At a meeting at Barnes and Noble yesterday, the only other woman who attended remarked as she ordered her coffee and egg sandwich, “This is my breakfast. I know it’s late for breakfast, but I’m x4 years old and therefore I think I can do whatever I want to.”

I laughed. It took me a minute before I realized I have the same attitude. Of course, I blame it on my mother. You see, she had that attitude, big time.

I remember when we were in Paris together and one day, stopped at an indoor café for a rest and refreshment. She selected a seat directly under the big red circle with a line through it and the smoking cigarette in its center. The first thing she did was to light a cigarette.

I said, nodding my head toward the other side of the room, “Mom, why don’t we go sit over there? That’s the smoking section.”

She lifted her chin a little and said, “Nah. They won’t mind.” And she went right on smoking—uninterrupted, I might add. (She quit smoking when she was 82—because that’s when she decided she wanted to.)

I say I feel that way because there have been times when I’ve actually thought it:  This may not be kosher, but I’m going to do it anyway. Because I want to. And who’s going to stop me?

I think I may come down too hard sometimes. One evening at a party, I walked past a man sitting alone at a table and asked him something (can’t remember what). He replied, not unpleasantly, “Why do I get the feeling I should only give you my name, rank and serial number?” I remember laughing and moving on and I still laugh whenever I repeat the story.

The thing is, I’m retired. I don’t have any boss or work environment at which I have to be polite, generally quiet, and politically correct. I have no boundaries in my own home and outside it, most of my friends share my views. If they don’t, I respect theirs and we remain on neutral ground. Sometimes, we even vent vehemently and laugh at each others’ opposition.

It’s like we’ve paid our dues and now we’re members of a new club. Some of us are a little more in-your-face than others. I’m one of those. And I love it.

Because I can.

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Aside

A Christmas Story for You


She read the letter again, her eyes eager and hungry, like a child’s in a line to see Santa. She missed their webcam conversations, where she could see his face and hear his voice.

She had noticed, the last few times, that he didn’t laugh as often, except when he was speaking directly to Missy. Then he assumed his voice of Daddyclown or Daddymonster that threw her into gales of 3-year-old giggles. Just thinking of those calls made her smile now, her brows relaxing.

Her eyes drifted to the top of the thin, almost transparent paper. Just the date. No indication of where he might be. Did he volunteer again for a top secret mission? No, they’d agreed that he was a family man now and his life was in enough danger just being over there. He would not disrespect their decision.

She read the uneven, downward slanting script from the beginning—again.

My Darling Darling Linda,

She gulped the heartbreak in her throat. The extra Darling told her how desperately he was missing her. He wrote about her and Missy, not about himself or what he was doing.

Do you have the tree up and decorated? What was Missy’s reaction to that? I hope you let her “help” you decorate it. (I can say that now because I’m not there to juggle hanging the lights and keeping her from dropping the ornaments.)J  But oh, honey! How I wish I were!

Remember that ornament we bought on our honeymoon? They transferred photos of our faces onto the faces of the couple on the little surfboard? (Like either one of us could surf at all!) Can you leave that one off the tree this year? I’d like us to put that on the tree together every year—just like we said we would.

Linda looked at the bare spot on the tree, right where they would have put it had he been here with her. She nodded, clenching her teeth.

Gotta go, hon. I love you—so much. You keep me going, you know. Here are my BIG hug and kisses for Missy. J

He signed it, “Yours, always and forever, Terry.”

Missy whimpered awake from her nap, and Linda sighed as she climbed the stairs. She entered Missy’s room, went to the trundle bed and Missy’s outstretched arms.

“Hush, honey. Mommy’s right here,” she crooned. “What’s the matter? You never wake up crying.” Linda put a lilt in her voice, smiling.

Missy buried her face in her mother’s shoulder and rubbed it back and forth, as if she were scratching an itchy nose. “Daddy’s coming home for Christmas,” she said. “But I want him here right now.” Her eyes brimmed and her lower lip quivered.

Linda hugged her daughter, harder. “Missy, honey, you know we’ve talked about this. Daddy is away, being very brave protecting our country, and he won’t be home for a long time.” Linda closed her eyes, as if that would change the reality.

Terry’s words came back to her:  You keep me going, you know. But Linda wondered how long she could do this. And she knew something was going on with Terry. She could feel it.

She swayed back and forth to soothe herself as much as Missy. After a few quiet moments like that, she gave Missy an extra squeeze and then a big, sloppy smooch on her cheek.

“That’s from Daddy,” she leaned back and spread a wicked grin on her face.

Missy giggled and wiped her hand down her cheek several times. “Did Daddy visit you, too, while I was sleeping?”

Linda’s eyebrows knit, like two dragonflies bumping into each other, and her eyes squinted. Then she smiled again, completely clearing her face of any traces of worry, concern, or… dread. She ignored Missy’s question.

“We got a real letter from Daddy today and wait till you see his message to you!” Linda twirled her around before leading her to the bathroom.

Downstairs, she showed the letter to Missy and pointed to the drawing at the bottom of the second page. “See? His hug is so-o-o-o-o big, his arms went right off the paper!” It was easy for Linda to smile as she looked at the stick figure with a soldier hat and arm lines stretching across and off the page on either side.

Missy laughed, like tiny bells tinkling, and ran to her drawer of pencils, crayons and paper. “I’m going to draw a picture for him now,” she said. In the middle of her preparations, she stopped and her head popped up to look at her mother.

“Did it snowed yet, Mommy?” Linda laughed and bent to touch her nose to the tip of Missy’s.

“No, it didn’t ‘snowed’ yet, sweetie.”

Missy had already drawn a tree in green crayon on her paper:  a vertical line with several lines crossing it at varying angles. Concentrating on her art, she selected a bright red crayon and cocked her head, saying softly, “Snow and Daddy. That’s what we’re having for Christmas.” Then she scrunched her mouth to one side and pressed the crayon onto the paper, forming dots of red all around the “tree”.

Linda went to the window and looked at the landscape for any signs of snow. The sun was low in the sky and radiated no heat, like a hug without arms. The days were so short this time of year, yet they seemed to last forever for her. The sky was blank, so no promise of snow. She turned toward the kitchen, sighing.

She glanced at the paper Missy was working on and saw the Daddy stick figure next to the tree she had drawn.

Shaking her head back and forth, Linda said, “Missy, Christmas is a wonderful time of year and we’re going to have lots of fun. But, honey, Daddy is not going to be here with us. Don’t ruin your Christmas by planning on him being here and then being so disappointed when he isn’t here.”

Missy put the crayon down and looked up at Linda. “But Mommy! Daddy told me he’d be here for Christmas—he just won’t be perfect.” She turned back to get another crayon.

Linda froze. “What do you mean, he won’t be perfect? You couldn’t have spoken to Daddy. I’ve been right here.”

“I told you, Mommy. He visited me while I was taking my nap.”

“Missy. Look, honey.” Linda held both Missy’s shoulders in her hands. “You had a nice dream about Daddy, maybe, while you slept. But that does not mean that Daddy will be here for Christmas.” She filled with dread thinking about the “just not perfect” part. “Of course, his heart will be with us, especially on Christmas. But Daddy’s way far away from us and can’t possibly get here—not for a long time yet. He’s very busy working over there.”

Missy shook her head at her mother and mimicked her father. “You just don’t get it, do you, Mommy?” Linda had to laugh.

“No, you’re the one who doesn’t get it, cutie.” She smiled as she continued into the kitchen.

Linda opened the refrigerator and pulled out the chicken breasts and broccoli. She set out the box of Rice Pilaf and the pans she would need for the meal.

A movement in their back yard caught her eye and she looked just in time to see the small white tail of a deer disappear into the pines there. Is that what it was like for Terry? she wondered. Trying to dart to safety before someone catches the movement in just the blink of an eye? She thought of the deer running for cover but ending on the highway beyond, into the jaws of danger and often sudden death.

She rinsed the chicken breasts, watching the water-blanched blood pouring into the sink and down the drain. She continued to hold the breasts under the tap, wanting the water to run clear. Wanting no more blood.

The sudden sounds of Jingle Bells—the ring tone on her phone—startled her and she dropped the chicken breasts with a thud. Water, not yet clear, she noticed, splattered her sweater. Missy looked up from her drawing. “That’s Daddy!”

“Missy! Stop that right now!” Linda pulled her phone out of her pocket, frowning at Missy. She knew Missy’s insistence was getting under her skin, but she should be stronger.

“Hello?” she said into the phone, still frowning at Missy.

“Hello, Ma’am. This is Dr. Chuck McGuire. I’m the doctor treating your husband, Staff Sergeant Terry Murphy.”

“Oh! Oh no!” Linda said, barely above a whisper. She felt the room spin around her and quickly grasped a chair to sit.

“Ma’am! Are you alright? Terry’s not wounded, Mrs. Murphy. Really. But I’d like to talk to you about him. Are you alright? Can you talk?”

Linda looked into the other room where Missy, eyes wide with questions under a wrinkled brow, watched.

Linda turned, leaning heavily into the chair, and said softly, “I’m alright, Dr. McGuire. Please. Go on. Tell me about Terry. Is he safe? Injured?”

“First of all, Mrs. Murphy, Terry is safe. Yes, he’s injured…”

“Oh my God!”

“No-no, Mrs. Murphy. I’m telling you the truth. He’s okay. But he does have a good case of PTSD—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve been treating him for several weeks now, since he was brought stateside.”

“You mean, he’s here? In the States?”.Linda felt like she was swimming in a rip tide

“Yes, Ma’am. He’s at Walter Reed right now, but this is what I’d like to talk to you about. We’re both from Rochester and I have a 3-day leave. I asked Terry if he’d like to be home for Christmas…”

“Of course, he would!” Linda interjected, a guillotine of words.

“Ma’am, listen. You’ve got to hear me out.” He sucked in his breath. “Terry is still very fragile. Any loud noises or sudden bursts of light really disturb him. And it isn’t a fright, or a minute’s scare, like the rest of us can have. These sudden changes throw him right back in the middle of deadly combat, where enemy fire is coming at him from all sides, where he can do nothing more than keep a sharp eye out for the enemy, to protect himself, and his buddies.” He inhaled and exhaled and Linda knew he was smoking.

“I’ve talked to Terry about coming home and he said you’d have to know about him and be willing to work through it with him should he have an attack.”

“Of course, I would,” Linda said, hope softening her voice.

“That means,” Dr. McGuire continued, “that you’d have to remain perfectly tranquil, level-headed, under all circumstances, just keep him calm or return him to calm, speaking softly and evenly until he relaxes. That’s especially true if he has one of his nightmares. You’re the strong one right now, Mrs. Murphy.

“I’ll drive us home. He’ll have two nights there with you, Christmas Eve and Christmas night. The day after Christmas I’ll pick him up at 0500 hours so we can beat the heavier traffic and all its noises and lights.”

There was a pendulous silence. Linda’s head was whirling with Missy’s certainty, with her statement that “he won’t be perfect” but would be home, and then her own denial of it all.

“Mrs. Murphy? Ma’am?” Dr. McGuire asked.

“We…” Linda faltered, cleared her throat, straightened. “We will treasure having Terry home with us and I will keep him safe.” Her voice held direction and strength, like a lighthouse in a storm.

“Good,” replied Dr. McGuire. “We’ll see you in two days, at about 1500 hours.” She heard another drag on his cigarette. “From what Terry has told me, I know you can do this, Mrs. Murphy. Merry Christmas.”

For the next two days, Linda searched the internet for all the information she could get on PTSD. She prepared Terry’s family, arranged a quiet small get-together with them, right here, where Terry would feel comfortable, and she and Missy talked about how they would be gentle and quiet with Daddy.

On Thursday afternoon, while Missy and she were taking cookies out of the oven, the front door opened. There, standing in the doorway, outlined against thick, falling snowflakes, stood Terry, in fatigues.

He grinned. “They told me women can’t resist a man in uniform.”

Missy charged toward the door and whispered, “Daddy!” Linda knew she was already trying to be brave and quiet for her hero-daddy. Linda rushed forward, her heart pumping in her throat, her eyes blurring. The three of them hugged each other, alternately laughing and crying. Then, Missy poked Linda and said, “See Mommy? Daddy and snow for Christmas!”

Aside

The Perfect Sto…


The Perfect Storm

Last weekend we brought chairs and sat at the Italian Festival in East Rochester to people-watch and listen to the Dean Martin-Frank Sinatra (sound-alikes) show. It was fun watching the people, especially three little boys, maybe 10 or 12, who were mostly running around the tents. The way they looked behind them and then ran even faster indicated that they were trying to evade someone. And how they laughed when they succeeded made you think that that someone was a person of authority for the evening.

What really caught my eye was that one of the boys was carrying a plastic bag, half filled with water, and tied at the top. A battered and beleaguered goldfish bounced round and round, up and down, in the water as his new owner swung his arms in his race to escape. I couldn’t help but think, That poor little fish is in the midst of a Perfect Storm.

The music and people-watching and weekend passed and I wondered about that goldfish. Did the loving care he hopefully received once at home help him to survive the Storm? Because Life is filled with storms, some of them more Perfect than others. And it’s the love of those around us that I firmly believe help us weather those storms.

My Perfect Storm happened six years ago June 13th. I was separating a large supply of fresh-cut flowers into individual bouquets for my daughter’s school’s year-end dance performance. My daughter, Mary Kay, was at Roberts Wesleyan’s theater complex directing the dress rehearsal of Firebird, in which Heather Ogden, principal dancer for the National Ballet of Canada, would perform as the guest artist.

My phone rang; my daughter’s husband told me something happened to Mary Kay and she was on her way to Strong Memorial Hospital via ambulance. I dropped everything and hit the road running. Later, I learned that she told a couple of her “backstage mothers” (competent performance helpers for many years) that she didn’t feel well, walked across the stage to sit down, and passed out. By the time medics arrived, there was no heartbeat.

As I was en route, the hospital venue changed to Park Ridge Hospital. Her husband and two of her three children were there already. The doctor came to me and asked me to sit down, which annoyed me. Just tell me what’s wrong here and we can get on with fixing it!

I asked if I could talk to her, that patients can still hear even when they’re unconscious. On our way to the room where she lay on a gurney, a machine rhythmically pumping on her chest, he told me that there hadn’t been a heartbeat for at least an hour. In my sea of denial, I asked him how long you could go without a heartbeat before there was brain damage.

No answer.

What struck me as I spoke to her, first requesting and then demanding that she wake up and speak to me, was how beautiful she was. She’s always been beautiful, but she looked perfect there. Her wavy hair, always a struggle for her to control, was perfectly coifed, her face perfectly clear of makeup, but beginning to embrace a strange coloration, and her eyelashes… I kept looking at her eyelashes. They were so long and perfectly curled, a mascara ad in the making.

But nothing moved as I spoke to her, begging her to please respond. (I had promised the doctor I wouldn’t cry or upset her at all, so I was careful to control my emotions.) I did finally allow a harshness to my voice, the firm mother voice, saying, “Mary Kay! Come on! You have to come to. You have to…” I stopped. I’d almost said, “You have to be here for the kids.” That would have really gotten her, but I didn’t want to create any more stress for her.

None of the doctors there, although pain and compassion all over their faces, ever told us that she was gone. The doctor in charge finally came to me and said I should call the family to come. I guess that’s when the tidal wave hit, although I vowed to remain solid in front of her kids. The Storm was violent, thrashing, intercepted often with consuming sorrow, and then whipping and lashing  again.

One of her children hung over the gurney, hugged her and cried, saying over and over again, “She wouldn’t have wanted this. She wouldn’t have wanted this.” And he was right. She would have never left her children unattended, without her support and guidance and love. Never! But this was a Perfect Storm. Its devastation was absolute, final, and deadly.

Six years ago. Still so fresh in my mind and in my heart. Riding the waves again, buffeted by the winds, drowning in waiting for and wanting her morning phone calls. God! It’s so not fair.

But the rain and the winds and the raging weather inside me are calming down. So much love has been sent to me, like lifesavers floating on the sea, I am warmed. I am buoyed. Love is the ballast. I am making it through another Perfect Storm.

Aside