Hope, they say, deserts us at no period of our existence.
-Robert Louis Stevenson
How do you know, without the words
to say it, that you are the summation of a lifetime
of desire? And when you know, do the stars emerge
from blackness, or arrive like shots in the sky?
-Danielle Cadena Deulen, “Interrogation”
Last Monday I found myself scurrying around New York City, dealing with the sweet, odd business of selling a book. The book – Dear Dr. Frankenstein: A Love Story – grew out of the essays and rants and raves and parenting manifestos and grief fugues written for this blog over a period of nine months. “Frankie”- as some of my early readers refer to the book – will be published by Penguin Press. You, readers, have helped me find the voice and shape of this work and I am deeply grateful. I will continue to post pictures and updates about Ronan’s day-to-day life, and links to pieces appearing on The Nervous Breakdown and in other print and online magazines. I will chronicle the process of writing the book, as always with an eye on how living with and loving my son shapes and informs this work.
Walking down 6th Avenue and rattling away to someone on the phone on my way to a meeting in Manhattan, I said, “You know, none of us knows what will happen in the next five seconds or five minutes or five hours or five years!” feeling very authoritative and clever when I watched a taxi hit a man on a bike just a few blocks from Times Square, just as I was stepping into the street against the light. Everyone gasped and stood on the edge of the sidewalk. Even in the face of knowable and obvious disaster – my kid is dying and there’s nothing I can do for him is a phrase that I hear in my head and feel in my body every moment of every day – there I was, crossing on a red light while doing four things at once (talking on the phone, chewing a bagel, reaching down to pull on the top of my boot, handing a corner street vendor $1 for a can of ginger ale). I just missed the missile of that bike by an inch, a beat. For a few moments everyone stood suspended, a stalled clump of people disbelieving but not surprised, and then, as if instructed, everyone began to run into the street to try and help the man stand up and recover his bike. He was on his feet, shaking his head, stunned. He appeared otherwise okay, although someone was offering to call an ambulance. The cabbie leapt from the car, calling “Are you all right?” The two men shook hands and talked. The crowd dispersed. I walked on unharmed – at least for the moment.
Later, wandering into the packed Macy’s in midtown, I encountered young couples making out in the designer purse area and a few older ladies wearing hair nets sampling the latest Calvin Klein perfume while a diaphanous man wearing skin-tight white jeans moved through the cosmetics section offering free makeovers in a high-pitched croon. Outside on a stage in the street some F list actors were launching an unconvincing sales pitch for an alternative to the I-phone. A group of bedraggled protestors from Occupy Wall Street crossed the mall near 32nd street while tourists snapped photos (me included). At the end of my walk I bought a good-luck necklace for my friend Jen at one of the holiday booths in Bryant Park. You can “check in” on Facebook at the skating rink there, buy a bracelet made from an antique brooch, eat gourmet crepes and guzzle hot “drinking chocolate” while lounging in padded swings on “The Porch.” At every point you are given the opportunity to tell everyone where you are — “I’m here!” – but where are we really? I saw more people every five minutes than I see in five months in Santa Fe. I was elated, ecstatic, sad, wild, focused, subdued, calm and confident – simultaneously embodying the best and worst versions of myself, which might be a kind of craziness or an extreme form of sanity.
Everyone feels like they belong in New York: it is the great seduction and deception of the city. I always feel excited for the first few days, like I’m the star of that silly Beyonce/Jay-Z song that lays down such a strong beat for a fast hill climb in a spin class. Everyone looks cozy but cool, sipping wine and eating creamy pasta through restaurant windows and close-talking over glamorous, colorful cocktails in hotel bars. After about 48 hours, I’m exhausted and overwhelmed. Instead of wondering about the life of the person sitting opposite me on the subway, I want to close my eyes and nod off as the R train click-clacks eastward to Queens.
Unaccountably, as I floated through these editorial meetings and then made my hours-long stomp through the city, feeling both electrified and slightly fraudulent (a typical writerly emotional combo), the lyrics of Pat Benatar’s iconic, schmaltzy song “We Belong” wouldn’t stop playing on a continuous loop in my head. (I also couldn’t stop picturing the video: Pat’s coral lipstick and baggy white suit jacket; her creepy green gloves that make it look like she’s about to get busy washing dishes; her exquisite cheekbones and rockin’ 80’s hairdo, halfway between a shaggy bob and a pixie cut; the weird final scene when a group of terrified-looking children gather around a lake with a waterfall to sing the chorus while holding skinny white candles that could have been pilfered from a candlelight Christmas Eve service.) As I walked up 7th Avenue, loving the perfect autumnal day in a city as sharp and trembling and alive and gleaming as I felt at that moment, I remembered sitting in a green Pinto that smelled like cigarettes and Fritos, listening to Pat’s song and “cruising” down a small-town Nebraska main street wearing too much makeup (no doubt modeled after Pat’s eye makeup), and pretending that I was cool and cute and “right” enough to attract some muscle-y, fast-drinking, sullen suitor who might be glimpsed in a car passing slowly next to ours. Cars full of teenagers stuffed with hormones and cheap beer, offering one another hesitant, pleading looks full of lust and longing through dirt-smudged windows.
On these nights my girlfriends and I inevitably ended up at a party in some moldy, windowless basement; these wine cooler-fueled booze-ups were often hosted by the older kids of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, who were always threatening to make us (the girls, at least) wear purity bracelets before stalking off to someone’s parked car to steam up the windows. The younger, awkward, more tentative girls just sat around looking at one another, strategizing about prom dates and wondering what our lives were about, or for. My thoughts at that time ranged from I don’t want to do anything that will disappoint my parents to Cute boy! Hide! to This wine cooler tastes like drinking a Pixie Stick to I’d rather be reading a book. And on those nights I vividly remembering thinking about the Vietnam vets I knew from the prosthetist’s office – my secret life that nobody knew about and that nobody could touch and that I only realized I cherished in these weird, out-of-time moments of adolescent angst and wonder, the music too loud, the bodies too close and real and unfamiliar. I much preferred my dream life to the life I was currently living, and I remember wishing one of those sinewy, over-tanned, wrinkly, cursing, inappropriate, limping dudes – one of my Vet friends — would stroll through the basement door, light up a Marlboro Red, say “Hey, Kiddo,” and save me from boys my own age, who I understood would never love me, which at the time I desperately wanted, and would certainly never choose me for “that one thing they all want,” which is what we’d been invited to this alcohol-soaked gathering to be reminded that we should explicitly avoid if we were to remain good and pure in the eyes of our Lord. (Who was also, apparently, a staunch supporter of intra-mural sports.)
As a kid, and then later, as an adolescent, I loved the Vietnam vets because they weren’t like any other men I knew through the wholesome avenues of church and school. By contrast, these guys smoked (how stinky and rebellious and cool!), had tattoos (awesome!), wore buckets of the most hideous cologne/aftershave, and told dirty jokes that I didn’t realize were dirty, but I loved the feeling of being let in on a secret, being complicit in some kind of wink-wink naughtiness. And because they laughed at their own jokes and you could only feel safe looking at them when they laughed I was always asking for a joke. I wish I remembered some of those set-ups and punch lines; they’d probably be clean by today’s standards. (This was pre-internet porn and during the time when Frogger was one of the most violent video games available.)
I only looked in the vet’s eyes when they laughed because when you looked straight on there was some hole there, some deep and unspeakable knowledge of sadness that children and people who are falling in love can best intuit, as both states approximate a mild state of psychosis. The senses are heightened, almost unreachable, and what you feel most strongly is a truth waiting on the other side of your hand that you can almost grasp, but the more urgent your reach the more quickly that truth recedes, as if giving you tough-love proof of its ineffability. The emotions that drive us most are usually the ones we understand the least. Why is it then that the most ineffable connections can feel (and perhaps they are) the most deeply true? Explanations fail. These veterans knew that I knew loss and they knew that I didn’t yet know that I knew it, but that when I did it would hurt like hell. And they were right. At least I like to think this is why they were kind to me, although it could also be because I was precocious and chatty and pushy about getting people to sing Disney movie duets while we waited for the “doctor” in the back room to saw a foot or fix a knee hinge for one of us. Maybe I gave them no option but to participate in my innocent antics, this forced friendship.
While I was in New York, Veteran’s Day was just around the corner. Waiting in La Guardia for my flight, a crowd began to gather a few gates down. A plane full of soldiers from Iraq had arrived home. I watched from a distance, knowing I couldn’t bear to watch the reunions, understanding that witnessing a true expression of happiness might make me sob in front of that group, and if I started that business it was quite possible that it couldn’t be stopped.
“They fought for our country,” I heard a pregnant mother tell her toddler, a boy probably about Ronan’s age, although it’s hard for me to tell anymore, locked as I am in the world of my baby stalled out at six months. The boy was walking and talking and prancing around the lobby with a SpongeBob Square Pants doll. Part of me wanted to steal him, and I was ashamed of the impulse. I watched men and women in fatigues move away from the gate, their arms looped around the shoulders and waists of loved ones. Strangers offered hoots and high-fives, forming a gauntlet of applause and thanks and accolades.
I was drawn to my generation of “wounded warriors” (although the new veterans are closer to my age and many are women), because their bodies didn’t belong. Their stories didn’t belong. Nobody was waiting for them when they returned. Nobody cared. They embodied – literally – what I feared from a very young age but couldn’t articulate: that a person might be broken and different enough to be outcast forever. Over the years I began to visualize this exile as epic and permanent. This scared the crap out of me, and on some days it still does, because even though everyone celebrated those soldiers returning from Iraq in La Guardia, in another part of the city the 99% were strolling past the red candy-wrapped holiday windows of Macy’s, shivering in too-thin jackets and being sneered at by police officers.
Those soldiers were (and are) grieving losses I will never know, stories I will never hear. “What was it like?” I want to ask them now. “Tell me what it was like.” We all want the answers to these questions but we’re afraid to ask. “I’ll show you my grief if you show me yours!” is not an appropriate offer for a returning soldier. I sulked at my gate and blinked back tears.
But years from now, when someone asks me what this experience with Ronan has been like, I might say this:
Living grief is like traveling on a train at night with people you don’t know, people who are actually versions of yourself that you don’t yet recognize. It is winter, and cold, and the only sensation of warmth is the soothing, staccato rumble of the train beneath you. “We Belong” (of course!) is playing from tinny speakers, the sound partially muffled. You’re so thirsty you could drink gallons of water and still need more, but the smallest cup of rusted, tepid water would also satisfy. Briefly, the lights go out, and the strangers you were traveling with disappear, and you are left to stare at the moon-touched snow patches that trace the iron tracks, and you don’t realize you’ve been counting them until they stop just in front of the backyard of a house with lit windows. There’s a family inside. And you’re hungry and tired and lonely. You press your nose against the window and feel the cold leak through you. Luckily, the window near your seat unhinges as easily as an old and rotting door. Your body slips through and you jump. You leap without caring about the cost, you leap knowing that to risk is to break something, to lose something, but you can feel the warmth in the room (the train is cold now, water is filling the aisles in your absence), and you are wild and reckless, a rocket of impulse, and you know that the leaping – the act of it – is more important than the result, or even the motivating desire.
But when you reach the window with the happy family smiling inside, it won’t open. The door is locked, bolted, impenetrable. Nobody can see you. You are not who you thought you were. You are Frankenstein’s monster, dragging your knuckles in the dirt and grunting, unseen and unacknowledged. You realize that this is not your world, not yet, it doesn’t belong to you, and so you turn around and sulk back to the train, which has now stopped to await your return: you, the single passenger. You’ve got more work to do, more shadows of yourself to encounter, more stops to make on this journey in a world where so many of the edges you once took for granted have been sawed off, fallen away, disappeared. You’re broken but strangely sated, a bit bruised maybe, but lighter as well; you’ve taken something from your blast through the window of your fear, and you re-board and take your seat. You travel onward, the train rocking side to side, and you are calm without being soothed, and you don’t forget that house, the lit rooms, the missing of the feeling of being inside something precious, something lasting, something yours, something that promises hope without guaranteeing any predetermined future. No magical life or person or success or moment is going to pluck you out of your current circumstances. You’ve learned that lesson in your leap. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have choices. It doesn’t mean you don’t get to pick, or that there’s nothing to do.
We lose everyone eventually, but we can learn to know and accept ourselves. This process doesn’t advocate the adoption of some false moral center or socially dictated set of rules. It is not, as my creepy high school guidance counselor once told me, an issue of developing “one’s inner compass,” which was not a good metaphor since my sense of direction was (and remains) limited to “go left” or “go right.” It’s more about honing the ability to take a leap – or leaps – of faith. I want to thank you, readers, for allowing the space for me to jump from that train every day, and then to hop back on, weary but weirdly renewed.
Whatever we deny or embrace, for worse or for better, we belong, we belong, we belong together.
Our journey as human beings is all about the desire to belong – to each other, of course, as friends, partners, lovers, colleagues, parents, spouses, children, siblings, whatever, and for varying lengths of time: minutes, years, hours, just moments, our entire lives – but it’s also about belonging to a community, to a place, to a people, to this extraordinarily beautiful and terrible world. I’ve spent the bulk of my life in sheer terror of being kept on the outside, of not looking/being/acting/loving/sounding/being right, but I wasn’t always like this. Years ago, in a prosthetist’s decrepit office in downtown Denver I was a skinny, freckled girl jumping into the arms of grieving, haunted men I didn’t know but innately trusted, insisting to be flown around like a plane and addressed as Ms. Mighty Mouse. I love that girl, and parenting Ronan has helped me find her again, and trust what she has to say. My son is completely helpless, completely dependent on the care and love of others. He always has to leap without looking: this is the story of his life, and he is not afraid. He exercises absolute trust every moment of his life. What’s my excuse?
The truth is, I don’t have one anymore. I officially sold Ronan’s book on Halloween, and that night I stepped out of my house and smelled the smoke-tinged air, noticed the mountains cutting shadows over the arroyo, watched the jack o’ lanterns flashing their candlelit smiles across the street, the moon a bright thumbprint in the sky, the dried leaves falling from the biggest tree on the block. Ronan’s place, his home. The place where he lives and, years from now, will have lived and died. No looking forward, no looking back. Just work. (Thanks, Pat!) I took a deep breath and felt locked, for a moment, in this certainty: Ronan has made me fearless. And for this ferocity I thank him.
And I thank you, readers, for traveling with me as I make these leaps of faith and then rattle along down or up or over or behind to the next stop. Thank you for showing up and standing along the tracks, cheering just for the sake of cheering, championing the way. You: brilliant planet of people who have made this journey bearable and possible. Thank you. Whenever the train stops, wherever it stops, there will be something to choose, a way to belong, and because of the work this experience has forced me to do, I will not be afraid.
Years from now, when I open Ronan’s book I will find him, still alive, in those pages. Thank you, readers, for making a space for these words – and for Ronan’s story – to belong.