Ether

A few times a year, I get a phone call or a visit that, in the world of fiction, would be the start of a novel. Invariably, I don’t take the bait. Novels are filled with people suffering for the purpose of furthering the plot along.

I’m not that kind of archaeologist.

I received a call yesterday, from a woman, wanting me to go with her and her sister, to an exhumation of her mother. Their mother had died when she was quite young, as did their father.  She and her sister had, finally, after all these years, decided to place the ashes of their father with her mother.

I asked, then, why she needed me? The cemetery where her mother was buried was going to do the exhumation. She didn’t need an archaeologist.

She said that, it was her belief and that of her sister, that when they opened that grave, they would not find her mother. They would find someone else.

This is first call. At this point in the conversation, I usually try to end it.  You may accuse me of a lack of curiosity, which is fair enough. But these exchanges typically only get crazier as they continue, and once you’ve crossed this line, there’s no going back. They assume you are interested and want to help. They call you for years. I have several of these people that I hear from about every six months or so, whether I answer the phone or not. They are the type of people to leave long messages.

I suggested to her, then, what she probably wanted was the police.

She stated that the body was buried on government property, that the government had hidden the reasons why the mother had died, and that she and her sister had spent their lifetimes piecing together the story of their mother and father, and that the time had come not just to bury the father, but to exhume whomever was in that grave, get a DNA sample and perform an autopsy. The father had left behind a mountain of encoded evidence for the two girls in the form of notes, diaries, and music.

Second call.  I’m rubbing my temple at this point.

I reiterate that she doesn’t need an archaeologist here, she needs to get permission from the government to do the autopsy. She needed to contact an estate lawyer to find out what rights she had in this situation, and get a court order if she felt there was foul play.

She countered that it seemed unlikely that the government would allow this, since they were complicit in the foul play. Furthermore, based on the trail left behind from her father, she and her sister believed that the body in that grave was several centuries old, and was actually someone I had heard of. She said that if she told me who it was, I would think she was crazy. She needed an archaeologist to confirm the antiquity of the skeleton and any associated grave goods.

Third and final call.  I wish her the best of luck, to contact the estate lawyer, and accepted her invitation to contact me when the lawyer advises her.  I have no idea what rights one has in such situations, but I imagine they are interesting.

Over several years in this business, I have encountered this more than once– parents or grandparents leaving behind clues or messages to some cryptic tragedy, or secret wealth, or unimagined ancestral lineage. Most of the descendants are interested, this portion of their family history becomes a hobby. They sit on the porch with glasses of whiskey and talk in low voices with close kin, hypothesizing the possible truths behind what they think they know. But every once in awhile, when the tragedy cuts close to the bone, when the mystery is spun hard enough, intricate enough, real enough, the sons and daughters are consumed.  They’re lost, their life courses spun out into the ether, following paths created by people with no understanding of what they’ve left behind.

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On the Writing in Wet Sand

CB and I are wrapping it up for the evening. She’s on top of her little bed house, peering over the railing. It’s the night before Halloween, and she’s nervous. This whole last month she’s been back in bed with us, waking up frightened in the early hours. Getting her to sleep takes longer than it did, and she chats as she tries to calm herself down.

“How do you kill a zombie Daddy?”

“There’s no such thing, sweetie.”

“Yeah, but how do you kill one?”

I look up from my Sudoku puzzle. “Well, in the movies, they chop its head off.”

“Why?”

“Because the body needs the brain to function. Even in zombies”

“Why?”

“Because the brain sends messages to the body that tells it what to do. If the brain is gone, the body doesn’t know what to do.”

“Is it easy to chop their heads off?”

“Honey, you never have to worry about it. I’ve been to many places, and seen many things, and I have never seen a zombie, nor do I know anyone that has.”

“But what if you have to chop their head off?”

“Sweetie, that’s just in the movies. Don’t worry about it.”

“But how do they know in the movies? How do they know it would really work? How do they know?”

**

We’re all at the beach. I’ve just come back from a run, and it’s slowly getting to be time for us to head home. The girls and I play tag with the waves, LA holding my hand, CB, running next to us. I lift Lily up when a bigger wave comes in and drag her toes through the water. She’s laughing. I look next to me and see that CB has been knocked down and is riding the surf to shore. She’s a good swimmer, but this is the first time that a wave has pushed her over like this, the first time she has gotten a taste, herself, of the power of the ocean, even in a foot or so of water. There’s a look of panic on her face. I head over behind her, in case she doesn’t get her footing, and am in position to catch her if she gets dragged back out, LA in my other arm. The wave recedes, she has clung tenaciously to the sand, long wet streaks where she was pulled back towards the ocean, a mix of fear and victory on her face. For now, she’s had enough.

LA plods through the sand to throw her little cold, wet body on her mother. CB stays along the edge of the waves now, drawing in the sand with a stick. She begins to write “I love…” but the wave sweeps up and takes it away. She scowls. “Why does it do that?”

“That’s how waves and sand are, boo. Nothing you put in them lasts very long. You write what you want to and then it goes away.”

CB chews on her lip. She goes further upslope to edge of damp sand and makes a long rectangle. “Guess what this is for?” she says with a bright smile. I make an exaggerated questioning shrug of the shoulders and watch her. “I…love…you…Dada” she prints it out nice and clear, her handwriting rapidly becoming better than mine. She shakes her stick, flinging wet sand, then trots off to see her sister and mother. I’m patting my pockets to see if I have my phone for a photo. I don’t. A wave sweeps up, over the writing, clearing most of it.

If I was a different writer, a different father perhaps, I would tell you that the wave washed it all away except for the word “love”, that it left me with a jovial feeling that all was right in the world and that everything would be ok. What was left, though, was “Dada”, the water sweeping the “I love you” to wherever the ocean keeps such messages, the sea playing a different game with me than with CB, a grown-up game. I frowned and stared out at the waves. I bent down and re-wrote the word “love”, and walked over to join my family.

Madeline

There is, hanging in the long hallway of my parent’s house, a large painting.The painting is hung high enough for my two young children not to see it. I suspect that this is intentional, though I’ve never asked. I’ve never spoken to my mother about the painting until now.She has pulmonary fibrosis, and is now on oxygen 24-7. She is an award-winning artist, and there are paintings that I have questions about, images from her art that have stayed with me over the years, and I’m looking for answers about this one.
Most of her work over the past decade has been pastels, vibrant ultraviolet landscapes that prove to me that she can see ranges of light beyond the rest of us. This painting, however, is in black and white, except for one crucial detail.
The painting is from a photo in William Stevenson’s book A Man Called Intrepid. It’s of a woman named Madeline, the first woman British WWII radiotelegraphist who transmitted from occupied France. She was caught by the Gestapo. She sits naked and emaciated, one of the Gestapo men holding her head up for the photo. There are no faces other than hers, just the legs of the men standing behind her. In the photo, she looks away, and does her best to cover herself before execution.
The painting has a secret. Up close, at eye level, you can see, in the shadows of Madeline’s eye sockets, that my mother has painted two tiny red dots. I wanted to know about those two dots. With those two tiny dots, my mother has transformed Madeline, from victim to something else, a force of vengeance. The man’s hand, holding her head, has rotted away, every man in the picture now dead and defeated. Madeline wears a halo of amputated limbs. She is victorious and unmoving, an eater of evil souls. The painting is as beautiful as it is unsettling, it reminds me of the true power that an artist has to re-forge images of despair into those of triumph, even a horrible triumph, and I love my mother even more for painting it. I imagine in her the same burning coals, the unflinching stare, as she faces the disease slowly taking her breath away.

2014-05-26 11.59.43Madiliene crop

Lullaby for Worried Parent

Ill little kinder

Hot as a cinder

The blanket, the bottle, and bear

 

Will not stay this fever

And I’m no believer

In preachers, or pulpits, or prayer.

 

I’ve lost one before you

There was two, now too few,

Now with you, I sleeplessly share:

 

Let moon howl, let sun crow

As you go, so I go

To Eden, to undone, to air.

The Give and Take of Grief

Writer’s note: This was first aired on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition as part of their This I Believe series on October 12, 2008, and has since been published in This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (2008).

I believe that grieving is good for you. As a culture, I feel we’ve forgotten how to grieve, and last year, I had the opportunity to remember.

My wife was seven months pregnant when her blood pressure spiked. Her liver started to shut down, so the doctors performed a Cesarean and our son was delivered to save both of their lives.

The first time I saw my son, he was in an incubator with nurses clearing his airways. He looked at me, like a dolphin surfacing to look at a fisherman, and then resubmerged when the team took him away to stabilize him. He was the smallest, most fragile baby I’d ever seen.

Over the next two weeks, my wife’s health stabilized; my son’s condition, however, deteriorated. The lungs of premature babies are as delicate and tenuous as a spider web, and they shred at the slightest pressure. I wanted to put him inside my chest and give him my lungs to breathe with. We went from holding him, to putting a hand on his head, to, at the end, with all the tubes and wires, only being able to lay one finger on the back of his hand. His lungs failed, and we had to let him go.

We never heard him cry. My wife and I, first-time parents, held him as he died, and we bathed him, washed his hair, and dressed him before he was cremated. In my mind, I could see an angel close her hand around my son like he was a gold coin and slip him into her pocket.

As each day passes, you close your eyes and let your grief slide through your fingers, one rough, cold link after another, until your loss settles deep inside you. It is a give-and-take between you and your grief, a tension that rolls your emotions back and forth. And at first you are certain that your life is going to capsize and you will drown. Eventually, the grief will ground you and give you stability in troubled times.

I am a better husband, a better father, and a better man for my loss—I’m kinder, more empathetic, and have different priorities. Our marriage was re-forged, the impurities burned out of the relationship by the furnace of our son’s death. To be with your child nearly every minute of his life is a gift few parents get, and my son died in the arms of people who loved him.

Ten months ago, my wife gave birth to our healthy daughter, and I am filled with a joy made greater by the loss of my son, because I know now what we have. The angel has extended her open hand to me. When my daughter turned to look at me for the first time, I picked her up and held her with everything I had.

The Pull of the Hide

20100926095901 “Can you see my hand?” There is an open place within one of our kitchen walls, which previous owners have clumsily installed a decorative shelving unit. Through it, you can see into the living room, and as I do dishes and Lauri puts Lily to bed, CB is cruising the house like a cat. She is nocturnal, like her grandmother, and is nowhere near ready to sleep yet. Her little hand waves from the bottom of one of the shelves. “Yes, I see your hand, little boo.” She climbs up on the desk on the other side of the wall and stands to her full height. “I’m the tallest person in the world! I’m taller than you now, daddy!” “Hey, how did you get up there? Be careful hon, there’s a lot to knock over there. Why don’t you climb down.” She reaches up and takes down a small, ornate brass container, about the size of a plum. “What’s this daddy? What’s in here?” I look up and see what she has picked up. I stop for a moment, and think about how much I want to talk about this, at this particular moment. There’s no avoiding the fact that I am exhausted, and am ready for a hot shower and good night’s sleep. She holds the vessel, looking at me through the shelving. “That, boo, is your brother. The ashes.” CB stops for a minute, and looks at it. “Can we open it?” “No, hon, that is not for opening. It stays closed.” “Oh.” She looks at it again. “Please?” “No, I’m afraid not, hon. It’s meant to stay closed.” She looks at the photo next to the urn, of Alex, his hand draped across my pinky finger. “Is this my brother?” I look at the photo, and back at CB. “Yes, it is. Here, look at my pinky, hold onto it, and look at your hand. See how big your hand is? Look how small his hand is. Tiny.” She wraps her warm hand, still sticky from the yogurt pop she downed earlier in the evening, around my pinky, looks at it, and looks at the photo. I consider, at this moment, looking away. I can’t help it, tears are streaming down my face, I’m watching her, and I, too, am looking at the photo, at her strong, sticky little hand, giant, at age five, compared to her brother’s. I don’t look away. There are times when it is good for your children to see you cry, that there are things that even parents weep over. She looks at me. If she sees that I am crying, she doesn’t say it. She gently puts the urn back, and looks at the dish next to the urn, the small rocks we’ve collected at the beach, pieces of red abalone shell, the onesie with the blood stain on it. She quietly pokes through it, inspecting it, making her own small inventory, and climbs down. We do this, now, the introduction of difficult topics, she is circling them like a young lioness trying to decide whether she is strong enough to take down the wounded wildebeest. Her brother. The divorce with her mother. My asthma. Where her sister’s biological parents are. The dead cat in the empty lot down the block. My relationship with Lauri. She grazes them, tests the strength of them, tracks them. They are not secret, they are there, in plain view, but still unknown. We let her ask the questions. Each new question reflects an absorption, an understanding of the answer given to the last, not full comprehension, but an awareness, the pull of the hide under her paw.   5252_1184062128539_6447331_n

The Seal

Lauri and Lily are away, it’s just CB and I for a couple of days. I’m in the kitchen, putting dishes in the dishwasher, listening to the radio.   CB is dancing around the kitchen, we’ve just shared a rib-eye, and red meat puts her in a feral mood. She has a piece of french bread and butter in her mouth that she is shaking around like a white shark slings a seal while she dances.
The radio newscast arrives at a story about a Syrian girl, caught in the blast of a bombed-out building. The explosion left her beheaded. There’s a young woman shouting in Arabic, crying to a man with a microphone. CB stops and asks “Why is that woman saying Daddy Daddy Daddy Daddy?” I stop to look at CB, the tail of bread hanging from her mouth, and turn off the radio.IMG00222-20110623-1755