Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Boy's Long Strange Path Here

Motherhood never seemed real to me, a "maybe, someday" thing. A doctor said it wouldn't be a good idea, given my history. My first husband and I were married to our work anyway. The separations started early. But we couldn't manage the gumption to end it. Until finally we did.

Even during those bad years, D. was knocking on the door. Brushing against glass with bird's wings.

Once, I was in Georgetown with a gaggle of girlfriends having lunch. Wine flowed. We walked by a sign -- "Palms Read." Let's go in, I said. My friends pushed me into the closet-sized room first. I sat in front of a flimsy curtain while the woman of mystery read my palm. My friends peeked through the gaudy cloth and giggled.

The reader squinted at my palm, frowned, stared me squarely in the eye. I squirmed. What had one of my body parts done NOW? She stated that I was married to the wrong man. She asked whether I had children. Well, no. Obviously a mistake, she said. I would be a mother once I got rid of the wrong husband and married the right one. It was all right there in my palm. Mr. Right was already in my life, I knew him. No, no name available. But, said the mystery one, she could see a very vivid shade of blue all over my psychic profile. This blue was very important. Look for the blue. With that the reading was over, $25 please, and she went back to looking bored.

I was annoyed. What kind of fortune was that?

The session had been a lark. But still, it bothered me. I began staring too long at blue-eyed men of my acquaintance. Especially one co-worker, a man I liked, yet butted heads with fairly often. He reminded me of my father, the dark hair and blue eyes of black Irish ancestors. They shared the bull-headed disposition, but this man lacking the ameliorating southern charm.

But I kept thinking about the circumstances that led me to this workplace. Something had drawn me there.

I had applied several times. It wasn't a good fit, but the place had turned into a pest. I was called in for an interview when a new sheriff came to town because my name kept coming up over there. I felt I should give it a serious look. I interviewed once, then was called back for a second.

The session wasn't going well. Then the strangest thing happened. This boss man was winding up the chat, dismissing me, saying he was interviewing other candidates blah blah blah. I was already rising from my chair to make my escape. Relieved. Then I saw his face register alarm as he looked toward the huge glass window that made up one long magnificent wall of his office.

At the window was a very large dark bird, scraping and scrabbling against the glass as though trying to fly through it. Frantic, flapping, moving away only to crash back into the glass. We froze, the boss and I, unable to move. I caught my breath. The boss appeared to be in genuine pain about this bird's plight.

Suddenly, the creature got its bearings and flew away in a burst. We exhaled, the breaths audible in the still room. Then, the boss blurted a job offer, at a salary I could not refuse. He told me to go home and "prayfully consider" the request, terms I was not used to from crusty news bureau bosses. And to call him after the weekend. I thanked him and walked, stunned and shaky, down the long hall, out of the office and finally the building. I stared into the sky, thinking "WHAT WAS THAT????!!!!"

I took the job. Something unfathomable was at work. And I could not resist its pull.

Then came the first Gulf War. As Iraqi tanks stole into Kuwait under the cover of darkness, my first marriage imploded, this time for good. Sitting in the marriage counselor's office, after two years of circuitous talk that no longer covered up our relationship's torturous death, I said I just could not do it anymore. He stood, picked up his briefcase and walked out. Eleven years of marriage, 14 years together. Homes bought and sold, journalism careers pursued together, moves. An entire life rose from the therapist's chair and walked out the door.

The next weeks were a haze. Drums sounded around the clock from anti-war protestors sitting vigil outside the White House near my office. I moved into an apartment across from the soaring Washington Cathedral. Because my life was not gothic enough, a bat slipped into my nearly empty apartment and hid out during the daytime, coming out at night to flap about and terrorize me. Finally the elderly resident manager found it for me, threw it out the window, flapping back home toward the cathedral.

But none of this was nearly as strange as what I found out a year or so after the death of that marriage. During a long talk with another man, J., who worked in my office, I was surprised to find that his engagement had ended on the day of the Iraqi tanks, the same afternoon, in fact, that my marriage fractured a final time.

J. and I had not been friendly enough at that time to know that about each other. It had only come out during the intimacy of dating, which began six months after my marriage ended.

This sweet man from Iowa, the youngest of five, who I had thought of as a little brother because I was so comfortable with him. Who made me laugh. Who still makes me laugh the loudest and the longest, all the time, especially when he doesn't try.

There was a vivid clue but I didn't see for a long time.

After I accepted the new job, the boss asked me to come over during my lunch hour for a banquet with some newsmaker or another. I was still working out my notice at the old place. I said okay. I walked over and got into the elevator of the building where the odd bird had been flapping its wings against the glass just days before.

The elevator doors opened. And there he was, J., standing there as though he had been waiting for me. I didn't know him from Adam. But he stood there tall, friendly, welcoming and, well, cute. He started talking. It made no real sense but I understood him perfectly. Something about having washed his hands but the towel dispenser was empty. He was funny and warm and I relaxed immediately. I felt like I had known him forever.

J. welcomed me to my new workplace. He's so nice, I thought. And I couldn't help noticing his eyes. Like a certain mystery woman clad in veils behind a curtain predicted, the man I married a few years later and improbably had a son with was standing there staring at me with eyes a wonderful, vivid, shining shade of blue.

It just took a while for it all to fall into place. And even longer for me to see. A bird desperately hurling itself against the glass of a workplace where I didn't even want to be but felt helpless to resist. War and bats and sad endings, culminating in the beautiful, vibrantly healthy, yelling boy who was so easily born without incident and took away the breaths of every single person in the hospital delivery room.

But I was the most amazed of all, a 40-year-old first-time mother who wasn't even supposed to give birth. I held him, staring, and could not stop saying, "I can't believe it. I just can't believe it."

The baby was so strong, he nearly hurled himself off the warming tray, alarming the veteran delivery nurse. "They're not supposed to be able to do that," she said, white-faced. I understand that now, nearly 16 years later. This boy had to wait a while to arrive, for an unlikely mother to open the door. By the time that happened, he was already an old soul. He had been on one very long, strange path.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Fox Hunt

I shadowed my father on a few hunting and fishing trips as a kid. He also let me tag along "to the store" -- an excuse to loaf with his buddies, sprawled on benches around a wood-burning stove, sneaking smokes, talking about nothing.

But my begging never penetrated the iron wall of his resistance when it came to fox hunting. No. Never, not even one time. These forays, with his older brother and men they had known for most of their lives, are still burnished with mystery and ritual, decades later.

This was not riding to hounds, with horses and tea tables laid out under a stand of trees. The hunts led by my uncle were far more primitive. Still, rules governed them. And first and foremost, this was a masculine enterprise.

On hunt day, the hounds knew. I imagine they woke up, lofted those fabled noses into the sunlight and smelled what awaited them -- a long sweet chase through the unparalleled beauty of a middle Tennessee night.

Uncle H., a tough old bird forced to leave school and take over a man's roles at the age of 8 when his father died suddenly, trained his dogs with a firm yet loving hand. Once, a lunatic neighbor shot sweet Lucy for running across his property. It hurt her so severely she had to be put down. It nearly killed my uncle.

For these men, the hunt was all about the hounds. We drove up from Alabama, so the dogs heard our car coming first. My father descended the long familiar dirt and gravel road on my uncle's farm, following the smooth limestone-bed creek running parallel to the pasture. Hearing the car, the dogs yipped and howled first in warning, then in greeting after recognizing us from a distance.

I always made a beeline for the barns, which were filled with hay bails and many cats. From my perch in the top, I watched men converge as the afternoon light began dissolving into the treetops past the white farmhouse, making its way to the river and beyond. Men in overalls or jeans and hunting jackets climbed from cars and battered trucks. Some shouldered rifles and shotguns, others clutched flashlights and lanterns.

Every single time, I would ask my father to bring me the fox tail from the hunt. I had visions of fashioning a hat with a fox tail for myself. Or a stole. I'm not really sure. My father would say yes, of course. I made him promise. I badgered, confirmed it with Uncle H.

But at a certain point, they were beyond listening to my prattle. The men were animated, the dogs pacing, pulling, straining on leashes -- anxious to run.

Finally, a sharp whistle cracked through the murmurs and the roar of the barking. The men took off, barely able to hold the leashes of frantic, pulling dogs desperate to be on the run. The men and dogs swelled in the yard, around the smokehouse, spooking work mules and horses behind the house. A swarm now, they flowed finally through the gates of the south pasture along the creek, the one with the sweet cold water waiting to be cupped into dried gourd dippers hanging from nails on the well house. And then, with twilight settling into the hills, they were gone.

I tried to wait up, fighting sleep. I asked again why only men and boys could go. "Some of those men talk rough," my aunt would say, a quaint notion now. So I strained to hear the dogs in the distance. And I could, once they picked up the scent of a fox running a circuit in the night, looking for food.

That sound was a high-pitched howling that the men called fox-hound music. I knew the men were gathered around a fire, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, talking, listening with a faraway look in their eyes. Their minds were on the competition taking place at a distance. The dark, barbed wire fences, steep hills and gullies made following the hunt treacherous. But following wasn't the point. The point was the chase. The men were discerning the sounds from the dogs. They translated for each other, especially for the younger men and boys in their gathering.

They knew which dog was closing in on a fox. They knew who was bringing up the rear, or had lost interest. They knew how close the dogs were, whether the fox was outrunning or outsmarting the dogs. They could tell by the way the dogs "cried" that they had lost the scent. They talked about how much faster Lucy was this year, say, but that Sam was gaining on her. That the younger dogs would need seasoning. That maybe this was old Jack's last hunt.

They could tell by the music they were hearing -- the dog's singing voices. The howls, cries, barks, how long and how high the pitch. These things wove the tale in the mind's eye, painting a canvas of vibrant color and motion to go along with the sound.

They had an idea when the fox ran through a herd of cattle to throw off the trail. Or ran to ground. If the dogs found another fox to chase. And if a fox was cornered or trapped, the men whistled and called the hounds off, fired a gun in the air. These men who could seem so hard, so impervious to death on the farm, wanted the fox to go free. If the fox population had been leaving the farmers' livestock alone, that is. If the wild creature being chased that night was really a fox instead of a coyote that had been killing calves and pets.

There was no need for senseless killing. Or for taking a bloodied fox tail to a little girl who wasn't a hunter or fisher in any form or fashion, whose father amended those trips when she wanted to go, making them into nature strolls, really. Because that girl grieved for days when she found dead minnows in her father's fishing bait pail.

These were men who simply wanted to give free rein to the hounds. Letting them do what they were born to do -- catch the scent of a beautiful, clever, wild creature and track it, sing the fox-hound music. They were men reveling in the freedom and beauty of a deep dark night in the southern wilderness. In the easeful company of other men, they celebrated life. Blessed life.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Non-Goodbye

--"I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow."
*John Keats

I guess I'm not done. I'm still thinking about my father here.

Some odd things happened right after he died. The death was sudden, an accident, so we were in shock. I kept thinking the emotional blow was behind my strange reaction. Then later, I found out a friend whose parents passed away a year apart following long illnesses experienced similar things. And those deaths had been expected.

So, I wondered, what the heck.

I was with my mother for nearly a week after the accident. The house was chaos for a few days. People stopped by with enough food to feed a battalion. The phone never stopped ringing.

And as I live and breathe, I could hear him, my father. The deep voice that sang bass in the Methodist choir, led countless closing prayers, instructed an adult class in that church for decades. The voice that settled a one-room schoolhouse of overgrown farm boys who accepted his authority only after wrestling matches at recess (my father always won).

His voice was strong, his laugh infectious. And I could hear both ringing bell clear in the hours and days after he died. I was so certain of this that I would charge from the room I was in, searching for him. But he wasn't there. He was never there.

I also could hear his pickup truck pull into the driveway. I would rush to the window and look. But the truck was where it had long sat, ready for the tailgate to be pulled down and his pointers to leap in, eager for a ride deep into the countryside in search of a quarry of quail. It had not moved, no one had touched that truck.

After a couple of days, I thought I was losing my mind. I slept with the lights blazing. I would dose, exhausted, and my eyes would fly open thinking "he's here" -- and of course, he wasn't.

I thought it was because I had not been at the hospital when he died, had not said goodbye. Because my mind was not accepting the truth. Because I had not seen the awful results of that accident. That I was "hearing" him even after the freakish experience of seeing his name on the town's funeral home sign, where the long wake had to be extended because people kept arriving, hour after hour after hour.

Maybe it was because I kept rediscovering him? At that wake, friends poured in, former co-workers, people I had never seen. One neighbor stood alone and very still, with tears in her eyes. She said my father was kind to her family when they moved there. "Everyone else ignored us. He was the only one in the whole town who made us feel welcome here," she said. I had no idea.

We gave him a funeral the next day and had lunch at home with all that food, asking everyone at the service to please join us. Then I drove my mother almost four hours to his Tennessee hometown for yet another funeral and the burial on that blazing hot July day.

My siblings went back to Alabama. But my mother and I spent the night in the house where she was born, a remote place of no streetlights and river rock roads. I saw only pitch black darkness from the window. And the sounds were a profound comfort for me -- a nightlong mercy symphony from fields and woods filled with crickets, katydids and frogs.

Before leaving, my mother, an aunt and I stopped by the cemetery. I placed a dime by the temporary marker, a private hello. That's because my dad would distract me from childhood vaccinations by putting a coin in front of me at the exact moment the nurse pushed a needle into my arm.

I had been a trooper until then, channeling my father's best social self for long hours in public. Helping my mother with decisions I knew my dad would want.

But then my mother, standing dry-eyed by his freshly dug grave, put down a small flower arrangement and said softly, "Well, I brought you home." And she quickly walked away.

My heart cracked open.

I sat in the car and cried in silence for several minutes. We did not speak, the three of us, the new widow, her older sister and I. Then I started the car and drove through silent headstones and tombs, back to my aunt's house and then to Alabama. I continued to hear my father, although his voice was fading with each day.

I stayed in my hometown for two more days. My mother flies into high gear to cope. I need down time. Not sleeping, hours of driving, going on my mother's manic missions. These included returning flimsy pie pans meant to be thrown out, to the surprise of people who brought food in them specifically so we did not have to take them back. I was worn out.

My siblings live in the same town with my mother, so she had company and help. She wasn't bereft. She was energized, hyper, keeping herself busy. We were starting to grate on each other. So I left. At the airport when I got back, J. met me, folded me into his long arms and brought me home. I really slept for the first time in nearly a week.

I talked to my friend L. I told her I thought I was losing my mind, hearing my father and his truck pulling into the driveway. She said she heard similar things after losing both her parents, a year apart.

I was relieved, to say the least.

That's because L. doesn't believe in the woo woo. She is not given to fancy, belief in the supernatural, things not scientifically nailed down and the like. Once, after she had surgery, I drove her home from the hospital, installed her on a couch, and turned on a relaxation tape of flutes and babbling brook, birds singing, etc., thinking she would find it peaceful and, well, healing.

We were quiet for a bit. Then she said:



"You are SO weird."

But this is what she said about "hearing" our relatives after they had passed away. Or something to this effect: "It was like there was a scrim or a curtain of gauze between this world and the next. And my parents had gone just beyond that curtain. And I felt like I could reach out and almost touch them, but not quite. And that they could touch me if they wanted to. But they didn't. And wouldn't. Because I didn't want them to."

She said the feeling lasted a few weeks. Then one day she realized the curtain was gone and so was the feeling that her parents were just there, behind it. She felt their souls had moved on, to where they were supposed to go. That this process just took a while, longer than we had been taught to believe.

And it was like that for me too. In time, I didn't hear my father.

Except for one last time.

A few months after he died, I had a dream about him.

In the dream, the telephone rang. My father was calling. He was dressed in his blue and white seersucker suit, his summer dress up outfit. In his hand, he held his white hat with the tiny pearl pin in the hatband.

I told him we had been extremely worried, looking for him everywhere. He was laughing, telling me not to fret. He chatted a bit, he was on a trip. Healthy and fine. The charming, gracious father, the one with his best foot forward, bad moods nowhere in evidence.

"I am fine. Everything is good. I am doing very well."

And that was that.

So, I was not with him when he passed away like his other children and my mother, even his friends at the restaurant, the ones he shook hands with on that last day. But during my last visit, we had gone to a movie together, as reader Rebekah said, a sort of special goodbye that he had suggested and completely out of character. Then he seemed to stick around for a while, for me. And he came to tell me goodbye again, in a dream.

But I hate goodbyes. I don't say them.

I will, instead, be leaving a dime in this spot and that when I think about my father. That's my decided response to this whole thing, once and for all. Finally.

The random dimes are me saying, "Well, hey there daddy."

I won't be saying any goodbyes.