Friday, September 12, 2014

In A Moment

Did I think about it? Of course I did. Unless one lives under a rock and/or is brain dead, it's impossible not to. Since neither of those scenarios apply to me, yes, it was on  my mind. Like millions of others, I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened. I can do that with all of the more defining moments in my life.

Those kinds of memories don't have the grainy, aged film look that many other memorable moments do. They are high definition and they are larger than life. They are so big and so well defined that not only can I see the peach fuzz on a face, but each individual hair that makes up the peach fuzz.

I know each line on the back of my father's massive hands as the tremors of end stage lung cancer shook them. Shook them so much that he couldn't unzip and re-zip his pants when he had to use the bathroom. So he asked me, his then teenage daughter to help. I did so willingly, but with a tremendous, painful lump in my throat. I understood all at once what it must have taken for him to ask for my help. No man should ever have to ask his daughter for help zipping his pants. In the few short seconds it took me to help him, his hands trembled at his sides. And I remember every line on the back of his hands.

I remember the way the sunlight hit the dust on the monitor the day I clicked open an email from a friend only to read that a beloved mutual friend of ours had died very suddenly. Six words stole the air from the room, "I'm afraid our girl is gone." As the world spun away, the dust and the sunlight and the monitor remained, and only those three things. Jesse was gone, dust, sunlight, monitor, Jesse gone, sunlight, dust, monitor, how can that be, monitor, dust, sunlight. I watched as the first chuff of a sob broke free from me and made the dust dance in the sunlight.

I can see the reflection of my office building in his black truck. The building number above the door is backwards. I approach the driver side window with a smile. He's early. I'm happy to see him. Then I see his face, the streaks of gray in his mustache, the way his lower jaw is working - he always did that when something troubled him deeply. I stop short at the look on his face. "What." I say it not as a question but more as a definition of some great heavy beast standing between us. His look is one of mixed shame, fear, and almost anger. He knows he's going to break something in me as he answers with one word, "Cancer." I sigh, and then I can move forward to grasp his shoulder. "Oh, my love." It's all I can say. It's enough. I look down and notice that the backwards number is wavering. I don't want him to see my tears. Not yet. He has enough to deal with.

September 11, 2001. I was finishing an early morning workout on one of the treadmills in the small gym that was part of the apartment complex where my late mate and I lived. There was a woman on the other treadmill. I think she had blond hair. We had TV turned on to the news chatter of local weather, traffic, blahblahblah... "We interrupt your regular broadcast... breaking news..." We both watched as the first plane hit the tower. "Oh, my god..." the woman next to me said softly. "That didn't look accidental," was my response. I finished up and went home to shower and get ready for work. I walked in the door and told John to turn on the news. "A plane just ran into one of the World Trade Center towers," I said. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee. I heard the tell-tale click of the TV as John pushed the on button of the remote. The image of the tower, smoldering in the middle, filled the screen. "Holy shit!" he exclaimed. "I don't think it was an accident," I repeated. I couldn't shake the heavy feeling in my chest. I was taking a sip of coffee when the second plane hit. I quickly set down the cup and propped myself on the edge of the sofa. I remember thinking, "Smoke and ashes... oh the people... smokeandashesohthepeople..." as if I was about to write a poem. There was nothing poetic about it.

Yes. I thought about it yesterday, the same way I often think about those clear, hard-edged moments of my life. The moments that show me how easy it is to feel wounded and how tough I can be despite that. I thought about it and proceeded with my day in the only way I know how to honor those unthinkable times, those people who have suffered agony that I can't completely understand, the people I've loved and the people I'll never know who have been taken in death.

I thought about it. I thought about it and then and set about living deliberately. Bringing honor isn't so much in a totem or a memorial or a moment of silence. Honor is in living anyway. Honor is in living well and fully.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

When They Were Humans

It began a couple of months ago when I came across an old wedding photo of my parents. It's one I've seen many times before - two fresh faced "kids" to whom I bear a vague resemblance, dressed in wedding garb, smiling as they look out of the back window of the get-away vehicle. A thought I'd never had before while looking at that picture came barreling through, "They're looking out the back window at all their friends and family waiving them on and wishing them well. Meanwhile, the car is speeding forward to an unknown future. A future that is as wide open as any can be." I can imagine them as newlyweds, nervous about their first night together, excited about building a home together, maybe even wondering if they'd just made a tremendous mistake (c'mon... they wouldn't be the first couple in history!).

I stared at those two in the picture, familiar yet so completely foreign to me. I couldn't help but wonder, not for the first time in my life, "Am I at all what they had in mind?" I mean, my parents were Catholic. Barring any medical issues, they were going to have children. They ended up having five. I was the fourth. It's not a matter of self-doubt or self-loathing or anything like that when I ponder this question. It's more of a..... *sigh*... I wonder if they pictured a family beyond babies or school aged children. I wonder if they ever pondered an adult child, female, headstrong, creative, emotional, funny, intelligent and nowhere near perfect and entirely okay with that.

I could ponder this very question with regard to any of my siblings, again, in no way implying anything derogatory. "Is he what they had in mind? Is she? Were we?"

Because it isn't in their eyes in that picture. The look in that picture is the perfect mash-up of  here-we-go and dear-god-now-what-do-we-do. That was back when they were humans. Before they became parents. Before the world stuck its big nose and its meaty fist and its grimy foot in the door. They had dreams. She had dreams of being a teacher; he had dreams of being an artist. In a way, both of those dreams came true. She ended up with a captive classroom of five; he became a commercial artist - a sign painter.

How many times over the years have I forgotten that they were humans? Countless. They were my parents. As far as I was concerned, that was their identity and their only identity. Put a seal on it, and call it done. I wonder how many times they sighed heavily and thought, "I wish I was something besides a mother doing something besides housework and raising children. I wish I was still a human." Or. "I wish I was a guy going off to the woods to fish and do artwork and that I didn't have to worry about protecting and feeding these people. I wish I was still a human."

Am I what they expected? After all that.

I know my aged mother is proud of her children, of that there is no doubt. I know my father was too. That's not in question. Was this person, the one sitting here typing at you, was she in any of the imagery of some distant future? I just wonder about that. That's all.

I found myself delving further back. There's an old adage that says you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you come from. I traced a line back to my father's great great great grandparents - the Blacks in my lineage who first came to this country from Ireland, Archibald and Sarah. They would have been young, early 20s at best. Yes, back when they were humans. They came on a promise of land that they could own and work themselves and upon which they could build a family.

Am I what they expected?

Are any of us ever?

Yet we, as Lionel Ritchie once said of his own heritage, "stand on the shoulders of greatness."  Never mind the personalities that didn't always see eye to eye, never mind the occasional clash in ideals. Generations sacrificed without once thinking, "There will be a woman named Barb. We're doing this for her." No. They just did it. They persevered through adversity and never wasted time in complacency. They did what had to be done and now, here am I.

I owe a tremendous debt to those who cleared a path. I owe them my own dedication to the work I do. I owe them my own tenacity when faced with impossibilities or inevitabilities. I owe them an authentic life.

I may not be what they expected, those people, back when they were still humans. But I'm determined to make sure they're at least pleasantly surprised.