Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shameless


The world changes, 
love stays.
~Charles Aznavour

I don't know why I've been thinking of it again. Not thinking, exactly: The memory flashes for just a second or two, a few whispered words in the dark, a slight movement caught in a spotlight. The feeling of exposure. It was so long ago, but it's just that this image intrudes more and more—while I'm doing ordinary things, like washing the dishes or petting the cat or turning out the lights—and there must be some explanation.

          My mother sat beside me in a dark theater, looking pissed off and resigned; I was only seven and didn't know what to expect. Charles Aznavour, the world-famous chanteur and protégé of Edith Piaf, was in town to do a show and my mother's cousin Levon was his lighting guy so we had free tickets and an invitation to come backstage after the show. It was supposed to be a great honor except my mother hated him, the way she hated Chopin, because his music was embarrassing and self-indulgent.

          Forget Edith Piaf, or the accolade "France's Frank Sinatra": Aznavour is to the Armenians what Barbra Streisand is to the Jews. For Streisand's cross-eyes and big nose, Aznavour has no discernible upper lip and is barely five-feet-three-inches tall. These two simultaneously confirm and absolve every ethnic slur.

          At a low point early in his career, Aznavour had gotten drunk and written a list of his deficits, "My shortcomings are my voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my frankness and my lack of personality ... I am incorrigible … I say ‘merde’ to anybody, however important he is, when I feel like it.” When he sobered up, he realized the only way to succeed would be to channel his shortcomings. In every song you will find his bluntness, his lyricism, his existential grasp that we're always in the process of losing what we love most, his street-savvy arrogance, his small, expressive body and his languid, direct gaze.

          My mother was right; Aznavour was embarrassing and self-indulgent. But he was also shameless and unapologetic, and when he sang to us, when he sang to me, spoke to me in his rich, tremulous, heartbreaking voice, he also spoke for me. Which is a little strange because he was a man in his 40s then, singing songs, mostly in French, about the passing of time, love and grief, how memories mix with desire, but mostly, he sang about sex. He ends his song Toi et Moi, for example, with the words, "Pleasure me, make love to me." I didn't understand the words, but I felt them.

          Singing isn't precisely the word for what he does. He uses his body, as well as props; a cigarette (he smokes while he sings), a white handkerchief, a chair. He turns the chair the wrong way and straddles it, resting his head on the chairback, as if he's too tired to fight it anymore, this woman, these emotions, time itself. He lights a cigarette, exhales smoke, and begins to talk. (In a recent interview, when asked if he thought he was the end of his musical lineage, he answered that rap, when it has the feel of street poetry, is the new chanson.)

          He speaks English with a heavy French accent, and although most of his songs are in French, the one I remember was in English, and the part I remember is when he stops singing, mid-song, and begins to talk to an imagined lover.

          What he does next is incredible—as he's telling his phantom lover how he wants to hold her when they dance, he turns his back on the audience and begins to dance alone, embracing himself, miming the hands of a lover. He murmurs adoring words to himself. While his hand reaches around to caress his shoulder, his hair, the back of his neck, he becomes both lover and beloved. The audience applauds.

          I could barely breathe; my mother called it kitsch.


When we went backstage, cousin Levon sent us to the back of the line so we could stay and chat. I watched women of all ages blush and stammer as Aznavour shook their hands and signed autographs. In the end we approached and stood before him like the wretched before God himself. In the middle of the empty room, under a glaring light, Aznavour was seated on a high stool. It gave him a taller appearance as long as you didn't look down at his dangling feet.

          Aznavour said something in French and Levon handed him a towel. After he rubbed the sweat from his face and hair he tossed the damp towel back to Levon, who made our introductions in English.

          "Speak to me in Armenian," he said to my mother. They were about the same age and though neither had been born in Turkey, both of their parents had been Armenian exiles so Hayeren had been their first language.

          "That's artificial to me," my mother said. "Why should we speak Armenian when can both speak English?"

          "It's not artificial, it's natural. It's only artificial when you make it that way." My mother looked like she wanted to slap him while he, in return, just seemed amused. They understood one another, but they spoke different languages—he continued to speak in Armenian but she answered in English.

          "Do you like my music? Tell me your favorite song?"

          "You're putting me on the spot right now."

          "Yes, I am."

          "I suppose ... Yesterday When I Was Young," she said.

          "And what about you?" he asked me. I answered truthfully that I liked all his songs.

           Aznavour reached over and picked up a record album and a pen from the table beside him and signed the album cover for me. He offered my mother a cigarette and lit both his and hers with a single match. He took his time lighting it.

          "It has been a very great pleasure meeting you," he said in English, extending his hand first to my mother, and then to me. Right away, I slipped my hand into my coat pocket and made a fist, to hold onto his touch.

          As soon as we were in the street, my mother dropped the cigarette and crushed it under her heel.

          "Well, I'm glad that's over with!" she said. "He's so full of himself. I just can't stand men like that."

          That first time I had disagreed with my mother we became complete strangers for a moment—but only I knew that. For the first time, I had a secret. A real secret.


If to love is to recognize yourself in another, then love is both a doubling and a uniting, is both dependent and independent. When a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? When I love and my beloved isn't there, does love exist without that person's presence? Logic has no place in this conversation; besides, we know the answer already.

          Before my mother died, she told me I would find a box of love letters written by my parents to each other before they were married.

          "It will be very interesting for you to read," she had said. "But not now."

          After her death I found the box of letters hidden in a closet. She had labeled the box for me with her customary attention to detail, but I've been afraid to open it without her. My tough, pragmatic mother had been a closet romantic all along. Her unwillingness to share her secret until after she'd reached the relative safety of death makes me feel indescribably lonesome.

          Tonight I drive past the hospital for the first time since my mother died. I would gladly go out of my way to avoid it, as I've been doing for the past three months, but there is no other way to get to my destination. Because dying is pitifully hard, lonely work, we lived out the last eight days of her life in that hospital together. All its windows are lit up now with the suffering of new inhabitants, but this also suggests to me the continuation of my mother's suffering. Her anguish is no less real for me now than it was during her final days. For anyone to say "she's not suffering anymore" is offensive and inaccurate. I drive with a vengeance, tunneling through the air as if I'm mining a world of pain, drilling through solid rock, just to get away.

          After a while, when the hospital recedes and my mood clears, I catch a glimpse of Curt, my first love. Just a flash of him, the same way I flash on Aznavour turning his back. I summon this image of Curt again, and then again, till the sputtering flash of still pictures assembles into a moving reel. I drive through this projection as gladly as a bird flies.

          When I started seeing Curt again a couple of years ago, after decades apart, I'd felt as if a germ had entered my body. I'd wondered if I had the flu. Later, when I began to understand, I told myself it was irrelevant, nothing to be troubled by, that wanting to touch him was as natural as breathing, and had only to do with sex.

          But what better description is there for love than a germ entering the body? To deny love because it's impractical or unrequited is logical, but it's absurd. The world changes, love stays.

          Loving Curt is a curious kind of self-love. The thought of kissing him, which won't happen again in this lifetime, always gives me an exquisite belly ache. I kiss him over and over in every conceivable way, to my heart's content. But my heart is never content and the reel is on an infinite loop.

          I recently overheard a playful conversation between Curt and a lovely Asian girl less than half our age. "Love," he told her, "is a risk worth taking." He is shameless. I was so angry at him, so terribly hurt, but how can I disagree? Pleasure me, make love to me. Or not. Either way, I will love as if my life depends on it. I give myself such pleasure by loving him, although that pleasure is equal to the pain. Love, every kind of love, is always exactly worth its weight in grief. [Applause.]
Aznavour's Les Bons Moments and Dylan's Cover

Aznavour interviews in Armenian.
She starts by asking, "How are you?"
He answers, "I'm tired. But I'm 80, that's to be expected."
Eventually, Aznavour lapses into English.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Magpie


When I let Curt inside, he snickers and tells me he almost picked up some gravel just now on the way up the path. Every night for years Curt used to come to my parents' house after dark and throw pebbles at my window, and every night I crept downstairs and let him in. More than once he scaled the chimney and climbed in through my bedroom window. More than 20 years ago.

          Curt sits down at the dining room table and strokes one of my mother's slim Siamese cats. They're mine now, along with the house, since my mother died last year. At first the cats stayed in my mother's room, just meowing and waiting for her return. Now they follow me around.

          Curt's 6'4 and although it's something I love about him, I always forget just what a giant he is until he's up close. The ceiling is too low; he's too big for my flimsy chairs and wobbly dining table. He overwhelms the crowded, messy room. I love it.

          He pets one of my mother's cats and tells me that in Australia his mother had a very large cat until recently. It was fond of preying on magpies, which are about the same size as cats. Even after the cat grew old and slowed down, it still chased the birds. But then one day it was devoured by magpies. First they picked out the cat's eyes, Curt says, and then they picked the rest of it clean.

          Curt smiles at me awhile, massaging the neck of my mother's cat, whose blue eyes close with pleasure.

          I experience his love most keenly when he punishes me; it's taken me some time to remember our routine, to remember that's why he's here. Nothing as pedestrian as physical violence or even sex. We start off gently, slowly. He is charming and attentive, a true gentleman. When he disappears, as cleanly as a soap bubble, I wait him out. Because when he reappears, he's always a step closer. Until he's inside my head.

          A psychologist wrote somewhere that other people are only real for us when they are frustrating, which could explain why opposites attract, and why the divorce rate is so high. So I could excuse myself because I'm hardwired. I think of everything about him that drives me nuts—he's uncompromising, he's moody and judgmental, he's obsessive, dismissive, selfish, bombastic, unpredictable—and then I picture his face at it's most contemptuous. All I want then is to kiss him into submission, to make him laugh, or come, or love.

          The Australian Magpie is one of the few animal species able to recognize its own reflection in a mirror. No wonder it gouges out the eyes of its prey.




Saturday, March 8, 2014

How to Polish the Mirror


If you could get rid of yourself just once,
The secret of secrets would open to you.
The face of the unknown, hidden beyond the universe
Would appear on the mirror of your perception.
~Rumi

And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”
~Confucius

Phenomenology is a con ... we think we can do it but it is impossible!
~Gifted existential therapist

It's not easy to get out of our own way. As soon as something enters our perception it becomes assimilated, like food or air, and we are no longer distinctly separate from it. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Does anything exist independently? While the conditions for sound may exist in the forest, if there's no ear within earshot, there's only the concept of sound. How real is an idea? And how real is that idea without a thinker to ponder it?

          Contemplating the great philosophical and spiritual questions is always like falling through the looking glass, if you're doing it right. The world is no longer as it seems, nor are we, and any apprehension of 'reality' or 'truth' is short-lived as you tumble into new understandings, misunderstandings, and more questions. 

          A respected existential therapist I know has tried explaining phenomenology to me, to no avail. When he explains the philosopher Edmund Husserl's idea of 'bracketing' we both end up in fits of laughter, dabbing tears from our eyes. The distinction between consciousness and phenomena (or Us versus The Material, Sensual World) is only possible, Husserl contends, to the extent that we are able to 'bracket' all assumptions about the existence of an external world. I imagine patiently peeling away the layers of an onion till I observe its innermost core of nothingness—except there's no end of layers and patience eventually turns to panic. The truth is, if there's still a self left with which to observe, bracket, or peel, then you're not done bracketing.

          I'm sure a gaggle of philosophers could easily argue against me here—and I'm pretty sure I've got a lot of my facts wrong—but I think self-awareness is probably an oxymoron.There's no fixed self we can pin down, just a changeling we only partly apprehend at any given moment before it morphs into something different. Husserl says, "We would be in a nasty position indeed if empirical science were the only kind of science possible." But isn't he also making an excellent case for the supremacy of subjectivity? Was there a touch of irony when Husserl, the father of phenomenology, bestowed the process of 'phenomenological bracketing' with the fanciful name epoché, alluding to the ancient Greek Skeptics' notion of abstaining from belief? Is doubt the opposite of belief, or is doubt the only valid belief?

          Husserl's concept of epoché is probably as much at odds with empirical (inferior) science as it is with theoretical (idealized) science. If it is true that wisdom always leaves room for doubt, then scientific conclusions, whether empirical or theoretical, are probably bullshit. Believers and atheists are equally suspect; only the agnostic deserves our respect.

          But I flatter myself shamelessly now, since by nature I doubt everything; my only certainty is that we can be sure of nothing because it's obvious we can't know what we don't know. Most people confuse doubt with stupidity, but that's only because they're too stupid or insecure to explore doubt as a viable option.

          I'm full of self-doubt (the highest form of self-flattery). Most recently, since the death of my mother, I've been exhuming my guilt feelings and examining all their microscopic detail. But at what point do I stop? I could peel that onion for the rest of my life and never even come close to the blank essence at its center. In a lightning strike of self-doubt, I start to wonder if guilt is just a distraction from the blank futility that's central to what it means to be mortal. I am nothing without my brackets. The nearer I come to that truth, the more distracted I tend to become.

         Around the time I began to contemplate what I am without [fill in the blank] without my mother, without my job, without my house, without my friends, without my youth, without my kids, without my books to read, without writing or readers, without passion—I was throwing myself at a (very polite) man who has absolutely no interest in me. As I proceed to abase myself, I detect the queasy tingle of déjà vu, and then I get really reckless. I hear myself and I sound drunk, but I'm not. I remind myself of a lecherous old perv, and that makes me even more reckless. I'm not thinking, but if I were, I might be coaching myself to take absurd risks to feel truly alive.

          But I don't think and I take no risks. Humiliation, horny self-pity, and humor distract me from the empty heart, the futility at the center of everything. Again and again, I rush to fill up the little void—fill it before it consumes me like a black hole. It can be filled up with anything—food, booze, sex, drugs, obsession of all kinds—but most readily it fills with anxiety.

          Optimism is a trait some people are born with, but it can also be a choice. Two thousand years before Husserl contemplated phenomena and consciousness, Buddha said, "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world." This way of understanding Us versus The Material, Sensual World can answer so many of our troubling questions about the world and our place in it while offering a sense of hope and empowerment.

          Not being an optimist by nature, though, I'm afraid of depriving myself of the organic reflex of doubting. Buddha's words do offer comfort, but for a person of my temperament, they also suggest the need to repress my feelings, moods, and questions and replace my habitual angst with a brainwashing formula. Hypnotism, affirmations, and mantras can reverse our cravings and overcome habitual negativity, and perhaps offer us happiness, but at what cost? Isn't happiness and peace worth everything—including refraining from doubt? Ask anyone who's suffered from debilitating depression or suicidal ideation and he'll tell you, "Antidepressants saved my life—I don't care about the cost, whether in terms of sacrificing my authentic identity or my dwindling bank account." But to reprogram oneself to be happy by abolishing negative thoughts feels at least very a little like self-denial and, at worst, a kind of metaphysical suicide.

          Like Phenomenology and Buddhism, Islam also recommends a kind of thought control, in the form of prayer. Mohammed said, "There is a polish for everything that takes away rust; and the polish of the heart is zikr, the invocation of God." Zikr, which is translated as 'remembrance' or 'invocation,' is often a silent form of devotion in which the the name of Allah or his attributes is repeated over and over throughout the day. Sufis, in this way, fill the void with prayer.

          The Sufi master Al-Ghazali wrote, "Dear friend, your heart is a polished mirror. You must wipe it clean of the veil of dust that has gathered upon it, because it is destined to reflect the light of divine secrets." It makes sense that to fully eliminate the filth we must first acknowledge it, and perhaps even gain some compassionate understanding of our negativity.

          The oldest holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, who died last week at the age of 110, had something to add to the conversation. She was a pianist who had spent many years in a showcase concentration camp designed to distract the public from the starvation, gas chambers and all the myriad atrocities taking place on a grand scale under the Nazis. The lives of professional musicians and prodigies were spared only because of their talent, so they could give death camps the deceptive appearance of being civilized.

          Music saved Alice spiritually as well as physically; it was an experience of freedom and beauty that could not be taken from her. Even if she had been forbidden to play the piano, Alice said, she could always silently invoke the music of Chopin, hear it in her mind, and be moved by its beauty.

          "Even the bad is beautiful," she said. "It has to be." For Alice, then, the void was always filled with music, as it can be for all of us, if we choose it.


“In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die: 
Ever drifting down the stream- Lingering in the golden gleam- Life, what is it but a dream?” 
~Lewis Carroll

“Well, now that we have seen each other," said the unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you.” 
~Lewis Carroll

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

White Wine and Garlic Mussels


My mother collected many things—cookbooks, Weller pottery, Dutch tiles, antique blue-and-white china bowls and plates, vases, ugly lamps, teddy bears that reminded her of my father, newspaper clippings, decades of Consumer Reports and Kovel's Antiques and Collectibles Price Guides, reference books, books about cats, every different Stabat Mater recorded prior to 1962, every note I ever wrote her, receipts, coupons, paper fans, scented soap, nail clippers, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

          When she was in her 60s, I used to kid her that she collected shit because that happened to be her composting phase. For a couple of years, my mother collected compost for a nonexistent garden. The freezer was always jammed with bags of eggshells, coffee grounds and potato peel, just waiting to be added to the growing, rotting heap in our backyard. I think she finally stopped when we noticed it was attracting wild animals.

          I find all of her collections moving in their own way, revealing some secret aspect of her personality. Though I don't wish to collect, for example, nail clippers, I nonetheless find it ritually necessary to look at every object in order to emotionally catalog it. Only then do I feel qualified to save, donate, or discard the things my mother has left behind.

          But now I'm stumped. Here in a drawer of my mother's bedside table, where she kept important and practical things like her magnifying glass, a list of emergency phone numbers, and her weekly pill minder, is something I never expected to find. Not a mysterious key or a sealed envelope with my name on it, but a yellowed batch of newspaper clippings tucked into a paperclip. All recipes for mussels and clams.

          Because I can't bring myself to get rid of it, the tiny bundle follows me around the house like a stray puppy. I thought maybe it would help if I just saved the names of the recipes:
White Wine and Garlic Mussels, Linguine with Mussels and Fresh Herbs, Mussels Marseillaise, Mussel and Basil Sauce for Pasta, Les Palourdes Aux Aromates (Baked clams in spicy butter sauce), Clams and Linguine Franey, Soupe de Poisson aux Moules et Palourdes (Fish soup with mussels and clams), Clams Rene Verdon, Clams au Beurre Blanc (Clams with white sauce), Cream of Clam and Leek Soup, Clam Chowder, Ale-Steamed Mussels with Garlic and Mustard, Mussels with Linguine.
          But I still can't get rid of it.

          Nearly blind in her final years, my mother was also without a sense of taste or smell. But she continued to crave the flavors that no longer reached her. Among them was the taste of the sea. Towards the end, with her magnifying glass extended and quivering under the bright beam of her bedside task light, she recited the ingredients of a recipe to me like a poem or directions on a treasure map.
15 to 18 mussels, cleaned, drained well
3/4 cups dry white wine
1/2 cup clam juice
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
Chopped parsley
          "Doesn't that sound good, Charlotte?"

          Actually, the word mussels is enough to turn my stomach, so perfectly reminiscent of those rubbery-blubbery, salty bits of raw flesh. The word makes me think of my mother on Martha's Vineyard, prying open fresh oysters and clams with a knife—it was hard work—and then cutting off the little pulsing snots from their lifeline and slurping them up straight from the shell, along with their brine. She taught me how to eat them this way, and I loved it. It was like eating the ocean.

          Every summer rental on the Vineyard comes with a lobster pot and we made sure to use it at least once every summer. My mother always liked a bargain, so she favored lobsters with deformed claws, one smaller than the other, because they were discounted. Twice doomed, their claws bound, with beady lidless eyes, their antennae, nonetheless, waved around, wagging like the tails of happy dogs. When the water finally came to a boil, how the tongs scraped against the rim of the pot, and the shells bounced dully against the bottom, how the lobsters merely blushed when they died. I laid the table with newspaper and my mother served each of us our own lobster with wedges of lemon and our own dish of drawn butter, the same way we ate artichokes. It was delicious.

          "It's so much work, those mussels," I told her.

          "I don't know...Pour the oil into a heavy 10-inch sauté pan. Place pan on high heat. When small black wisps of smoke appear carefully add the mussels."

          (I'd have to make a whole other dinner for the kids, cause I knew they'd never touch these mussels.)

           "Toss the mussels to coat evenly and then add the garlic. Sauté for 30 seconds and carefully add the wine and clam juice. Cover immediately. Let steam for about 2 to 3 minutes or until all the mussels are opened."

          (And, God knows, I really don't want to eat it, either.)

           "Pour everything into a serving tray, garnish with chopped parsley and serve. See, that's all?"

          The next time I went shopping, my mother handed me a coupon for canned clams and I took the hint. I made her linguine with canned clam sauce sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan and fresh parsley. It smelled about right, like garlic and sea water.

          "It's tasteless," my mother frowned, accusing, "just chewy and without any flavor. Very strange. Did you put any garlic in it?"

          She had only wanted to try to experience this rather small pleasure, one she could no longer enjoy but that I, too, had begrudged her.

          I know for a fact that she wouldn't have tasted fresh mussels any better than canned clams—but the point is I didn't try. She tasted only blackberries—I know that for a fact—and I made sure she had a dish of them every morning. But she wanted more than blackberries or facts; she also wanted what I couldn't give her: some vital part of love that defies reason with its tireless, cheerful faith.

         For my mother, the recipes were a vivid reminder of life's disappearing pleasures; for me, they are a reminder of how difficult it is to let anything go. Guilt is like an aphrodisiac. It draws the guilty one so close to the source of desire and regret while just holding him back from the brink. Still, I admit, it brings me closer.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Paradise


How does a fat, breathless, middle-aged woman who sits all day in front of a laptop get ready to climb a volcano? This is a question I've been asking myself over and over since I decided to climb Mt. Etna. Why there and why now? Because my marvelous mother died and I miss her, and because life is so short: I will spend six days at Casa Cuseni in Taormina with my sisters and climb a volcano, and make no apology for seizing such extraordinary pleasure.

          For Casa Cuseni, of course, I need no preparation—I'm always ready to sip Campari at sunset on a terrace overlooking the Ionian Sea as the towns along the mountainside begin to light up, always ready to share secrets with my sisters. But I have only four months to prepare myself for this volcano.

          My son, who is an athlete, has designed a fitness regime for me. It begins with a little low-impact cardio and a modest amount of weight training which, he insists, will culminate four months from now in my running like hell on an incline treadmill, and then straight up the volcano to the triumphant strains of Rocky.

          Before I go to the gym, though, I decide to do a little online research about Etna, which turns out to be the tallest active volcano in all of Europe. The half-day tour package buses you partway up the mountain to a creepy landscape where hundreds of steaming fissure vents spew sulfurous gas into the thin air. No climbing is required, but it only takes you halfway there.

          To reach the summit, you need a full day, and stamina. You take a bus to the midway point, climb steeply for four grueling hours, have a look around, and then it's another four hours to fall back down the mountain. So much for hearing Rocky's Theme.


I remember I'm meeting Curt at the library and close my laptop. Curt always finds a pretext to pay me whenever we meet for coffee. First he pays for the coffee and then, right as we're leaving, he stuffs some bills into my hand. It bothers me that he needs to convert every exchange of ours into a financial transaction but he told me from the start that he won't see me if he can't pay.

          Curt always pays for sex now. Not that he has to; he's tall, charming, attractive. At least I suppose he's attractive. I'm not really sure because when I look up at him I'm still able to see how he was at 17. He's my first love—we met when we were 17 and, before the bitter parting, we were together eight years. As I recall, the bitter parting was my idea. We hadn't seen each other for decades, until a couple of years ago.

          I don't know exactly when he got into the habit of paying for sex. He pays now to keep me at a certain distance; he pays to have control. It's a wholesome impulse, in its way, to always clarify our boundaries and ensure equivalent benefits. Curt pays me not to have sex.

          Curt sits beside me with two cups of coffee and I cry. I cover my mouth at first, but soon I abandon myself to it. We are alone in a smallish room full of windows. Wide, rectangular windows near the ceiling frame the bobbing heads of passersby walking back and forth outside, bundled up in winter coats, scarves, gloves, gray sleet falling onto their pinched faces. Opposite, the wall of windows overlooking the interior of the library presents a view of row upon row of books, an empty labyrinth. It reminds me how a stone outside the library is chiseled with the words of Jorge Luis Borges, I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. The plaque beside our closed door just says, "The Quiet Room." We inhabit an independent realm here, both private and totally exposed.

          While I cry, Curt says nothing. He doesn't touch me. He seems neither surprised by the flood of my emotion, nor does he rush to dam it, as people so often do when facing each other's pain.

          I tell him what I've told no one else, of the deep guilt I feel about something that is no longer within my power to change. After wasting the last year of my mother's life seeking help for her—every week more doctors, more PET scans, MRIs, x-rays, physical therapy, blood work, medications, side-effects—and false diagnoses—depression, infected gall bladder, "old age"—she died just a week after she was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. She never complained during that year of suffering—perhaps because she was so intent on sparing me—she was merely grateful when I took her back to bed. "So good to be home," she would say after every outing. "So cozy. I love this room."

          She died in the hospital, not at home as I'd promised. Her last words, repeated over and over as her speech began to slur, were simply, "I'm very uncomfortable."

          I can't stop crying; as I tell Curt everything, the words boom in a shocking way inside our enclosed, quiet space. The words seem to shoot out between spasms of sobbing. Eventually, Curt digs into his briefcase and hands me a black bandana so I can dry my tears.

          "It's clean," he says. But after I trumpet my nose into the hanky he smiles. "Ah, you keep that."

          I feel something funny I'd never experienced before with him, or with anyone. It's hard for me to describe. The funny feeling is a bit like the way gears fit into place. I picture the delicate gears of a clock, moving each other in tandem. He has somehow transformed into the idealized Curt I write about—very calm and present, receptive and strong, with a flicker of something reckless and sad. He must always keep an eye on that little flame.

          When I stop crying and begin to breathe normally again, Curt doesn't tell me what I expect to hear—that I did everything I could; he doesn't tell me I'm a good daughter or a good person. Instead he asks a question that stuns me.

          "What would you have done differently?"


Another way to get to the summit—the shape of which is never the same due to Mt. Etna's constant seismic activity, and where, it turns out, there are four central craters—is to take a bus to a cable car. You have to pay extra for the cable car, a jeep, a tour guide, heavy boots, and a gas mask. If I can afford the cost of all that, I believe I will have paid for the privilege of hearing the opening bars of Rocky, whether or not my son agrees with me.

          Mt. Etna has been active for 600,000 years and is characterized by its continual burning. The name for this ancient mountain comes from the Greek aitho, which means to burn. The Greek poet Pindar called it "the pillar of the sky." Aeolus, king of the winds, was believed to have imprisoned the winds in Mt. Etna. There are legends about a mighty giant—variously called Typhon, Vulcan, and Enceladus—whose thousand, hissing dragon heads reached to the stars and who had a thousand viper tails instead of legs. This giant tried to overthrow Zeus, the king of all gods, who consequently trapped him inside the volcano. Hephaestus and a cyclops are said to use the the inside of the volcano as the forge where they make thunderbolts for Zeus.

          Empedocles, the ancient Greek philosopher, believed in reincarnation and wrote poetry about the interplay between Love and Strife, the divine powers of attraction and repulsion that move the universe. He committed suicide by throwing himself into one of Etna's burning craters. It is believed that he sought immortality through this action. Horace refers to Empedocles in Ars Poetica when he declares that poets have the right to destroy themselves. The realm of Hades, the world of the dead, is also thought to lie below the mountain.


What would I have done differently? I have no idea, and this, too, comes as a surprise. Curt and I look at each other and blink, patient and blank as if no question were hanging between us. I turn the question around and around, fearing the worst and, from any angle, I can see that I have done the very best I could with what I had. What I wanted to happen could not have happened.

           During her last year, my mother had recurrent nosebleeds. She wouldn't call out to me, so I never knew how long she'd been bleeding, but I could guess by the amount of blood on her face, hands, chest, and bedding. If the bleeding didn't stop after I'd applied pressure for awhile, the ambulance would come to take her to the Emergency Room and cauterize. This happened again and again, without warning.

          I have a recurring dream that my mother is in bed, covered with blood, and I am cleaning her with a wash cloth. I'm thinking, in the dream, about how I'll have to change her nightgown, and wash and change her bedding, how it could happen all over again in an hour, and then I'll have to wash and change everything again, how I need to buy more sheets, and how her medical insurance won't pay for home help because they say she's not sick enough. I'm so angry and tired. I look at my mother's face then, covered in blood, and she looks back at me, patient, trusting, and so full of love.

            I will probably always feel guilty. Still, I can see that this seething, living feeling called guilt is caught inside an imaginary cage of my own design. I just can't let it go.

          What do I want from Curt? I don't want to ask. I see now it must be something ridiculous, or terribly unwholesome, if I don't even dare to ask myself the question. I recognize only the feeling, desire, but not its motive.

          It's Curt's turn to open his heart to me. He tells me what he fears most, the thing that he dreads someday regretting. He begins stubbornly, without looking at me, as if forcing himself to tell me, but gradually he turns to me. The angle of his jaw is defiant but his eyes are searching, like he's trying to make out the shape of something in a dark room. I want to help him find it—peace and acceptance or a second chance. I want him to be able to trust himself—trust in his own gentle goodness, as I trust him—or simply for him to accept that he is capable of surviving the cataclysm, disappointment, regret, a broken heart. Whatever I say to him is irrelevant, but I give him my voice anyway, and my silence. I give him everything, whether he knows it or not, wants it or not, it doesn't matter.

          Curt tells me what he remembers about my mother, about my relationship with her and about hers with him. Tears run down his face and he makes no effort to conceal his emotions. He keeps talking, and weeping, till he's finished what he has to say. And then we get to work.

          We sit beside each other in The Quiet Room and, as always, I type something for him on my laptop. He inverts sentences from one of his earlier texts and reads the scrambled words aloud. If it wasn't for this work, he would never see me. There's no room under the table for his long legs, so one of them rests against mine, just for a few moments. He lifts his chair and moves himself exactly two inches away from me.      

          Curt dictates and I transcribe; my fingertips on the keyboard move as fast as they can to keep pace with him. I do as he tells me. While my fingertips respond to his voice, I wonder what he would say if I proposed paying him for his time? How much for some leg, Curt? How much to lean over and give me a hit of your aftershave? How much extra for your tongue on my neck? For your kiss? To remove each piece of clothing? How much to show me all of your anger? How much to tell me you love me? Exactly how much would it take for you to give it all up?

          What I want. What I want. Such a selfish, destructive bitch I am, at heart. I'm not convinced I want the ideal Curt I write about and I know I don't want to be 17 again. I just want to remove this man's boundaries, one after another. I want his heat, and I want everything blurry and too close. I want what I don't deserve. I want yellow violets and rare butterflies. I want to feel the kind of tenderness that only comes in the aftermath of a great violence. I want.

          I want no regrets, but how can I predict which will cause the greater regret, telling him or not telling him what I want? We say goodbye in the parking lot by the elevator; he presses the button to go up and disappears when the door slides shut. I walk down a flight of stairs to the basement, where my car is parked. I mentally tick off things I have to do, a step at a time. Buy groceries, do laundry, cook dinner, pick up my son, eat dinner, load the dishwasher, call the lawyer, burn my bridges, tell Curt.


Etna is a landscape of extremes and contradictions: while it continually burns, its top is perpetually covered in snow. Volcanic soil is strangely fertile; the earth is enriched with minerals and nutrients from the decomposing flora submerged beneath the lava. Vegetation varies depending on the altitude. At the foot of the volcano are orange, mandarin, lemon, olive, agave, Indian fig, banana, Eucalyptus, palm, and pine trees. Higher up grow hazelnut, almond, pistachio and chestnut trees, then oaks, birches, and beech trees. Above 2,100 meters, the semi-desert zone begins, with a shrub called Holy Thorn, as well as a variety of violets that grow nowhere else on earth, just here, along the slopes of Etna's secondary craters. The highest peaks are volcanic desert where snow and fresh lava prevent the growth of any kind of vegetation. Here live a strange assortment of creatures—porcupines, foxes, wildcats, weasels, martens, dormice, kestrels, buzzards, finches, woodpeckers, hoopoes, insects, and vipers. The area is also home to a rare variety of butterflies.

          To see a video of Mt. Etna erupting makes me feel nothing but detached serenity in the face of a surreal danger. Only when I think to turn on the sound, and I hear the intimate hiss and crackle issue from the volcano between thunderous booms, am I awestruck. This surge of fear gives me pleasure, incomparable pleasure.


Sitting in my car in the supermarket parking lot, I tear off the bottom margin of my shopping list and on it I write, in my smallest, steadiest handwriting, the words I want to tell Curt. Then I roll up the paper between the palms of my hands, curling it up into a tight little ball, like an insect protecting itself, and I crush it. I stand up, push my handbag over my shoulder and lock the car door. I glance at my shopping list as I cross the parking lot and roll the bit of paper in my other hand before throwing it into a garbage bin by the door of the supermarket. Before I open my hand, though, I change my mind and turn around.

          I decide to go to the gym instead and stop off at home first to change. Before removing my clothes, I pull the tiny ball of paper out of my coat pocket and smooth it out on my desk with the side of a pencil.

          Maybe if I'm just permitted to share a little of this feeling with Curt from time to time I won't need to be so restless. In meditation, you often hear people talk about "going to their happy place," that private place where they feel most at home and safe. Maybe my place is with Curt in The Quiet Room. But it's unlikely that Curt would choose that place for himself, and without his company, it's just a tomb.

          Once the paper stays stiff and flat, like the little rectangle of a fortune in a Chinese cookie or a minuscule Tibetan prayer flag, I pull my passport out of the desk drawer and tuck the scrap of paper in beside my picture. If I don't tell Curt before I leave, then I'd like to throw my prayer into the volcano, the way Empedocles threw himself in, for immortality. But I must be gentle with myself, even if life is not. So, instead, I choose to bury my prayer in Mt. Etna's fertile soil, among the rare yellow violets that feed off the volcano and grow nowhere else in the whole world. This is how I prepare myself, so I may always know a part of me is at peace, even while another part roars.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Bell

"I have always looked upon decay as being just 
as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth."
Henry Miller

When I'm in trouble I fall in love.

          Before my mother dies, I fall in love with her cardiologist, who is small and brusque, an unsmiling middle-aged married man. I know exactly when it starts, right at the juncture of when I lose all hope of saving her and when I hear him repeat the same unanswerable question everybody asks, "How is your mother?

          Instead of replying "She's the same," or "She's been having nosebleeds," or "Her GP says it's gall stones," I curse. It comes out before I know what I've said. When he looks up at me, I spit out my frustration with all the tests that sap my mother's strength and lead nowhere, with all the specialists who assure me, "She's just depressed," and "Change her diet," and "Make her get out of bed."

          He says to me simply, "I'm taking over."

          I can't count the number of times I replay this scene in the weeks to come. When he calls my cell phone a few days later with some kind of bad news, he says, "Don't lose heart." He commands it at first, in an accent that could be Yiddish or South Philly, and then he says it again more softly. Love enters my body in the sound of his voice. Or maybe it's just love that I need, pressing, pushing, whispering.

          He waits in a tension of silence, patient and wholly present, so unlike the others. I'm determined not to weep or let go of the moment too quickly. He lets me hang up first. Afterwards, bent over my shopping cart in the middle of Target, I press the little phone against my cheek and cry without a making a sound. The red cart is stuffed with Christmas decorations and a bright assortment of bed pads, new sheets, and adult diapers.

          When my mother dies, I fall in love with her lawyer, who is also small and brusque, a primly dressed, middle-aged married man. The lawyer's voice is deceptively sonorous. He drives a sleek, new, silver BMW and I'm pretty sure he's elegantly attempting to evict me from my mother's home, where my children and I have lived for two years, in some misguided effort to uphold the letter of the law. He is accustomed to giving orders, to being right and interpreting rules and morality for lesser minds, and he is always, always certain.

          On a bookshelf directly behind him, in his many-windowed office that overlooks the heart of town, I vaguely notice a photograph among the rows of leather-bound legal tomes. A blue hummingbird perched on the hand of an imposing gray-stone Buddha. How out of place it seems, I think, and fake. Maybe he's trying to soothe nervous clients, the way some offices play muzak.

          After our first few meetings, I tell him I can't talk to him. We have to understand each other and I just can't understand him. It's like talking to a wall.

          It starts when he sniffs, "I always thought I was easy to talk to." Right away I feel eight separate muscles around my mouth go slack.

          When he contradicts me again about something, in that military style he favors, I lay my head on his desk as if it were a pillow and accuse the blank wall.

          "Like that—don't talk to me like that, just don't, don't, don't." I lift my head to look at him, sounding, I know, like I'm snapping. "Can't you just make it sloppy so I understand what the hell you mean?"

          "So, then," the corner of his mouth quivers in a lopsided smile. "You want me to talk dirty?" I'm done—in my world of trouble, that's all it takes to make love rise like sap.

          I prefer very tall men; I can't help it, I always have. But I prefer, above all, men who think well and who are confident but possess the humility that comes from caring deeply about something other than just themselves, who can laugh at themselves—passionate men who enjoy being loved as much as I do but who are, somehow, calm, far calmer than I am—men who take me seriously, except when they're laughing at me, which is all part of their being calmer—men I feel I can help in some special, mysterious way—because I want to be indispensable, of course.

          These men, where are they?

          Not married men or rich men, not ambivalent or inaccessible or overly needy men, not lawyers or doctors or men with prestige, nor men who are much older or much younger. But when I'm in trouble—when there is a sudden, shattering intimacy—all the rules break.

          I never fall in love with my mother's oncologist. Sure, he looks like Teddy Roosevelt, but worse than that he's never promised me the Moon or made me laugh. Our only intimacy comes in the hospital at my mother's deathbed. He pulls up a chair and leans towards me, over the bed railing, across my mother's unconscious body. Over her intermittent gasps and gurgles—I count to 16 between each breath—and over the sheer, physical effort required of me to block the idea that this man has failed us, I hear him as clearly as if he were whispering straight into my ear.

          "I'm telling you this because I know," the oncologist says slowly, as if we have all the time in the world. "I had to do the same thing for my own mother. When my mother died I never left her side, just like you, and now I regret it. After Mother died, the hardest thing for me was this," his hand gestures towards my mother, between gasps, but his eyes stay on me. "This is how I remember her," he says.

          He goes on talking to me the same way he might address his reflection in the mirror. "The image of Mother's suffering has replaced every other memory I have of her. Still, after all these years. Do yourself a favor, dear, and go home, get a couple of hours' sleep, or just take a walk.  Go down to the cafeteria and get a cup of coffee. You do that for yourself, so you can remember her as the person you knew. Mother would want that."

          Okay, maybe I loved him just a little. Like the oncologist, nothing could keep me away from my mother and, like him, the last images are all I have left. Just the same, I worry that I may have withheld less of my love from the cardiologist and the lawyer than from my mother.


When my mother was first diagnosed with cancer, about a week before her death, I wrote about how it had changed the way I looked at her.
Myeloma is a very beautiful word that means cancer of the bone marrow. It is a type of incurable blood cancer, like lymphoma, and the oncologist believes my mother has both of these cancers. Her sternum, where it was split and sewn back together with wire after open-heart surgery two years ago, is alight with neoplastic activity, according to the radiology report, as are the bones of her lower back. 
Since I found out, I sometimes picture my mother as a landscape. I gaze down at her now as I have occasionally peered down at the bluish lights of Newark Airport's runway at night, as we make our descent. With the same reverent mingling of nausea and exhilaration, I make myself look, now at the Earth, now at my mother, their welcome indistinguishable from their warning.
          During the last months of her life, when I had stopped kissing her, I would ask myself Why? Why this obstacle to love? Now that I'm on the other side, the answer comes easily. I was making the necessary preparations; as she was leaving me, I was leaving her. If we're very attentive, we might notice how often we do this.

On a counter outside the oncologist's office, where I set up appointments for my mother's bone marrow biopsy and a skeletal x-ray, there stands a flesh-colored, pocked lump, about the size of a child's head. The lump is mounted on a small, tapered pedestal, like a bust or a trophy. It's an archetypal image: an oval balanced on a small cone.

          Of course, inside a specialist's office, it's not uncommon to find detailed plastic replicas of anatomical parts. These replicas can be pulled apart to expose layer after layer—muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, and so on—and then put back together again like a puzzle. This is one way doctors help us envisage our hidden, otherwise inconceivable, demise.

          But this lump on the pedestal is much more primitive than those clever, miniature artworks. Barely formed, its dimpled flesh is as ugly as it is impervious. It won't come apart, either; it just is.

          Next to the lump is a stack of magazines I pretend to thumb through: under People Magazine, a radiantly smiling couple in a kayak gazes out from the cover of Living with Metastatic Cancer. Afloat in a calm river, the lovers are framed by an abundance of unfallen autumn leaves. I want to be inspired by the graceful image of holding on without clutching—as no doubt I'm meant to—but it strikes me as ghoulish. My lack of appreciation makes me feel I'm not the right person for metastatic cancer, or for bravery. It's what I don't see in the picture that troubles me: the skull beneath the smile; the bare bones of the tree when the last leaf falls; the river rushing on.

          The nurse hands me the prescriptions just as I work up the nerve to turn the tumor around, hoping to find some kind of descriptive plaque. She gives me a funny look. Maybe I'm just superstitious, but I'm embarrassed to ask. I pat the tumor on its head.

          "Why does an oncologist display a model of a lump at the check-out counter?"

          "That?" she says. "It's an ostrich egg. It belongs to the doctor and it's been here as long as he has. Why he wants it here, I have no idea. You'd have to ask him that."

          When I shake my head, she raises an eyebrow. "A tumor? Really?" She stands up and cradles the egg with both hands, rocking it back and forth like a baby. It rings sweetly.

          "It's also a bell," she says.


What formed the first cosmic particles leading to our human existence, and what came before that? What came first—and before that, what? How was God formed—or, rather, how does that first something emerge from nothing? It can't. But it must. What comes before the beginning? At the heart of our existence is this embarrassing, unsolvable mystery and we refuse to honor it, as if what can't be proven has no meaning. We go mad if we accept the mystery, and we are mad if we don't. We need to understand, we need a reason to believe in our own lives—even if the best we can do is make up stories.

          A tumor, an ostrich egg, and a bell are the elements of my parable about love and death. In the weeks following my mother's death, I see a lawyer and a mortician, celebrate Christmas and return the unused hospital bed and wheelchair, throw out the new bed pads and diapers, drag the dead tree out to the curb, pick up the box of ashes, and still have time to research ostrich eggs, tumors, and bells. I can make something satisfying with these leftovers; it's like making an omelet.

          Like any omelet, we start with the egg, of course, the source, the base, the beginning, the symbol of life and rebirth across cultures; in Hindu cosmology the egg is the source of our universe, containing within it the yolk of a miniature sun. Once upon a time, there was life.

          The malignant tumor is a deformation of this egg: the body is composed of trillions of normal, living cells that grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. Normal cells divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells, or to repair injuries. But cancer cells grow out of control. Instead of dying, they clone themselves into new cells that are capable of invading other tissues. Damage isn't repaired and the cell doesn't die. It just multiplies. This is the foundation of the Zen koans through which our intellect is shattered into a sudden, visceral insight about the nonduality of life and death. The paradox of the tumor is that immortality and death exist in the same organism. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were were inseparable.

          Ostriches are legendary for their powers of procrastination, as am I—for burying our heads in the sand to avoid the unpleasantness of reality. In fact, this is a misconception. It turns out that ostriches scratch deep pits in the earth for their nests, to conceal their giant eggs. During the incubation period, adult birds tend to the eggs, nudging them with their beaks several times a day. The ostriches appear to be burying their heads, when really they are attempting to ensure the survival of their offspring. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were inseparable. This made us afraid.     

          An ostrich's first response to fear is to flee, not fight. Now it looks like they are abandoning their eggs, but remember that ostriches are the fastest-running birds. They lure predators away from the eggs, which remain unharmed, and most predators are quickly lost in the chase. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were inseparable. This made us afraid, so we strove to keep them apart.

          The bell in Tibetan Buddhist tradition represents the linked feminine qualities of emptiness and wisdom. The dorje (what strikes the bell, similar to a clapper) corresponds to the dynamic masculine quality of compassion. Together they represent the static and dynamic aspects of nature; bell and clapper signify the unity of wisdom and compassion in enlightenment. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were inseparable. This made us afraid, so we strove to keep them apart, but we would always fail. 

          The sound of bells is thought to repel the forces that impede enlightenment while summoning the divine; their sound is an offering and an invitation to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Their ringing also represents emptiness because of the way sound is present and then gradually vanishes into the air, leaving no mark. The bell's empty interior and fleeting sound suggest both voidness and awareness. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were inseparable. This made us afraid, so we strove to keep them apart, but we would always fail. Take heart: Only the things we don't understand have real meaning. 

The cardiologist, the lawyer, and the oncologist probably wouldn't recognize their portraits here, and I provide no portrait of my mother. I offer no proof of their existence, nor of mine. Still, I live for these moments of connection and awareness, when the bell rings.

          The only one of these characters I'm sure to see again is the lawyer who, more than likely, believes me to be cognitively impaired and mentally unstable. I should be sitting in one of the leather chairs in his waiting room, but instead I examine the pictures that hang on the wall. I recognize the same framed photograph displayed in his office, only this one is bigger and, up close, the subject turns out to be a blue morning glory. It's a marvelous study in perspective, a close-up of a deeply weathered, undulating wooden fence that disappears into the vanishing point. In the foreground is the tender blue flower, open as a bell, twined around the fencepost in morning light. Buds twirl in the shadows. The photograph is signed by the lawyer.

          I know I'm supposed to care about protecting my home and, of course, I do care deeply. But perhaps there are times when, if I am honest, what I care about most is having another moment of compassion, where all barriers disappear into one sustained note.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Placebo


On a shelf in the doctor's office
We woke up this morning to deep snow and a muffling, white hush. School cancelled, work cancelled, for a few minutes the day itself seemed to be called off. But quickly all the neighbors are busy. Mr. Tiepolo pushes his second-hand snowblower up and down both sides of Walton Street. I open the front door and call out to him, "Thank you," but he's tunneling. Bundled in his parka and knitted hat, scarf, gloves, deaf to everything but the sound of his blower, he carves an immaculate path. Diamond-sharp walls of snow appear almost to assemble themselves, luminous white planes at right angles. Other neighbors dig their cars out with shovels. Even little Teddy, who is five, works at his front steps with a miniature yellow shovel.

          Of course I'm cheered by all this industrious work, this business of getting-on-with-life.

          But, then again, what's the rush? I feel guilty—no, not because I don't help clear the snow away, but because I wish to Christ these god damned idiots would just leave it the fuck alone.

          The scraping shovels, the ice scrapers squeaking against windshields, the sound from the snowblower that is so like a military drum roll: just shut the fuck up.

          Still, I hear it under the ugly, percussive layers of human noise: the wind on the snow sounds like the ocean breaking. More resonant than all human sounds, this continual hush is gentle and deadly. Heavy snow on the branches scatters like confetti blown by a phantom. The rushing sound inside a bell with no clapper, a seashell, the invisible tearing of the sky.

          James Joyce said it better, naturally, in the last paragraph of The Dead, after the boring party and all the good manners and bad manners.
Yes, the news­pa­pers were right: snow was gen­eral all over Ire­land. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, fur­ther west­wards, softly falling into the dark muti­nous Shan­non waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely church­yard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and head­stones, on the spears of the lit­tle gate, on the bar­ren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the uni­verse and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the liv­ing and the dead.
          Sometimes it's alright to want to lie under the snow instead of pretending. Maybe it's not always so valiant to dig roads and carry on. Sometimes isn't it just as admirable to let the snow fall and settle, as we know it always has, and does, and will? Aren't the well-meaning shovelers and snowblowers and little Teddy with his toy shovel all playacting?

          I think it should be okay, for a little while, to welcome the snow each in our own way. My daughter has gone out sledding with her friends—she will revel in it; my son sleeps like a bear, glad for the excuse. I watch the snow explode like fireworks off the tree by the front window, in a bright shaft of wind. I hear the wind on the water at Lambert's Cove—not when I was there as a child, but right now.

          A few days after my mother died, I became numb, and I'm tired of apologizing for it, but I keep apologizing. Before she died, I bleated the strangest sobs, beyond my control, like a seizure of hiccups. Around the time I stopped apologizing for my grief, it closed up on itself.

          A few days ago, a neighbor came to my door to give her condolences and kept prolonging the conversation. I think she was waiting for me to break, wanting me to cry for her.

          I said, "Thank you so much for your concern. I'm sorry, I'm quite numb at the moment." The way her head tilted to one side in a pantomime of questioning, with one ear cocked, I found myself wondering what kind of ears she would have if she were a dog. Short spaniel ears, I decided, with wavy brown fur, cocked back to reveal the tender, pink underside and the warm, empty orifice. 

          Yes, I love my numbness. I protect it. If my neighbor tries to dig me out, I will cover myself back up with snow. It seems like a normal self-protective mechanism, not to be tampered with. When I was in a car accident many years ago, I remember waking up the following morning to a nauseating headache, unable to turn my head in either direction. I recall the slow-motion impact of my head against the side window, pillowed, light, and inevitable, in equal measure.

          I recall my mother in pain and I bounce off.

          I see my mother waking up from anesthesia, smiling suddenly as her eyes focus on mine. She calls me Beautiful, and I bounce off. 

          Boris and Zelda, her meowing Siamese cats, who were always with her, lead me into my mother's bedroom, and I bounce away.

          All the times I didn't kiss my mother, bounce.

          For now, I prefer to think of it as a temporary superpower. With the blink of an eye or the wave of my hand, I banish pain and comprehension.