Wednesday, November 30, 2005
It's Saturday, in the cold, first light of morning. I pull on a heavy sweater and jeans and move silently over the bedroom floor. I am obligated to the dawning day, not to speak. There will be time for that, later. There are errands to run, housework and meals and child-noises: piano practice, homework questions, tussles over chores and toys.
Three hours from now I'll say something before I think, for no real reason, and my words will slip unnoticed into everybody else's noise. Here, in the grey light and silence, a thoughtless word seems crass; irreverent. There is room enough for right words, but few find them, I think.
In the beginning was the Word… I imagine the first morning, when God looked into dark empty space, silent for ages, and filled it up with His words. Let there be light!
I am glad to hold my tongue.
The morning evolves from silence to hushed whispers to conversation, from the holy atmosphere of a prayer chapel to the friendly one of a church foyer. Everyone is talking and lively, but not raucous or silly just yet. Holiness lingers.
The whole family heads out early for a school fund-raiser, "Run for Funds". My three oldest boys recruited sponsors- grandparents, aunts and uncles- and are off this morning to run as many quarter-mile laps in the space of an hour, as their child-legs allow. It is near freezing weather, but sunny, crisp and cold like a Michigan apple.
Scott and I hit the track with Eliot and Ethan and I remind the older boys to pace themselves. An hour is a long time to run.
"I know," they both say.
It’s all I can do to keep up with two-year-old Ethan, who’s decided he’d rather run the track than ride it in a stroller.
I remember exuberance. It was mine once.
I follow the white lines with my eyes all the way around the elliptical track to where I began. Fire infiltrates my calves, my thighs and creeps into my brain. When did I become this?
A movie starts running in my head: there’s a camera close-up of my face- flushed, sweaty, distorted- smashed against the ground at the finish line. The camera pans up slowly to show Ethan, standing with one foot on my head and his arms in the air, his face smugly victorious…
"I running!" Ethan shouts.
"Yes, you are running, sweetie! You're doing a good job!" I say encouragingly, as I close the gap between us from behind.
Ethan looks delighted, smiles and does a little dance. "Mommy, you catch up with me!"
The fall morning is newborn-fresh: violent, dewy, tender and promising. Orange, fire-engine-red, purple and yellow lie cradled in arms of unbelievable blue. Everything exposed to earth and sky today is dipped into a giant vat of golden honey and brought forth dripping, sweet and glowing like the bursting, sun-lit trees.
I am no exception. Suddenly, I know that I am beautiful. I smile up into the painted hemisphere and it smiles warmly in return. I begin running, again.
After a lap or two I cease thinking about time. Time is irrelevant. My task is set: I keep moving in the same direction, keep my feet on the baby-blue track. I walk, I run when I can, but always circling, circling, like the seasons. You can argue that there is no point to it, no grand, over-arching purpose, not even a clear destination. We’re just orbiting a green-grass center as if it is our sun.
But moving my body is good, and beauties abound today.
A boy and girl in front of me are laughing together and trying to run. They hip-shove each other and tell jokes and I think how much this looks like flirting, but I know it’s not. Chris and Erin are in the fourth grade, and are good pals and they, with my son, Micah, are almost inseparable. I’m surprised he is not with them, now.
In the first week of third grade, Chris’s mom, Suzie, told me how much her son enjoyed mine. He said, “Mom, I think I like Micah as much a Joe.” Joe is a long-time best friend.
Also during the first week of third grade, Micah sat down to dinner full of grunts and facial contortions over a girl named Erin. He told us gravely, “she’s my arch-enemy”. A week later he admitted he thought she was smarter than he was. I told his teacher about their little competition and she laughed, “Yeah, well, I think Micah can keep up with her, too.” By Christmas they were best friends.
“Hi Erin, Hi Chris,” I call out. “Where’s Micah?”
“He’s up there, somewhere,” Erin says, flipping her hand out in front of her and her long hair over her shoulder.
When Micah laps me a short while later, his brown eyes are determined and joyful.
“I’m ahead of everyone in my class,” he tells me, and tries to hide the radiance oozing from his pores.
Of my four children, Micah is the one most like me. We fight. Sometimes I’m afraid my love will crush him and other times I’m afraid I’ll lose him, that he’ll just drift away.
I read his school journal the other day. In it, he says that he likes rain, and that his favorite way to spend a stormy day is lying on the couch watching, through the window. When I asked him why he wrote less, as the school weeks passed, he shrugged. “Mrs. Meadows always reads our journals.” He paused. “I don’t like telling people what I feel.”
When I was nine I wanted to be my own mother, because I knew what I needed and my mother rarely did. Now that my son is nine, I have no idea what to do. I know what he’s feeling and I know why he acts as he does, with hostility or flight, when he just can’t shake his need for compassion or to be understood. But I can’t get to him. Antagonism can not be comforted. I know that now and I blame my mom a little less. I search for a gesture or a magic word with which to penetrate his arguments, his pessimism; but the same tool doesn’t work twice.
Micah and I understand each other best when we are sharing something: walking, cooking, talking about a book we’ve both read. When he’s sad and doesn’t know why, he sits in my lap and twists my hair into knots, the way he did when I breastfed him, years ago.
I lost my temper the other day and said awful things, and Micah forgave me as soon as I asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said, again.
“No, it’s not.” I said.
“It’s okay, because I forgive you,” he said. “That makes it okay and you don’t have to say you’re sorry, anymore.”
Micah's anger is intense; but his love is fiercer, by far.
Somewhere near the second-mile marker Eliot tells me his shoes are too small and have been for a long time. I buy new things for my oldest son and pull out stored-away boxes for my weed of a toddler. It turns out those kids in the middle grow, too.
Eliot is oblivious to things like too tight shoes. He wears short-sleeves and bare feet on winter mornings, when the house is chilled and the floor tile feels ice-cold. When he is sick, I know it before he does. He plays until he drops and I find him curled in a corner, sucking his thumb and shivering, with fiery skin.
I help Eliot take off his shoes. I carry the shoes in one hand and hold his cold hand in my other. We walk together, his stocking-feet padding the rubber track and his mouth chattering, as it always is.
I love that boy.
I’ve not seen Scott for a while, now. First he ran ahead with Eliot, while I lagged behind at Ethan’s pace. Somewhere along the way we switched out kids, but he is still ahead of me.
Scott is always several steps ahead of whomever he is walking with. This summer we met friends in Chicago and we all noticed it. He attributed this to our collective indecision. I attribute it to his eagerness to be, to move, to meet whatever is ahead.
When we walk together, he tells me I slow down when he does, keeping the distance between us. Maybe he’s right. When you’re eighteen and engaged to your first solid boyfriend, then married with a baby before you’re 20, keeping distance stops you from fading out. Still, there is more to it than that. Some Siren in his soul bids him on.
If I want him to keep my pace, I have to hold his hand.
“Ten more minutes!” I hear the lap-counters shouting to the runners.
I am crossing the finish line for the eighth time, hand in hand with Eliot, who’s in socks and making a game out of side-stepping goose droppings.
Marshall, who is eleven and still calls me “Mommy”, runs up alongside us. His face is blotchy; cold white skin accented with hot spots of puffy pink.
“Hi mommy,” he says quietly, and slackens his pace. He’s been running for most of the hour.
Marshall talks easily with anyone he knows well, and is remarkably blessed with an immunity to peer pressure. He shakes his head and laughs kindly at trends, the way an old married couple smiles at young love. He builds amazing structures with LEGO’s and designs medieval torture devices which, despite being frightening, are surprisingly well-designed.
I asked him once what he wants to do when he grows up and he said,
“I have this theory that dinosaurs still exist, and I want to prove it.” He thought for another minute, shuffled around a bit, smirked, and said sheepishly, “I don’t know if you can actually do that. You know, for a career.”
Marshall was born a little bit lop-sided. Whether it’s his spine or just his posture, we don’t know; we’ve never looked into it and it’s never been a problem. Scott and I joked about it when he was a baby. When he started running, he ran crooked, too, his left side dragging just a hair behind his right.
Because of this or because of his long, lanky build, or maybe because he’s had a quick mind from the start, our friends and relatives pegged him down right away as smart but un-athletic. When his brother, Micah, arrived two years later with a perfectly proportioned, compact self, he got labeled “athlete”. The truth is that both are misnomers. Micah is sharp as a tack and Marshall holds his own in most sports. As their mother, I know this.
Still, I am surprised. Marshall is running as fast now as he was when we started and I gave him that unneeded advice about pacing. We chat for a bit and then he pulls ahead. He says he needs a drink and then he’s going to finish strong.
I believe him. He has shed his asymmetry, like a too heavy coat.
Eliot runs his entire last lap in socks. We make our way to Scott and Ethan, who have finished ahead of us. Marshall and Micah stand a little way off, panting and gulping from bottles of water.
I ask Marshall for his final tally.
“Twenty-one,” he tells me.
“Wow,” I say, in all sincerity.
“Guess what?” Micah walks toward me with a grin. “I got 21 laps!”
The lap-counters confirm him. Marshall and Micah are officially tied as the top lap-runners of the k-6 school.
Micah is jealous and aggressive by nature and his chief competitor is his older brother. Marshall is self-contained and passive, and Micah is his only competitor. The tie seems to satisfy them both.
“Your boys did really well.” I look up to see Miss Albers, the first grade teacher and also the secondary school’s cross-country coach.
“Yeah, I think they had a lot of fun,” I tell her.
“Well, I hope Marshall comes out for Cross-Country next year.”
I’m trying to grasp that my boys just ran five and a quarter miles a piece, in one hour. They are eleven and nine and I am feeling much older than I am.
Scott wants to go to IHOP for brunch and we don’t really have money for that kind of thing. But the boys are hungry and they’ve just run their hearts out. We tell them they can have whatever they want to eat and we decide to order hot-chocolates, topped with whipped cream.
When we walk into the restaurant my children’s faces are flushed and rosy-cheeked. I ease myself onto a padded bench and wait for a table.
A man and woman are leaving. I’m not a good judge of age, but they are silver-haired and walking slowly. The man holds the heavy glass door and the lady ducks under his upheld arm. Her eyes take in my clan of disheveled boys and before leaving she turns, smiles toward me, knowingly.
Ethan’s legs are wrapped around my waist and his arms cling to my neck. He’s tired and his head droops, until some small pleasure lights his eyes, through the window, behind me. He clutches my hands with expert fingers and balances, stepping on my thighs. He jumps up and down on my lap, singing loudly.
I am weary from a night of little sleep and a morning full of feeling, but I do not ask him to stop. Instead, I fold my face into his hot cheek and draw in my breath. His smell is deep and sweet, the irrepressible scent of life.