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New Mom

I haven’t written much lately. The hours of my days seem to be sucked into a vortex of duties. They are not unpleasant, and I begrudge nobody, but there are times, whole hours, whole days when I want to raise my hands palms-out and stop it all. I want to say, in the kindest way imaginable, “please just let me breathe. Let me grieve my loss. Let me absorb the continuous blows that, maybe a year ago, would have killed me but which I now accept as my daily bread. Permit me to abandon all pretense of grace and ease and charm just long enough to be the selfish beast that I am right now, the bottomless pit of need, a motherless child facing down the red and green barrel of everyone else’s Christmas spirit.” It’s not pretty, but it’s real. Right now, it’s real.

Last night, though, I had a moment. It was the kind of moment that reminds me that life is still out there bustling with promise and energy and goodness. After a very long day of work, I sat down to talk to a little girl who is a regular guest at the dinners I cook on Wednesday nights. She comes to the meals with her mother and her grandmother; her brother is in the Christmas pageant, and when he goes upstairs to the Church’s sanctuary to rehearse after dinner she stays at one of the round tables and colors with her “Grammy.”

It’s clear that she has an impairment of some kind. Although I was never sure what it was, and whether it was organic or traumatic in origin. It didn’t seem polite to ask her mother or her grandmother, and it really didn’t make any difference. I had started a Wednesday pattern of hanging out with her for a while, watching her find Waldo, or tell me about what she was drawing. She has the gentlest little voice, and radiates a kind of Buddha-like acceptance of everything around her; ten minutes with her soothed the beast within.

Last night, as the three of us talked, her grandmother volunteered the information that the girl had suffered a brain tumor, and that the treatment had severely diminished her brain functioning. As the older woman talked, I noticed that the child was drawing a rainbow with the colors in their proper “ROYGBIV” order. “How does she know that?” I asked, pointing at a rainbow-covered sheet.

“It’s something she remembers” her grandmother explained. “When you lose parts of your brain it’s hard to predict what will work afterwards.” The girl looked up from her drawing, focusing her big, dark brown eyes on mine.

“Do you have a mom and dad?” she asked. I hesitated. I didn’t want to upset her, but it would be odd to say that I just had a father without explaining the reason. I looked to her grandmother for guidance. She knew I had only recently lost my mother.

“You can tell her,” she said. “It’s very important to her that everybody has a mom and dad. We aren’t sure why.”

“I have a dad,” I told her, “but I don’t have a mom anymore. She died.”

“Your mom died?” she said, selecting a handful of crayons. “I will make you a new mom.” She started to draw. “Eyes,” she said, drawing two circles, “and legs,” she continued, adding arms and hair and other necessary mom parts. She was calm and workmanlike, as if it was no big thing to fill a gaping hole in someone’s life. When she was satisfied, she looked up at me.

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“Is it okay if I take it with me?” I asked. She nodded.

“I made you a new mom” she said. I nodded again.

“Can you write your name on it so I remember who made it for me?” She nodded again. She formed shapes on the paper, in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Well, as close as she could come with the crayons at her disposal. “Thank you” I said. She was on to more rainbows, and didn’t look up.

And there are a million corny things I could say to end this – things about the triumph of the spirit, or counting my blessings, or the mouths of babes. I could say things that might make me gag a little, things that might diminish the power of a moment of true grace.

But I won’t. You get it, right?

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What’s Fixed Will Always be Broken

“What’s broken can always be fixed…what’s fixed will always be broken…”.

 

Jens Lekman, “Your Arms Around Me”

 

At the end of the day, I survey the damage. On the top of my left hand is a small, red gouge, one quarter of the way to full stigmata. On the pad of my left middle finger is a blister, a burn from grabbing a hot pan of rolls in my haste to provide the funeral guests with unquestionable and comforting bounty, and on my left pinky is a slash I did not notice until the sharp zap of pain when I squeezed a lemon wedge into my water. The tops of my toes are blackened by hours of contact with my trusty black clogs, and my makeup has been steamed off my face as my hair has become thick with sweat and frizz. I am unlikely, in my exhausted, shiny and afflicted form to launch a thousand ships or even a single, poorly made newspaper boat.

 

I left home this morning in a fog of sleeplessness and worry. I had planned today’s job, a funeral reception for a good man with a good family, down to the last homely oatmeal cookie. I had not anticipated my own leaden and mulish body, or the brain that malfunctioned like an ancient television. The channels changed abruptly and left me staring blankly at the person to whom I had been speaking. I lost my vertical hold and heard a persistent rasp of static. I didn’t leave enough time for a shower, and forgot that I would have to drive through the beery thatch of undergraduates who showed their heartfelt allegiance to the Emerald Isles by rising at the crack of dawn to lose themselves among green hot pants, plastic cups, sirens and window-shaking hip hop.

 

I bought thirty pounds of fruit, sliced for me in the middle of the night by the invisible handmaidens of the produce department, referred to by their boss as “the fruit girls.” I collected the plump, wanton strawberries, translucent red and green grapes, and yellow chunks of pineapple, and pushed them with gentle speed through the warm air of the parking lot. At work, I lifted them from the back of the car, felt the pull of the building, the job, the urgency of Getting Everything Done, jerked on a bag handle and felt it break. The grapes, so recently plucked and groomed, bounced haplessly onto the sidewalk.

 

The air was so soft; I could hear shouts, laughter, music and sirens. I wasn’t sure if I was going to cry, I didn’t have time to cry. Normal people don’t cry at work. It seemed that a woman standing outside on the first warm day of the year should turn up her face to the watery sun, feel restored, start over. It seemed too complicated.

 

The work saved me, the hauling of plates, smiling, making coffee, slicing, lighting sterno, washing dishes, and refilling of  pitchers. We raised a cathedral of comfort and nourishment for the bereaved, and no sacrificed grapes, flesh wounds or aching muscles can diminish that day’s work. I can fix the damage now (except for the grapes).  I will shower, wrap bandages around the breaches in my flesh, and sit on my porch in the still-warm air, watching the students across the street as they move, unaccountably, from riding a unicycle to playing the trumpet, and then to listening to The Smiths. They’re good kids.

 

I’m a good kid, too.  I’m still a little messed up, but there’s nothing that can’t be fixed.