25 April 2010

Sweet Returns

Madeleine sleeps quietly now, nearly buried under a down comforter on the couch. I tiptoe through the house, trying to stay quiet and allow her the sleep she deeply needs now to recover from her fever. She’s such a good patient, a patient patient. She rarely asks for anything when she’s sick. I have to remind myself to offer her water, snacks, otter pops, a book, another blanket. Otherwise she’ll quietly suffer, keeping to herself.

It’s not easy for me to sit still with her while she’s sick. I’ve got my gram’s jump-up-and-do-one-more-thing-before-I-sit-down genes. The to-do list in my head adds to itself while I sit, frustrated, and I don’t get to cross anything off of it. The plants need watering, the laundry in the dryer is just about done, and I should really take out the recycling and empty the compost bin. And then I should put a few toys away and straighten up the kitchen counter where everything without a home seems to land. And look at that dust! I just don’t feel useful if I’m not crossing things off that list.
But it’s a blessing, too, when I have to slow down. If Madeleine hadn’t gotten sick yesterday, I would be working today. It’s nice to have a quiet day at home with her even if she is sick, and it was nice to have the opportunity to take Arden to the bus stop this morning. There is a feeling I get, I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but it’s something like pride mixed with wistfulness that envelops me when I see my daughters take that big, giant step up onto the school bus.
Arden, at six, is independent enough to navigate this mode of transportation on her own, to know which bus to board, to remember at which stop she should step off. She looks so small, there, next to that big yellow bus. And yet she looks so big too.
And I wonder if this wistful pride is what I will feel when my daughters board an airplane without me, or drive off for the evening in a car filled with friends, or turn away from me as they embrace many milestones that lie ahead. Places that I cannot go to with them, for if I did, it would defeat the very purpose of their going.
Madeleine turned ten this spring, and that number astounds me. Eight more summers remain until she takes that very big step towards college and true independence. She has less time left as a child than she has spent so far on this earth. Just ten quick years ago, she was dependent on me and her dad for everything. And somehow, and oh, so soon, she has learned so many things, and can do so much for herself. And this certainly is the goal: independence.
I am learning to let go, and learning to let her be, and let her do. But it’s not always easy, because it often seems that when she wants independence, I want her dependent because I can see a better way than the route she’s choosing. And when she wants dependence, I wish she would stand on her own. This balancing act, this push and pull, this tightrope walk that is parenting. How do we negotiate these acts? How do we know when to say when? When to trust and when to protect?
My sister-in-law has been in the midst of potty-training her son these past few months. Another of my sisters-in-law delivered her son to a university campus on the far coast this past fall. At times I feel so far from either of these two milestones – like I can barely remember the former and can’t imagine the latter. But I know the clock is ticking, and that our time together, like this, is limited.
And so, after she awoke from her nap sweaty from the fever breaking, I agreed to give her a bath instead of sending her off to the shower. And I wondered how long it has it been since I’ve bathed her? Since I’ve rinsed the shampoo from her hair? This intimate, stolen day that we spent together, just the two of us. How many more days do I get to spend with her before she’d rather be with friends? Or with boys?
It seems that children are always in the process of separating from the parents, and that initial closeness isn’t ever truly regained. After they’re born, nothing feels quite as close as those kicks and nudges from within. And after they’ve weaned, there’s no other closeness quite like that skin-on-skin contact. Yet, there is such a sweetness in the return, in holding hands as we walk together, snuggling on the couch, the smile and hug after school. And I can imagine the sweetness in a peck on the cheek as she leaves to go out with her friends or the joy when she visits home from college. The letting go isn’t always easy, but I can always anticipate the sweet returns.

18 April 2010

I'm not Thoreau

I’ve never gone into the wilderness seeking solitude, à la Thoreau. And if I were seeking solitude, I certainly wouldn’t hike the Bright Angel trail in the Grand Canyon. But when the opportunity arose to invite myself on a hike, I jumped at the chance. I felt fortunate that my invitation was accepted. There would be six of us total, my in-laws, three of their friends, and me. I’d only be joining the group for two of the six nights – a long weekend instead of a full week in the Canyon – which meant I’d hike out solo on the third day while the rest of the party continued on to Cottonwood Camp. At some point in the past, before having children clouded the memories of before I had children, I’d hiked the Bright Angel. I couldn’t tell you what year, or even what season.
The Bright Angel is, without doubt, the Canyon’s most-traveled trail. The trailhead is right there at Grand Canyon Village and so the first mile or so below the rim is crammed with tourists: families with young kids, older folks, and Europeans and Asians speaking lovely and sometimes unidentifiable tongues – and of course, the mules. Because it was so crowded, I had to remind myself not to be righteous. These people were looking for an experience similar to what I was seeking. They deserved to be there as much as I did. And really, they all were friendly, cheerful, and rightly awed.
Our first night would be spent at Indian Garden, a campground four and a half miles from the rim. Because the first three miles consist of switchbacks, the trail cuts back and forth, back and forth, inside a side canyon. Before we even traveled a mile on the trail we can see Indian Garden, its vibrant green cottonwood leafing out, punctuated by dozens of fuchsia-bloomed redbuds. And as the crow flies, it appears close. But all those switchbacks make for slow, deliberate travel, and Indian Garden doesn’t get much closer the farther we hike.
Kirk and I hike together, having one other Canyon hike in common. The conversation is easy, as we joke and get to know one another a little better. We stop, here and there, for M&Ms, jerky, and water; to stretch and catch our breath. We look below, to see if we can spot Judy, my mother-in-law; we search the trail above for Bill, Barb, and Mike, my father-in-law. Mike’s knee has been temperamental as of late, and we know he will be slow.
Again and again we turn at the end of a switchback, and Indian Garden hovers, mirage-like, still the same distance away. We arrive at the Three Mile Resthouse, and the switchbacks finally peter out. With Judy we hike the last mile and a half out over a plateau until we reach Indian Garden.
The redbuds buzz, not so much with bees but with color. Fuchsia is not a color common to the Canyon. Reds, browns, oranges, and yellows dominate, interspersed with dark juniper green on the rim and sage green of prickly pear lower in the Canyon. But this purple-pink is so garish, so beautiful, and so fleeting. Within a week or two it will be gone and even memory will question its existence when the heat of summer rises up. Was it a dream, those fuchsia redbuds vibrating against the almost-lime-green of the new cottonwood leaves?
We select our campsite and set up. Bill and Barb arrive, followed by Mike, who is hurting and tired. We murmur our concerns to one another, and he rests and readies himself for tomorrow’s descent to the Colorado River. Afternoon falls quietly, the sun’s light subtly changing the colors of the canyon walls. Kirk and I decide to hike out to Plateau Point, a three-mile roundtrip to an overlook down sheer walls to the river. Without our packs we move quickly and effortlessly, noticing small seas of prickly pear just weeks from bloom, and sprinkled with yellow and pale pink wildflowers. We reach the overlook as a group of tiny rafts navigate the rapids 400 yards below.
Back at camp, preparations begin for dinner and cocktail hour opens. Kirk, Bill, and I each have brought bourbon; Mike has pre-mixed bourbon and sweet vermouth for Manhattans and has even packed a small bottle of maraschino cherry juice to flavor this drink. We taunt him about how uncouth this is, but Mike does things his own way and is proud to stand out from the crowd. He shares a bit with me, and I have to admit, it tastes pretty damn good even if it is a little too warm, and I decide that I might have to stop teasing him about this uncultured way to imbibe. And this is why I hike: the camaraderie of the meal, the jokes that we share (again and again), the stories exchanged, the solving of the world’s problems. Night descends accompanied by laughter and the tightening of muscles. One by one we creep off to our tents, the stars shimmering in numbers we don’t see above the rim.
We repeat the drill the next day, setting up camp at Bright Angel Campground after descending the Devil’s Corkscrew (much less ominous on a cool spring morning than the name implies) and crossing the Silver Bridge over the silt-laden Colorado.
And so, on Day 3, when I begin my solo hike out, I think I am well-prepared and ready for a solitary experience on this trail. I start early enough, cross the bridge, and follow the river for a while. I meet up with three young men who are friendly enough at first. I point out a pair of deer I see at the mouth of Pipe Creek, just ahead. But as I hike ahead of them, and they talk amongst themselves, I begin to feel uneasy.
They joke about women, within earshot of me. They engage me in conversation and veil their stories in obvious, transparent lies. I pick up my pace and don’t look back. They meet up with me again at the River Resthouse, and again, I charge ahead, ready to climb up the Devil’s Corkscrew before them, wanting to leave them in my dust. I wouldn’t say that I was actually afraid. But I definitely felt vulnerable. And it bothered me, that here, in this vast wilderness, I didn’t feel safe walking alone. Isn’t that how I’m supposed to feel in the city?
I made it up to Indian Garden, and then up those interminable switchbacks without seeing those three again. And the drive home, while long and boring and lonely, was ok. It took me nine and a half miles of hiking and more than two hours of driving to pinpoint exactly what Day 3 lacked. The reason I go hiking: the camaraderie.
Next time, I just might bring enough of my own Manhattan (pre-mixed, of course) to share with Mike.

09 April 2010

Dear Michael

Dear Michael –

You’ll probably be getting a lot of mail that starts this way: You don’t know me but…

Well, you don’t know me, but I am writing to you because I heard about your injury and I wanted to help. In the grand scheme of things, I’m sure this letter won’t mean a lot in terms of helping you. I’m probably doing it more for myself because I’ve been here where it’s been safe. I don’t feel like I’ve contributed much or sacrificed much to protect freedom. I’ve been thinking about you and your family a lot since I heard about your injury, and about what I wanted to say to you.

I’ve heard that you don’t want to be called a hero, and that you were just doing your job when your life changed irrevocably. I won’t call you a hero. But that doesn’t change how I feel about you. You were aware of the dangers when you signed up – and you did it anyway.

I understand that hero is something we non-heroes invent. We admire courage and fearlessness in the face of danger, and there’s a part of us that wonders what we would do in a dangerous situation. Would we carry on? Would we rally our strength to get the job done? Would we be able to walk out that door knowing there was a very good possibility that we might not be able to walk back through it?

I’m not sure. I have a pretty strong sense of self-preservation, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m chicken-shit. Hearing your story, and learning a little bit about you from my current Prescott High School students who know you has been inspiring. I imagine that you must be hurting so much. I imagine that you must be so angry. I imagine that you must be so scared. But what I’m hearing is that you are staying strong, you are keeping a positive attitude, and you remain courageous in the face of an arduous recovery. And that makes me want to be stronger. You make me want to try harder to keep my own attitude in check. You make me dig deep for my own source of courage when I need it to face the small obstacles that come my way.

I am so sorry that this happened to you, and I wish you the smoothest recovery possible. Please know that there are hundreds of people here in Prescott, and elsewhere, who admire and respect you, and who did so even before your injury. And now, even while you don’t want to be a hero, you are a source of great strength for us. And because your story has strengthened us, we can hope to shoulder some of this burden for you and your family. Let us.

Bon courage,

Cathleen Cherry
French teacher
Prescott High School

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Michael Martinez was wounded March 11, 2010, when an IED exploded during a mission in Afghanistan. He is a 2008 graduate of Prescott High School in Prescott, Arizona. You may send well wishes to him and other wounded soldiers at:
Bethesda Naval Hospital, 8901 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20889

04 April 2010

The Empty Coffin

we stand beside the empty coffin
the thumpthumpthump of my hollow heart
echoes echoes echoes

I never saw him
but I loved him
the memories are not mine

black and white photographs
a grin as wide as the gash in the earth
do I really look like him?

his buddy takes me aside
telling me stories from the jungle

he forgets I am only a boy
that my mother doesn’t want me to know
that he already said goodbye

but I never had the chance
and even today the heavy emptiness
stretches like a balloon inside me

the sketchiness of the facts
targeting rail lines north of Hanoi
the plane down in a paddy

villagers running to pull them out
to save them or maybe themselves
it was a war for chrissakes

he escaped
but the other…
what if what if whatif

Easter Sunrise, Sonoita, circa 1977

Armed with shafts of light weak from
the previous evening’s games of flashlight tag,
we emerge from sleeping bag cocoons
already dressed warmly against the April chill.
Watch out for wiggly sticks!
our mother’s mantra of fear,
as we step gingerly over the dark basalt rocks
avoiding the jumping cholla.
We scramble our way up the hill
toward a crude cross backlit
by the beginnings of a rosy sunrise.
Primeval oaks, black and massive below,
some with Spanish crosses carved,
my dad claimed, by terrified conquistadors.
But the trees, too ancient and wise to subscribe to this singular faith
scabbed over the crosses, retracting the prayers.
Almost to the summit
we stop.
The priest, poised in pale white robes, is eager to reveal to us
the same miracle as last year:
He is risen!
My sister and I scuffle with our brothers, balancing on wobbly rocks,
until Dad moves to stand between us.
The drone of the priest fades
as my thoughts are enveloped by
the smokey dutch ovens below brimming with
swollen cinnamon rolls, crisp bacon,
bright yellow scrambled eggs,
wishing that these scents would rise up
to remind the priest
that we haven’t eaten breakfast.
Finally, the entire sky pale yellow like the hills of grass rolling south toward Mexico,
Amen! We are free, the stone rolled away!
Ahead of the adults we race
down, down, down,
guided by wispy ghosts of cowboy coffee
and the impatient snorts of the horses.