Birthday Hello

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Here comes the birthday blueberry crisp!

Today is Owen’s birthday. Most of our kids came home last weekend to celebrate August birthdays. That would be Owen and me, both Leos. We celebrated a little early this year. Twenty four years ago, on August 17th, Owen was my best present for my 30th birthday. So on Saturday Bronwyn and Oskar put up balloons and streamers, and Freya and her boyfriend Keir made blueberry crisp. Edward grilled lamb, and Daric brought some gorgeous gerbera daisies and also a very nice bottle of rye whiskey from his wife Jamie. The meal was the perfect birthday present for me: dinner table conversation is my favorite form of social life, and listening to the Simons children tell their stories, banter, tease, and support each other warms my heart. I can’t tell, but I think Owen may feel the same.

It’s my new custom is to decorate the fridge with photos in honor of the family birthday person. During the week before, I had dredged up sweet and funny photos of Owen from babyhood to now.  Coming into contact with his childhood innocence was powerful – and a big help I found as I tried to keep patience during some of our not-walks last week. But looking at old photos of my kids has its drawbacks. As delightful as it is to remember the childhood beings you may have forgotten, seeing them again captured in ink or pixels brings a sharp awareness of things lost. You will never go back, to those little people, and although you may look and remember, you will never know them (hear them, squeeze them, smell them) again.

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I find the subtext of any event in August these days is wistfulness for the end of holidays, and for coming farewells. I used to look forward to the start of school, buying supplies with the kids, sharing their excitement at new classes, and anticipating more peaceful moments for myself. And before that, September meant new beginnings for myself, the discovery  of new worlds that my new classes meant.  Now it means deep breathing. Practicing not being clingy, learning the careless smile when tears threaten. Saying goodbye gracefully as the kids move farther and farther afield. Emotional honesty is not a boon in every arena, Wystan dear.

Learning to say goodbye is a critically important skill that begins with babies and peek-a-boo.  I have had a lot of opportunity to practice it, from the time that my family moved away from Chicago and a huge extended family to a little college town in Pennsylvania. I still remember sitting on my Grandma Mary’s lap a last time before we left, her arms around me in the moonlight out in the garden (for some reason my folks thought it would be easier to drive through the night, something they never repeated). I wondered to my grandma why her eyes were so wet behind her glasses. I can’t remember what she told her seven year old grand-daughter, who was only excited about the adventure ahead.

Frequent practice does not seem to have improved my aptitude. Somehow I don’t think that’s how it works. As I prepared to bid farewell to my girls on Sunday, I thought of my Grandma Lucy and how she greeted us every time we returned to her home with “Rabbit’s friends and relations!” (Grandma Lucy was a fan of Milne’s Winnie the Pooh), and how at every parting she cried. We made that journey, with joy and tears, to and from Chicago many, many times. Owen didn’t get to meet Grandma Lucy. But he did make the acquaintance of his great-Grandma Mary, who was pretty sprightly most of the way to 97. How many hellos and goodbyes, in that near century of hers.

This weekend Oskar ,our youngest, heads off to his first year of college. Then there will be three of us for dinner, but since our kids did high school boarding school away, we learned last year to manage and enjoy. I have a full and rich life of my own. It’s just the actual facing the loss, the change happening, that is so painful.

“Nostalgia is a trap!” my mother said once. And she was too right. Now is the only time that we have, that is real.  Not those old photos of chubby cheeks, or boxes of little clothes, or those sweet and funny sayings lisped and scrawled down and pinned to the refrigerator. This moment, today, and what you decide to do with it, is alive.  And in truth I wouldn’t change out any of my kids’ future growth for a return to childhood sweetness — not even with Owen. It is too important to see where they are going, and how truly human they can become. Human beings are born to mothers every day, but truly human beings emerge only through the fires and floods of experience, and by learning to love something greater than oneself and one’s own agenda. Owen may be on his own special trajectory, but he too can learn, if ever so slowly.

This August however a new chapter unfolds for Edward and myself, that may change once again the way I feel about August.  Call it the natural reward for raising and releasing children, not to mention trying to become more truly human myself.  Or the best of birthday presents. If all goes well, and my Owen sitter works out, I will have the privilege of holding a grand-daughter out in Denver, in this our shared birthday month. I will snuggle her, and try to get acquainted, and sing to her my hopes for her future, before we say goodbye. I will probably cry, as my grandmothers did.  Joy, loss, growth, joy. Time never stands still.

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Saying Goodbye

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Photo by Kyle Genzlinger

A few weeks ago something unexpected and terrible happened to a friend of ours. Our friend was a pilot, and a very good and careful one.  But on this afternoon, suddenly, unexplainably, Reade’s plane crashed into the Wyoming mountains – and he was gone.

Watching his wife and children stand up in front of the huge group of friends attending his memorial service to speak of their father and husband, I thought (selfishly) of my own losses.  Owen’s uncles, Keith and Chuck, who passed on suddenly and unexpectedly years ago, and  Owen’s grandfathers, to whom we also had to say goodbye before we were ready.  How do you cope with loss of a piece of your life?

How do you get to be ready to say goodbye?

Walking with Owen and the dogs a few evenings ago, I ambled from the fields to woods and into the cemetery of our local church.  As we wandered through it, I found myself wondering idly where I might want my plot.  Now, I have every expectation of living to be something like 96, as my grandmothers did.  There is no real hurry to think about such things.  Still, it seemed it might be nice to have a say about which way my mortal remains are facing. Over there, I thought — as Owen went in hopefully under the pine trees in search of discarded plastic — under the tulip poplars, at the edge of the farmer’s field.

I don’t have a way of explaining to Owen that someone is gone, and not coming back.  I know that Owen knows who his extended family is, because of the way he acts when the great huge mob of us is together – for instance the semi-annual Simons Thanksgivings.   During events involving large groups of cousins, aunts, and uncles, Owen behaves differently than say, at weddings, or other occasions with large crowds of people milling about.  In general, he is more relaxed.  In this way I know that he recognizes his family, his peeps, the group that belongs to him.  He has some internal conceptual framework explaining why all these people are suddenly in his space.  The mayhem of other gatherings is un-orchestrated noise and confusion – the mayhem of family is warmer, and something he enjoys.  I think. But as far as explaining why someone isn’t there anymore, I have no way to bridge the gap between life and his understanding of it.

When my dad suffered a sudden stroke one December morning eight years ago, we took Owen with the rest of the kids and drove up to Philadelphia to say goodbye to their Grandpa.  It was an unexpected, shocking event, and one of the ways I coped was to worry about how to fit Owen into that situation, at the hospital, with other relatives, their expectations, and their unknown level of tolerance for Owee behaviors in such a situation.

My father had been a man who loved order, and beauty, and peace, so the introduction of an Owen into his life was no doubt always a challenge for him.  After all, he already had a son with special needs, who tested his patience fairly regularly.  One of my sisters has video footage from a Gladish family reunion meal in which little Owen is massaging Grandpa’s head, face and neck in a sort of extravaganza of sensory exploration.  My father looks to be cheerfully grinning, possibly gritting his teeth – he was always a team player – while the family laughs and chats about the attention he is receiving.  He does not look what I would call relaxed.  I never saw this encounter until I saw the footage, years later, since I was buried in the kitchen cooking at the time (coping with large numbers of people in my own way).

When we arrived at the hospital, my brother-in-law stayed downstairs in the hospital lobby with Owen while the rest of us went up to see Dad.  But it felt strange to me, not to have Owen with us. Down the hospital elevators I went, and brought Owen up. His grandpa lay on a hospital bed, an oxygen mask obscuring most of his face.  He was on a ventilator, and didn’t seem to be very much present, if at all.  We all touched him, and said things to him, and he was unresponsive.  In an effort to connect Owee to what was happening, I put his hand on his grandpa’s foot and told him to say goodbye to grandpa.  But this time Dad twitched  – several spasms passed through his leg.

My first response to his twitching was as if my unconscious father had said “Yuck! Don’t touch me!” This seemed like something he might have felt, in such a situation.  Owen almost figures unpredictability, uncertainty, and my father was certainly no lover of chaos.  I wryly smiled, imagined him thinking, “Did you wash that kid’s hands?”

But I also wondered if his twitching meant something more.  Reflecting on it all these years later, I see that could just as easily have been a tremor of goodbye.  My dad had a generous, loving heart, and a good sense of humor, and those traits formed a larger part of him than his desire for order, or his impatience with mental slowness or with noise. Dad did not know to say some things, articulate and urbane as he was, that Owen nonverbal and uncommunicative in a different way, says with touch.  Maybe on his last day on earth, Owen’s grandpa responded to a touch he that couldn’t appreciate before.  Maybe a nonverbal human is more receptive to other energy waves than those of human words through the air, or human thoughts moving through nerve synapses.

Or — maybe not.  All I know is that Dad didn’t respond to anyone else.  Only Owee got the spasm.

What did Owen take away from saying goodbye to grandpa?  It seems so often Owen’s job with us is to be a conduit for things that he himself does not understand.  He generally doesn’t understand. He copes.  Earth and its inhabitants’ ways are a mystery to him. There is a kind wisdom of in that – so much we don’t know about the ones we love. Owen brought us a last experience with Dad – one last response, perhaps a goodbye.

As one who understands death – or at least understands that she does not understand it – I salute the passing of our friend Reade this winter, and thank him for bringing thoughts of other lost dear ones. Life is rich with all kinds of knowing, all kinds of speaking, and all kinds of love.

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