Tag Archives: Memorial Day

Memorial Day: Remembering Two Lakes and Two Men

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September 19-23 (FULL)

September 26-30 (one spot left)

October 24-28 (still room)

4:00 am.  Montana.  May.

I awake to a hard rain and a deep longing.  I’ve felt it all day and can’t quite place it.  But the rain drums on the metal roof like it’s my skull, and scares it out:  I have been longing for a lost and very old feeling…of safety.  Of being held.  And I know that I have to listen to the rain on the roof of my longing.

It’s not a rational longing.  I know that I live a life that is for, all intents and purposes, safe.

It’s my heart that forgets.

It happens this time of year when winter so rapidly wakes to the greening and blooming of May.  With the robin eggs hatching and little yellow beaks pointing to the sky– puffed up red-breasted daddies poking at worms for their babies.

It especially happens this weekend, when my son was born and my father died.  Memorial Day weekend.

Remembering hurts and I don’t want it to.  I want it to bring me the solace and salve that their love gave me–my father’s open arms, carrying me up the stairs each night when he came home from work, my son’s eager limbs, letting me carry him until he was too big and a snuggle on the couch sufficed.

I lie in bed at 4:00 am, the dawn-soon birdsongs maybe staved off by the rain, and I wonder:  Where is this heart-safety now?  I can’t see it in my tomorrow—not the way I want to.  I’m losing the people in my house, one by one.  My son is about to go to college.  And soon it’s going to be just me.

I lie here and let the longing out, letting myself imagine what it would take to feel like I did in my father’s arms and with my baby boy before he became big.  When we’d sit on the porch and nurse, while the robins fed their babies.  I lie here and let myself want that tender pause time, where I felt tucked in to the promise of those particular loving arms.

But I have to feel it.  Not just long for it.  It’s still in me.  It must be.

Now the rain bats, adamant, and I reel through the places of my life, trying to land on that warm, cared-for, safe feeling.  To use this tender time between consciousness and sleep to re-create it, and let it lullaby me through ‘til morning.

And I land.  I land on lake.  Two lakes.  Two men.  One me.

073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24Trout Lake.  Wisconsin.

Here, I am baby, child, little sister.  Here I am safe from suburban swimming pool rules and an un-swimmable 1970s Lake Michigan.  Here I dare the cold clean Wisconsin water, staring into it, pretending that it is thick glass, that I am that brave, that powerful, that in need of this particular water.

I’m not scared.  This isn’t a swimming lesson and there’s no winning or losing.  I pray my hands water-ward and go with a grin, slicing through, cast in Muskie-kissed water.  I float down until my hands lay flat on the sandy bottom.  Here I am lake baby, invisible now to my other self as long as I can hold my breath from leaking tattletale air bubbles, listening to the zing of the ski boats on the other side of the swimming ropes.

I like the sound of ski boats in my ears.  It’s the day’s Reveille to the night’s loon Taps.  You can’t have one without the other, as far as I know.  But I don’t think a lot here.

Here I pick up lapped-at stones along the lake shore, but not forget-me-nots.  I have a pact with them:  If I don’t pick them, they will remember this me, while I am back doing suburban Chicago things.

While the others nap, I sit on the screened porch and polish the rocks with Baby Oil so they look wet again– amber, sienna, umber marbles.

Dad comes in to admire my collection.  “I think it’s even better than last year’s.”

“Will you make sand castles with me now?”

He puts on his excited face, and I can tell that he only pretends to like making sand castles, but I can also tell that he loves how I want him to play with me.  That he longs for it.  Always this pressing, this knowing, that this is all so fleeting, fifty years my senior.  Maybe I make him feel as safe as he makes me feel.

“Carry me!” I beg, and he puts on the same pair of Ray Ban aviators he’s worn since World War II and hoists me up to his sunburned shoulders.  He smells like Sea and Ski, not like newspaper and the Chicago Loop.  He warns of rogue tree roots.  Leeches.  Black bears.  But we both know that this place is safe in all the ways that count.

We walk toward the lake, looking for chipmunks as we go, and he tells me stories of the one chipmunk who is always here, all winter when the cabins are empty, and screened doors don’t slap.  This one chipmunk who knows my heart and who knows me, and who will look over the little polished rock cairn that we leave under the cabin before climbing back into the station wagon for home.  This creature will keep my wonder safe and my father will remind me of it at bedtime, every night until we are back.  But we both know that it’s my father who holds my wonder.

On Memorial Day in 2004, I am standing at the end of his bed.  I hold his feet while he takes his last breath after 86 good years.  My son is four.  We go to the lake after that.  It’s been a long time.  No rocks under the cabin.  The forget-me-nots help.

073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24Whitefish Lake.  Montana. 

Here I am mother.  Here I am teaching the littlest of two children to dive from the dock.  He doesn’t want to point his hands to the glacial Montana lake.  He wants to do 360 Moonshine and mid-air Karate kicks and see how big the splash.  He wants to do it again.  And again.  And again.  He wants to see how long he can hold his breath underwater, but he is anything but invisible.  There is no suburb to wash off of him.  He lives here.  His screened porch door slaps all year long.

He collects stones too.  Flat ones to fling across the water and see how many times it will touch before it falls, counting the ripples.

“Watch, Mom,” he says, not caring if I do.  But I always do, and he knows it.

“Sixteen times!  You have one heck of an arm, son!”

He beams and I grab him and hold him to my hot summer skin.

“1…2…3…,” he shouts and takes my hand and we jump in the lake together.  And for a moment I lose him, and then I feel his arms under me, and his extraordinary face emerges.  “Look!  I can carry you!”

Don’t forget this, I think.  Do NOT forget this.  And I let him swim me to shore.

“When you get big, do you promise that you will still let me play with you?  And hug you?  And that we’ll swim in the lake together?”

“Of course, Mom.  Of course!”

And I can’t help but think:  He looks just like my father.

5:00 am.  Montana.  The first birds.  Robins.

He’s graduating next week.  And then he’s leaving for college September 1st.  There’ll be a lot of baseball through to August and for the next four years.  Leftie pitcher.  Heck of an arm.

I lie in bed, tears melting into my pillow.  But I’m smiling too, remembering.  I have held and been held.  I feel it, lying here.  And I wonder:  can I feel held by myself?  That’s what I truly long for.  That’s what I truly want to feel.

I decide that this year when the robins leave their nest on the porch lantern behind, I will take it and place it on my mantle.  I won’t fill it with anything.  Instead, I’ll study its woven grasses and mud, moss and twigs.  I’ll study the holding.  It’s my turn.

With so many of you enjoying Memorial Day, likely at lakes and on bodies of water across the country, I hope that you will let yourself feel held by the waters of your heart, where you can always find loving arms.  Your own.

Love,

Laura

Come write with me on Lake Superior this July at the Madeline School for the Arts!

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MISA

 

 

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Memorial Day Re-visited

Every year Memorial Day gets a little easier. My father died on this day, May 31st, seven years ago. He would have been an old man by now. He would have been miserable. He couldn’t stand it that his 86 year old body wouldn’t let him skim down the stairs at the Northwestern train station in Chicago anymore. He couldn’t stand it that he couldn’t figure out how to “work a computer.” He couldn’t stand that all of his years of service to the freight car industry was not hailed, but rather, that he was quickly being lost and forgotten, even though he went into the city five days a week to try to do what he considered, good work. When his younger, more techno savvy business partner died suddenly of a heart attack, it was no coincidence that my father went home that night and had a stroke. He died a month or so later. We were all there. We helped him die– with opera and weather shows, Marx Brothers movies and family stories. He had to go and we all knew it. Like I said, he would have been a miserable old man.

I’ve written a lot about my father in my book, so I won’t repeat it here. But I will mention a bit about grief. I have learned that it is as physical as it is mental, and the emotion of it feels at times impossible to control. I talk a lot about powerfully choosing your emotions. That happiness is a choice. That freak outs are a choice. But grief? Maybe you can teach me something about grief, because to me, it doesn’t feel all choice. It feels like its own category, both visceral and emotional. Sort of like fear.

In the first years after his death, it was like my adrenal system was engaged in fight or flight. Like if it wasn’t for my adrenals, I would have died in the trenches in what seemed a certain war. Year by year, it has become less so. It feels more like fighting a cold now, than fighting an enemy. I write that pain can be our guide, and I believe this with all my heart. Maybe what I have learned about the pain that comes with grief has to do with welcoming it. Not resisting it. Knowing that it is going to be part of life now. Death doesn’t go away. The loss of the physical presence of my father will not go away. I can’t call him. I can’t tell him about my day. I can’t ask him how he is. He isn’t.

Last night we had the neighbors over for a Memorial Day picnic. Usually I talk about my dad on this weekend. I raise a glass, tell a story, look through old photos. This year, I didn’t want to. Instead, this year, I wanted to be quiet about it. I wanted to keep my grief for myself. We sat around the fire and listened to the frogs in the marsh and the owl in the woods and swatted mosquitos, and did our annual burning of the Christmas tree. That hot roar was what met and blessed my grief. That was enough.

And in the night, while I slept, I had a dream. I was in my childhood bed and my father came in and sat on the edge of it as he often did for storytime, only he was gasping and saying, “Lord Jesus” over and over again. And I knew I couldn’t save him. It was between him and his God. Instead, I held him while he died in my arms. Maybe another year of grief died in my arms in my dreams last night. Who knows what the fire did when it roared its heat. But this morning, on the actual day of his death, I feel like I finally let him go.


Addendum:
Here is a poem that struck me so hard just now. I called a dear friend today wanting to somehow cry a little, and he sent me here, to these words. There are no coincidences…

Fathers and Sons
I will walk across the long slow grass
where the desert sun waits among the stones
and reach down into the heavy earth
and lift your body back into the day.
My hands will swim down through the clay
like white fish who wander in the pools
of underground caves and they will find you
where you lie in the century of your sleep.

My arms will be as huge as the roots of trees,
my shoulders leaves, my hands as delicate
as the wings of fish in white water.
When I find you I will lift you out
into the sun and hold you
the way a son must who is now
as old as you were when you died.
I will lift you in my arms and bear you back.

My breath will blow away the earth
from your eyes and my lips will touch
your lips. They will say the years have been
long. They will speak into your flesh
the word love over and over,
as if it was the first word of the whole
earth. I will dance with you and you
will be as a small child asleep in my arms
as I say to the sun, bless this man who died.

I will hold you then, your hurt mouth curled
into my chest, and take your lost flesh
into me, make of you myself, and when you are
bone of my bone, and blood of my blood,
I will walk you into the hills and sit
alone with you and neither of us
will be ashamed. My hand and your hand.

I will take those two hands and hold them
together, palm against palm, and lift them
and say, this is praise, this is the holding
that is father and son. This I promise you
as I wanted to have promised in the days
of our silence, the nights of our sleeping.

Wait for me. I am coming across the grass
and through the stones. The eyes
of the animals and birds are upon me.
I am walking with my strength.
See, I am almost there.
If you listen you can hear me.
My mouth is open and I am singing.

Patrick Lane

Witness: Selected Poems, 1962-2010
Harbour Publishing

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