Sunday, July 19, 2009

Echoes of 28 at 82

by Zinta Aistars

He’s stopped fighting it. My father eases, ever so slowly, into the wheelchair we hold for him, sighs, and readies for the ride. I’ve brought him and Mom to Grand Rapids, Michigan for the day, an hour’s ride north of their home. We are marking his 82nd birthday, which was actually on Wednesday, but I can devote the full day to him on Saturday. I’ve been looking forward to it all week.

He keeps grinning at me and reminding me that I have transposed the numbers; should be 28. I’m not sure if he really means it, if he would really rather be that, but I know he wishes his body was younger, abler. I wish him happy 28th birthday. Mom curls her fingers around the wheelchair handles and pushes. Her walking has become slower, too, six months past her own 28th birthday, and she insists holding on like this makes walking easier for her, too.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum—GRAM—provides such chairs, and we are glad for it. The first time we suggested using a wheelchair to my father, at a botanic garden in Chicago with long, winding paths he could never have otherwise maneuvered with his stooped back (five back surgeries), he accepted only after argument, then held back tears for the rest of the day. My sister watched the flooding of his eyes and held back her own. We did not suggest using a chair again for some time, but watched him wince in pain, rest on benches and chairs and ledges every few steps, wherever we went. Until he gave in.

He’s willing now. He can take comfort in knowing it makes Mom’s walking easier, too. Bad hip. Those too many 28th birthdays.

I walk ahead, then circle around. He hasn’t been to the new GRAM yet, and art is his life, the flow of his blood, the beat of his heart. A shine comes up in his blue-grey eyes, and it’s not tears this time. Mom wheels him to each painting, each drawing, each sculpture, and I read the signs to them. Names of artists, short bios, a few lines of the artwork’s history. He nods. He knows most all of them already. He mouths the names of the artists before I have a chance to read. He fills in the missing stories. This is why I have always loved going to art museums with my father. He is my personal tour guide, man in the know.

By now, Mom knows, too. She points out his favorites, pushes the chair closer. She points to details, masterful strokes she knows he will appreciate. She huffs in disgust at the abstract art, making a face.

“I could do this,” she says of great white canvas with a red rhomboid to one side. Which is meant, of course, as a mark of disdain.

Dad shrugs. He’s no fan, either. He sighs with pleasure when we wheel up to the Renoir, Whistler, Sargent.

They echo each other. The mark of decades of twining opinions, formed along the same path. Synchronicity. I fall back to watch them. Watch them more than observe the art. They are moving art themselves, this couple of 59 years, the elderly woman with gimpy hip pushing the wheelchair of the elderly man. She leans over so that her head is closer to his when they are in front of a Manet. Her hand swirls to follow an arc of his pencil drawing, sweeps over it, and he nods in agreement. They’ve come to see the world through similar eyes.

At lunch in the GRAM café, she pecks at the food on his plate, tasting, smacking her lips in approval. He accepts a proffered bite of her chicken salad with cherries croissant. She dabs a napkin at the corner of his mouth. He laughs at her. I offer one a wedge of sage derby cheese from my plate, and they pass it back and forth, nibbling at its edges, deciding they both like it.

At the next museum, the Gerald Ford Museum on the Grand River, once again he accepts a complimentary wheelchair, and she seems equally grateful to lean on the handles, pushing him. Her purse is in his lap, and he can tell when she is going to want her digital camera and digs it out of the purse, holds it up to her. She knows not to take any photos of him in this chair.

In the rooms of archived presidential history, they remark to each other of the too quick passing of years. The Vietnam War brings up discussions of the war that brought the two of them together: World War II. Waves of Latvian refugees streaming out of the tiny Baltic country, running from the Soviet army, the executions, the raping, the torture one spoke of only in whispers. They met as two young refugees in Chicago, sponsored, as chance had it, by the same church. They sang in the church choir. He sang bass, she was second alto. He was engaged, so was she, and not to each other. There were going to be broken hearts, even while theirs would harmonize.

Growing up, I remember my parents flirting. Dad would come home from work—he was a commercial artist who painted every night, every single night, in his makeshift studio in the basement—and Mom would be making dinner in the kitchen when he came in from the garage. If she didn’t turn to greet him, I could see the greeting in her back, her shoulders straightening already, her head already to one side, as he would come up behind her, dicing her vegetables, slicing the tomatoes, chopping the scallions. He would pat her behind, press a kiss to the bend in her neck. She would pretend to be surprised. I’d be sitting at the table, my feet dangling off the chair, and learn to take love for granted. Like this, I thought, in every home.

Older, I would wish she’d stop telling him what to do. Wear that tie, no, the blue shirt, not the gray, and would you please hurry up? Calling down into the basement where he was lost in watercolors and canvas, the faint tangy smell of turpentine. She was the man of the household, paying the bills, running the system, while he painted, and painted, and painted, crossing off with red X’s the days on his calendar to retirement, when he could give his entire day to his art. Have you forgotten the lawn? She would admonish him. Tomorrow is trash day. The door jamb squeaks. The garage needs cleaning. And when his back began to stoop, she’d nag, Stand up straighter! Must you walk like an old man?

My sister married early, and near 40 years later, is married still, and with her whole heart in it. Out of five marriage proposals, I accepted two. My heart is long free. Now, I plan a peaceful life ahead of answering to no one, ever again. No one fill finish my sentences, nor I finish any man’s thought he can’t carry out on his own. My parents grieved at my chosen solitude, then accepted it. My contentment was showing. My respect for them grows as I see them learn to accept what they themselves do not know, do not fully understand.

There’s that moment Mom can’t resist. Sitting at Charley Crab’s for dinner, our table by the window overlooking the flow of the Grand River, she leans across the table toward me, her hand patting mine. “You could have any good man you wanted, you know,” she says, her eyebrows perching into momentary hopefulness.

I grin at her.

“I know, I know,” she waves away my unspoken retort. “You no longer want any of them.”

“I’ve known great loves, Mama. Not all are meant to last like yours has.”

She smiles, then, but not at me. I watch her lean into him. I watch him smile back at her. He kisses the tip of her nose, like any 28-year-old would, and she giggles, just like a girl.

We raise our wine glasses to his birthday. Many happy returns. May this moment repeat itself, over and over again, a pat on her behind, a kiss on the bend of her neck, the light come up in his eyes every time he sees her. Even when she tells him to stand up straighter.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

There is Nothing Going On Here

by Zinta Aistars

That’s right. There is nothing going on in my life. Not a thing. And I couldn’t be more pleased. Oh sure, deadlines, that endless pressing, both at home and at the office. I’ve just completed the writing of 115 pages of Web copy at work in a matter of two weeks, and the steam is still curling up from my skull. If there is one grand aspect of such a deadline, arguably unreasonable, then it is the stepping off that ride. Ah, steady ground beneath my feet. The quiet. A weekend of doing nothing. Well, nothing, that is, that holds an axe over my head. Yes, yes, I’ve been catching up with household chores, an almost pleasant routine after all that brain work. Running a vacuum, scrubbing the tub, sweeping the deck, folding the laundry, these jobs that seem almost meditative in their quality, allowing my mind to roam and dream. And yes, I know, there are a hundred submissions waiting to be sorted and read for my beloved literary ezine, The Smoking Poet. There are submissions of my own to make—the poetry manuscript that is nearly complete and ready to send out. There is that novel memoir, wordplay intentional, at which I am niggling away, sculpting and shaping in its unexpected direction. There are reviews to write and a stack of books awaiting my eye, review copies sent by other authors. There are letters awaiting reply. Closets awaiting organization. A garage that needs to be emptied. A flowerbed that needs weeding. A hundred, a thousand, a million countless chores and errands wait for me.

Oh, let them wait. A moment longer.

This Sunday morning I have earned a quiet moment of peaceful solitude. I make a stack of hot pancakes and toss in the freshly picked blueberries my good parents dropped off earlier—they had the time. I sit on the deck with warm plate in my lap, watching the slow drip of maple syrup trace a dripping path. My chow pup curls at my feet, watchful eye, waiting for the last bite. My black calico cat sits watching the morning dove in the tree branches overhead, preening its pale brown feathers. My old diabetic cat, Tommy, who I never expected to survive this long, turns his black head upside down and white belly up on a patch of carpet and purrs, eyes squinched shut.

I hear a very distant siren, and it is not for me.

A mouthful of warm pancake, berries bursting velvety soft and flavorful on my tongue. Yes. This is what I have longed for… for years. At last, my life has moved into this peaceful place. The drama is over and long gone. The years of single parenting, heartbreaking and endurance-testing, chasing my own tail and trying to protect and save what cannot be saved. And yet was. My son, growing up without the attention and guidance of his father, tested every boundary and pushed every limit. I feared, constantly feared, losing him—in mind, in spirit, in body. Those were years no mother should ever know. Yet this past Saturday night, I had the rare pleasure of my grown son’s company. Now 27 years, he spent his evening here, no place better. We sat on the front door step watching the calico cat twirl in a spot of waning sunlight, and talked. He was giving his lady S. some time to herself, and to spend with her mother too, adjusting to the news that her father’s time was nearing end. Her father is my age. But his body is riddled now with tumors spreading their poison. And although my son’s lady has divorced parents, too, when all comes to the finish line—all transgressions find their place, on the back shelf, and the connections of blood and ancestry win out. Mother and daughter comfort each other. And my son, sighing, his powerful shoulders a bit stooped this evening in his concern, sits beside me on the step and for a long time, says nothing.

Life is that short.

My cat twirls and pats at sunshine. A leaf falls from the great tree in front of the house, mimicking autumn. It is a gentle summer, the air is sweet and pleasant, and we sit for a long time, thinking not much, saying even less. A little girl walks by with a bouncy little dog on a leash. A neighbor pulls out of his driveway across the street and waves as he drives away. I laugh, suddenly, realizing I am sitting on my front step in my bathrobe and slippers, hair pulled back in a ponytail, face clean of makeup, and I don’t care, not in the least.

“Ha!” I chortle. “I do believe I am at that age now! At last.”

“What age is that,” my son looks over at me, one eye from under a baseball cap.

“That most wonderful and enviable age in a woman’s life,” I smile. “When I can wear a red hat with a purple dress. Or a bathrobe on the front step,” I flap a fuzzy blue lapel. “And truly not give a damn how it looks.”

“Ah,” my son nods, and I’m not sure if he gets it, but somehow, I think he actually does. He has grown up around women, the strong and reliable gender in his life, and he is privy now to the quirks and deeper wisdom of the feminine persuasion.

I rub his back for a moment, as I used to do, a strong back, and let my hand rest a while on that powerful shoulder. My fear is gone. The juvenile delinquent beat all the odds. He has grown into a fine man, a good man, with great heart, and I am proud with the kind of mother’s pride that hums a deep and resonant chord inside. It is the hum of peace over my brood, at last.

My daughter, meanwhile, has just applied for a seat on the Illinois state board, commission for volunteerism. She believes passionately that good people can accomplish good things, and she is doing something about it. Her life, too, is on its path, straight ahead and brilliant. I silently nod in satisfaction, thinking of her.

And my own? Work is hard and demanding, but it is good work, and I am meeting the challenge. Debts are being paid. The old house is, however slowly, however gradually, seeing repair. The last relationship, with all its drama and cruelty, is long over. While wounds are still healing, and the scars remain, alas, forever, my longing and loneliness have passed. The revelation of my recent trip to Washington D.C., when I realized that traveling alone through life really is better, that I in fact now prefer it, is lasting. I see others around me still playing that game of love and courtship, flushed romance with all its giddiness, and I can cheer for them even as I feel no longing to move that way myself, ever again. Been there. Oh, so done that. And while most my past loves I now see as golden memory, with a smile on my lips, a honeyed heart of sweet remembrance, I can also now move beyond that one that sliced my heart into tattered shreds.

I’m okay. At last, I am fine. If some parts of who I once was are now gone forever, something else has taken their place. I am a woman now, in midlife, who can sit on her front doorstep in her fuzzy blue bathrobe and know I am presenting the world with truly my best self. Unafraid, comfortable in my own skin, blessedly imperfect. I wear my scars with pride, and my wounded self no longer hinders me.

My life is peaceful, at long last. Even among all the rush and usual hurry, the crowded busyness. I cherish my work, both personal and in my career. It is good work. I cherish my circle of friends, there when I need them, gone in their own lives when I need solitude in mine. My children are raised, taken wing, and I watch them soaring in flight and know the hardest part of my job there is now done. Now, I can simply stand back and cheer, listen, wave, observe, applaud.

I can sit on my deck on a Sunday morning, licking the last syrupy crumbs of a blueberry pancake from my fork, and smile into the sunshine, equally light. I’ve earned this place in the sun. And I’m not going anywhere.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

A Mother's Heart

by Zinta Aistars

I wait for her now, as I waited for her 29 years ago, only then the ache was my entire body, an exploding core, a splitting open to give birth. Today, the ache is one of the heart. For the world that today greets her, its questionable promise. It is my daughter's birthday today, and we awaited it standing in my sister's driveway, in front of her home in Mundelein, Illinois. Fireworks explode across the sky ... and I remember.

I remember sitting in the seats of the Cincinnati ballpark, watching a Reds game on July 4th, 1980. My sister and her husband, Steve, sat to one side of me. My then husband, Imant, sat to my other side. And I sat. In full blossom. The day sweating the life from me, near one hundred degrees, although the evening fell with a welcome if too slight coolness. I was wearing a sleeveless pink blouse my mother had loaned me... she had worn it in her own waiting days, waiting for me. It was cool and billowing. I stretched my legs out as far as I could, watching my ankles swell. Now and then, Imant reached down to massage them. Or reached over to hold my hand. His face was bright with waiting, too. This was our first.

Then the ball came careening toward us. No, to one side. And Imant leapt to his feet, jumped over the seats, determined to catch it. Easy enough... he was tall and thin, his body trained by the running of a recent Boston marathon, and I laughed at the easy sight of him, the joy in him. My sister and brother-in-law, come down from Cleveland to visit us for the holiday weekend, laughed, too. Imant, after all, had nearly knocked down a little boy going for the same baseball. Boys, both of them. But it was Imant who caught the ball, with his faster speed and advantage of height. He turned back and held up his trophy, beaming, and shouted out to the rows and rows of baseball fans, pointing to me with his other hand. Me, and my great pink belly in billowing blouse.

"This is for her! This is for my baby!"

The baseball fans burst into applause. I blushed. Shared his pride. But I was nervous with anticipation.

And during that night, she knocked at the door. That mysterious little life, letting me know she was ready to meet me, face to face. Oh. I woke in the dark and gasped. Pain. Such pain. I had prepared for many weeks for this moment, as much as I could, determined to birth my child naturally ... hadn't women done this for a millenium? ... and without the help of medication. But this pain, this took my breath away, and suddenly, I knew terror. Too much, this.

"Imant... wake up.... Imi... "

He held my hand, kissed my damp temple, the tip of my nose. Talked softly to me, to that life within, breaking free.

"I can't do this. It hurts too much."

"You can."

"I can't."

"Breathe with me..."

And I did, and I could, and my body relaxed again. I rose to wake my sister. Imant went for his morning run, even while it was still dark, and my sister, having given birth to her own first six months prior, walked with me. We paced the room, back and forth, back and forth, and to keep moving eased the tension in my body. I let go of the fear,regained my control, and my heart hammered now with excitement. I was ready.

Who will this person be? I did not know, daughter or son, I did not know but the daily dance within me for the past nine months. My own resistance, unsure I ever wanted to be a mother, eventually melting into curiosity, melting into anticipation.

She was born at 12:06 p.m. on July 5, 1980, in the Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. An even nine pounds. The doctor called out as she slipped into his waiting hands, "It's a woman!" And laid her softly on my chest after Imant had cut the cord.

I fell in love. This girl-baby with her soft blonde fuzz and her chubby cheeks, rosy with life. I closed my eyes, buried my nose against that little skull, and breathed in. Never a scent so sweet, and I could never get enough of it. My heart split open as my body just had, fell open to its core, core exposed, and swam in a love as I had never known and would not know again until near two years later, when her brother would be born, and the same doctor announce, "It's a man!"

To be a mother ... who could have told me this, explained this to me? Some experiences can be fully understood only by experiencing them. Who could have told me love was like this? It was the first time in my life that I knew something so sweet yet fierce, that I knew, instantly, to protect this life, I could kill, tear apart with my teeth, move mountain and face God, and challenge even Him. Because now I, too, understood the power of creation.

On this day, 29 years later, I mark her birthday as well, in so many ways, my own. The mother gives birth to the child, and in so many ways, the child in return births the mother.

It is a harsh world out there, Lorena Audra, and harsh in its ways all around us. So many cruel and brutal men. So much injustice. So few chances to make things right. I wish you a life that will not avoid these things, yet give you the strength to endure, to make better, to make a difference. As I know you will and already have. Your mother's heart follows you wherever you go, and always.

Epilogue: A Reds baseball sits on the bookshelf in Lorena's Chicago apartment. And she still believes me when I tell her the fireworks are for her, too. They are.