Sealing the Book

Every year in this week between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur I ask the same question:

“How could anyone leave the name of a beautiful six year old out of the book.”

The book.

The book of life has entries for everyone who will live another year. Your name is entered – or not – on Rosh Hashannah and the book is sealed on Yom Kippur.

What an odd concept.

In just a few hours from now this year’s book is sealed. If you believe in that literally, then at that point it is determined whether or not you will be around a year from now.

I have many questions.

There’s the legal question. Does it close at the end of Yom Kippur local time? I mean, I’m here in Cleveland. Is my fate sealed an hour before my sister’s is sealed in Chicago and three hour’s before my brother’s in California?

Come to think about it; what about my sister? She was home for Rosh Hashannah but here for Yom Kippur. If she was entered into the book according to the Chicago time zone then does she have an extra hour now that she’s here in Cleveland?

You’d think that maybe you have until Yom Kippur ends for the people in the last time zone on earth. No more Yom Kippur anywhere. Let’s close the book.

I have other questions.

If it’s known who isn’t going to make it through the year, why not just make it happen the day after Yom Kippur. Sure, you’d dread this day but once the day is over you could breathe more easily for another year.

And what about disasters?

If you are thumbing through the book, wouldn’t you have noticed a bump in New Yorker’s dying on that day in September twelve years ago. You would have known for a whole year that something awful was going to happen. You probably would have noticed that a lot of these people named in the book worked in the same building.

I guess, if my name is sealed in the book, there’s nothing to be done.

I ask questions. I have so many to ask.

Really, I’m not so very religious that I literally believe in this book of life.

If it existed, I’d want answers about why Elena’s name was left out eight years ago.

What we believe in tells us a lot about ourselves. What we believe collectively is a rich source of social knowledge as well.

What drove us to believe in this book of life? It must have comforted us. It must have helped us to believe that we can’t prevent loss.

How is that comforting?

And what about infants to be born who are not yet conceived. Does the book know which of these will survive?

So many questions.

This book.

This book that I don’t believe in.

I hope Maggie, Kim, and my names are in it when it is sealed tonight.

Published in: on September 14, 2013 at 4:39 pm  Comments (2)  

A Ghost Story

“Hi, Daddy. Happy Father’s Day.”

“Hi, Baby.”

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Elena?”

“You still call me ‘baby’. How old am I when you picture me?”

“It varies. Some days you’re just as you were the day that you died. Some days you’re younger. Today you’re older.”

“How old?”

“Like a ninth grader.”

“Really? Am I as tall as you?”

“No. Sorry. I’m guessing you’d never have been tall. Your face is a little longer, your freckles have faded, and you use words that your mother and I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Mom does.”

“I know.”

“Especially when she’s driving.”

“I know.”

I picture Elena and Maggie driving sometimes. They’re in Kim’s convertible. The top is down. Both of them with their hair streaming behind. Elena telling Maggie to go faster. The image makes me smile.

Mostly I think about the living. But every once in a while I catch myself day dreaming about my dead daughter.

Like today.

It’s not so surprising. I’m sitting next to her grave as I do every Father’s Day.

Last night we had our block party. A ton of people came. They brought family and friends. There were kids everywhere. I love the energy the new kids bring to our street.

Maggie and I helped the kids roast marshmallows over a wood fire and make them into S’mores.

The kids ran, scootered, skate boarded, and biked up and down the street. They climbed into the Fire Truck when it visited our block party. They sat behind the wheel and smiled back at parents with cameras.

The kids we knew already look so much older. Not just taller –they’re faces are changing. They aren’t little kids any more.

I guess that’s why I see Elena as a ninth grader. She would have finished eighth grade this past week.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, baby.”

“Do you remember when we would make S’mores?”
“Of course.”

“Just you and me. Not mom and Maggie.”

“I remember both. Sometimes you and me. Sometimes all of us.”

“Good times. Good times.”

“Daddy. Last night, when you were done making S’mores, did you sit around the fire and tell ghost stories?”

“No, baby.”

“How come? Don’t you know any?”

“Sure I know plenty. My favorite one stars you.”

“Ooooh. Can I hear it?”

“It’s not very interesting.”

“I’m sure I’ll like it. Especially if it’s about me”

O.K., so I went to the doctor a few years ago for a check up.

He tested for various things and didn’t like what he saw on a heart test so he sent me for a stress test.

Mary Kay looked at the print out and said it was nothing. When I got to the stress test, the nurse looked at the print out and said it was nothing.

They gave me the test anyway.

“Daddy?”

“Yes baby.”

“This isn’t a very good story.”

“I told you.”

Anyway, they checked me out, injected something, and had me lay down for an MRI.

The slid the machine over me. It barely fit. Everything from the waist up was inside this closed capsule with no room to spare. I could feel the instrument rotating just inches away.

“Did you panic Daddy?”
“I started to. Then I stopped. You crawled onto my chest and lay with your head on my heart and wrapped your arms around my neck.”

“How old was I?”

“You were like two or three. My eyes were closed because the capsule was so tight. But I felt you there. It was so comforting.”

“My ghost?”

“Yeah.”

“How did you know?”

“I don’t know baby. Conversations like this one are just playful inventions that I use to remember you by. That day was different. There’s no logical reason that it was different. It just was.”

That day on the MRI table was the last time I felt Elena’s presence.

I continue to feel her loss.

Published in: on June 16, 2013 at 9:13 pm  Comments (6)  

Inflection

If we had relived every moment of Elena’s life in the time since she died, today we would have come to the end once again.

The inflection point came somewhere around eight this morning. That was the moment at which Elena had been dead as long as she was alive.

I can’t remember living through a moment like that. Not with someone I knew and loved.

We usually think about these inflection points with famous people who are long dead.

Martin Luther King, Jr has been dead longer than he lived. He was killed before his fortieth birthday. He’s been gone for forty-five years.

Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed more than one hundred years before King. He’s been dead longer than he was alive.

Of course, that’s different.

You don’t often hear “if Abraham Lincoln were alive today.” He’d be two hundred and four years old.

You sometimes hear “if Abraham Lincoln were born today.” This is meant to convey wonder about what Lincoln would have been like if he’d lived in our times. Of course, our times would have been different if Lincoln wasn’t born when he was. Would the United States be two countries or one?

If Lincoln were born today in this world of iPhone and internet, would he have been different? Are we assuming he would be born in Illinois and grow to be a lawyer and eventually president?

In the last few months we’ve heard a surprising amount of people say “if Martin Luther King were alive today.”

King would be in his eighties. That’s a reasonable thing to speculate on.

The speculation, however, has been fascinating. Recently, an advocate of gun rights speculated that if Martin Luther King were alive today he would support unfettered access to guns. Others have been horrified by this. After all, King was assassinated with a gun. Of course, if King were alive today, he wouldn’t have been assassinated with a gun.

The truth is, we can’t know what King would or would not have supported if he were alive today.

King made changes during his own lifetime — he certainly would have made changes since.

He’s been dead longer than he lived. We can’t possibly know what would top his list today.

What would he have thought when he woke up this morning, the day after a black president delivered his fifth State of the Union address to Congress?

We can’t know.

Last night, President Obama pointed out an elderly black woman who stood in line for six hours just to cast her vote. Elderly might be an understatement. She was one hundred and two years old.

One hundred and two. Half of two hundred and four. She’s been alive half of the time since Lincoln was born.

Charles Darwin was born the exact same day as Lincoln. He died in 1882 less than thirty years since this elderly voter was born.

We measure time in terms of lives of people we know. “Oh that was before I was born.” “9-11 happened the week after my grandfather died.”

Elena has been gone longer than she was alive.

The inflection moment was here and it’s gone. She’ll always be dead longer than she was alive.

If Elena were alive today she would be an eighth grader. She wouldn’t yet be fourteen.

Would she be confirmed in the Catholic church? Bat Mitzvahed? There’s no way to know. What instrument would she play in the band? What language would she have chosen? Would she have gone to the school dances? Would she be tall or short? Would she still be a bundle of energy?

When I see her classmates I can just make out the six and seven year-olds living inside them. Their voices are changing. They no longer look or sound like I remember. They are trying on the clothes and ideas of people older than they are.

They are becoming who they will be.

They are amazing.

If Elena were alive today. . .

There’s just no end to that sentence.

She’s not.

I still have a lot of unanswered questions that I ask every day.

Published in: on February 13, 2013 at 5:06 pm  Comments (6)  

Father’s Day Card

Fourteen Father’s Days since Elena was born.

Half as many since she died.

Seven. Already.

It’s going to be like that all year until we reach the point at which she will have been gone as long as she lived.

One of Kim’s uncle’s was marking that moment for his child when we saw him at his brother’s wake. For him it was twenty some years. The point of parity was still sadly poignant for him.

I’m in my usual Father’s Day afternoon spot on the green bench just to the left of Elena’s grave.

A pair of middle aged african american women walk towards me. One says to me “if it wasn’t for that bench, I don’t think I could find the grave.”

I nod and smile and give them their space.

They unwrap two beautiful wreaths and follow the directions on the back to set them up. It takes them a while and I try not to intrude. They finish and step back and proudly admire their work.

“Happy Father’s day, daddy”, one says.

We chat a bit about the neighborhood. Their loved one is just down the row from Elena. We chat about how the section has almost filled. We chat about the bench that we both use as a marker. They say goodbye and walk back to their car.

The first time I was in this cemetery was for Clarissa and Mel’s wedding. They got married at the Garfield monument. I had no idea then that I’d someday be buried just down the way.

Mel didn’t used to call his mom on his birthday not hers. He used to say that his birthday meant more to her. It was her own Mother’s Day. The day she became a mother.

“Nonsense,” Clarissa told me. “He calls her on his birthday because he can’t remember when hers is.”

I suppose the truth is somewhere in the middle.

On Mother’s Day I think of my mom, of course. I call her to check in knowing Kim has sent her a card.

Really, on Mother’s Day for the last fifteen years I mostly think of Kim. She’s the embodiment of motherhood to me. Her kids come first in a way that is good for them and good for her.

On Father’s Day I think of my dad, of course. I call him to check in. Yes, Kim has already sent a card.

Mostly, on Father’s Day, I think of my girls. I remember today, like all other days, that being a dad is the best.

I remember a woman turning to place Maggie in my arms. This bowling ball in a sailor suit who would soon become my daughter legally. Soon legally other but immediately in every other sense.

Later that first day while I napped on the bed, Kim watched as Maggie climbed out of her crib, onto the bed, and crawled over to me laying her twelve month old head on my chest and stealing my heart forever.

In the moths that followed we carried Maggie everywhere. We held her a lot.

People would say to Kim “she’ll never learn to walk.”

Then again people had said that about Tara when she was a puppy. Despite the warnings Tara had learned to walk fine. So would and so did Maggie.

Maggie was and is amazing.

Every day she would do something that would have us shake our head.

I would give Maggie a big hug every day and tell her how smart she was, how beautiful she was, and how much I loved her.

After a while, Maggie grew out of all that. She would squirm away from hugs and then avoid them altogether. She grew impatient, then angry, when I would say nice things about her. She didn’t like when Kim and I noticed things about her. Then again, she didn’t like when we didn’t notice either.

The first time I was in the cemetery was at Mel’s wedding but the second time, not too many years later, was at his funeral.

I think of him sometimes on Father’s Day. I remember Mel with Clarissa’s daughter. The little girl had a father but during the part of the week that she was with them, Mel was a great parent without the title.

He paid attention to the little girl with intensity. He always seemed to have time for her. I learned a lot about being a dad from Mel.

I learned to pay attention to my kids and they would teach me much of what I needed to know. I love being with my girls. Really being present and just hanging out.

I do miss the hugs. Elena gave great hugs. Then again, who knows. Over the span of the last seven Father’s Days she may have grown out of them like her big sister.

In those same seven years Maggie has grown into so much. She is still so smart. She is still so beautiful.

Today Maggie game me an awesome personal card that she made for me for Father’s Day. It was a card that captured who she is right now in a funny and clever way.

For seven years I’ve spent some part of Father’s Day at the cemetery watching people come to spend a moment or two remembering their dads.

For me, for now, Father’s Day is all about my kids.

Then again, when you’re a dad, everything is.

Published in: on June 17, 2012 at 10:13 pm  Comments (4)  

Tara

Six years ago today Tara went down hard.

She was a beautiful black lab that we got soon before we got married. She played with and protected our girls. Six years ago today she lay down in the hallway outside Elena’s door.

They say that dogs know.

“Daddy, who’s they?”

“I don’t know baby. Just they. You know, some people.”

In my mind Elena snaps her fingers in both hands at once. She tips back a little sideways with her left hip slightly raised. She holds her fingers like mock revolvers. Index fingers pointed at me. Thumbs up in the air. Remaining fingers curled in.

“Got it, ” she says winking. “Dogs just know.”

I’ve been wondering why things feel harder to deal with this year than the past few. I think it’s because the days of the week are lining up the same way they did it in 2006.

President’s Day Monday was on February 20th then as now. That afternoon Kim took Elena to the doctor. The doctor said nothing was wrong and sent her home. As it turns out, the doctor was probably right. Monday afternoon nothing was wrong.

The next day was Tuesday February 21. Same as this year. Six years ago yesterday Elena went to school along with Maggie. I walked them both. Elena had a great day at school. She and her best friend planned their birthday celebrations. Two days apart and a little over a week away.

Wednesday morning February 22 began with Tara laying outside Elena’s door. Elena found the dollar the tooth fairy left for her for her first missing tooth ever. The perfect dollar.

Elena threw up so we kept her home. She’d just been to the doctor – she was fine. Just something kids got. She’d stay home a day then she’d be fine. If not, we’d take her to the doctor that afternoon.

Tara wasn’t herself all day. She watched over Elena and stayed close all day. When I let Tara outside, she came right back in.

Dogs just know.

We got Tara as a puppy just before we got married. Kim’s dad was helping us get our new house ready to move into. Kim stopped by to help as well. Kim asked if I wanted a dog. I said no, not yet. It turned out that the dog — our dog — needed to be picked up in the next few days.

We signed up for an obedience class. Those classes are as much about training the owner as they are about training the dog. Tara graduated easily. Kim and I barely passed.

Over the years Tara evolved into a wonderful dog who did well with other dogs and people.

So many great moments.

On Kim and my first wedding anniversary I picked up a picnic dinner from our favorite Chinese restaurant, put a twenty foot leash on Tara, and went to pick Kim up from work.

I knew she’d be free. I’d arranged weeks ahead with her supervisor to write fictitious patients on Kim’s schedule. We made up people with problems that would be difficult to diagnose and treat. Kim had looked at her schedule the day before and told me she wouldn’t be home til late.

Tara and I picked her up at 3:30. We knew she’d be free then. We drove out to property that Case Western Reserve University Owned out in the country and had a wonderful picnic. Just the three of us.

Tara was never a substitute for children but weaknesses in out resolve and technique as pet owners certainly foreshadowed mistakes we would make as parents.

Tara welcomed Maggie into our house and a year and a half later she welcomed Elena too.

“Welcomed, daddy? Really?”

“I don’t know, Elena. What would you be turning next week? Thirteen? I may not be remembering whether or not she welcomed you. She certainly benefitted from having you around.”

“What do you mean.”

“Well let’s just say you dropped a lot of food on the ground. Tara always lay next to your or your great grandfather’s chair when we were eating.”

Tara lay near Elena all day long the day she died.

Dogs just know.

After Elena died it seemed that Tara had had a stroke. I needed to carry her up and down the steps every time we needed to let her out or in. She mostly recovered and lived another year and a half but she was never the same.

When she was younger we’d hear her jump off of the couch as we came in the back door. During her final months on earth she didn’t even bother to disguise that she’d been up on the furniture while we were gone.

One afternoon, long after Tara had recovered, she refused to come back in. She’d clearly been out long enough but she wasn’t moving. She was on the ground behind the swing set shivering. I went out to the back yard and picked her up in my arms.

She hardly moved. I brought her in and sat on the ground next to her. I tried to get her to drink a little but she wasn’t responding.

Kim came home and decided to take the dog to the vet.

It was so much like that afternoon six years ago today. I carried Tara to the car and placed her in the back seat. Same car, same seat as the one I’d placed Elena in six years ago today. Last time Elena didn’t make it to the hospital alive. This time Kim had to make the decision to put her down.

Everything from that day six years ago came back for both of us.

We knew we could never replace Elena, Tara was a different matter. Kim checked out the dogs on Petfinder.com for weeks before we decided to go up to Michigan to get another black lab. This one is named Anabelle.

It turned out that the dog was half german shorthair and that was the half that determined the way she behaved most of the time.

Today Anabelle was quieter than usual. She didn’t jump on me and ask me to play with her. Mostly she napped in a chair. Now and then she stood up to go outside, eat, or shift positions. Mostly she just napped.

Dogs just know.

Published in: on February 22, 2012 at 9:47 pm  Comments (2)  

Holes

Some holes are metaphorical and some are real.

We have a real hole in the kitchen ceiling. It’s about four feet across and two feet high. The drywall’s ragged edges sag a bit and the wooden slats show through. It’s right above the stove. It’s been there for seven years now. We’ve talked about patching it before, but it reminds us of Elena.

Kim was in the basement doing laundry and water started running down the walls. She ran up to the kitchen to see if something was flooding there. Water was coming down through the ceiling over the stove. So Kim ran up another flight of stairs to the bathroom.

There was Elena standing in three inches of water with the toilet overflowing. She was trying to clear out the obstruction with a toilet cleaning brush. When Kim rounded the corner, Elena looked up beaming holding the brush high with wet toilet paper clinging to the end of it. “Don’t worry mom,” she said, “I’ve got it.

Kim reached over and turned off the water. She bailed some of the water into the tub and then went and got a plunger and cleared the blockage. Kim can still see Elena’s proud face announcing that everything is under control.

At first there was just a small hole in the kitchen ceiling where the water had forced its way down. I put a bucket under it and we caught most of the water. But then the soggy drywall started to sag and fall and soon we had a major hole in the ceiling.

We intended to get around to it – but the discussion always got larger. Maybe we should also fix up the back room. Maybe we’d build an additional room above the back room. The ceiling would get patched whenever we did the larger job.

And then Elena died.

Now we couldn’t patch the hole because somehow it reminded us of her. We know that it’s just silly but we couldn’t patch the hole. We patched large holes in our last house but this one felt different.

About a year ago the toilet overflowed on Maggie. Again, Kim called out from the basement. There was water running down the stack pipe. I ran to the kitchen and there was water there as well. I ran up to the bathroom and there was about an inch of water as the toilet overflowed.

Maggie was in her room reading. I called her in and showed her how to turn the water off. I had her get the plunger and plunge the toilet. I lectured her as I cleaned up the floor about making sure the toilet actually flushed. I went down to the kitchen and pulled away newly soggy and sagging pieces of drywall.

The hole was bigger. It had a different shape. It had a different history. None of that mattered. It was still Elena’s hole in the ceiling. We still weren’t ready to fix it. Not quite yet.

That day probably got us emotionally ready to fix it — soon. I know. It’s silly. But these are the things we see each day that remind us of Elena.

For the last few months Kim’s brother Tommy has been doing work around our house. He and Jim replaced the flat roof in the back and put in a new railing. They replaced the back door and the big hole in that ceiling where the roof had leaked through. So while they were at it, Kim and I decided to ask them to patch the hole in the kitchen.

Yesterday, Tommy cleaned out the opening, evened out the edges, and screwed a new piece of drywall in the hole. He taped up the edges and applied the first layer of mud. The hole was filled.

The physical hole, of course.

The metaphorical hole remains. Yesterday was also my birthday. It was the anniversary of the day we first brought Maggie into our house. It was also Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish New Year.

I’ve had a lot of trouble with this day each year since Elena died.

There’s the tradition that people’s names are written into the book of life on Rosh Hashanah and the book is sealed on Yom Kippur. If your name is not in the book you will not live through the next year. I can’t understand who would leave a beautiful little six year old’s name out of the book. One standing there proudly with a toilet cleaning brush held high above her head with soggy toilet paper clinging to the tip letting all know that we shouldn’t worry, she’s got it.

Published in: on September 30, 2011 at 8:21 am  Comments (5)  

In my head

“Happy Father’s Day, daddy.”

“Thanks baby.”

“Wanna know what we got you?”

“Sure, baby.”

“We fixed up your bike. It was my idea.”

“ELENA,” Maggie explodes, “it was not. It was both of our ideas.”

I smile. In my head, that’s how I was greeted this morning for Father’s Day. Actually, Kim had my bike fixed up. I haven’t ridden it much since Elena died. The Father’s Day before she died she gave me a new bike pump and a rear reflector. I took my bike up to have it cleaned and tuned a few weeks ago and Kim surprised me by taking it back up and putting smoother tires on it.

Maggie got up around six this morning and popped into our room and went back to sleep while Kim went out for my Father’s Day breakfast. Our tradition for Kim’s Mother’s Day breakfast is pear crepes. For Father’s Day the tradition is bagels broken only once when Kim decided to make us Huevos Rancheros. Part of the tradition is that she forgets to pick up the bagels ahead of time. Usually I remind her the night before but last night the bagel place had closed before she got a chance to stop in.

I think it’s better this way. The bagels are fresh. I made coffee and cut up a tomato and an onion while Kim ran out for the bagels. Traditions.

After breakfast while Kim cleaned up I loaded my iPod shuffle with disk one of “The Essential Bruce Springsteen”. The Big Man died last night. A retrospective seemed like the best soundtrack for this morning.

I hopped on my bike and headed for the cemetery. Actually, in my head I hopped on the bike. In reality I made old-man noises as I threw my leg over and pushed off, wobbling back and forth til I gathered speed.

I ride down our block to Coventry. I cross Shaker Boulevard and pick up a little speed going down hill. It’s a perfect morning for a ride.

In my head, Elena is biking beside me. Her hair is blowing free in the wind.

That’s right. No helmet.

What’s the point. She’s already dead. Streamers in her handle bars and a banana seat. She’s still six and yet she’s keeping up pretty well.

We stop at a light and I lose her. She mainly exists in motion.

“Daddy, next year I’m going to middle school.”

I play along. I know she’s not going to ever go to middle school, but then again she’s not really biking beside me either.

“I know, baby.”

“I’m almost in high school. Then I’m going to drive. Daddy?”

“Yes, baby.”

“I’ve been thinking. When I’m driving the car, it’s ok if you ride in the front seat.”

You would have liked her.

Anyway, I’m sitting on the same green bench I’ve sat on each year. Six Father’s Days looking at Elena’s grave. Traditions.

In my ears, the extended sax solo from “Jungleland” plays. The hand of the Big Man on my shoulder. He gives it a squeeze. “I see her,” the gesture says, “she’s ok. She’s down front doing an interpretive dance and raising a lighter encouraging me to play more.”

A lighter? In Heaven? Sure, you say, we were with you when Clarence Clemons was visiting you in a cemetery in Cleveland. But the lighter — that’s going too far.

In my head Clarence is painting a picture of my baby swaying to his solo and holding a lighter as high as she can. She’s trying to bring him back to play more.

Bruce sings, “Everything that dies someday comes back.” Clarence doesn’t play on this one. The only way to bring him back is to skip to the next track.

“I miss you baby.”

“I know Daddy, but it’s not time.”

“I know. I’m sitting here in the front row on the green bench holding a lighter as high as I can.”

“A lighter, daddy, really?”

“In my head, baby.”

“Well, daddy, that’s where I’ll be performing my encore. In your head.”

Published in: on June 19, 2011 at 11:02 am  Comments (5)  

Elena’s Room

We brought Anabelle home when she was just a puppy the week before Christmas 2007. I think that Anabelle has a lot of the personality traits that Elena had — Kim thinks I’m nuts. There’s no reason we can’t both be right.

Kim noticed that Anabelle never showed any interest in Elena’s room. The dog loved to wander here and there in the house getting into trouble wherever she went but there was nothing calling her in Elena’s room. There was no life there–no scent–nothing to lure her in.

We didn’t keep Elena’s room as a shrine, we just never went in to clean it out. We weren’t ready to repurpose it in any way. We knew what the dog knew–it was no longer Elena’s room. We just weren’t ready to do anything about it.

And then last summer we got an email asking if we would house a Chinese teacher named Kevin. Kevin was one of a group of teachers from China who would spend a couple of years in Shaker teaching Chinese at the elementary schools.

We thought about it and decided that it sounded like a good idea. Maggie could share our bathroom so that Kevin would have his own and Kevin would stay in Elena’s room.

We emailed back the next day and said yes but someone else had already answered that they could provide a room for Kevin and so Elena’s room remained unused.

A couple of months later we got another email. Peggy, one of the other teachers needed to find another place to stay. Might we be willing to offer a room to a female teacher for the fall semester?

Again we answered yes. With a female we could even have Maggie share the bathroom with her. Our only condition was that the young woman come over and meet Anabelle. We weren’t getting the dog’s approval of Peggy, we needed to make sure that Peggy was comfortable with the dog before she moved in.

The other thing we wanted Peggy to know was that she would be staying in Elena’s room. We were clear that Elena hadn’t died in the room but we wanted to be upfront with her that she was staying in the bedroom of a young girl who had died.

Everything went well and we agreed on a day.

As the day grew near we knew that we’d have to clean out Elena’s room. Kim and her mom did most of the work. Kim had been giving clothes and other items away over the years but now she had to go through everything. I’d forgotten how tiny she was when she died–her clothes were so small. Although I hadn’t aged her in my mind I must have grown her a bit as Maggie grew. Elena was always this much smaller than Maggie so in my mind she kept pace.

Kim and her mom changed the sheets, put away the bed rails, packed away the clothes and toys and then they dusted, vacuumed, and scrubbed every inch of the room.

I brought the bagged items up to the attic and cleared away the coats and the shoes.

And that’s when I saw it.

Hanging on the back of the closet door was a purse that I’d made for Elena.

I had taken the girls to a yarn shop and had them each pick out colors for their purse. Maggie chose a maroon and Elena chose a mustard yellow. I knit a big floppy purse for each one of them. Maggie’s was maroon with mustard yellow trim and Elena’s was mustard yellow with maroon trim. A little bit of each of them in the other’s purse. I trimmed both purses with a few rows of fuzzy shaggy yarn.

Then it was time for each of them to transform their own purse. Elena came with me to the basement and felted hers. The floppy purse tightened up and became a beautiful smooth felt purse. Once it dried Maggie came down to felt hers. That year that was the only Channukah present I gave each of them.

I’d forgotten about them until I found Elena’s hanging from the back of her closet door.

Peggy moved in a few days later. We still refer to her room as Elena’s room. Then again we still refer to the house two door’s down as the Phelan house even though they moved out years ago.

Some time back, I don’t remember when, Peggy asked Kim if she could stay for the whole year. Kim said yes. At the beginning of February Kim stopped for pizza and gourmet cupcakes on her way back from work. Peggy happened to join us for dinner that night. As we sat down Kim asked Peggy when her birthday was. We had just missed it. So after the meal Kim put candles in one of the cupcakes and we sang Happy Birthday to Peggy. Peggy was very happy and asked Kim where she got those cupcakes.

That was the beginning of February. Somehow I thought Elena’s room would be empty again during this anniversary of the day of her death and the day of her birth. It was kind of nice that it wasn’t.

Last night Peggy came down the stairs around seven o’clock and said she’d was going out but would be back.

“Where did she go,” Kim asked me.

“I don’t know, she didn’t say,” I said.

“The library?” Kim pressed as if asking me more specific questions would help me remember something I didn’t know.

“I don’t know.”

An hour and a half later Peggy came back. “Sorry,” she said, “I got lost. Some of the streets were closed for construction.”

Kim made sure she was ok.

“Here,” Peggy said holding out a pink box.

“What is it?” Kim asked.

“Cupcakes,” said Peggy, “for Elena’s birthday.”

We decided we’d wait til morning to eat them as everyone was full. Maggie put the box up high so that Anabelle couldn’t eat them.

Peggy said goodnight and headed up to Elena’s room.

Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 2:16 pm  Comments (10)  

The Year of the Rabbit

A brown rabbit paused on our snow covered driveway a month ago.

I tapped Kim on the shoulder and pointed. It was the start of the Chinese New Year. This year is the year of the rabbit and there was a rabbit just outside of our kitchen window.

Perfect.

Peggy, the Chinese woman living with us this year, is the year of the dog. “That means,” she explained, “that I am twenty-eight years old.”

If you’ve looked at your placemat in most neighborhood Chinese restaurants then you’ve probably looked up the year you were born to figure out your animal in the Chinese zodiac. Of course it can be used the other way around. Once you know someone is the year of the dog then they are either twenty-eight or some multiple of twelve older or younger.

Kim and Maggie are both the year of the rat. I’m the year of the boar.

Elena was a rabbit. Along with her Chinese name we have an image of a rabbit on her gravestone.

On the new year I was thinking of my little rabbit running across a field with her head tipped back so her hair flowed behind her. Most of my memories of Elena have her embracing life and doing something with abandon.

If you’re going to do the hokey-pokey you might as well skip to the part where you put your whole self in and you shake it all about. No need to be coy and just put an arm or a leg in.

With those memories of Elena, I headed off to the cemetery to spend some time at her grave. There was snow everywhere. Deep snow. The only footprints in her section were animals. I walked across the snow covered graves towards hers. There was a solid crust on top of the snow. I stomped down near where her headstone should be and my foot broke through and sunk way down. I was up to my knee in snow with no real chance of finding her stone.

I pulled my foot out of the hole I’d made and stood for a minute. If this were a movie, a rabbit would appear from behind a bush and wink at me. It wasn’t a movie. And it was getting a bit cold. I brushed off the snow and headed back to my car. It will be the year of the rabbit all year. I can come visit her another time.

I’d never thought about it but the Chinese New Year is yet another axis for memories. We have stories of friends and families that come up each year when we celebrate different holidays. Telling and retelling these stories become part of our tradition. We have stories we tell on Christmas Eve’s and Passover Seder’s and Fourth of July’s. We remember where we were for those holidays and people who are no longer with us by telling of the year that something happened..

For the Chinese New Year in addition to these memories of celebrating the holiday each year there are these extra leaps backwards of twelve years. We ring in the year of the rabbit — do you say “ring in” for Chinese New Year — and you remember. You remember other rabbits or you remember the last time it was the year of the rabbit. I also think ahead to next time.

Twelve years is too long. Who can predict where they’ll be twelve years from now or what they’ll be doing? What will the world be like the next time we celebrate the year of the rabbit?

Silly to ask.

Published in: on March 3, 2011 at 5:19 pm  Comments (9)  

How are you – really

I’m ok with people asking “how are you?” when they don’t really care.

They do care – they just don’t want to know all the details.

When I was younger I was annoyed when people would say “have a nice day” or “how are you” but now I see it as a way of touching someone else, briefly, in a polite and possibly friendly way.

But every now and then someone asks “how are you?” and they mean it. You can feel the difference. They pause to hear what you are about to say. They look at you ready to find the truth behind your dismissive, “I’m ok.” They care. That’s a gift.

This morning my friend Mark met me for coffee — I’m always meeting people for coffee — and asked me how I’m doing.

I started to say, “I’m ok.” I didn’t want to bum him out. But I looked at him and realized he was really asking. So I told him. “I’m sad.”

This afternoon, the phone rang and a friend of Kim’s greeted me warmly and asked “how are you all doing?”

I knew what she meant and so I told her. “I’m sad.”

“I know,” she said, “tomorrow’s Elena’s birthday.” She remembered. She called to share the memory and take a little of the sadness. That’s a gift.

I’m not sad all the time. Mostly I’m very happy. Mostly life is filled with endless possibilities and wonderful friends. Kim and Maggie and I laugh a lot.

But some days I’m sad. I can’t explain it but being sad doesn’t make me unhappy. I still miss Elena. That makes me sad but it is somehow reassuring.

And that’s how I am. Really.

Published in: on March 2, 2011 at 11:00 am  Comments (4)  
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