, like wind through the trees—

Almost invisible; except for wood and glass and scraps of twisted metal

He had fashioned these things into daggers and pointed toys that he had thought up in one of his many dreams.

And he would visit me during hot summer nights, just like all the tourists visited Philadelphia.

VI.

The basement was cool in summer; summers were hot in Philadelphia.

And he would lock the door and push me against the wall.

And in the very beginning, I did not move or think or dream.

Heck, I was just a kid.

And when he’d jab me with the object, whatever it was, always cold like metal

I only stared out my window and imagined trees.

VII.

And then, one night my mother screamed, she’s just a kid!

And searched the floor of my father’s shop for her own piece of metal.

And as I lie slumped in a corner, too late, still staring at the trees

Newly dreaming of climbing high and safe into the trees—

My mother ran across his heart and head a jagged piece of metal

And scratched out both his eyes and said, this is for the kid.

Nothing will make me feel better

June 3, 2009

I am sick. I slept maybe one hour last night. My son was up all night vomiting with a high fever that I couldn’t lower because he couldn’t keep down any advil. The image of Mr. Brass blowing his brains out kept playing over and over in my head. I feel blackened by all this. And it’s not quite over. There is a tarp hanging in Mr. Brass’ window to cover up the spot where he shot himself and the window he blew out. It’s falling down. I’m the only one on the block that has his spare key and a haz mat crew is due to come over today to clean up the mess. I’m supposed to let them in. Hello! I can’t remove a dead mouse from my house let alone witness the scene of a crime. 

So, this is all quite difficult for me to manage and keep in perspective. And yet, my Buddhist training teaches me to accept it all. DOn’t deny it. Let it in. Feel it. It’s the process of living in the moment. It’s an ugly, dark, hopeless feeling, but it’s mine and I need to own it. What calms me slightly is knowing that it will pass, as all things do. It’s only a matter of time. 

I wanted to put this out there for anyone else feeling hopeless, sad, dark, depressed. No matter what your circumstances, know that these are the feelings and traumas that make you human. We are fools to believe that there is such a thing as constant happiness, constant success. As if our lives were as simple as walking up a ladder to achieve some lofty goal at the top. We have been lied to by therapists and doctors and Hollywood and the media and made to believe that there is a place free of pain and suffering if we only have the right combination of thoughts or have chosen the right road. 

Bullshit. 

Embracing the idea that suffering is inevitable and a part of this life allows us to forgive ourselves for not being able to achieve happiness. It accepts the notion that suffering is intrinsic to life and no one is spared. It’s not a question of personal failure. It’s merely a fact of nature. And this acceptance keeps us from feeling as though we have been singled out, or hand picked by the gods to suffer unduly. 

Today I am being called to carry the weight of my suffering, my children’s suffering, my financial issues, the ugly concept of suicide, my neighbors’ pain, uncertainty and doubt. I cannot carry this alone. The weight is crushing me. Nothing will make me feel better. So, the only defense mechanism that is kicking in at the moment is rocking back and forth like a crazy person and eating bad food. So be it. This too shall pass. It’s just a matter of time. 

Suggested reading:

Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

No rhyme or reason…

June 2, 2009

My 80-year-old neighbor, Mr. Brass,  shot himself in the head this afternoon, in a successful attempt to kill himself. He had been planning it for quite some time though no one was exactly sure. The bullet apparently went through his head and broke through his front window pane. Julien, who was home sick from school today along with Dani, heard the breaking glass. But neither of my children know exactly what happened. They think he lost his balance and fell out of the window.

 

When the mail truck comes, I sometimes collect Mr. Brass’s mail (mostly if he asks, but sometimes on my own). This afternoon, I crossed the street to do so, but midway, something stopped me in my tracks. A thought. I turned back home and said, “I’ll check on him tomorrow.”

 

Who knows what determines the path a soul takes. When it comes into life and when it extinguishes. Who knows the value of life or the cause or the effect. I am muddled with questions and a sick feeling deep in my stomach, wondering if I may have averted a timely bullet myself by not going over there, or if I could have stopped or even postponed the inevitable. Whatever the case, the end result is an ugly one. Men are zipping themselves up in white protective suits and heading into his house now to take photos and recover his body. It is, after all, a crime scene.

 

 

Dream of the week

May 5, 2009

I awoke early from a very strange dream this morning. I was at a coastal town and on the edge of the sea, up in the dunes was a cave-like area, dark and cool. And in this cave were the petrified remains of three people; one man who looked very much like Jesus and who was alone in his own section of the cave, and two women who had died in an embrace. A few others and myself sat down besides these stone figures, as if archeologists on a short break and Dani (my son) went to pick up the man. As he did so, he fell a part, quite fragile like, and needed to be put back together. A little later, we moved closer to the figures of the two women. We were all talking, gathered around them and suddenly both of them sat up and began talking. They at first were quite confused and could not remember what era that had lived through until suddenly one of them said, “I remember Ghandi.”

I was shocked to see these two stone women move and talk and I asked them questions for which they didn’t really offer any sensible answers. Overall, what amazed me the most was how happy they both were and how they kept chattering on about how lucky they were to have each other for all eternity in an embrace, while the man in the other section of the cave suffered and died alone.

THE DIVING BELL

January 3, 2009

Tonight I watched THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, the autobiographical story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, Editor-in-Chief of the French ELLE magazine who had a stroke at the age of 43 which paralyzed him. He was only able to communicate by blinking one eyelid and by doing so, dictated a book that was published a few days before his death in 1997. 

I cried throughout the entire film, fearing for my own life, my own sense of freedom and expression. What would I say if I knew I were about to go into a coma? If I were about to be paralyzed? Trapped in my own expressionless, motionless body. How would I feel human, alive, real? Would my children know I loved them? Would I be able to make peace with how far I have come, with how I have lived my life and what I have produced? The thought occurred to me that I can no longer take from the world. It is time to give back. It is time for my own voice. It is time to say something. To make a mark. To help. To heal. To work. It is time for my children to know, without a doubt that they are loved. It is time to produce something other than whiny, dramatic journal entries about my miserable life. 

It is no longer right of me to question my existence. It is no longer right of me to be unhappy or worse, ungrateful. To seek answers. There are no answers. That is the answer. Life is about giving. Caring. Loving. Sacrificing. 

I thought of being alive but unable to communicate. Unable to travel. Unable to love physically. Three things which are so important to me as a woman. Who would I be then? What might my existence mean? I would have hours for thinking. Wondering. Hating myself for all that I did not achieve. I would be faced with the realization that I was done. I didn’t have a second chance. I could not change anything anymore. I could no longer be a productive member of society. I could no longer hug my children. I could no longer tell them I loved them. I could no longer tie their shoes or pack their lunches or lie in bed and read with them. I could no longer scratch their heads or tickle their toes. Oh. I am miserably sad thinking like this. 

God! I do not want this to be my fate. 

I don’t normally suggest watching something so depressing. Believe me, this film is DEPRESSING. But it’s an amazingly beautiful film and worth watching if you are strong enough to sink for a while. 


Sawtelle Meadows

November 29, 2008

 

She died on Tuesday. They buried her that Friday, lying on her side, sprinkled with dandelions, chicory and sundrops, just as she had asked. It was only a week before, she said, “Mommy, when I am in my coffin, I want it to be like when I slept that one summer in the grass, out by Sawtelle Meadows, near Henry’s Lake.” The flowers were so fragrant and the mountain watched in the distance, still and high like God.  Her tiny titanium lungs rattled with every  exhale and seemed to crush under the weight of her inhale. “Shhh,” her mother said, stroking her delicate child’s hand, “you have a long way to go before you sleep with the flowers.”

 

 

Leap Year

June 5, 2008

He used earth words and planted gardens and liked going down south and road trips to nowhere. He had tattoos of the Devil on his forearm, and looked like God, with big blue open seeing gentle eyes that had a spirit steady and true beyond the simple human spirit. He was a great kisser. Like me. But quiet. And deep. Not deep in a click-your-fingers-at-a-coffeehouse deep; not even the kind of temporary deep you think you see in the face of a student of philosophy. He was deep like rivers that cut through canyons as old as the brachiopod lingula and the horse shoe crab.

 

I met him when I was young. In a bookstore.  Buying war novels for my father. I liked to call him Mr. Smith, but his name was Steve. His hair was long and kinky and I remember I could smell his clean, hippy, 25-year-old smell as he flushed spines in the history section.  He said to me: “You see, you have this calming affect on me. I actually want to struggle with you.” And I thought to myself, I want to run my fingers through the algebraic recipe that cooked up the lines of your hair. I was on fire. I perused picture books of the American desert and listened to Navajo tunes. I bought a dress with flowers that came down to my ankles and I wore sandals.

 

He struggled with me. And then he took off. Restless. One day in May. He rode with some friends in an orange VW bus out to a reservation in New Mexico to study art and history and eat mushrooms and pledge a vow of celibacy to the Great Spirit in hopes that one day he would understand the difference between love and lust.

 

I waited. But he didn’t come back. The Spring was over. The warm, tired, lovesick days of August too, and eventually the fall and then the winter…

 

I fell for a waiter. I made love to a Jew who became a Rabbi. I danced meringue with Paul Garcia in a club named Brazil. I kissed Doug, Scot and Eamon and the Twelve Apostles and a Moroccan named Arie. And I sold my soul to a drummer one Leap Year because I lost count on how many times he said: you are so beautiful, baby.

 

I married a Spaniard who barely spoke English and barely brushed his teeth. He was tall and lanky and had a long face like El Greco and chased me around the bedroom, “Come here, wife. My sex is hard for you.” We lived in a piso on the 4th floor of a rundown building in Vallekas, a gypsy suburb of Madrid. I made tortillas and arroz con leche and sometimes crouched on the terraza under the hot sun and watched stray cats fuck on rooftops. I cried for home. And dreamed of humidity and the green, oxygen pine trees and grass that grows with dew stuck to each blade like a rock climber descending a cliff.

 

I became a woman. Desired. Pedestaled. Unwoven. Torn. Shredded. Real.

 

I made two babies. Moved to Jersey. Bought a home. Divorced. Years passed. In the Spring of ’04 I spread my father’s ashes across the jetty down on Nebraska Avenue. Saying goodbye to the man who taught me how to love. Boyfriends came. Boyfriends went. Sons grew up.

 

I bumped into Mr. Smith at a record store one night in February. He was buying vinyl and I was perusing the Cds. I barely recognized him without his long hair. But he still talked smooth and his tattoos were all black and green. And I thought, if I had my own they wouldn’t be the face of the devil. They’d be words. Words that save me from my self, where God, not man, is the Second Coming and the Third and Fourth. Words when strung together become the only thing in life that’s real—forming a straight line like Time to a Westerner.

 

We talked about books for a while. The west.  He didn’t remember much. And so I shrugged when he asked if I wanted to go for a drink. No, I said. Maybe another time.