Songs in Turns

songs-in-turns

“OK, it’s Papo’s turn,” I say, turning in my seat to look at him, his hands on the wheel, eyes straight ahead. “What song would you like?”

“I’d like a nice surprise,” he says, emphasizing nice so that I don’t tease him by playing Sufjan Stevens, whose voice sets my husband on edge. He’s patient with me and my scrolling, trying to decide. So many songs make me think of him, but on this — and maybe only on this — I’m the over-thinker. In the end, I choose a Billy Joel song from the 1990s for him, an upbeat tune I know he likes, a song with a rhythm that seems to hide the wistfulness of the lyrics about searching forever in the water, in the valley, for something sacred, undefined, and lost. My husband, at my side for twenty-five years now, sings along, the crinkles at the edges of his eyes pressing each other. I tangle my fingers in the curls at the nape of his neck, content to be here next to him as he drums the steering wheel with the side of his hand.


The song ends, though, and it’s my older daughter’s turn. She has put her mountain of hair into an enormous bun; is knitting another smart-phone cozy in her lap. Her eyes look up as she considers, and I remember reading Junie B. Jones with her, when Junie B. (“the B stands for Beatrice, but I just like B, and that’s all!”) says “Mother rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. I looked up there, too. But I didn’t see anything.” And there she is, my no-longer-first-grader, no-longer-middle-schooler, almost-college-girl looking at the ceiling, too, trying to decide. I wish I could see inside to guess what she wanted, like when the choices were all songs from The Muppets. Eventually, she says, “Satisfied. And I get Angelica’s part!” She tips her head back and so much sound comes out, so much bravado and beauty, loud held notes, anger, love, desire, somehow accessible in the soul of a girl who used to twirl her finger around one curl as she sucked her thumb. I remember that dreamlike candlelight, like a dream that you can’t quite place… And the world goes by outside her window, so fast I can’t even make out the shapes of the trees.

“Your turn, Sammi,” she says as the song fades into its last notes.

She’s been waiting, my littlest one. She’s clear as a brand new glass of water, ready with her answer. “Scars to Your Beautiful,” she tells me, and I think of course. She’s literal and poetic at once, the message below the surface of her middle school drama and also, of course, right there on her shoulder blade, slit through twice as doctors pushed her rips apart to get to her aorta. The world, I want to tell her, might never change its heart, might always look right over her head at the space above her stature, might look past her unless she leaps into their view. The heart that needed to change was hers, will always be hers. Let me be your mirror, help you see a little bit clearer… But she sings along, trying hard to bring her bell-like voice above the belt of her sister’s. The growing band of bracelets on her wrists slide up and down, her finger curled into one rubber one from camp, a lifeline to people who understand her. I reach my hand back along the door and grab her ankle. She puts her hand on top of mine.

When the song ends, I’m ready with my choice, having considered it carefully. I’m always thinking through a series of eventualities: what will happen then? what will happen if I choose this? that? who will like it? who will sing along? who will listen and fall in love and ask for it again? who will be offended, inspired, bored, annoyed? I’d ruled so much out, scrolling through my lists, but here was just the thing for a rainy day on a road trip, a cover of something nostalgic, a version by William Fitzsimmons of Sarah McLachlan’s “Ice Cream,” dedicated to the precious cargo in the seats around me.

Your love is better than ice cream
Better than anything else that I’ve tried
And your love is better than ice cream
Everyone here knows how to cry

And it’s a long way down
It’s a long way down
It’s a long way down to the place where we started from

I wish I could touch all of them at once, but in the car, I can only reach one at a time with my hands. Instead, as I sing, I send tendrils out from my heart, bright ropes of light that encircle each one, snared forever, energetically connected to me as I tell them that nothing, nothing is better than them, nothing, not ever.


This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, with the prompt “Road Tripping.”

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What I’m Learning: Part Five

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Slowly but surely, I’ve added to my knowledge and understanding of how the practice of medicine — and the cultural norms around it — are affecting the humans involved. This isn’t just about the patients but about their families, the doctors and nurses and therapists and receptionists, all the people who form the ladder from illness to healing. I’m grateful that there are so many good stories available and also so much strong, fascinating writing of a more clinical nature. I’ve written about the book-length writing I’ve read in a series of posts I’ve called “What I’m Learning.” I wrote first about Gavin Francis and Jill Bolte Taylor, then about Seth Mnookin and Henry Jay Przybylo, then about Susannah Cahalan, and, last week, about Atul Gawande and Heather Armstrong. The authors range from doctors to patients to researchers. What I was missing in all these stories was a character I could look at, hold up my own hand, and watch her raise hers in the mirror.

I was looking, fruitlessly, for a medical story told by a parent. And this fall, I finally found one.

Continue Reading…

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The Beginning, or Middle

where-to-begin

The left lung is made smaller than the right lung
To make room for that very heart inside of you
And your stomach needs to produce a new layer of mucus every two weeks
So it won’t digest itself

Listen
Don’t you ever become complicit
Or live your life on someone’s shelf
There is a reason for every limb and interaction
Body, it’s like G-d created me like an instrument

– Tank and the Bangas, “Human”

 

I wish I knew how to begin anything.

Days unroll in front of me when my children leave the house for school, and I sit, my jaw loose, thinking of what to do first. It’s rare that my day must begin in that moment; there is usually time in abundance and potential laid out in front of me. It’s not as though I don’t have tasks ahead and goals to complete, but it’s those first moments when I long for the ritual of the train ride to work, the coffee in the travel mug, the drive to somewhere that expects me at a certain time, the knowledge that someone would notice if I sat in my pajamas until 3pm, watching television.

I don’t sit in my pajamas until 3pm, but I don’t always get dressed right away, and that’s never good.

I just don’t know how to begin, sometimes.

It’s a haphazard lurch toward the day, made slower by this year of nagging body mini-breakdowns that kept me from the start I love the most, a run by the lake or at least on a treadmill. Instead, this year, I earthquaked my brain and followed it with head cold after head cold after ear infections, like my body is aching toward childhood, toward being cared-for, toward clarity. Sick or injured, the answer to “where shall I put my body now?” is obvious: there, on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, basted in tea and soup, held for the moment in suspension.

But when I’m healthy, I don’t know where to go first.

There’s always laundry to start, and that’s a clear beginning with a middle and an end in sight: wash, dry, fold, file away. There’s always the breakfast dishes, and the paperwork, and appointments to make once the clock hits eight. But these things, I tell myself, are housewife things, and I am no housewife. I earmark them for margins, though my whole day is margins around partitions: work/parent/household/write/breathe/act/advocate/prepare.

I have work, paid work, and that seems more sensible, to start with the things that have a tangible reward, a dollar sign at the end of them. True, this isn’t the work I meant to do when I started for real, when I moved fresh and twenty-something to Chicago to save enough money for graduate school and go back to the words that called me from pages of books and pages on blinking computer screens, but it’s the work I got, the work I flopped into like a rag doll, the may-as-well and the that-could-work of a job that let me stay home or in the hospital or in the doctor’s office with my sick baby when I was tired and thirty-something. And tired and forty-something.

She’s not sick anymore, though, that baby, that teenager, that one with a big sister standing one toe out the door to college in a year. And I don’t know how to begin this next act, so I sit in my kitchen and scroll through my phone for half an hour, an hour, too long, stewing in my pajamas and accomplishing nothing, knowing this stew will start simmering an hour earlier when both girls are gone and my husband is the only one who’ll leave me there in the morning, a day and a life spread out before me like white bread.

I heard a song this week, the internet dropping it into my ears like a gift. The singer grins and winks at us, shining, joyful, curious. It’s as though she took Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” and put it in a human body, or answered “what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” with how and why should you do it? 

I watched this video a dozen times. Am I very important and very special? I might be. And it’s got to get easier to learn where to begin.

Where am I in my story? Is this the middle, or a beginning, somehow (because I can’t let it be the end)? What’s the next thing? I wish I was better at beginning, which is another way to say I wish I was better at knowing, at clarity, at picking up my feet and pointing my nose in the direction of my one, precious life.

But I’m a life force. That’s a good start.


This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post hosted by Kristi at FindingNinee.com. This week’s prompt is “I wish I was better at…”

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The Meaning of Months

meaning-of-months

When my youngest was an infant, her poor health forced my transition from in-the-workplace to freelance. I had, at the time, a fantastic job, working three days a week in the office and two from home, managing the web site operations of a non-profit organization whose mission was close to my heart. On my last day, I brought my four-month-old daughter to the office. Swinging her carseat into the car in the parking lot when we left, I looked her in the eyes and said, “Well, kid, I guess it’s just us, now.”

Thirteen years later, in a recent meeting with fellow-volunteer members of my synagogue, I found myself floundering, not sure how to begin the conversation with these grown adults — many retired, all without kids at home — without saying, “How was your winter break?” Internally, I rolled my eyes at myself; I didn’t always have children. I didn’t always have two weeks mostly-off, flanking the end of one year and the beginning of another. What do adults without children say to each other at the beginning of January? I asked myself, and the answer was an imaginary shrug. Continue Reading…

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Humility in a Dark Room

concussion-bolt

Three and a half weeks ago, I was walking through my garage with my husband David, on our way to Parent-Teacher Conferences for our younger daughter. As always, I was chatting and walking and probably planning something in my head to do or say next. We need to pick up our box of farm vegetables after the conference, I might have said, and then also the pizza place is donating a portion of the proceeds tonight to that charity that buys school supplies for kids in need, so we should grab takeout from them, and then…

I felt it. The bolt on the garage floor, the one that’s been sticking out of the cement for at least 12 years since we bought this house, the one I’d tripped over a dozen times but always caught myself. This time, I didn’t. I flew forward, maybe aiming my body around the hood of the car or maybe just flailing, helplessly, in the space between the bolt and the spare marine battery — 50 pounds and unyielding — that suddenly caught the left side of my head before the rest of me landed.

The shock of pain was sharp, or the sharp pain was shocking, or both. I cried, immediately, with the injustice of the thing I’d hit, the heft of it, the weight, the way my head and also maybe my ear hurt, the way I was left lying on the garage floor on my stomach. I lay there crying as David tried to assess what had happened. The garage was dark. The floor was gritty. My head was exploding.

After a few minutes, I sat and then stood up. David  asked if I could see him, and I could. I knew his name and mine, the president (ugh), the date. David wanted to take me to the hospital. I insisted we needed to go to our daughter’s conferences. It hurts, I said, but I think I’m ok.

So, we went to conferences. I had a few quiet, secret moments of dizziness, but I made it up and down the stairs and through a series of conversations. When we stepped outside the school, though, the first wave of nausea hit. I pretended it was hunger and pressed on — to get the vegetables, to get the pizzas. When we stepped outside the pizza place, the nausea and dizziness were so intense I nearly dropped to my knees.

David took me to the hospital. Continue Reading…

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