WILD & TENDER INNOCENCE

Declan, soaking wet, runs through the spouting jets of the fountain. His wild and tender innocence ignites a place inside me grown dry and sere, that he lights with his joy. It burns in my breast, brighter than the firecrackers we lit as kids. I’m so many years away from how it feels to be that alive, racing with joy into each unfolding moment and the next and the next, into the center of my own fire. 

The audience laughs and hoots but not from ridicule. Declan’s spontaneous play has reached inside where their young children still live and all of us are transported back in time. Can my heart hold all the love I feel for him? Will it break from joy and catapult me somewhere more real, more honest, where I say, “yes, this is where I want to be?” I want to be drunk on this love forever. I want to grab the world and bring it inside. I want to believe all of it is fine: the good, the bad, and what seems ugly. Can I go back that far, before I got taught what the world was? Will this beautiful young boy gradually be tamed and the only memory I have will be the video I took of him racing from one jet of spewing water to another in an impromptu dance of life? I want to play like that again—no filters between me and the moment, like a fuse that burns endlessly—no holding on.

When it’s time to go, he’s shivering but doesn’t want to leave. We pull him away. Enough, you are wet and it is dark and it is time to go home. He could run and squeal with delight until he drops. I love this little boy with all the love I was afraid I hadn’t given to my own son. In this way I am healed. In this way some huge shift has already grabbed me and refuses to let go. I am his Grandma GiGi.

Source: gingergraziano.com

My Wild Heart

July 6, 2012
archived

My wild heart would not lay still or ignore its longing for more than the tar streets of the Bronx. My wild heart’s beat scared me because it promised to give me away, because it did not want to play by anyone else’s rules.

I tried to do as my parents asked but inside I was subversive. I dreamed when I was supposed to be listening. I read books that led my mind down dark alleys and fed me thoughts no one could control. Even while looking normal, my wild heart led me to disobey or get in the last word even when I knew I’d be punished.

My wild heart was filled with passion, railed against injustice, was spontaneous, untamed. Willful was what I was called, willful and abrasive. My wild heart loved parakeets and falcons, black-eyed susans and the magnolia tree in full bloom. It raged when nature was abused. It hated dumb people and teachers who were bullies.

My wild heart didn’t trust authority, my parents or anyone who said they had my best interests in mind but didn’t. It fought whoever tried to control me. It took me down New York City streets where I met danger and had to find a way out——quick. It forced me to say no when I meant it even if the price I paid was heavy. I didn’t play by the rules; I avoided the ones I didn’t believe in.

My wild heart taught me to fight, taught me to be defiant, to use my anger to motivate me. My wild heart searched for years to find a place to come to rest.

My wild heart gave itself only to those it trusted.

The Truth That Can’t Be Denied

May 25, 2015
archived

Jenny’s mind was quick, her wit too. She talked circles around other people who were slower to understand. She moved fast but she came up against her brother’s illness and was speechless. Rap songs, her X-Files, her Anne Rice vampire books, none of them gave her solace. She moved even quicker, moving faster than her emotions which hadn’t caught up with her. I realized I had taught her well.

Every day she left the sanctuary of her ground-floor studio apartment on the Upper East Side and walked into the pulsing life of Manhattan. She looked like any other pretty woman heading off to work except she had a secret inner world. Her life used to be about her boyfriend or where she and her friends would meet on Friday night. This night she would go to the hospital to see her brother. He was twenty blocks south of her, not free to come and go anymore.

What did she think as she caught the subway? How did she cope with the enormity of her dread? Because she could no longer pretend he would be okay, and the treats she gave herself in the past to get her through hard times couldn’t even begin to touch the empty hole inside her. At times, I have been her, have been in the trap of watching life move forward, move uncontrollably towards an outcome I have pushed away, knowing I must surrender to it but not sure how.

As the stations flashed by the subway windows, the people a blur, she was hurled forward. She braced her feet as the train screeched to a halt at her stop.

I imagined her thinking back to when she believed her brother would get better. Of course he would. Life would go on. He would leave home like she had; go to college. On summer break, he’d drive down to her apartment and they’d go out and have a few drinks at the corner hangout. They’d talk about music and what classes he was taking. Her boyfriend would meet them and they’d go out for pizza. Life would go on. Today and yesterday would fade into a memory that they’d refer to as ‘that time’ or ‘before I got better.’

She shook her head as if to shake free the thoughts because they weren’t real. They were the dream she had created to push away for a few moments the hard truth that her brother wasn’t coming into the future with her. Forever, there would be a hole where he should have stood next to her. His absence would take the place of him. Her memories were what she would have left.

I thought of how he used to run screaming after me when I walked down the hill towards the bus that would take me to work in Manhattan, into the next state from New Jersey. And how every day she had to take him by the arm and walk him to kindergarten, telling him Mommy would come back.

She was what he had when I left but who would she have when he was gone? Who would take her hand when she cried? Who would guide her away, back to life?

Today even the sidewalk seemed to pitch and roll, unsteady under her feet. She stared bewildered at the insistent life of the city, its clear movement; everyone looking like they had purpose and a destination. No one strolled. She faltered for a moment, forgetting what street she was on until she saw the coffee shop at the end of the block and realized she was on 20th Street, two blocks from work.

This morning she was tired. She hadn’t slept well. The streetlight outside her French doors shone in and she couldn’t escape from the footsteps of people talking and walking by. Or worse, from her own mind, which continued to create scenes, one worse than the other, of what was going on in her brother’s head, right inside, so he couldn’t run away.

She had bolted upright, flipped on the light and reached for a cigarette. She sucked the smoke deep into her lungs and she began to calm down as she watched the smoke rise into the darkness overhead.

She remembered the fight she’d had with her brother over smoking when he was already sick. “What are you smoking for?” he demanded. “Why are you doing something to harm your own body?” He paced in front of his room, agitated. He slammed his fist into his closed door and it resounded throughout the house. He was almost in tears. “I’d give anything to be well and you’re playing with your life!”

Now she watched the orange fire in the tip of the cigarette burn. She lived on cigarettes and coffee, not much else. She couldn’t eat.

She visited him in the hospital, bringing her stories to give him hope, to entertain him. But her bravado was fading. She was exhausted.

Every night she tried to sleep, paced her wooden floor, lit cigarette after cigarette, in her own way keeping vigil with no energy to plan or dream, nothing but the rawness of her heart as she faced what life had become.

At the end where all the words fail, we will not be going through the same door but will you wait for me while I live my life? Will you stand in the doorway and wave to me? Will you turn and walk away, abandoning me here alone, my sweet, griping, pain-in-the-ass brother?  Will I have to go on remembering for the two of us, living for the two of us? 
 

Night Ride to Atlanta

May 11, 2012
archived

When my daughter Jenny got ready to go back home to Georgia after she moved, she always left late, over my protests of “stay the night!”

Out in my driveway, she zipped out the windows of her jacked-up Jeep and put the top down. After goodbyes, hugs and kisses, she hoisted herself up into the cockpit of her macho machine, tied her hair in a ponytail, and put on her baseball cap. Laid out on the empty passenger’s seat were a pack of Marlboro Lights, a liter of Diet Coke, her cell phone and CDs ready to be slipped into the waiting slot, so the music could sway and jive her through the night. She’d already been up since morning and a fifteen-hour drive lay ahead. This was how she liked it—living on the edge, with the wild wind streaming her hair out behind her as she drove 90 mph down dark highways, rap blasting out and cigarette after cigarette her companions as she fled back into her own life.

Her Jeep’s huge tires propped her up above every car and I imagined truckers flashing their lights and blowing their horns. You’re one of us, nighttime babe, taking chances and gearing up, shifting down, flying back to the warmth of the South, leaving the memories.

She needed time to get her own rhythms back. The Jeep made it hard to hear the voices; her hair whipped around and slapped her awake. The wind twirled around her slim young body. It pulsed with life and promise.

Untethered from the past, from moorings that had grown too tight and memories that hurt—fifteen hours of forward motion would do it, would clear her head so she could breathe again. By the end of Virginia, the sun already coming up over the lowlands, she flew headlong down into North Carolina, Galax the next town.

I often wondered what that word meant. Sounded like someone had spelled GALAXY wrong, dropped off the Y, so crucial to the question we had no answer to.       

 

GETTING TO KNOW WHO I HAD BECOME

April 5, 2012
archived

The sun rose slowly, one infinitesimal inch at a time. I stared at the horizon imagining light, imagining the faintest glow, wondering if it was all in my mind. Was I making it up? I turned away and turned back. No, there was a faint light, a slight easing of the dark. Gradually the sun rose. It was hard to see its movement but by measuring it against a stationary object, I could see it rise.

My healing happened in this manner also—hardly noticed in my daily existence but edging ever onward.

Clouds formed in the sky and temporarily blotted out the sun, yet it still rose behind the mist.

In my life, there were setbacks—anniversaries, birthdays, seeing a healthy young man who reminded me of Jeremy or a freckle-faced young boy. Then I retreated and mourned as if his death had happened yesterday—my breath taken away with the power of it. But I rose again, back to the present.

I remembered a jazz concert. I was riveted, listening to the saxophone answer the guitar, so soft, almost a whisper…it pulled me down into my heart. How could I be here, because I was at the hospital taking care of Jeremy. No one in the theater knew my son had died. I sat like everyone else, listening. But I had a secret—I had come from another world, the world of children who weren’t home safe in bed. The guitar understood, the sax blew; yes we understand. Yes, yes, let us take you up, up, let us rock you. Yes, you are here. He is not, not, so sorry, sorry.

The tears came silent and hot, running down my cheeks in the darkened theater.

Like the sun, I continued to climb past the dark clouds and the storms. A deep part of me moved forward. Living it, I couldn’t see where I had come to. Only when I stepped back from my life did I have a glimpse of the grieving mother and realized I had survived. One day I passed a cash machine near 34th Street where a younger me, mother of a dying child, had sobbed, unable to press the buttons of the ATM machine.

I still grieved but now there were small periods of time where the great weight lifted. Maybe later that day it happened again—small holes in the dark clouds enclosing me, letting in light. I began to believe I might actually come back to life. How could I have survived when he didn’t?

I wasn’t the old me; I was different. Part of this process was getting to know who I had become, to meet the one who walked through the dark. A phrase from Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer” gave me hope.
 

 

Visit to Sloan-Kettering

March 5, 2012
archived

I left the hotel shortly after I arrived in New York. I left my luggage, wrapped a purple scarf around my neck and headed out to find coffee. I was on York Avenue, walking north against traffic, strolling with purpose, but what purpose?

The thought crossed my mind, I’m heading for Sloan-Kettering, and then I knew. I had to go, before anything else. Eighteen years had passed since I left there the night Jeremy died, carrying bags of his clothes, while he lay pale and quiet; his struggle over.

I walked up to the doors as a woman wheeled out her bald daughter. I took a deep breath and went in.

The same escalator moved ever upward. I stepped on and was whisked into the lobby. A woman slept on a chair; a man nearby ate lunch. The usual.

I felt like a sleepwalker in another world. Why was I here?

The elevators were in the same place. I pushed the button and waited. A group of white-clothed doctors got on as I pressed the eighth floor button. They talked about someone’s case. When I used to come here, I didn’t pay attention. I was intent on getting to Jeremy. Now I had nothing but time.

At the eighth floor, I followed the others onto the floor. “Excuse me, is this Pediatrics?”

“No,” the nurse said, “that’s one floor up on nine.”

When I got off, I saw glass doors barring my way and a colorful mural of animals and kids playing. Right floor, but I couldn’t open the door. I fumbled around looking for a way in. I wanted to turn away. Why was I even here? Someone came by and pushed a button I hadn’t seen and the doors slid open. I was assaulted with the familiar hospital smells of chemicals and ammonia. Nothing looked as I remembered it. I stood there, not sure of what to do. I wanted to see the room he left from but that was on the floor below.

I headed down the white hall past the nurses station. They looked busy; maybe they wouldn’t notice me.

“Excuse me, where are you going?” I turned and confronted a young nurse leaning over the counter.

I walked up to her. “My son was a patient here. I wanted to come back.” I came closer. “He died here.”

“What was his name,” she asked. I told her. “Just a minute.” She walked back to the nurses’ room. I could see them sitting around having lunch.

A nurse came out and walked over to me. “I remember your son. Was he around nineteen?”

“Yes,” I said.

“My name is Shelley,” she said. “Ann, will you take her on a tour of the floor?”

I had thought of this place for years. Now it seemed smaller and more crowded. We passed a series of closed doors with signs that said Bone Marrow Transplant.  Even the other rooms had closed doors. Other dramas were taking place here. Mine was long over. I realized that I couldn’t linger here so I thanked Ann and let myself out into the elevator bay.

I had visited the scene of Jeremy’s last day, a place I feared and dreamed about. I remembered well how it felt to be tethered to that life, those final hopes. Did I expect to find myself still wandering the halls going to fetch food from the communal refrigerator?

I had come back from another life in a southern city so I could stop pivoting around this memory and move on like my son had.