Uncoupling

Today I dropped off my 18-year-old daughter Sofia and three friends at a cabin in the woods. They had been planning this trip for months. Which way to divide up the cooking and buy the groceries, how they would get tested twice and quarantine for two weeks before (and some for two weeks after), who could drive and who had a car or a brother with a license, if they would bring bikes or charcoal, jugs of water or a filter, and who would bring the sunscreen, the bug spray, and the fire starter.

They played oldies from 2015 during the drive into the Shenandoah mountains, and bounced in their seats and laughed, the conversation always tripping along with the energy of an adventure beginning.

“I’ve been doing hella driving since I got my learner’s.”

“I had to do a U-turn in front of a sno-cone truck!”

“28 out of 30. I got the one wrong about how to pass a streetcar.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a streetcar.”

When we exited onto a two-lane ribbony country road, it started raining and they checked the weather on their phones, and it came down so hard all the colors washed into white, and we drove through farms clinging to the slopes and under a freight train standing still on a ridge above us, and then we turned onto a one-lane gravel road, then a muddy drive, and when we got to the steepest part, we thought the car wouldn’t make it.

“Dada sad, but a little glad,” my husband had said when he hugged Sofia goodbye before she left the house, and as we backed out, he stood in the street to make sure no one was coming. I had ordered groceries that morning, but when I deleted the frozen fruit Sofia wouldn’t be needing for her morning smoothies, I felt like I was deleting her from my life.

She wouldn’t be coming down in her yoga clothes every morning, hair braided down the back. She wouldn’t be making her weekly dinners with yogurt dill sauces or her roasted summer vegetables. We wouldn’t do driving practice on Tuesday afternoon, and she wouldn’t be there to remind Luke to put his napkin on his lap, or help Mark with his summer math homework, or ask the kids so I don’t have to, “Why aren’t you in quiet time?”

“Is that everything?” I call back to the girls who are now checking out the cabin bedrooms and the valley view from the hot tub deck, as I look into the empty car, and then I remember the firewood in the secret trunk compartment. I set the wood down next to the little wood stove and start trying to figure out how it works, and I realize I have already done too much. 

Sofia gives me a big hug, and she is happier than she has been in a long time, and I walk through the fiberglass door with the beveled glass window and close it, leaving me on the other side, and I get into the car and tell Google Maps to take me home.

She will not be home for dinner tonight, but she will also not be on that living room couch watching YouTube videos — she will be so far from her family that she will feel herself expanding, she will fill a space open and free, not criss-crossed by expectations and demands, underground hopes and invisible canopies. She will feel the chemistry of friendships alchemizing, conversations that go on for 48 hours, figuring out how she likes to do things, how she likes to run a house, set a table, organize her day, follow her heart.

As I wind down the mountain, the sun is coming back out and steam rises off the pavement. I drive past poultry farms and grazing cows and junk yards with piles of tires in front, and the road curves in and up, down and around, like a hammock swinging.

And then through a break in the trees, I see that freight train moving across a high trestle between two peaks, and I start humming that country gospel song I don’t know why I love, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” The train must have stopped in the downpour, but it’s moving now. Black tank cars, yellow boxcars, well cars stacked with shipping containers, graffiti decorating each one, including the word “HOME” spray painted in all caps.

The road winds around gasps of mist hanging beside the mountains, past the Skyline Caverns with its rainbow waterfall and enchanted dragon, and then there it is again churning along the tracks on a ridge, and I want to stay there and hear the steel rolling over steel, watch the cars clicking by one by one over the rails, being pulled along, simply holding what they were given, because somewhere ahead an engineer has his hand on the throttle, watching the curves, the fills, and tunnels.

When I get home, I send pictures of the girls and the cabin to the other moms and I think that I might not hear from my daughter for five days. And this is practice for a real leaving. A leaving she has been preparing for her whole life. An uncoupling. And I will feel the sudden loss of the weight behind me, like a railcar being unhitched from another after a long journey, and not being able to look back to see where the other is headed.

The Edge

Photo by Andrea Windolph on Unsplash

There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive.

Frances Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow

The Kiss Will Stay

When I tuck in my six-year-old daughter tonight, she says she’s grateful for ice cream.  Then she takes my palm and, with her eyes closed tight, kisses it and says, “Even if you wash this hand, the kiss will stay.”

I had been feeling sad that afternoon. And mad at myself for feeling sad. I should be over this. I should be getting better. 

I took a walk by myself through the cold damp, taking the alleys, the secret ways of the neighborhood: broken gates swinging open, moss growing on tree roots, window sills rotting.

Fellow walkers stayed so far away, out of kindness or fear, that our eyes couldn’t meet.

Yesterday my 16-year-old daughter Virginia painted her room frosty pink over the Dalila yellow she had chosen when she was 10, and placed purses and sexy clothes on the shelves which used to hold Keira Cass novels and encyclopedias of Greek mythology. 

I find the turquoise leather Holy Bible that my aunt gave her and its onion-skin pages remind me of my grandmother, who would underline passages with a ballpoint pen and a ruler, passages that I didn’t understand but that seemed mysterious and important. 

I find the poem “A Time for Everything” in Ecclesiastes on page 841. It says that everything is supposed to be this way: there is a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to be born and a time to die.

In my bedroom after my walk, I can hear Virginia chopping broccoli downstairs, playing Whitesnake songs I listened to when I was young and new Dope Boy ones I don’t understand. My children are becoming adults. I am getting older too.

I thought this life was going to be safe. I have not been a refugee, a revolutionary, a migrant. A minority, a wounded soldier, or a widow. I have been spared the trials of being hungry, poor, or homeless. It has been a stable existence, rocked only by dramas of my own creation.

But all our scientific advances and smart phones and futures trading were not enough to save us from this plague.

When I tuck my 9-year-old son Luke into bed, I sing him “Amazing Grace,” as I have done since he was an infant with a silky-border blanket. I touch his slight, smooth arms and know they will be bigger than mine one day. He doesn’t think his lullaby is as special as the one I sing to his sister, “You are My Sunshine.” What is a wretch, he asks, and how can you see if you were blind? 

But this song gets to the heart, the opposites bundled up inextricably into this one big life. Yet I keep insisting on strength without getting hurt, rest without feeling exhausted, understanding without confusion, courage without fear. Where tyranny was missing, I have created my own oppression of easy smiles, bouncy optimism, and relentless self-improvement.

I lie in my bed after the children are asleep, the older ones quiet on their screens. The cat who disrupts my slumber too early every morning rests his purring face into the curve of my hand.

The kiss is what stays. I feel it as she sleeps and I am still. It’s something strong yet untouchable, like love. I want to hang onto the sunshine, push away the storms. But there’s something that infuses and encircles it all. And the only way to hold onto it is to somehow let go.

Breaking Me Open

On a lined page, Diana, 6, has written E is for Eating, and “Did you know that if you don’t eat anything for a long time, you can die!” 

I sit down next to her at the kitchen table during our second week of distance learning. Her brother Luke, 9, is on his dad’s laptop on the couch across the room, and Mark, 11, is on the living room desktop trying to find his live English class on Microsoft Teams.

I open my computer, hoping to be able to look over emails, and say to Diana, “You’re almost done with E. All you have to do is write two more facts,” trying to see if a hands-off approach will work today.

Some days that tight feeling in my chest arises after repeated technical glitches and sibling conflicts, but today I seem to have woken up with it. I feel like an enforcer, not a teacher — a fire tamer, a battle breaker or as Luke recently called me, a warden.  

Diana writes a sentence so faint it’s illegible. She scribbles. Then erases a spot over and over so hard she seems to want the paper to rip.

“Mama!,” calls Mark. “I don’t know how to do this!” The middle school is introducing another platform — Canvas Instructure — and I gird myself for another login struggle, another digital terrain to get lost in, another place for my son to worry that he is falling behind.

When I sigh and groan today, Diana is not going to lean her head on me and give me a side hug, looking at me with eyes that say, I’m sorry you’re upset. She is not going to draw me a rainbow, like the ones she used to bring home from school every day, and write “I love you!” on it as she always did.

“So what’s another thing you know to be true about eating?” I return to asking her, then check on Luke with his zombie eyes who says he is doing research for a persuasive essay on whether video games are good for kids or not.

“When you eat, you have to go to the bathroom,” she says in a voice that is not hers, staring at Luke across the room.

“Diana, don’t do your homework if you don’t want to take it seriously,” I say.

Earlier this morning a man had walked up to our door with a big box. It was the remaining two basketballs: he could have been carrying a trophy of gold. Little pleasures, like Rubik’s cubes, picnics, and books of mazes from grandma, have made bright splashes on our days. 

“Let’s go play with the new basketballs,” I say. It’s 11am, and Mark is swerving around like a rubber band being stretched, Luke is as glazed as a doughnut, and Diana is sulking in bed reading Captain Underpants.

On the way to the park, sunshine pours over us like a rinsing cleanse. But it doesn’t touch the dread inside. I cannot escape the shadow of the tidal wave that is about to exact its fury on us, pulling everything up into it as it prepares to pound it all down.

There is a single boy at the court with his nanny, hitting a ball with a racket. “Give him some space!” I keep having to tell the kids, as if he were an alien.

After ten minutes, Diana comes crying to me saying that Mark scratched her. Mark yells back that she did something to him.

“Do you want to go see the dogs in the dog park?” I ask, pulling her toward me but feeling as warm as a statue. She says no, even though she loves animals, but I slow down anyway at the fence to see the only dog left. His smiling face, the joy he gets from a simple game of fetch, blurs my eyes with tears. I push them back so Diana won’t notice.

“I wish I could play what that boy is playing,” she says, looking back to the only other people here.

“We can bring a tennis racket next time,” I say, as if what she needed were simply a matter of equipment.

Manage your anxiety, they say. Create a calm setting. Don’t talk about disturbing news stories. Shield them from the worst — assure them that parents have a plan. I feel like I am a steel locker walking around pretending to be a woman.  

It’s almost noon, so I say to the boys on the basketball court, “C’mon, guys. Let’s go.” We have become buds. The four of us doing more than we ever have together.  Depending on me and each other for everything. “Diana and I have to make lunch,” I say. 

“You mean, you’re going to make lunch?” Luke says, still mad about last week, when I didn’t ask Diana to spread cream cheese on bagels because we had run out of time and she was busy setting the table.

“Did you make lunches when you were 6?” I snap. Diana makes some kind of face at him, and he tosses his basketball at her, and she falls to the ground, holding her leg and crying, as if it’s been broken. But it’s not her leg that’s broken.

I tell the boys to go ahead. After a while Diana begins to move her feet inch by inch. Eventually she starts to walk at a more normal pace, and I keep a slow rhythm, trying to metabolize the heaviness inside, and focusing on little things along the way —  the purple buds sprouting along the chalky plum tree branches, the abandoned ride-on toys in a yard, the glint of mica bits in sand like tiny diamonds in the sun.

Diana keeps up but stays about 6 feet behind.  “You don’t love me because you don’t laugh when I say something funny in my homework,” she says.

“I didn’t laugh because your homework was not the right place to be silly,” I try to explain.

“Well, people do have to go to the bathroom when they eat, and pee when they drink. You don’t know anything. You just look at trees and do that little smile.” On a stoop in a row of townhouses, a father stands over his toddler but doesn’t make eye contact with us when we pass.

“You don’t even do anything when Luke is mean to me. Why did you even make him go alive?  He’s always so mean,” Diana says.

“I try to be fair, but it’s just not always clear what has happened,” I say.

“Don’t play with my ball,” she says. I silently obey, propping it under my upper arm and then keep walking.

“You don’t love me, so I don’t love you. I don’t even like you.” In the distance, a lawnmower rumbles and a girl kicks a ball against a garage door in an alley.

“You’re not even good at basketball. You’re not good at soccer either,” she says. “I didn’t do my homework today. I didn’t do my homework for three days. Ha, ha. I’m not even going to make lunch when we get home,” she says, as we begin to pass by the houses where we know people’s names and could knock on their door if we needed a safe place.

“And I’m not going to set the table.” Our house, big and soft, is only a half block away. It looks like a fortress and yet so vulnerable.

I swing open the door — the air is steamy and filled with smells of basil and toasted almonds and salty starch. Virginia, 16, is at the stove, Kanye West is blasting, and she says, “Is it OK if I switch with someone and make lunch today?” She looks like an angel with her flowing blond hair and wooden spoon in her hand like a wand. “Because I found a recipe that uses all the stuff that we have.”

Diana carefully takes off her coat and hangs it on her hook, takes off her shoes and places them by the radiator, and then climbs the stairs to her room.

I don’t know where to go, so I sit in a corner of the empty living room. The last song ends and “No Mistakes” comes on. Bright major chords pump the house with yellow notes. “Make no mistake, girl, I still love you,” a choir sings over and over, and I know it’s the complex gospel of a man telling his wife and the mother of their children that nothing has changed even though so much has. Tears escape and stream down my face. I see our family together in the car last summer — my husband, all of our children, on a road trip — and Virginia is playing this song. We were so happy — the memory bathed in an amber light — and now, everything is so mixed up and messed up.

“Diana, time to set the table!” Virginia calls up the stairs. “Now — I’m serving!” I wipe my face dry and keep writing in my notebook. I can see Diana through the french doors bringing glasses to the table, remembering to give people water instead of milk to save on grocery trips.  

“Yay, I’m so excited to eat!” she says while folding the flowered cloth napkins that Sofia and Virginia sewed for me.

When she is done, she comes toward me, and climbs gingerly on the couch without saying anything, and then lifts her eyes to mine. For a moment, she is me, the contrite mother, and I am her, the wounded child.

“Your eyes are watery,” she says.

I know there is love in here somewhere, but we can’t seem to get to it. Trying so hard to hold things up as the world crumbles around us.

Grief, my yoga teacher tells a woman who has just lost someone, is the greatest form of love. It carves a deeper hole in our heart so we can hold more love.

I’m not familiar with grief. And now every day, I am staring it in the face, wrestling with it, trying to stop it from breaking me open.

Hidden Grief

All of Western culture is suffering from very profound grief. We are not comfortable with impermanence. We try to fix things in time and space, but because impermanence characterizes our lives in a very fundamental way, we are in a constant state of loss.

— Joan Halifax, American Zen Buddhist teacher