Caring Bridge (We Are Afraid)

bridge in deep forest, natural green forest

We are afraid.  When we see the email heading, the name of someone we have loved, we are afraid to open the link. We hope, in fact, that it is a scam, a mean trick that will destroy our hard drive, blow up our own email accounts, even dissolve the just-finished book. In that moment it is a bargain we would make.

We are afraid that he might be gone already, or that he may be going soon, when we didn’t even know anything was wrong.  We are afraid that we did not tell him how much we thought of him, sorry that we didn’t stay in touch better, sad that we were so constrained by the complicated connections and disconnections between us. We are afraid that we have acted too much out of fear and not enough out of love.

Their daughter and our son were married just before 9/11. My husband and I, and our new daughter-in-law’s parents, then became machatunim, a Hebrew/Yiddish word for that describes this unique relationship.  There is no English equivalent.

When our children divorced after two sons, many tears and not quite a decade, it was a time of suffering for all of us.

We are afraid to ask if we are still machatunim.

We are afraid to hope, when we learn it is not a death sentence, not necessarily, not yet. Maybe he can beat it, maybe he will.  He is researching the disease, they are going to Sloan-Kettering, he will have the treatments, he feels a bit better now. It is very survivable. We are afraid to think about the fact that when he does have the treatments he will not feel better. We are sorry to think of his pain, and now we think of her fear. We wish there were a way to reach out to her, too, across the complicated history of the last decade.

We are afraid it might not be possible. It was our son who left their daughter, and for a long time we were afraid that they hated the young man we love so. We are afraid that there may have been too much damage to repair.

We are afraid that the grandsons we share may lose their other grandfather, their younger grandfather. We are afraid that they will not have the chance to follow him again to the woods, once more to the lake, help paddle the canoe, climb another Adirondack peak. They are not grown, they are not done with him. Not done helping him with his bees, not done with the Cub Scouts and the Eagle Scouts and the annual cardboard boat race.

We are afraid when we realize that we ourselves are not done with him. We are afraid that we took for granted his good humor, his resilience, his willingness to forgive. Once his daughter and the boys were settled again, once the years did their healing work, he didn’t hold it against us. He was glad to be friends whenever we had a chance to meet, and we were grateful each time.

We are afraid that we may be letting go of him too soon, afraid that if we do not ignore the worst possibility, ward it off with enough determination, we might somehow invite it.

We are afraid that we did not deserve him. We are afraid that if we do not lose him now after all that we will go back to other things. We are afraid that we will again forget to think of him, that we may forget the gratitude that our fear brings now.




Voices on the Wind


On a hill in Otsuchi, Japan, high above the Pacific, a white, glass-paned phone booth stands. In view of the water that five years ago swept so many away, the “wind phone” is where those left behind may talk to the loved ones they lost.

The story takes me back more than thirty years, to the first dream I had of him, after.

In the dream we are on the phone, long-distance, and the sound is as if a wind blows through our words. Perhaps he is still in Paris; he’d been there for a week only a short time before. But we know that he is much further away than that, and that he is not going to be able to get back.

His voice is low, and I strain to catch it. He asks me if the money is there, do I have what I need, and if I am all right. I don’t remember now what I said; I’ve always thought it was something like, “Yes, all right.” Or, “Don’t worry.”

Those dreams became more precious as time went on. Around anniversaries—ten years, twenty, especially, for some reason, thirty—they come back. In these he is with me, but he can never speak. I want to tell him of everything that has happened since that far-away summer, when we were both so young.

In the dreams I always want to tell him of the Great Suffering. Why is that? To feel his comfort? As a gift to him? Because it is the thing I had to learn and do without him, the big thing, my own tsunami. I want to tell him how I almost drowned, and how somehow I did not. I want to tell him that perhaps things have come out well after all. I want to tell him I’m all right.

And then, in the dream, I remember that he has not been here all these years, and is still not here. I want to tell him that, no matter how much I have, I think of him.


Image is a screen capture from this short documentary.

Mystery Moon

Kenyon Moon and SF 171


An enormous full moon rises over low hills east of Riverside, California. I am two, maybe three, and cling to my mother in the cool twilight. We have come outside after supper to watch. It will be something to remember, she says.

It has remained one of my earliest and most enduring memories. In my mind’s eye the moon looms above the horizon and seems to move toward us and even though I know it could not really have filled half the sky I have always known that something important happened.

Somehow my mother and I never talked about it, not in the years we were together nor after she left, and I’ve never understood what exactly we witnessed. The image is like a tattered snapshot of recall with only the place—Riverside—to identify it.

The first time I heard of something called a “supermoon” was when my meteorologist niece sent me an article in 2011 (this seems to have been the first time that the term, originally coined by astrologers, crossed over to popular science writing). On March 19, the NASA story said, a “full moon of rare size and beauty will rise in the east at sunset … a super ‘perigee moon’—the biggest in almost 20 years.”

What was going to happen was uncommon but not unprecedented, and this official encouragement to stop in our usual routines to go outside and wait for the moon caught my attention. It was the kind of thing my mother would have made time for.

Two years later, leaving Gambier, Ohio at the end of a week-long writing workshop, I found myself gazing at a full golden moon rising above the turrets of Bexley Hall. A headline in that day’s Columbus Dispatch, I remembered then, had read “Super Moon Looks Bigger Because It’s Closer.”   While the week’s essays had all been completed, I felt there was an unfinished assignment about another such moon. After a week at Kenyon, everything seemed like it might make a good essay, but I’d also fallen in love with the nonfiction “braided” narrative form. I could combine elements of memoir with explorations of lunar phenomena. What causes a supermoon? Why is it rare? The moon could serve as an extended metaphor to tie together the difficult story of my family, my mother, maybe even myself. It would require some research into both astronomy and family history.

The former would turn out to be easier than the latter; the project begun June 25, 2013 is only now nearing completion.

My family story is full of missing pieces, and getting started on a personal narrative stalled repeatedly when I couldn’t remember or find out from someone else where and when things had happened.

Our poet mother and engineer father were both in the Army when they met in Washington, DC at the end of World War II. The war ended, they married and like everyone else they began having babies.

It didn’t work out.

In fourteen years they separated at least five times. Having another baby was more than once a way to reconcile, but after a decade and a half of marriage and four daughters they finally gave it up. Our father got custody (she left or he stole us; another missing story), and at the end of 1962 my sisters and I were sent to live with him. We left behind our friends, our home town and our mother; that radical discontinuity, like a head injury, seemed to cause a kind of retrograde amnesia.

In reasonably intact and functional families, important stories become more similar; agreed-upon accounts emerge with time. Such collaborative memory is at work when a group of friends reconstructs all the details about a particular film. Two people might be stymied at “what was that one in Texas with that no-good and his pink Cadillac?” but by the end of a good dinner party the joint account will include Patricia Neal’s Oscar, Paul Newman’s most unpleasant character, and the fact that Hud was filmed in black and white.

It wasn’t so much a broken home as an atomized one. My mother was gone, then my older sister ran away. The little ones hadn’t been born yet when we lived in California. A collaborative account of that mysterious moon or of other mystifying events has never been possible.

My father had been dead ten years before I realized he still might provide at least some of my life story, the part about where we’d lived and exactly when we’d lived there. He’d been a government bureaucrat, and as anyone who’s had a civil service job will understand, he regularly updated his “SF-171” form. That infuriatingly exacting job application required that the applicant list every past place of residence by date.

I almost didn’t try to find it. My father had always resisted talking about the past and I felt I was doing something against his wishes. But when I did obtain a copy it gave me something I’d never had before—a complete list of where we’d lived and when we’d lived there and how many times, exactly, we had moved.

Eight times by the time they split up; seven more before I left for college.

This put it together. Astronomical records document perigee and full moons, and the civil service form showed that we lived in Riverside from June 1951 to December 1954. There were four perigee full moons during that time, and the first of these would have been right after we’d moved from Washington, a few weeks before my third birthday. My parents, in a phase of energy, optimism and closeness (a perigee in one of the repeated cycles that characterized their disastrous marriage), might have taken time from unpacking to go for an evening walk.

We lived in California for three and a half years, but a close look at my father’s civil service form shows that my parents separated twice during that time. Only the first supermoon occurred at a time when my mother and I would have been in Riverside to see it.

That’s the best I can do. Starting with the persistent image-memory, adding in astronomical data and cross-referencing a list of addresses, I finally had a complete and plausible account.

I have clung tenaciously to fragmented recollections of life with my mother, and it was with an uncanny sense of discovery that I first read the word “supermoon,” first unfolded that civil service form and first constructed a narrative that had seemed lost forever.

We are in Riverside and I am almost three and my mother and I have seen the amazing moon that I will remember for the rest of my life, rising enormous and red. And then, I know this must be true and perhaps I remember it, we watch as the moon rises further and seems to become smaller, turning from pink to yellow as the sky deepens to blue, paling to a flat silver coin pasted on a black sky. Did we stay outside until dark? Did the stars come out? I might have felt the air becoming chilly. Maybe I remember being carried home. I know when it was and I know where it was and I know, finally, that I was there.

(My 7500 word essay “Supermoon” is currently seeking a literary magazine home.)