A Soft Spot

You know when you first become aware of something. Something ordinary. Something that's been there all along.

I remember riding in the passenger seat of my parent's Buick station wagon fiddling with the after-market air conditioner. A big unit that sat under the dashboard and leaked water when the day was particularly hot. One of these droplets of condensation dripped onto the back of my hand. As I raised it up to take a look, I noticed pores for the first time. We'd studied them in school and I'd known I'd had them, but I'd never thought of them outside the classroom.

Little tiny holes all over my body. I'd thought of my body as this insulated sack of me and yet there were thousands of pathways from the outside to the inside and back that I'd never really thought about. It's a protective but not impermeable sack. I remember being sixteen and slipping during a hike. I cut my leg open on a rock when my foot fell through what I'd thought were leaves covering solid ground. There looking back up at me was my shin bone. It was part of me and it yet it wasn't. A doctor stitched it up nicely and I don't think of it much any more except when Maggie points to the large hook shaped scar on my leg.

Seeing my insides exposed hadn't made the point of the softness of this container that holds us in. It was a couple of years later, nearly thirty years ago when I sat transfixed by something I'd never thought about before. It was the first time I'd noticed the soft spot on the back of an infant's head. It pulsed with life. It glowed. I couldn't take my eyes away from it. Would I like to hold the baby? I didn't know. I mean, I did want to hold the baby. But what if I put my hand through that soft spot. What if I damaged the child forever?

I know it was nearly thirty years ago because I was on a trip with my dad who was taking me to look at colleges. My inbox has been filled with solicitations for money in celebration of our twenty-fifth reunion so it was thirty years this fall since we took the trip. Also, my cousin, the one with the soft spot in the back of his head, turns thirty this Friday.

The spot seems to have healed nicely.

I seem to have this whole meta-level dialog going on in my head these days. I think a thought and then wonder why. I'm sure there aren't good reasons for many of them, but this insulated sack of self has surfaced a couple of times.

When Elena died, we asked several doctors how she got the thing that killed her. It turns out that many of us have it. There is a large percentage of people who walk around with the same bacteria that ended her life. They breathe it in and carry it in their noses just as she did. What could we have done to prevent it?

Nothing.

There is no way to wrap up your child and protect them from everything they might need to be protected against without keeping them from being a child and without keeping them from growing into an adult. You can get hurt on a walk. So don't go on a walk. You can hurt a baby by holding it. So don't hold babies. You can breathe in something that might kill you. So don't even breathe.

We have so many soft spots. Some physical. Some emotional. Some spiritual. They are all there for a reason. They help us grow or pass to the next stage. But these amazing mechanisms of life which enable us to thrive and mature also introduce vulnerabilities against which we can not protect ourselves or the people we love.

My memory of Elena is already not what it was. It upsets me to no end that I can't capture these memories quickly enough. But I remember her as being a giant soft spot. She cried for others. She felt pride and delight when others did well. She was the soft spot in our family that pulsed with life. She glowed.

Published in: on May 30, 2006 at 1:08 pm  Comments (3)  

Would Haves

If you've never seen the Vietnam war memorial in Washington D.C. it's hard to imagine. How can something so simple as slabs containing names be that powerful – and yet it is. Standing in front of it you see your reflection and the reflection of others viewing the memorial while thousands of names lie before you. It's stark, it's simple, it's powerful.

Memorial day.

And for every one of those listed there and those who fell in other wars are friends and family. How do you see beyond the names listed on the wall and in records of other wars? How do you see the massive list printed in yesterday's Doonesbury and appreciate each man and woman as an individual? For each Elena that is no longer with us there is a Kim and a Daniel left behind. There's a Maggie who has no one to sing harmony with. There are communities which feel a hole at least for a little while.

 For many of the soldiers who died there are parents and siblings. For others spouses and children. Just go up two degrees of separation and there are millions represented by those names on the wall. Millions of people celebrating "would haves" instead of birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions.

Would haves.

The folks that remember that today was John's birthday don't celebrate it with him. He's not here anymore. Instead they say things like, "John would have been fifty-four today."

Nancy, stands today with her classmates to receive a diploma that her father didn't live to see her get. Instead of a hug from a proud father she has to hear "your dad would have been so proud of you today."

I had a friend who had a flag where his father should have been. It was the flag that had been draped across the coffin of a veteran. Folded carefully into the triangular package and presented to the family. He was proud of his dad and took particular care of the flag. His life time of "would haves" never could make up for the dad he had lost while still a child.

Published in: on May 29, 2006 at 10:44 am  Comments (4)  

Shucking Corn

It's going to be a long summer for Kim and me.

Kim usually takes more time off of work and hangs out with the girls. They spend a lot of time at the swimming pool. They water the flowers together. She watches them while they bicycle up and down our street. She spends a lot of time with the girls but summer is extra special.

And then there are the activities you don't remember until you are doing them. Simple things. Stupid things.

After Maggie's soccer practice the other night we headed over to Heinen's to pick up some groceries.

"Do you want corn?" I asked.

"Can we shuck it here?" Maggie asked back.

"Sure."

Maggie looked at the posted price and said "I'll do three and you can do three."

And then I was overwhelmed with sadness. I've been shopping with one child or the other many times but I also remember so many times that the three of us stopped to shuck some corn to take home. "It's kind of sad," I said while we felt around in the bin of corn to choose the three we each wanted. "Usually you and Elena would shuck the corn."

"Sort of," Maggie said. "Elena would peel it down but you'd always have to break it off."

"True."

"And you'd sometimes have to help me get started."

Something as stupid as picking and peeling corn and I've got tears welling up. I loved shopping with my girls. I remember once when I was shopping with Elena I stood next to her while she picked out three lemons for a recipe we were making. A woman watched her, looked at me, and then looked back at Elena.

"You're doing a very good job honey," the woman said. "You're mom must have taught you well."

I was a little put out by this. I'm standing next to my daughter coaching her in how to pick fruit and vegetables and this stranger assumes her mom taught her well. I didn't say anything. I didn't need to. Elena spoke up.

"No," Elena said. "It was my dad. With lemons you want the heavier ones. I'm comparing."

The woman was not done yet. "Well maybe you can show your dad the cherries. They look very good."

"I don't think so," said Elena politely.

"Why not?" the woman asked.

"They're not in season. My dad doesn't like us to buy them when they're not in season. They'll be much cheaper in a week or two and they'll taste better."

The woman smiled and moved on. I beamed.

I didn't always hold the line on season. Sometimes, like on Memorial Day weekend, you just have to get corn and watermelon. So there we were Friday picking through corn though it's way before the season hits here in northern Ohio. Looking for the heavy ones because that tends to work with corn the way it does with lemons. Pulling the husks off and trading memories.

Published in: on May 28, 2006 at 8:16 am  Comments (4)  

Up Before the Sun Rises

I remember complaining to my friend Dave about being ticketed in Cleveland Heights for a rolling stop. I knew I'd come to a complete stop because – for a change – I'd seen the police car sitting there and knew how much the Cleveland Heights cops love to write tickets.

"Yeah," Dave shrugged. He was sympathetic because a friend had a ticket to pay but, as always, had a pretty balanced view of the world. Dave's also been a cop for many years. He's used to hearing people say they didn't do what they were stopped for.

"Did you ever speed, or park illegally, or do something wrong and not get ticketed?" he asked."Sure," I said."Well then," he reasoned, "this ticket might be wrong. You might have come to a complete stop and he says you didn't. Think of this ticket as one of those things you get for all those times that you should have gotten a ticket and didn't."

I didn't buy it. If no one was there when I'd done something wrong, then those somehow weren't on the slate anymore. We aren't talking about balance. We're talking about injustice.

Dave let me rant a bit and then raised his eyebrows. "Maybe your right," he said. "But so what. There's really nothing you can do about it. You say you came to a complete stop, he says you didn't. Even if you're right, just pay the fine."

I hate it when he's right like that. But he was. And there was a time that I had forgotten until this morning. Back when I was working those crazy hours teaching high school during the day and doing night time radio ninety minutes away. Starting the drive back home at midnight knowing I'd be getting up the next day at six a.m.

One night I dozed off driving home. It was only for a second or two, but when you're driving at sixty five miles an hour that's a long time. I woke up when the police car next to me hit his siren and lights. I had been drifting into his lane. I pulled over terrified at what could have happened. I could have been killed. I could have killed someone else. I'd never been so happy to see a cop in my life.

He was incredibly nice about it and, once he determined I wasn't under the influence of anything, he drove behind me for the next mile until I pulled over in a truck stop and promised to sleep for a couple of hours. I hadn't thought about that night for years. Not until I was walking back to the house this morning a little after five.

About quarter til five I thought I heard a woman screaming. I looked over to see if Kim had heard it but she'd been unable to sleep and had moved downstairs to the couch. I listened at the window and didn't hear anything so I got back into bed. The power went out for a few seconds. Just long enough for all the clocks near me to start blinking twelve.

The screaming started up again and this time there were sirens. I threw on a pair of shorts and headed down the street. A couple of neighbors were standing there well clear of the three cop cars, the fire truck, and the ambulance. They said that a kid had fallen asleep driving home from prom. One of the neighbors had talked to the kids and reported that all of them were ok but they had hit a pole and the car was in pretty bad shape.

I know this had nothing to do with Elena and Dave but in a way it did. All of those times that Kim or me or Maggie or Elena had done something dangerous or had an accident that could have really harmed us didn't count. Thank goodness these kids were ok. But it doesn't stay on the slate. If something later happens to them when they're not doing something wrong, it's not a cosmic balancing of the accounts.

Of course, that's not what Dave meant. He really meant what he said. "There's really nothing you can do about it." The rest was just a context to think of things the magnitude of a traffic ticket.

I got home and told Kim what had happened. We went back up to bed. Half a block away it sounded like the emergency crew was pulling the car off of the pole. The electricity went out again. We listened to the clean up operations and said nothing.

The sky began to brighten a bit. Kim finally dropped off to sleep. I hear Maggie start to stir in the next room. I paused to thank whatever was responsible for no one getting hurt and thought of four kids I'll never meet. Four kids who got to see the sun come up again this morning.

Published in: on May 27, 2006 at 11:48 am  Comments (1)  

Planting Perennials

There's been a whole lot of planting lately. There's the new tree in our front yard as well as the tree, bushes, and annuals in Elena's garden. Maggie and I visited Elena's garden Wednesday night after the Boulevard School Ice Cream Social.

To Elena it was a tongue twister. She'd spend the week before talking about that the "ice cream show-shall". No one was more social than she. Somehow Elena would be on the playground with the other kids, in line for ice cream, and talking with parents all at the same time. It was if there were three of her there.

Each year at the social, the kids get a plastic cup of ice cream and their favorite toppings. They then run around and work off the boost of sugar while their parents keep half an eye on them while talking to each other. It was nice to hang out with other moms and dads while the kids cut loose on the playground and on the playing fields. The weather this year was perfect. Kim hadn't felt well and stayed home.

It had been a long day. That morning at ten we had been at Boulevard while Maggie and the first graders planted the annuals in Elena's garden.

Two hours earlier Maggie and I had been at the middle school so that Maggie could try out a couple of instruments to see what she'll be playing next year in fifth grade. She liked the flute and was able to make a bit of a sound with it so the band teacher agreed that that's what she will play.

We finished at 8:30. Too early to take her to school. Not much to do at home so we went grocery shopping. She needed cereal and asked for pizza bagels. Somehow this combined to make me forget that one the items I'd gone there for was bananas.

We stopped at home, put the groceries away, and picked up Maggie's glasses and Kim and dropped Maggie off at Boulevard. Before the ten o'clock planting, Kim and I had an appointment with the Shaker Schools Foundation to see how the Elena Fund was doing.

When Elena died, a lot of decisions were made quickly and by two people who were largely out of it. Given how incoherent Kim and I were, I'm amazed at how many decisions were made that were pretty good. When we went to the funeral home, the funeral director asked us if there was a place that we would like contributions to be made. Yes, there was. We hadn't set anything up yet though.

We thought that it would be nice to set aside money for the schools. Something to support art, music, and generally creative things. We didn't want to put too many constraints on how the money would be spent but Elena had loved her Elementary school passionately. We expressed that semi-clearly to Patti who did some investigative work for us. Somehow, between the time that Elena died and the time of the death announcement in the paper we had enough details to get started.

We thought we were planting annuals. To our surprise we ended up with perennials.

When the fund reached five thousand dollars we got a call from the foundation that it could now become an endowment. Basically, the interest would be spent each year and the principle would remain. People were generous beyond all expectation. When Kim and I went to the meeting Wednesday morning we were told that the fund had exceeded twelve thousand dollars. The schools would receive more than six hundred dollars a year.

As we understand it, each year teachers will apply for grants for special projects or needs that they have. We don't want to put too many restrictions on the fund, but for the first few years I'd like the money to go to projects in Boulevard because that's the time that Elena would have been in the school. After that, we've talked about making the funds available district wide. The teachers apply in October and the money is granted in November.

This is a flower that was planted once and will blossom for years.


At the risk of being tacky, I am including the information for the fund here again because some people have asked. Thanks to the generosity of hundreds (yes hundreds) of people this fund is in great shape and this is not a solicitation. If it offends you, I am sorry. Give locally to something in your own community or not at all. Her fund is: Elena Steinberg Memorial Fund c/o Shaker Schools Foundation, 15600 Parkland Dr., Shaker Hts., OH 44120

Published in: on May 26, 2006 at 4:45 pm  Comments (6)  

What’s in a Name

We have a new tree in our front yard. The weekend before last, just in time for Mother’s Day, Lena, Rick, and Corinne came over and planted a Spring Snow Flowering Crabtree.

Spring Snow. Perfect.

That was Elena’s Chinese name. Chun Xue. Spring Snow. Each spring when it flowers we will look outside and remember her. It’s not like we could forget but it’s wonderful how many people have provided us with beautiful reminders of this amazing child. Kim asked Lena if she’d picked the type of tree because of its name. No. It was just one of those happy coincidences. She liked the tree and chose it because she thought it would be perfect for us. The additional appropriateness of the name was just one of those things.

At Elena’s wake I told Lena that I had only recently noticed how close our daughter’s name had been to her own. Because they were pronounced so differently I’d never made the connection to them only differing by a single letter. Leeee nah. EEEE lay nah. Lena said she’d only made the connection when she’d come to the wake and seen Elena’s name written out like that.

Although I had chosen the name Elena and that spelling, I sometimes pronounced it uhhh lay nuh. Elena would always correct me. She would stress the first syllable extra hard as she said, “EEEEEEE lay nuh daddy, not uhhh lay nuh. Don’t you know your own daughter’s name?”

“Sure,” I’d say, “Elena Rose”.

“Nooooo,” she’d protest. “Elena Maxine. Don’t you know anything?”

It seems that I didn’t.

Of course the most important words for anyone are their own name. The only person Elena allowed to call her something else was Maggie. Maggie could pretty much call Elena anything she wanted as long as she was paying attention to her and calling her something. When she was younger Elena would make up names and characters on the phone when I would call.

“Hi Elena,” I would say.

“Elena?” she would ask with a mock-puzzled voice. “Who’s Elena? This is Mrs. A-bob-o-low.” Not content to let me choose my own character, she would often come up with one for me. It could be a character she’d newly created or one she’d appropriated from television. “That’s right,” she’d say, “I’m Mrs. Abobolow and you must be Timmy Turner.”

“Timmy Turner,” I’d say. “Ok. How are you today Mrs. Abobolow?”

She’d whisper into the phone just in case I wasn’t really understanding the complexities of our conversation. “Dad,” she’d whisper, “really it’s me Elena. I’m just pretending to be Mrs. Abobolow. OK?” Then she’d raise her voice back into her phone conversation voice and say “Timmy, have you been getting into trouble today.”

Some parents only pull out a child’s middle name when they are in trouble. We alternated between calling her Elena and Elena Maxine. It sounded almost musical to me. She was pretty close to being Maxine Elena but we flipped it towards the end. I’m glad we did. Somehow, once you have named something or someone, it’s hard to picture any other name fitting.

I look out the living room window and there’s a tree where nothing used to stand. A Spring Snow. Next spring white flowers will appear as a reminder of our little Spring Snow. Elena Maxine. Or Mrs. Abobolow.

Published in: on May 25, 2006 at 10:19 am  Comments (3)  

Planting Annuals

I had to ask again today. "What do you call plants that come up year after year?" The answer is, of course, perennials. You'd think I'd know that by now and on some days I do. But on other days I'm sure that they are called "annuals". Something that happens annually happens every year. But, as Marie explains in about.com's gardening section, "A true annual is a plant that completes its life cycle in one year." So an annual flower does not flower every year. It flowers once and dies and you need to replant it the following year.

Kim and I spent part of this morning up at Boulevard school watching Elena's first grade class put the finishing touches on her garden. One of the mom's said, looking at the garden, that it was difficult to picture that it had not always been there.

So true.

The landscaper had followed the flow of the surrounding sidewalks and created a perfectly shaped garden with a dogwood in the middle and various bushes and plants along the side that tied the garden to nearby trees and other garden areas. It wasn't easy to picture this section of the lawn covered only in the same grass that covered the lawn around it.

Several moms have shown up to help with the planting. One has been kind enough to look all over town for a nice assortment of pansies. She called yesterday to make sure it was ok that she had supplemented the pansies with another variety because there weren't enough good looking pansies. Her choice was perfect.

The first group of six children come down from Elena's first grade class. Maggie has been allowed to take time away from her fourth grade class to come help. This first group of first graders are all boys. They walk right for the garden and cut across it. We motion them to walk around and, because we're standing right there, they do. By this afternoon they'll be cutting across the garden again.

"What's that smell?" asks one of the first graders, wrinkling up his nose. It was the great outdoors. Or, as one mother more correctly answered, it was fresh fertilizer. The PTO had paid for this beautiful memorial for Elena. A garden on the spot where the school year begins and ends. This is where parents bring their kids on the first day of school to meet their teachers. This is where the kindergarten teachers greet their graduates and lead them over to their first grade teacher.

Maggie and the boys each took a spoon and a plant and dug their own holes. Dirt flew everywhere. The moms got the boys settled down and they dug down into the clay. We helped them take the plants from the pots and they placed the flowers in the ground and pushed dirt all around them to hold them in place. Before they left, one of the moms gave them a second flower that had been carefully bundled up and labeled. They could take it home and plant it. This beautiful yellow memory of Elena going home with each of the children she had been in class with.

The boys headed back to their classroom and were soon replaced with six girls accompanied by their teacher Mrs. Chung. The girls got to work selecting their plants and digging their holes. One of the mom found a slug which she showed to each of the girls. One of the girls looked very seriously at me and advised that I should never vomit up slugs like what happened in the Harry Potter movie. You don't often get such practical advice.

I looked past Mrs. Chung to the little bench outside of the classroom. When Maggie was in first grade, that used to be her classroom. She had had Mrs. Chung as her teacher as well. Elena and I would walk up to school to pick Maggie up. We'd get there early and sit on the bench and talk to each other and wait for the bell to ring.

Mrs. Chung remembered that. But she also remembered Elena standing up on the bench so she could see in the room and wave. She remembered me holding Elena up at the window so that Elena could wave to her and to Maggie. I remember Mrs. Eagleton stopping to talk to us – mainly to Elena – on her way to bus duty long before we really knew who she was. I remember the big fourth graders with their orange safety patrol vests leaving school a bit early so they could be in position to caution the other children not to run. We sat each day and watched the buses line up. Elena loved coming to pick up her older sister. She especially loved Fridays when Maggie could pick a prize from the prize box. Elena always wanted to know what Maggie had chosen.

The girls finish planting their flowers without tossing dirt all around them. Kim and I continue to be amazed at how different boys and girls are from such an early age. They carefully hold their "take home" flower and line up to get their pictures taken. Gym class has started and there are fourth graders jogging by us. The third shift of first graders plants their flowers and the one remaining child runs downstairs and outside to join us and plant his flower.

A different group of fourth graders jog by. It's Maggie's class. She joins them in their run around the school. She has planted her plant in Elena's garden and taken pictures of the first graders who helped out.

The flowers, the annuals, will complete their life cycle by year's end. The tree and the bushes and the perennials will remain to weather the winter and to reassert themselves in the spring. Annuals. Because we will return to plant something here each year. Spring becomes a kind of a nice reminder to tend to Elena's garden.

Published in: on May 24, 2006 at 3:21 pm  Comments (8)  

On Proof and Logic

I have this half memory of an article about the car guys, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, in which they talked about their experience at MIT. One of them had an assignment to show that something was possible. The answer was intended to be theoretical. Although the professor hadn't been explicit, the assumption was they the students would go fiddle with equations and axioms until they had proved that this particular thing was physically possible. Instead, the Magliozzi who was taking this class went home and built a physical object that performed the action in question.

Problem: Prove that X is possible.

Solution: Build a device that performs X.

Evaluation: But you were asked to prove X is possible.

Response: It's a proof by construction. That thing right in front of you does what you asked. X must be possible or our device couldn't do it.

At the time I just shook my head. How could this not be a convincing argument? Proof is a funny thing, but an existence proof can be satisfied by showing that at least one exists.

Of course, there are other systems of logic. Some of them seem silly to us. We think that we live in a Boolean world. We think we live in a world where a double-negative implies a positive. I scratched my head for days after hearing Atish explain the world he lived in. It was a world in which, as he would say convincingly, "if it is not true that that animal is not a cow, it does not mean that the animal must be a cow."

A dozen years later and I'm still trying to work that one out.

Kim and I are having a great deal of difficulty making sense of things. The usual laws of logic don't seem to apply. Yesterday was three months since Elena died. You'd think things would be getting easier. Some things are. Some things aren't. Kim was cautioned that this is the point where some aspects will get even harder to deal with.

Logic is one of them. You stand so firmly on logic only to find the foundation is shaky. Maybe our world isn't so Boolean. It was not true that Elena was not a healthy child. It seems though that this was not enough for it to be true that she was a healthy child. This excluding the excluded middle seems to be leaving an awful lot out.

We're having a harder time, though, with proof. It just doesn't seem possible for a healthy and happy six year old to die so suddenly. The fact that it happened still doesn't convince us that there is any way in which it could have. The existence proof is unconvincing.

Argument: It can't happen.

Reply: It did happen.

Evaluation: Somehow that doesn't prove that it could happen.

Published in: on May 23, 2006 at 12:01 pm  Comments (4)  

Good Intent

For every happy story I can tell about me and my girls, there's a dozen that never came to pass. Thousands of things over the years that I meant to do and never did. One of the big ones was date night.

Maggie is now an only child so it is less of a big deal when she has our undivided attention. After all, who is she competing with. But when Elena was alive, it was a big deal for each of them to get me or Kim all to herself. It was great to go somewhere with the two of them – and we often did. Kim or me would take the girls to the park or the library or wherever.  But it was extra special when it was just one of them. No one to take turns with. No need to spend time doing what she wants.

One time Kim and Elena were out in Oberlin and I had to drop our computer off to be repaired. It was around dinner time so I asked Maggie where she wanted to go. She walked into the Chinese restaurant and inspected the menu and decided that this wasn't what she wanted today. If both girls had been there, she wouldn't have had this option. She wanted to go to the chain two doors down that specialized in ribs.

We sat down and she took out one of the crayons they had given her and circled the items on the menu that she wanted. Even though she had chosen the rib joint, she didn't want ribs. She wanted the kids pizza meal. She chose vegetables and dip for her first course and a fruit cup to accompany her pizza. The waiter brought her a root beer and she flirted a bit with him. She discussed the geography facts on her kids menu and chatted with me while she did the word search puzzle. Her meal came with a dessert – a kid sized ice cream sunday. We walked back to the computer store and I thought that in all my life this might have been the best date ever.

I was excited. When Kim and I were back home I said, "we should do this all the time." We should take turns taking the kids out one at a time. They just love it. We should do this all the time.

I didn't.

Oh, from time to time I did. Once in a while one of the kids was busy doing something and I got to take the other one out. Maggie's first two girl scout dances was just me and her. The last two were the three of us. One night when Maggie was busy doing something with Kim, Elena and I went to the Academy Tavern. Julie, a woman we've known there for fourteen years, treated Elena as if she was a grown up customer.

While she waited for her food, Elena engaged me in adult conversation. "So, Daniel," she said, looking to see if it would get a rise out of me, "how do you think?" I smiled back and we talked about this or that. Again, I thought, this is the best date ever. We should do this all the time.

I didn't.

I love these times I got to spend alone with one daughter or the other. I don't second guess the choices I've made in my life. But I do think that a regular date night with one child at a time is a wonderful goal. It sits somewhere next to losing weight, exercising more, writing a novel, and learning an instrument in my box of good intentions.

Published in: on May 22, 2006 at 8:23 am  Comments (4)  

Have You Seen Her

Every once in a while a song gets stuck inside my head. Being way too susceptible to the power of suggestion, the theme from "Dora the Explorer" ran over and over after Nat posted on repetition. He mentioned his kid singing over and over "D D D D D Dora".

This morning it's Al Green's "Love and Happiness". No particular reason. I hear his distinctive voice interlaced with the organ and guitar and it takes me back. In the seventies it seemed that his songs were sensual and about the kind of love that we weren't encouraged to think about. But then Green became a reverend and began singing songs to Jesus. He separated the soul from the gospel and yet they seemed intertwined.

When the Reverend Al Green returned to secular music a few years back he told NPR that the same higher power created both spiritual things and carnal things. Ashley Kahn reports that Green says "his music has always been about love. Not the one night kind, but the love the brings and keeps two people together."

The best songs are about more than one thing. You might think they're about a simple night time encounter but there's more going on behind the lyrics. Maybe even Green's most sensual songs of the seventies can be identified with a higher love.

I know that many of the songs of love lost have taken on new meaning for me in the past few months. A song about a romance that ended, once the sexual overtones are removed, can sometimes strike a deep chord in my thoughts about Elena. I'm not talking about "Me and Mrs. Jones" or "She used to be my girl" but if you'll sway back and forth a bit in time to a slow one, maybe you'll see what I mean.

Take a step then another to the right and then a step and then another to the left. As the Chi-Lites start their harmonies singing "ooooh" and "ahhh" continue to sway back and forth. There's the guitar in the opening moments of their hit "Have you seen her". On top of the harmony the narration starts.

He begins "One month ago today" where tomorrow it will be three months since "I was happy as a lark". Close enough.

I see the next few stanzas through Kim's eyes as she sits at the playground watching the children play. Thinking about their future, talking to the various kids, sharing a story and a laugh, "but it still doesn't ease my pain."

That song has been running through my head since Mother's Day. I heard it all the way to California and back. Maggie and Elena and I used to make up words to familiar tunes and sing them. In my head the Chi Lites sang

"Oh, I see her face every where I go
On the street in San Francisco
Have you seen her?
Tell me, have you seen her?"

I drove home from the airport listening to the first half of the Cavaliers Pistons game. I'm trying to get involved in the game but I know I'm heading home to an empty house. This is my first time away from home since Elena died and as hard as it was to leave the house, it's even harder to go back. I try to tune in to the game. It's exciting. The lead changes several times on my ride home.

I pull into our driveway and pause as the garage door raises the rest of the way. My internal jukebox rewinds to the last part of the spoken intro.

"I know I can't hide from a memory
'Though day after day I've tried
I keep sayin' she'll be back
But today again I lied."

I bring in my bags and there's no one there to greet me. Maggie and Kim are at a girl scout camping weekend so Maggie can't rush in to see how the trip went. I suppose I could pretend for the moment that Elena was there with them – but she isn't. That's not the reason she doesn't yell "Daddy" when I walk in the door and jump into my arms.

I seldom gave the girls gifts when I returned from trips and they seemed to get it. They were always glad to see me and not what I might have brought them. That's really the only thing I ever wanted when I returned. Just to see them again.

The music swells in my head as I look around the dimly lit upstairs. You are still swaying back and forth to the music aren't you? We're coming to the chorus.

The lead singer for the Chi-Lites reaches deep down into his soul and wails in a way that now touches my soul deeply and differently than it did decades ago.

"Why, oh, why did she have to leave and go away?" he asks. The anguish is clear in his voice as he explains "I've been used to havin' someone to lean on, and I'm lost. Baby, I'm lost."

Me too.

I know they aren't singing about my sort of loss. And yet they are. I throw my dirty clothes down the clothes chute and put the suitcase near my closet. I glance into her bedroom, not sure why. She's still not there. I stand looking into the darkness and sigh.

Published in: on May 21, 2006 at 11:18 am  Comments (4)