Insidious Grief

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clothes on a line wind

The day of the harvest we were told you died. With bent backs and bare hands, brown men picked Arabica coffee beans and chewed its fruit. Young wives hung sheets like sails on thin lines of twine.

Our father has died.

That day the sunrise was no different from the one before it. Trees stood stock-still in the yellow morning and though the room had all I ever loved and most all I needed, it was depleted. I couldn’t breathe while my children soundly slept.

A loss is a painful ripping away. An endometrial lining pulled from an unyielding uterus. A light switch turned off, a door firmly closed, a drape sharply drawn. The loss sullies everyone’s hands.

When my father left, he left it all untied. I carried away what I could: a bouquet of words unfurled. My last conversation with my father was my last coherent conversation with my mother. One physical loss became two losses: a tangible one and an emotional one.

Dad, I’m doing the best I can. I see you in my dreams, looking for mom, looking for your things. Mom’s mind is somewhere safe, locked in a repeating loop of a past that excludes you, whom she loved most.

I’m sorry. I miss you. I miss you. I miss you.

The sun has settled behind the monte and the men you once knew, are bent over plates of steaming rice and red beans. The clothes are dry on lines of twine, and soon the women will retrieve them. Mom is far away, sitting among the evergreens, canning tomato sauce and looking forward to a red winter.

I think of you often. I think of you.

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Deeply deeply

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rainfall

First, processional clouds gather and near: silent funeral guests and inutile words. The unapologetic lights-off on the sun, the line where sky begins and clouds end, indistinguishable. All is profoundly, deeply deeply grey.

Second, the air becomes dense and its thickness weighs not everything, but all of it, down. Branches, clouds, lungs. Our fingers touch the moisture we can’t see.

Third, fracas. The rain falls fast, and it continues its stubborn fall for three days. The water gathers and swells the ground, its heaviness carving a path that runs like a river or a sprinter, bending grass and rock alike, splitting all in half.

On the first night of the deluge I took a sleep aid. My thoughts throughout the day made it so that I couldn’t shut off the running dialogue in my head. Despite the drug, I woke to a sound louder than clamorous thunder or pounding rain. The nature reserve outside my window, always quiet and watchful, is now teeming, vibrant, discordant, full of life. Animals can be louder than the rain. The rain has pushed, it has pulled, it has stirred and all but drowned every creature in the reserve.

So loud and persistent, the crowing of frogs, the desperate call of a thousand crows, the clapping crickets, the whining dog, the climbing lizards and their darting eyes, the million ants relentless in their martyred march, and so on. I heard them all.

I rose from my bed each night and I listened to them, each and all. Perhaps it’s as you say, a colossal mating call, a free for all in the reserve. Perhaps it’s a harbinger of what’s to come.  Perhaps they too are afraid of the storm that’s yet to come.

On the fourth day it stopped raining. Our neighborhood streets, despite the powerful sun, remain wet and flooded. Despite the restored sun, the water streams through the sogged mud and the putrid leaves, it still streams, it still drags, it still pulls. And there’s life there. There is life there. I can hear it.

I hear it deeply deeply 

 

Dress

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waves

Those days the dress didn’t cling. It hung loose across my breasts and thighs and fell into a clean straight line at my calves. Mother of pearl buttons held the dress together down the front and spaghetti straps held it in place on my shoulders. My summer dress, equal parts sand and Atlantic. In it, I was fluid and musical, a flagpole, and the dress, cotton and thread yielding to the wind. A Miami breeze could make it sway and that summer, my lover’s gentle touch could make it fall away.

Years later the straps wore down and the dress frayed. Its buttons peeled and the fabric stretched and pulled at its seams. Snug and dull,  it stretched across my breasts and pulled at my thighs. It no longer flattered me. Abandoned, it stayed in my closet.

The day I took the art off the walls and packed the music away, I threw away the dress. I cut my soul into perfect squares and placed its jagged tender pieces into small boxes and packed it away: the music, the rhymes and the art.

I’ve since owned several dresses. Scarlett gowns with plunging necklines and slits that graze my thighs, and later, austere gowns of navy blue and cinched waistlines. Those dresses, though, required industry: hair, mascara, perfume.

I watch my daughters preen before their bedroom mirror in their new summer dresses. I recall the ease and the fit, the sway and the unpreoccupied ways, and I recall.

I recall.

 

 

 

 

Catorce Abriles

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golden trumpet

For the April Girls:

Today I sat beneath a flowering golden tulip tree, and in the waning light I gathered the fallen blossoms, their soft petals, yellow footprints on my skin. It’s April again.

“How can you not remember the time of our birth?” you asked, annoyed at my imprecise memory. Fourteen Aprils ago you made a mother of me — one who’d never before held a baby in her arms, but now, for better or worse, a mother. I remember those moments, the haze following your births, was it hours or minutes, waiting to see you both, unaware of your delicate condition or my own.

I recall your irregular breaths, your inhalations puffing your small bodies and filling your chests, your mottled skin, thin and translucent, diffusing light and life. The machines, inhuman but complicit, watched as we held your twisting small bodies tight like fists, in our frightened arms. The rituals of the NICU: the knotted silence, sitting beside your transparent incubators, the long white corridors between elevator doors and other quiet corridors, the passing of minutes, hours and days, the incomprehensible unknowns, and so much more in that dreadful room — but outside your window, a vibrant tree and its free-falling yellow flowers, the sun and its slanted rays, the shadows and the particle light.

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Maya’s 10th birthday beneath the yellow tree

I am no closer today to grasping motherhood than I was that April, fourteen years ago. I am no less able to fight your fights as I was then, when we watched you sleep and wake, sleep and wake.

But here we are, me, a novice playing it like an old-hand, and you two, challenging me at every turn. You and I are each inextricably bound to that budding tree and her yellow spoken words. Her fallen flowers, tokens of that April morning when your births ushered in the daylight, this new chapter, our parenthood, and family.

Happy 14th birthday Maya & Sophie! ♥

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She burns

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That night, in the penumbra of contented sleep, he sprinted, left to right, through her dream corridors, opening and closing doors, dragging his knuckles like a doomed Andersen prince in an untold fairy tale. Everything he touched he set ablaze.

And in her sleep, she followed. She sensed her body lift heavenward, and everything that tethered her in place withered into ashes beneath her. Her skin warmed as she rose and rose further away from her burning bed, weightless, free, unafraid, and suddenly, very much awake.

She struggled to understand the riddle. He said something about the heart and the mind, and truth, and the catharsis. She warmed beside his flame, not understanding his words, and touched his fragmented skin. Fair, freckled, a webbed spatial constellation, spreading like flowering vines connecting them each to each, to earth and sky. Equally tethered, equally free. He, her spark; she, his tinder.

And she gathered his morphing shape onto her own. She smoothed his licking flames into a twisting containable shape, but failed, again and again. Together they rose, each mutually engulfed, and soon she gave of herself fully, even as she burned. And while his fire bespoke cacophony, collapse and complete engulfment; she sensed the rapture, not the prediction.

 

 

 

Blameless Hope

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What a fight we had. I turned away and you pulled. I pushed and you shoved back, twice as hard. Neither gave up.

Hope, so gallant and disingenuous, I thought the worst of you. Villainous enchantress, the spells you carelessly cast. I understood these: The tired breast and the child’s ceaseless hunger. The brook’s uninformed search for its current. The incoherent thought longing for coherence. The letters that scramble together, over and over again, into imperfect words.

I was afraid for so very long, and fighting you hurt like hell.

In the arms of others, ethereal and flimsy, false. But now, in my hands, blameless and guileless, fragile and beautiful, perfect, sharp and enticing.

Hope

 

 

Muir

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They agree to return to the redwood canyon of their youth. Beneath towering giants, they recall the searing songbird calls, the draping moss and the morning light as it filters thinly through heavy fog and drizzling rain. She remembers the promise, and he, the hope.

Many years have since passed. She notes he no longer wears his hair long, and he studies her manicured hands, the diamond and its spark, and how it catches the light. Together they find the familiar path off the trail, and while he beckons, she stalls, considers, and she follows.

The damp dark soil sinks beneath her feet, the wet air curls her hair, and the atmosphere, so deeply green, savory, acrid and sweet, is familiar in her mouth. And he thinks how this path, this bend in the distance, is theirs alone; and she questions, is this the beginning, the middle or the end?

They work their way through the songbird trill, the hanging moss, the softened branches, the damp air and the lifting fog. And she held her breath and he, his own.

She views his farewell a beckoning, a tide, a relentless retreat, and a repeated approach. Was it she who begged the question? Was it he who left it unanswered? It didn’t matter.

Alone in her car, the Muirs cling to her fingertips, and she is unwilling to let go. The impatient songbird, persistent in its call, audible still, as each retreat to the sealed silence of four-door cars. They each know well the Muir songbird’s song. Its gut wrenching plea, a beautiful exclamation, an indisputable truth.

 

 

 

Paper

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When the welling inside her finally spilled forth, it ripped everything from the inside out. It pulled the walls down, and the hairline crack in her foundation stretched and snarled until the ground gave way beneath her feet. Then her words finally failed her.

In the rubble, she gave it all away: the furnishings, the food, the clothes, the instruments that make up a life, those that build a home, those that speak of what was there, the symbols of a life.

In the midst of the collapse, she viewed the letting away as a necessary slash and burn, a throw back to the anthropogenic fires of ancient civilizations. The landscape of her space obliged her to make way, to pull its rotted root, and to haul it all away. This purge — its blazing fire, the noxious smoke, the dying embers — calmed her.

Days later she held in her splintered hands the remains of what was. She recalled the delicate Unryu rice paper she’d bought years before. In the light, its feathery fibers twined like cherry blossom branches and it was completely translucent. She remembered the care she took when she carefully parsed together charcoaled words upon that paper. When rubbed, charcoal coursed like blood through its porous fibers. She learned to blow away the charcoal, lest she stain the paper with her mistakes.

Mostly, she remembered Unryu rice paper is surprisingly difficult to tear.

Pieced Apart

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She sat across him, 1000 puzzle pieces strewn between them. Putting it back together seemed possible. He said it would take a focused commitment. She thought they would need a bit of patience, for the work might become tedious and its completion depended on dogged determination. On this they agreed.

And so they began. She lit a lavender scented candle. He silenced his phone. Through the window pane, days and nights blended in rapid succession. And with daylight, the parting of a soft curtain, and with night, a drawn curtain and a candle snuffed signaled time’s passing. At first, they worked in obvious commonalities: the flat edged pieces were somewhat easy to place together. The task had a rhythm and it led to repeated small victories. But soon that tactic failed once the outer frame took shape. The interior was daunting. All its indiscriminate pieces, its vagary, their common frustration. And that act, of sorting, finding, and discarding what worked and that which didn’t, tested him, tested her and it tested their resolve. And then, on occasion, that seldom found puzzle piece and its mate and its unexpected connection to another, a shared respite. But most often, for her and for him, this puzzle and its defeating unsolvability flung them apart in fragmented pieces.

Separately they pieced apart this great big strange thing, each working together and alone, silently, and soon the wholeness of the act mattered less than the race to the finish line. Both were indifferent to the light and to the dark, the parting and the drawing of the soft curtains, the candle, the lavender, and its flickering light, meaningless.

She thrilled in her individual assembly, the act of finding, fitting and placing. The invisible check mark against what is right and what is wrong, her scorecard beside her as he fell away, veered off course, his defeat, his resignation, his shrinking away, his predictability, a testament to her resolve, her commitment, her hypocrisy. Oh and she reveled in her individual victory, the validation, her vindication. Of course, she’d stay the course. Of course, he couldn’t. Of course he wouldn’t. Of course.

There were times he wandered in, his callous fingers skimming the sturdy mahogany table, leaning in with an unrequested suggestion, a failed assembly or two, and that seldom lucky placement, and now the crack in her veneer. The failure. Her anger: how could she miss that? The flickering candle and its fraudulent lavender, its heavy sweetness, thick in the air between them, enraged her. And how in that moment, she hated him. These futile thousand pieces, now fewer by a hundred or so, completely unsolvable and utterly pointless without him to measure up against, the assembly, her scorecard, absurd to her.

That night she ripped the puzzle apart. She blew the candle. She flung open their soft curtains. She crumpled her scorecard. She saw all she mistook, what she was and he was not. And she saw. And he noticed.

 

 

 

On facing fear

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hands

These last few weeks Maya’s gymnastics training has really stepped up. She is learning elements elite gymnasts practiced during the Olympic Trials this summer. The transition from her last level to her new one is, in my view, very tough, and as her coach has emphatically stated, “real gymnastics” has now begun.

The rips in her wrists are deeper and the bruising in her body is punishing. The conditioning is tougher and the pressure to perform, to learn, and to try harder is constant as well. The push to go faster, stronger and further doesn’t end.

Then there’s fear. Not the kind of insidious fear that destabilizes a childhood, but the kind of fear that can cripple an athlete. She’s 13 and she understands it, feels it, can name it, and can taste it. It’s a pivotal moment in her life as a gymnast, and as of today, she thrives despite her daily, hand-to-hand combat with fear.

I know these are unique life lessons she will carry with her for the rest of her life. I never faced fear in my childhood and when I did as an adult, the truth is that I was ill-equipped to confront it. I was (and am) a soft-skinned mollusk fully panicked when exposed to the elements.But she’s not me.

She’s that other version of me, the one  I aspire to be