One of my goals for this new year is to choose one word at the beginning of each week to inspire my thinking, writing, sharing of ideas — and to offer it as some inspiration for a brief writing prompt. My word for this, the first full week of the new year, is RENEWAL.
Last spring when the people went into hibernation, the cars cooling in driveways and school buses quieted, do you recall how the birdsong returned and the skies swept brighter blue? Do you remember the awe of witnessing nature, given the space to return, renewed? There are lessons to be found in this renewal as we reemerge into the world.
When the schools open up and the children reappear, what might it look like to honor their nature, rather than force it back into a tight and narrow place? What might teachers and school boards and pressuring parents reimagine, to honor what our children have been through, and encourage their renewal?
Beautiful answers to those questions are suggested in these words below, attributed to a school principal in Ballard, Washington and shared with me by a friend.
And, if you’re open to a writing prompt, try this:
I wish for renewal of ______.
Set a timer for 11 minutes, and write without stopping, without censoring, just follow your thoughts. (Credit to my friend and writer Dana Childers, and her “Untamed Writing” sessions, for this format.)
May you feel a renewal of whatever it is you need — creativity, compassion, commitment to your goals — in this new year.
My word for this week, whose opening days hold the closing moments of the year, sounds soft but is filled with power.
Communityis what we have missed so much. Community is what has the power to repair and lift.
The virus that carried destruction into our bodies also carried a clarion truth: we are all in this together. We live in one shared home. We share one biology. We live and die together.
So blast it in the foundation of your house. Scrawl it in freshly poured sidewalk. Dig it into the sandbox at the quiet park. Scar it into the plywood covering the windows of your old favorite restaurant.
Tattoo it on your forehead backwards.
We are all in this together.
May we enter the new year with an expanded sense of who we belong to so that all may be lifted. May we remind ourselves as often as we will forget that we are one human family. May we believe in the possibility of a world where everyone has enough — food, vaccine, love. May we remember the joy and the power of community. If this dying year could at least teach us that, it would be something.
Cousin Ken sitting in the middle of my folks’ living room, strumming folks songs on his guitar, offering Puff the Magic Dragon for then-pre-schooler Rebecca…and Kum-bala-laika for his mom Leona and my Grandma Lilli, calling them back to their father singing with his mandolin, bringing them to tears.
Every year, Greg showing up early so as not to miss any of the Dallas game. (Good luck today, by the way.) A football game on the front yard, where everyone but my dad got older, my sister and cousins and me replaced by our children.
If I strain, I can even remember when our grandmother still brought a “second” turkey to accommodate the growing family gathering, before we needed to fix a plate for her and bring it to where she sat. Before my mom eventually decided to leave all the cooking to Chef Ike — but Barbara kept bringing her apple cranberry fruit crumble thing, my favorite.
This year I’m making Barbara’s apple cranberry thing, which turns out to be very easy and will always be my favorite, though it may not taste the same since it won’t be scooped from the same ceramic baking dish.
This year we are apart. Hold the day, keep it warm, and we’ll be together again next year.
My boys declined my invitation to vote with me; they’d done it before, many times. But Maria accepted. I wasn’t sure if she was being kind, indulging me where my boys wouldn’t, or if she was as interested in seeing American democracy unfold as I was excited to show it to her. Knowing her, it was both.
We stepped out of the house, turned right, and began the familiar three block walk to the park where our polling place was set up. I was giddy, if a bit self-conscious in my all-white attire, until I saw other women approaching the polling place similarly dressed. It was a quiet way to scream how much this vote meant to us.
There is a preciousness to a town, to a country, where the place I cast my vote is the same place I asked my parents to take me on Saturdays. Where I ran through the sandbox barefoot; spun around dizzy on the merry-go-round; and licked ice cream cones bought from the freezer of the small store, not minding the dripping down my wrist. This park is where my own kids rode their first slides and I teared up to see their first shoots of independence. Where they made me chase them through obstacle courses of their design — up the fire engine, around the swings, to the monkey bars, until I begged for a break. Where my father coached my then-7-year-old niece’s basketball team and brought the team snacks. Where my sons played T-ball and baseball and basketball and flag football, and where Christopher and I now walk our dogs and see young families playing, masks on their faces.
As Maria and I approached the park gym four years ago, two little voices rang out from the sandbox, sweet and high in pitch, “Maria! Hi Maria!” She waved and called them by their names, a neighborhood celebrity greeting her fans.
We entered the gym, basketball rims and hoops pulled out of the way above the folding table where volunteers greeted us, the same elders who showed up every election, the one woman who always thinks I am my sister until I sign my name. In exchange for my signature, she handed me a ballot.
I led Maria to a table, chest-high, with a voting machine. Step by step, I explained every logistic, huddling together to make sure she could see. “You have to press the ink hard so it makes a complete mark,” I instructed, thinking still and forevermore of Florida 2000, of “hanging chads” and recounts.
As we left, we took a picture to mark the historic day. We talked about how she would be able to vote by the time of the next Presidential election, and she said, “I can’t wait.”
The line for naturalization has slowed; still she waits. But about a year ago she told me with pride that during a visit to her cousins she had successfully gotten one, a member of the National Guard, to register to vote. They weren’t sure how to begin, and she suggested they go to the post office. When they got there, unsure of what to do next, she coached him, “Laura says if you don’t know, just ask.” I don’t remember saying that; I think she told herself.
The things our parents teach us. How to roast a turkey. How to make a U-turn. How to think for yourself. How to vote. They teach us the importance of showing up and speaking up, and that our voice is powerful. And, as with that day four years ago when things did not go as I had wanted, they teach us how to grieve and get up again. How to stand up for yourself, and even more importantly, how to stand up for others.
Election day 2020 dawned today. I put up our American flag. I am not as ebullient as I was four years ago — we have been through too much for ebullience. But I am hopeful.
I have hope for our democracy, imperfect and rattled as it is. Maybe seeing where the cracks in our system are shows us what needs shoring up, like just enough of a rainstorm to reveal where our roof leaks, but not big enough to bring the whole thing down.
I have hope for our American family, too, caught up in this crisis. Like any family rift, there comes a time to make a choice: Dig into estrangement, refuse to engage, isolate in pain, write each other off. Or, dig in for the challenge of reconciliation. Resolve to repair. Speak our truth and truly listen. Disagree with compassion. Say, “I don’t see it that way” not “You’re evil.” See each other’s full humanity and flaws. Accept that we may never be in full alignment, but know we are still one family. One country.
(Caveat: I do not know what to do with the dangerous my-enemy-drinks-blood-of-children trope. Maybe lovingly disengage for one’s own mental health. Maybe double down on love?)
I have hope for our country, our democracy. We are scarred, but we are wiser for it. Today, as we make a choice for President, may we choose to heal.
This petitememoir is a love story — love between parents and children, husband and wife, grandparents and grandchildren. Between dancers and dance. Between humans and being.
Maybe this is a love story about love itself.
Written it in staggered moments over the three years since my grandmother Lilli Diamond died, it is no accident that it came to completion during a time of isolation, a time when pandemic sent everyone home and took our cherished gatherings away — for me, my Sunday dance class, a place where I felt my grandmother’s presence so vividly.
Today, October 16, 2020, would have been her 105th birthday. Let this be my small gift from the heart to her and to you. Dance with me.
Let’s talk about despair for a minute, and then let’s get to joy.
There is a low-grade despair that alternates with joyful moments, a dance of emotion I’ve gotten used to over this period of isolation. But sometimes the despair piles on, and there is a giving up. I retreat to a dark bedroom, disengage, until I become impatient with my own desolation, annoyed by my stillness. Until I say to myself, I do not like this feeling, and I am not going to stay here. I set my mind to find a way out.
A friend once told me: The mind cannot hold despair and gratitude at once.
I start with a breath. I sit up in my sweaty, wrinkled t-shirt, and stand up on solid legs. I feel my feet connect to floor, every dutiful achy bone balancing me, and I thank my legs and feet. I take another breath, another step, and one by one I open the shutters over the windows that line the wall, like cells in a jail opening. When I feel despair, I start with light.
When I feel despair, I go outside. I notice the feeling of air on my skin of my face, my arms. I thank my skin, the air. I look at the wide sky, or walk to where I can see the ocean, anything that can remind me of my smallness.
When I feel despair, I turn on music and dance.
In this I am not alone. An NPR article on loneliness during the pandemic shared:
Dana and Jeanne say they’ve always been very social — Dana with her nightly salsa dance with friends, her mom with trips to the theater, ballet, bridge groups and two book clubs. Stopping those activities was difficult for Jeanne.
“It was very traumatic at first,” she says. “You don’t know what to do with yourself.”
The neighborhood had taken to banging on pots every night at 8 p.m., partly as an affirmation of community, but Dana and Jeanne wanted to do more. Dana said to her mom, “Why don’t we just dance?”
Jeanne, though she always loved to dance, says she initially found the suggestion “a little ridiculous,” but figured it was worth a try. So they put up a sign on their garage door saying they would play recorded music and be out dancing in front of their house every Saturday evening. The sign invited neighbors to join them in the weekly dance party — at a distance.
For the first seven weeks they danced alone. Then neighbors started coming, some to watch, some to dance, some to chat. “Dancing is healing medicine,” Dana says.
It has been more than six months since my Sunday morning dance class was canceled indefinitely. I’ve talked about this class before. It may be called “cardio funk” but it is actually group therapy, or “planned joy,” according to a classmate who once scheduled her chemo treatments around it. We enter the room, join this gathering of persistent dancers, greet our own reflections, leave our outside worries at the door. We enter our sanctuary, knowing we will be rewarded for coming.
Our teacher, our Moses, leads us out of our private thoughts and distractions with pumping music that fills the space, and with the outsized persona he dons for these two hours. We become different people from who we are every day.
I often wished my sons would come and see me dance, as if I wanted them to see who I really am. Not the person in the kitchen asking them to put their dishes all the way in the dishwasher, or who provides them dinner without their second thought, who helps with homework or plunges a toilet, the person they rely on. I am that person, but not only her. I am also the woman standing in the front of the dance studio, learning the steps, sweating and smiling, striving and messing up and doing it again, until the last measure of music. I want my boys to understand the whole of me.
I had tried zoom dance classes in March and April, but the medium shrank the joy, only reminding me of what was lost. But last Saturday night, in a quiet house where only three of us now live, I could no longer ignore the sense of despair slowly seeping into my marrow. I knew the cure I needed.
Christopher and Emmett were in the family room watching NBA playoffs, a welcome opium for our masses so needing of distraction and entertainment.
I took my phone into the dark living room and turned on music, turned the sound all the way up, and set it in a rounded glass to expand its reach, my own personal disco. I sang with Alicia Keys about being girls on fire, and we hit the drumbeats hard. Swirling and singing, legs aching toward exhaustion, a state I have not found these past months of plodding fearfulness, Lady Gaga and I proclaimed that we were born this way: born in bodies needing to move to music, bodies that cannot contain our longing for joy, that we are all of us on the edge of glory.
Christopher, hearing the music and my thumping jumping around, my adamant, breathless, off-key singing, wandered away from the basketball game and into my darkened dance hall. As I kicked and hopped and expelled the last cells of my despair, emptying my vessel and refilling it, he sat on the couch and watched.
I smiled an invitation. Get up and dance with me.
P.S. Stay tuned for the release later this month of a short and sweet e-book,
Yesterday I stepped into adulthood: I pre-ordered a round challah from the Gelson’s bakery. As I ordered on the phone, I lingered over the idea of ordering my favorite, one with sweet raisins dotting the soft, airy middle, but resisted and instead asked for plain, what my boys like best.
Of course, our older son won’t be having any challah with us. He is in Eugene, finally released from the confines of pandemic shutdown with his parents and brother, only to have to lock himself in with his roommates to avoid unbreathable air from nearby fires. We are now familiar with the government’s Air Quality Index. He texted me today: “70 air quality this morning!” Seventy is almost “healthy,” down from an off-the-scale high of 496! I reply, “Woot woot! Just in time for the freakin new year…things are looking up!”
Such promising news prompts me to search Yelp for take-out/delivery brisket near him, hoping to delight him with a favorite taste of the Jewish new year. The best I can find is a food truck, and I direct him to its location. I say, take your friends, my treat. Only later does he ask me when is Rosh Hashana, not realizing that my offer relates to it beginning today. Who can blame him? Does anyone really know what day or month it is?
His younger brother, adjusting to life as the only child home — which means home all the time with his parents — asks if he can go to his friend’s house tonight to hang out in the backyard.
I pause to think. Friends are important. Especially in this remote year. Then, to make his case, he says, “I’m just not religious.”
He knows that this assertion will be met with a lecture, or what I think of as parental wisdom. I say, “You don’t have to believe in God. It’s about the ritual, and the communal self-reflection, and asking yourself what kind of a world you would like to live in, and how can we help create that in the coming year.”
I know this must sound like “mwa mwa mwa mwa,” but I also know this: This child is a close listener. He misses nothing. I have sighed at my desk across the long hall that separates where I do my work from where he is doing virtual school, and his voice has returned to me with a gentle, “Mom? Are you okay?” He hears what I am telling him. I know it sticks.
“Sure, you can be with friends tonight.” But I issue an asterisk: in non-pandemic years you will have dinner with your family on Rosh Hashanah. Also, I tell him I will send him with some apples and honey and, yes, some of the plain challah I’ve ordered, and to make sure he remembers the meaning of all this sweetness.
Before I run out to the bakery to pick up the challah, the doorbell rings with what I can only describe as a New Year’s miracle: a friend bearing a Rosh Hashanah gift bag — yellow tulips, sweet apples, a jar of honey, and a challah fresh-baked from her oven. She is a talented chef and hostess, and I know she feels the loss of being able to gather loved ones around her table and nurture and nourish them. I see how she created a new outlet to express her love, and that we are her lucky recipients.
Two challahs; it’s as if abundance multiplies itself! As I head to the store I wonder if there’s anyone without? I call one friend to see if she’s in need. Nope, challah abundance everywhere.
At the bakery I run into friends who are also there for challahs. The challah line is the only place we will gather in person this Rosh Hashanah.
I give my name to the bakery man, and as he searches for my plain challah — the very last one — I share with my friends how proud I was to have acted like my mother and mother-in-law rather than the juvenile I usually am in these matters. I had assumed everyone was more grown up than I, but it turns out I’m not the only late bloomer. One of them had not pre-ordered; she was stuck, unhappily, with raisins.
When the bakery man comes with my plain challah, we already know this was meant to be. The trade is made. He brings me her raisin challah that is so warm from the oven he advises me not to seal the bag yet. As I go to check out, Maria calls to say Happy New Year. Miracles multiply.
Both challahs sit side by side on the kitchen counter now, tempting me. In a little while, we will send our son off to his friend’s house with some of the tastes he loves, symbols of rituals that he may come around to some later day or year. Christopher and I will head to my parents’ house, and along with my sister and niece, we will sit outside on either end of a table recently wiped of ash, and taste the sweetness of choosing to be together, of everyone getting a little something they wanted, and pray for a new year with the healing and repair the world so deserves.
I have been cheating on you. But they mean nothing to me, I swear! At night, after my husband turns off the light, and we say goodnight with a kiss, and the doggies settle into sleep, I switch on my iPhone’s flashlight with the intention of reading my book, but I am seduced. My finger touches the phone’s smooth surface, presses lightly, and scrolls through comments of anonymous strangers about what I might have missed. I don’t even know all their real names. It started innocently. Birthday wishes, adorable photos, reunions. But those have virtually disappeared as angrier, outraged posts overtook them. Did you know the Facebook “Like” button was intended to put positive feelings in the world? I’ll let that sit a minute.
Last night I had an intervention: The Social Dilemma, a must-watch documentary on Netflix that pulls the curtain back, showing me what I have known for a long time but have not wanted to admit:
I am an addict, a user. Of social media and the device that delivers their hit. Sure, I can go days without it, but then the need for a hit is strong and I’m using again. Social media is destroying the real social fabric (an even greater irony than the fact you may reading this on Facebook; but, hey, let the medium carry the means of its demise. We know they’re listening.)
My drugs of choice are Facebook and Twitter, and they are doing existential damage, stressing my body and our body politic. Their algorithms are designed to manipulate our minds, to feed us more of what we “like” and linger over, so that by now what I see is not what you see, and we are led to believe that the “others guys” are insane or evil or stupid. Then we call each other names and the world sinks of its own weight. It is time to quit.
My addiction is also the delivery device. With every notification, the phone seduces me. Someone tagged me in a photo? I’m back using. I got a text? Let me read it this very second, no matter that I’m mid-conversation with my child, mid-searching for a word to write, mid-epiphany in a quiet moment. An invasion of the mind and body snatchers.
Good news — there is a cure. It involves some withdrawal. But it will be easier if we are in this together. We are not going off the grid, throwing our phones in the ocean, as lovely as that sounds. But I don’t have a landline, and so the phone stays. Here’s my plan, and I encourage you to try it with me.
First, the easy ones.
Turn off all notifications. (Go to Settings, Notifications, and press “off”). I already feel better.
Leave the phone in another room while I’m working, so I am the one who decides when to check it, not the buzzing or flashing device itself that wants to grab my attention. I haven’t checked all morning, and that asking me if I’ve donated to a campaign yet this week can surely wait an hour or two for me to respond. But folks, it has to be out of the room, not face down on the desk, in arm’s reach.
With me so far? Let’s keep going.
3. Delete social media apps from the phone. (Come on! You can always put them back if it makes your life worse, but I don’t think it will. I think it will be a relief.) I already slept better last night, without “doom-scrolling” Twitter.
Here’s the biggest, hardest one, which I haven’t done yet.
4. Delete my accounts. Deleting apps from my phone won’t be enough; I use Facebook on my computer. And though sometimes I use it for good, it is so broken, and doing so much damage, that until it gets its act together, or Congress acts like the grownup and makes it, I am gone. Let these words be my goodbye post, @MarkZuckerberg.
If you can’t go this far yet, start with setting limits: only visit weekly, for a pre-set amount of time; avoid the angry manipulation from nefarious actors dividing us more; read and post only positive and loving stories, and baby photos, and books you love and prayers for healing. I’m not saying stop your activism. I’m saying get offline and actually do activism. Or do more of it.
There will be withdrawal. Let’s learn from that. Let’s learn from how often we reach for that phantom phone. Ask ourselves what exactly are we seeking distraction from — uncomfortable thoughts, or pain, or boredom? Let our twitching fingers show us that how powerful the addiction is, and let us feel the strength of taking our power back.
You can still call and text and e-mail me, or find me here, I just may not reply as quickly. Let’s take a walk, or have a chat on that phone. Let’s catch up where we left off. With each other.
Ten unplanned days in Washington Crossing flowed into one another like a ribbon of syrup poured over the challah French toast Joyce made our first morning here (and our second, and any other day her grandsons asked for it), sweet and slow. Instead of schedules and reservations (e.g., our last visit featured a dozen cousins at GoKart races, ax-throwing, and a New Year’s Eve Party — all on the same day), these shutdown days were somehow filled by dog walks and Bananagram tourneys, shooting hoops and watching NBA games, teaching Emmett to drive stick shift on Peter’s 2005 Mini Cooper, showing Maria the real-life settings of her favorite stories from Christopher’s childhood, cooking and eating and stretching and reading, and choosing keepsakes from Peter’s closet — the plaid flannel shirts that will be tactile memories of a grandfather’s and father’s embrace. In many ways, this has been our fullest visit yet.
I started counting the days when there were two nights left. It was the same when we were on the RV. When there are only two nights left, you can feel the end coming. You lose your sense of being in the moment and start thinking of what comes next.
Our leaving would go in stages: Emmett and me flying straight home, Aaron visiting college friends in D.C. and Denver first, and Christopher staying here two weeks, to take care of his mom and let her take care of him.
The night before we left, Aaron asked if I would be getting up early to see him off. As if I have ever not said goodbye.
“Want a bagel?” I offer in the morning when he comes out of his room at 6:15 a.m. I am happy he says yes and lets me do this last mothering before he slips away. Christopher is ready to take him to the Amtrak station. He has been the keeper of the travel file during this journey — every campground reservation printed out, in order — and Aaron’s train ticket is the final piece of paper in that neat stack. Everything we have planned has passed.
Emmett the night owl is still sleeping, though he will have to get up soon to leave for our flight. Aaron is almost out the door when he pauses to ask if he should wake his brother to say goodbye. Yes, I say. Go hug him. Final goodbyes are on my mind. It’s unthinkable, but you never know which will be your last.
Aaron goes up the carpeted stairs to say goodbye, and I follow to watch this unfold. I take internal bets on whether Emmett will be receptive to his brother’s attention or annoyed at being woken, whether Aaron will act with grace or brotherly poking, whether their goodbye will turn into a squabble. I put the odds at 50/50.
Aaron pushes open the door to the room where Emmett sleeps on the sofabed they used to share, before they grew taller than us all and got separate rooms here. I keep my distance, not wanting to infect their moment with my gaze, but desperate to know how it unfolds. Sunlight bounces off the open door. I hear murmurs. I move closer. I can see Aaron standing facing the sofabed. He says something. Then waits. I inch closer. I see Emmett come to his feet, a film of sleep around him and eyes half-closed, and reach his arms wide for a full body hug. I retreat down the stairs blinking my eyes.
Aaron comes down behind me. He is ready ready ready to leave, but he lets me squeeze him twice. He beams with the freedom that is almost his. He has been counting down to this day since mid-March, and for the past five nights he has held up his fingers to show us how much longer until he is set free. After a brief visit with his friend in D.C., he’ll fly to Denver to spend a week with another friend, before they drive together to L.A. to pack up and get the heck to Eugene. These kids have had almost as much time apart as they had getting to know each other before they were buckshotted out of their dorms and scattered to their parents. They are ready to pick up where they left off.
Christopher and Aaron leave for the train station, and I finish preparing for our departure. Christopher will walk Aaron to the track like he is a little boy, not a young man who has done this before. Maria arrives to drive with us to Newark airport for one more in-person visit.
At the curb, still in the car, I put on my mask and a plastic shield, then remove them to kiss Christopher goodbye. I hug Maria, and quickly quash the thought that I do not know when I will see her again. I move through Newark airport with my double layer of armor. Looking out through plastic creates a reverse-telescoping effect. I make the minimal movements necessary to process through here, swerving away from others’ bodies as they swerve from me.
At the gate, I suggest we wait until the end to board, and Emmett defers to me. Whatever you want mom — not defiant, but gentle. He does not sound like the youngest in the family, but has taken up the space of his older brother and father, handling his nervous mom with kid gloves.
When we step up to board, he makes a show of patience while I present our digital boarding passes. I do know how to do this, I want to say to him, but I let him think I’m a slow “Boomer” and he is the grownup. Down the hallway we go. It is placid and empty, everyone cooperating and distanced. We walk through the oval entrance to the plane, where a young flight attendant who looks barely out of his teens welcomes us. Our seats are the very first row, bought with miles gifted by my mother. (“I won’t be needing these any time soon, and I’ll feel better if you use them,” she had said.) Emmett and I look at each other in wide-eyed amazement, masks hiding our dropped jaws, and stifle our inclinations to shout: “Wow! Are you kidding me?!” Our seats are large, face away from the aisle, and have footrests so far from the chair that I have to scoot mine closer for my feet to reach it. Two bottles of water and a biscotti wrapped in plastic sit on the wide space between armrests. Emmett asks, “Is this for us?”
We settle in. I will hold this position for the next six hours. I will not get up to stretch, or use the bathroom, or even turn around to plug in a charger or the airline’s headphones. I will doze and scroll through my memory bank of the last two weeks. I smile with the knowledge that we will fly across the entire country in the amount of hours we spent driving it each day for eight consecutive days. And while it is a relief to make the return so efficiently, in such comfort, I will be forever grateful that we took our time on the initial journey. I would have missed so much.
I am at the wheel ascending a stretch of the Appalachians in West Virginia, thinking about how much I have savored this stolen week with our foursome. I even manage to remember that no one can hear my thoughts and say this out loud. I get a patient, if tepid, response. “Yeah, mom. Uh-huh.”
A mile marker announces Maryland is coming soon. Aaron snaps to attention and switches his phone to camera mode in the nick of time. Not long after, we sneak up on Pennsylvania, come in through the side door, greeted by a motto I’ve never seen: Welcome to Pennsylvania. Pursue your happiness.
We are so close now. We have only to cross the state. We pass farmland, red barns and silver silos. Big rig trucks get stuck behind me, and I balance my concern over annoying them against my concern over keeping my family safe. I choose safety: Let them tell the story over beers later tonight, of getting stuck behind a filthy RV with California plates driving the speed limit.
I pull over to gas up before we get onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike. To all three boys’ rapture, there’s a McDonald’s sharing this corner. After 3000 miles, the first and only McDonald’s run; it is now officially a road trip.
“We used to ride the Pennsylvania Turnpike to debate competitions in high school. We would get off at the rest areas with these giant food courts…all the high school kids…you can imagine…” Christopher trails off into memory. The rest stops are infrequent, he cautions me, miles and miles before your next chance to take a break. So before I get too tired, and before darkness covers the night completely, we switch places. I leave the last two hours of driving to him. This is partly out of selfishness — it is harder driving at night — and partly out of generosity. I want him to have the sense of completion and success in bringing this 8-day trek to a close, of bringing us home.
Singing makes the driving easier. Back in Kansas, we finally figured out how to connect his phone to the Bluetooth, and since then we have overplayed Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and my 50th birthday party mix. Now we sing along with the Indigo Girls, songs that bring me back to my apartment in Berkeley during law school, its dark wood floors and big windows looking out on the neighborhood’s umbrella of trees. I loved living by myself, singing as I made dinner or danced around my living room. I close my eyes; is it disloyal of me to revel in these memories of solitude? Not after a week of being together in an RV. I try a thought experiment: I put “today me” in that apartment alone, without Christopher or my sons, and it is another thing entirely. A missing, a loneliness.
The Bluetooth music cuts out, and we let it be quiet for a stretch. The sounds of our boys screaming at each other make me jump. I can’t tell if they are angry or having fun. I sigh, knowing that in an hour or so we will de-board this beast, get real showers, real beds and room to spread out and away from each other. I can picture the moment when we will exit I-95, maneuver around the nearly-360-degree exit ramp that will require Christopher to slow waaay down to keep the bowls and glasses and cutlery from making their spine-rattling crashing sounds. I can picture the familiar stop light at the end of the exit, and the wide left turn onto Taylorsville Road a couple of miles from where he grew up. I can predict how we will feel on that stretch of road knowing we are ten minutes away. Anticipation. Relief.
I lean forward to pick up Christopher’s phone to get the music playing again, and there is a green rectangle, a text message for him. “Mitch passed away,” it says.
My heart fills with something acrid, rotten. Turned lemons. A bag of sand. This? What is this? At that moment, Aaron comes forward to ask me something, and he is over my shoulder and reading the message at the same time I am. Christopher sits straight at the wheel, his hands at “ten and two,” his mind focused on our arrival, the first time home since his father died. This message would be a three-car pile-up. These words are us swerving out of our lane into the wall. I give Aaron a look that says, Don’t say anything yet.
I swallow. “Can we pull over at the next rest area?”
“Are you feeling sick?”
“Is it your stomach?”
We keep driving in silence, Aaron and I holding the information that has been true for maybe a couple of hours, and which has changed everything. Mitch, my cousin Liz’s husband. Mitch, Christopher’s friend and hiking companion; his confidant and sounding board; his fellow long-suffering-now-finally-victorious Philadelphia Eagles fan. Mitch is his person at big family gatherings. The person who inspired him to hike the Grand Canyon from rim to rim last year, and with whom he planned a repeat trip this year, until it was postponed by COVID. Mitch, who is kind and gentle and thoughtful and curious and true. And only 58.
The blue sign approaches: Rest stop 2 Miles. Gas. Food. Diesel. Pretzels. Christopher signals, checks the mirrors, and pulls off. He looks for a place to park. There’s room everywhere. “Just stop,” I say.
The engine goes dark. I swivel my feet to face him. I take a breath like you’d take before jumping into a deep cold lake, fingers pinching your nose, body clenched in anticipation of the shock. “You got a text. It’s bad news.” He nods. How odd that he looks as if he knows what I’m going to say. But then I say it and his face opens like a gaping hole.
“No.” His head shakes. This is not what he was expecting. He takes the phone from me. Reads it. “No.”
He gets up, passes Aaron and Emmett who are now silent on the couch, and flees out the door, as if he can get away from this news by going outside. I know that he will be calling Mitch’s son Nathan, who is only few years older than Aaron, and who Christopher has spoken with almost every day since he and his father brought him into their business as a brilliant computer coder a couple years ago. I kneel in front of my boys, and pull them to me. They hold me in answer. The shock lifts for a moment to let tears roll before it settles over me again.
I release them and say, “I’m going to go get Dad.” I walk out in the yellow light and damp air, scan the rest stop, and see him thirty yards away next to a wall of some kind, phone held to his ear, bent in a ninety degree angle as if in bowing in prayer. I get to him, rub his back in circles with my right hand, and hold his shoulder with my left hand, as if my touch can keep him grounded in his body where we need him to be for one more hour, not soaring on a flight of fresh sorrow, not yet. I hear him telling Nathan how much Mitch loved him. When he stops, I take the phone and speak to Nathan, too, as if words could be beads of love placed around his neck. I repeat myself, useless phrases, trying to lay another strand. “We love you, Nathan.” And somehow we say goodbye.
I guide Christopher back to the RV, which is halfway into a diesel filling spot. Inside, the four of us sit facing each other and talk about the father and husband and friend we just learned we have lost. Christopher says he has been sending Mitch photos from our trip, of Zion and the Rocky Mountains, hikes they might do together some day. I touch the edge of understanding that maybe my boys are thinking about their father’s mortality. I think about how Nathan and Christopher have both suffered the loss of their fathers within five months. What more can be said? Life is exactly this absurd.
“I’ll drive,” I say, but Christopher insists he’s okay to finish this. He starts the engine and pulls out. Aaron takes my place in the front passenger seat, keeping his father company, and I take his place on the couch. Emmett puts his head on my lap, and I lift my arm to stroke it. I am not sure if he is seeking comfort or offering it, but the movement does both. I work up the courage to call Liz. We have been childhood playmates and led parallel adult lives, and now we are here. We talk for a few minutes. I tell her that on our first day of the trip, Christopher told me that Mitch had called him a little while back saying there was great hiking weather in Zion, and did he want to drop everything and go? He couldn’t then, but Mitch showed him that paradise is within reach, closer than we think. All we have to do is decide to go.
Now we are circling the exit ramp. It is both as I had pictured it would be, and ghastly different. We whisk past tree branches and 18th century farmhouses and bridges crossing over the canal to our right. Emmett makes a guess as to how many minutes until we pull into the driveway, the game we used to play on rides home from the airport, when Christopher’s dad would pick us up and move into the passenger seat for Christopher to drive home. “I’ve got 10:52,” he says. No one else makes a different guess.
We make our final turn. We are two blocks away. I hadn’t remembered the speed bumps. They make our final approach as slow as our tentative beginning had been. I can’t believe we drove here from our house.
We look for the mailbox shaped like an English Springer Spaniel, but it has been replaced by a plain rectangular box. It is one of several things that will look different this week. Christopher pulls in front of the house as close to the curb as he can, trying to fit between his mother’s driveway and the neighbors.
“Dad you’re going to hit the curb,” Aaron says three times before Christopher hits it.
And then he turns the key, cuts the engine and the sound lifts away. Our bodies get up, squeeze around one another, gathering what we think we need with us tonight. One of the boys opens the door. It stops halfway, blocked by the rise of the grassy hill in front, but they push their way out and walk up the long driveway. Christopher and I gather a few more items — a laundry bag with the week’s dirtiest clothing, a computer case, a few more toiletries. We gather ourselves. It takes a few minutes. Then we descend into the thick night, into the songs of unseen birds and insects. The grass scratches my feet over my flipflops. We walk the dark curve of driveway toward the small figure in pajamas who has come out to see what is taking the parents so much longer than the teenagers. We open our arms as we approach.