On That Last Voicemail

The voicemail is dated September 24, 2016. It’s exactly thirty-three seconds long, and it’s from my grandmother. She died in January. I still haven’t listened to it.

And I’m not sure why.

I don’t mourn my grandmother with weepy emotion. Her death has not caused me great anxiety or to lose sleep. Yet she flits around the margins of my thoughts frequently. I wonder how my mom is doing. I guess as to what will become of her home. I ponder what my grandmother really thought of her life, and I hope she thought I was a good grandson.

Listening to her voicemail won’t answer any of those questions, though. I am entirely certain the message is a “thank you” for some flowers or card I sent. A routine call from my grandmother. So routine that, for all my care and concern, I felt safe not listening to it. I’d be embarrassed if she knew that. That I could take it for granted so easily.

Perhaps a part of me fears that the message will be a request to call her back. Maybe she wanted to hear the voice of one of her grandchildren, scattered away from her hometown as they were. And maybe, just maybe, that sweet request will cut right through me. Maybe I had to charge my iPod. Or watch a funny youtube video. Or organize my socks. I was just too busy to answer the phone that day. It’s typical and innocent and awful and ugly and sad, all rolled into one.

Then again, maybe my grandmother had the wisdom to not read too much into any one thing. Maybe that’s the great gift of the accumulation of years, to understand that our love is not measured in the moment but over time. Maybe she knew that. And maybe her call was just the slow, steady paddling of her love, always rowing in my direction. Doing her best, the best she knew how.

I know I’m making something out of nothing. A moment can be just that: a moment. Not imbued with high import or meaning. It’s just a voicemail. Of my grandmother’s voice.  Sitting on my iPhone. Waiting. And whatever she says, only my heart will be affected. She’s not there to call back.

I’m not waiting for some special moment to listen to it. I don’t feel like I’m keeping her spirit alive by not listening to it. It’s not some B-movie plot, a MacGuffin to spur blog entries. But, whatever it is and for whatever reason I’m keeping it, I can’t manage to hit play. It doesn’t feel like denial. It just…is.

If we knew with scientific accuracy how love and death work, life would be the poorer for it. I think both scramble up our hearts, and we spend years trying to make sense of it all. And maybe I’m just not ready to make sense of my grandmother just yet. Maybe I’m not ready to solve the puzzle, to finalize my theory on how and why she lived. Maybe keeping the final piece just out of reach, as benign as it may be, relieves me from having to do that. Not denial per se, but a prolonged break from the task of figuring out what the hell it all means in the end.

It will be a random Thursday afternoon. I’ll probably have just enjoyed a snack, maybe I’ll be watching rain clouds out my office window. I’ll look at my phone, see the voicemail, and hit play. Thirty-three seconds will pass. Tucked away far in the back of my heart, in a private chamber, a tiny tumbler will drop one last time. I won’t have solved the riddle of love or life and death in that moment, but it’ll be enough to just cherish the memories of her.

On Photosynthesis

Mr. Smith’s seventh grade biology classroom was pregnant with the smell of rats, snakes, and fish, but surely the worst odor emanated from the dozens of adolescents in plastic, multicolor chairs. The floor was institutional grey tile, and the pale green walls did little to jazz up the look or add pizzazz to Mr. Smith’s lectures. Still, I remember finding the salamanders enchanting and the thrilling prickliness of the tarantula’s legs as it would slowly walk up and over your nervous hands.

As a school building of some age, my junior high enjoyed old, plate glass windows, and, while Mr. Smith droned on about the beauty of photosynthesis, I often found myself gazing out the window to the local cemetery that abutted the school’s property. In almost every way, the cemetery was unremarkable: a tidy small town cemetery with gently rolling hills, grey headstones for Smith, Thomas, and Johnson, and a smattering of flowers and other tokens of affection. As a 13 year old, I didn’t understand death or really have any conception of it, but, in hindsight, I enjoy the irony that my distraction from learning about life in biology class was to tombstone watch the local graveyard.

A little more than a quarter century later, I found myself in that graveyard, looking up at my seventh grade biology classroom window, listening to a minister drone on about life and death and God and other bromides that were reaching me with the impact of Mr. Smith’s photosynthesis lectures. Now, the prickly tarantula’s legs were replaced with the softly stinging realization that I was studying death. And it wasn’t a gaggle of pimply teens staring at a spotted salamander in a stinky aquarium, but a gathering of friends and family around my grandmother’s casket.

I’d like to imagine that the 13-year-old me could look out that classroom window and see the 40-year-old me, in some weird and wonderful disturbance in the fabric of space and time. If I could see him, and if I could talk to him, I’d tell him that Mr. Smith has more to offer than he realizes, but, every time he says the word “sun,” replace it with the word “love.” And, when my 13-year-old self laughed or made a sarcastic remark, I would tell him that, one day, as you stand in the back of the funeral home and see friends and family and strangers and neighbors from thirty years ago walk in, you will understand that love is the light that makes everything grow.

On Hearts Alone

I want to kiss your lips
on this busy sidewalk,
in front of all these folks
and let them balk and talk.

I want to hold your hand,
our fingers interlaced,
walking past shops and stoops
in neither hurry nor haste.

I want to stop all time,
to see you standing there,
our hearts alone meeting,
and be all I can bear.

But it’s a tale for one,
a silly song for me,
longing unrequited,
you see, my love for thee.

If I could bend your will
and change your eyes to see
the very thought that quickens
and dreams only to be,

my heart would soar above
unbound and then unchained,
and free of this tepid role,
to which I am eternally named.

A guarded heart for you
all but for the taking —
a prize you can never know
except in the forsaking.

It’s a tale for one,
a silly song for me,
longing unrequited,
you see, my love for thee.

On Being All Alone

Years ago, my husband’s elderly grandmother heard an annoying tapping in her apartment. Throughout the day, the tapping continued much to her chagrin, but she could not discern the source or how to stop it. At some point in the evening or during the night, the tapping stopped. The next day, she discovered her elderly next door neighbor had fallen and spent the day tapping on their shared wall with his cane in an attempt to gain her attention. The tapping stopped when he died, alone, on the floor.

***

We spend our lives searching for companionship, seeking another’s touch, and desiring the understanding of those around us. We need human connection. Those that surround us give meaning to our lives. We befriend, we date, we lust, we parent, we mentor, we inspire, we love. And we hate, we offend, we punish, we steal, we degrade, we hurt. In common is our connection with one another. But, despite all this, to crib Hunter S. Thompson, we all die alone. Even those lucky few surrounded by friends and family at a bedside, they most decidedly die alone.

The children of parents become parents of children. Students become teachers. Lovers become strangers. Friends become old friends and, then, strangers too. We drift or dart from one chapter of life to another, exchanging titles and responsibilities, passing memories from one hand to another until we pass them out of space and time. We play our role, and, from beginning to end, the rest of the cast changes. Indeed, we are the only constant; always alone in the middle of the story. Maybe lonely, maybe not, but, at a fundamental, irreducible level, always alone.

***

My grandmother fell in the middle of the night twice during the last week. Most likely, a new medication to help her sleep worked a little too well. She’s okay, but she was too weak to get up and spent hours on the floor. She now has a handy necklace to wear with a button she can push should she fall and need help again. She won’t need to tap a cane on a wall. And there will be someone to respond. And she is surrounded by love and those that care.

We can feel sorry for her, and we should. And we can entertain a macabre fascination with the man that died a few feet from my husband’s grandmother. But how we think about these things, how we react, is inevitably linked to the knowledge that one day we may be alone on that floor.

We cannot change our fundamental aloneness, our insoluble oneness. On some metaphysical plane, though, we can transcend our isolation by our love, ensuring something of our spirit lives on in those that we care about long after we are gone. And that knowledge provides some sort of solace. Still, in a world of unrelenting social connections, both real and virtual, the truth of our aloneness remains singularly horrible and singularly beautiful.  How we reconcile that may be the peace we seek, as we all tap against the wall.

On Tomorrow’s Promise

Hearts have loved long before weddings,
long before pedantic poems and sweet songs,
before white dresses, gold rings, and long tails,
and finely dressed familial throngs.

And love is even older than that,
older than houses, farms, and all Man’s worry,
older than the seas and mountains
and beaches and clear nights starry.

Love ruled before any rulers or rules,
before the planets circled one flame,
before the sky exploded with light and fire,
before love even had a name.

And for such a thing to have traveled so far,
to have survived the darkness of the ages,
and weathered the cruelties of man
and his army of tiny trembling rages,

for such a thing can only be a force unmatched,
unequaled in our minds and in our stories,
in our hopes and wishes and dreams
and all the tales of passing glories.

After all that, love is in this place, here and now,
with any two people prepared to say
that love is the sinew that
promises to make tomorrow better than today.

On Being Nice Where and When It Really Counts

I recently sat through a long work meeting where the retirement of a senior executive was announced. At the end of the meeting, employee after employee spoke up to not only offer their good wishes but also to explain how this executive’s patience, kindness, and wisdom had touched his or her life. The comments were sincere and moving, and I can only imagine that the retiree must have been gratified to hear such wonderful thoughts shared.

In that context, it came as quite the surprise when, the following day, the executive admitted to a colleague that, as nice as he had been to his colleagues, he had ignored and often treated his spouse poorly at home. It seems all the good will was spent at work, with none left by the time the workday was over. The glowing remarks hardly seem worth it, if you ask me.

Hubby and I celebrated seven years together yesterday, and I can honestly say that my love and devotion grow stronger and deeper every day. My life changed when I met him, all for the better, and I am excited about all the adventures that remain before us. I cannot understand why people settle for anything less than greatness in their personal lives. I know there are reasons, but, still.

I think many people confuse intimacy with a free pass to treat their spouse poorly. They think the familiarity means they can be “real” and “honest.” I think they’re dead wrong. Certainly one should be able to be honest in a relationship, but your spouse deserves your best, not your worst. It seems obvious, but I’ve met many people that treat friends, coworkers, or even total strangers with more respect, more patience, and more concern than they show their significant other.

I also maintain that fighting is failure. Whether it’s a failure on one person’s part or a shared fault, fighting is a sign of a relationship that’s not healthy. Why do so many people accept it, then? Why do some even celebrate it, as if it is only a sign of the passion bubbling beneath the surface? It’s not. It’s a sign of immaturity. Yes, of course couples must navigate conflict; you can’t share a life without disagreements, different points of view, and the like. But, cruel words, yelling, emotional blackmail, histrionics, slamming doors, they simply aren’t necessary in a healthy relationship.

No one is perfect, and no relationship is perfect, and I certainly don’t intend to come off as a Pollyanna about the ease of making a relationship work wonderfully. I don’t have all the answers; far from it, actually. I do think, though, that lots of people aren’t willing to put in the work. I also think lots of people settle for mediocrity. Both are sad.

At the end of the day, your choice of partner is the single most important decision you make in your life. It’s more important than career, children, where you live, all of them. It’s not easy. It shouldn’t be. In the process of trying to get it right, mistakes will be made. Sometimes, big mistakes will be made. The most important thing to get right, though, is to have your priorities right, because, no matter how awesome your colleagues at work think you are, you don’t go home to them. And, after the retirement dinner has been eaten and the gold watch given, the plaudits will be cold comfort.

On an Anticipated Son

How can I long for you,
how can I miss your face?
When I do not know, after all,
your time, your smile, your place.

You are but a dream today,
A song so sweet in my heart,
that, even now, I so fear
from that love to be apart.

You dance warmly in my dreams,
coming and going as you please,
breaking my heart when you fade,
slipping my hands with ease.

You came with a whisper,
choirs singing so sweetly,
but now you roar like a lion,
unchallenged and deeply.

I confess I am not ready,
and I will confess much more,
if you will only show yourself,
and erase the ghosts of before.

But I am left with only this love,
this love of something not known,
all my faults and sins and wrongs,
those I will gladly for you own.

If you hear my cry and prayer,
do not think me weak,
for it is a terribly great love,
a great reward that I seek.

I will stand here and wait,
I know not where to search.
It is you who must find,
and claim us from this perch.

On the day you find me,
do not mind my gentle tears,
for you will be here, my love,
my son, my child, my dear.