Thursday, August 30, 2012


Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of the week.

WILLIAM DEMENT, Newsweek, Nov. 30, 1959

We are on the roof of a tall city building, white sky all around us. There is no barrier on this nightmare roof, no parapet to keep us from falling over the edge to certain death. There are two of us in that odd lonely space. I am one. Cliff is the other. I can sense the presence of others on the rough gravel surface but they are like ghosts, white, unformed, almost invisible, as if an artist, in rendering the scene, had run out of paint. I am far, too far from him as he closes the gap between himself and the brink, and so I scream, “NO!” He doesn’t seem to hear me, or at any rate he won’t acknowledge my existence except to glance at me as he backs up. I continue to scream and implore those others, the faceless beings floating in place like useless sentries, to help. Cliff is oblivious to the danger he is in, doesn’t understand that this space between us means I can’t help him in time. They say most dreams last only seconds, but my screaming and fright feels endless, because even though I try to run to save him I know I cannot. Just as I get close, holding both arms out towards him, he falls backwards and is gone.
I wake, shaken, frightened, disturbed, horrified. I think, “Oh, God, God.”  There is no sleep for me until I get up to check on him, because I worry that my sixth sense is telling me he may be in some sort of distress and I need to help him. When I reach his bedroom, standing and staring, waiting to observe the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes, I see reflected in his mirrored wall, the depths of my own worst fears.

I used to see a therapist who asked me if I tended to "catastrophize" everything. I thought about the time Max didn’t come home all night. I kept waiting for the police to call to tell me he was thrown from his car or had been robbed and beaten. In 1974, in Buffalo, New York where I went to college, my roommate Mary wanted to have a Halloween party. Reluctantly I went along with it, all the time having serious doubts that more than maybe a couple of people would come. She was a witch; I was Malcolm McDowell’s character from “A Clockwork Orange”. We sat on the couch, waiting for the people to show up. I kept looking at the heaping plates of chicken wings and celery with blue cheese we had carefully placed on the vinyl-covered table and felt sorry for her because we had gone to all that trouble for nothing. Two years ago, I felt a lump in my left breast and began to think about what I would say in the farewell video I would record for Olivia, Max and Cliff, telling them how honored I was to be their mother; in a fantasy where I am not actually a jealous wife, I rehearsed a speech in which I would tell Ken he should try to fall in love again.

I told the therapist that, yes, I certainly did have a propensity towards unwarranted worrying. I refused the pills she offered to me, arriving at the conclusion that there is a part of me that feels if I worry less, something bad will happen. Possibly, the fight or flight thing won’t kick in when it’s supposed to, and then where would that leave me?

It would seem that wide awake or in the surrender of REM sleep, I have a constellation of fears probably not all that different from the rest of the human race. At times I let it take over, leaving me open to an imagination bent on scaring the hell out of me. But I always, always get a hold of myself. (I am reminded of the scene in the movie “Moonstruck” where Loretta slaps Ronny twice, saying, “Snap out of it!”.)

However, there is still the question of Cliff and my recurring nightmare and the reasons behind it. I suppose one doesn’t have to be a student of Freud to understand that deep down, I don’t believe I can protect him from hurt, from disappointment, from sadness, from leukemia, from Alzheimer’s, from missing his old job.

 What I don’t understand is how everyone else seems to be walking around singing “Que Sera Sera”. I’m looking at them, wondering, “How do you DO that?”

The answer at which I have arrived has something to do with faith and hope. I have faith that everything will be okay, and I hope I’m not wrong.  Also, even with all my insecurities, my fears, and wild assumptions, I would argue that I am both rational and sane. That is, can I really expect to have that much control over what happens? Sometimes, I  have to consider that those other people (the ones who are singing) are probably struggling too from time to time, waking up in the middle of the night with a feeling something is terribly, terribly wrong.

Max was neither thrown from his car nor beaten and robbed. He fell asleep (i.e. passed out) at someone’s house where he’d been partying. Halloween, 1974 in Buffalo turned out to be a success; there were so many people we ran out of chicken wings. The lump in my breast turned out to be a cyst.

In my recurrent dream concerning a city roof high above the unforgiving ground, I waken with a pounding heart. Unable to go back to sleep, I quietly leave my room and enter my son’s. I remember to be quiet because he wakes up at a pin drop. It’s the middle of the night and he’s still breathing. As I leave, I pass Max’s closed door, then Olivia’s, touching each with a flat hand like some sort of bizarre blessing. I do this without forethought, but afterwards, all is peaceful and right. And bad dreams are stalled for a good long while. These are not the actions of a crazy woman, just one who loves deeply and worries too much for her own good.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


He nods, as if to acknowledge that endings are almost always a little sad, even when there is something to look forward to on the other side.”
Emily Giffin, Love the One You're With

“It’s ok not to be ok.” from Jessie J, “Who You Are”

The ride back from my daughter Olivia’s college orientation was quiet. This is notable because conversation is one of our best events. While neither of us ever forgets who’s in charge, we’re pretty good friends. In fact, on the way to LIU Post from our home in Massachusetts three days before, we talked for the first two hours of the trip.

Did I say “we”? I did most of the talking, as I had a captive audience, and I hadn’t seen her much lately. She is 18, after all, the age at which one should be anywhere but home as often as possible.

On Sunday morning, with a three-hour trip ahead of us the quiet made me feel jittery, odd. It’s uncomfortable for me to be sitting next to her in a silence this loud. It’s a feeling analogous to the gloomy dark curtain that swoops across the window just before a storm, entering my house like a ghost, when just moments before the sun was warming the sill.

  At first I thought she was annoyed because I refused to drive back as soon as orientation was finished the prior evening. Instead, we had driven to my parents’ house less than an hour away to avoid having to do part of the trip home in the dark. I don’t like driving in the dark which, in Olivia’s opinion means I’ve lost my sense of adventure. I prefer to think of it as self-preservation. I happen to like getting to where I’m going alive and in one piece.

At issue was her need to hurry back because she’d already been away from her friends for three nights in a row. It was a ridiculous reason to be sore at me, from where I was sitting anyway, considering that all summer she’d been spending five out of seven nights not sleeping in her own bed. She shows up at home to shower, grab a snack, catch up on Facebook and request a few bucks for gas.

Finally, the reveal: “I’m the only one of my friends who is going to school so far away”, she said. “ I won’t be able to come home that much. I’ll  hardly ever see them.” My cranky traveling companion was not angry with me. At least,not directly.  In a matter of weeks, everything was going to change. Uncertainty is Change’s companion, and there is no crystal ball to consult. I remember leaving home and being scared too, wondering how it would all pan out.

I don’t know how to allay this fear, this newest wrinkle in her life. Change has some very sharp edges, and I’m unsure whether or not it’s within my power to soften them.  There are just some things you have to discover for yourself. Everyone knows change isn’t something you can run from, thinking you can outpace it if you’re clever enough. You can’t hide under the covers, and peek out at the world hoping for a static landscape despite the change of seasons.

Maybe I’ll assure her that if her friends are true friends, they will be here when she returns. If they’re anything like my best friend from high school (I had just the one, but she was worth ten), they can pick up where they left off; time does not diminish the connections the heart has made.

Maybe I’ll impress upon her the idea of change as being the thing you should strive for! If nothing ever changed, nothing would grow or learn or stand taller or age gracefully. I want to tell her that not only will her faithful friends still love her, but she’ll be adding new ones.  She’ll fall in love (more than once), make her own decisions, and figure out what’s around the corner. She probably won’t listen but maybe I’ll remind her that everyone and everything changes, daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, and you just have to see the beauty in that, in the amazing, albeit occasionally sad, parts of being alive.

Maybe I’ll just tell her it will all be ok. And when she’s not okay, to sit with it for awhile until the feeling passes. Don’t worry so much. Yes, that’s it.

I can try to get used to the quiet of a car ride if it’s required, and from the perspective of a mother, appreciate it for the peace it can bring . It’s inside the quiet that we listen best, and learn something we didn’t know before. The future will teach Olivia what she's supposed to know. But this is my little instruction for all my children: In the hush of the space in which we find ourselves is the persistence of memory, and what came before exists through each shift of time—friendships, love, losses and gains, and the certainty that what we once had, we will have again.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


“To make a 5 slide it down/then send it curving round/almost there please don’t stop/until you’ve put a hat on top.”—

We are a family of five. When the children were little, we would set the table with five dinner plates. Five napkins. Five forks. Five glasses. We five sat together at supper time, with a dog named Sammi at our feet.  We were “Taylor, party of five” at restaurants. In the space provided on an invitation, it was the number I would put down. Five, always five—the number which forms the simplest star, the points of which represent spirit, earth, air, fire, water.

After giving birth to Olivia, a wave of certainty came to me as I lay in recovery. I was done having children. It was as final a feeling as a door closing shut and locking afterward. Imagining my future life, it was with three children, no more. The desire I once had for a bigger family had disappeared like the smooth stone Max once excitedly showed to me, before he skipped it across a lake, where it skimmed the water’s surface before sinking to the bottom. I tried the word out in my head a few times before giving voice to it, saying it aloud to Ken. “Done.”

When they were younger Max and Olivia wistfully dreamed of having more brothers and sisters. One day we were walking along the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore, stopping to talk to a rather large family whose youngest member was a little girl with Down syndrome. Max was especially intrigued by the fact that the couple had seven kids. As we walked away, he said, “Mom, I wish we had a big family like that. It would be fun. Why can’t we have more kids?”

At eight, Olivia began to ask about adoption because I told her I was too old to have more children. She thought we should adopt a baby girl from China, where daughters were perhaps not valued as highly as were sons, so there were certainly more than enough of them to go around. She could have a sister with whom she might share clothes and toys. It was so simple in her mind, a jot of magical thinking; we could go get a baby and add her like we had added the fish we named Algebra and the hamster we kept in the upstairs hallway.

The subject came up time and again over the years, but I would gently reply with what I believe to be true: “God gave us the family we are supposed to have. We are a family of five.”

Most nights, now that Max and Olivia are older, I set the table for three. Ken, Cliff and I sit down to eat our meal--three plates, three napkins, three forks, three glasses, three occupied chairs at the kitchen table. When we go to the movies we purchase three tickets. If we go to a concert, take a walk around the neighborhood, climb into the car to explore places we haven’t yet seen, it’s just the three of us.

At restaurants we are “Taylor, party of three”, unless we’re celebrating someone’s birthday or other special occasion.

I remind myself that this is supposed to happen. Kids grow up, go to work, have friends to visit, places to go. I miss them, those other two, when they are absent. I believe Cliff misses them too. Sometimes I need to remind them how essential they are to their big brother. He needs them in the same way he needs all the things that sustain us--food, drink, shelter, love, breath. Taking him out for ice cream or for a walk or maybe reading him a book isn’t usually the first thing they think of to do with their day, though they love him deeply, because they are young and a little selfish, as all young people are.  

 A family is an entity in perpetual flux; the Greek philosopher Heraclitus asserted that flux is the state of constant change in which all things exist. “All things are flowing.”  There is ebb and flow as in a river, continuous change steering us into and away from each other’s daily lives. I believe God gave me the family I am supposed to have and that the universe will supply everything we need. This family of five will always stay together despite time and circumstance and physical distance. I have no doubt of that.

The constancy of change demands that the smooth rock resting at the lake  bottom is transported to some shore eventually, where a little boy or girl picks it up, carries it to some other supper table at which children and parents join in an excited chorus, imagining where else it has been.