All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Her Before She Got to Kindergarten

She was born witunnamed-2h a voice and knows exactly how to use it. So far, she is the embodiment of much that escaped me in my childhood and that still challenges me to this day—physical confidence, the ability to express opinions, and to set firm boundaries. 

I gave her a pink-and-purple truck for her first Christmas. I wanted her to know, early on, that she wasn’t limited to dolls and cooking sets. After all, she is the granddaughter of someone who skewed far left of girly and slightly toward awkward on the female spectrum during childhood, who was the only girl on her all-star sixth-grade boys’ softball team, and whose favorite childhood toy was a sturdy Tonka dog pound truck with a dozen plastic canines that fit in small kennels on either side of a double flip-top lid.

loved my truck, and I just knew she’d love hers. But alas, in five years it has not moved from her dresser, serving only as quiet homage to her Lolli and to gender neutrality, amid princess dresses, crowns, wands, books, dolls and cooking sets. And she loves them. 

Hadley is sandwiched between two brothers, and I would dive into churning waters or bend steel bars apart to rescue any one of them if I had to. But there’s something about her in particular that informs me about me. She is enough similar, yet at once distinctively different, to throw some of my life issues into sharp relief.

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Late last spring, when she was four-and-a-half years old, her parents were gone for a few days on a trip, and  I was taking care of her and her older brother in their home. That Friday morning, I was trying to hurry everyone down the steps and out the door. I had just finishing brushing her hair into a pony and had sent her back into her room to find her sandals when she did an abrupt U-turn in the hallway and burst back into my room like a crossing guard putting her hands up to stop traffic. “We can’t leave yet! We have to paint my toes!” I looked at her in disbelief, and then she nudged her head toward the bathroom to rush me. “C’mon! The polish is in the top drawer!”

Two days later, getting ready for church on that Sunday morning, I didn’t argue when she wanted to cover up those stylish toes with her tattered ruby-red Oz slippers with the front soles coming loose from the beaten-up toes. Nor did I object when she elected to sit with us in the big people service instead of going to her own class. I dug a pen and a small notebook out of my purse, and she intently drew on every page. Then she got tired of that and climbed onto my lap with her lovey to suck her thumb.

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She relaxed into me, and I shifted a little and leaned back to get more comfortable. I looked down at her legs extending out over my knees, punctuated at the toes by these glittering red exclamation points, and randomly thought of something I had recently learned: that women in ancient times, who couldn’t have children of their own, would sometimes lie back on the bed to straddle the surrogate mother with their legs while the baby was being delivered, to symbolize that it would be their child. 

The sermon faded into the background as I became ultra-mindful of Hadley’s warm weight nestled outward against my womb. What would this mini-woman in my lap, infused with part of my DNA, bring forth into the world that I couldn’t?

A year later, when her parents were away on an anniversary trip,  I got to fill in for her mom at a pre-school Mother’s Day tea. When I arrived in the building and lined up in the hallway with the young mothers in her class, it dawned on me with a panic: Oh no, they’re probably going to serve food. unnamed-3In the rush of packing and traveling out-of-state to get there on time, it never once crossed my mind so that I could plan how to deal with it.

For five months, I’d been on a strict eating plan designed to eliminate cravings and stabilize blood sugar. Like an alcoholic capable of relapse at any weakened moment, I acknowledge my addiction to certain foods and am part of a supportive community that abstains from sugar, wheat and flour. It might seem silly to those who don’t know what it’s like to be pushed around by food against your will. But to those of us with this biochemical nature, we know one wrong bite can set into motion a cycle of dire consequences.

I felt torn. How could a grandmother refuse the treat her loving granddaughter has made for her on this special occasion? What would I say to her? I’d be a horrible embarrassment to her in front of her little friends. This is like Communion at church, I reasoned. They’ll probably have a couple of small tea cookies, so maybe I’ll take a tiny bite or two and ask God to help it not affect me. 

But my eyes popped wide open in desperation when the teacher presented me with a large paper plate with a fat wedge of angel food cake piled high with whipped cream and strawberries. I broke out in a small sweat and breathed a panic prayer for help. It wasn’t that I wanted to eat it; it was that I didn’t know how not to eat it.

Then, a miracle happened. Somewhere in the distance between that plate and the kid-sized table it was about to land on, Hadley put her hand firmly on my arm and said kindly but sternly, as if she were my mother, “Lolli, remember you don’t eat desserts, okay?”—then immediately and matter-of-factly to her teacher, “Ms. Sullivan, my Lolli doesn’t eat desserts.”

And that was that. The teacher said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and the plate magically lifted back up into the air like a drone that had gotten the wrong address. Hadley had honored a boundary of mine that I didn’t know she was even aware of. She had securely locked the gate so the fox couldn’t get to the chickens. She had tightened the valve and stopped the gas leak. In doing so, she gave me a vision for how to honor other boundaries I have been poor at defending as well—protecting time for creative work, being a more careful steward of our finances, not saying yes to everything asked of me, or jumping in every time my mercy heart sees a need.

Where along the way, and why, did I shoot myself silly with so many permeable holes, where water I deeply need to survive leaks out on a daily basis? Why have I adopted so much minimizing language, made so many unnecessary apologies, and acquiesced to everyone I perceive as having a stronger, clearer voice? I’ve been told that my maternal grandmother is part of this. Left and abandoned as an infant on the doorstep of an Amish farm and raised by their community, she never felt like she truly belonged to anyone or to any place. She was the humblest soul I knew, and I loved her dearly. But even I can see now that she spent much of her life apologizing for taking up space in the world.

By God’s grace, I think that particular strain of DNA may have come to an end in Hadley. And in some mystifying, generational reverse gear, it has come back to heal me.

unnamed-5In three short months Hadley will be in kindergarten, and already I feel like I’ve learned everything I need to know from her. Her mother confided in me after the Mother’s Day tea that she had alerted Hadley before they left on their trip that I might not eat the dessert. But she didn’t tell her to make the decision for me.

She also told me that this last photo was taken at Hadley’s pre-K graduation, just after Hadley said, “Mom, would you like to take my picture like this? MOM??? MOM!!!”

Maybe I’ll also stop shying away from the camera while I’m at it.

 

 

 

Filling Her Shoes

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This is the set of Hamilton, open to the audience when you first enter the Richard Rodgers Theatre on BroadwayI looked down at my ticket in utter disbelief: ORCH E8, 849.00. Annie and I were holding the hottest tickets in town, premium seats no less. I leaned over to her. “It’s really happening.”

“Yes,” she said.

I knew that Annie was over-the-moon excited. But I also knew that she was deeply grieving. I wasn’t the one she really wanted to be with to see this show.

Annie works in Manhattan and had repeatedly entered the lottery for Hamilton tickets for some time. It was the one show her partner Doug’s mom, Pat, had really wanted to see, and to which Annie desperately wanted to treat her dear friend and practically-mother-in-law. They had attended Radio City Christmas Spectacular and On Your Feet together, and when Pat was diagnosed with kidney cancer, it was Annie’s one and only wish to take her to see Hamilton. It was to be the gift of a lifetime, a gift of gratitude and of love, and a grand wish for Pat to experience the pinnacle of human existence for as long as possible.

Miracle of miracles, Annie won two tickets. But by that point, Pat was too ill to make the trip. She passed away on August 20th, before Annie could take her.

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Annie and Pat with Santa at the 2017 Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Lottery tickets typically have to be used immediately and on the dates and times they tell you to go. But under the sad circumstances, her Broadway contact graciously gave her an extension: “Just tell me the week before you want to use them, and I’ll make it work.” She asked several family members if they could go, and for various reasons, it didn’t work out. Five months went by when suddenly I popped into Annie’s head as someone who would be a good substitute.

“Have u seen Hamilton?” she messaged me. “Would u like to?”

“Are you kidding?” I wrote back. “Yes! Have you got tix to give away?” I was half-joking because, well, who on earth has Hamilton tickets to give away.

“The most random thing,” she continued. “I prayed so much and played the lottery constantly. I won it. And cried endlessly, felt it was a sign. When Pat was diagnosed, my only wish was to take her. And I refuse to just go with anyone, it has to be special.”

We barely knew each other—we’d only met when Pat died, and we talked briefly on just a few occasions surrounding her memorial celebrations. It made me cry that she would ask me. And it touched me deeply, especially since Pat and I had also talked about going to see a show together and never made it. I gratefully and gushingly accepted Annie’s lavish offer, and when she asked when I could go (I live three hours outside of New York City), I suggested to her that it would be special if we could go around Pat’s March 5th birthday. She loved the idea and made the connections.

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As the house lights dimmed, I looked up into the rafters, thinking of the countless sets Pat had helped conceive as a high school and community stage director. Pat lived and breathed theater. She had an artistic engineer’s eye when it came to staging and choreography. Sets and the actors and dancers who moved within them were the structures and moving parts of her life. She immersed herself in world-class performances and brought her vision back to the high school and community productions she directed—plays, musicals and dance theater shows so high-calibre, colleges would bring their students to see them.

I whispered to Annie, “Tonight is for you, Pat,” and we sank back in our seats to enjoy the show.

This night had been the culmination of a day of hospitality on Doug and Annie’s part. They had picked me up from the train station at 11:00 a.m. in a car no less, and had refused to take my fistfuls of cash for tickets to the 9/11 Museum or for lunch afterward. “You’re just like your mother!” I told Doug with exasperation, remembering all the times she refused to be treated and wanted only to treat.

“He’s worse!” Annie said, pointing her thumb sideways at him.

After lunch Doug drove us to Brooklyn, taking me past the apartment in the Heights where I’d lived as a musical theatre writing student at NYU—a masters program his mother had encouraged me to look into. He stopped the car and wanted to know specifically where I had lived. “I need proof that you were here,” he teased.

“See that purplish-pink curtain?” I said, pointing to a tiny window at the top of a narrow, grayish brownstone five-floor walk-up. “That was my studio, the former servant’s quarters of the building. I don’t think they’ve fixed the crack in that window in 16 years. One time it snowed two inches inside the apartment.”

Joyful memories were flooding my heart, but underneath them all was the overriding feeling that I was getting to be with Doug and Annie today— and Pat was not. 

It comforted me slightly, but felt even more ironic and sad the more I thought about it, that I was with Pat’s son, and Pat was in heaven with my youngest daughter.

We hung around Doug’s railroad-style apartment for a couple of hours, and I got to meet Lucy, Annie’s feline daughter. Then we drove to a Brooklyn Italian eatery for dinner. “Do you like fish?” Annie said. I nodded. She had already introduced me to farro, an ancient grain, at lunch. “You have to try the Branzino; it’s delicious and very popular right now. EB10864D-25F4-4767-8336-2D0754159FBD

grilled octopusAnd the grilled octopus. You have to try the grilled octopus.” If she hadn’t been so insistent, its tentacles and suckers may have put me off altogether. But the taste! The octopus was delectable, and the branzino stuffed with vegetables was equally delicious. Again, Doug refused to allow me to pay. “You’ve done so much for our family,” he said softly before sending us off to see the show.

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Doug, Annie and me at Marco Polo Ristorante

We got back to the apartment after midnight. Doug, an NYPD Lieutenant, had to work early the next day and had already gone to bed. But he had put out a pillow and a sheet and blanket for me to sleep on the couch. We had originally planned for just a day trip, but when the choice was either nosebleed matinee tickets or orchestra seats for the evening show, Annie insisted we go in the evening and I stay the night with them. I felt young again, doing the New York City thing—crashing on someone’s couch.

Annie went to bed, and I made up the sofa and settled in for the night, my thoughts swirling. I took off my glasses and looked, nearsighted, at the blur of blue light coming from the remote control on the seat of the recliner next to the sofa. Pat had slept in it one time, they told me. As the radiator hissed and an above-ground train rumbled by at the end of their street, I thought of her. Was she hovering nearby? Does she know that I’m here? Did she somehow work it out so that I’d be here this weekend, and if so, is there anything she wants me to say or do for them?

I wished desperately, for Annie’s sake, that I could have more adequately filled Pat’s shoes. I kind of wanted to be her for the day. But Pat was stilettos with a dancer’s knock-em-dead figure; I am clogs, with a body soft and plumpish. Pat had a razor-sharp mind; mine is more muddled and I have to write my way to clarity.

The lyrics of the last song of Hamilton echoed in my mind: Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory / You have no control / Who lives or dies or tells your story . . .  But when you’re gone who remembers your name? / Who keeps your flame? / Who tells your story? All I could think that she would want me to do was to be myself, to not worry about trying to fill her shoes, but to simply keep the flame of love going for the people she cared most about in this life.

I recalled what a young woman told me her mother had said to her before she died:

“The people who help you after I’m gone? You watch. They are the ones who will become your family.” 

I drifted into a deep sleep, the kind of sleep you never have the first night in a new place, let alone on somebody’s couch. But this didn’t feel new, exactly. More like familiar. Familiar like familia, when the people you’re with are truly becoming family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When a Puppy Earns His Soul

He was sitting quietly toward the back of the pen in the barn when we arrived, shy and slightly larger than the others. A barefoot Amish girl plucked him from the squirming litter and put him in our arms. We took turns holding him, our hearts turning to mush. We painted one of his toenails pink and pulled out a post-it note to sketch the L-shaped swath of white fur on the back of his neck so we wouldn’t forget which one he was.

Two weeks later, the girls and I brought him home, where we gave him a flea bath, dropped a few bits of kibble onto the linoleum and lightly tapped our fingers on the rim of his water dish. Outside, we cooed over his adorable pudginess as he sat in the grass cocking his head from side to side at every bird and butterfly, the L-shaped swath so distinctive on his back. It was August of 1991, and we were his doting pack of humans—Rob and I and our three girls, Lauren, 13, Leslie, 10, and Kelly, 6.

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Leslie at age 10, with Tucker (Photo by Sally Obert)

Within a day or two, he began to stir up our family dynamic like a beater in cake batter. His puppy zoomies sent us into hysterics, and me running behind him with paper towels to dab up the dribbles. He lived well into his name, Tucker, because by the time he was old enough not to sleep in a crate, he managed to spend equal time on each of our beds—tuck us in, if you will—before going to sleep by himself in the corner at the bottom of the stairs.  

Dogs are usually the first to know when a storm’s coming, or to sense a medical crisis. But on his first birthday, the relief of it all was that Tucker didn’t.

What had shaken us to the core barely made a ripple in the pool of his puppyhood: Kelly has a brain tumor? Let’s play fetch! Brain surgery in a children’s hospital 70 miles away? Treat, please! Six weeks of radiation and then a year of chemo? Local firehouse siren! Owwwwooooooh!

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Kelly at age 6, with Tucker (Photo by Sally Obert)

Lauren grabbed fistfuls of mini-marshmallows to lure Tucker to her room at night. Leslie was horrified every time he chewed the crotch out of a new gymnastics leotard. When Kelly and I were in the hospital, Rob and the girls called us on the phone so we could hear him howl in the background, and brushed off enough of his fur to put into a baggie for their next visit so Kelly could nuzzle it against her cheek. During respites at home from the hospital in the winter, we would all cringe when we saw Tucker chomping on his frozen turds in the back yard. And thus he grounded our heads and hearts when they spun out of control with fear and anxiety.

We returned from a Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World on a September midnight, 15 months after Kelly’s diagnosis. Her next-to-last words were to him: “Oh, sweetie . . . I missed you.” She bent down and kissed his forehead, went up to bed, and then had a sudden, violent headache. Without our realizing it, she had slipped into a coma. The next morning, we wrapped her in blankets and laid her in the back of the van to drive to the hospital, where a CT scan confirmed that the four brain tumors we knew had recurred five weeks ago were now shutting down her organs.

We brought her home in the back of the van, and when we got home, Tucker settled down next to the sofa where she lay in our family room and stayed there until she passed a few hours later.

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Kelly at age 8, one month before she died (Photo by Lauren Bair)

Every week day in the following six weeks, Tucker would scamper to the living room window at the screech of the elementary school bus brakes at 4:12 PM and squeal with anticipation, piercing my heart until I couldn’t take it any longer. “Tucker, STOP IT!” I cried. “She’s not coming home anymore!” And then I ran up to our bedroom, shut the door, and wept. Amazingly, he did stop it. He never responded to the bus from that day forward.

Months later, I was home alone one evening and sat down to play the piano in our living room, with only the soft light of Christmas candles in the windows. I had often accompanied Kelly as she would sing “At the End of the Day” from Les Miserables in a defiant, boisterous little voice well beyond her six years—At the end of the day you get nothing for nothing / Sitting flat on your butt doesn’t buy any bread!—and then “Castle on a Cloud” as winsomely as any child could. But on that night, I whimpered myself through the heartbreaking “On My Own,” because that’s how I felt: On my own, pretending she’s beside me / All alone, I walk with her till morning / Without her, I feel her arms around me / And when I lose my way I close my eyes and she has found me . . . 

By the next verse, I found myself singing as if she had taken over my voice: Oh, Maman (the French word for “Mom” just came out of me), the pavement shines like silver / All the lights are misty in the river / In heaven, the trees are bright with starlight / And all I see is you and me forever and forever…. The words garbled as I sang through my tears, but I was afraid if I stopped, the spell would be broken.

And that’s when I realized I wasn’t alone. I looked down, and there was Tucker, his head pressed firmly on my thigh. I took my fingers off the piano keys and embraced him, sobbing into his neck. He was slightly claustrophobic and not much for hugs, but he didn’t squirm out of my grasp. 

That was the night he earned his soul. And while his function during her illness was Court Jester, now he was Minister of Grief.

I can’t begin to know all he meant to Rob, Lauren and Leslie during the worst of those early years, but my guess is he was The Friend Who Was Always There, The Friend Who Would Always Listen, The Friend With Whom All Secrets Were Safe. I don’t doubt his fur absorbed an ocean of bewilderment, grief and emotional chaos.  

In the following seven years, we began to leave home—first Lauren to Ringling School of Art and Design, then Leslie to Penn State, then me to NYU for my masters. The night before I left, I lay on the floor beside him and tried to explain what was going to happen. I would miss Rob terribly, but how could I make Tucker understand? I’ll always be with you in spirit, my sweet boy, and back to visit on holidays,” I said, stroking his ears and looking him deeply in the eye, channeling my best dog-whispering self. “Don’t forget me, okay? Please take really, really good care of Rob for me, will you?” 

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Lauren at age 17, with Tucker. (Photo by Countryhouse Studios)

Without any cueing, Tucker moved upstairs and slept beside Rob’s bed every night of my absence. Two years later, when I returned home for good, he was clearly more attached to Rob, but he was happy to have me back.

By Christmas of that year, he started to lose his hearing. So we began to clap to get his attention. One day the following spring, Tucker couldn’t get up or walk, and I couldn’t lift him. I called Rob to come home, and we spent the day at several veterinary clinics. At the second one, a specialty clinic, he was diagnosed with severe pancreatitis. Afterward, we put him in the back of our Jeep, his body leashed to an I.V. pole, still as a stone. As we drove back to our local veterinary clinic, we both knew we wouldn’t be able to afford lengthening his time with transfusions for uncertain results. It was time to say goodbye. He died on a Monday afternoon after a ride in the back of our car, just like Kelly had 10 years before. The synchronicity left us speechless.

I’m not sure how you ever say thanks for a dog like Tucker. We were certainly not unique in having loved a pet so deeply. But what was different about him was that, similar to the scapegoat in the Old Testament who took on the sins of the community before it was cast into the desert, Tucker bore the heavy, heavy grief of our family, and bore it with so much unconditional love and mercy.

I have learned never to look askance at anybody for doing the bizarre rituals people do to comfort themselves in their grief. And neither should you when I tell you that I filled Tucker’s water dish for two months after he died. I’d fill it, then let the water evaporate, then fill it again. And again. And again.

I know it was my way of thanking him for his holy and beautiful life with us. 

 


NOTE: Tucker figures prominently in my book about this experience, A Table for Two: A Mother and Her Young Daughter Face Death Together. While currently out of print, a few new and used copies can still be purchased on Amazon. 

 

 

 

 

 

Train Station Encounter

Newark Penn Station, Thursday, July 13, 2:01 PM.

The air conditioning must’ve been broken, because the train station was swelteringly hot. So I took the escalator upstairs and outside to Track 3, desperate for some moving air. He approached me as I turned the corner on the railway platform.

“I just want a meal,” he said through ragged upper teeth and lower ones worn down to the gum on the diagonal to the left. “I’m not pulling your leg, honest. People been mean to me today. Nobody nice. I just wanna eat.”

They’re always there, and they always find me, it seems—these aggressively gregarious strangers, these master storytellers, these well-rehearsed actors auditioning for a bit part of my purse.

I may look and be approachable, but I don’t give handouts easily. Nor am I entirely resolved on this issue of how to deal with panhandlers. I agree that it can be a dangerous profession for everyone, and I support saying no and giving, instead, to charities that help the down-and-out. I got toughened up to the issue when I lived for a couple of years in New York City. I once offered a “hungry” woman a half-eaten bag of terra chips, and she refused them with a swift brush of her hand and the snide remark, “Hell, I’m not that hungry!”

Another time, more jaded at that point, I chased down a panhandler after my daughter, with whom I was walking, handed over a dollar. (She was barely eking out a living as it was.) “I hope you appreciate that!” I shouted angrily as he darted off to play to the crowds further down the street. “She worked hard for that money!”

Fourteen years later, I am still irritated by panhandlers, especially as I am living now in a much smaller city well-known for welcoming refugees, and where truly needy people can get every meal of the week at city churches. I bristle when I think of one of our local panhandlers who boasted on the local news, “Why should I get a job when I can make $400 a day doing this?”

I think Yellowstone National Park is a wonderful example of how an aggressive population (bears in this case) reverted to much better behavior when (a) garbage cans were designed to be animal-proof, and (b) they made it unlawful for humans to feed bears. (Back when I was a kid, bears would climb all over your car for handouts. And don’t get me started about the deer that I’ve seen roam freely on zoo grounds near Niagara Falls, that come right up to people and head-butt their crotches, pockets and purses for food.) Handouts turn us all into lesser beings.

All that said, sometimes I get emotionally snagged—because I am deeply concerned about the inequities of wealth and opportunity among people in this country.

 He said it again: “I’m not pulling your leg, honest.”

I studied his face, trying to separate truth from fiction like a yolk from an egg white. “My experience is that people who do what you’re doing here are always pulling people’s legs. Panhandling is illegal, you know.”

“I won’t lie. I know it is,” he said. “But I’m desperate.”

I didn’t let him off the hook. “Look me in the eye,” I said, and he obeyed. Radar-locked on each other, I was desperate to be able to see him, to know his real story. But I couldn’t do it. My theory is that the truly needy are often too beaten down to ask, and the beggars are usually professional manipulators who make more money than I do.

“What are you hungry for?” I said, stalling some more.

“A Big Mac,” he said. “Honest, I’m not pulling your leg.”

Then a quick and passing impression I’d had just an hour before flashed back into my mind: I had brought a small, brand new bottle of anointing oil with me on my trip, but I hadn’t felt led to use it, as it turned out. And as I said goodbye to the person with whom I had envisioned I might, a whisper of a thought came to me that there was someone else for whom it was intended.

Finally, I relented and opened my billfold. He backed away respectfully, waiting.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Raj,” he said.

“Okay, Raj,” I said, somehow unable to give him a dollar and handing him a ten-spot instead. “This should take care of your meal.”

“God bless you,” came the cliched response, and I felt a tinge of having been taken—yet again.

Then, quite unexpectedly, he said, “Please pray for me,” and turned to leave.

“Wait,” I said. “I will.” Then, “May I anoint you with oil, too?”

“I don’t know what that is,” he said. “I’m not very religious. But you can do whatever you . . .” and his voice trailed off as he watched me fumble in my purse for the leaf-shaped bottle.

I dabbed the oil onto my right index finger and smeared the sign of a cross on the back of his right hand. “It’s healing oil,” I said. “God bless you, Raj.” And there, skin to skin, stranger to stranger, the intimacy curtain parted for an uncommon communion.

Smell it,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”

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He put his hand up to his nose and then smiled. “It smells like shmmnn.”

I couldn’t understand his last word. “Like what?”

“Shmmnn!” He beamed, then drew the word out. “Shim-a-nin!”

“Cinnamon!” I said. “Yes, it truly does!”

I watched him walk away, upward on a ramp toward Platform H—not down to the food court. I snapped a picture to remember him by, but his back leg disappeared through a door at the far end just as I took it.

I will admit I wanted to immediately wash my index finger. But then I thought of Jesus, who touched the lepers who were desperately starved for human contact from a disdaining community.

I had forgotten to ask Raj how I could pray for him. So in a spirit of prayer and dignifying regard for him, I typed this entire account on the train home with my unwashed index finger.

I can still smell the cinnamon. 

Platform H

 

“…some place for the singing of angels…”

The night was clear, cold and starry as my husband and I finished dinner near the wharf in Annapolis, Md., and headed down Randall Street toward the United States Naval Academy. Tiny white lights and graceful swags of fresh evergreen with burgundy bows on charming colonial houses beckoned with the warmth of nostalgic Christmases past. But I felt dismally cold inside, politically shredded, at odds with people. What was truth anymore? How could our country be this irreparably divided? Tonight was an early Christmas gift; I wanted to savor it. But I also wanted to reserve the right to stay angry about injustices as I perceived them.

We followed signs for pedestrians to enter the Academy and threaded our way through security, much like in an airport. Then we were fed out into the cold night again to make our way to the Academy Chapel to hear the 70th annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah.

Soon we could see the chapel’s luminous dome rising valiantly through the trees like the November supermoon.  A man walking in front of us dismissively swept his hand in its direction and said, “Of all the buildings on this campus, can you believe this is the one that costs the most to maintain?” img_5459

He’s as grumpy as I am, I thought. But at the same time, something in me had perked up at the building’s majestic beauty. I didn’t want him to ruin it.

We picked up our tickets at Will Call, then split up to go to the restrooms. As I walked down the hall, the women’s chorus in a nearby rehearsal room burst into an energetic refrain. Something buried deep within startled to attention. Choral music. Had this died within me, too?

We settled into our seats in the farthest right corner of the rear balcony. A woman from the row in front of us stood up and grimaced as she held onto the railing and moved into the small open space right in front of us to stretch her legs. Here we were, just three or four of us out of sorts. What state were the hundreds of others of us in?

Eight o’clock arrived, and we prepared for a formal introduction to the evening’s performance. But none came. Instead, the audience quieted as members of The United States Naval Academy Glee Club took their positions and the conductor moved to the podium.

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The overture began, familiar and anchoring. Then the tenor soloist effortlessly spun musical silk as he proclaimed, Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God . . . .

A dial in my frozen soul switched to defrost. I had forgotten these were the opening words. I had played oboe in Messiah orchestras when I was younger and had sung many of the choruses with choirs. But I was immersed in the execution of notes and phrases and certainly didn’t need them like I did now. I felt like a wounded soldier in triage with a compassionate attendant leaning over me whispering, “It’s going to be all right; let us take care of you now.”

. . . The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . .  I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come . . .  for he is like a refiner’s fire. . . .

One after another, the soloists filled the chapel with long and gloriously complex vocal runs. These were magnificent, world-class singers with monster résumés and voices so rich and resonant the Alto and Bass could have hollowed the center aisle into a canyon, and the Soprano and Tenor could have levitated the Chapel dome. The Glee Club complemented them, harnessing the energy of multitudes of heavenly beings in their ebullient delivery and immaculate diction . . . and the guh-LORy, the guh-LORy of the Lord shall be revealed . . .  all the way to the back wall where we were sitting. Precisely synchronized in the raising, opening, closing and lowering of their music folders, as you would expect from a military academy, this was a night of perfection. 

But not perfection that drew attention to itself. These superb performers had managed, by their extensive and skillful preparation, to get completely out of the way. Only the music was left to speak.

. . . For unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace . . . .

I had thought I was in an impenetrable state when I arrived. But the truth was, I was raw and full of fissures raked open for healing light and love to pour in. So that when the words were sung, All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the tender and heartbreaking strains of the orchestra supporting the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all were played, I broke wide open and wept. For politicians vying for power, for entrenched citizens railing against each other, for atrocities in Aleppo, for oppression, inequality, violence, cyber hacking by foreign governments – and for the bitter judgment in my own heart.

When the performance ended with the glorious swell of the scripture from the Book of Revelation, Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, forever and forever, AMEN, the audience sprang to its feet and applauded for what felt like five to ten minutes. The soloists took their well-deserved bows, but you had the feeling that they, too, were bowing before the Great Healing That Had Happened Among Us. We had corporately affirmed what Howard Thurman named when he wrote in his book, Deep Is the Hunger:

“There must be always remaining in everyone’s life some place for the singing of angels, some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful, and by an inherent prerogative, throws all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness, something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience from drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in one bright white light of penetrating beauty and meaning – then passes. The commonplace is shot through with new glory; old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting. A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.”

My face was wet when it was all over. Neither of us wanted to leave. Then Rob pointed overhead and said, “Look.” I hadn’t even noticed. Suspended above us the whole time was a ship seemingly buoyed by the arms of Jesus.

The title of a country song, of all things, welled up unexpectedly like a prayer within me.

Jesus, take the wheel.

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Note: After weathering chronic, desperate, paralyzing illness himself, and his servants and musical collaborators the fury of his occasional rage and fussy temperament, Handel was transformed by composing Messiah. “No money for this work,” he insisted. “I will never take money for it, never. It shall always go to the sick and the prisoners. For I was sick myself, and it cured me; I was a prisoner and it set me free.

I respected the note in the program that photography and unauthorized video were strictly prohibited. But after the program had ended, and since we were in the very back row and interfering with no one’s view, I couldn’t help pulling out my phone midway through as the performers did an encore of “Hallelujah Chorus.” Even though my husband and I play this little clip often just to recapture the healing transcendence we so desperately needed that night, I realize trying to record something this magnificent onto a tiny cell phone is doing it complete and utter injustice. Still, it moves us. And so we keep playing it. Over and over.


My deepest appreciation to the superb directors and performers:

The United States Naval Academy Glee Club; Dr. Aaron Smith, Department of Musical Activities, Naval Academy; Dr. Cindy Bauchspies—Director, Naval Academy Women’s Glee Club; Monte Maxwell—Chapel Organist, Director of Chapel Music; Edward Weaver—Harpsichord; Jose-Luis Novo—Music Director, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra; Jeanine De Bique—Soprano; Stephanie Blythe—Alto; Harold Meers—Tenor; Morris Robinson—Bass.

With All My Love

       It wasn’t exactly ideal weather to begin an October beach vacation. A low pressure system, driven by the northernmost bands of a hurricane, had started to bear down on the mid-Atlantic. We had driven three hours and unpacked our gear in wet and gusty winds. After finally getting settled and eating a spaghetti supper with the family, five-year-old Hudson was raring to go. “Lolli, can you please take me to see the ocean?” he pleaded.
       We were just two houses from the beach, and since there was a brief lull in the rain, I easily said yes. “It’s chilly and windy,” I said, pulling his blue hoodie over his head and tightening the strings on mine, figuring we had at least 15 minutes before the sky unloaded again. He flew out the door and ran ahead, skittering over the boardwalk and leaping onto the dunes between the sand fences like a calf released from its stall. I followed as quickly as I could, shouting into the bracing wind, “Hud, wait for me! The waves are really rough – don’t get too close to the water!”
       It was just an hour before dark, and the sea was agitated and foaming at the mouth. Gray clouds churned ominously overhead. The wind was dramatic and invigorating, and Hud took off, chasing and retreating from the sudsy white edges of the water like a human sandpiper.
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       We had the beach all to ourselves, and his joy was irrepressible and contagious. We laughed and kicked up sand and water, and I threw back my hood and let the wind splay my thick, layered hair into stiff, outward spikes. “Does my hair look funny?” I shouted.
       His laughter penetrated through the roar of the waves. “Yes!” he shouted back. When I captured him later and bent down to roll up his soggy pant legs, I realized the shifting sands and divergent waves had disoriented us and pushed us pretty far down the beach. “Hud,” I said, pointing way up the beach. “See that brown house with the yellow one beside it? Right between them is how we get back to our place. Let’s keep an eye on that spot, okay?” He nodded and took off again as I nudged him northward.
       I stopped to catch my breath, my arthritic back and knees reminding me it had been a long time since I was five years old. I studied his lithe, fleeting form, effortlessly whizzing past me like I was a stalled car on the highway. The clouds unburdened themselves a little, and our hoodies darkened with raindrops. But neither of us were ready to leave.
hud-straight-on-running-toward       As the light grew even darker and the rain a little heavier,  I marveled at this gift of a grandson, who opened my heart back up 18 years after it sealed shut upon the death of my youngest daughter. And then I sank so deeply into the thought that I started to cry. I felt the jaws of time clamping down on me, even as they yawned wide open for him, the weight of my life experience sinking far below the featherlight happiness of his fresh, expanding world. Would he visit me in a nursing home someday? Would he giggle to his siblings about my dementia, look on in horror at my missing teeth . . . cry at my funeral? Would he remember this night? Would I?
       Stay in this moment! I ordered my heart. But how could I convey my deep and effusive love for him – this boy who, age-appropriately, squirms out of my hugs and prefers high-fives?
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       I breathed in the energy of sand, wind, rain and sea, and this small, darting human still looping and spinning around me. I knew I could crush him with the weight of my feelings if I wasn’t careful. So standing there at the edge of the continent, I mentally switched tracks and remembered that it wasn’t just time that was moving at a dizzying pace. In just 24 hours, we would each have rotated with the earth a distance of close to 25,000 miles at a speed of something like 1000 m.p.h., which meant that, in just our short time together on the beach, we would have traveled about 500 miles in space.
       It felt like my heart had already gone twice that far. I willed it to come back and give him a blessing instead of this lachrymose longing:
       Go, Hudson, go! Let my love lift, and not ever restrain you! May all the energy in your legs, heart and mind carry you far and bring you and the world as much joy as they’re bringing you and me right now. And may you reciprocate my love not by piling it back onto me (well, maybe a little), but by passing it on to your own children and grandchildren. And like it or not, girl cooties notwithstanding, I am kissing you now, and I’ll be kissing you forever, with all my love and gratitude for you.
       “C’mon, buddy!” I finally shouted. “It’s getting dark; time to go back.”
       He sped past me and raced up the sloping dunes, his body not having stopped once in the half-hour we were out there.
       Without even looking back to confirm with me, he correctly threaded himself between the brown and yellow houses and disappeared from view.

    hud-runningNote: I didn’t have my camera with me that first stormy evening on the beach, but I was able to capture Hud on a sunny day a few days later – much as he was that first night.

My Messy Dorm Room

This story ranks up there as one of my top five most embarrassing moments. It was April of my freshman year at a small college in Virginia, and I was in love with a guy at another college 200 miles north. We were both from the same hometown and had been together for well over a year. In spite of the distance, it was a secure, deepening relationship. There was more than a sunny forecast for our future together.

 His family was adorable. His sister was creative and fun, and their parents, Janet and Bob, were servant-hearted, fit, full of energy, and the most thoughtful people I’d ever met. Their modest, well-appointed home (dubbed “The Museum” by his sister) was beautifully decorated in traditional Williamsburg style and full of meticulously cared-for, treasured possessions. Each item was perfectly placed and held a meaningful story behind it. I marveled at the artfully fanned-out vacuum marks on the freshly cleaned carpet, the meticulously groomed dog, and the childhood board games that still had all their pieces in sturdy boxes without worn or smashed corners. An antique Victrola phonograph player in a corner of the living room gleamed with polish and actually still worked. It’s not as if I came from a disorderly or unclean home. Quite the contrary. But this family took order, cleaning and detailing to new heights.

 My college was in a small town so safe they didn’t even issue keys for the dorm rooms. I was hardly in mine much anyway; majoring in music kept me moving all the time. Because almost every class produced a fair amount of performance anxiety, you simply couldn’t sit back and coast. Four mornings a week there was 8:00 AM theory class, where we had to practice ear training and piano harmony in front of everyone; then voice and instrumental method classes where we had to master, at a basic level, many of the instruments in the band and orchestra. In addition, there were long hours spent in listening labs, group rehearsals, and practicing instruments for private lessons, juries and recitals.

 By this time in the year, everyone had spring fever. The cows in the pasture across the street from my dorm chomped contentedly on the lush grasses springing up around their feet, while students took to beach towels outdoors to study for exams. But the music majors couldn’t relax. This was the week of the campus chorale’s annual choir tour.

 My roommate, also a music major, and I were scrambling to get ready to leave. We were madly finishing up term papers, laundry, and perishable food. Cleaning the room simply had to wait till we got back. Time bore down on us, and we fled to the waiting tour bus with our suitcases and music scores, barely closing the door behind us.

 We left our beds unmade, books strewn all over our desks, the peanut butter jar open, beverage cans on the window sill and cracker wrappers fallen just short of the waste can. There was a half-eaten banana rotting on a nightstand, and some of our dirty laundry trailing out of the bottom of our closets.

 The tour was lots of fun, and the college raised significant funds because of our fine singing. But after it was all over and we returned to campus, we were exhausted. Tired of staying in host family homes, we were ready to climb into our own beds before classes would begin the next day. My roommate and I dreaded the thought of all the cleaning and laundry we still had to do. We lugged our gear up the stairs and opened the door into our hallway.

 We were halfway to our room when I spotted it – a note tacked to our door. I drew closer and let out a horrified gasp.

Right then and there I cursed the no-lock policy of this idyllic campus and kissed goodbye to my future with this family. Were they being sarcastic about my room?  

 I opened our door, anxious to bury my humiliated face into my pillow. I flicked on the light – then drew in a startled breath. The beds were beautifully made, all trash removed, desks organized, no signs of clothing spilling out of the closets. There was even a fresh daffodil in a tiny glass jar.

 “THEY CLEANED OUR ROOM!” I cried.

 I sank onto my bed and did not know what to do next. I was flushed and breathing hard, sick to my stomach, mortified that they had not only seen our room in all its chaos, but also handled my personal stuff, thinking they were helping me out. That was the kind of people they were.

 “They did a good job,” my roommate softly offered.

 I had been suffering emotionally for over an hour when our next door neighbor popped her head in the door to welcome us home and saw my pained expression. “Are you okay? Did you guys not have a good time on the tour? What happened?”

 I blurted out my embarrassment, how the revelation of my unkempt ways would most certainly cause my boyfriend’s parents to warn their son to find a higher pedigree sort of girlfriend. “It was such a fun week… and now this,” I groaned.

 She listened with deep concern, then softly said, “Oh Lisa, I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.”

 “Not sure it could be any worse,” I said, sniffling back tears.

 She was clearly feeling my pain, then seemed to grope for words. “I… I didn’t want to tell you this, but… I’m the one who cleaned your room. I did it right after you left. I knew you were both pressed for time.”

 There has to be a better way than I personally know to describe her gift to me in that moment. I could offer, inanely, that it was like being carried when you can’t walk anymore, or stepping into a warm, healing bath. But it was so,so much more than that.

 It was an extravagant unburdening, an undeserved love.

 I fell into her sweet arms and cried into her shoulder. “Thank you, thank you,” I said over and over. “I can never repay you for this.”

 I have never forgotten Sylvia Ballou. She was the first to teach me what grace feels like.


NOTE: Two-and-a-half-years later, I married my boyfriend, and only many years after that, shared this story with my in-laws. They got a good chuckle out of it, even if they were genuinely perplexed as to how a room could ever get that messy.