Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

The 25 year mark

I have a pair of jeans in my closet from the mid-90s. Heavily patched, and in the faded wash that was popular then, they weren’t always mine. They were handed down to me by my boyfriend when he outgrew them. I thought of myself as an adult at the time, fifteen years old or so, and he the same age, but the fact that he was still getting taller argues that we were both, literally, not full grown.

I kept journals then, and still do, a habit I started when I was seven and have mostly maintained since then. These journals are silent on exactly when I met Christophe, twenty-five years ago when we were in high school, aged fourteen. That fall, I didn’t know a soul at the prep school I had been admitted to on scholarship with very little understanding of what a prep school was. My journals indicate a frenetic leaping from crush to crush, some on teachers, some on students, some appearing to last only a day or two, though I did not date any of the entries, so it’s difficult to know. I don’t remember meeting Christophe, and the event was not remarkable enough to make it into the journal. Some days or weeks later, he appears, in a passage reporting, “I stayed overnight at school and we went to see Jurassic Park. I have decided to like Christophe. He’s nicer than [name redacted].” My reasons for liking him? “1. Extremely intelligent, 2. Devout Democrat, 3. He even likes Star Trek.” Entry after entry exists in a timeless agony of wondering if he likes me, wishing he would like me, deciding I don’t like him after all, declaring that I love him. Then, we become again anchored in chronology at the line, “I have never liked any one person for this long before; it’s been a week!” It ended up being longer than a week. The elder of the two children we now have together is far closer to fourteen years old than we are. Listening to that child talk about his interests and plans, I sometimes feel at a far remove, observing him from the outside with his mix of adolescent fanaticism and grown up plans, the obsessive, shifting fixations of childhood, but the creeping in of adult understandings of limitations—of time, of money.


By early in spring semester of our first year in high school, Christophe and I were going out, boyfriend/girlfriend. What the adults at the time called “going steady,” which confused our generation because we had no model of casually dating from which going steady would be an intensification. We had three categories of people: just-friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, and hook ups. They were mutually exclusive, and I spent pages fretting over whether I might be relegated to the just-friends land of no return. I can read my journal only in short stints because, through the delightful hilarity of listening to my young self, the cringes make little stabs at my heart and they accumulate. I have no doubt my journal is very like the journal of any other smart, introverted fourteen-year-old girl writing mostly about her boyfriend, occasionally about math class. I’d thought I might find the early signs of the unusual profundity of our connection, indicators of how different it was from everyone else’s comparative paucity of emotion, but in fact, everyone who falls in love believes she’s the first, perhaps the only, person on Earth to do it. It wasn’t in its origins that our story was any different, or in the special chemistry in our brains, or in the fervor of our pledges. It was in what happened after. How we stayed.

In vet school, we learned a lot about how scientists had a learned a lot from knockout models of mice. I have a drawing from a class where I sketched a sexy mouse Jessica Rabbit style in a slinky dress with a high leg slit and the words “knockout mouse model?” above it. I passed my notebook to the friend beside me, and she wrote back, “Way out of my league. It’s like she doesn’t even see me.” The back and forth went on for pages. I took very little by way of actual notes in vet school, but I did glean that the real meaning of a knockout model is a clever one: find a region of DNA you think might be related to some function, remove or disable that piece of DNA, and see what changes about the mouse in its absence. If the heart malfunctions, then the missing piece had something to do with heart function. It’s a crude tool in a way, since the effects of each gene are entwined with so many others, augmenting, or downgrading, calibrating, interfering, catalyzing. When I tell people I am married to the boyfriend I had at fourteen, I realize I have told myself a story of our unusual maturity and advanced emotional capacity at the time, and we had those, but if I want to claim those parts of myself, then I have to claim the whole. I was probably the more typical of our age, between the two of us. Christophe’s maturity was preternatural, a level of calm and reason that only now is beginning to seem age appropriate, nearing forty. Lacking the ability to articulate my insecurities and genuine bewilderment that he loved me, I repeatedly pretended I was breaking up with him just to watch his reaction. I was running him as a knockout mouse model, able to understand the effects of my attention and affection only by rescinding it and seeing what happened after. I used to do something like it to my parents, once hiding for a long period at night and listening to them get increasingly agitated over my absence. It was self-absorbed, cruel, and typically childish. I would outgrow it eventually, and Christophe was still there.



I tried on the jeans the other day. They were always much too big for me, baggy, and with sedimentary patch layers of calico in the areas of heavy wear at the seat and the knees. I keep them at the back of the same closet where my old journals are stacked. They are unwearable for both their size and their style, impractical as an item of clothing, but with a meaning greater than the sum of their parts.

We were on a long trip this summer, listening to music for hours. There was a song that compared the singer’s lover to a firefly. I thought it was beautiful, but something about it bothered me, and sat in the back of my head for days. I thought about fireflies that, at that time of year, were still streaking through our yard at night. They use the light to attract mates, but also to obscure. They will blink their Morse code for a meter or two, and then go dark, sometimes suddenly changing direction at the same time so predators will keep chasing in a straight line and lose them. They balance all the time the need to catch the attention of a mate with the need to evade death, and, above all, their season is brief.

In my old journal, I record a question a friend asked me about Christophe—bemused that I reported not tiring of him even when all we did was “talk for six hours straight.” I, in turn, was bemused that she found it strange. Six hours easy. I remain susceptible to extended conversations: long, deep-diving ones that turn, and double back, and grow convoluted and threaded through with ideas on ideas. There have been others besides Christophe who have engaged my head this way, until, hours having passed unnoticed as the talk turned and burrowed and leaped subjects, I have recognized that feeling again, a synesthesia that makes me swear the lights in the room just pulsed brighter, and then know it’s the incandescent current in my own mind livening to another.

There are always people who ask the questions out loud, and the politer ones who ask it only in their heads: “Then, you two, you were each other’s first? And only? This whole time?” Never a mis-step, they mean, romantically, or sexually, never a vague period where we were sort of broken up and other people stepped into the breach of murkiness and lack of definition? There never was, but neither was there the presumption of step and mis-step, of toeing the line, of guarding against infidelity.

The meditation practice I follow ends with this convention: after watching the mind for a period, and not trying to constrain or control thought, but nonetheless noting when it wanders, we are finally invited to abandon all focus on the breath or any other work of meditation, and instead let the mind be free to do whatever and go wherever it wants. At those moments, perversely it seemed for a while, my mind would go utterly blank. It could not think of a thing to think. It was like gray static, emptied of all the anxieties, and lists, and frettings that had plagued it a moment before. The mind that had been straying, straining at its harness so hard that my neck muscles were tensed trying to keep it in the room, now slumped against the wall. Free to do whatever it wanted, it ceased to want anything at all. The questions people pose, about twenty-five years of what they suppose is a clench-jawed, white-knuckled monogamy, have at their core a model of fear, of scarcity, of loss. It isn’t that there have not been other desires, other longings, that there have not been dreams some nights of other people that tinge the whole day after that color, that there has not been melancholy, sometimes. But the acts I did not perform, the bodies I did not touch, the minds I could not fully know, were constrained by circumstance, imprudence, a risk of harm to others I would not assume. They were never constrained by fear, or threat of loss. And when there is nothing to strain against, you find the line goes slack, the mind slips the hook and goes free.

There have been some who have stitched a bright thread in the darkness, whose paths are luminous and beautiful, but whose seasons are brief. When I come home at the end of the day, a weary introvert doing work that requires my angled intellect to contact and be worn and abraded by the world, he patches the threadbare places again and again. He is not only his intelligence, his politics, or his love of Star Trek, as it turns out. He is more than any exhaustive list of virtues, though I could make one. He is no firefly, nor only a tailor making patient repairs. He is not to me what I thought he would be when we were fourteen, though the outline was already there, sketched with our simple implements in the space between us. What he has been, for decades now, is my gravity, my courage, and my freedom.


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On Love and Colonoscopy

(Note: After a long hiatus during which I pondered trying to get my writing published, and thus, hoarded it, (since posting it here would make it largely unpublishable in conventional outlets), I gave up. I might as well have what people are interested in my writing just read it. So, welcome back, whoever you are, or just welcome.  -SC)

marcelo-leal-525139-unsplashTen days before Christmas, six before our 15thanniversary, my husband had a colonoscopy. Family history had brought him there, more than a decade before the average person needs to undergo the procedure, and we were, by a long shot, the youngest people in the outpatient waiting room. I had read the preparatory documentation decreeing that, if there were no responsible person to wheel him out and drive him home, groggy and half drugged, his procedure would be canceled. I would need to declare myself at the outset and be there at the end to receive him. He was property to be released to me. There was no provision for unclaimed baggage.

In the week or so leading up to the day, as the phases of his preparation progressed (beige bland diet, clear liquids) I thought about carting him out in a wheelchair. They said that would probably be necessary and I did not like it. In my whole life, I’ve only ever been hospitalized for childbirth, and he never at all since I’ve known him. His doctor says that, since he is a male who survived his twenties without dying of stupidity or risk-taking, he really doesn’t even need checkups until his heart attack risk climbs when he hits his 50s. Our bodies are healthy, fit, do what we ask them to without complaint. I know this will not be so forever, but I only know it intellectually. I don’t really know it in ligament and muscle. We take our physical abilities for granted, and our intellectual ones, the skills by which we make our livings, broaden with time and maturity. The thought that they may also decline and be lost one day fills me with black dread when I think of it. Most of the time though, I coast along in a disbelieving state of gratitude for the life I have, the two people I made, the one I married. Once in a while, I wonder if this coasting is the same one the coyote felt every time he careened off the cliff, but didn’t realize it right away. The note about the wheelchair was a glimpse down at the thin air below us.

When we got married, the shortest day of the year, the longest night, I had put little thought into what I would wear, and much into what would be read at the wedding. We chose Robert Frost’s The Master Speedand have its final stanza framed in our bedroom with drawings I did of two wrens, two oak leaves, two hiking boots. Every morning I look at it, and sometimes its cadence bounds through my head too, for no particular reason. It accompanies me all the time.

Two such as you with such a master speed

Cannot be parted nor be swept away

From one another once you are agreed

That life is only life forevermore

Together wing to wing and oar to oar.


One night, in a rare moment of being fully still, I lay in bed looking at a picture hanging on my wall. It’s Japanese, I think, and I know next to nothing about art, so I don’t know what medium it is—some kind of paint, or some kind of woodblock print. It’s of two ducks in flight against a blue sky—a winter type sky like now, when the sun comes up only high enough to scrape the sides of the bowl of the day and then go down again. The perspective of the picture flattens the ducks, so the wing of the one in the foreground seems to lay across the neck of the one flying behind. They look like they are interfering with each other. Not like “wing to wing” I thought. And then, “oar to oar,” I thought, and I realized I had, all these years, missed the point. When I chose that poem, when I was twenty one, straight off a Bachelor’s degree in English, pleased with my literariness, I was smitten by its being addressed to us. “Two such as you,” it said, and I answered, “Yes, tell us more about us. Tell us how we’re joining together, tell us about two making one, tell us about union, tell us how there’s no space between us at all, we’re so well matched.” The poem flattered my idea of love, and marriage, it told of defying the laws of thermodynamics even, of climbing, like metaphysical salmon, “back up a stream of radiance to the sky/ and back through history up the stream of time.” I heard, “two such as you,” and “together” and I preened and strutted and listened not very well to the last bit that defined it all. Lying in bed, “oar to oar,” I thought, and the obviousness of the image now slapped me broadside. I had, I realized, retained only a vague idea of what that phrase meant. Blame my years of prep school and my awe of the tall, lanky sorts who rowed crew for my image of the oars in series, one behind the next, each person pulling in synchrony with the rest of the eight, or however many those sleek, expensive boats carry. How had I failed to notice that that wasn’t right at all? I was too taken with the idea of marriage as a fusion, of a joining, of two-become-one that I had not noticed that the poem actually set us away from each other, that we were, quite literally, not in the same boat. And if we each row our own boats, then there has to be more than two oars-lengths between us even, there has to be space between the oar tips too, to allow each of us free movement, to keep the eddying turbulence from pulling each others’ blades underwater, to stay the course.

I thought about the impending procedure, and the wheelchair, and the space opening up between us. However transiently, he was going into the country of the sick, the sedated, the passive, the patient. I was to remain in the waiting room in the land of the able bodied, alert, free-moving, and would receive him when the ferryman anesthesiologist brought him back from his dim, Versed dream. It was not the idea of the wheelchair that bothered me. It was the oars. If we were to keep rowing up the stream with our master speed, we’d need both sets of hands on our own oars. We’d need to not interfere with each other’s progress, and we could neither of us carry the other one. I remembered that from years before, when I’d been in labor with each of our children. He and I were in the room together, he was beside me, doing anything I asked, tiring himself out pressing on the sides of my hips for hours, when I told him I felt like my pelvis was coming apart. But after twenty, thirty hours of it all, he would be falling asleep in the chair by the window while I labored and rode contraction after contraction. I wondered how he could drift off to sleep in those conditions. But those conditions were entirely my own. My own internal geography, altering landscape, changeable weather, and tectonic shift. He could not know what it felt like in my body. We were not in the same boat.

Now, eight years after our second son’s birth, in a different hospital, in a different city, I waited in a pre-procedure room with him until it was time for them to take him away. He’d had an IV dose of Benadryl and was mostly sleeping, and rousing periodically to tell me it was fine if I left. He was just sleeping, after all. A nurse documented any jewelry he was wearing: only his wedding ring. Then they came for him and wheeled his stretcher away and I went the other way to go wait. As I walked down the hallway, I looked left to see a set of doors open to a parallel hallway. A patient was being pushed along, supine, sleepy, toward the procedure room, and after a moment, I startled and saw it was him. They were going the same speed I was, down the parallel hallway, the nurses, also able-bodied, striding, my gait matching theirs. But they were bearing him away and they disappeared past the doorway as I went to read and watch people waiting.

Why were we married on the solstice? People ask me that, or, if we were looking for celestial or solar significance, why not the summer solstice, the longest day? Or an equinox, the balance points of the year? The truth is, it was an accident that it fell on a solstice day. We just wanted a winter wedding, we liked December for it, and the church would already be decorated for Christmas, saving us money on flowers. But now that I think about it, it suits. The pagans all knew about this time of the year, the long descent into darkness, the hold-your-breath-and-hope-the-sun-comes-back rituals, the stop, and the turning point when the pendulum starts its swing back. The unmoving sun shining the same whether we turn our faces toward it or away, and we are finished turning away. Though the winter will get colder, it will get no darker.

When his exam was all over, and he’d been given a mostly clean bill of health but for a follow up in six months just to be sure, they summoned me, calling out for “The Courchesne Family” and I went to claim him. It turned out he didn’t need a wheelchair after all. He was fairly steady, though slower than usual, with a little tendency to drift left as he walked. I walked alongside him, watchful, bracing a little, gauging the right distance to keep, the right balance, the right speed.  And then I brought us home.



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One way radio

IMG_7091In July, Christophe and the boys and I spent an overnight at the Cutler Preserved Lands in Way Downeast Maine. It was a bit more than a four mile hike in on the inland trail, through spruce and spongy peak, across nearly continuous bog bridges until we came out onto Fairy Head where three campsites edge on the rock slabs and cliffs down to the ocean. We chose the farthest south of the three, it being closest to the tannin-steeped pool that would be our water source. We made camp, and spent the evening climbing, reading, or, in the boys’ case, standing at the edge of the surf in their underwear yelling at the waves to come hit them, a prospect that grew ever less likely as the tide was going out, and the tides in that part of the world are notoriously extreme. Eating our supper out of cups on the rock verge, we could look across to the tidy, red-roofed Little River lighthouse and all the corrugated coast jutting out and then receding. South of the light, there was Western Head, Great Head, and then around Dennison Point into Little Machias Bay. Protruding up above the land all that way off were three or four visible upthrust structures, thin, but vastly higher than anything else around them. They looked almost like the masts of a tall ship at anchor in the Bay, but sizing them up against the cliffs nearby, themselves a hundred feet above the water, these slender spikes had to be at least five times that. We finished our supper, washed up, and as the sun faded, retreated to the tents.

IMG_7113By the water, the mosquitos hadn’t been too bothersome. At our campsite, just in from the woods’ edge, they abruptly descended. They seethed, they teemed, they swarmed in a plague, settling on the least flash of exposed skin. Even the memory of skin attracted them; I set down a mug and came back to it a moment later to find it studded with mosquitos prodding its impervious surface. Diving into the tent, we zipped shut the door and listened to the high whine as they arrayed themselves in phalanxes on all the outer tent walls. For twenty minutes or so, we slapped at the ones that had followed us in, and then read, and then readied for sleep. Until I admitted to myself that I needed to pee. The usual mental dance had gone on, “it’s just my position. I’m imagining it. It’s psychological. If I can just go to sleep and stop thinking about it, I’ll be fine.” At least, I was forced to exit the tent, drop my pants, and crouch in the bushes. The mosquitos were so thick upon my rump that, slapping at them, I looked at my hand to see it fully blanketed in dead insects. Where those dead had been taken away, endless reinforcements took their places. I hauled up my pants and tried to dart back through the tent door. Even a momentary opening of the flap inhaled great gusts of them and for the next several hours, I heard intermittent silence and then slapping as Christophe nodded off between bites. I watched the stars and lightning bugs, doubly obscured by the tent mesh and the scrim of insects wing to wing and tail to tail. Eventually, I did sleep, and in the morning, the mosquitos, though not gone altogether, had dissipated some.

IMG_7117We packed up and walked the five miles back out, seeing almost no one until we were fairly close to the trailhead. Few people, it seems, venture all the way down to Fairy Head. We stopped on cobble beaches tucked between gray cliffs, and then climbed back out again and along trails that came within a foot of the sheer cliff edge. Spruce skeletons stood where they’d died, among their still living brethren. A moth so still and unperturbed by our presence we thought it was dead at first, livened up and hauled its furred legs over our hands. Simon whined, and Malcolm was sullen. We finished our snacks. Far down on the water, it was hard to tell what was eiders or cormorants in the water, and what just nodding lobster buoys in the waves. Simon had to be carried. Our pace quickened once we turned from the sea onto the trail back into the woods and out. Sweat-sodden, stinking and hungry, we drove south toward Machias. As soon as Christophe could get a signal, he looked up the tall metal masts we’d seen from Fairy Head. They were, he read to me, part of a vast array of radio antennae broadcasting very low frequencies for the U.S. Navy submarine fleet all over the Atlantic. The tallest of the towers are nearly one thousand feet high. The setup encompasses an entire peninsula in Cutler, the ground beneath the towers flat and bare.

I thought about the submarines out there, plying the dark waters. I know those things are not small, not a single man, or maybe two, crouching inside a metal bubble the way I imagined them I was a kid. I grew up near enough the Portsmouth Naval shipyard to see their arched backs above the waterline. Once, standing at Odiorne Point, I watched as one sailed out to sea, though “sailed” never seemed so inapt. A friend and I stared out at it, watching the malign beast slip slowly under. Only as the tip of the conning tower disappeared did we seem to shake ourselves awake. My friend said, “I wish I’d gotten a video of that.”  I hadn’t thought of it either, and we both stared at where the big metal dorsal fin had disappeared. The sailboats coursed into the harbor, and the flare-bowed lobster boats trailed their kites of gulls behind. No one who hadn’t been looking would know what was under there. These big nuclear subs hold more than a hundred men, some of them, so it’s not want of human company that would trouble the submariner. Quite the opposite, being sealed up in a drum with the same few dozen people like that. It’s not so much claustrophobia either, but almost the opposite–the knowledge of the mass, and volume, and extent of the oceans piled above, behind, and to all sides.

The radio antennae in Cutler are only capable of sending one-way, encrypted text messages, Christophe read to me from Wikipedia as we rode along the coast. I know the subs must have other ways to communicate, at least these days, but I could not shake the thought of that, of one way radio messages cast out over the North Atlantic to hold the fleet together with the slimmest strands. Messages received, but none sent back. A thousand foot high flinger of messages in bottles.

My mood improved a bit after a roadside lunch to raise my blood sugar, and we drove on down to the crowds at Acadia to spend one night there before the final leg home. Minor irritations, and some more substantial ones left me breathless with screeching at times, but Christophe was unflappable as ever, though he winced and turned down the volume on a Dylan song on the radio when a long, held harmonica note whined, it seemed to me, in the same key the mosquitos had during his long night of the soul in Cutler. I drove, and he occasionally read me a few lines from some article or other. I pointed out roadside oddities. We made it home and I unpacked and put our things away. A few days later, I picked up the book I’d been reading up there, and saw what I had not been able to in my headlamp’s light. Between several pages, I found the smeared bodies of mosquitos, and blotches of my blood, and his.

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Double vanity

Every winter for the past few years, my aging car’s tire pressure sensor light has switched on as the temperature drops. Sometimes it stays on for days, sometimes just until I get to highway speed. When I check the tires, the pressure is always normal or very nearly so. Thus, for the cold months, I ignore the glowing exclamation point on my dashboard. I know it’s nothing serious.

This month will mark twenty years that I’ve been with my husband. We’ve been married for only twelve of them, as before that we were in college and high school. Teenagers, arguably children when we started out. I teach for work now, and at the end of each semester, there is a minor feeling of bereavement. The doldrums set in for a few days as I cast about for a sense of purpose without my daily performances in front of a class. I am not good at relaxing, and so I become irritable during this time. In the days leading up to Christmas, Christophe and I went off for a few days without the children. While it is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, constant presence breeds a seething, murderous irritation. By the third day, and with an additional week or so of holiday family time bearing down on me, my shoulders were up by my ears and I was critiquing the way he breathes, eats chips, folds the newspaper, and allows his beard to be so wiry. In short, I was insane.

When a sensor light comes on in the dashboard, or some small rattle begins to sound from somewhere underneath the car (or is it in the wheel somewhere?), the brain sounds alarm cries. The lights are designed to elicit this, and when you have an anxious sort of mind like mine, every odd sound or light might presage the very wheels flying off the vehicle, or flames bursting from under the hood. At the least, some substantial expense must be coming. The tire pressure sensor gives the lie to those fears. It is a faulty indicator, giving false information about the danger ahead.

Sometimes in the evening, we like to watch dumb real estate shows like House Hunters. “Double vanities!” the people demand. I am flabbergasted at this idea. That a person would wish to be in the bathroom at the same time as her partner, performing their ministrations, picking at their faces or tweezing hairs from the remoter provinces, is beyond my comprehension. There are so few mysteries left to us, after many years elapse, why would we wish to destroy the ones that are left?

Too much togetherness breeds trouble. As we packed to leave the bed and breakfast at the end of our trip, Christophe checked all the drawers in a dresser he’d not even used. This is a habit of his, and is of the sort that one finds endearing in the early years–a quirk that shows we know them. Those very same quirks are the ones that cause us to fantasize about closing the dresser drawer repeatedly on our beloved’s head in later years.

828f4e30-b62a-4808-8a91-6a922686dd01When spring comes, the tire pressure light will go off again for a six month hiatus. It’s hard to imagine, driving past the ice rimmed river, that there is ever a time when the heat drives us to leap into those waters. It’s impossible to remember heat when one is cold, or the ordinary intensity of summer green on trees when nothing remains in winter but birch trunks against the olive drab pines. It’s hard to summon the memory of the good when it’s bad, and hard to do the opposite. But being married means I have a second memory. He knows I always come out of this funk. When I was griping at him the other day for the particular way he was sitting in a chair, he jabbed at his phone a moment and held it up to play the first notes of Bonnie Raitt singing “I can’t make you love me…” Fortunately, he takes me much less seriously than I take myself.

It’s hard to remember long hours of daylight, or green, or being warm. At night, at this time of year, it takes almost an hour for the sheets to warm up fully when we go to bed. I don’t generally make the bed, but sometimes it gets to me and a few hours into the morning, I decide to do it so I can sit at my desk and not feel that my world is disordered. Though I shivered in them the night before, I am always amazed to find, reaching under to straighten the blankets and pull the sheets to, how long they hold their warmth.

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Last night, all the phones in the house began ringing simultaneously. This is always an indication that an alert is coming out from the school system–snow days, an incident of violence at the middle school, that kind of thing. Last night, it was to tell us that Emma Jacobs, a 17 year old from our small town, had died in a car crash that afternoon. With that terse message (“crisis counselors will be available at the high school,” etc.), a bomb detonated in the life of our little town. The crater that opens up at the death of a child swallows up her family and friends entirely, and the concussive pressure wave rips through all the concentric rings of neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends.

I did not know Emma or her family, but I am walking through this day with a thickness in my chest for everyone who did–for the neighbors who’ve known her since she was a baby, the elementary school teachers who taught her and who teach my kids now, for the kids at the high school who knew her, played lacrosse with her, sat in class with her, and, being teenagers, have neither words for what is happening, nor mastery over their inchoate feelings. Everyone wants to talk, and no one knows what to say. On Emma’s Facebook page, high school kids post “Rest easy,” and “I didn’t know you well, but you were always really nice,” still speaking to her. Her page says she goes to Exeter High School. There are still people who haven’t received the news yet, and knew her, and to them, she’s still alive. We are still in the period after the bomb blast when everything is chaos; the shrapnel is still in the air.

IMG_5659We cast around for what to say, or what to do. People leave notes or send emails to the family telling them, “Anything you need, just ask.” “Reach out to us–we want to help you.” I have never been at the bottom of such a dark hole myself, but from what I’ve seen of this kind of grief, it will have to be us who do the reaching. The pit in the stomach, the nausea, it’s partly the sorrow we feel for what’s happened, but it’s tangled with embarrassment, with fear of saying the wrong thing, with guilt that our own kids are sound in their beds. Despite this, we must say something. Pray for them, if that is your tradition, and tell them you’re doing it. Bring food, or just go scrub their toilets or mow the lawn. Do not be afraid to speak her name, either now, or in the long weeks, months and years to come. You will not remind them of something painful they forgot, you will remember someone they loved and cannot ever forget.

A man I went to high school with died, along with his son, in an avalanche last winter. His father visits the memorial Facebook page for them from time to time, looking for new stories people have shared about his son and grandson. In the immediate aftermath, there were many. Now, they have stopped almost completely, but still, he posts from time to time, asking, or just thanking people. I can feel his fingers searching in the dark, sifting for more fragments of memory. It is a kindness we do, when we say the names of the dead to the people who loved them most.

We hope that the people who are bereft will tell us what they need, because we are ready to offer anything, but we don’t know what to do on our own. It takes courage to go so close to a grief this large. It has its own gravity, and it isolates those within it. But we have to be the ones, up here on the crater’s rim, to reach down to them. They are in utter darkness, and the walls are steep. When they emerge, there will never be a way for us to close the hole up behind them. We will all, forever, be stepping around it. They will be living very close to its rim. In time, they will, with help, be able to look away from it more often, and see the rest of life going on farther from it. But it will always be there, at the center of their lives. What we can do, however far we are from the epicenter, for now, is help them on the long climb out. The heavy feeling in your chest that is grief and fear and dread, it has a use too. It is an anchor point. Lower your line from that. Set your heels into the dirt and brace for the weight. It’s going to take all our strength to raise them.

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Mid-week, I headed up to the White Mountains for a solo overnight. It was the first time I’d be backpacking alone in my life, and the first time without children along in two years. I had an idea to head into the Pemigewasset Wilderness and possibly do the Pemi loop, a 31 mile circuit that climbs the spine of Franconia Ridge and the Bonds, with their views, I had been told, unparalleled in the Whites. I got to the trailhead at Lincoln Woods around 10am, and after a brief stop into the Ranger station to talk about bears, headed out on the flat, broad old railroad bed that begins the trip. It was easy striding along the first four miles, but I knew I was settling into a pace that was too fast. Liberated from the excruciating slowness of kids, and also craving the physical anesthetic of exhaustion, I flung myself up Bondcliff Trail. I had some rational reasons: I wanted to get to Guyot campsite by late afternoon, and if thunderstorms were coming, I needed to scramble across the mile and a half of exposed ridge over Bondcliff before they arrived. It was a hot, humid day in the valleys, and a cold front predicted, so the possibility was real, but by the time I came up to the ridge, the sky was blue with only a few innocuous clouds. I had driven myself up through the dank lower woods, speeding past the stream crossings, and now was nauseated and trembling at the top of Bondcliff and I leaned against a rock and sobbed.

I tried to name what it was, and thought of a yoga class I took in vet school, when, at the end of the session, everyone would lie flat in the dark for relaxation. Sometimes, someone would begin crying quietly. Our instructor said it happens all the time–after the exertion, things can come up out of you unexpectedly, if you give them a moment to. My viscous sobs came bubbling up out of me, slumping alone on Bondcliff, and I thought about it. There was the anxiety that had pursued me up the trail, chasing me out here onto the exposed summit with thoughts of the new job I start next week, my son starting his first day of kindergarten, the simple fact that I was eight miles or so from my car and planning to sleep alone out here. I longed for my family, at their schools and jobs at that time of the afternoon, while I stood on this scoured ridge. There was not a soul to be seen in any direction, and mountains ranged on mountains. The flat jut of rocky fist where people stand to have their pictures taken was vacant, and I had no one to take my picture for me. I took its picture, forced down a handful of nuts and strode on, as if this hadn’t been my destination at all.


Bondcliff summit

Crossing the exposed ridge line over to Bond, I passed a pile of fresh bear scat seething with flies. People always mention bears when I say I’m going backpacking. They think of bears, and of rapists or murderers. I worry about more quotidian things–the weather, filling the hours when I’m finished hiking, loneliness. I got to the top of Bond and stood by the cairn feeling another wave of craving set in for my sons, my husband. I have been away from them all for days, a week on end and not felt this urgent need for them. Had I really wanted to, I knew I could have turned around and gone straight back to the car and been home that night. I felt miserable, standing up there, viewing the views unparalleled in the Whites, but I scurried back down below treeline and pressed on for camp.

The view backward from Bond.

The view backward from Bond.

By 3pm, I’d reached Guyot campsite. The caretaker, Justin, was friendly toward my hammock setup and found me a few likely spots to sling my shelter. I set it up, and then went to watch the comings and goings of other campers from the porch of the log shelter. There were the usual solo hikers and pairs set up at the various tent platforms, but three college groups were also staying that night and the cooking area filled up with their giggling and their banged up cauldrons of mac and cheese. I sat up on my perch with the supper I was slowly forcing myself to eat and spoke rarely. I know a lot of backpackers deride the campsites for this reason–so many people packed into one spot, talking, interrupting one’s pensive solitude. But I’d had enough of solitude, and also I appreciate the metal bear boxes for food so I don’t have to spend an hour finding an appropriate tree for hanging my food.

Near sundown, another large group arrived to use the shelter too. The campsite must have been beyond capacity. I headed down to my hammock to read, but got distracted by all the chatter around me. Two guys at the nearest platform talked food, “This one is a sweet, kind of roasty flavor.” “This one is more chickeny-beefy. But we need some fiber. It’s important to have fiber on the trail or you can’t poop.” “Definitely,” said the other, “Have you pooped?” “No,” said the first. “Me neither. I tried. Did you try?” “No,” said the first. And so on. On the other side of me, two college women made up medical facts about exactly how toxic shock syndrome occurs as a result of tampon use. But they spoke with conviction, and that’s more important. There was a 30 something Harvard grad who now builds chairs hiking with his dog, and a middle-aged man talking at two sullen teenagers about water filtration. We were a band of pilgrims in an inane, contemporary Canterbury Tales.


The view from West Bond.

Fortunately, the college students were all so utterly exhausted that within a half hour after sunset, they were asleep. I slept only fitfully, but during one of my dozes, I woke to a guy in one of the college groups moaning in his sleep. He yelled out “No!” a little while after. Then, clear and drawn out, he howled, “Frogs and stones!” None of this bothered me; I was glad to be in this gathering, rather than alone in some narrow berth in the trees the requisite distance from any trail or water. In the morning, I made myself some tea and ate a few handfuls of granola. A French Canadian man sitting on the log next to me farted exuberantly. I was back on the trail by 6:30, headed out to hike West Bond without my pack. I got to the summit to look across to Bondcliff’s ridge and down to the green knit of unbroken trees on all sides below. Fog was closing in–the weather reports had promised that all summits would be “firmly in clouds” today, and I watched, transfixed, as it descended, closing down my vision beyond 100 feet or so. It was the last summit view I would get that day, so I decided to save Franconia Ridge for another time and head home straight down the trail from Galehead Hut a few miles west.

Along the Twinway (part of the Appalachian Trail).

Along the Twinway (part of the Appalachian Trail).

I crossed over to South Twin Mountain on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The long corridor of balsam and spruce reminded me of the murky col where I’d read The BFG to the boys on our backpacking trip earlier in the summer. By the time I reached the summit of South Twin, the clouds were opaque and white as a cataract, obliterating anything much more than a few paces away. I barely paused and dropped back down into the trees for Galehead. The hut was empty but for a morose pair of preteen girls bandaging their blisters under the cheerful gaze of their persistently optimistic father. Staying only long enough to eat a quick snack out of the clouds and wind, I headed straight down Twin Brook trail and was quickly leaving behind the boreal forest and grading into paper birch. A stand of hobblebush, already deep red for fall, reminded me of Simon, who, once he learned the low growing habit of the plant, and its notoriety for tripping horses, now blames it every time he falls, even when he’s on a suburban sidewalk or inside the house.

Beaver Pond along Franconia Brook Trail.

Beaver Pond along Franconia Brook Trail.

Once I reached Franconia Brook Trail, I made quick time on the flat, easy trail, and traveled the six or so miles back to the trail head without stopping at all. On that stretch, I thought about my sadness up on the Bonds, my anxiety and loneliness. It hadn’t been the distance, or the time away. It hadn’t been missing my younger son’s report of his first day of kindergarten. It wasn’t guilt, or homesickness, or even the exhaustion. It was what I had gone to the wilderness for. I had emerged up above tree line to look out on the immensity of this remote place, terrible in its broad indifference. It is awesome in the traditional sense–unnerving, unsettling, and not always pleasant. I was utterly alone, days or even weeks from rescue had anything gone seriously wrong. It was beautiful in the disturbing way of open water; it leaves a person dwarfed, obscure as any individual tree in the brindled forests on the mountains’ flanks. As the elevation fell away, I felt the pang of leaving the alpine zone behind again and reentering the familiar, comforting northern forests of home. I had not felt comfortable on those mountains, but I had not come for comfort, or ease, or even pleasure. The mountains had done what I had actually needed: to be obliterated, for a little while by their immensity. And if I needed to huddle with a group of strangers for the evening, it was only to recollect myself and do things on a human scale again.

This summer, Malcolm became transfixed by the story of the North Pond Hermit in Maine, who lived alone in the woods for 27 years one pond over from where we rent a cabin each year. The man had walked into the woods when he was twenty and between then and when he was captured and arrested last year for repeated burglaries of nearby homes, he spoke only one word to another soul. I know many backpackers who avoid campsites and huts for the same reason. They seek a solitude that is absolute. Maybe I’m just not as good at being alone with myself yet. Maybe it’ll come. For now, I’m glad of other people, despite the aggravations they come with. I’m not sure I will ever come to a point when I can see something like what there is to see from that ridge, and not long to say to someone else, “Look at that.” Without it, those views have some small measure of hollowness at their core, a little cavitation in the awe. But I would consider myself poor indeed if I did not have people I longed to show it to, and instead, I am rich with them.

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For keeps

Last Saturday, my youngest sister got married. It was a brief ceremony in a riotous garden. We stood for the bride, my sisters and I, and her oldest friend, and her back was to us. We could see her groom’s face and hear the vows he’d written and was now making. When it was Mary’s turn, I could neither hear her words nor see her face, only the reaction on Josh’s face, on the brink of becoming her husband. A bumblebee bounced drunkenly off the portico above their heads. Another crawled under the layers of tulle in her dress. Across from me, standing up for the groom, my baby brother swiped at tears.

After the ceremony, my elder son and I danced for three hours straight. His younger brother found the music too loud and stood, like a curmudgeon, out by the pond behind the tent. After an hour or so, my husband took him home. I stayed to dance and the next day, my neck was sore from inclining my head down to look at my seven year old dance partner. By the last dance, when the remaining couples were slumped against each other, swaying almost imperceptibly, I was jerkily rounding the floor with my son. My husband and I are in the last years of rearing very young children, when so many of our interactions are transactional (“You have the diaper bag?” “Can you make them sandwiches?” “I can’t meet the bus today, can you get there?”) and we can see the the golden light of the mid-childhood years creeping in at the windows–the years when they aren’t so desperately needy, but have not yet been lost into the wounding teenage rage for freedom.

During one of my brief dance breaks, I talked to my brother for a bit out in the garden. He pointed out that he’s the last of us five, and the only one still unmarried, and so far, everyone’s gotten married and stayed that way. My parents for more than thirty years, me for more than a decade, my other two sisters for six or seven years apiece. “Nobody’s jaded,” he said to me. And I’ll grant him that. It’s not to say that no one’s struggled, just that we all still see this commitment as worth making, and worth working at.

IMG_5891The week since my sister’s wedding, I’ve been helping out my dad. He and my mother own and live in a five apartment building, and they have a new tenant moving in under a tight deadline after another of my sisters and her family moved out into their first house. The whole apartment needs the usual repairs, cleaning, and painting. For three days, I painted, the wedding manicure disappearing under smears of primer and paint. The house is old, well past one hundred years now, and was once a barn. It’s been added to, renovated, and painted over so many times the rooms must be substantially smaller now for all the pigment layers. All the corners are eased and rounded with a shale of paint. In corners and awkward spots, there are glimpses of a canary yellow, turquoise, and a rosy pink. There are divots in a bedroom door just at the height of a toddler’s swinging foot. There are pencil marks on the door jamb where my sister recorded the heights of my nephew and niece. Throngs of spiders inhabit the corners, and they high step through the drying paint. A wolfish one huddles in a ceiling crack. The house is old and peculiar. I lived in that apartment once too and know the quirks of its window sashes, the cant of the floor, the sweetly Victorian doorbell and knobs. It’s always in need of something, always threatening to crumble. In the few places where my father has added a new closet, or shelves, the paint goes on over harsher angles, and the wood itself feels lighter, less significant.

Old houses are exasperating. Old marriages the same. But my young brother is right. I’m not jaded, and I am up for the work. We Faheys do things for keeps.

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After just about thirty five years of service to the Town (City) of Amesbury, Massachusetts, my father, Joseph Fahey, at last retired. He did not stop working; apparently they are still contracting his assistance, but the official day came, and the official party too, and now he is much more at liberty to garden. This is a pastime he manages to extend about year-round, even when it becomes the spectator sport of seed catalog perusal in winter.

For many years, he had no time to garden. Taking the job in Amesbury in the office of Administration and Development, as I believe it was then called, he took on a day job and also all the night meetings: hearings, Board of Selectmen, Town Meeting, then City Councils, Zoning Boards, Planning Boards. When I was little, I remember him being gone a lot at night, and when he came home, he carted a brown briefcase with him. I didn’t understand what he did, or why; the minds and motivations of our parents are not so much impenetrable to children so much as they are of little interest, compared with our own crises and fears. My mother was cooped up with me and an ever increasing number of other children, and no means of ferrying us around town, my father being in possession of the only car. Now that I have children, I recognize what a misery that can be.

Dad's gotta work (a letter dated one week after I was born).

Dad’s gotta work (a letter dated one week after I was born).

As I approached adolescence, I took gradual notice of what it was my father was up to. Already, he had affected great changes in the town. The old Upper Millyard, which had become a parking lot for hulking tanker trucks and construction equipment now was made up instead with a path by the river and bridges over it, tree-lined walkways, flower beds where I had crouched, grinning, not more than a toddler, for a newspaper photo as we all planted tulips and then, later in the season, marigolds. In summer, the concrete amphitheater they built hosted concerts, plays, and one summer, on my very birthday, a magic show in which I was selected to come up and volunteer to help with a trick. There was a pancake breakfast in the pines, a firemen’s muster, a downtown that struggled and vacillated between its old self (full of townie bars, an ancient hobby shop whose owners seemed to detest children) and its new self (the brief lifespans of a book shop and a soda fountain that I loved and then mourned when they did not survive.) I could not list all the people who worked on and helped with the many projects my father had underway, because I would forget some of them, and that would be no good since I know them all personally, or did. They came for my parents’ dinner parties, where I would crouch in the dark hall to listen to them all talk town politics (or gossip).

Downtown Amesbury now is a charming nest of streets and squares and parks with plenty of restaurants and little shops and places to get coffee or nice chocolates. There’s very little grit left, just a bit swept into the corners here and there. Christophe and I lived, briefly, in an apartment in a rehabilitated mill building verging on the Powwow River above the dam. We could look straight down from our window to the begging ducks. When I walk through town now, I can see the underlayment of what used to be here. It’s taken my whole lifetime for these changes to be put in place. My father spent nearly his entire professional career in civil service to this one community. It’s not glamorous work, and though he had a hand in nearly everything that’s gone on these three decades, rarely did he get the full measure of the recognition he deserved. His was not an elected position, and when he started, we still followed the Town Meeting form of governance. There were no mayoral campaigns, and the Selectmen were hardly a flashy bunch. He was caught up in politics plenty, to be sure, and he is, fundamentally, a political animal. But not having to be elected, he was more at leisure to concoct strategies and angle for plans. His job was physical, on the ground, intimate with the town and its inner workings. My sisters and I found a series of VHS tapes at home once, and settling down to view them, discovered they were footage of the sewer network below ground. Hours of grainy, gray, sloshing straightaways, turnings, and side tunnels. We called them “the sewer tapes,” and, inexplicably, watched them more than once. He might resist the analogy to the rest of his work, but it’s apt; the job required rubber boots, determination, and the courage to keep on in the dark when the future was lit with only a thin beam of light.

On a freezing wedding day, a stop in the Millyard.

On a freezing wedding day, a stop in the Millyard.

I have since moved to a town five miles from Amesbury, but the rest of my family still lives there, at least for now. I was married there, in a stone church downtown, and we had our portraits done on the bridges over the Powwow as it began to snow. I know my father sees our attachment to this town as one of the greatest marks of his legacy. We were raised there, and didn’t want to leave. I see it as larger than that still. Most of us, when our parents come to retire, don’t really understand what they did all day. What drove them, what frustrated them, what they hoped to leave behind. I didn’t really either, but I have the great good fortune to see it all around me whenever I walk through my hometown. I can see what mattered to him. He was pragmatic, diligent, and focused, but there was the dreamer in him too, all along. A part of him that hangs on to the Kennedy rhetoric, a commitment to a progressive agenda that goes beyond preservation of open space, mixed use zoning, and walkable communities, though all that mattered too. He was the Director of Community and Economic Development, and he balanced them expertly, but I know, in his heart, that it’s that first part of which he is most proud. And not only have his children elected to stay in that Community, we’ve learned, trotting along at his heels to work sites, or listening in on meetings, or reading the papers, that this is what you do–offer yourself into public service. We are all of us committed to public art, public education, global governance, conservation and an environmental ethic, town service. That’s not solely his doing, but it is a partial accounting of his work. When the last major project he’s been pushing for, the Lower Millyard rehabilitation, comes to fruition, they tell us there will be a plaque with his name on it somewhere or other. I think there should be some grand monument instead. Then I realize, there already is.

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my long, solitary days with no company but that of a child. I know my sentiments are shared by many a parent who has looked down the long end of a day, and then many days, of tending children. But I also got a surprising number of troubled or worried responses, fearing for my happiness, or wondering whether I actually enjoy being a mother at all. A second class of responses included gentle encouragement to enjoy this time while I can, as their childhoods are fleeting. This is risky territory, of course, as the last thing any parent of young children wants to hear is “cherish every moment, for they grow up so fast.”

IMG_4323As I pondered these conversations, what struck me most was the consistent use of the word “enjoy.” Did I not enjoy being a mother? Shouldn’t I try to enjoy these times while I have them? The thing of it is, there is a great deal, maybe the majority of many days raising children, that are not at all enjoyable. But happiness is not the same as pleasure.

When I tried to think of a parallel experience to offer up to those who have not had children, or who have never been their primary caretaker, I thought at first that there was no apt comparison. That maybe you just have to live it. But as I examined the idea further, it became clear that just about anything we deeply value is not all that much fun most of the time. Getting my degree in veterinary medicine was a daily toil of mental drudgery, glued, eight hours a day, to a seat that was in turn bolted to the floor. Once that portion was through, on we went to clinical rotations, where 40 days might pass without one day off, and I fell into a fitful sleep many nights dreading the sound of the pager buzzing at 3am. Was I enjoying myself? Was I having fun? I didn’t quit though, because it mattered to me. And it had its moments.

Then there’s running. I run for the sanity it restores, for the feeling afterward, for the strength it gives. Many, if not most, individual runs are unpleasant in some way. My chest constricts on a plume of freezing air and wood smoke in winter; I stagger in stew thick humidity in summer; in all seasons, my legs sometimes just feel clumsy and leaden and I can’t wait for it to be over. It’s not a pleasure, or enjoyable a lot of the time. There are those occasional moments when I feel like I’m floating, effortless, and the road is clear and quiet ahead of me, and the streams braid through the woods beside me. I run for the things running gives me, and because those moments do come sometimes, and I never know when. Being a runner gives me a deep happiness, but a lot of the time, I hate it as I’m doing it.
IMG_3095That’s what motherhood is like, at least for me. Only it’s compounded. In vet school, my mind’s presence was commanded in those lecture hall, but my body was not taxed. I could knit, make embroidered pillows, sketch, so long as my ears were open and I was awake. When I run, my body is taxed, but my mind is freed to travel. When I am home alone with my young son, I must devote my body to his particular needs, and my mind to his tyranny too. When I daydream during a game of Connect Four, and murmur vague assent to something he’s saying that I’m not attending to, I get his little tyrannical face in my face demanding, “Mom! Did you hear me? Wasn’t that a remarkable and good move I just made?”

To tell me to cherish every moment is stating a case that need not be made. I am conscious every day of how I love these boys in a way unlike the love I’ve borne anyone else in the world, or will ever bear. I am conscious of their growing up, and I have no desire to rush it, even were that possible. I do, in fact, cherish every moment of being their mother. That does not mean I enjoy it. It does not mean it’s fun all the time, or even most of the time. It doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable.

Walking the halls of my college the other day, I overheard a student say to another, “Yeah, but I mean the homeworks are so fucking boring.” This is the worst condemnation of anything in this college, of course. A boring class is a bad class. An entertaining teacher is a good teacher. Set up under that rubric, parenting is the worst thing one could possibly do to oneself, because it is profoundly boring, and irritating, and often rather unpleasant. Parenthood is a gross violation of the Ben and Jerry’s bumper sticker philosophy, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

IMG_1008One night this week, I was lugging laundry up the stairs, checking on the soup on the stove, and on the boys sledding in the dark outside. I called Christophe, who was on his way home, to warn him not to run them over when he pulled in. Laundry basket digging into my side, a headache of two days’ duration pounding in my brain, and looking down at ancient food particles ground into the rug, I heard myself saying, “The boys are out there,” and I was yanked up out of myself. I was tired, irritated, having no fun at all, and those words “the boys” were like a plucked string within me. “the boys. my boys. I have sons. We are we and we have sons,” ricocheted around my aching brain. It does nothing for the pain, but I have room within me for the drudgery, the toil, and the wonder, the gratitude that is its undercurrent.

So don’t worry about me; I’m utterly happy with my lot. Happy and content, with everything I could ever have dreamt of. Just not always enjoying myself. It’s not always fun, but that’s not why I signed on in the first place. One day, when this is all over and they’re grown up, I will have my freedom back, but pierced through with nostalgia. I also know, there is not treasure enough on the Earth to entice me to rewind to the beginning and do this all over again. It is the province of young parents to lament and mewl, but we know the glorious mess we’re in. It is the province of old parents to remind us that it has an end. Blessed be the mess, and blessed be the end.

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