like yesterday

Wednesday was my second anniversary with the state of Utah. Sometimes it feels like a life someone else has been leading.

Minutes after putting the car in park and walking up the stairs of my 
new home, I received a phone call. The person on the other end told me he might be 
sick and that he hadn’t wanted to tell me when I was driving 900 miles across the desert alone. It then registered why my sister sounded so odd the night before. She was listening to me describe the weather – cold –and 
the roads – quiet. Meanwhile, she was in hell and couldn’t say a word.

I recall listening to him talk about medical tests and the plan for 
the days ahead. At the time, I was standing in the bedroom of a tiny, 
rundown apartment with a bathroom tiled hot pink. It had a plastic
 accordion door. I tried tucking into the shadows of the closet to 
listen while D and a friend talked in the kitchen. They had no idea.

For a while I wondered whether I should just put all the boxes back in my car and keep driving east. Instead, I phoned every day, 
trying to find different ways to ask the same question: How are you?
 And. How are you really? Because calling is not the same.

Over the next few weeks I spent considerable time reading survival
 manuals, and running on snow-covered trails because it was the one
 place nobody else was. I spent evenings talking to the ceiling and
 summoning the universe. I dreamt of dead people and hoped they were
 right when they came to me saying, “There isn’t a lot of fruit in the
 cake.”

I thought about that first day a lot Wednesday night. I was sitting on
 a couch in a different room in a different house where I don’t have to
 hide. (And where the downstairs bathroom is a much more
 modest shade of bubblegum.) D asked what I was thinking. How grateful
 I am, I said.

Over the past two years three words have come to hold real meaning for me: remission, marriage, and babies. During that time my person got sick and he got better; my boyfriend became my husband; and my sister announced her pregnancy, then doubled down. The boys are all alright. Life is fucking awesome. I have jack shit to complain about. (And yet I still do.) But I am trying to be grateful every day, not just when I take a moment to reflect on the big picture.

This year I aim to worry less about things I cannot take credit for causing or changing. I will live my life here until I live it somewhere else. And these days, motion seems to be the topic bandied about most in our household. What next?  Where next? The answers will eventually come. I know I am good with change. That is, once I know what it is.

Until then, I will admit who I am: an environmentalist, a feminist, and a person who generally hangs left. That is true regardless of the zip code I am in. And I want to stop feeling as though those are things I should say in a hushed voice in restaurants. I had no idea how much I would really miss seeing the shirtless guy in the glitter spandex riding his bike on Market Street in San Francisco.

Last weekend D and I drove up the canyon to go skiing and get out of the inversion—otherwise known as smog to the rest of the world. Above 6,000 feet the sky was clear and the snow was powder. My fingers froze on the downhill. It was nice to be alone in the wilderness and just take in the view.

I know that one day we will leave here. One day I will tell you I miss the cold. I miss the high desert mountains, and the dinnertime conversations pondering, where to next? I know that someday I will pull out my skis and remember the climb up Temple Fork and the jagged mountains beyond. I will try to recall how my fingertips burned from the cold. And it will feel like yesterday.

the perfect thing to say

I came home last night to find my 90-year-old neighbor raking leaves from the gutter. It was so dark I heard him before I saw him.

I briefly considered offering to help as he fought the storm drain with his rake. But he would never accept it. He never has. Even when he should. Like the time I caught him ascending his roof with one hand on the ladder, the other clasping a two by four. He didn’t need my help then. And with two feet firmly on the ground, he didn’t need it now. I think he likes to prove a point: I still have some work to do.

We had our typical evening exchange where I tell him not to stay out too late and he tells me I am a great neighbor. Usually before I go he imparts some wisdom that I think about for the rest of the night. This time it was the last words of one of his friends who died in World War II.

“Don’t go through life being negative. Nobody likes a grouch,” he told Jack. I thought it was good advice.

I tell you this as a reminder to myself. Because I have a habit of going over to the dark side. I actually have a condo there.

However, in nearly two years since moving to Utah I have never caught Jack in a bad mood. Once or twice he was tired and has told me so. But never unhappy. He says this is a choice. Jack has a medical condition where cold temperatures make his bones ache. But he won’t leave winter. His wife likes it here. So he stays, suffers through the pain, and smiles.

“You choose to be happy,” he said.

Sometimes Jack reminds me of my grampa. They are nearly the same age. Both men fought in World War II. Both have engineering minds, married some pretty nice ladies, and have a knack for gardening. But that is where the similarities end these days.

My grampa hasn’t done yard work in a really long time. I can’t recall when he was last able to climb a ladder. And he’s losing his memory. He confuses decades, often asking my mom about people who died before she was born. But he’s still my grampa. And he, too, has some wisdom to relate.

This weekend I was back home in Boston. I missed my family and wanted to visit my twin nephews. The first stop off the plane was grampa’s house. I love going there. Nothing has changed in it since I was small enough to climb down the laundry chute. Not the carpet. Not the appliances. And likely not even the bars of soap stacked in the bathroom. I think that’s why I like it. It reminds me of being a kid when important conversations happened at the kitchen table that I didn’t fully understand.

We sat at that table Saturday morning having coffee and muffins. A packet of old photos held together by three elastic bands leaned against the windowsill. My nana’s picture was on top. We asked him about the pictures. He can remember the where but not the when. I find relief that he can still recall the who.

At my parents’ house we have an early Thanksgiving dinner. All of my people come. We watch as little man attempts to roll over for the first time. He doesn’t get there but he’s close. Later he cries big person tears. My sister does too.

Grampa watches but doesn’t quite understand what’s happening. I find a seat beside him and rub his back, saying sometimes it’s hard because we can’t comfort him. He nods and I wonder if he gets it. My sister moves her chair closer and rests her cheek on his big chest. He takes her hand and just holds it.

“What can you do?” he says lifting his shoulders.

He just sat there holding her hand in silence. And I thought it was the perfect thing to say.

love and a nice cheese plate

Several people have asked if married life feels different so far. Truthfully, I can’t say that it does. We live in the same home, have the same jobs, and I have the same last name as before. The only thing that has changed is what I call D to the people I buy produce from at the Farmer’s Market. But I guess that’s something. The reality is I still leave my clothes on the bedroom floor and D pretends not to notice. (Much.) He still forgets to wipe his hands after working on the bikes and I pretend I don’t see grease smudges on the doorknobs.

On our flight to Boston to get hitched a flight attendant saw my dress bag and blurted out “Don’t do it!” before letting me hang it in their mini-closet. I nervously laughed and found my seat, wondering what she knew about things that do not always work out despite your pledges to be supportive when it’s hardest to.

The first leg of our trip home D and I sat apart. The man occupying the window seat to my left told me his story and then asked for mine. When he learned I was newly married his tone changed. Who can you really trust these days, he asked? I looked down and noticed a gold band hugging his left ring finger. Your spouse I suggested? He conceded, but only because it seemed he should.

He told me that his wife did not accompany him on his trip to Maine for his grandmother’s 90th birthday. And that she didn’t join him for his cousin’s wedding the week before. He was disappointed, but it was okay because they were independent people and he liked that about their relationship. I wondered perhaps if they were too independent. And if he had told her any of this before he left. When we landed I said it was nice meeting him. What I meant was I hope I learn from you.

D and I sat together on the next leg. The man to D’s right engaged him in conversation and learned that we were newlyweds. Instead of a congratulatory handshake or smack on the back he told us he was married for 16 years and had been divorced for one. Then said nothing. At this point I was annoyed and decided that all these folks were divorced or on the way to it for the same reason: they haven’t yet learned when to just shut their mouths and say something polite. As I debated whether to share this with our seatmate, D asked him for advice.

What will you do differently next time around? The man said the same thing my parents have been saying for 35 years: communicate with each other. He added a few other tips which I will paraphrase. Essentially, don’t be a douchebag. Noted.

When you consider modern marriage statistics, you might say we are gamblers. The odds tip slightly in our favor, but only by a coin toss or two. With rates like that, why bother to take an expensive trip down the aisle? Why didn’t we just invest in a decent set of knives and a new cheese plate ourselves? Well. Partly because I am 31 and I already own a nice cheese plate.

And because I like to think we are brave. Because loving someone is not easy. And promising to love someone when you aren’t your best and he isn’t either is even harder. But I guess that’s why I signed on to the whole marriage thing. Because I like to think that it is possible, and I understand that it involves work. Plus I like to think that swearing certain things aloud and in front of your parents holds you to them. Or makes you try when you finally mention the grease stains on the back door and he’s tired of picking your jeans off the floor.

hardy things

Growing up my dad would tell us we were descendants of Vikings. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I could tell he was proud of it. He has stated that he would like a traditional Norse burial. At sea, replete with a funeral pyre lit from shore. I have always liked the idea that our bloodline is one of great travelers and warriors. That we stem from a people who have conquered hard things.

Last year my dad did some research. At Christmas, he presented us with a copy of our family history. The type of history that goes back before the Black Plague, before the Pilgrims landed, before serfdom went out of fashion.

After opening the gift, I folded the sheets of paper and put them my journal. I didn’t look at them again for nearly six months. And to be honest, I didn’t really take them out six months later. They fell out at the airport when I was heading home to see my new twin nephews. I reread the history of a people who conquered northern France and smiled thinking of my nephews. They are the latest generation to take on difficult things.

It all started a few weeks ago. D and I decided to drive south. I needed to get out of my head. And the desert is good like that. The desert is not quiet. Your feet break open the topsoil. They sink in the sand. They move rocks to a clatter. The wind circles your ears and rattles what grasses have made it this far. It reminds you that you are not alone. Even though you feel like it. Even if you want to be.

The desert reminds you it has been here longer. It has witnessed a millennia of change in its days. It has fallen up. It is falling down. And it will change again in a few thousand years when you are long gone and nothing but dust in someone else’s tent. It reminds you that you – and your problems – are quite small. It reminds you that conditions are not always easy. But things grow. And they die. And in between there are some blue skies overhead.

When the boys made their debut into the world they were a whopping 6.11 pounds combined. Usually when babies are born there are phone calls that trigger phone calls. An eruption of joy that quickly crosses time zones. First pictures are zipped across state lines. Then there times when phone calls come and breaths are held.

You hang up thinking surgery is not so bad. You know surgeons. You trust surgeons. You believe in science. So you decide not to worry about the surgery. Then you think of your sophomore biology class and how you dissected baby pigs. And you realize the scale of your nephews. You examine the stats and hope you are on the right side of the numbers.

And then you pray in case you aren’t. You pray because you didn’t really do well in biology and you don’t really understand what is happening and you need something to do other than cry in the garden beside your last wilting cucumber plant. You already killed five of the original six and the remaining one is sun-scorched. Each new tendril it shoots seems to fry in the Utah heat. But new leaves keep budding. And you keep hoping maybe one of these days one will take.

Thirty-six hours later you arrive at the start of another long 36 hours. You have 200 miles to cover with five other people and you are already tired. But you grind out mountain passes and long stretches of cold highway at 5 am because that is what you said you would do. You tell your teammates that the stories of your life – the best ones – emerge from accomplishing hard things. You think of your tiny nephews and decide they will be great storytellers.

You send them succulents in lieu of flowers. They are small and hardy– like them. And your write them a note, promising them that life will not always be easy. But it will not always be so hard either.

You know there will be tough climbs, long bouts where you push forward looking for some sign of progress, or at least change. There will be periods of coasting. Miles of downhill you know will not last forever. Sometimes a small hill will break you. Other times you will discover your legs can carry you further than you imagined. Fifty miles or more. You will recover and search for another mountain to ascend.

A few hours later I finished the race and boarded a plane, stepping off to meet these tiny Vikings. I peered through their incubators and watched them breath on their own and stretch limbs no wider than my thumb. They occasionally opened mouths the size of dimes and released cries I could hear from the other side of the glass. They are the most beautiful displays of life I have ever seen.

coax into being

Two weeks ago I sent my grampa a package containing seeds: two types of tomatoes, a few kernels of corn, and an envelope for growing cucumbers. I thought he might enjoy taking care of something again.

Growing up, when we visited my grandparents’ house we inevitably did three things: explore the basement, walk to the beach, and poke around the backyard. Their basement had the best smell—a mixture of laundry, old tools, and darkness. Matty would rifle through grampa’s workspace, lifting old mayonnaise jars filled with nails, bolts, and washers; picking up hammers too big to swing. Grampa was the expert of heavy things. A career machinist, he engineered clever fixes to broken locks and creaky doors. He had a solution for any problem.

Their house was one block from the beach. It is where my mom learned to swim and my nana would paddle across the channel and back. In 30 years, I have never seen anyone else attempt it. The shipyard where grampa worked was a few blocks further and the site that produced many of the boats that served in WWII. His name is still etched in one of the bells. The beach smelled of the soap factory down the channel. It was where I collected seashells and talked about boys with my sister.

My grandparents’ backyard is small. There is just enough room for a long table and a half dozen folding chairs. Wild roses grow along the fence. Grampa used to grow tomatoes along the strip of grass separating the neighbor’s yard. Big red tomatoes used for sauce. He was always really proud of those tomatoes. I don’t really remember when he stopped growing them. But it’s been years.

This is my second season as a gardener. All south-facing windowsills in my house are currently occupied by tomato, pepper or cucumber starts. It will be several more weeks before it’s safe to put them outside. I’m wondering if staking the cucumbers inside is a bit much. I still have envelopes of seeds with no purpose in the garage.

Every Sunday I call my grampa. On a good day we chat for at least eight minutes. On a bad day it’s anything less. The day I made the seed package we had spoken for just six. It was the first time he had to ask who he was talking to. In the note, I explained how deep and how far apart to space the plants. I ended the note with the most important detail—don’t forget to water them. Don’t forget. That is my hope.

These days, grampa no longer makes anything in the basement. He gave away many of his tools. It’s a fact that sometimes is forgotten. I can’t recall the last time he walked to the beach. Or even to the end of the street. He doesn’t really watch the Red Sox anymore. Lately he likes to stare out the window and watch the birds. Part of me wishes I could follow his thoughts. I wonder where they fly off to.

Last weekend I was back home for my sister’s baby shower. Grampa helped make necklaces of paper clips and string for a game. Dozens of people came, ate, watched Jen open gifts, and left. After the guests dispersed, I sat next to grampa in the breakfast nook. He lifted one of the necklaces and frowned.

“You made that,” I said.

He didn’t remember. I am hoping his garden will be different. It arrived the other day. (He didn’t remember that either.) But I am hoping having a garden again will allow him to track change—and progress—over time. I am hoping the seeds might be a good daily project for him. That if he sees the starts sitting out on his kitchen table they will remind him to participate in this life. That they will eventually compel him to go out into the backyard and try to coax into being.

growing avacados

My big sister is pregnant. She is about four and a half months along and starting to show. I know this because my mom sends me weekly pictures of her bump. And it is definitely a mini ski slope now.

When I was home for Christmas I already knew she was pregnant. She had told me over the phone, and I admit I was disappointed I couldn’t actually tell when I saw her. But apparently these things take time.

She showed me pictures from the first sonogram. The scroll contained three images. The first resembled a Rorschach test. All strangely shaped blotches of light and dark. I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking at. The second picture I identified a gerbil. The third showed the gerbil without it’s head attached. I didn’t want to be the first person to tell her she was going to be delivering a broken rodent so I just smiled. She was waiting for a response.

“It’s a gerbil,” I pronounced.
Two gerbils, she said.

That’s when I learned I have no future as an ultrasound technician.

“How big are they?”
The size of green olives, she said.

I couldn’t help but look at her abdomen and think about a martini. In the past two months they have grown from olives to prunes to apricots. I am told they are now the size of small avocados. Every time I shop for groceries I visit the produce section and wonder how big the twins are.

Maybe that sounds strange. But I haven’t really grown up with babies in my family. The last new blood in our clan came about 13 years ago. It is now adult sized and I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t. None of my close friends have had babies. And anytime someone from my work came back from maternity leave to show off their infant, I was the one person in the corner who didn’t want to hold it. I didn’t really know how.

At this point, all I can do is relate my sister’s pregnancy to items I grow in my backyard. I understand their weight. I have context for their size against my palm. And I understand the importance of patience and timing – you never want to pick the fruit too soon.

Still. I feel like I am 10 and traveling to my grandparents’ house in Quincy, crawling along Route 93 in bumper to bumper traffic, and continuing to ask, ‘Are we there yet?’ No? Well, how much further? Two minutes later. How much further now?’

It’s only gotten worse since we discovered that she is having twin boys. Apparently yesterday they were running laps in her womb during the ultrasound session. She has to go back so more accurate readings can be taken when they are quieter. I pictured the twins slapping each other high-five afterward. Then I wondered if they even had hands yet.

I went online and learned that they do have hands. Fingers too. And how over the next few weeks they will begin to hear. A few weeks later Jen will be able to hear them—or at least, hear their heartbeats with a stethoscope.

It’s hard not to be excited about meeting the twins. However, I do not want to spend the next four and a half months wishing them away. I want to appreciate them.

So this weekend I will draw a diagram of my garden. I will buy seeds. I will plant some starts. Even though there is still snow on the ground. Even though it’s forecasted for tomorrow, and for several days next week. Even though nothing is green or even contemplating growing. Because eventually all that will change.

Already temperatures are slowly creeping past freezing. Sometimes winter retreats into the hills and spring doesn’t feel so far away. Almost as if it’s right around the bend, poking through all the dark spaces. And then it snows. Usually just a dusting. But enough to say, don’t get too far ahead of yourself—there’s plenty of season left in you yet. And deep down I know that harvest time will come soon enough.

picture book

My parents made a book for my grampa this Christmas. It is a picture book of his life. It begins with a photo of his parents and their children. His sister and mother are seated, ankles crossed, dresses covering all but their shins. My grampa stands center right next to his dad, shoulders squared, lips cocked slightly to the right as if in mid-whisper. Everyone else stares straight into the camera.

The next pages contain him with my nana. They are newlyweds.  Or newly courting. My nana steals the frames. She poses in a bikini by the car, sits on his knee at the beach. She is what you would call a knockout. One page over she appears grinning with my Aunt Dot – the last of her three babies.

I flip the page and come to a spread of people who are no longer here. I wonder what it’s like for my grampa to get this far. We are only on page 7.

I appear for the first time a page later. I am perhaps nine. I still have bangs and the short, cute nose of childhood. Things will change.

I page past Christmases I can’t exactly recall. However, I know I lived in California. I can tell because nana is wearing her oxygen mask. I see my sister’s graduate school commencement I never attended.  And family Halloween parties I missed out on because flying 3,000 miles to dress up didn’t seem to make sense at the time. Although it does now.

One photo shows my grandparents dressed as The Three Amigos with my Aunt Dot, all three wearing sombreros and ponchos. Their mustaches are glued on upside down. That image still makes me laugh.

There is the first time my family made ravioli together. It was about three years ago. My nana was still here.  She made the ricotta filling with my mom on the kitchen island. My grampa made the dough from memory at the table. He trusted his hands when memory failed him. They came out perfect. In every photo he looks like he has something to say.

Nana is wearing her oxygen mask in most of the photos. She used to carry a portable tank in public. I barely notice it now.  She was something of a catch even in her eighties. Even with plastic tubing around her face.

The last few pages are of my nana shopping for a wedding dress with my sister and dancing with my grampa at the reception. I remember watching them shuffle around the floor. They stayed along the edges. Her tubing didn’t stretch much further. I remember watching from behind a wooden beam and seeing my mom crying. She was across the room watching her parents dance their last dance.

The picture book goes on. There we are at my dad’s remission party. Jen is grinning. She isn’t pregnant yet. I close the book knowing we already need a new edition, just four weeks into the new year.

It feels strange to be planning my wedding knowing my nana won’t be there.  I am hoping that in her own way she will show up.  Last night I dreamt of a bedroom filled with ladybugs.  I wanted to take a picture of them crawling up the walls. But I knew if I woke up they would be gone.

As I look at different venues I wonder if my grampa will come. I hope he does. Even if he doesn’t remember it the next day. Because maybe our photos we will make the next edition of the picture book. Maybe grampa will thumb through the pages and find himself there smiling. Maybe he will think of two young people just starting out in life. And he will remember being happy.