Cheese and Cherries: O’Hare Revisited

The last time I came through Chicago’s O’Hare airport was in June 2011 while en route to Spain. At that time I was in a fugue of grief. Time was a trampoline; every step forward was followed by an awkward leap in an unexpected direction. I had been offered a residency at an old farmhouse in Mojacar, and I took it. Overcome with guilt, but also fueled by a desire to write about Ronan, or death, or the afterlife, or all things possibly connected to and by Ronan, I got on the plane, landed in Spain, took a taxi to the end of a dusty road and wrote like a madwoman. I wrote hundreds of pages in a matter of weeks. I had very little sleep, almost no rest, and the only social interaction I experienced was the awkward hour when the other artists and writers met in the dining room to eat the incredible dinner that had been prepared for us. In other words, a luxurious if slightly manic few weeks that felt like weight lifting for the inner life. I wrote through most nights, crying out the window at the dim lights blinking sporadically in the shimmering distance. I pulled at my hair. I did jumping jacks and yoga in my room to spend any remaining physical energy. I spent hours in a hard twin bed with my face pressed against the wall, weeping and sweating and cursing a God I don’t believe in. I spoke in full sentences to only one other person – an Israeli poet I bonded with one night after dinner when we had a discussion about King David. Amir was (and still is) writing an epic poem about the Biblical king’s life. As we talked we looked out over a hill where an artist had constructed a statue of a “facsimile Jesus” with a cartoonish smile painted on his carved wooden face. He’d been crucified on a skinny tree, his wooden arms spread wide to the sunset fizzing on the horizon. We both agreed that the sight was so silly and absurd and grotesque that it made us want to weep and laugh at once. A few nights before I was scheduled to leave Spain I called my friend Emily in London and begged her to come and spend time with me before I truly lost my grip. After she arrived she took one look at me and ordered me into her rental car. We drove along the coastline, stopping for meals and glasses of wine and cigarettes on the beach. We talked and talked and then for long stretches we were quiet, the kind of quiet you can have with a person who accepts you as you truly are, no matter where you are or what weird little ways you might be manifesting at that moment.

On this first day in October 2012, just a few months away from the end of another year, I’m in O’Hare again. The visible trees through the airport windows have already shifted to yellow and begun to fall. Airports are always teeming with children, and a year ago the sight of each one of them would have felt like a fierce elbow jab to the solar plexus. When I was on the way to Spain I had started an essay that I was working on in O’Hare, and like everything I wrote in 2011 I was compelled to finish it: brimming with ideas, words, a hypergraphic mess of a woman stumbling around and asking weary travelers if they’d seen an electrical outlet, holding up my computer as if running out of power would be a catastrophic event, which mentally, it might have been. I couldn’t stop writing. I haven’t stopped, but today I’m sitting on the ground in yet another O’Hare terminal, preparing to board a plane to Zurich. I am still a mess (who isn’t?), but I am no longer hysterical, and when I am hysterical, it doesn’t lasts for hours and hours. One hour once a month seems to be the new pattern, the new normal. I am an altered person, a new person, both better, I guess, and worse, I suppose, than I once was, than I used to be. My life is not exactly the way I’d like it to be (is anyone’s? And how do we know? How would we recognize our “right life” and how long would it last?), but I feel closer to the person I’m trying to be, which is a person who is not governed by fear, even if it’s impossible, even unreasonable, not to live alongside it. Living the biggest, fullest life possible is a responsibility I believe has been given to me because Ronan never had a chance to make any decisions about what kind of life he may have wanted to live. Not everybody believes this; some people think I’m full of shit, others believe I’m selfish or crazy or just plain bad. Some people wonder why I’m not still weeping in public. Some judge me, say it’s inappropriate or even “unfit” that I might experience moments of happiness, that I might laugh, that I might live, drink wine, see movies, go on dates. It is interesting to me that people expect grievers to lose themselves with the one who is dying or who has died, although this, too, would also be judged. Is the desire to say Oh, how tragic, and then pretend that the precariousness of life can be repudiated, as the thinker Judith Butler suggests that we all desperately desire because it feels like an easier mental route and one we mistakenly believe will distance us from the mortal danger we’re always in? Some people don’t want to see a grieving mother on a dance floor, or laughing with friends in a restaurant, or holding hands with someone in the street. Is someone who is beaten down somehow more relatable? More palatable because the reality seems more distant from the life they’re living? I wonder. Most of the time I try not to care; I’m too busy trying to live.

2011 was the year that everything changed, and in 2012 everything is still changing. The last time I flew overseas I was hunched in a corner, waiting until the last moment, until the final boarding call, wondering if I should turn back and just forget the whole thing. I swallowed my tears with the power of my mind, my mouth dry, my stomach empty but uncomplaining. Today I shared the single outlet with a friendly woman who was also on her way to Zurich. I offered her some of my cheese plate and slurped down a bottle of chocolate milk, my favorite traveling beverage. I bought expensive perfume and Chanel lip gloss with a ridiculous name – troublant – in the duty free store. I chatted with the Russian saleswoman and we talked about the new nail polish colors (black and plum and deep pink). She showed me some glamorous handbags. She talked up a new anti-aging cream. I sampled too many perfumes at once and left the shop smelling like a fancy toilet. I eyed the cigarettes on the way out, wondering if I should bring a pack to Emily in London but then thinking she might have quit or wants to quit. A newborn was screaming in the gate area and it didn’t make me wish I could push my head through the glass of the terminal and jump. I chatted up an Arabic-speaking toddler. All of this happy-spirited interaction seems proof that you can get used to anything. Any deep sadness, any great triumph, any shattering blow, any expansive happiness – all offer possibilities for growth and the necessities of adjustment. This is what human beings do if they want to survive. It turns out that the heart is rubber bandish, stretching and snapping back, and much stronger than it looks or seems. I wrote the book that began on this blog for Ronan. I want the whole world to read it; that’s why I’m going to Europe. That’s why I’d go anywhere. And to those who would prefer the tragedy, who would find it more appropriate to see the forever weeping; to you I say that whatever melodramatic display you may expect, whatever behavior you’d like to anticipate, regulate, judge, mitigate:  you cannot have it. If you have not lived it, you do not know it, and I hope you never do. I hope your crucible to a different life is a gentler one, a more survivable one. I hope you never know this loss. I hope you never have to learn these lessons in this way.

Back at O’Hare, I’m reminded that all passengers, everywhere, are boarding the same plane in the same direction. How we adjust to this reality is as unique as the swirls and dips of our individual fingerprints. How do we do it? We live, we dream, we continue to love even after the idea of love seems a distant dream. In other words, we kick on or we give in. It’s a simple set of choices for a complicated situation.

This newness, this new life, this mix of hysteria and calm, of gratitude and anger, of love and fear, comes to me most vividly in dreams, although it also happens, thankfully, in my lived life. Before I left for Zurich I had a dream that I had returned to Antigua, Guatemala, a place that was an image touchstone for me – and a comforting one — shortly after Ronan was diagnosed. The streets, the people, the sun, the language; it was like visiting the set of a place I hardly knew but yet understood on a much more intuitive level. In the dream I am sitting on the ledge of a ruin not far from the plaza. The sun is strong but pleasant. Clouds move quickly through the sky overhead. In an alcove above me I can see a worker sleeping. His boots are unlaced and his hands are folded across his stomach. An old bandana covers his eyes from the sun and he is snoring. Dust floats up from the ruins and mixes with the pale sunshine. I am wearing sandals, and someone I love is feeding me cherries, a fruit I don’t love, but in this moment they seem irresistible and necessary, the taste somehow completely new. I place one in my mouth. The flesh is firm but soft at the bite, terrible and sweet. The person who loves me keeps hands that are strong but not insistent on my shoulders; hands that ask for nothing but what is unfolding; hands that truly hold. I feel, as that moment opens, so truly alive that I am surprised that the world doesn’t burst open: a perfect mix of bottomless sadness and heart-swelling joy. I am filled with a complicated hope, which may be, I believe, the essence of love. 



28 responses to “Cheese and Cherries: O’Hare Revisited

  1. I have been feverishly checking for updates, ap glad to see this one come through. Thank you for – once again – so eloquently stating what I am feeling. (My daughter was diagnosed with Niemann-Pick, Type A 6 weeks ago.)

    Enjoy your laughs, your friends and your wine. Anyone who has an opinion on that can go scratch!

  2. Oh, Emily. And yes I said yes I will Yes. All of it. All.

  3. Kate Weldon LeBlanc

    Oh Em! Ronan has given you such a gift, actually has given it in some measure to all of us who love him and you, and all who will read his/your book. One you never ever wanted obviously, and one we’d give anything to return, so yes as you say it is beyond complicated…. but your discoveries about living and grieving are just amazing. Nothing makes me happier than knowing that you have bright flashes of light in this darkness. Dance in the streets, girl, when the moment strikes. I love you!

  4. Oh, wow – I am breathless and tearful reading this. Thank you, thank you. My circumstances are completely different – aren’t all of ours? – (I love the image of the swirls of a finger print) but I can relate so intensely so the bottomless sadness and heart-swelling joy. Thank you. xox

  5. Thank you, as always, for what you write. I loved the last line. Love is indeed complicated hope. May we all be filled with both!! You remain in my prayers.

  6. art out of searing pain

  7. Pain and love, both beautifully rendered.

  8. This is exquisitely beautiful and painful and wrought with truth. Thank you for your glorious words. Peace to you, grieving in whichever and every way necessary for your soul. xo

  9. I am moved to comment, but my comments seem shallow against the raging emotional strength of your words. Thank you for your courage and your honesty.

    Thoughts and prayers.

  10. I am going to take a risk, and ask about Ronan directly. Emily you are grieving. You will be the rest of your life. I have a daughter with a genetic condition and the pain never goes away. It just comes in and goes out with the tide. Is Ronan home during your travels, or…?

  11. Hello. I have always read your post, so life-enriched and all of them have touch me so deeply than I reconsidered my life and give it a new definition. I hope your read your book, and also I expect to met you in person one day.

  12. You have landed in another place, and you describe it so richly, in such a heartbreakingly direct, un-glorified, realistic way, and poetically, but with your gloves still on just beyond that heart of yours on your sleeve. Thank you, Em. Knock ‘um alive in Europe!

  13. Michelle Von Euw

    “Some people don’t want to see a grieving mother on a dance floor, or laughing with friends in a restaurant, or holding hands with someone in the street.”

    And please know that some people have been wishing, dreaming, hoping, even praying for exactly these types of moments for you over the last year and half. Much love to you, Em.

  14. I don’t know you at all but through your writing & that of a friend. It’s difficult to imagine anyone not in your shoes could be judgmental at all about anything. That’s just absurd.

    But your own words say as well as any ever, might or could, about your writing, life & its flow: “a perfect mix of bottomless sadness and heart-swelling joy.” I hope your own words, these particular ones, will help remind you of how life is to each of us, our own.

    Much love to your son Ronan, you & all those whose life you touch with your open heart sharing & soulful giving of self. I do hope & pray the love you’re creating comes back to you in waves.

  15. You are such a beautiful writer. Every sentence tugs at my heart strings. Thank you for being brave enough to share your heart with us.

  16. Thank you for how you are helping us. You are helping me!

  17. ” I am an altered person, a new person, both better, I guess, and worse, I suppose, than I once was, than I used to be. My life is not exactly the way I’d like it to be (is anyone’s? And how do we know? How would we recognize our “right life” and how long would it last?)” Who cannot relate to this? and who cannot want to get to the following lines?

  18. So stunning and beautiful, Emily. The two sides of life — the sweetness and sour — abide side-by-side, ask to be taken together. So poignant. Thanks for strengthening me on my own journey today. Sending much love.

  19. you are such a beautiful writer. your story cracks me wide open every time i come here, and every time i think about you and your beautiful ronan. thank you for so bravely sharing your jounrey and your words.

  20. It seems that right after something terrible happens in our lives there’s always a moment of hysteria. (And by “moment” I mean days, sometimes years.) It’s a time of confusion and disorganization like an exploding confetti cannon. Only after the forces of gravity and time do their thing and all the pieces have floated to the ground and lie there in stillness can we recognize the situation for what it is, and isn’t. That’s when the heart does it’s rubber-bandy thing and swells to permit a new normal.

    That fact that you are able to continue to live your life in the midst of the most undesirable circumstances imaginable, is a testament to your strength, not weakness. It is weak to blame your life and unhappiness on your circumstances instead of take responsibility for all the pieces. All that mental weight-lifting you were doing in Spain, is what made you strong enough to control your mental world. It is far, far more difficult to control your thoughts than your emotions and I applaud you for mastering that lesson. It is one I’m still working on with fervent ardor.

    What you say about people being able to reconcile the transience of life by repudiating it’s fragility is spot on. I realized this upon reading Dani Shapiro’s book “Devotion.” It is what inspired this essay.

    I believe that unless one faces this knowledge head on, the knowledge that life is fleeting and fragile, the consequences of ignoring it will manifest themselves in destructive ways. For me, it’s been anxiety.

    I love your writing. I will read your book. Please keep creating because of, and in spite of, what is happening in your life. It is beautiful work that will outlast us all.

  21. Again you put your words to my feelings, my daugther Elsa is now 5,5 years old with Tay Sachs and by reading your text it’s like someone is in my mind explaining everything. I long and hope for your book.

  22. Yes, please savor every laugh you can muster, every glass of wine you imbibe and every human touch you find comfort in. Those all warm my bones as I feel the chill and ache of Tay Sachs wearing me down and I would hope no one would deny me, you or any of our “family” these simple pleasures.
    I still look at other children of all ages with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat, which I hope they do not see. I do my best to give them a genuine smile and I do enjoy the interaction, but my heart aches with what I do not have. I am jealous, but I refuse to allow it to rule my day and life.
    Have a lovely trip Emily and thank you for continuing to share.

  23. Keep on Kicking On! Thanks for sharing!

  24. Pingback: That Which Knows No Boundaries « Isolated Thunder

  25. I cannot fathom your experience. I have been struggling with my own lately, and the fact that you can dance through yours gives me hope and joy. I cherish that spirit that can see sweetness and love enmeshed in sorrow. Thank you.

  26. This was moving. You put words to feelings and thoughts I have that I can’t find words for. And I was inspired, my spirit reignited, by your commitment to live. I want to live too, wholly, passionately, not ruled by fear, not as the walking dead. My daughters have died, but I am still alive and I am going to live.

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