Tuesday, March 21, 2006

How It All Felt Today

There's a photograph of me in a yellowed picture album, sitting under a backyard maple tree in the dirt, my legs folded at the knee so that I make a "W". I'm holding Boots, my grey-striped cat with white stockings, in my lap and I am looking down at her, not at the camera. The left side of my face is vulnerable, my fuzzy hair pulled together in a braid behind my ear. On the other side my braid has fallen out and I'm making the long blonde cloak of curls into a shroud.

That afternoon Boots was laid to rest by lethal injection, in life labeled with "distemper" for biting a boy when he dangled her by the tail; in death, a peace offering to irate neighbors. After the camera clicked I held Boots up against my face and cried into her fur in big, body heaving bursts.

There is a similar photograph of my little brother in the same album, several pages later. He is five or six and his face is puffy and red. He's holding a wild bunny that we fed with milk from an eye-dropper after our lawn mower upset a nest and put his mother on the run. As with Boots, this is a farewell picture, snapped just before we drove to the end of the street, crossed the creek at the back of Grandville Cemetery and watched Thumper disappear into the brush. Sometimes I would look long and hard at these pictures, reaching out with my index finger to stroke the glossy finish where a patch of fur showed.

I was ten or eleven when my mom took me to the store one evening to buy me a shirt. As a family of six, paying private school tuition on one blue-collar income, none of us expected new clothes. But this shirt was on sale and my mother wanted me to have it. It was a small checkered plaid pattern, long sleeved, button down, with a white cotton collar, croheted around the edges. It came in maroon and aqua blue, and I tried on both colors to see which I preferred. I stood there a long time, squinting my eyes so that my face became a blur and I could see the thing objectively. I wondered which color my school-mates would like. I didn't know if it was stylish, and wondered if the girls would laugh when I wore it to school.

"Which one do you like better?" I asked my mother. I was hoping she'd say aqua blue but she said maroon, instead. She waited for me to choose a color until the store closed, and in the end we drove home with a maroon shirt in a white plastic bag.

The year I went to public high school, my best friend was a boy who lockered next to me. When I met him he wore baggy drawers in fierce prints, silk screen logo tee shirts and a shock of blonde hair over one eye. He smelled of strong cologne and had a ready smile. He flirted with me and made me laugh and a friendship formed between us. I counted on his asking me out at least twice a week and he could always count on my saying no. We talked for hours on the telephone, we went to Campus Life and football games. That spring, I told him to ask me out again. And I said yes.

It started to go bad right away. I had never kissed a boy or had a boyfriend and everything was new to me. He stopped talking and took up acting shifty. One night he phoned me while I babysat and told me we were better off as friends. The next day the gossip was all over school: he had met a girl from my math class at the beach on Saturday, and they were the new hot item. I never really talked to him again. By our senior year we were exchanging "hello's" in the halls and he had started calling me "Roach", again. But it had become a nickname without anything behind it.

I get nervous when people tell me to look to the afterlife for joy and beauty, because I want to affirm what I see, here. Still, there is so much loss. We are all running around grasping at things and little bits of eachother, but we are only grasping at straws.

[Dorothy] Day liked to quote a retreat master who told the people in his care that they should start stripping themselves of worldly cares as soon as possible, because, no matter who we are, in the end "we shall be stripped"- stripped of health, wealth, body, breath, and, finally, of life itself.

-from "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" by Paul Elie

Just before my wedding my childhood best friend turned nasty. She accused me of being unfair, she complained that she wasn't chosen above another friend to be my bridesmaid, even though we'd grown apart after the seventh grade. One evening, in the middle of her driveway, she screamed at me, "You're just going to get married and run off to Chicago, and I'll never see you again."

We hugged and cried, and for the moment we were ten year old girls, again.

Yesterday I pushed Ethan in a stroller and walked with my mom. We passed the first robin either of us has seen this spring, dead alongside the path. "It sounds so silly," she told me, "but I could just cry at that."

She said she's been wanting more time to pray, more time communing with God. My mother cares for cancer patients at Butterworth Hospital, where I was born. She teaches "end of life care" to groups at her church. She visits the sick and sends cards in the mail to the elderly. She has close friends with mighty hurts, and she takes them all upon her chest. She told me she feels a growing cloud of sadness, as she ages, an "accumulation of all the sadness of the years".

The August I turned seventeen, I spent in bed. On July twenty-first I gave birth to a son, in the same hospital my mother birthed me, and on July twenty-third I put him in a nurse's arms and went home without him. My mom brought me garden fresh zucchini with melted cheese and toast, and on the days I ate it, I began to cry with the first taste, and I had to choke it down.

That fall I started school in a jungle-print jumper. In my student ID picture, I look like the social butterfly my friend Jeremy liked to call me. I started dating Scott that fall, and here I am, fourteen years later, a mother of four with perpetually empty arms.

I have suffered losses since. I have lost dreams, beauty, innocence. I have lost dear friends. Today I went to get my boys from school with red eyes and a swollen face. Today, loss caught up with me, entered, and ran out my eyes. Today, Ethan fought me when I told him "no", and flung himself to his bedroom floor, feeling loss of his own. I sat there on the blue carpet, my legs spread out in a "W", with Ethan's head on my lap and tears rolling off my chin.

Like my mother, I've felt a kind of sadness lately. Still, when she said it I wanted to say, "Yes, but what about the accumulation of joys?" But the two are connected, mysteriously, paradoxically.

Last month Ethan played with toys at the coffee table while I folded laundry beside him. He stopped playing, abruptly, looked me full in the face and said, "You have to die, to live." Then he said it again. I thought of Jesus' words in Matthew 16:

Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

And that, again, is the paradox.

What we love, we lose, and yet we love again. I wept today, because life hurts and is beautiful, all at once, and because beauty slips through our fingers like sand, and only reaches us, mingled with loss.


Michael Ciani said...

Your writing is beautiful. Those four words don't measure up to how beautiful it is. You have a remarkable gift for telling the truth.
You also remember way more than I do about our childhood! I didn't remember Boots biting a boy; I guess I figured she had just gotten sick, the way all our dogs did. (I still miss Fritzel, every month or two.)
I am too tired to be eloquent tonight, so I'll just leave the eloquence to you. You're good at it.
I love you.

Rachael said...

Michael: Thank you.
I don't know how much I remember about childhood; What I remember seems colored by later experience. I remember all the things I tried to hold, but slipped away.
Fritzel was a good friend. she licked my face and curled in lap on the mornings I cried because Mom made me wear my pink polyester slacks.