I have spent Easter with a very weepy 11 almost 12 year old. He cries because he thinks he's disappointed me. His face clouds up, the long swaths of his hair fall into his face, he won't look at me. I suggest going to the beach though his favorite sandwich shop is closed because it is Easter. He cries because he doesn't know what to do. Because his computer is slow. Because he is, in his words, confused. About everything. We have been at odds for a few weeks now--any criticism or hint of it and he falls apart. My radar for him has been humming at high frequency; I know when he's not okay, when there's something going on. He won't tell me what. Just--I'm confused. About everything. He tends toward absolutes when he's depressed. He has been depressed, off and on, for a few years now. I recognize it, see the storms that cloud my own spirit move across his in familiar ways. It tends to manifest around traveling, around those seismic shifts in his life between here and there, between this life and his other life. But we haven’t traveled for weeks, and won’t until the end of May. But then, every day he also hugs me, tells me he loves me. After dinner tonight, he wrapped his arms around me and sat on my lap.
We spent an hour at the rhododendron gardens today, feeding the ducks. When we left, he was sad. By the time we’d emptied our bag of cracked corn, he was better. Himself. We talked about Jesus, the concept of resurrection, of what might happen to the soul when we leave this earth. Christians believe that Jesus came to conquer death, I said. But death is a good thing, he countered. It saves us from endless pain and suffering. Would we want to live forever and watch all of our friends die?
Death is a good thing. This stuck with me later, a cold seed. I asked him—what did you mean by that? Just that no one wants to live forever, Mom. Do you think about these things, about hurting yourself? No. I think about what happens when we die, but not the other thing.
Before he went upstairs to take a shower, he sat on my lap and hugged me. I tried out my internet-search knowledge of 2017 slang. He cringed, like any 11 year old would do.
When R. and I were at the coast last year, the beach trail appeared and disappeared with the tide. At low tide, we could climb over old lava flow to the hidden beach, then the scarp that led to woods (Beware: bear, cougar, unstable earth). At the entrance to the woods, a rope hung from a tree to pull hikers up the slope. It wasn't high, but I was too scared. R. disappeared onto the cliff for a few minutes leaving me with the rope in my hands, the smell of sea air. I began to panic. Called his name. His voice floated down a few dozen feet above me, then he appeared a few minutes later next to me.
The first night I spent alone after my ex-husband left, I slept. I hadn't slept in years. I let my legs cut across the bed, let Jonah curl into my arm. Though he had a bed, and a bedroom--in our first house, then the apartment, then our house in the suburbs, we rarely used it. He slept with me most nights, and the dogs, and the cats. This continued until we all moved in together, R. and D. and Jonah and me. He sleeps with the dogs, sometimes an errant cat. A string of Christmas lights twinkles all night in his room over the glowing Totoro nightlight.
The first night I slept in my own bedroom at 15, I couldn't sleep for the silence. I was used to the breathing of someone else, even if it enraged me. Even if I pummeled my sister B. from the bed above with a Cabbage Patch Girl to shut her up. It was weird being alone.
I got used to it. I was a really good single mother. I became fierce and terrified, all at once.
The surgeon, whose accent was thick and familiar, finally admitted to being from Chicago. He said, of R.'s last name, Armenian? I thought so. I'm from Chicago--
I cut him off. I knew you were from Chicago! So am I!
He asked where. I ruefully admitted the North Shore. He chuckled--not much older than I, we'd probably graduated from high school the same year. Oh, that's not Chicago. That's soft. I'm from where it's a lot scarier.
Where? I asked. Evanston. I guffawed--really? You're going to Out-Chicago me and say you're from Evanston?
What I didn't say, but thought all the way home: what do you mean by "scary" pal? What do you mean by tough?
We decided later that day not to go with surgery, but with brachytherapy. The surgeon was knowledgeable, but I watched our body language go smaller and smaller as the conversation went on. We tried to fold ourselves up like origami cranes. Or something smaller. Something untouchable. I put my hand on R's shoulder, pulled it away. We drove home and laughed at the surgeon's athletic socks, his sensible shoes. How weird the office was. Beneath it was a hum, a small panic.
If you had shown me this life ten years ago, I would not have believed it. Or, rather, it was the kind of life I desperately wanted to believe was possible, and for which I leapt into the abyss. This house with thirty steps and a new garden and coved ceilings and five bedrooms and a fireplace and Douglas fir floors in the bedrooms, narrow oak in the living room. Four cats, two dogs, two boys both as tall or taller than I. We spent yesterday morning at the nursery picking more plants for the front yard; afterwards D. and R. put flowers into pots, I scaled the front yard and transplanted perennials, Jonah drew in his bedroom and around dinner time, Jonah and I played gin rummy and made calzones and then he hugged me with my head on his shoulder. I love you I love you.
I woke last night at 4:00 from a nightmare: we were on the deck of a beautiful house that we wanted to buy--a house perched on a cliff face in the woods and the ocean sparking through the firs-- and a landslide swept half of us away. At first I thought we were all safe but then i realized R. and D. and Jonah weren't there, and how would D. get his insulin in the woods and how would I ever find any of them again? I woke up because I thought I heard Jonah calling my name. I heard someone come down the stairs and I got up, walked upstairs in a t-shirt and my underwear and found Jonah asleep, his arm thrown over the his head like he did as an infant. I kissed his forehead, tiptoed back downstairs and then stood in the hallway to see R. come out of the bathroom, kiss the top of my head.
Everybody was home. Everybody was okay.
We learned that R. has prostate cancer almost a month and a half ago. It is a rare strain, aggressive. It must be treated--surgery or radiation. For his age, the general reccomendation is surgery but the side effects are severe and life-long. We learned a few weeks ago that the cancer has not spread; it is curable, as much as cancer can be.
As curable as my cancer was, is--this virus I carry with me forever, this little time bomb.
I curl next to him each night, able to breathe normally because he is there, because our boys are upstairs and okay.
When we were at the coast writing this summer, I spent seven days writing about miracles.
By “awe” the Greeks meant pain, grief. To love means to lose yourself in the weeds, the trail tapering off into thicket, bramble, to wrap the body of the beloved in cloth and anoint her head with oil, it is to see god in everything and nothing. God is dead. God is alive.
In between my boy crying, the ducks, a run up Mt. Tabor and down to the nursery where I bought seeds and ran home beneath a sky that was growing thicker, a tentative warmth settling over the city—I jimmy-rigged a temporary cold frame on our back deck, planted seeds for our garden-to-be: tomato, basil, dill, pea. I held Jonah in my arms and told him I love him. I kissed my husband and picked cherry petals from his shoulder, where the wind had blown them.
I don’t know what will be enough.
Oh God most strange in all your ways.