Bittersweet 

  
I spent AWP 15 feeling old.  I wish there was a better way to phrase it.  Caught in the flow of young aspiring MFA students excitedly chatting between panels … there was this weird heightened awareness of age and the fact that I’m a vastly different person than I was at 24 when I entered my program… 26 when I left.  In fact one excited young writer mistook me for Cheryl Strayed while we waited in an insanely long bathroom line … and up until the final reading… that was the highlight for me.

That isn’t what this post is about, not really — though part of it — what your interior landscape is at that age and what it is in your forties … how the literary world worked, and still does, in particular ways that value youthful achievement.  I remember a professor who gave me one of my first teaching opportunities remarking that what saddened her most is that she would see the most promising female writers leave the program and never publish…not because they didn’t have it in them, but because many would leave, partner and build families.  I was naive enough at the time to think that wouldn’t matter.

The last reading I went to before the conference wrapped up was one that was hosted by local presses and featured award-winning poets, one of whom was instrumental in my undergraduate creative writing program in the early 90’s.  I remember reading her work and feeling tied and connected to the West that I was falling in love with then.  Work was read, interviews were conducted — and it had a particularly analog feel, which I appreciated — because two of the writers were writers of the generation that came before the digital publishing revolution and had some pointed observations about the change. I was ready to go home, AWP happening in my city — and so half of my attention was always on the tasks waiting for me at home.  I was planning on waving to my friend, exiting the revolving door into the damp and still cold Minnesota spring –but I saw that they were selling the poets work — and there was a small line forming for signing…and an interior voice just said “stay.”

So I stayed, bought three books from each reader, made small talk and offered praise for the two other poets…and then stood before the final poet, who gently brushed her lovely gray hair behind her ear and complimented my blouse before asking my name.  I gave it to her and paused.

My heart was racing and I tried to measure my voice.  I mentioned that I had been an undergraduate when she was head of the department.  I told her how her work had drawn me in and had been one of the things I feverishly read in preparation for my first year there… she nodded, her head down, turning the pages of her book, smiling benignly … and then I told her that I had taken an undergraduate creative writing class there but had … and I took a deep breath … dropped a course because of an inappropriate graduate student who had asked me out.  She dropped the pen and looked up at me suddenly.  She sharpened her gaze at me as if trying to place me, and then her gaze softened and she said, “oh yes, I remember, you know he started acting so strangely after that.  Acting out.  Horrible. We removed him from that course.”  And the room sort of spun.  All the blood went to my face, I apologized because I was having a moment.  “Ah. Um. But…” I stammered “I never filed a formal complaint.”  This is a university of 32,000 students.  This was an incident that had happened over 25 years ago.  I was young and taking a creative writing course, my first.  My teacher wrote on a sheaf of poems “you really are a short story writer.”  The first time I shared by rawest family stories — my father’s murder, my mother’s rage, my aunt’s schizophrenic break and its aftermath — all of it.  The man took it upon himself first to ask to meet me privately, off campus, for a critique.  This is all very hazy now.  I went once and I just felt awkward.  All my interior triggers were yelling at me — but I was raised to be polite and he was my teacher, after all.  I remember how we called me and left a message on my machine … asking me to meet him somewhere.  I don’t remember much beyond my own stammering response to his machine, declining– but what I do remember is his blistering response on my answering machine “what did you think I was asking you out on a fucking date”

I was eighteen.  This was my professor.  I was filled with shame and I never went back to the class… and in fact would never, could never, step foot in the creative writing department again.  I must have had to have someone sign a withdrawal slip for me…I remember never going back — and once the poet, signing my book started telling the story…I had the tiniest of snippets rise from the back of my mind…another student calling me to tell me the instructor had gone completely off the rails, come to class drunk, maybe?  Anyway.

For 25 years I kept that to myself.  I never advocating for myself or filed a complaint.  The poet looked up at me and there I was…my frye boots, my anthropologie top with the embroidered placket, my hoop earrings and silver and my too-long-for-my-age blonde hair blown out straight.  I’d bought bright red MAC lipstick for the event…unusual for me — I’m older now, and more substantial in many ways … my legs and arms are stronger, my back probably broader… and she said “you are very beautiful” and I thanked her and said I never would have been able to see it then.

She and I talked then.  In just a few minutes about the sexisim in the departments we’d both been in (different departments across the country) about the white elephant in the Creative Writing graduate studies departments across the country… about aging and how difficult it is and how few models we have in aging … and I looked into her eyes and told her she was now mine.  Solidarity.  For 25 years she knew my story and carried it, though she never knew my name or my face.  She remembered it.

She told me she was glad I came back to writing — and I did, after my literature degree — I wrote stories for myself…I remember sitting in the sun along the Boulder Creek reading Raymond Carver by the old public library — right near the co-op I could never afford. I asked about him.  Was there ever any formal consequence? What became of him.  I held my breath.  She waved her hand as if batting away an annoying horsefly “I told him the truth.  That he didn’t have it.  That he would never be anything.”

And when we parted she said “keep in touch.”  And I plan on it.  I tell myself I will write her a letter — just like I tell myself I will work on my novel, or get back to some kind of creative life, or write a blog post.

So.  It only took me a year to tell you.  I’m not even going to edit it or it will never get published.

There’s a part two to this story.  It’s about what happened to that 18 year old student the year after she graduated.

 

 

Jumpstart

    I have plans to write … and I have been writing… but mostly for myself. But I miss this space and I miss you. Forgive the photo taken of a proof from my computer… but  the sentiment is there. 

Z. turns six next week — does that mean my blog turned eight this year?  In some ways this is a melancholy space. Two of my friends who I met online have died… Nancy and Lou; and time it just moves on.  I’ve met and been connected to so many wonderful people through the space. I still check in on many of you from time to time even if I’m silent.  Alicia’s death compounded by Willi’s accident was just too much for me for a while.  I was submerged.  

I’m surfacing now.

Bricklayer

I wrote this in October:

But that was how I was raised.  Casting nets with gaping holes, letting things collapse in upon themselves, trawling in the ruins.  Unraveling thread — the opposite of knitting.  The pull of the slipknot traveling like a stuck cursor down and down and down until what you’re left with is erasure: tangled, knotted yarn in your lap.

Some families are gardeners, tenders, herders … drawing you toward the central story you all share.  In my family the personal story is held close to the vest, told as a cautionary tale; these are not the stories you want to take as your own.  But they follow you.

***

Z will be in kindergarten next year; W will be a sophomore in high school.  We adopted a puppy that lolls and chews and tears through the yard. We managed through pure ignorance and benign neglect to cull our flock of chickens from six to four.  Z takes this in stride in a way that seems both utterly foreign and familiar — balanced with a kind of acceptance of the natural world and the order of things;  I was a child who perseverated on things.  If you can feel things too much, I did, which led somehow to a complete disconnect from them.  I am still bothered sometimes, the way you are bothered if you have some small pebble in your shoe that’s too small to bother with but big enough to notice, that my best friend, in the months before she died mentioned to a mutual friend “well you know how sensitive Pam is.” And I often think to myself that no one quite knew me like she did and she didn’t say it to admonish but to acknowledge, trying to shield me from something she supposed I might see as a minor slight.

Funny.  I think of myself as tough.  And I am.  Raised working-poor by a woman who, I can see now, was in her own way an orphan and a self-determined outsider: outside the world of her half-siblings, the step-father who adopted her at eight, the mother who fashioned a world so wholly different from the world she was born into to which she and my mother both belonged. My mother bequeathed to me a kind of fluid class status — drifting back and forth over the borderlands; I passed.  I perfected,  over time, the ability of removal. My life’s work now seems to be to root myself.

Easier said than done.

I woke up today and thought how I was nearly Z’s age in 1978 on this day when my father was drinking away his last day on earth — whiskey with his ex-wife and his old air force buddies. I was with my mother then in an Illinois farm town where she was teaching at a community college.  My father was in a Florida coastal town near the space coast.  They’d divorced the year before.

You know how everyone these days is so entranced with Serial? In passing someone will ask if I follow it and I say no.  My father was a murder victim.  I know we’ve built whole genres on the very act.  I grew up on my mother’s Agatha Christies.  I am a rabid fan of good police procedurals… and yet.

I was at a writing conference once.  I’ll never forget this woman I was sharing a condo with who said she didn’t have something as sensational to write about as my life story — and at that moment any drive I had to sell a memoir about that disappeared.  I balance that same borderland — creative work I want to do and the same old stories I can’t get past.  When Alicia died, after W’s accident, for the first time in my life narrative failed.  It felt, strangely, too close, too deep, too raw.  The story of the family I was born into — that I could tell more easily (however I felt about about turning it into a product) — but the story of the family I chose and built — that has felt impossible to tell.

I figured  I should write here before the space is hijacked by Russian bots … AWP is coming to my city — I’ll be going and reentering the writing world.  I’ve spent the last seven years writing Blood Signs — titled after a collection of stories I wrote when I was 26.  I’m 42 now.

I finally understand what David Long, one of the finest writing teachers I ever had, said.  He was quoting his own mentor who talked about writing like bricklaying.  You show up every day and lay the bricks.

So if you wonder where I am or what I’m doing?Anne Lamott has Bird by Bird and I have brick by brick.

Meanwhile you can find me on twitter @bloodsigns or  on IG as zoebsmom

I can tell by my stats  that at least nine of you have checked in on me.  I’m alive!

Anchor Me

Blue, songs are like tattoos
You know I’ve been to sea before
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away – Joni Mitchell “Blue”

I queued up Joni Mitchell and Z and I played ping pong in the basement.  The walls and floor are new. The furniture is gone. When you step out into the courtyard it is glazed with ice and the snow of a winter already in progress.  The chickens coo from their coop and their water freezes over.  The sun is tossed low across the sky this time of year — traveling barely above the bare tree tops until 4:30 or so when it sets.  I used to play Joni Mitchell over and over on my Walkman at whatever coffee shop I was writing in (Boulder Bookstore) in college. If there was a soundtrack for me — my years in Boulder — that would be it.  I listened to it the other day with this sense of profound dislocation.  The girl I was in childhood would have never recognized herself in me: middle-aged mother driving a very safe station wagon, running errands, planning meals — a life centered so wholly in and about the home. The childhood me — who was she really? I was an activist very young — spurred on by the older women I met here, nuns, who were involved in the anti-nuclear war movement.  I was heavily influenced by the idea of social justice that those women introduced me to.  It was the 80s in Minneapolis — and I was the child of a single, working mother trying to find herself out of the dark wood of her own trauma.  I can never seem to keep those thoughts, those years from washing over me when the days shorten — and I’m brought powerfully back into my twelve year old body — watching the ice scrim on the  lake and the darting and diving coots who stayed until the last patch of open water disappeared. I’m walking the perimeter of the muddied and abandoned soccer field, skirting the foraging Canada geese. I think then of my best friend and it’s like a flash forward in a novel and I remember her wiping my tears as she was dying and it sounds again in my head that she is dead and this city is the same city and filled as it always had been with the balance of beauty and heartbreak and any illusion I’d  had that I could run, escape, live in the mountains like some sunny remade mountain girl — it was all false and I knew I couldn’t run forever which is how I came back here to the edge of the plains, this place which, if anything did, made me.

My worlds collided this summer after Willi’s accident;  it wasn’t as if I was seeking anonymity when I began this blog in 2007 — it is just how it began.  I grew and blogging grew.  I was thinking less about teaching/publishing and more about building our family. Stepmothering, infertility, IVF –it was inevitable that in a blog that was essentially a raw memoir that I would  stumble back over the same roads— how I came to understand family and mothering — my father’s death, my mother’s family — the things that shaped me.  I had put my  name on this blog a few years before and had begun trying to write as I would if this were the study for a memoir — but the blogging world isn’t the publishing world  — I think of the literary publishing world as I knew it as relatively static thing; a writer would produce a novel or a memoir and his or her life beyond that professional persona was unknown. I wrote about my best friend’s death from breast cancer, and then fourteen months later about our son’s TBI after falling off his skateboard (no helmet) onto a suburban street.

You came in droves — people we had never met held us in your hearts.  You reached me in a very dark time.  I’m still stumbling around trying to figure out what can be told — trying to get my fiction mojo back by the time AWP comes in the Spring.

I’m back in this space.

Willi is doing wonderfully — really for all who have wondered and prayed and asked whether here or in private emails.  We are all seeing the world through a different lens now.  How rare to have life offer you a moment to see how truly you are loved.  In school full time, hanging out with friends, opening his heart to his sisters(and us) in ways he rarely did before.

I went into his room yesterday — I was feeling particularly emotional — my mother had just come to watch Z — and we’d had a meeting at the hospital to talk about his progress — and my mother, who lives miles from here and yet has not visited the house since before W’s accident — was here. We’d spoken on the phone over the months — and I had assured her that she needn’t worry about me — just like when I was a child I often wanted to process these things on my own — and yet.  I went into W’s room — and I told him how my mom had just been here and it’d given me pause because, as he understands, my mother and I have a stilted and complicated relationship.  I always felt, I told him, that things were very conditional — I wasn’t thin enough, or … something enough.  It didn’t matter all of the wonderful words that could come at various times — there was plenty other stuff to wash that away.  I told him how it had evolved now that my mother didn’t want to bother me — didn’t want to insert herself into my life for whatever reason — maybe I’ve given her the message its an intrusion — anyway.  I looked at him and I told him that I loved him unconditionally — no matter what.  And that I would always be in his business.  Always.  And he was on his bed, his face aglow with the light of his iphone and I saw this uncontrollable smile break across his face — this has happened since the accident — this irrepressible emotion.  He shook his head and couldn’t stop smiling.

 

And that.  That’s a gift.

Do you believe in miracles?

The care conference was like being in a college classroom again, only this time I was the ill-prepared student. The social worker was kind enough to tear a piece of paper off for me to jot notes, the only natural way I can sit at a table with people talking jotting notes. My comfort zone. Whiteboards, nondescript carpeting, acoustic tile ceiling: it could have been the community college where I taught.

Think about a time, I would say, when everything changed. The one moment after which nothing was the same. We all have them I would say. What was yours? I often began the semester that way talking about the personal essay — quoting Lopate and Dillard and Montaigne, each one more eloquent than I could ever be.

My favorite essay was Scott Russell Sanders Under the Influence — it begins: My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food–compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. I use the past tense not because he ever quit drinking but because he quit living. That is how the story ends for my father, age sixty-four, heart bursting, body cooling, slumped and forsaken on the linoleum of my brother’s trailer. The story continues for my brother, my sister, my mother, and me, and will continue as long as memory holds.

Moments after which nothing was the same. The memory of my father banging at every glass door of our condo, drunk. Watching him shave in the mirror at the motel. His murder. Feeling my heart pounding in my chest after my aunt tried to kill my grandmother by hitting her over the head with a cast iron skillet in the narrow kitchen of my grandparent’s cottage and I ran the waist high grasses to the neighbors sure she was behind me. I was not yet in the second grade. Subject to both my mother’s rages and depression I had a stomachache every day. The 80s in Minneapolis I was a wisened and wandering child propositioned and alone with my friends on the streets at night.

The moments certainly weren’t in the phone calls from the state run asylum where my aunt was housed for years, those were routine after she succeeded in severing my grandmother’s spinal cord.

Circling around in my life a little knowing there was something out there that I was supposed to be but had no way to know how to get there. My mother helped, even in her grief she could see the writer in me. She said that. She gave me a path. She set me on it. She always told me I could succeed.

There was a moment when I left my first love. When I was drinking beer on the rooftops of Boulder apartment buildings across from the neon signs of the clubs. I was waitressing and drinking too much. Another moment when I got eight stitches in my Irish chin and was putting restraints by the emergency room doctor. A moment when I got into graduate school. Moments when the beauty and poverty of Montana almost broke me. Brokenhearted when I drove 21 hours across the plains with a songbird stuck in the grill of my Subaru. I left it behind and never came back. The moment when I fell in love. A moment when W put his small hand in mine. A moment when Z was conceived. When I looked up on the ultrasound screen and was told that it was the girl of my dreams. When I felt my father’s presence lift from me like the fog suddenly burning off… The sun in my Prairie garden, the clouds moving fast above me. Watching my husband cast from the dock. The moment I crawled into bed with my best friend. Tears were streaming down both of our faces. She wiped the tears from mine. I told her how I had always loved her and that my life had changed the moment she entered it. She would never ever leave my heart or me. That we would meet again. A few days later I was there at her bedside when she died.

July 7 the day after Gerry’s birthday when I’d been so proud of myself for making a strawberry cake with pastry cream. He was having a sword fight with Zoe and I was taking a bath and Willi was at a friends down the street. What we didn’t know is that he had taken his longboard for a ride on a normal suburban street on a beautiful sunny evening. Sometime between 7:39 PM that evening and 745 he fell. Without a helmet. When Gerry burst into the bathroom and told me that Willi was hurt and that he needed to take him to the hospital I immediately just thought he was concussed. I saw Willi on the couch bent over unable to put his shoes on or follow the directions to do so. I saw them walk to the truck.

I waited for a text. When it came he was being transferred to another hospital he was belligerent. Gerry wrote three words which I will never forget: I am scared.

I parked in the wrong part of the hospital. The doors were closed it was after hours I walked along Jackson Street frantically searching for the emergency room doors. One person directed me to the ER and the security guard at intake level to look at me while giving me my ID tag and said don’t worry ma’am they’re going to take good care of him here. I remember a sea of blue scrubs and Willi hooked up to ventilator underneath the lights and I heard someone say “is this Mom?” And I collapsed into Gerry’s arms as he stood there and the whir of the machine breathing for him. And the stillness. Everything was moving around me but it seemed so still. The neurologist came in and asked us to leave and closed the curtain. I kept saying to nurses “I am just his stepmom ” because I felt like I was usurping his mothers place somehow that I didn’t have a right to the grief that I felt that was about to overwhelm me, that I wanted them to know that I was somehow an interloper there and a kind nurse said to me “You are mom enough”. It’s okay she said. You’re his mom too. I tried to get Willi’s mother on the phone. We conferenced her on Skype with the neurologist who was telling us that she had to do a craniectomy. His mother, pulled over to the side of the road on a rural Wisconsin Highway, her daughter in the backseat in the middle of the night with a 4 Hour drive ahead of her. The neurologist was talking about the CT scan and how they weren’t sure it would warrant craniectomy but his responses were so poor she was certain that they had to. I caught a nurse and she was about to swing out of the emergency room doors and I said frantically what can we expect in terms of recovery what can we expect and she looked at me and she said “there are always the miracles” in my mind spun and spun and I thought wait, wait, we need a miracle? We sat there for hours waiting.

After the surgery his mother had miraculously arrived in time for the surgeon just out of the room to tell us. I don’t remember all the words but I do remember what I said “wait a second, wait a second, is she telling us that he may die?” And I said as I had said 10 times before that night “but it was just a stupid little skateboard accident”

And your love poured in. And I met that singing man in the park. And I felt the presence of my best friend beside me in the car. And he woke up. And today we had his first care conference. Three things stand out for me: when I asked the doctors about a traumatic brain injury support group for families he looked at me and very tactfully more or less said that it might not be what I was looking for. That many of these young people who suffer these kind of injuries are nonverbal/very little movement/Communication for the rest of their lives. He said very kindly that I might be asking how to deal with the fact that my son has impulse control or slight cognitive issues when they are looking at a son who will never be able to speak again.

My husband always asks the best questions. He said what of course we really want to know is that it is he going to have a good quality-of-life.

And a mild-mannered doctor with the most beautiful Kentucky drawl, leaned back in his chair and said if you mean graduating from college, getting married, having kids, holding a job, there is nothing about this injury that is going to prevent him from doing that.

And I tried to hold back tears. But today driving home some dumb country song on the radio, Zoe in the backseat I could barely keep it in.

It is a goddamn miracle and I don’t believe in miracles.
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Reinventing Lady Tremaine

I was reading Zoe stories on the way home from the cabin last month. A gorgeous hardcover book based on Grimm’s fairytales with illustrations that looked more like tapestries.

I don’t know that I have ever known that Cinderella grew a tree , a Willow tree from her tears. Beautiful birds come and settle on the branches and all the leaves unfurl, a symbol of hope and renewal; but then of course I also had to read about stepmother, Stepmother who figures so prominently in so many different stories, so many of our narratives. Isn’t she just like the wicked wolf lurking in the forest.

But here’s the difficult part: if I were to try to imagine another woman entering Zoe’s life… It seems an impossibility. That is where I owe the deepest gratitude of my life. W’s mother and I often have this exchange where I will say “thank you for letting me love your son” and she will say “thank you for loving him as much as you do.”

W was little… Younger than four, G would ask me why I didn’t just scoop him up in my arms more, cover him with kisses. I, of course, regret now that I didn’t but, I come, remember from a fatherless family. There were times when people tried to enter the space that had been occupied by my father and I remember the visceral feeling I had against that space being violated.

I try as best I can to balance that line between loving attentiveness and respectful distance.

W and I have evolved into kind of a bickering relationship where I do nag him relentlessly about what he’s up to. His father sometimes misinterpreted that as if he and I weren’t getting along but really the opposite was true.

He had taken to a lot of unsolicited I love you’s lately, and while that might be routine for a mother and son it was not as routine for us. It was often left unspoken. I’m so grateful for it now. I can see him closing the car door, opening the back of the station wagon and grabbing his hockey stick before practice — and an easy and familiar I love you.

I love you too kiddo

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Grateful

Late last night I furiously googled TBI and squinted over 100 page PDF’s. A note would come into the blog, and another. Reminding me to stay present. “Don’t borrow trouble” an old saying from my great grandmother … G reminded me just tonight to stick my hand out in front of my face and focus “right there. That’s all that’s useful in focusing on this next stage of rehab. A foot in front of your face. ”

I’m a worrier. Born worried. No, really. My mantra as a toddler was “it won’t work”. I can almost conjure up the feeling I had that doubt steeled me against disappointment of a world that had plenty in store for me. My brain travels every path the way a mouse must frantically hoard food– tricking itself into thinking it can prepare for every eventuality.

As my mind whirred last night a comment came in from Jjiraffe telling me about Bob Wiodruff’s story and it calmed me. Just a few words jotted on someone else’s phone half a country away.

It reminds me every time of something Mel wrote once about blogging being like sending a message in a bottle– or the SETI project beaming frequencies into space … I remember the very first comment on my old bloodsigns blogger blog … Connecting with other women who were struggling with infertility took me on the path that led to Zoe. The power of connection.

I had let this blog lay fallow for awhile … But always thought of the people I’d known through the years here — and how in the most difficult times words have always saved me.

Writing my own and reading yours. You’ve given my family your heart and your love and I will go to my grave believing that that miracle of love, your love, saved our son.

For all of the unknowns I am filled with hope today. And so very grateful for you.

Love,

Pam

Rattlesnake in the Ivy

confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Not knowing is difficult. Not being in the hospital is difficult. Zoe, never one for nightmares, wakes up at least twice a week with them now. Being alone parenting a four and a half-year-old is difficult. Contemplating that the entire landscape of your family has changed is difficult.

More difficult are the old narratives. My mother’s family had one sibling to whom all of the parental energy was primarily directed, my mother’s sister, a schizophrenic who was not easily managed in the years before the better medications. The first time I read Toni Morrison’s beloved about the interplay between beloved and her mother… this twining, boundaryless, all-consuming relationship based on reparation and guilt, I wrote an essay about how it reminded me of the relationship between my grandmother and my aunt. Just last night on the phone my mother told me the story again: it was my grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother was pounding on the door trying to coax Margaret out of her room… And my mother turned to her own mother and said “you know you have two other children, don’t you?”

It was my mother speaking her own fear to me.

It is an impossible choice between the vulnerable child who needs you, and the children who need you because you are knit into the very fabric of their lives.

It is too early yet to know anything other than the fact that everything has changed.

t

Nerf Bullet

Such a simple thing as handing over the Nerf bullet for him to load the gun. “Don’t shoot me with that” I say and turn my back. Seconds later it hits. I smile but he can’t see me. He leans casually over the hospital bed, folds his arms and rests his chin there briefly. He levels his gaze on me, woozy from the Ativan, “you’ve worn different shoes like every day you been here” he said (yesterday I had on my clogs.)

He teases his sister about the ET machine wrapped around his finger… (What is the thing that tracks the oxygen called?) “touch the Owie ” and she hides her face shyly clutching onto her father’s arm.

When we arrived at dinner time his father was asking him simple math problems. He got each one right except for what was 45÷3. Of course when G asked me that I said you can’t divide 45 x 3 and he leveled me with a look with that annoyingly ambidextrous brain he has and said 15. I told him that I had just proved that that particular question might not be the best one in evaluating his brain.

During the day when I’m here with Zoe and not at the hospital I read too much and worry too much about what the future will hold. From everything the doctors have told us he suffered a severe head injury with a skull fracture was in the severe range in terms of the Glasgow coma scale — has areas of damage in the frontal and parietal lobes. When I read trying to understand these things it scares me. When I see him in the hospital making small talk and shooting Nerf bullets he seems very much like a version of his old self. They have given him a medication for his nerve pain in his legs and something to help the agitation.

Today is moving day for him. Into the inpatient rehabilitation wing of the hospital. They explained to us that it’s very much like school: they wake up and have breakfast… do their occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy and take a break. And then they do sessions again in the afternoon. I understand that after a week his various therapists will meet with us and let us know their assessment. The plan is for him to return to school this year and to be home within a matter of weeks– certainly late September/early October.

When Willi started using his phone for Instagram I remember thinking what an eye he had for photography — and then he began using Instagram as all the kids (and we?) do, to craft a very particular image that they want the world to see. But one picture he took struck me. He had put it on the background screen of his iPad. I looked at that photo for the first time and realized there was a creative spirit inside of him — as hidden as it seemed these days inside of his young hockey player bravado– after all he IS the same boy who would make elaborate sculptures out of cardboard, robot drawings, for a long time I thought that he might enjoy robotics, or building. When he was 8 or so we went to the science Museum and saw a sculpture on the wall of repurposed objects. For a while he was on fire to make a sculpture of repurposed things. He grew and grew into this handsome, broad shouldered, athletic hockey player… A 12 or 13-year-old trapped inside a 16 or 17-year-old body and put aside everything but hockey.

There’s something in that photograph that he’s captured so perfectly: that moment in youth we believe ourselves to be invincible; it haunts me now — heading into the setting sun, riding along the yellow line. No idea what is to come.

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A Handful of Monarchs

The waiting. When Gerry and I first began dating it was five months before I would meet Willi.

It was summer. I was driving down Chicago Avenue with my mother, I was teaching then and househunting. My cell phone rang and it was Gerry asking if I wanted to have dinner not just with him but with Willi.

I remember how nervous I was. Gerry had asked me to get him some milk, place it on the little tray where he was sitting. He was 3 1/2. I took the glass and placed with a smile and he made a tiny lunge with a growling sneer like he was a small pocket-sized tiger.

It wouldn’t stay that way long but I do remember that. I remember that I had to build his trust and play with him and show him that I was someone who cared about him. I had, for some inexplicable reason, these giant rubber ducks wearing sailor hats… A girl and one boy… and babies. My brother had seen them in a window in Boston and purchased them for me that Christmas. I don’t know why but one day I took one over to the apartment where they were living and when I drove away I stuck the duck out the window and waved it madly. He laughed and waved at it. Ever after that it would be something that we would do. I would drive away, one arm out of the window of my jeep, flailing a giant rubber duck in a sailor hat.

These times scroll across the surface of my mind: my 33rd birthday we got caught in a thunderstorm and I rolled down the windows of the car and drove through giant puddles pretending it was a roller coaster and it was fun,having him stick his hands out of the window; traveling to my mom’s place in the upper Peninsula of Michigan where he crawled up on my lap in the rocking chair one morning and I sat there barely able to breathe with fear that he would move, so rare was that moment; the few times when he has broken down completely vulnerable in my arms and sobbed, once at about seven and another at 12. He is cut from the same stoic Austrian cloth as his father.

He lay in the hospital bed awake but tired and in one of the down times after stimulation when he just needs to rest. He will still cry out in pain in his legs hurt, if the lukewarm soup feels too hot to his tongue. And it’s not the tiny roar the tiger cub anymore but of a young adolescent male.

I hovered uncertainly at his bedside and asked him if I could touch him. That I didn’t want to bother him. He sort of half smirked. I put my hand on his arm and told him how much I loved him.

It occurred to me that we are starting all over as if someone had turned back the clock 11 years.

The nurses downloaded and printed out something for us called the Rancho los Amigos cognitive recovery scale. It gives us an idea of strategies to use at every stage of his cognitive recovery. There are 10 levels number one being no response and number 10 being purposeful, appropriate: modified independent.

Right now our son is somewhere between levels four and five it seems– moving from the “confused and agitated” to the “confused, inappropriate and non-agitated”

Imagine your spirited 14-year-old on their worst day when they can’t wake up and they don’t want to talk to you and are agitated. Now amplify it. Even before his injury he might, in the moment of frustration, bark out a cry of anger. He goes to that place quite a lot now. If there’s pain in his legs at night, if his legs are uncomfortable in the wheelchair. He talks too of course but there’s a lot of ordering around that can be difficult for the person on the receiving end. You remind yourself that this is the result of the brain injury and that it is temporary.

The most frustrating part about a traumatic brain injury is that no one can tell you what the end of the road looks like. No one can tell you how long you’re going to be on the road or what the signposts might look like. I did some Internet research for the first time last night but it was too difficult. I understand why now, standing in the trauma center that very first night, shaking like a leaf, the young trauma nurse with the door swung out behind her turned to me and said “but there are always the miracles ”

My mind raced around and around, what does she mean? This is just a stupid skateboarding accident on the suburban street, what does she mean?

I’ve seen half a dozen monarchs in the last week after seeing none at all. A goldfinch in my front garden. It all seems so beautiful and incongruous. I think of the impossible migration of the Monarch. The trees in Michoacan heavy, draped with the fluttering wings of millions of butterflies. Those fragile wings that can be marred by a fingertip can travel thousands of miles..

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