Summer Morning Sadness

The first time we went to the pool this summer, we could only stay 20 minutes. Mark had math class on the living room computer, and I thought we’d hop in the car right after and make it for most of our slot, but he had a quiz and said it was going to take him a long time, but we said, of course we’ll wait. 

Luke and Diana and I sat on the porch in our bathing suits with sunscreen on, listening to the crows caw and distant lawnmowers rove, and after a while we opened up the pool bag and looked at the hotdogs all wrapped in foil, and then we unwrapped them one by one and the mustard was so tangy, the buns so soft, and then we opened the box of carrots, and then the container of potato chips, and when Mark came out, he looked white and said there was no point, but we piled in the car and got there just in time.

But this morning Mark doesn’t have math, and we got a 2-hour reservation, and the water is sparkling like turquoise gold. The kids throw off their shorts and pull on their goggles and fast-walk to the deep end, and they’re so happy, and Sofia is coming home today, and everything is fine. So why do I feel like sitting on this vinyl lounge chair and crying?

Was it the email that came in this morning declining the invitation to celebrate Luke’s 10th birthday at an amusement park, or the shame I felt for having even asked? Is it because the thing he really wants is a bike and I can’t find a single 24-inch bike in stock to give him?

Maybe it’s because of all the money we lost on the canceled trip to Florida, or that yesterday the mayor was supposed to announce how schools would re-open but then called off the press conference, and Houston and Atlanta and L.A. and Montgomery County have already announced that school will be online this fall.

Or was it that when Virginia said she didn’t mind if her senior year was all virtual because she’s over high school, I saw a black computer screen replace her life and my redemption, my last chance to be the mom she wanted me to be, to trust her, to let her do more when high school was still high school and kids still loitered around the convenience store and rode buses and bought dresses for dances and roamed around looking for parties after football games.

“When are you going to get in?” the kids ask me, the tips of their noses dripping, their eyelashes like star points, and I tell them, “Later, I’m not hot enough yet,” but what I really mean is I’m not happy enough.

Maybe it’s because today is the day we would have flown back from Italy, bleary from too many nights out and visits to cousins and early morning cappuccinos and our suitcases would be jammed with stained sink-washed clothing and plastic bags of shells, brochures, and tiny bottles of Italian shampoo swiped from hotels.

Is it because my children have each other, but I spend my days alone, and even though I am consuming this solitude like one wide-open mouth, I feel that somewhere people are hugging and laughing and locking eyes and I’m here caught in a wind tunnel of air, so much air, fresh non-human air.

At the diving boards, kids line up to do can-openers and back dives, and I feel like a traitor, dry and motionless on my chair. I don’t know what to do with this sadness. It makes me feel soft, rich, babylike. To mourn the loss of things that others have never held.

But how does it help to not let myself cry? I become a steel drum with a welded top, my precious dangerous stuff kept in. And everyone else kept out.

After the whistle blows the long looping whine that means “get out,” lifeguards block the main entrance and masked bathers file out of the side exit by the chain link fence. I too am wet — the kids convinced me to stop wrestling with my sorrow and jump in. Near the snack bar, an enormous stack of pool chairs has been constructed, hundreds of different types and sizes that once made this a place to gather have been fitted together into one giant mass, as if ready to make a bonfire. 

The remaining few set sparsely around the pool. So I couldn’t sit near anyone and pretend that I was happy. Spaced apart so that the air would fill with silence instead of chatter. So that sadness had a way to spill out and join with the rest and finally be washed away.

A Graduation At Home

Sofia’s graduation ceremony happened last night on our TV. The basement carpet received my sister’s pink tablecloth as if it were a concert lawn. Big bowls of guacamole that Virginia had just made were set on it, plus a platter of fried pumpkin flowers her little brothers and sister had picked from the garden that morning. With her laptop logged into Microsoft Teams, Sofia broadcast the ceremony in her just-ironed white gown, with its tape-on collar and pine green sash, WWHS printed down the front in gold lettering.

The opening procession was like turning the pages of a scrapbook, every slide bearing 9 photos of 9 different kids standing in 9 different places, each posing with the “Wilson Grad 2020” yard signs that a band of mothers had sunk into the ground at each graduating senior’s house or apartment building. In the background was the tinny sound of the high school band, orchestra, and choir singing “Fantasy” by Earth Wind & Fire, a concert from another era, a time when people could sing next to each other and parents could sit in the audience.

I look at Sofia’s face under her satin cap, her features still those of a child. The baby photo that we placed in the yearbook shows her bald head and monkey face, curiosity drawing out the only wrinkle in her brow, and her body launching from her grandfather’s arms in front of the Italian country church. How much love we felt for this baby, this wondrous act of nature — the only one of her that will ever exist in all of time.

She is sitting with us now, instead of with her friends, surrounded by her siblings who are dressed in tie-dye t-shirts, Under Armour shorts, and bikini tops, while she is draped in white satin, a mortarboard hat on her head, green tassel hanging down, like a master of ceremony, an angel, a sage from another realm. 

“I know this was not the graduation or senior year you expected,” the mayor says in a pre-recorded greeting in front of a hedge on a sunny day, “but don’t let that take away from how proud you should feel in this moment.”

“Our nation is hungry for change,” she says. “The pandemic set the stage for creating a new normal, and as cities across the country begin to open up, including our own, people don’t want to go back to how things used to be.”

I had bled so much for all that was lost, without knowing that only three months later I would no longer grasp for the way things were. Going back would be like returning to the school where you learned how to read and where you played kiss and catch. Seeing how tiny the chairs and desks are, how spare the playground that you once thought was a wonderland.

It took 45 minutes to announce all of the graduates. Senior portraits rise up and dissolve away. Hundreds of names, hundreds of faces, each one so different, each expression, hairstyle, every shape and color of every face. I wish somehow that I had met them all. I only knew a handful. Now it’s too late.

When Sofia appears, it was like the screen radiated with a thousand watts and the image of her face came toward me, glowing and hovering there, and then it was gone. A new face appears, a new name is pronounced, another college is listed underneath in italics, and the violins keeping playing “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over, as name after name, and face after face is honored.

Soon it will be over. Even though we made two dozen cupcakes with buttercream icing and gold and black sprinkles, even though we lit handfuls of sparkly candles, even though there were homemade gifts and cards and a call from the grandparents, the silence will come. I will get the kids tucked in bed, and my husband will finish all the dishes, and her sister will turn on the TV, and Sofia will be alone on the couch again. I don’t want the silence to swallow her up.

It’s the endings before any beginnings that are the hardest to bear.

The End of High School

On the last day of school, our high school senior was in bed in her room by herself. On Monday she had turned in her last assignment and on Wednesday she Zoomed with her last class.

While her younger siblings were having end-of-year slideshows, scavenger hunts, and superlative awards on Microsoft Teams, the last two days of the school year were spent like so many before, sitting on the living room couch next to her abandoned knitting, watching YouTube videos with headphones on.

The mayor ended the distance learning school year even before the canceled prom, senior awards, and club parties, events whose colorful blocks in our Apple calendar will float by like toy boats.

On the last day of school, I look at her by herself on the couch and feel quicksand in my chest. There were no hugs outside the front doors for her, squeezing each other with your past and your future all at once.

There were no locking eyes with the teachers that believed in you, or last glances at the ones that you didn’t care for, as if to fix them in your scrapbook too. No names being called down the hallway, some names you’ll never hear again, no clearing your locker of gross and strange things, dusty souvenirs from journeys you thought would never end.

There would be no signing of yearbooks with Sharpies, no snickering during auditorium ceremonies, no trying on of caps and gowns in the bathroom. No high fives, no last chances, no watching crushes as they walk away.

A high school career that, instead of exploding, disintegrated. Like a favorite song on the radio suffocated by waves of static as you drill into the long road ahead. Like a candle extinguished, not with a cakeful of others, but little by little in the morning damp.

Trees Falling

When the virus arrived in D.C. 
events were canceled one by one:
senior parent meeting
dinner with friends
school auction
I cut them out of my Apple calendar
as if with a machete in a dark wood
clearing a way out

Then events came along 
that needed no cancellation email:
college tour
spring break trip
grandparents’ farm
We cut them down anyway
because this was our work

Now when I open a new week and see:
swim lesson
orthodontist
Blue and Gold Banquet
I just hit delete and these things
disappear 
without a sound
like trees falling in a forest 
when no one is there to hear

Bless You

We have to wear masks now to go to stores. 
My mom sent us 7 in different sizes
out of fabric I recognize from her curtains and dresses.

We wear them to the Bullfrog Bagel truck 
in the bike shop parking lot.
The bagels are so creamy and chewy,
“hand-rolled and boiled the old-fashioned way.”

Luke sneezes just as we get to the window,
his mask lowered to his chin.
The guy in the truck looks stricken.

People used to think 
sneezing was like expelling your soul.
Hanging in the air,
a “bless you” was needed
to save the devil from snatching it.

Now sneezing is like expelling the devil.  
And it’s the not the sneezer who needs the blessing,
but the witness 
to save him from the devil hanging in the air.

It’s Raining but the Sun is Always Out

Diana, 6, has been writing a lot of letters these days. Here is one she sent to her great aunt and uncle in Phoenix:

Dear Uncle Fill and Corky,

Here it’s raining, but the sun is still out. (Well, the sun is always out but sometimes you just can’t see it.)

A few days ago I learned how to ride a bike with no training wheels!

The tennis court and the park are closed!

What’s going on at your house?

Lili showed us how to make a kite (’cause it’s supposed to be windy on Friday).

Mark turned twelve on April 4th!

Love, Diana

A Quarantine Birthday

My son Mark turned 12 during lockdown.

He got Risk, the board game (deluxe version)
A pencil sketch of a selfie photo 
A handful of books on war and disasters
$6 from his brother to spend on anything
and 3 Xbox discs that will probably join the others
that are too embarrassing to have friends over to play
because everyone else has gun games

There was no party to cancel
when social distancing became a thing
since none had been planned. 
I had suggested a river hike and a campfire —
I could feel him trying to decide
if that was cool enough.

We ordered 3 pizzas from the expensive place
and walked down to pick them up,
savoring the rebel thrill of
touching a germ-covered door
and walking in to see people,
the kitchen still a hive of activity.

Stores were out of sugar
but his sisters found two 1-lb. Domino canisters
and made him yellow cupcakes
with blue buttercream icing and purple sprinkles.

The only thing on his birthday list
that he didn’t get
was a phone.

His sisters didn’t get one ’til they were 14,
and though trends have shifted,
we decide to wait a little longer.

I used to run into other middle school parents
who would tell me,
‘Every 6 months they go without a phone is a victory,’
but since we are almost the only ones over here,
I wonder what we’ve won.

To celebrate, Mark wanted us all to watch a movie together.
We don’t do that much anymore.

A Marvel or Avengers film
would be more his style,
but he was OK with Enchanted. 
It’s rated for 6 years and up, and
what’s a party if all the guests can’t come?

Still Searching

We go to the bike shop to fix Mark’s brakes. The kids don’t wear helmets. I don’t wear a mask. I feel like I’m killing people with my bare face.  

The world is quiet. I kind of like it until I remember why. We buy a baker’s dozen from the bagel truck in the parking lot because they seem needy.

I wish I could enjoy this time more. But swirls of happiness don’t last. The heaviness returns, and I start sighing as if I could push it out.  

I do meditations in the morning. I tell my son Mark it helps, but he says it doesn’t and I wonder if maybe he’s right. 

This morning I could feel that sweet-sad feeling of being me that has always been there, since I was a child, looking out through my eyes.

They say that presence is my soul and that every soul is part of the universal soul. 

I know that things change yet something is always the same. Something massive, something bigger than anything, something that includes us all and makes everything possible.

Last night I dreamed of a guide I once had. She disappeared in the darkness, and I kept looking for her.

Maybe I never find her because I am not meant to be afraid. If I stop searching, maybe I will see that this darkness is OK too.

The cat purrs. The coffee brews. The water in my shower will join the sea one day. I look in the mirror and see the scar. It’s fading, but I know that it will never really go away.

No Training Wheels

Diana learned to ride a bike today. She wavered and swerved on the sidewalk in front of our house, able to pedal a tiny bit more each time before putting her feet on the ground. Her face lit up and she said, “It’s like swimming!” and I remembered how she used to celebrate every doggy-paddle float with a “Look, Mama!”

By lunchtime, she was teetering across the whole block.

Just a couple of days ago, I found her brothers hunched over the blue bike she got for Christmas when she was 4, training wheels and wrenches lying on the ground.

“We’re going to teach Diana how to ride a bike,” Mark, 12, said, as Luke, 9, lowered himself to the ground, trying to wedge the pump nozzle into a tight spot between the spokes.

I felt like I was walking into a storybook after living in a dystopian movie the past few days. The boys held her up, one on either side, and walked beside her as she wobbled along the sidewalk.

“Don’t get discouraged,” said Luke. “You’re better than me when I did it,” and I looked at him to make sure it was he who was talking.

The morning ended with Diana crying and the bike returning home on my shoulders, but on Sunday she got back on again. And today, after doing some math worksheets and watching a first grade teacher video, she wanted to bike.

“Did you see that?” she said over and over, as I sat on the grass in the tree box and watched her pedal 4, 5, 6 times before she lost her balance.

When it got close to noon, I called, “Luke, it’s your turn to make lunch!” He said OK to the supplies I left on the counter and disappeared inside, where Virginia and Sofia were making their own quinoa lunch and finishing a Zoom lesson.

In 30 minutes, sandwiches wrapped in tin foil began to appear on the purple picnic blanket spread on the front circle. “Whoa, Mama, did you see that?” Mark said as he set out glasses of sparkling water. “Diana did almost the whole block!”

I sat down next to the sandwich labeled ‘Mama,’ unwrapped it, and bit into layers of turkey breast and pepperoni, pillowy slices of olive bread, and tangy yellow mustard. “These sandwiches are so good,” I said. “Thank you, Luke.”

“Yeah, so good,” agreed Mark and Diana.

Compared to the meals I would often have when they were in school — rice cakes eaten over the sink — this was a party. Red and yellow tulips stood like dancers around us, and the white blossoms of a dwarf Montmorency cherry twinkled above. The noon-white sun seemed to sterilize me.

“My back is sizzling,” said Mark, getting up. And then all three of them hoisted their bikes up and rode together for the first time, doing circles in the middle of the street, because no one else was around.

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.