Dead, dead

On the first day of school this year, Elena showed up to the lunch line with her twenty-five cents for milk. The cost of milk last year was thirty cents but a nickel subsidy meant that we needed to send her to school each day with a quarter.

"This year," the lunch lady told Elena, "it costs thirty-five cents for lunch." Not only did the subsidy go away but the cost of milk went up by a nickel as well.

"Well," said Elena still offering her quarter, "my mother was unaware of this change."

The woman smiled and took her quarter and gave her milk. I'm sure they were prepared for many of the children to come in a dime short on this first day of school.

As it turned out, Elena's mom was unaware of this change. It's much funnier to hear it from an undersized six year old.

There are many changes we are unaware of and some that I'm looking forward to. People have written to tell us that at some point the times during the day that we remember something about Elena will become some of the happiest times in our day. We haven't made that transition yet. They always make us smile but then there's a beat and we remember that this supply of stories is not endless.

Patti posted a comment on the blog about a transition that her son Jack has gone through that I have just noticed myself going through as well. She reports that Jack told his teacher,  "I just didn't think she was really going to be dead, dead, you know?".

Yeah. I know.

Published in: on April 20, 2006 at 8:56 am  Comments (4)  

The Long Now

Those first pictures of earth from outer space gave us a real sense of belonging to something much bigger than our immediate surroundings. This exposure to "the big here" helped us understand the importance of taking care of the earth and how we fit into our universe. Those pictures don't have the same impact now. We've seen special effects in movies and pictures that have been "photoshopped" so that the impact of seeing the earth from space isn't the same as it was thirty years ago.

The folks at The Long Now have tried to do the same with time that those early pictures did with place. If we are part of a "Big Here" we will treat our planet differently. If we are part of a "Long Now" we will treat our brief lifespan differently. We don't have a right to deplete things our children's children might need.

Cars and then airplanes and then space ships change our concept of distance. We can drive across the U.S. in days and fly across in hours. There is a massive discontinuity in getting on a plane in one location and sitting back for a couple of hours, reading a book, seeing a movie, and having a meal and getting off that same box in a whole different place.

Sure, that's the point of flying. You're  pretty disappointed when you get off of the metal box at the place you started. But there is a bit of magic there. It's not the same as a time machine. It's a place machine. It's a culture machine. It's a context machine.

I sound like a dope for marveling at something like an airplane which is not that technically challenging and is not new. I flew a lot. I was scheduled to fly to Denver the morning after Elena died. I was supposed to take four more trips in the couple of months between then and now.

My routine when landing was always the same. As soon as we were safely on the ground and the stewardess would say it was permitted to use cell phones I would call my mother-in-law. Not Kim. Not my own mom. My mother-in-law asked that I call to let her know I was safe. I never minded calling. Let her know she could stop worrying. Take a minute to acknowledge another safe flight. The end of being hurtled at hundreds of miles an hour from one place to another.

Being part of the Long Now and the Big Here reminds me I'm a blip on the screen. Not occupying much space. Not lasting very long.

It also reminds me that there are things much bigger than me that I can effect. It reminds me to ask "What do I do now" throughout the day without urgency or despair.

Published in: on April 19, 2006 at 11:25 am  Comments (1)  

Four Questions

There are so many ways in which last night was different from all other nights. We had a nice seder as always. Of the eighteen people present, four were Jewish, thirteen weren't, and Maggie was both.

I've been unable to light the memorial candle for Elena. I should have lit it when she died and let it burn for seven days. I don't know if it was that I couldn't, but, the fact is, I didn't.

But last night it was clear that Elena would be the big pink elephant in the room. We could pretend nothing was different and not bring her up, but we'd all be thinking of her.

We began, as always, with a screening of the Rugrats Passover. During the seder you don't really tell the complete story of Moses and the exodus. The seder is almost a meta-story. You talk about the rabbinical discussions of what is meant by the stories. You talk about how you should tell the story and explain the symbols to your children. You discuss the symbols of passover and you answer the four questions.

And so, before beginning the seder, I lit the yartzeit and explained why.

We began on page ten. My mother thumbed through the Hagaddah and announced, "we eat on page seventy-six". A night like other seder nights.

The four questions snuck up on me. I'd forgotten they come so early in the seder. I'd asked Maggie to read them again. Maggie who has always been my eldest child is now the youngest child at our table. This would have been the year that Elena read the four questions. Another milestone she never lived to see.

Truthfully and selfishly, it's another milestone she never lived for me to see.

"Why is this night different from all other nights?"

So many answers. So many of them center around the candle burning behind me. But I watch and listen to Maggie read. She reads powerfully and well. She doesn't just read the words. She understands them enough to sometimes rephrase them as she reads out loud. Maggie has read at our seder for years.

Last year Elena would not let us skip her as we went around the room reading a paragraph or two each. With the help of a grandparent she read twice just beaming at being able to be a part of this family tradition.

I love many things about passover. One of my favorite traditions is the reminder that we descend from slaves. While other cultures stress that their people were once kings, I love that we remember our time as slaves. I love the mixing of the apple and nut charoset with the freshly ground horseradish that we spread like mortar in a matzoh sandwich.

After Maggie read the four questions, Jill sang them in hebrew. That was a huge difference in this year's seder. There was much more singing this year. It's a silly thing, but music is one of the things that connects me most with Elena in a happy way. When I hear music and think of her, I smile. It helped make this night a bit different.

Published in: on April 18, 2006 at 7:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Eggs

It was a tough day for our local Easter Bunny.

Nothing makes an Easter Bunny happier than having a new child to prepare a basket for and to hide eggs from. A new pair of bright eyes that flit around the room looking for hidden eggs and candy.

On Maggie's first Easter after we adopted her she was happy to find the large plastic eggs that my mother-in-law had placed around the room in plain site. There were four of them but Maggie wasn't so stable on her feet. She'd toddle over to an egg and bring it back to one of us. We would praise her and then, when she was off retrieving the next one, we'd toss it across the room so that she would have more to find. She must have found each egg a dozen times. I don't know if we fooled her into finding the same ones over and over or if she fooled us into paying her that much attention for an hour.

But this year our local Easter Bunny had to deliver Elena's basket somewhere else.

Maggie woke up and came and got us to go downstairs and hunt for the eggs she had colored and see what candy she would be eating in place of breakfast. She quickly found them all and got dressed for church. I'd told her that we were going to Elena's grave and said it was up to her whether or not she came with us. She thought a minute and asked if she could leave some of her Nerd rope on Elena's grave. Elena had always liked that.

I said sure and suggested she also leave one of her eggs. Maybe a yellow one. Maggie agreed. Kim also took one of the yellow roses I had bought for the dining room table. They were the same roses I had bought for Kim's hospital room while she was waiting to deliver Elena seven years ago.

At the cemetery, Elena's grave was decorated. Her Easter basket stood next to her head as if waiting for Elena to come find it. There were egg trees: little sticks from which plastic Easter eggs dangled. There had been two egg trees at Elena's grave but when one blew over Kim's dad placed it at the neighboring grave of the eleven year old who died a week after Elena. Something for her to find Easter morning as well. My mom left a plant. Kim's mom had left a bunny and a butterfly decoration. But mainly I kept looking at the eggs.

Eggs.

An egg is the one item on a seder plate that is not in the service. At an interfaith seder Kim and I went to, the rabbi explained that it is there as a symbol of life.

Maggie placed Elena's candy on her grave. She made a little indentation so that the egg would stay in place. She laid the rose carefully and lovingly.

I held the hand of our local Easter Bunny and cried with her.

Published in: on April 17, 2006 at 9:31 am  Comments (3)  

Hovering

How do we not hover over Maggie every moment of the day? How do we keep from sneaking into her room at night to make sure she's still breathing ok? How do we let her go to school, to a friends house, to her grandparents' house? How do we let her out of our sight? What keeps us from driving Maggie nuts with over-protection and smothering?

I don't know.

All of the doctors have explained to us that there is nothing we could have done to save Elena. We mostly believe them. By extension, of course, that means that there is nothing that anyone could have done. By the time anything was visibly wrong with Elena, it was too late to save her. Would we have believed this to be true if she had died somewhere else?

I don't know.

If Elena had died while at school or on a sleep over or while playing at a friends house or at soccer practice or any of the places that a healthy, normal six year old spends time, would we have believed there was nothing that could have been done?

If she had died at your house, would you have forgiven yourself? Even if you know in your heart and mind that there's nothing you could have done, you would have wondered and lived with those questions forever. If she'd died at your house, would we have ever believed that there was nothing that could have been done? Would we have always wondered what would have happened if only we'd been there? If only we'd said "no" when Elena asked if she could go to your house.

But we couldn't keep Elena locked up in a room. She wouldn't have been Elena. And it's a dangerous world with so many things to protect against. We just can't protect our babies against every real or imagined threat. And if we had kept her at home with both of her parents there in a room with her. . . if we had, we would have ended up the same place we did letting her be free. Kim and Maggie and I alone in a room with Elena unable to protect her against an unseen microscopic assailant.

And so we have Maggie. Kim and I look at this amazing child and want to protect her and know that we can't. Kim cried a week ago that Elena will never get to have her heart broken by a boy or know the disappointment of unmet expectations. There were many things left that we couldn't have protected Elena against and can't protect Maggie from.

How much do we watch over Maggie and help her avoid the pain to come? How do we help her navigate the dangers? How do we keep her from saying "what's the point, look what happened to Elena"?

I don't know.

Published in: on April 16, 2006 at 7:38 am  Comments (4)  

The Empty Tour Jacket

It kind of feels like being in a road weary band. In another car, headed to another place, to do something we've done many times before. As we head to the stage I turn to a roady and ask "where are we tonight?"

"Akron," they reply.

I nod. Take a moment. Roll my head around to loosen my neck and the three of us take the stage. Maggie smiles and waves, "hello Akron, we love you."

But there's that added dimension to this tour through the holidays. Sure we're playing the familiar venues with Easter, Passover, Mother's Day, and the Fourth of July coming up on the tour. But we're the Who traveling without Keith Moon. We're missing our drummer.

Even seeing Maggie greeting the crowds feels different. That wasn't really the role she's played in the past. Elena worked the crowds and Maggie could concentrate on her axe. Maggie could Miles Davis the crowd. Turn her back on them and work on her art.

But it's a new day and we've got to continue the Steinberg family tour for 2006. We've played these venues before. New Year's Eve, Chinese New Year, and Groundhog Day.

Groundhog day. Reliving a moment until we get it right. Some moments we relive but can't change. Others we live through and feel the changes.

Good Friday. Kim and Maggie are off to Kim's cousins to color eggs. Just like every other year. And yet not like any other year.
"Thank you Akron. Good night."

The show is over but like the Roches we don't leave the stage and come back. I stand at the door. Kim pauses to perform an encore. Goodbye was just a ruse. Maggie takes the opportunity to return to a computer, or a game boy, or a television set. Maggie doesn't even put on her coat. She knows that the lighters are out and the encore will last a while.

"Play Freebird."

Heading home with the echoes of the evening in our ears. Not off to some hotel but heading to our own beds. And yet it is like a tour. A tour without traveling far. Not quite knowing where we are or where we are heading at any moment. A feeling or disorientation. A need for a reminder that we're headed to soccer, to school, or just out for coffee.

Wherever we have, there's an unoccupied seat on the tour bus on the way home. A gap where the drummer sat. An empty tour jacket

Published in: on April 15, 2006 at 8:54 am  Comments (1)  

Bob

A little boy came up to Kim last week and said, "I miss Elena."

She looked at him and said, "so do I."

He introduced himself and told her, "she and I dated for a while in Kindergarten."

Poor guy, didn't know how many other five year olds she had flirted with. Not to mention the list of men over fifty who she'd batted eyes at. Elena loved chatting with everyone. She didn't miss an opportunity to wave to anyone she knew. But even at a young age she knew that boys were different.

If we had a heating or plumbing emergency and Bob needed to come over, Elena would make sure her hair was brushed and she was wearing something cute but casual. She'd bounce downstairs and glance at her reflection in the oven door and say to me, "how my look?"

I'd smile and answer, "you look cute." She'd look pleased. "Oh," I'd say, "you need to finish breakfast because Bob will be here soon." She'd nod as if she hadn't known he was coming over.

Bob was here yesterday helping out with a leak. It just didn't feel the same to him or to us for him to be working without Elena shadowing him. I met Bob more than twenty years ago at the Arabica. We used to drink coffee there together with a group of regulars both in the morning and in the afternoon. Seasons would pass and we would move from inside to the patio and back inside. In summer the place would over flow and in winter it would be pretty quiet inside. Some days his son would join him and on Saturdays Sue, his wife, would be there as well.

I probably knew Bob for ten years before I ever used him as a plumber. Through the first decade of our friendship I'd rented an apartment. By the time Bob came to Kim and my wedding, he had already put quite a bit of time into the house that we had bought. He first met Kim, then Maggie, then Elena as my family grew. When he and Sue came through the line at the wake, it was not a stage of my life I'd ever thought he'd witness.

A couple of years ago our heat went out during a very cold spell. We called Bob. He said he'd come over and take a look at it. We almost didn't call him that time. Earlier in the week his daughter had called to invite us to a surprise 50th wedding anniversary celebration that weekend. The girls knew. They also knew it was a surprise.

Bob came over and headed for the basement. He called up the stairs for me to turn the thermostat on and off. He checked to see that the boiler was firing and shutting off when we operated the thermostat manually. Initially Elena sat in her usual spot on the basement steps watching him work. Bob would smile at her and ask her a question and she would just wind herself up and chat to him.

Bob diagnosed the problem. There was a part that would need replacing and he wouldn't be able to get to it until Monday. In the mean time we could run the heat up and then turn it off. Every time the house cooled off too much we could turn the heat on again. It wouldn't work automatically and it wouldn't be efficient, but we could be comfortable enough. Kim and I thanked Bob and said goodbye and told him we'd see him Monday.

Maggie and Elena waved goodbye too and said they'd see him on Monday. Only when he was safely in his truck and backing out of the driveway did Elena start to giggle. "Really," she said, "we're gonna see him tomorrow. He'd going to be so surprised."

We saw Bob Sunday, we saw Bob Monday, and the heat came back.

We didn't see him as much as we used to. The Arabica had long closed down and Bob had started drinking his morning coffee at Kokopellis. It was still pretty close, but he drank coffee around the time the girls had to be at school. When I would drop them off then head over to the coffee shop, Bob was usually on his way to a job. Justin, Tom, and the others didn't seem to be there much any more either.

A couple of years ago  we went on a train ride together. It was a nice day trip through the Cuyahoga valley. Kim's dad had gotten tickets for the entire family. We met for breakfast and headed over to the train. As we boarded, there was Bob and Sue and their family. Elena was sure that it was on purpose. She was certain that he knew we were going to be on that train and he had chosen it specifically to spend the day with us.

It was wonderful to have a chance to catch up with Bob yesterday. It was also a bit tough seeing him in the house without Elena conveniently deciding to play with whatever toys might be in the room that he was working in. A long abandoned plastic play stove would command her attention if it happened to be near Bob.

Published in: on April 14, 2006 at 9:01 am  Comments (1)  

Grandparents

It’s spring break. I’d wanted to spend the week taking Maggie to the various places we have memberships: the zoo, the science center, and the rock hall. She had other ideas. She wanted to spend the vacation with her grandparents.

Perfect.

I used to teach college mathematics and stopped when it was clear that the only way to keep working was to move far away from our kids’ four grandparents. Neither Oberlin nor John Carroll thought enough of my talents to keep me. I loved my time at both places and will some day return to teaching. But it was easier to change what I do than to take Kim and the girls away from our families.

That’s why it makes me so happy that the girls loved to be with their grandparents and that their grandparents loved to have them over. Kim grew up having Sunday dinner with her grandparents. I never really knew mine very well. On my mother’s side, my grandmother died when I was two and my grandfather died when I was six. On my father’s side, they lived pretty far away. First in Boston and then in Florida. We would see them at Thanksgiving or maybe Passover and we would travel to see them during a long vacation.

I have many great memories of spending time with my grandparents, I just don’t remember spending time with them that wasn’t special. You know, spending so much time with them that we could be comfortable in the same room not paying much attention to each other. That’s special. That’s the comfort that comes with having a lot of time together.

That’s the comfort Maggie and Elena had at their grandparents houses. That’s the comfort that Maggie still has.

The girls used to spend three days a week at Kim’s parents house while Kim was at work. One day when Maggie was barely walking, I dropped her off. She gave me a hug. Waved goodbye and while I was standing there talking to Kim’s mom, Maggie headed into the kitchen. The next thing I knew, Maggie had the television clicker in her hand and was turning on “Blue’s Clues”. She opened the can of pop and the bag of chips she had picked up in the kitchen and sat in her Pooh chair.

Kim’s mom looked me dead in the eye and said, “she’s never done that before.”

Grandparents.

Now Maggie is nine and a half. She slept over Sunday and Monday night at Kim’s mom’s house. She helped around the house when her cousin was over. She drew pictures, played outside, read, helped clean, and just enjoyed being with one set of grandparents. Now she’s spending three days and two nights with my parents. She’ll feed the cats, go out to visit the fish in the pond, play outside, use the computer, and enjoy being with another set of grandparents.

My sister comes to town tomorrow night so we’re delaying the Passover seder til Monday night. All four grandparents will get together for Easter on Sunday and for Passover on Monday.

Last night I saw Nikki Giovanni read a poem on “Def Poetry”. She told of her childhood and hoped that no white person would write her biography. She didn’t want a story of her life that talked about how poor she was growing up. Her poem was full of the happiness and the richness of her early life. The lack of money was, for her, not the same as being poor.

In the same way, people who don’t know talk about how hard it must have been for me to have given up my career to stay here. I loved teaching. I love teaching. I will teach again. But there was no real choice to be made and no difficulty in deciding.

Last week I ran into Clayton at a coffee house. He was the Dean at Oberlin when I left. When I left we had just interviewed a guy for a visiting position. We thought he was o.k. and would do fine in a visiting position. The administration offered him a tenure track position instead. Two of us in visiting positions said to the dean that if we’d known that the job was a tenure track position we would have applied. I said that if this position could be converted I wanted my position converted too. Ahh, to be young and confident.

The answer was no and so I left at the end of the year. No point in staying in a relationship that isn’t going anywhere when the other person refuses to commit. We received nice notes and flowers from friends in the math and computer science departments but that no was the last thing I ever heard from Clayton. I’ve seen him now and again in airports or in coffee shops. I always say hello. He often doesn’t seem to hear me. When he does – when he looks back my way he looks right through me. It could be he doesn’t recognize me. It could be that I’m not there.

No real choice to be made. I left that world for a world in which four grandparents could gather two days in a row and celebrate their different traditions together.

Published in: on April 13, 2006 at 10:50 am  Comments (2)  

Bowling

Sunday night we all went bowling with my father-in-law. Me, Kim, Maggie, Kim's brother Tommy and his wife Patti joined Tom for a couple of games. I haven't been bowling in fifteen or twenty years. Tom stood up and bowled a strike. Tommy then bowled a strike. My turn. I too bowled a strike. That was my last strike of the evening. Tom went on to bowl another six strikes in a row and one more in the final frame. I went on to bowl just a little more than my age and just a little less than my nine year old daughter bowled. Maggie did better than I did in the second game as well. Kim, meanwhile, quietly recaptured her form from years before and bowled three strikes in the second game.

Tom was in top form. Not only was he bowling well but he was able to provide tips to his children, their spouses, and his grand daughter. I learned that one of the many things that has kept me from excelling in any sport is my lack of self-awareness.

Tom would come up to me after I had found the gutter once again and told me that I was swinging my arm out to the side not straight back. He'd say that I finished with my body facing in some direction other than square to the front. During the follow through my hand was coming up over my left shoulder instead of straight up in front of my face.

I absolutely believed that everything he was saying was true. When he made similar comments to another bowler I could see how they had done exactly what he was identifying. When it came to my own performance, I was just as certain that he had diagnosed the problem, but I didn't have the self-awareness to feel my hand finishing somewhere other than where it should have been.

Sometimes I was able to make the corrections he suggested. Other times I made the same mistakes with the same results. Most often, I tried to make the changes but, since I didn't have a true idea of what I was correcting, I ended up overcompensating and sending it towards the other gutter.

I'm sure that more than one person has written a book on bowling as a metaphor for life. I wasn't frustrated in any way on that Sunday night rolling balls down a wooden alley. I'm not self-conscious – nor am I self-aware when it comes to my body.

There are other people who aren't aware of what they do in interpersonal relationships. They ask why the same things always seem to happen to them. Before I met Kim I had had a series of relationships that never went anywhere. One of my friends said, "not to be trite and simplistic, but if you don't like what you keep getting then stop doing what you keep doing."

In a bowling alley there are dots and arrows you can use to line up with. If you are too far to the right you can move to the left on your approach or you can aim for a different arrow. Unfortunately for me while bowling, there were too many other variables for this to be of much use to me. I need to straighten out my delivery and understand and tune what my body is doing before any of these finer points matter much.

You can throw the ball harder but if you're lined up wrong you will just reach the gutter that much faster.

In life there are also dots and arrows but you need to look harder for them. You can change your approach and where you are aiming. What I found was that first I had tune myself. Once I had looked more at who I was and straightened out areas that needed tuning, I had a much easier time observing results and adjusting with the dots and the arrows.

There is a style of bowler called a cranker. In the lane next to us a family of four was bowling. The dad and the son were crankers. They didn't put their fingers in the holes. They held the ball in their palm. As they got closer to the line they hurled the ball down the lane with a terrific spin on the ball.

For a while the ball travelled down the lane in a straight line close to the right gutter. You could see the ball spinning but its motion was in a line parallel to the gutter. About ten feet from the pins the ball suddenly lurched towards the middle and struck the center pin.

Tom told me that it was because the lanes were oiled but the last ten feet were dry. The ball would spin without changing direction as it slid down the oiled boards until it got to the dry boards where it would grab and change directions. He pointed out that when Kim bowls the ball slides down the middle of the lane without spinning at all. You can see the finger holes look stationary. When Patti bowls the ball spins slowly back towards us. In both cases, when the ball hits the dry region, it starts rolling end over end until it hits the pins.

I think there's a metaphor hidden in that as well. We spend some of our time sliding through life. It's only when we hit those dry patches that we really have to depend on the way we are spinning.

The bowling metaphor doesn't quite work though. At the end of a frame in a bowling alley, the pins are automatically set to the same way they were before. You get to start all over again and see what happens this time.

Published in: on April 12, 2006 at 5:19 pm  Comments (1)  

Tuesday People

On the second Tuesday, Morrie Schwartz tells Mitch Albom, "It's horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to nothing. But it's also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye. […] Not everyone is so lucky."

I don't know why I didn't read "Tuesdays with Morrie" until now. People told me it was a "quick read". I didn't want a quick read about death. It is a very quick read. I'm going to return it to the library and buy a copy so that I can read it again slowly. Maybe read it over fourteen Tuesdays. Get more of a sense of the pace of the revelations. Feel the passage of time. Morrie pictured a bird on his shoulder that he would turn to and ask "Is today the day I die?"

We're told that our death is particularly hard to deal with, to accept, to acknowledge, to . . . well, it is hard because it was so sudden. Morrie thinks it is easier for the dying if they know they are going to die. I don't know that it is easier for those around them.

Sometimes people know they are going to die. They just know it. They wrap up their affairs with people they know. They walk down town and chat with people they haven't talked to in years. They spend a holiday with their family and then quietly die. It's as if they somehow knew they had unfinished business that they could wrap up.

A six year old has a life time of unfinished business.

All deaths are sad. I think of a college student who has shown enough promise that we understand the life that lies ahead of them. A young parent whose spouse and children will feel the loss forever. An aging parent who leaves behind all of the unresolved issues and unanswered questions. An infant that represents the promise that has yet to take any shape at all.

And a six year old. Like a bud in the spring. Green and ready to open up and show us what is inside.

Maybe it was the suddenness of her death that shocks us. Morrie says "I mourn my dwindling time, but I cherish the chance it gives me to make things right." Maybe a six year old or an infant doesn't need that kind of time because there's nothing to make right.

For Morrie, love was central to who we are and what we do while we are here. Expressing love. Communicating love. If you spend enough of your time opening your heart to others then, he explains, "we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there."

I read through this book – this book that I intend to reread. I was touched more than I expected. I cry easily at books and movies but not, until six weeks ago, not at real life. I was moved through most of the book but didn't cry until I read Morrie's words that

"Death ends a life, not a relationship."

Published in: on April 11, 2006 at 9:54 am  Comments (8)