Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April, that complicated month

I wonder what it is about April that breaks my heart? It is certainly the month of poets; heavens, it is even National Poetry Month. It is the month of songs and poems, the cruellest month, the brightest month.

It's the month of the births of two of my children, the month in which my father was born, the month in which each day has the name of a friend on it, and most of those friends dead now.

It's the month in which I actually was in Paris, decades ago, dazzled by the pure light, amazed that even little children spoke French with flawless accents, enchanted by the hotel concierge's huge marmalade cat.

And yes, there were chestnuts in blossom, great candelabras of chestnut flowers. And little captured foxes in wire cages by the Seine, and doubtful gentlemen trying to pick up a much too innocent little blonde.

They thought I was Swedish. For some unknown reason--my professors in college also remarked on this--when I speak French I speak it as my Swedish speaking ancestors would have. Wasn't a bad thing, back in the day, though it dashed the expectations of my gentlemen.

My lovely daughter is now a few years older than I was. Though in some alternate universe that thin young blonde poet is still staring at the Seine, mulling over a line or two, waiting for her April born, dashing young love.

He would have been busy poring over dusty files in a library while I was off weeping over the little foxes.

April is the month of my last time at the edge of suicide as well. I was thinking of this the other day--not suicide, but that phantom anniversary, that little fork in a winding road I didn't know I was on. As I get older I am astonished at how quickly the time flows by. It was surely yesterday I wept and lay down in the long soft April grass and plotted my death so carefully, with such pure exhaustion.

And..I think 16 years have passed now, since I faced such a dark door, and then came through into the purest light. Think of that. 16 years. Entire trees have grown up that I planted by seed then. I have planted such gardens, and watched over dogs, and cats, and my growing children. My dear Gabe, though still fragile, has had a pretty good time these years. I have seen my quirky little girl flower into a spectacular womanhood, and my eldest son become a wonderful force in our community.

What on earth was I thinking? I can only tell you that the logic of suicide is strange and seductive. I wept the other day when I heard the news that Nicolas Hughes, the son Sylvia Plath wrote such moving poems about, had stepped out of this life. But I know the territory.

It was April. The friend I called to, out of my despair, was most fortunately for me a doctor and someone I trusted. And indeed loved. We walked through the river valley where the new flowers were blooming and the April rains were falling. We talked. For me I think it was my one last bid for life, and I didn't really think it would work, but I felt I owed it to my friend and to anyone else who might care to reach out once more.

But my soul was exhausted, my body was aching, I had gone through a winter in which my youngest was near death over and over and over again. When I lay on the long grass I was longing for my heart's mother to just swoop in and take me away. Let me rest. For God's sake, let me rest.

I intended, of course to take my youngest along. I was a good mother.

Of course I tremble when I think how close we were, my boy and I. And life had a lot more to give us and ask us, both of us.

My friend the doctor gave me a remedy. I had no belief it could work, but I took it.

And the sun came out in my heart.

It was April, the season of rains and flowers, and birthday celebrations. I sort of count one of my own birthdays from April onwards, not from my actual date of birth. Sort of "welcome back to life". It's a private celebration--but I'm glad to mark it.
(photo was taken in a long ago April. I'm showing my daughter how elegant it might be to wear four o'clock blossoms on one's nose)

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why I add cocoa to spaghetti sauce

"Hey, girl, whatcha doing there?"

The ponderous, loud voiced woman across the street seemed used to commanding a great deal of respect. I stood up, dusted the dirt from my jeans, and called out "planting bulbs".

"Hey, that's not your place, what do you mean?"

So I crossed over, and explained that I was renting the little white cottage with the rose garden and the leaning plum tree, and that I'd be moving in as soon as the deceased owners belongings were taken south by her sister. But I needed to get the crocus bulbs in now, in October.

That was how I met Lucille, who was my neighbor in the few years I lived in the white cottage, cherishing the roses, planting more flowers, happy to have found so lovely a little shelter. Lucille was a survivor of the San Francisco earthquake. She fancied black lace dresses and flowers with some color in them. She had no patience for cats or boys, and in the time we were neighbors I was always interceding on behalf of both--the little boys who would come to play at my house and bake cookies with me, and the cats, my own and those of my other neighbor, who persisted in entering Lucille's little garden.

She had a dog, a little mutt. "Smart as a whip, too" said Lucille, who was mostly called Chub by her friends. I never dared.

Lucille had been a nurse at the local hospital, and so had been her friend Leona, who lived on the other side, in another tiny cottage. Leona was thin as Lucille was fat, and wore jeans, even though she was, I thought, quite old. Leona was friendly, but Lucille would have me over for tea and chats from time to time.

Strong black tea in a rose patterned cup. Two Oreo cookies. A lot of stories. She told me she'd known Leona since they were girls together in the Gold Country. They'd married at about the same time.

"Weak men" said Lucille, staring off into space. "Chicken farmers".

I sipped my tea.

"We did all the work, all of it, mind you. We was getting sick doing so much work, and the mens were just drinking it up, drinking it all up"

So what happened, I asked. "They died" said Lucille, and sipped her tea. "and then we went to nursing school, and then we came here"

Okay, then. I wish now I had asked more questions, but my own life was engulfing me. And pretty soon Lucille asked "so, when?" staring at my waist. I told her. "Well, it's a crying shame" she said, "but I think you are a good girl anyway".

When my first son was born--and I was obviously single, living by myself in my white cottage--Lucille gave me a lacy, hand knit, yellow blanket for him. It had belonged to her baby, who hadn't lived very long. "Seems strong enough" said she, staring at my infant. "Would have been better to have a girl, but you can't help it, I guess".

And she gave me handgathered blue columbine seeds, and the secret ingredient for her spaghetti sauce, handed down from her grandmother. Lucille always made me smile.

Years after I had moved to another place, beside the river, with my little boy, I'd check on Lucille and Leona. Leona had a stroke, wasn't expected to pull through. Lucille nursed her, day after day...and she lived. The whole town marveled.

It's funny, the people who pass through our lives. I hadn't thought much about Leona and Lucille for years, until the other day I was wandering the cemetery, where now the wild flowers and planted flowers are in full glory, great heads of lilacs, scatters of buttercups, and I came across a small marker I hadn't noticed before. I brushed aside the leaves and read it--yes there, together as they'd been for so many years, well into their 80's, rested my friends, in a single grave. Lucille had lived just a year longer than her dear, and they've rested there about a quarter of a century now.

But I can still hear that rough voice. And I still smile at that loving heart.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

He's 20 now

Gabriel turned 20 yesterday.

It's hard to believe that two decades have passed since that April day, so sundrenched, so lovely, in which not even an entire day's labor brought this child, this being, into my life. He was born at home, in our very ramshackle cabin, barely an hour and a half after my midwife and her helper rushed in.

After the tumultuous events of his older sister's birth in the same cabin--the stuck shoulders, the intricate cord wrap, the near death of mother and child--Gabriel's birth was so easy. He slid into a welcoming world, embraced by my midwife's assistant, who sang a welcoming song to him.

I was busy comforting his big sister, who was just barely 4, another April's child. She'd been wakened from her sleep by the noise of the birth and cried with her newborn brother.

But mostly there were smiles.

Gabe was the easiest of my children; nursing him I would find myself drifting into a world of peace and sweetness that was unlike anything I'd experienced. When my brother came that summer to help build a needed extra room he said "he's your favorite, isn't he?" I denied that (and still would) because finally my mother's "All you children are my favorites" made sense to me. But it was undeniable that Gabriel calmed my soul.

It wasn't until he was 6 or 7 months old that the likelihood Gabe was more unusual than I'd thought, that there was something...very different...struck my dazzled mind. And when I realized, sure, I mourned. I cried all night for my Down Syndrome child, I rocked with fear.

And I won't say it has all been easy. There were the years of pneumonia and the lack of sleep. There were the infinite challenges no one had prepared me for.

There were the moments of pure joy.

So he's 20. And we went to the ocean the day before his birthday, taking the dog, smelling the salt air. I caught a few smiles. We had some pizza. A nice woman complimented his favorite shirt, which has Winnie the Pooh on it.

The winter was hard. The spring has been sweeter, kinder. We see more smiles. Gabe doesn't talk these days, though he sang happy birthday to his sister last week, full on, on key, happily. We work with books and words, we draw, we play games, we walk. He gazes at his father in particular with a funny expression--as if he knows something beyond what we know. And perhaps he does.

The night of his birthday I tucked him in bed with his new Ken doll and his bunnies. He smiled and went to sleep with ease.

The simple moments, the good moments, feed my heart

(my lovely daughter has been scanning her baby journals into her myspace; the photo I just popped into the top of this was taken the day after Gabe's birth; fey sister has been gathering forget me nots in the woods; Gabe is sleeping in my arms)

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