Mother Tongue

Just now, ten minutes ago, I encountered my mother who died two and a half years ago.

It wasn’t a Halloween-inspired ghostly sighting (though the skeletons climbing out of everyone’s front yard soil this week do make me glad she was cremated).

It was something I said that evoked her so completely. Something very trivial.
I had dropped a breakfast crumb on the kitchen floor and answered my brief hesitation — should I pick that up? — with the words: Tritt sich fest!

This translates simply as: It’ll be trod into the floor! and means: Don’t worry about it!

And it is an expression I know and use because she said it. Probably hundreds of times in my life. She’s the only person I know who said it so regularly and religiously. That’s why it feels like earlier she spoke through me. Those were her words. She taught me them and the attitude behind them and endows them with her spirit still. Some things shouldn’t be tidied. And some things can’t be.

She tells me that the things that fall or that we lose will become part of our foundation, what we stand on. Unless we keep picking them back up.

It’s the day we buried you …

… and on its second anniversary, here’s a poem the boys and I have read and love in Cynthia Rylant’s book God got a dog.

God Went to India

To see the elephants.
God adores elephants.
He thinks they are
the best thing
He ever made.
They do everything
He hoped for:
They love their children,
they don’t kill,
they mourn their dead.
This last thing is
especially important
to God.
Elephants visit the graves
of those they loved.
They spend hours there.
They fondle the dry bones.
They mourn.
God understands mourning
better than any other emotion,
better even than love.
Because He has lost
everything He has
ever made.
You make life,
you make death.
The things God makes
always turn into
something else and
He does find this good.
But He can’t help missing all the originals.

-Cynthia Rylant

You were one of those.

Fifty years ago, two came to look for America

On Saturday my mother-in-law, Lysle’s and Micah’s beloved Omi, told me that the photo to the right, the photo that watches over this blog and that shows my mother in front of the then-new Verrazano Bridge, was taken exactly 50 years ago. On July 25, 1964 Erika, who would become my mother 5 years later, and her best friend, who would become my mother-in-law 34 years later, arrived in the U.S. together.

They went from their Transatlantic ocean liner straight to the next boat to take a Circle Line tour around Manhattan.
Then later that same day they took the elevator up the Empire State Building.
And later yet they took the night bus to Burlington, Vermont, where my mother already had a job lined up. My mother-in-law did not. Crossing the Atlantic, they had run into another friend on board who told them about jobs in Baltimore. But my mother stuck with the commitment she’d already made. And my mother-in-law stuck with my mother. I’m glad they had each other in this new country.

Those two young women would probably have laughed if some truly gifted Manhattan psychic had taken them aside that day and read in either of their palms, or both, that one day, 40 years on, they would become Omi and Oma to the same boy. That they would eventually have two grandsons together: Lysle and Micah. How likely is that to happen to best friends?

So our boys — they are the product of more than one love. Artie’s and my love, yes, but before that there was already our mothers’ loyalty and love for each other. Some lucky boys to be the descendents of such a great and enduring friendship. Some lucky boys up in Burlington, Vermont, right now where Oma brought Omi fifty years ago and Omi happily stayed on. Lysle and Micah have a good history backing them. And one day this good story to tell.

The bliss of forgetting or Fuhgeddaboudit!

Today I woke up comforted and, at first, had only that good, safe, content feeling. I asked myself where it came from and remembered: Mama, who died 864 days ago (if I trust my math), visited my dreams.

It was a good visit, a great one, in fact. She was laughing a big free laugh and said to me: “You did what for me?”
“Yes, Mama, I did those things for you. That’s how sick you were.”
She just shook her head, smiling.

That was our brief exchange — no more than those few words. They were all it took to heave a great weight off me — the weight of having tried to ease her suffering and failed.

Now, from my laughing Mama’s perspective, all that is moot. It has passed — the illness, the suffering, the failure to ease it — it’s all in the past.

And I saw her the way she used to be before it all and is again after it all — a woman of tremendous heart and a tremendous smile.
She didn’t say this, she didn’t have a Brooklyn accent either, but her attitude is best depicted by this road sign:

Thank you, Mama, for stopping by.

Miracles

Yesterday a good friend took Micah and Lysle to the park. They were gone for a few hours and eventually stepped back into the long hallway of our apartment bringing a flurry of excitement. Lysle was gingerly carrying something in his hands. With a big smile he lifted the upper hand and revealed it to me: a beautiful off-white oval, elongated just enough to clearly show it wasn’t a chicken’s work but a duck’s.

An egg.

Lysle said that our friend, who knows many small things about nature that we might not know, thought it had the slightly rosy tinge of a fertilized egg. That’s why Lysle had carried it like more than mere treasure but like a potential duckling, a living creature, a pet he could love.

Now that egg is sitting in a bowl under the boys’ warming bedside lights with moistened paper towels (upon our knowledgeable friend’s recommendation). We don’t have an incubator or a duck’s warm downy belly to offer. But we’re trying against all odds.

duck egg

In view of the odds we are facing here and the miracle it would be for the egg to hatch, Micah came up with this question for his brother yesterday: “What would make you happier, Lysle, if the egg hatched or if Oma came back?”

“Sorry, egg,” was Lysle’s instant reply since he had to choose one over the other. And just the thought of it, of the miracle of Oma coming back for a little longer, gave us all a lift.

Even though life is so fragile and death such a monolith and this egg tells it just as it is, we can imagine a miracle together.

Fury

This morning walking to Prospect Park, I came across a family that made me want to rage. On their behalf that is.

First I noticed only mother and son walking the wide sidewalk on this beautiful summer morning with no humidity. A boy about Lysle’s age with the same length hair and, close by his side, his mom with the telltale pallor and artfully wrapped headscarf of undergoing chemo.

Passing them, I noticed that two more family members — a bearded dad and a little girl about Micah’s age — were already standing at the bus stop. Dad looked exhausted and crabby and the little girl turned after her mom who was slowly moving past the bus stop and called in a voice that I cannot come close to describing but that made me feel the need for a serious talk with God: “Ma…”

In her one quiet syllable was all the little girl’s worry and sadness for her mom who had to go sit on the nearby bench, so weakened by treatment.

I walked on. I was grateful for my sunglasses. I found a spot behind the low-hanging branches of a tree to sit and plead on their behalf that things may turn out okay. I don’t know how to address God, so I addressed life instead.

May she be cured.

May she be around to see her kids grow up.

May this little girl and her brother have their mother for many years to come.

Please.

And may cancer be damned.

And may those who deliver cancer to us in steadily mounting doses come to their senses and stop.

It is so pointless to be furious at a disease. Illness is never just a breakdown of defenses but always also a body’s attempt to cope. If only people weren’t so adept at creating and spreading poisons that push bodies past their coping abilities.

May there be a counterpoison strong enough to save this woman’s life.

On behalf of this family, I want to tell death to go take a hike, a really really long one.

On examining deaths, stealing souls & creating ghosts

Today five years ago, Michael Jackson had made his transition from a living man to a dead man. He’d died. He’d passed. He’d finished his business on earth. He’d not finished seeing his children into adulthood. If he was aware of dying, I’m quite sure leaving them hurt him the most. Business was enough of a machine to thrive without him.

When Michael Jackson died, we were at the circus Micah’s preschool performed every summer. It felt fitting, like a tribute to the man’s art of total spectacle and loving your audience, giving them the best entertainment you’re capable of. The kids – dressed as lions, mermaids, mustachioed strongmen – did just that.

This April in Las Vegas, Lysle, Micah and I saw the MJ business machinery in action. We got last-row tickets for the Cirque de Soleil show ONE, inspired by Jackson’s work. The boys loved it all – except for the huge, projected clip of Michael’s transformation into a werewolf.

After the show Micah asked me: “Was he there?”
“No, he’s dead. Just like Oma, remember?”
“I thought I saw him.”
“Yes, I did, too. They made it look like he was there dancing with the other dancers, right?”
Micah was bummed by death all over again. His eyes had been tricked by yet another projection – a ghostly, mid-air one of Michael Jackson’s body in motion. Our far-away seats had reinforced the illusion. And at seven years old Micah was able to believe in MJ’s resurrection.
All it made me think was: Would it be okay to see Mama, our beloved dead, technologically resurrected in that way?
No, it would not.
It would hurt to the quick to see such a life-like illusion of her.
We are struggling so hard to manage her absence that it would amount to nothing but cruelty, a cruel joke really, to show her to us in such a way.
Luckily, we are spared that by virtue of our anonymity.

Human concerns about photography or film stealing our souls have all but died out. We have hundreds, even thousands of photos and films of our dead. Not only did they not steal their souls, most of them did not even capture them.
They’re snapshots.
They’re preserved blinks-of-an-eye.
They’re leavings.
The photos and films were already dead, frozen in time, when the dead person was still utterly alive and moving through time.

Don’t get me wrong – I cherish the photos of my mother. I’m glad to have them as glimpses of her story, but I cannot be around them all the time. Though this blog is dominated by a photo of her, it is a blurred vision, and it is one I can choose to go look at, or not. Lately it’s obviously been the latter more often.

Going through our apartment, you will not find a single photo of her on any wall, shelf or table right now. In a strange way, I believe, this has more to do with remembering than forgetting her. That photo would bespeak a finality. The woman it shows is no longer here. Yet her death is anything but final within us. It’s still working through us, sometimes more openly active like a spluttering volcano, sometimes more underground. Either way it’s a process, the work of our grief is a long process that I fear might be short-circuited by passing her photo on the wall many times every day. I feel her more than I see her right now. And that’s how it will have to be for the rest of my life. Feeling her instead of seeing her.

This post was prompted by an encounter I had with my mother last night in my dreams.
She was dead. That was a given.
But she was also there, busying herself with I-don’t-know-what.
I told her how I just don’t understand that she’s dead because when I go certain places in my mind, it’s exactly like that: She’s just there and alive.
In my dream, all I got from her was the sense of a similar confusion. As in: Yes, you’re right. I’m dead, so how can I be here? Shoulder-shrugging.

That’s memory. That’s life-after-death in the minds of those who loved you.
In a final note to her (I will never know whether she was still able or willing to read it), I told her that she would be with us for the rest of our lives. Is that a comfort to the dying or a burden? Maybe you want to be allowed to finally stop being altogether and for good? Isn’t that what resting in peace would be?

This brings me back to someone as haunted by fame as Michael Jackson. He did not get a rest during his life-time. Was never given a break from harassment. If living stars are fair game, are dead stars even more so?
Are we allowed to make his literal ghost in the form of a hologram?
I think the man made it quite clear in the work he left behind that his ghost was his to make, not ours.

Can we already stop the titillating projections and let the dead be? They gave all they had in life. Now they’ve left us to ourselves. They’ve left us their legacies. Let’s leave them alone.

All that’s left for us to do is to respect, protect and honor them and their memory. Amen. And off the soapbox I step.

Words don’t fail me now!

What do you do — with a kangaroo?
No, not with a kangaroo — though we’ve loved that story of accommodating trespassing beasts.

My real question is: What do you do with your intense need to talk to someone who is no longer around?

In the early days after Mama’s death I used to do the unabashedly, grief-strickenly batty thing: I talked to her. As if she were in the room with me, somewhere, invisible. To an outsider I would have looked to be talking to myself, but it was very clearly not that. I was addressing her, the absent her, as if I were on the phone using an earpiece. Except I wasn’t pretending to do that (if I had, would this have been an indicator of a more or less profound battiness?). I just did my talking-to-the-dead in private. At least I hope no one ever heard us — me talking, her silent.

From the talking, which got frustrating with her so silent (and I am afraid the dead, too, may be frustrated with their sudden silencedness — so let’s stop that torture), I moved on to the emails.
The emails allowed me to delve more deeply into some very serious sh*#%*t Mama and I still needed to discuss. So, despite its not surprisingly going unanswered, too, emailing her helped me sort out some of that very serious sh*#%*t (did I spell that right?), at least in my lonesome brain.

Next I decided to take it to a more public forum — this blog — address everyone else if the dead can’t hear and/or answer you. This blog was a step in the right direction. I stopped talking to Mama so much and started talking about her more. Whether this was/is/would have been okay with her is material for another post.

And now? What now?
Lately I’ve been having a resurgence of that urge to talk to her. It’s been over two years since there were her ears to hear me and her mouth to speak to me. A long time not to have had a chat with someone you love talking to.

So, these days, I take it to the woods.
I let words fail me.
I don’t talk.
I just walk and listen and look.
It’s amazing how much there is once you finally just shut up.

Last week I stood in tree pose among the real trees of Prospect Park’s highest elevation (yes, first I made sure no one was coming…).
What I was able to see there in the leaves is that all that seems near is far and all that seems far is near. Mama and I no longer need words. The stuff our relationship is now made of is much more concrete and solid than words. It’s this world.

 

IMG_0717

IMG_0721these elderberry blossoms opening

IMG_0714this grass hugging the rust

  IMG_0716this honeysuckle’s scent driving Micah to distraction

IMG_0726this magenta beauty whose name I don’t know IMG_0727and who made me look twice

IMG_0731this green at the end of the tunnel

 

Why rob each other of wonder?

Hey tooth fairy,

you’re letting Micah down by not being on top of things. One morning recently, he woke up early, checked under his pillow – to find – zip-locked right incisor, that had finally dropped from its mad dangle the night before, still there and zero money.

Ugh, come on now, fairy, our (newly buck-teethed) boy deserved his buck. We’re not asking for a five, though he has tried. Artie ended up jumping in for you, but that’s just not right and Micah caught on that something was fishy.

Finding his buck in full daylight, as I fluffed his pillow to make the bed, Micah narrowed his eyes in that telling way: He’s losing faith in you, girl. He’s starting to doubt that you exist. He even said: “I’m not sure there is a tooth fairy.”

I looked at him in complete shock. “Who’s telling you such things?”
“I think it was you.”
I tell you such things?”
“No. You put the money there.”
“No way. It wasn’t me. Absolutely not. I leave that to the tooth fairy. It’s her job, not mine.” Since it was Artie who substituted for you, none of this was a lie.
Micah’s eyes remained narrow, nonetheless.
And mine narrowed, too, now. “So who’s telling you these things?”
“At school Owen said the same thing happened to him. The money came too late. It was his mom!”

Owen being our next-door neighbor helped me find a reasonable explanation for your tardiness.
“You know what, Micah, I think tons of kids are currently losing teeth and the fairy has a hard time keeping up. Our house and Owen’s must be at the end of her route. She didn’t make it before you woke. Don’t get up so early next time. That’s like me checking the mailbox at 2 when we know the mailman only makes it to our building by 3:30!”
Still that squint.
“She must have dropped it off while we were wrestling in the other room.”
Finally those eye muscles relax a little.
“Did you hear any buzzing?”
Micah shakes his head.
“Well, I don’t know if fairies buzz. But it was easy enough for her to get in through the broken screen.”
The hole in our screen at the head of his bed laid the matter to rest for now. It’s just the right size for the likes of you. And Micah doesn’t remember poking it himself when he was three.

The whole business made Micah want to write you a note. He was going to ask for another buck to make up for all the headache and doubt he endured that morning. Luckily, he didn’t want to deal with spelling (and give himself another headache). So for now you’re home free. But remember, he’s only lost eight teeth and he’s seven and a half. You better switch up your route or something, or else you’ll soon be doing all this hard work for another nonbeliever.

FYI, we’ll have to get that screen fixed before the mosquitoes start buzzing up to our sixth floor again. Sorry about any heavy lifting of screens you have to do come tooth #9 (unless of course we continue to be as on top of things regarding those screens as we’ve been the last 4 years)…

All best,

An, mom of Micah

Brother’s Day

A week ago Micah and I flew to London. The occasion was the premiere of a choral piece my brother had composed. It was commissioned to be about the four seasons, and my brother wrote it in the year after our mother’s death, which was also the second year of his son’s life. What better to ponder then than the cycles of nature in all their coming and going?

I’m amazed that he was able to produce something of this magnitude at a time when I, her other kid, was deep in therapy and writing emails to our dead Mama. But my brother is a musician. Music is his medium. So I believe that’s how he addressed her and her suffering and death. Out of his grief he created something at once ethereal and lasting – song. To be sung for the first time the night before Mother’s Day.

 

Oh brother,

here I go. Forgive me for putting this out into the blogosphere, but I need all the space and the public-announcement-feel of it. A little card won’t do.

I’m so glad Micah and I came to London. Seeing you, his very own uncle, perform your very own The Seasons may have taught Micah more than all of first grade. And he’s learned a ton in first grade. A ton of hard and important nitty-gritty like reading, writing and number-juggling.

But seeing you play the night of May 10, 2014 showed him how learning a ton of hard nitty-gritty can bring you to cool places: Like a big concert hall with a full orchestra, chorus and jazz trio of British heavy hitters playing your music and a rapt audience of hundreds of people hearing it, and your The Seasons listed alongside Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Orff’s Carmina Burana in the program.

Even more importantly, you showed Micah how learning a ton of hard nitty-gritty may enable you one day to create something great. Something that will earn you cheers and applause and the privilege of having given others pleasure and/or pause and/or reason to move.

All this, I’m hoping, Micah learned osmotically by watching you put on the finishing touches – buy your white bow-tie and figure out how to tie it – and then step onto that stage and perform your work.

You in the concert hall are an image of achievement I will be sure to remind him of. Thank you for making it so visible to a seven-year-old.

Your performance was much more than a “teachable moment,” though.
What it was to me is harder to put in words. That’s why I was quiet on the train ride back. I didn’t know what to say, but in the best possible way. You’d given me all three – pleasure, pause and reason to move – and I was still happily stunned.

When Micah asked me to read the poems you had put to music, I hesitated because I knew how present they would make Mama and our loss in that long emptyish London Overground train. And I was right. Micah picked up on it, too, when he asked about Teasdale’s Snow Song: “Why does it say I should die?”

For Micah our trip was back to Oma, too. The one and only time he’d been to London before had been with her as a four-year-old when he was holding her hand obsessively (and she his) as we all crossed the Millennium Bridge. Retracing some of those steps with you was unexpectedly reassuring: It’s all still there, imbued with our memories of her who was there on another day.

At the end of the concert I found myself thinking: This was powerful enough to reach the outer reaches of the knowable world where Mama might still faintly hear its echo.

She would have been so thrilled to sit in that concert hall last Saturday. One of the reasons she wasn’t ready to die yet being that she knew we, you and I and our spouses and our sons, still had things up our sleeves.
To see you play piano, white bow-tie, tails and all, in Carmina Burana, one of her all-time favorites – that alone would have made her burst with motherly pride.
And then to hear your take on the seasons…
Except you couldn’t have written them as you did, had she been there. They would have been different seasons in her presence.
But so it was I who was asked by the man in the next seat: “You must be a very proud sister!”
“Am I ever, and I can’t even applaud – ” since I was still pointing the camera that gave me away as belonging to you.

I heard in The Seasons a beautiful tribute to our mother, her life and her love. After all, Mama worked with the seasons in her beloved garden year in and year out.
She wanted to see one more spring like Blake’s.
She knew the magic of Dusk in June.
She died feeling the weariness Rossetti evokes in Autumn Song.
As for Snow Song

schneemama

Thank you for bringing some of her out in your music.
That big fat double rainbow we saw on the Overground train on the way to your concert must have been her smiling upon us, our reunion, your art.
Thank you for making it all happen on May 10, so we could quietly be together on Mother’s Day this year.

Love,

Your Schwesterherz