Grief, Love, Uncategorized

Requiem for the year

Today the sky here is gray. There has been no sun. Although I grimace when the forecast calls for soaring high temperatures, I am a Colorado girl and expect my sunshine. But clouds always do make me think, as if they alone can ease the pace of a day. The verb here is beautiful: slow.

This is a year I will always remember. It is pinned: orphan. But it is also pinned: care. I have seen more friends and family in this most memorable year than I have for a long time. I have enjoyed the company of cousins, of childhood playmates I’ve known my entire life, of my godparents and my brother and dear friends from all eras. I’ve been warmly welcomed into backyards, shared meals, received kind messages and laughed. Even this last week of the year, I have been lavished with time with friends, and this morning a truck arrived to deliver a bouquet of flowers from two friends I have known since elementary school.

Two weeks ago in Denver I stood alone on a hill beside my beloved natural history museum. My parents took me to that museum often. We went to the big traveling Ramses exhibit and to planetarium shows and stood in a tedious long line to see gem carvings one year. I volunteered there as a teenager and wrote about my experiences on college application essays. My mom and I took my two eldest children there when they were wee people with chirpy high voices, and we stood chatting as my babies pretended to be astronauts.

When I was a child the museum had a sculpture of the head of a saber tooth tiger, mouth wide open, where one could drop a coin and make the tiger growl. I was a little afraid of dropping a coin in, just like I was a little afraid of the creepy elevators amid the animal dioramas, but I could do it. I was brave enough to make a saber tooth tiger growl.

The museum still has that saber tooth tiger. I walked into the lobby this month and I could hear that sound again, imprinted as it is, as if it came from some stalwart neuron devoted to only it. There must have been an eager child that December day with a cupped hand full of coins, because the growls continued. I took it all in, slow that day too, playing another track in my life’s soundtrack. Then I walked outside to the old familiar hill.

There are always geese in Denver’s City Park. My mother loved birds. On my wall, I display one of my father’s paintings, depicting the ash tree in their backyard of 33 years. Within the tree is a birdhouse I decorated for my mom one year: “Barb’s Birds.”

The sound of my mom’s longtime friend drawing a bath for her granddaughter in July was a visceral and sensory reminder of my mom doing the same for my child ten years earlier. The way my college friend’s husband spoke for a puppet in December was gut-punch similar to what my dad would do. So I stood outside that museum in City Park, the saber tooth growl renewed in mind, and I forgave the wild geese I found there.

I forgave them for giving and then for taking away. I forgave them for the goodbyes after the goodbyes, the many reminders, the over and over work it takes to let go.

They are sorry, the wild geese. And I’m sorry too. I am not without gratitude: thank you to Mother Earth and to God and chance and the wild geese for conspiring to give me this life that I wanted more of. Thank you for my belief that it wasn’t enough time.

The year is over. When I look up from it I realize that I am within a circle of my parents’ making. I turn, and turn, and turn, and the circle is unbroken. It was both the year of orphanhood and the year of the most abundant and tender care.

I was too young for this. I wasn’t ready. But standing in my parents’ circle, the year they died now ending, I am certain of something only the snow in City Park knew before me: I am brave enough for forward. I am brave enough to make a saber tooth tiger growl. I am encircled by mighty things.

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Fate, Grief, Love, Uncategorized

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I wrote many poems when I was in college, handwritten in a journal or on the proverbial back of an envelope — or in one case, tucked into a piece of paper so tiny that keeping track of it was a long-term marvel. I had many ideas that could often tumble forth despite me. I was cautious in life but free and forward in these poems. Whereas the poems I wrote in high school were meant to impress writing instructors, the words of my college years were only for me. In one poem, I wrote, “I think the wind begins like love does” — both are just there. They needn’t build up from some nascent state, gaining skill. Both have no real demarcations, no moment available to discern: the before versus the now.

Even on a day that seems still and windless, when one stops to look at the tall branches of a tree, they are moving. The wind’s work, the many modest bobs and pitches, are persistent and unpredictable, and the factors numerous: length of branch, moment in time. The end result can be pleasing, the motion created like what a child might imitate with arms extended and hands loose: swaying.

Our lives too. The interveners are many. Our course is begun long before we arrive, by the bobs and pitches of other lives, the paths laid and the decisions, a reflex, a moment, then another. 

I have a thin notebook in which my father wrote only two diary entries, two years apart. The first, dated September 1, 1964, describes his arrival in Denver. Thirty two years old then, he had been a Redemptorist priest for five years and had received a new assignment after spending nearly all his life in Missouri. He was bound for St Joseph’s parish in Denver.

“It was Tuesday. Expected someone at station — no one. Came out by cab. Lady cab driver never heard of St Joseph’s.”

After a brief description of the house where he would reside, he laments: “The transition stage with so many changes is very confusing.”

A bob, a pitch: thus were set my Colorado roots, ten years before I was born, setting in place the more than four decades of my father’s life spent in Denver. 

My father fell in love with my mother, a young nun at the same parish. The circumstances of this most consequential gust were not discussed often by my parents as I grew up, they both turning taciturn whenever we brushed past the topic. The two of them first moved for several months to Salt Lake City, renting a modest apartment. My father did speak of being a day laborer there, even describing the day that his shoes were ruined by chemicals on the job. My parents’ furnishings in that first dwelling are captured in a few photos, my favorite being their cinder block and plywood “shelves” in their living room. In all these photos, they both look content, their smiles wide. The gust fell swooping in, their love already there, and then they chose the upstream route. They would be together.

They returned to Denver with their baby son, eventually settling in to a brick bungalow near a Catholic church. By the time I was born, they had bought a house in the western suburbs. My father never stopped writing love notes and love poems and painting sweet illustrations for my mother. They remained devoted to each other, chatting in the kitchen at dinner time most weeknights, attending a spirituality group together for two decades, fearlessly renting cars and driving around Europe after my father retired. My backdrop and foreground as I came of age were filtered through a prism of love most human. My mother, a French major, kept her copy of Blaise Pascal’s Pensées for years: le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.

My parents’ love story made me feel special as I grew, if not a bit embarrassed by the tale during my teen years. This spring, not long after my mother died less than 100 days after my father’s death, I wanted to return to Denver. I wanted to nest into the familiar places and cling on and touch, to hug the people whom the wind’s bobs and pitches had put into my parents’ lives and mine. The love was already there. I needed to visit people I had known for decades, those bobs and pitches having matched our lives together from streams that began in earlier lives and then endured. 

And so I went home to Denver. I rested in mornings and evenings on the shaded patio at the home where my elementary school friend grew up, hosted by her kind and soft-spoken mother, and enjoyed how loud the birdsong there could be. Another week, a friend I met at age 6 spent several minutes searching among her handmade quilts for one in blue — my mother’s favorite color — on which I could reverently rest the boxes of my parents’ ashes. Thirty six years after our first Brownie troop meeting, and there she was, tending to me in her search for the perfect quilt.

These welcome times continued, my claiming eagerly among these faces our shared memories both distant and recent. My mom’s longtime friend, her high school classmate and one time roommate, invited me and my children to join her family Sunday dinner one week. I liked when she called it “supper”, reminding me of my mother. Her backyard porch swing was perfection, smooth and steady like she, her manicured lawn and abundant flowers reminding me again of my mom’s similar joys. The breeze that blew there was a comfort, its love knowing no beginning and no end. 

And so my parents’ love story continues. Their twin declines and deaths have had an undeniable gravity that pulls, slow, on my heart, but the bobs and pitches of their lives were meant for synchrony. Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.

My father disembarked from a train on September 1, 1964, and I began to love. And so I would write this by hand as a young woman, both new to and seasoned in the navigation of heart as true north: “I think the wind begins like love does.” Both are just there, unbeginnable and without end.

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