Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dream Bird: A Bedtime Story for Parents

Up and down a cozy cul de sac that overlooked a park, sensible parents would read one or two stories to their children before turning off the bedroom lights and whispering "Sweet dreams." Some children fell asleep before their stories were finished, and these parents kissed their children's faces mid-sentence. Their gratitude was unmarked, they were sure, by any trace of anxiety. We almost never admitted that each day is a triumph over barely considered dangers, but as the days accumulated, one after another—as surely as if we were building a fortress with heavy stones, one by one—we felt protected. One by one, as the dim glow of night lights appeared in all the upstairs windows, a safe circle ringed our neighborhood.

          Some parents, though just as loving, were less sensible. Like other children, Lily demanded more bedtime stories, but instead of whispering "Sweet dreams," her mother would tell more and more stories until finally she would turn out the light and tell one last story she made up.

          Nothing would come to her at first, as she imagined dipping into a well reflecting a starry sky, but as she imagined the jumble of stars and the modest splash of her dipper breaking the water's flat surface, she would recite...

Once upon a time in a far off land, there was a great white bird the color of snow in the moonlight, maybe larger than a house, with cold, glittering feathers, a hooked beak, and razor-sharp claws. This bird flew in circles over a street where all the children slept, except one. 

          This one child who was wide awake was very beautiful and very clever. She demanded more and more bedtime stories, until finally her mother, who was exhausted, declared, "Enough!" She left the child's room without another word, closing the door behind her.

          The little girl's name was Lola, and she was furious with her mother and all her rules and decided it was time to teach her mother a lessonshe would stay up all night and play with her dolls and not sleep a wink. 

          But just then, as she sat up, before she even had a chance to creep out of her warm, cozy bed, she heard a strange sound. 

          The wind was blowing fearfully, rattling the windows, and the sky was suddenly dark and very low. Where had the big, round moon gone, and why had all the stars vanished? Lola pushed off her covers and parted the curtains of her bedside window so she could see the whole circle of her neighborhood laid out before her. And what do you think she saw?

          A gigantic white bird, bigger than Lola's house, was flapping away, covering the whole sky and stirring up a terrible wind that was sure to make a mess.

          Lola snapped the curtains shut--held up her favorite dolly and said to her "My goodness!"--and she shivered so hard the bed shook. "I must go to sleep now," Lola said out loud. "I will simply close my eyes and go to sleep and wake up in the morning, and this will be a dream.

          So Lola pulled her covers up over her ears, squeezed her eyes shut, and hugged her favorite dolly. After a while, she felt drowsy and warm and safe and was almost asleep when--what was that?

          Scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch, like mice in the wall, but it was on the roof, right above her bed.

          Why on earth didn't Lola's mother hear the racket this bird was making? How could she sleep through this terrible danger? 

          Frankly, Lola was always a little impatient. She was finally ready for a good night's sleep and this awful bird was becoming a nuisance. 

          Lola pushed open her window and whisperedso as not to wake her mother upbut very crossly, "Quit making that racket! Some of us are trying to sleep!"

          Were those diamonds bouncing off the rooftop, landing like ice cubes at her feet?

          "PsssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhtFoof!"  Instead of an answer, Lola heard a truly terrible noise.

          "Oh, for heaven's sake! Are you okay up there?" asked Lola.

          "No," squawked the bird, blowing his beaky nose,"of course I'm not all right. I'm crying, if you must know. If you don't go to sleep how will I ever be able to give you dreams? And if you don't dream how will you ever grow up to be big and strong? Oh, dear God, I am a failure and my mother will be so very unhappy with me that I don't do what she tells me to and, really, all I want is a cup of tea and a good friend."

          Lola scratched her head and blinked, wondering if she was asleep or awake. She was very beautiful and very clever, as I said before, but did I mention that she was also very kind?

          "I'll be your friend, Birdie," she said. "Why don't you come inside and I'll make you a cup of tea with hot milk and lots of sugar?"

          "Really?" asked the enormous bird. "Oh, that would be grand!"

          Birdie pushed and squeezed at the open window and finally backed his way in, with Lola's help. She tugged at his long, lustrous tail feathers until his backside filled up the entire room and Lola was squeezed against the wall.

          "But where's your head, Birdie? Oh, dear." Birdie was stuck. Lola thought he might be embarrassed about his predicament so she said, "I'll just be back in a minute with your cup of tea. Maybe I should meet you outside. Do you think you can get out?"

          "Yes, dear, I'll be fine," sniffed Birdie. "How thoughtful you are for such a little girl."

          Lola tiptoed downstairs and heated a kettle of water on the stove as she'd seen her mother do so often. She carefully stirred milk and sugar into two cups of hot tea (without spilling) and filled a plate with her favorite cookies (her mother usually allowed her only one cookie at a time) and two napkins and took all of it to the front door on a big tray. 

          When she opened the door, there was Birdie, stretching his wings from one end of the street to the other, grooming himself. Lola put the tray in front of him and they sipped and ate and laughed and whispered all night long.  When the first, weak light of day began to fade the imprint of stars and moon from the black sky, Birdie ruffled his tail feathers.

          "In exchange for being such a good friend, Lola, I would like to give you a great gift," said Birdie, bowing his head low. "Won't you climb on my back?"

          "Oh, no," said Lola, "I can't. What would my mother say?"

          "Please," said Birdie, "I promise to bring you back safe and sound and your mother will never know that you've flown away."

          "I can't," said Lola, as she climbed the enormous bird, hanging on to his feathers and pulling herself up. "I really shouldn't. I mustn't..."

          "Now wrap your arms around my neck and hold on tight!"

          Lola hugged Birdie with all her might. He smelled like mothballs and magic and his feathers were cool and stiff. She heard the great flapping of his wings as they began to lift up off the front lawn, the two of them, circling up, up, over her house and above the tops of trees, higher and higher till Lola felt dizzy and squeezed here eyes shut.

          When she opened her eyes again, she beheld a quiet neighborhood of stars high above the earth and she felt warm and safe and excited, all at the same time, just the way she felt in the summer when her mother helped her float on top of the water. 

          "Good morning, sleepy head!" The next time she opened her eyes, Lola was amazed to hear her mother's voice. There she was, our Lola, safe and warm in her own cozy bed being kissed by her dear mother.

          "I had a dream," murmured Lola, rubbing her eyes and looking around the room for diamond tears the size of ice cubes. Luckily, they were nowhere to be found, because her mother surely wouldn't have understood. Lola was relieved, but also, perhaps, a tiny bit sad because her friend had seemed so real.

          "What's this?" said her mother, picking a white feather out of Lola's hair. "Must have  come out of your pillow while you were sleeping. Here, blow on it and make a wish."

          Lola smiled. "I think I'll keep it. Maybe if I tuck it under my pillow I'll have more dreams."

          And after that night, Lola always slept with a white feather under her pillow and she always looked forward to bedtime.

Unlike Lola, Lily often fell asleep before the story was over, but her mother always finished telling the story anyway. Although she really wasn't especially anxious, telling the story all the way through helped remind Lily's mother that growing up was not only a perilous journey, fraught as it was with unspeakable dangers, but also a great adventure.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


While my mother's pupils are dilating, she holds a newspaper over her lap and pretends to read. The magazine rack is fully stocked and untouched because no one here can see well enough to read—especially after the preliminary torrent of eyedrops. Everyone looks stupified. Maybe the magazines are intended to be reassuring. It never hurts to be reminded how to be alone in public.

          The waiting room is full and the blinds are drawn. The woman to my right snores softly but it resonates in the tiny room. Her upturned palms rest on a black vinyl old-lady handbag like she's just accomplished something exhausting. There is also something grateful about the way her head is tipped back against the finely corrugated wallpaper. That wall has a texture like fingerprints—I know because I've made a point of stroking the Braille of one square inch of wallpaper with the tip of my index finger. My nail makes an intriguing sound when I scratch lightly. Even when I dig harder, the wallpaper resists.

          This makes me think of the nursing home in Staten Island where we used to visit my grandmother's sister when I was little. There was a ward of old women, 20 beds lined up against two walls with the same kind of wallpaper. Some of the women were demented, and the rest, like my aunt Lucy, were simply bedridden. The women would call me over to their beds so they could pat my hair and squeeze my hand, saying to my mother, "So young! God bless her!" While they asked me questions about school I would blush and scratch the wallpaper. Another child might have felt aversion, but I felt blessed. My youth was something I had no control over and I wanted to grow up as fast as possible, but they craved it, as if by touching me some of my youth could rub off on them. I felt like a petite, ever so slightly disdainful, goddess. 

          The woman sitting directly across from my mother talks as if her life depends on it, like an old Scheherazade. She may have been beautiful once; she's slim and sits up very straight in her smooth cashmere sweater, with neatly sprayed white hair and lipstick that's a bright shade of coral. Her fingers and wrists are decorated with heavy gold jewelry.

          "I have to get a shot in my eye every four to six weeks. Macular degeneration. It doesn't hurt, though, just a kind of  pressure in the eye when he sticks the needle in. That's all. Do you get a shot in your eye, too?"

          My mother nods. "I was diagnosed two years ago." When I used to go inside with my mother I'd seen her upturned face and watched the doctor insert his needle slowly into her wide-open eye. She told me there's no pain.

          "My husband used to bring me here for every appointment, but now I take a van from the senior center. He was so good to me. We went everywhere together, but he died fifteen months ago. Mesothelioma, he had, from an explosion on his ship, in the Navy.

          My mother is a widow, but she says nothing at first. Then she straightens the fold of her newspaper and says, "It takes about two years. The grieving process."

          "I'll never get over this," the woman says irritably. "I have no one to talk to—everyone's busy. My grandkids are very young and people are busy. I understand. You know, even if they had time for me, it's not the same. He was always with me—we did everything together. Forty-seven years and we never fought once."

          My mother's eyebrows lift but her voice comes down flat as a frying pan, "That's uncommon."

          "He was so good to me. It was a second marriage for both of us," she unzips her handbag and pulls out her wallet. "His name was Billy Ray and my name is Anna May. A match made in heaven, right? He was from Kentucky and he said my name just like he was singing it." She slips a small photo out of the wallet and leans forward to push it into my mother's hands.

          My mother considers it for a long time but I know she can't see it. The frozen, airy hairstyles of the 1970s, hers blond, his dark, her wedding dress, his tuxedo, the softly sculpted white cake, the way they both look down so gently, contemplating their hands as they push the knife in together to cut that first, soft slice.

          "He was one of a kind, and that's what he said about me, too. When he was sick, you know, I'd wrap his feet in a warm towel and he'd say, 'You're one of a kind, Anna May.' Then I go to the Dollar Store and what do I find? A card—one of those wavy 3-D hologram cards—with a flock of white birds on a frozen lake, all white-on-white. Then you shift the angle of the card, just slightly, and in the middle there's one red bird. In big block letters the card says, 'You're one of a kind.' Do you believe it? Well, I brought it right home and gave it to him."

          My mother must be thinking that my father was one of a kind, too, but she says, "My husband and I had our own lives and our own separate interests."

          "Well, my husband did everything for me. He was a wonderful cook and he built a lot of our furniture, we even built this miniature log cabin, with a chimney that we sanded and stained to make it look old. Then he rigged this electric light to go on inside so the windows just glowed."

          My father wrote shit lists--lists of everything he hated and the consequences of any infractions, like "All athletes will be banished to a desert island and kept in tiger cages where they will be ridiculed and fed peanuts on a stick"--he studied a Latin dictionary before his daily nap, then woke up and fixed a cup of good, strong coffee for my mother and himself before eating a handful of sweets he kept hidden in the pocket of his trousers.

          "My daughter tells me to get on with life, that's what he would have wanted, but she doesn't understand what it's like." Her pupils have completely dilated, turning the pale blue irises into big, flat, inky dots--like the kind of eyes you see in movies to show that someone has been possessed. She begins to cry.

          "It's still very new for you," I say, "only 15 months. You shouldn't expect to feel any differently than you do. Don't you feel, sometimes, that he's still with you?"

          Her tears stop abruptly and she assesses me for a moment through narrowed eyes. I don't know what has made me say what I did, if it was the urge to comfort or just plain curiosity. Her face has changed; unmasked, a hidden harshness is exposed.

          "At night, sometimes. On my birthday, the kids threw a nice party for me and then I went right to bed, but I woke up in the middle of the night because someone was tugging on me, just like this—" she leans over and yanks hard at the sleeve of my blouse. "I distinctly heard him say, Happy Birthday, sweetheart. Right in my ear, clear as a bell. I don't know if you believe this, but I do."

          My mother glances at the door.

          "We collected chime clocks, all set to go off on the hour. I always wanted the kind that sounds like wind chimes, you know what I mean?—all tinkly and shimmery sounding—but we have Big Ben and Westminster and lots of nice chimes. We just never got around to the wind chimes, for some reason. But some nights, when it's so quiet you can hear a pin drop, I hear them—the wind chimes I wanted. Does that sound crazy?"

          While I try to think of something to say, the woman beside me snores and the others appear not to take any notice of us. Scheherazade leans toward me again.

          "Are you married?" she asks me.

          "Divorced," I say, just as my mother is called in to see the doctor.

I'm startled awake out of a bizarre dream by the sensation of nails on a chalkboard. Before the awful scratching, I had been bathed in a pure, liquid blue, the exact color of a Tiffany box—a perfect place to nestle a gorgeous diamond ring. Swimming in tropical Tiffany blue, popping my head out now and then into the same blue overlaid with a shimmering latticework, there was no sense of time passing. Just floating blissfully in that wordless all-knowing dream where I drifted for who knows how long, when my head bobbed up into an ugly, low, simmering-gray sky. By which I understood that my very last vacation day was ruined.

          There's no vacation—there hasn't been one for years. I awaken in my own bed, in my mother's house, where I have been living since she started to go blind. I wake up with a headache that matches my mood so, before I shower, I go down to the kitchen to take my vitamins with a Motrin and a mug of coffee. I brew enough coffee for my mother, who won't be up for another few hours, but because she's recently lost her sense of taste and smell she won't notice the bitterness. I've started taking Vitamin A and Lutein on her doctor's recommendation. There's no proven way to ward off hereditary age-related macular degeneration but, he says, the vitamins can't hurt.

          I pinch the blubbery liver-colored pill between my thumb and index finger, pop it to the back of my throat and think of the vitreous—the clear, jelly-like substance that fills the eye—into which the needle is pushed. I lift the mug to my lips and try to imagine how fragments of blood vessels, overgrown and leaky, drift apart and eventually crash into the macula, the part of the eye responsible for central vision. The imagery is cosmic, fragments colliding in space, dire consequences. The injection slows the disease process by dissolving some of the broken fragments, but I can't help thinking it's already too late.

          The first time my mother read a line of text from the specialist's eye chart she complained, "but the letters keep moving—see, it just dipped down again—and I can't focus because everything is wavy." She was frustrated with the nurse, who seemed unwilling to accept my mother's premise that she can see alright, her eyes are just playing tricks on her.

          We are alike, my mother and I, and we chafe against our similarities. We're both small and round, both bookish and plain, dislike physical exertion and love to eat. Worst of all, we both  fight our innate, reckless romanticism with severe, almost puritanical, pragmatism. We may fool others but, at the end of the day, the struggle leaves us bereft and uncertain about which is the disguise and which the real self.

          My mother married the man of her dreams—a handsome, unconventional and charming womanizer who could be, nonetheless, remarkably intuitive and gentle. He was glamorous, desirable, and elusive. (His marriage to another woman had made him more so.) But in the end, she moved up from the status of  'other woman' to 'wife.' They must have cherished the idea of marriage, each for their own reasons. I think the institution of marriage must have made each of them feel absolved, in some way. When my mother says My husband and I had our own lives and our own separate interests, she is as likely to have been alluding to his double-life—the mistress he had for 20-some years—as to the way she mostly chose to overlook it. Marriage makes it possible to endure what is unbearable; within marriage anything is tolerated, if not forgiven.

          I divorced someone of average attractiveness and high energy, a passionate lover and gratuitous liar who was always in trouble. He was charming, warm, funny and generous to a fault when he wasn't psychotic. He didn't talk to me for a month after I winked at a bald man in a red convertible. (There was no man, no car, and no winking.) When he was hospitalized during a psychotic break his doctor put him in a locked ward, where he was calm and charming. The nurses apologized and allowed him extra cigarette breaks, because he so clearly didn't belong there, and he was released after 24 hours. Another time, after we divorced, my mother gave him money to go abroad, to be at his mother's deathbed. He blamed me because he said he kept calling me in his time of need but I never answered my cell phone. But there were no missed calls and, as I found out by accident years later, his mother was fine. He'd gone abroad to remarry.

          It wasn't that I was able to overlook his psychosis during any time in our marriage, although it might seem that way. As long as I was married to him, we led a double life. The private hell was covered by public displays of charming domesticity. We knew what the marriage was supposed to look like and we could mimic the roles of husband and wife. The public displays were sometimes more excruciating than the interior drama. Now our relationship exists in that peripheral zone where we can be lauded as 'amicably divorced.' Meanwhile, our central drama hasn't been resolved--it can't be and we've demonstrated through years of marriage that it's pointless to try--and so it carries on behind the scenes, in an infinite loop, without our conscious participation. Still, we care about each other.

          Is this what happens when you can see, but you can't see what's right in front of you? Is marriage a kind of divorce from oneself?

          This lifetime accumulation of experience, analysis, and questions goes down in the time it takes me to swallow the livery pill--which only sticks in my throat for a second.

          By the time I take my second sip of coffee, I'm thinking about how much I miss sex and wondering if I will ever, ever in my life make love again, and why can't we make love to ourselves, why the fuck is masturbation so inadequate, every time, it's just so depressing. I even miss bad sex.

          No, I don't. I take my coffee upstairs and get back into bed so I can stretch out luxuriously, close my eyes and press my fingers hard against that shimmering, slippery pulse between my thighs. My head pounds even harder, so I give up after a minute and pull the covers up around my face.

Anyone can be your husband, sweetheart.

It's the old lady from the eye doctor's office, Scheherazade. In my dream she sits at my bedside in a white chiffon nightie with princess sleeves, but she's still wearing all her make-up and jewelry. She has the same narrowed black eyes and imperious gaze, and she's tugging at my arm again.

          When I go downstairs, my mother is at the kitchen table in her nightgown, waiting for coffee.

          "I dreamt of that old lady from the doctor's office," I say. "Remember? The one with the dead husband and the dead mother?"

          "I don't remember the dead mother," she says. "I dreamt of your father. Well, it was supposed to be Einstein, but I knew it was your father." My mother dabs her cheeks with a tissue; her eyes are streaming eyes because she just used drops.

          "What happened?" I ask.

          "I was just telling him off. He was all wrong about something and I was correcting him."

          "Did Einstein listen?"

          "No, sweetie. That wasn't the point. I was just telling your father off because he was wrong."

          "Well, my old lady told me to get married."

          "She was weird," my mother says, and takes a sip of the coffee I've warmed up for her. "This tastes good. I just couldn't stand a marriage like hers. I'd feel stifled, being with someone all the time and doing everything together. Who could stand that kind of oppressive relationship. It's neediness. I'd want to scream."

          "I guess."

          I didn't tell her what woke me up for the second time this morning, not the tinkle of chimes, but the shiver of scratching nails, or ask her how the coffee could taste good when she can't taste it. I put a couple of black olives on my mother's plate, slice some feta and rub it on toast for her. Sometimes I feel like I'm married to my mother. To change the subject I say, "What freaked me out was the idea of that log cabin."

          "You mean that thing they made together? Why would a grown man make a dollhouse for his wife? Weird."

          "And what does she do with it now that he's dead? It's like a tomb, isn't it? Like looking in at some warm, cozy place but you can't go in. Or the other way around, it's like she's stuck inside alone and she can't get out."

          "But she doesn't look at it that way," my mother says.

          What if Dream Scheherazade is right, that it doesn't matter who we marry--or what we see or don't see? If marriage isn't really about individuals or love then it might as well be any imaginary partnership based on a blind mutual commitment to—to what?

          "She's the kind of woman who has no identity of her own," my mother continues.

          "Marriage is an imaginary partnership based on a blind mutual commitment to the monument of every truth and lie we construct." That's what I tell my mother in a loud, pompous voice—but she doesn't hear me because her back is turned as she stands at the sink, running water over the dirty dishes. I'll be sure to tell the same thing to Scheherazade if she ever turns up again.