December Changes

I spent a few weeks of December frozen in an image of laser focus on grading and on work. With abandon to the stress,  I unravelled good habits and amped up coffee again along with anything else that would get me through to winter break. In the heart of work dramatics, I was laying in a tussled Saturday morning bed with kids strewn across. I was mentally slotting the day when I got shocking news that drew a line between the days before it.  My best friend’s dad, a family friend of over 20 years who we affectionally called Mr. T in short, had passed away. I sat straight up in bed, the jolt of a different day in front of me, and ran to the guest room to call her.

As soon as I graded the last final exam less than a week later, my own father picked me up straight from my school and drove me to the airport to be with Andrea and her family.  I appreciated that he was with me as I grieved for her loss; neither my dad nor I said anything about the obvious juxtaposition, but it whispered over the entire drive.

Andrea is the first of our friends as adults to lose a parent, and I was so shaken by her news, not only for the man who has lived in my memories of our childhood—of drives from the airport when I’d visit from Chicago, of the way his voice said my name, of the shrimp curry lunches he’d prepare for us, of the mischievous jokes he’d make, of the over 40-year old stories he’d tell us regarding his wife, and of the overarching way he loved my best friend—but also of the way I searched every groove of emotion to imagine how Andrea must be feeling. I searched her mind and grieved for each new moment she experienced after texting us with these concrete words: “My dad died.”

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Everything happened so fast that I wrote sympathy cards propped up on my leg at the gate in Atlanta.  I imagined us putting our familiar arms around each other and sobbing right there on the grounds of the Ohio airport.  I imagined how my friend would be changed over time. I needed so desperately to be there for her, and I envisioned my presence beginning in a certain way. Instead, with the perfect twist of comic relief that life throws in when least expected, I walked off the short airplane ride and  fumbled into an unfamiliar rental car. I hugged Andrea awkwardly from the back seat, and within minutes, we landed at the local Red Lobster at the mall, a favorite of her dad’s and grandma’s, and the place the family would gather that night. I hadn’t been at this chain for decades. I wore her husband, Jarrod’s, coat because I hadn’t had a chance to get one warm enough. Everything was so swiftly unexpected yet familiar.

Later, we walked into her new home. She’d inherited this house from her late grandmother recently, and when we sat together in her living room—a mixture of Andrea’s authentic style, incongruous photo walls and stunning travel tokens, and her grandmother’s life, family portraits with dried flowers and her daughters’ original mid-century beds— I told Andrea I felt like I was on Mars. I bounced from one reality to another, one in which we’d be preparing for a funeral the next day. We sat in this home that raised both Andrea’s mom and aunt, and there was an underlying comfort through it all.

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For the two days I was there, after a heart-wrenching but also beautiful funeral where I saw Andrea at her most raw and most heightened adult self, I still felt like I was on another planet. I sat in the backseat when we drove to the cemetery with glorious, mature, bare trees near a university library. I watched Andrea’s mom as she said in soft surprise, “I walked by this cemetery so many times when I was a student here.” When she was a student in the 70s, how could she know that one day she’d bury the husband she’d meet there on that campus and that one day they would both be buried together here? And yet there was that symmetrical life truth as plain and beautiful as an open road, clear only because of the next 50 years of her life that she’d spent living up to this moment.

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After a long and emotional day, we found ourselves inside a protective snow globe, another levity God blessed us with after such a day.  Snow fell outside and the Christmas tree lit the living room. Andrea found tapes her mom had made over 40 years ago while in courtship with Mr. T. In a house whose walls heard the story of three generations, we gathered around a dusty boombox. We heard the beginning of their romance. We heard Mr. T’s young voice, with an accent aspiring to all the things he’d become later in life. In those personal exchanges in a life that wasn’t mine, I heard an echo of something familiar, maybe faith in my own life and how it can one day round out to something. An understanding of what is truly extracted from a long life with someone, a sentiment about celebrating life and what got us to where we are. In those tapes were the underbelly of life’s hardships all boiled down to an innocent exchange, a ghoncheh—a bloom—of what would be the most important intersection of her life and then consequently of Andrea’s life. There, the parents I’d known all these years became cooler than us, younger than us. Their details hadn’t bloomed yet, but we sat there with all the associations of their life reeled out before us, and it became a story.

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I’m writing this now in a carriage house at a beach we used to come to when the kids were toddlers. I’m in a small den upstairs with an overflowing suitcase opened next to me and the constant sounds of kids bickering all over. I’ve imagined finally writing at the cozy bookstore I love here. Each morning I walked on the beach at sunrise and thought in metaphors, but I could never make real writing happen. Never a perfect moment I could anticipate. This trip is proof of that. This vacation felt like a mistake most moments. The kids no longer like the idea of a cold beach; they don’t buy into sweaters on the beach and bundled up scenic walks. We spent most of the trip exasperated trying to consolidate whims and moods with our whims and moods. Learning about the four of us under a different roof was unsettling. We spent most nights in bed by 8:30 pm weathered by parenting. At some point, I sat outside on a cold bench and wrote in my journal, “I surrender.” Surrendering took two days. The third day was better. Yesterday was the best. We actually had a family moment where we laughed until we cried. We rode bikes and took pictures at a candy store. We even ate dinner at a restaurant and made it through dessert without compensating for each other. But it was a hard won day.

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In the morning light now, I’m on a crumpled bed with damp towels drying in front of me, a rummaged, overflowing suitcase next to me, and two siblings who love quietly and bicker loudly. I’m writing this now because it’s the eve of the new year. Nothing about this setting is inspiring, but I’ve surrendered. It’s the only way I can save my might for other lessons to learn.

When we were outside last night by the restaurant, I felt like I might have a chill, but I couldn’t tell if I was actually cold or if I was feeling what the kids may not have been articulating. Sometimes, this is the hardest and most beautiful thing about being a parent: you’re feeling you while you’re feeling them. The empathy is an exhausting miracle. My kids are changing; our dynamic with them in a lot of ways has to change, too, and with that comes a natural sadness. But that maternal simultaneous feeling I have with them is something that will always be with me in its weight and in its beauty. When I talked to Andrea’s mom after I heard the news, she cried that she has to be strong for Andrea; she doesn’t know how she can do it for herself, but she has to be strong for Andrea. In her mind, her daughter’s pain was even harder to bear than the quiet house she’d return to after she’s back home.IMG_4894

I have to remember the warm faith of that night after Andrea’s dad’s funeral. In his eulogy and in the words of his family members, I understood firmly that most everything worth anything is usually not like how you’d pictured it. His dreams for his life broke many times before he could pull himself back into them, and he insisted on bringing his loved ones with him as he burrowed into newer dreams. But it seems like if you do your life well enough and have some good fortune and investment in good people, that some beautiful poetry of your life can be recited and rounded out and delivered through the mouths of those who have witnessed your most raw and surrendering moments. That these markers of your world will be the echo you need to move on to the next note and the next note, through the changing sounds and the drops you can’t expect, through the small symbolic changes to the big stuff—these are stuff of this life, I see. And this is a life to which I surrender palms up, sometimes feeling at the particles like surprising shell fractures through the strain, sometimes straining to gather the prose through it, and always thinking with it and what it’s snowing down.

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