The Amusement Park

We are lucky enough to live about a half-hour away from a pretty good amusement park. Of course, “lucky” may be in the eye of the beholder. I once asked a colleague with two young sons if he was planning to take the boys to the amusement park that summer. A look of horror crossed his face. He said, “I’m trying to keep them from finding out that that place even exists for as long as I can!”

I get it, truly, I do. But I remember the first time we took Tink to our local amusement park. We spent hours on the kiddie rides. I remember the look of gleeful abandon on her face when the tiny roller coaster crested the top of its first little hill. She loved the shrieks and the music, the fries and the cotton candy. At the end of the day, a teenager who had won an oversized stuffed animal handed it off to Tink because she didn’t want to carry it around the park. Tink grabbed the giant Tweety Bird and hugged it fiercely. For years, it was a prized possession, a reminder of unbridled fun and unexpected kindness.

There were years when the amusement park became a bit of a nuisance, when Tink and her friends were old enough to squabble about which rides they were riding and with whom. I remember the agony of promising to go to the park with a friend who, it turned out, hated rides. I remember the misery of simply walking around the park for one entire, hot day, with Tink gazing wistfully at swings and coasters.

And then there was all the stuff. Good lord, the stuff. Hair wraps and face paint and hats and shirts and tchotchkes. To be honest, I never minded buying hats or, you know, anything USEFUL. But I seethed with resentment at the face paint and hair wraps. There were several face paint booths right near the entrance of the park, right where a seven-year-old would be sure to see them as she walked into the park. Here’s the dilemma: either put up with your child clamoring for face paint for the next three hours or immediately drop, like, 117 bucks on something that will be sweated off over the course of the day or washed off on one of the water rides. (Our park has three water rides. All next to the face paint.) I had exactly the opposite problem with the hair wraps: they stayed in Tink’s hair FOREVER. So, she would get a hair wrap in June and there it would be in September, faded and bedraggled but still clinging to her hair in her school picture.

But I also remember the day just a few years ago that I took Tink and one of her friends to the park. Both of them were scheduled to start school just two days later and they wanted one last hurrah. I followed both girls around the park, listening to their laughter, watching the flush on their cheeks turn to sunburn as they conquered ride after ride. I took Tink’s friend home early in the evening. As we left her house, Tink turned to me and asked, “Can we go back? I just want to ride the roller coasters a couple more times.”

And so, because summer and childhood do not last forever, we went back to the park. Together with my girl, I rode every single coaster twice. (Tink assured me that they go faster after dark.) It was breathtaking.

Over the years, our visits to the amusement park grew fewer and farther between. Instead of riding with Tink, I trailed after her, or simply dropped her off. Then, when she started high school, Tink joined the marching band. At the end of the summer, the amusement park holds parades featuring all the local high school and college bands. So, last night, I followed her marching band to the park. I didn’t ride any rides. I didn’t even follow her. I just sat on the sidelines and chatted with another band mom whose daughter is entering her senior year. She told me about her daughter’s college applications and about the campus visits they have planned; she told me, “Enjoy this. It goes so quickly.”

I looked up and saw the banner for Tink’s high school. I clapped and cheered as they marched by, confident and practiced, all those young people moving forward. I was no longer Tink’s guide or companion. I was just a spectator, watching and admiring. But for one more time, I was glad to be back at the amusement park. It’s still a thrilling ride.

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Black Shoes

Several days ago, we were packing for a trip to Tink’s summer camp. Not only were we going to bring her home, but Bruce and I were going to spend a few days vacationing. I like to pack as light as possible, to make sure that I can swap out tops and bottoms that match. There was just one problem: I needed a pair of black summer shoes that would go with everything and I didn’t seem to have any. I was sure that I had a pair of black sandals, black comfy sandals somewhere, but I just couldn’t find them. Not in the closet, not under the bed, not in the jumble of shoes that spontaneously piles up next to the laundry hamper. Worse, I couldn’t really picture them. I knew that I owned black sandals, but I couldn’t even recall what they looked like. Fabric? Leather? Synthetic materials?

And then I remembered.

They were black, thick-soled flip-flops with a complicated pattern of straps across the top of my foot. They were comfortable, practical, easy to clean; they were even cute in a middle-aged-mom-goes-to-the-beach sort of way. I bought them last year at the end of June.

I bought them on my last shopping trip with my dad.

I was wearing those shoes the night my dad fell, the night he was taken to the hospital. I wore them as I sat by his side while the doctor explained to me that Dad’s hip had been shattered. The next morning, when I got up to head back to the hospital, it was easier to slip them back on than to look for other shoes. Besides, they went with everything, right?

I was wearing them when Dad went into surgery to repair his hip; I was wearing them when he came out. I was wearing them when he started to recover and when I learned that the surgery had been too hard on him and that his organs were starting to shut down. I wore those shoes every day for four agonizing weeks. They were my hospital shoes. Putting them on every day gave me one less thing to think about. They carried me up stairs and down hallways and into rooms that I didn’t want to enter. I’m sure that when I finally received the call that I had been dreading, I slipped those shoes on again and headed out into the night to say goodbye to Dad.

I don’t remember when I finally took those shoes off or where I put them, but now I can’t find them. I don’t know if I hid them or threw them out or simply misplaced them in all the hectic activity that follows a death. I just know that they were a constant through the worst month of my life, comfortable and supportive and easy, but also a tangible reminder of the terror and tedium of loss.

There are many gaps and absences in my life since last summer. The weird disappearance of those shoes is probably the smallest loss, but it seems fitting. I miss them; I could use them, but I probably won’t look for them. I never want to take those steps again.

The Suitcase

You know those little capsules that look like candy, but you add water and they expand five, ten, twenty times in size and turn into boats or whales or grizzly bears? Yeah. That’s basically what happened with Tink’s stuff the first time we sent her off to camp. What started out as a suitcase, a bedroll, and a couple duffle bags turned into a trunk-filling mass of camp-branded t-shirts and stuffed animals and friendship bracelets. If I recall correctly, that overstuffed trunk turned into something like 72 solid hours of laundry and sorting. I offer this anecdote to give some context. Picking Tink up from camp is time-consuming and labor-intensive.

I was looking forward to seeing Tink after six weeks, to meeting some of her friends, and to getting her personal tour of her beloved camp; I was not looking forward to trying to compress six weeks’ worth of memories into just a few containers. The day we were scheduled to leave, Tink texted us, “I’m almost ready. I’m going to lunch with my friends.” I responded, “Ok. Text us when you’re done.” Bruce and I waited to hear from Tink…and waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, Bruce resorted to texting “WHERE ARE YOU” over and over. After about a dozen of these texts, we got a reply: “I’m at the cabin waiting.” I sighed and began walking toward Tink’s cabin, picturing a bunk littered with shorts and shirts and a million pieces of paper and pebbles and bottle caps, all weighted with emotional significance.

When Bruce and I walked through the door of the cabin, we found Tink and one of her friends making a neat pile of her luggage. Tink pointed to her camp laundry bag and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t get around to doing laundry this week, so I put all my dirty stuff in there.” I was shocked by how thorough and organized everything was, but I looked at the relatively small laundry bag and the relatively large suitcase and thought, “No way is everything in that suitcase clean.”  Still, all Bruce and I had to do was carry the packed bags out of the cabin and load them into the trunk of our car, where they took up a perfectly reasonable amount of space.

When we got home, I opened Tink’s suitcase, expecting to be greeted by the distinctive woods-and-water funk of dirty camp clothing. Instead, I was hit by the scent of detergent. Tink’s shorts were folded at the bottom of the suitcase and her t-shirts were rolled on top. Sweatshirts were to the side. Everything was organized. Everything was clean. I had underestimated my daughter.

I realized that while Tink-at-home may be perfectly happy (well, sometimes) to rely on me to take care of things, Tink-at-camp can and does take care of herself. She is capable and conscientious. In fact, she is more capable and conscientious than I had acknowledged. In that moment, surveying Tink’s array of organized, laundered clothes, I felt an odd little pang. Maybe I wanted her to depend on me. Maybe I didn’t expect more of her because expecting more meant that she was growing up and not just growing taller. I might have complained about packing up and washing Tink’s stuff, but on some level, I enjoyed it. It meant that she needed me.

As a parent, my goal is to see my child standing on her own, but sometimes, I have to face warring impulses. I’m proud of Tink for taking care of herself but I also want to take care of her. When she was small, she needed me for everything, for entertainment, and for sheer survival. I was her storyteller, her companion, her caregiver. Now, she has heard all my stories, and hanging out with her mom is a little less fun than cleaning the cat’s litter box. Those last few things for which she needed me – well, she doesn’t really need me for those things, either. I’m proud of her, but the pride is bittersweet. I never thought that I would miss the mess, but here I am…and there she is, ready to take on the world with her clean laundry and her organized suitcase.

Embracing Parenthood

I remember the first time I saw Tink – not the ultrasound images that made her look like the aliens from Mars Attacks!, not the ocean waves across my belly as she rolled from side to side, already restless, already in constant motion. No, I mean the first time I saw her as the doctor placed her in my arms. I remember that her arms were open and that as soon as she touched me, she clung to me.

Tink was never a clingy child. As soon as she could walk, she was off and away, suspicious and self-sufficient as a cat. Like a cat, she resisted any physical affection that people tried to impose on her, squirming away from adults’ eager hugs. But in the evenings, she would crawl into my lap and press herself against me. At night sometimes, she would climb into bed with Bruce and me and insert herself between us, jabbing and prodding until she made a comfortable nest. (During the day, she appeared to have a perfectly ordinary number of limbs and joints. After dark, she had roughly sixteen knees and thirty-two elbows.) Because Tink was such an independent kid, I tried not to take these moments of physical contact for granted. I promised her that I would pick her up and carry her to bed for as long as she wanted and as long as I could. Sleepy Tink would raise her arms, and I would lift her, settling her on my hip. I would marvel at her little body still thrumming with energy as I carried her upstairs. She was so slight that I could have carried her to bed long after she stopped wanting me to.

But those moments of contact became fewer and further between. As a teenager, any show of affection for or from a parent can be deadly. (We had one extended phone conversation while Tink was away at camp. At the end, I said, “I love you.” She responded, “Uh-huh.”) I try to be aware of that, to acknowledge her independence and her need for dignity. So, last weekend, we picked her up from camp. I wasn’t sure what to expect. When she has been away for three weeks, she has changed. Post-camp Tink always seems taller, more serious. She was away for six whole weeks this year. I wondered if I would even recognize her.

In fact, it took a moment for me to recognize the lanky young woman perched on the steps of a camp administration building as my daughter. She stood up, her face blooming in a wide grin. Then, something extraordinary happened. She started running toward me. For a second I wasn’t sure what to do. Then, propelled by memories of scores of cheesy movies, I started running toward her. Someone – a camper, maybe – laughed. Someone – a counselor, maybe – said, “Aww!” Tink slammed into me, knocking me backward. I caught myself as her long arms wrapped around me and I held her: this beloved body, no longer familiar to me. Tink is a young woman, no longer so slight that I can carry her up two flights of stairs. She’s taller than I am now; I have to look up to look her in the eye. But as I stood there hugging my daughter in front of God and everybody as my grandmother would have said, she was my kid again, for just a moment. Later, I would hear all about her adventures, about canoe trips and campfires, triumphs and reprimands. I would be grateful for the stories and the secrets she would share but nothing was sweeter than that hug.

In Spite of Ourselves

A friend and I have a long-running argument about the John Prine-Iris DeMent song, “In Spite of Ourselves.” Do you know it?  It’s a boppy folk-country tune that might be called a love song, but that’s where the argument arises. It’s sung by two voices, a man and a woman who describe each other with humor and brutal honesty. He confides that she “likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs [and] swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs.” She admits that he “ain’t too sharp but he gets things done” although he “drinks his beer like it’s oxygen.” But in the chorus, both of them agree, “In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up a-sittin’ on a rainbow/ Against all odds, honey, we’re the big door prize.” My friend, a born romantic who would ride in on a white horse to save his wife from dragons if he had to, finds the song vulgar and disturbing, a parody of romance.

I think it’s one of the greatest love songs ever.

The nameless man and woman know each other well. They know each other’s quirks and foibles, the little details that make them who they are. They’re flawed, specific people: he goes a little nuts on payday, she has a thing for prison movies. The chorus claims that they have a happy relationship “in spite of [them]selves,” but I think that they are happy because of who they are, not in spite of it. Knowing how your partner likes her eggs may not be the stuff of high romance, but it is one building block in a successful, long-term relationship. They see each other clearly but affectionately.  Despite their differences and exasperations, they have one thing in common; they proudly declare, “She’s/He’s my baby . . . Never gonna let her/him go.”

I’ve been humming this song all week because Bruce and I are coming up on our anniversary. We’ve been married for well over twenty years. I still remember what it was like to be young and in love, to feel my heart catch in my chest when I saw him at my front door. Back then, love was all about notes left for each other, a kiss on the side of the neck. Bruce was astonishingly good at romance, constantly buying little presents or arranging surprises. Now, twenty-some years on, love looks a little different. (We look a little different – softer, grayer.) Turning on the coffee maker first thing in the morning is a grand romantic gesture. Vacuuming the living room is a declaration of passion. When we first fell in love, Bruce was a delightful mystery to be solved. Now, I know him. I know that when he grips the steering wheel in a certain way, he’s angry. I know the catch in his voice that betrays any anxiety. I know the calluses on his hands. I know which books are likely to delight him, which TV shows will put him right to sleep. I know too that he will wade into a fight to defend an underdog; I know that he is generous with his time; I know that he cries at Tink’s performances and recitals. This knowledge forms the building blocks of a long-term relationship. And I know that more than twenty years on, what we have might not sound much like a love song, but, honey, we’re the big door prize.

The Sounds of Silence

“Kate? KATE.”

I look up from my desk by the door. I’m making my way syllable by grim syllable through The Peloponnesian War; my poli sci professor believes that all students need a good, classical grounding. The young woman standing in my doorway hikes her ripped sweatshirt back onto her shoulder and grimaces slightly.

“Phone’s for you. I think it’s your parents. They sound kinda pissed.”

I sigh, stick a piece of paper in my book, and steel myself for what’s sure to be an uncomfortable conversation. I have been at college for all of five weeks, and up to this evening, nearly every time my parents have called, I have been out of my room. Now, these are the days before cell phones, and there are just two phones on my hall, so staying in touch takes will and coordination. The problem is that I have choir three nights a week, and play rehearsals have just started, and I would rather study in the library than in my room. I have good excuses for being out of my room when the phone rings. I really do. But I know that my parents aren’t imagining me wrapped up in my studies or cultural pursuits – they probably think that I am wallowing in an Olympic-sized pool filled with beer and frat boys or being chased across campus by an axe murderer. The post-it notes (“Your mom called” “Call your parents” “Your parents called and said to call them”) have become a mosaic on my door.

They worry. It’s what parents do.

I managed to allay my parents’ worst fears that night (although they still worried that choir and theatre would take too big a bite from my studies, and that walking across campus after the library closed at night was unnecessarily dangerous). We ended up setting a time for a weekly phone call, and we stuck to it fairly well over the next four years. But my parents never stopped worrying, and they never stopped wanting to hear from me. If I went more than a day without talking to my dad, he would greet me with, “I thought you left the country!”

You know what they say about what goes around. You know what they say about karma.

Tink is away at camp. Because it is 2018, because she is a teenage girl, she has her phone with her. In theory, this should mean that we hear from her more regularly than my parents heard from me

In theory.

Every morning, Bruce and I text her. We send her pictures of the dog and cat. I tell her about our days. Bruce has an arsenal of dad jokes at the ready. In response, we get the occasional “Good” or “HA.” These little words are easy to read, hard to parse. I want to know if she’s learning, making friends, having fun.

But then I recall the last time she was away from home for any length of time. She was having Boy Troubles at the time. One night, at almost midnight, she sent me a long text about how sad and confused she felt. Hundreds of miles away from her, I didn’t feel the anxiety, the urge to fix things, that I might have felt if she were right there. I asked questions. I sympathized. I paid careful attention to what she wrote. I don’t know if anything I said affected any actions that she took, but I think that I did what she needed. I let her know that she could talk to me, that I cared about her and her worries.

With my teenager, no news is good news. Eight hours away, off in the woods, she is absorbed in the business of living. In the pictures that the camp posts every day, I see her: laughing, talking, active. She is caught up in the glorious Now . . . just like I was all those years ago.

Parents understand silence differently: when our kids don’t communicate, we think that something bad must have happened. For a person on the borders of adulthood, silence is only the status quo. When things go well, young people navigate these new territories with confidence. It’s only when things go wrong that they need advice or simple reassurance.

In the meantime, I will send my messages and my love out into the ether, and I will feel grateful when I hear nothing.

Fire in My Ears

Does grief have a sound?

I suppose at first glance (listen) that grief should just be silent. It’s an absence, the sound of something that isn’t there that should be. Or maybe there are sounds that capture that loss.  I suppose a case could be made for sobs, church bells, “Amazing Grace.”

When my father was dying, grief sounded like the ring tone on my phone. It was the sound I heard when the hospital first called me to tell me that his organs were failing. For the last few weeks of his life, that noise could jolt me out of a sound sleep. I could hear my phone even when it wasn’t ringing, even when I was sitting at my father’s bedside, holding his cool, gnarled hand. It was the wail of sirens, the sound of disaster. It was the sound I heard when a hospice nurse called to tell me that he had slipped away. The night he died, I turned the ringer off. There was nothing else I needed or wanted to hear.

Now, grief is a phone that doesn’t ring. It’s a voice that I want to hear and don’t.

But grief has other voices, other noises.

This year, grief sounded like fireworks.

When I was a little girl, my grandparents lived in a big Victorian house at the top of a hill. Their lawn sloped down to an apple tree, and a hedge, and a dirt alley, and below and beyond, our local fairgrounds. On special occasions, like the Fourth of July, the town would set off fireworks at the fairgrounds. Dad didn’t like driving to the fairgrounds because any event there caused a snarl of traffic that made it feel like every single soul in our town of 8,000 had purchased his or her very own car for the occasion and had learned to drive fifteen minutes earlier from a simplified picture book written in Finnish, for the sole purpose of clogging up every entrance to and exit from the fairgrounds. Dad hated waiting in crowds. He wouldn’t have waited in a crowd to hear Jesus and Abe Lincoln jam with Hank Williams. He certainly wasn’t going to wait to see fireworks.

His way of viewing fireworks was much better. He would walk with me up the hill and pick a spot in the alley behind my grandparents’ house. We would look down on the fairgrounds and wait. Eventually, we would hear a trailing whistle and a pop. A blossom of white fire would bloom in our faces. We would compare our favorite fireworks. Dad liked the giant chrysanthemums in red, white and blue while I preferred the ones that looked like fountains of copper-colored stars. We would stand there face-to-face with the fireworks while Dad told me once, twice, a dozen times about how, when he was a boy, his parents would take him to the county fair and they would watch fireworks. They sat in the stands and Dad turned his face to the light as ashes from the spent explosions dusted the crowd. He didn’t really like the noise, but he loved the colors and the patterns. In sparing us from traffic, Dad spared me the deafening noise. From where we stood, the sound of the fireworks was dimmed and refracted. There was an occasional shriek as a twisting flame snaked its way into the heavens, and an occasional hollow boom as a firework failed, but mostly, the sounds didn’t bother me. I loved it, standing there in the night, in my pajamas, with my dad.

Last year, he didn’t feel well enough to see any of the fireworks displays around our town, so Bruce and Tink and I climbed the hill behind our house took pictures. I showed Dad the images afterwards. He thumbed through my digital photos, evaluating and appreciating each starburst. “Well, isn’t that something? Those look like some beautiful fireworks.” I promised myself that next year I would find a way to take him to see some fireworks.  I wasn’t able to keep that promise.

This year, I didn’t even go outside. I heard faint pops, muted thunder. I wanted to see, to appreciate the festive lights as Dad would have. I didn’t want to see because he wasn’t there to see them with me. I tried to ignore the sounds, to shut out my grief.

Almost a year later, grief surprises me with its insistent voice. Grief is the sound of absence. It’s also the sound of life going on, heedless, full of color and light, despite loss.