Wanderings on COVID and Autism Parenting

My intention with “Married” was to write about my experience of the year 2020, the year COVID was unleashed, sickening and killing people everywhere and crushing our spirits. I would start with New Year’s Day and walk it forward. Inspired by a blog written by a woman in her 20s who charted her literary and culinary explorations during her COVID year spent mostly in solitude, I set out to write a contrasting blog about my year, a year in which I did not finish a single book I started and rarely had a moment alone.  It was a year when cooking meant assembling something with nutrients on a plate with olive oil, salt, and garlic granules sprinkled on (the simple task of peeling garlic too agonizing). Reading this other woman’s blog, I was envious of where her mind got to travel this year and all the new writers’ works she got to ponder and remembered what it was like to be single and free. I wondered how different our politics might look if every human took a year or more to explore art, literature, philosophy, and took the time to write and reflect.  But I also felt I was doing what I was supposed to be doing in the sense that, a decade before, I had consciously chosen family life and a job with benefits over copious time with characters and ideas and metaphors and aesthetic concerns.  I made this choice knowing that I could not raise a kid with an uncertain income. So now, my imaginative longings had to be found in short bursts of exhausted reading, in memory, in narratives I created in my mind, many while driving in the car–narratives that would never make it to paper. 

It’s hard to call this era of work and parenting an era of loss when it is so rich with challenge. Which brings me to the rest of 2020, a year of being kept awake and alive in an altogether different way from the decade of my more exploratory 20s and 30s, largely because my son, a sprite, interesting, and adorable human, has autism.  During COVID, I got the rare experience of three “work-free” months at home with him.  

Getting to know and having to guide a child who is much different from oneself is a common experience of parents.  For some who have children, different as their kid may be, the process doesn’t require a heaping effort of book study so much as the steady discipline of practicing keen observation, patience, love, and listening to the old gut.  Raising a child with autism involves these things, too, but the work goes far beyond, with the need to engage the knowledge of researchers and scholars and therapists and other people with autism, just to be competent. A person with autism is easily misunderstood as we go about practicing folk psychology in our interactions, attributing reasons for their attitudes and behaviors based on our own experience.  Someone not familiar with the differences of autism might think my son’s need for control should be challenged more so he “learns to deal” with the unexpected.  Or they may see his repetitive actions and think someone needs to reign those in. His “obsessions” or “perseverations” appear too consuming to be healthy.  His life may seem selfish or self-centered, given his proclivity to launch into detailed monologues with a person he first meets, proudly elaborating on everything he has learned about how to create complicated domino structures for knocking down.  The list of judgments and misunderstandings is long.  I am frequently tired, and in that state, I, too, am apt to cast the same aspersions against my child that I rail about when coming from others.  This duplicity is at the core of the autism parenting struggle.

Every person with autism I have met has shown a willingness to connect with some other person, but by virtue of the fact they have autism, the norms of social interaction are confounding and repetition and ritual comforting. People with autism who are lucky enough to have what is measured as an above-average IQ, are frequently able to learn about how to engage socially through explicit teaching the things others learn implicitly through everyday interaction.  That said, the effort to “pass” as neurotypical can be too much to bear and too emotionally painful and taxing to pull off.  In the end, autistic people must rely on others to accept their differences.  In the best of communities, they find themselves valued for who they are. 

Temple Grandin, the most famous and successful person with autism, points out there are too many adults with autism living in their parents’ basements playing video games all day when they could be earning a living through work. I would argue this is the result of our collective failure, and can’t be put exclusively on parents, as a parent cannot take full responsibility for whether the world can accommodate a human with disabilities. And so therein lies yet another challenge of those who parent a child with autism. We must provide guidance and teaching of things that “neurotypicals” do not need taught, using methods that are not intuitive, with no certainty that our kids will become proficient enough to one day navigate a neurotypical workplace successfully. We disperse prayers that wherever it lands, our children will find their place in the world.  We also have to live our own lives authentically, with the neurological situation we have, which means limitations on how much we can give in the way of guidance as we recover from our own long days.  We walk in the door needing nourishment from our family and often find ourselves using that time to create another lesson plan (with visuals!) on how to show compassion and why it matters. I am never more impressed by a human than the single parent raising a child with autism. On hard days, I hear their voices, giving me a pep talk on how to find a balance between my needs and the needs of my child, how to ask for help, telling me to believe.

All of which brings me back to reflections on New Year’s Eve 2020 and New Year’s Day 2021, a year following the scene at Central Park, and the COVID year smashed in between.

To be continued…   

Married

New Year’s Eve, 2019.  Our 8 year-old son, Alex, is still operating on PST, which means midnight in NY is 9:00 p.m. at home.  We decide that he can stay up for the fireworks show at Central Park so the dazzling blazes and heart-booming explosions may light our way into the unknown future 2020 will bring.  We are all aglow under the flashes—Me, Mark, Alex, Alex’s Grandma, and thousands of strangers.  It is no small thing to pull off such a mind-blowing event.  We know this, but this is NY where everything magnificent seems easy and with that sense of ease we intuit our own sense of power.  We seek these feelings so that we can feed on them once back at our mountain place. 

The extravagant show does not disappoint. It ends in an even more extravagant finale. We turn toward each other for hugs and wishes of happiness in the days ahead and then quickly shuffle as we and the crowds funnel onto side streets to walk to subway stations and nearby towers, the collective relief buzzing around us.  I’m sure it’s not just me.  Everyone feels it:  we are strangers, and we trusted each other enough to pack ourselves together in this famous park IN NEW YORK for midnight explosions. No bombs took lives, no gun fire erupted. There’s a lightness in the air and a feeling that good prevails as people toot horns and spontaneously shout, “Happy New Year!” as if this cold winter night means something apart from our belief that it does.

The next morning, we wake to the first day of 2020. We wake to 2020 and a child who wants out of the city. He doesn’t like all these buildings, too much concrete, craves the cedar trees and lichens of his mountain in Idaho and will only survive if he can climb the rocks at the south end of Central Park.  We eat lunch and make a plan. Dad will do the dinner shopping, and Mom and Grandma will take him to a climbing place where he can feel the earth beneath him.  The three walk the six blocks to Central Park West and then down winding paths where Alex can run free and breathe air scented by green. But, once at the south end, Mom can see that the rocks he wants to climb are not safe for a child without ropes.  He runs ahead. She runs after him as he ascends to places she cannot reach.

And so the year begins with massive heartbreak as Mom screams from below the rocks “not that way!” and her child sobs and wonders what is wrong with her cause “daddy would let me,” and then more screams from below, “I’m not daddy!” and, then, as they take a tear-filled shortcut back to Grandma’s apartment through Lincoln Center so Mom can find a moment of peace in the 10 second walk past the reflecting pool, there comes a full-throated protest: “this is NOT the way HOME!” Followed by a full throttle meltdown and a sit-in.  And now Mom wonders if she will have enough time to get this kid to the apartment so she and Dad can have the night they have been looking forward to for two months—dinner at Momofuku Ssam Bar (now closed) followed by David Byrne’s American Utopia (now closed). 

Mom’s hair will suffer, but with Grandma’s prodding and promises of treats, they make it back in time for a quick shower before a 4:00 departure.  Through more sobbing and “please don’t leave me!” and “why do you have to go to shows?” Mom instructs Grandma to let Alex watch as much YouTube as he wants.  All the marble runs he wants until we get back.  He is distracted opening Jelle’s Channel as Mom and Dad offer a quick kiss and dash out the door. Will grandma survive this night? She has Uncle Sam’s help. Uncle Sam will play poker with Alex, and, anyway, the child has free reign on marble run videos, and we got them crab cakes from Fairway for God’s sake.

On West 66th now, and the glow of Mark’s green eyes soothes.  We take a sigh together.  We will have six hours to feel it all, all the love we have co-created in 19 years that is now mostly wrapped up in the care and guidance of this child who is brilliant, autistic, loving, and hard.  It’s a paradox that the difficulties of parenting Alex—the arguing over nothing, the endless charts tracking social goals, the tachycardia, the parent-teacher meetings, the therapy for his hands, the Why? Why? Why?, the sweat, the too tired to connect, the endless math problems, have made us closer.  Where there used to be a need to transition from that to this, there is now this, immediate this.  We are together, and some kind person is giving us this moment to cherish each other by taking our hard kid that few see as the blessing we do, and I see you, and I love you, and thank God we only had one, and will you marry me? And laughter because we are already married. Surely, there must be a stronger statement.  Will you double-marry me?

(to be continued)

Flight

Mom said don’t come. He hadn’t woken up from the anesthesia, no. They were still waiting, but you don’t need to come.  That night, standing in line at airport security, wired like a cat in a cold rain and praying not to cry to the TSA agent, I pulled my boarding pass from my jeans pocket. I could feel the woman with heat-rolled, pearly white hair, wearing a fake red polo and security badge, inch her way toward me as I waited. When she made it near enough to my place in line, she leaned over the ribbon of rope.

“Honey, you OK?”

I knew airport security was going to expose me for the mess I was, but I was surprised how fast the judgment came. Thinking I must appear troubled enough to set shoes on fire or spray the air with bullets, I shared more than I wanted to share with this woman who brought attention I didn’t ask for.  I wanted to say something snarky, but I only stated the truth.

“I’m heading to Alabama to visit my dad in the hospital.”

As I spoke, I noticed the sensation that someone had cinched a thick hemp rope around my neck, shutting off part of my wind, strangling me but also helping me hold back the sobs rocking inside my chest.

“He went into heart surgery three days ago and has not woken up.”

Tears fell.

“Oh, honey.”

Her face was frozen.  Her eyes bulged, reminding me of a Baz Luhrmann Strictly Ballroom character. Her hair flashed a wave of light.

“Your dad had a stroke. Don’t worry, my dear. The angels are with him now. God will take care of him.”

She smiled an enormously inappropriate smile, gave me a knowing look, and squeezed my freezing, rigid hand like a giddy schoolgirl who had just spied her favorite crush. Then she walked away. It was weird. It was super-freaky weird, and the bizarreness of it gave me a buzz, perhaps because I stand in awe of the ecstatic faithful. I proceeded to show my driver’s license and boarding pass to the agent, eyes dry, before taking off my shoes and tossing them into a bin.  Once on the other side of the conveyor belt, I felt a little more nuts and a little less sad as I settled in at a table near Vintage Washington for salad and a glass of wine. I opened The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I would read it from cover to cover before the tires of my plane met the tarmac in Atlanta. It felt ominous, this story of a man and his son on a journey through a burning, fallow, and broken landscape, death and hunger present in every scene. I flip back through its pages and remember the intense sense of being present in the narrative when I encountered this:

You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes, you do.
Is the fire real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.

I was in a heightened state. Every word of every page felt like a message from another world. During that plane ride, I lost all sense of fear.  I was not of my body.

I have no recollection of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, but I know it was my “half-unit,” Martha, who picked me up some time close to midnight and drove me the 100 miles home. As she pulled onto the highway, she said her father, a doctor, wasn’t worried about dad. I wanted to believe he knew something I didn’t know, but I suspected he was exercising the power of positive thinking. Dad was floating and not coming back. When we got to the house, Martha and I sipped on mint tea and caught up on mundane things until the light broke just barely blue and she drove back the 100 miles for work.  I remember a long tight Martha hug. As soon as her headlights disappeared southward, I slinked quietly to the back of the house to find my mother sleeping.  Translucent sheer curtains billowed into her room from the gentle breeze coming through door-size screens.  I recalled the ghost I dreamed about as a child, the ghost living on the other side of the sliding glass. In my recurring dream I would poke it with a stick and watch as its center moved in eddies. Childhood was suddenly reduced to this vaporous instant of fear and fascination.  I would not sleep while waiting for the phone call that came from the hospital that morning. I would lie in bed, suspended in what felt like an endless chamber of spider webs, hyper-conscious, feeling without thinking the soft beats of my racing heart.

Here Still

I’ve been away from reflection through writing for so long it is taking an act of physical effort to stay seated at my computer now. The discomfort reminds me of the way I so often feel walking into a funeral or memorial gathering of someone I loved or respected or inexplicably felt close to. I know I will do better in the world to connect with others in grief and celebration, but the music just hurts. Experience tells me there is always something important lurking beneath the washing of kid clothes and ironing of work pants, and so this effort to write is an effort to get to what might be there. Sitting not in grief or celebration but in hopes of a kind of stillness that brings about clarity that a liking of articles and memes on facebook won’t bring on (if it ever did).

A voice becomes present. Right now. It is the voice of my old friend Tracy. It carries a quote from Hemingway. Write the truest sentence that you know. And so I have. Several, in fact. And so as I type there is so much to track in this memory of a friend and the writer he appreciated. There is a decade of a restaurant we created, the masculine bravado I admired and despised. There is the realization of an era when my time was spent as much in solitary thought and inner dialogue as with people in my midst. This followed by an era of playing daily host to diners. And so now my world is an explosion of memories, like that bite into the madeleine Proust described in Swann’s Way. I once read that passage aloud to Tracy in disbelief. Such powerful memories evoked after this small bite into a sweet but ordinary thing. Right, he said—that’s why it is probably the most famous in all of French literature. So many moments in the life of a self-identified autodidact are humbling.

And so the two paragraphs above followed by whatever will come next are shaping up to be an entry back into this world of wondering what is there beneath all the activity of getting “work” done. It is a great, deep well for every human, I am sure. I am more sure now than ever as I engage with so many people suffering from damage to their brains from injury or neurological disease. And so I would like to view the contours of how I got from a sometimes lost but hopeful girl in Alabama to a young woman who found herself through books to a restaurant creator (and cyclone) to the woman in the chair across from the former man of great intellect who is weeping because he can’t find a word to say, simply, “I am frustrated.” And so that is my commitment. In the hours between hospital and clinic, lover and son, friends and meals and showers, I will hold the space for reflecting on how I came to this place.

Back soon.

Forever

We’re lying on a pull-out mattress in the basement, windows covered with pillows to block any speck of sun that might summon the nerve to poke through. I am armed with my fly swatter to slap back whatever miniscule ray dares.  It is 107 degrees outside. This cavern is our only escape from eyebrow-furrowing heat other than a public swimming pool so crowded the water is warm, and even with goggles, one could lose an eye to a wild elbow. There’s a movie playing on my laptop perched on a pillow, the only movie my four year-old will watch. We’re on our fifth run in five days, but I’ve made my peace since it buys me time to close my eyes. In my somnolence, as the credits roll, I’m entertaining what heavenly, cold treats some fair-armed goddess will deliver for dinner—cold crab? A sushi tray? Rolls of thinly sliced beef tongue with horseradish cream?

It is in this moment of half -presence that he cuddles in: “Mommy, I want you to be with me forever. Today and tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next…” “Monkey, that probably isn’t going to happen, but we can dream.” The love I feel for this forty-pound sand excavator is vaster than all the oceans of crappy pop songs, taller than all the mountaintops of old country. I love him so much we craft rockets out of paper and glue and psychedelic hot pink yarn, sometimes twice in one day. On the days we don’t, I take him to the river, the lake, the pool, the splash pad, the forest, the mountain, the playground. I take him anywhere I think we might find other kids to play with because what he needs is not forever with me but an hour with a friend. I would like him to find his place in the world of children. I worry.

“Don’t worry,” my mom, Queen Worrier, tells me. “Everyone is different. Some kids play alone for a long time before they seek out other kids.” I know she’s probably right, and what good is worrying, anyway, but I also know my dad never had a friend, not a real one, and I think maybe my son and my dad have a lot in common. On his fourth birthday, the monkey wanted us to read him books in bed while our invited guests ate grilled burgers and played with the toys he had just opened. Then, as a special treat for being 4, he asked if we would take him to the wastewater treatment plant. He wants to know how they get the poop out of the water. I’ll admit I am fascinated and will join the tour, but with fascination comes concern that maybe there is no school that is going to work for him.

“They’re not hot house tomatoes,” a California friend tells me, “they thrive in all weather.” Is this true? This is one of two pieces of purported wisdom I roll over in my mind again and again. The other: “Let him be a crappy American kid.” So we don’t do Thomas and Friends (I can’t!), but he does get to eat refried beans at Taco Del Mar when we go to launch bottle cars at the children’s museum. We let my sister buy him shirts with GAP across the front. If life is all about compromise, we are on the road to living! But then there are the minutes. It’s the minutes that test parental reserves. The days fly past, but those aching minutes when I just want to read ten pages of Americanah or a chapter of Optimizing Cognitive Rehabilitation or talk to another mom about race issues or how to tweak the world left through thoughtful consumerism.  “Mommy, NO!  I need you!”

And so six weeks from now I will be back to school full-time, crying in the car every time he latches onto my leg and won’t let go. I’ll say it’s necessary for us both. He’ll watch the preschool children play for hours.  When I come home he’ll be deep into Get/Gotten with daddy; he’ll look up at me and politely say, “Mommy, you should go back to work.”

Back

I am finally on break from a whole-self-in grad program that has left me with little time for much that I love in life and little in the way of nocturnal dreams. It has taken me four days to settle back into noticing what my body needs, the kind of books I want to read, what it means to be present with my son and husband, what it feels like to sit for hours on the couch of a friend and let thoughts rush in unpredictable eddies that suddenly vanish and reappear as an open desert or seedy urban bar. I am here alone now with a mind free to wander, wondering how my loved ones have grown and changed over the four months I haven’t had time to pay attention. I reflect on a Thanksgiving that got me to the finish line but lament that slow time with friends like that is so rare.  I find myself exhausted and most in need of sleep in front of the fire my husband built, one split log at a time, but I am thankful for this solid chair that allows me to write these thoughts, thankful for this cup of yerba buena tea harvested from this mountain. I am thankful that I am right where I need to be with the book I need to be reading.

The title: Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. It was given to me by a soulful friend as a holiday gift. It explores a woman’s relationship to the natural and cultivated world through gardening and Zen practice. Though the author’s life has taken on a form much different from my own, parts of the story feel like mine.  In reading what it means to commit to a life of Zen, I recognize why I have not.  My desire to keep one foot in the door of our mad culture and a connection to this crazy country in all its mess persists.  I know I will always be troubled by the problems of living and dying and the suffering that comes between, and yet, like Wendy Johnson, I crave a way of being that transcends—more time to meditate, more heartfelt conversation, more time in nature and more time for cultivating a garden. My path meanders now away from these things that bring me so much joy and comfort; for lack of time, it has to. But I am thankful that I know what I am missing, that we sometimes can’t have it all.  I’m thankful that I know the door never closes to the practices that matter most to maintaining our truest selves, whatever they might be.

In the year I fell in love with my husband, he shared with me that he believed in staying put. Committing to loving him did not mean a commitment to place, but he made it known it would take much for him to be convinced that a move from the mountain and valley where we know the trees, the water, the sky, fire, air, and the animals and folks who breathe it was the right thing for us. This year, for my education, we deemed it right. We are now living ninety miles north of the place we know so well. I am learning from knowledgeable, skilled, and good-hearted people, but the world we share is lacking. Our family has given up cooking on fire, gathering with long-time friends for sing-alongs, sloshing around in imperfect snow for whiskey-tinged play with ancient cedars that offer a simple tonic of their own. I’ve long known that a life spent in the rooms and halls of sterile buildings is not for me, but now I really know. Gary Snyder said this (and more and more I get it):

Don’t move. Stay still. Once you find a place that feels halfway right, and it seems time, settle down with a vow not to move any more. Take a look at one place on earth, one circle of people, one realm of beings over time.

I have a complicated heart that is consistently pulled in opposing directions, but I can say that the place where we’ve lived for the past sixteen years feels halfway right. And yet I doubt I will ever make a vow to stay.  I don’t know if the circle of people here will change enough over time that it no longer feels like my place.  But despite growing less certain about many things as I grow older, I have gleaned something in these past four months that I needed to know:  This is home.

Tonight, that feels big.

There

He says his tummy hurts, it hurts, and so we cycle through our sick-routine again:  dinosaur pjs, sleep sack, So Soft blanket.  I refill his sippy cup with water, carry him to his crib, draw the curtains closed, make myself at home on the floor.  He’s requesting another Mama Raven adventure, our fourth of the morning.  This time he wants to go to the Snake River, to Swallows Park, to that special place where his geese friends live.

Mama Raven taps on his window, invites him to climb onto her back.  He leaps from his crib, wraps his arms around her, and reaches for her throat feathers as she takes one hop, two hops, three hops, and instead of a fourth hop, beats her wings, ascending high, high into the sky, higher and higher until she is so high she is up above the clouds.  He shifts his weight and tightens his body, allowing her wings room to move as he tucks his head close to hers.  Black eyes directed southward, she soars down over Palouse country, over snowy hills and boggy bottoms, over patchy green earth, down to the early March chill of the Clearwater River.  There she veers west, coursing along its edge for just a bit until she comes to its confluence with the Snake.  A quick flap south again, and they have made it to the sandy shore of Swallows Park where the geese dive and honk and run amok.  She glides down to the beach there, everywhere pebbles for tossing, and gently rolls him off her back.  He snores deeply now as she spins him into a baby burrito, a fluffy yellow towel appearing for a wrapper.  Her task complete, she clutches the bundle with her claws and repeats the pattern in reverse, making way back to the window by the crib where Mom is waiting to tuck him in.

I breathe over him, pull the quilt up over his body and place my hand on his chest, relieved that he has finally found peace enough to dream.  It’s all in dreaming, I whisper, as I creep out over creaky wood floors breathing in the warm mist vapors from his humidifier.  I close the door and gaze out the window at the tree limbs still bare and alive.  It’s March, and it feels like we might make it.

Tucked In

He is tucked into her, the baby–almost two now and on the cusp of boyhood.  She contemplates the time they have spent together in near disbelief as she rocks him gently back and forth, her belly rising and falling in tempo with the rising and falling of his chest.  His tiny toes twitch in fits and starts as he gives himself over to drowsiness.  His arms flail.  He bats her chin and collar bone with the back of his hand.  She calls awareness to her own body, to what she is holding there, to her arms like two-by-fours, her sinewy aching neck, her belly pulling her diaphragm tight to her ribs.  She accepts all of it, invites in the heaviness of the drift to nowhere, the forgiveness of a day’s work. She offers reprieve to everything that belongs to her except for the small hardening of her left thigh where she flexes and releases in rhythm like a pendulum, forward and back, forward and back. In one final effort of consciousness, the baby pulls his love-worn blanket over his eyes, his body falling limp with hers.  She leans her head back to doze, jaw dropping as slobber pools behind her lower lip.

She is tucked into her mother now at three years old, calm as a sleeping baby but with eyes wide open.  Her mother’s breath rises and falls in heavy turns, head tilted backward, jaw drooping, the rough texture of her aging skin brought into relief as streaks of light pour through the crack in the curtains.  She can’t curb her desire to touch the face she knows so well by sight.  She refrains for what feels like eternity, staring, studying, until unable to restrain herself any longer, she places the tips of her small fingers gently where her mother’s cheek collapses into a dimple, takes in the comfort of its powdery softness.  She would run her fingers over every contour of that face, but her arm tires and lurches to her side, causing her mother to startle to wakefulness.  The girl pulls herself in tighter, taking in the scent of Tide on oxford cloth as she is scooped down to the floor.  “I fell asleep,” her mother sweetly observes as she glides toward the kitchen to start dinner.

Drool runs down her chin. She is a mother now, waking to find her baby sleeping, his toddler limbs dangling from the edges of the pillow on her lap.  His eyelashes are gold-tinged, his cheeks pink from heat.  She marvels at the impossibility of him, the impossibility of any whole complicated organism with beliefs and desires looking up at her, looking up to her, breathing life.  She allows herself to feel a pang of animal loss.  It reminds her to stay present, to relish the moment.  He is here now, and she is here now.  She can only hope he will one day reflect on the cradle of her heartbeat and know her love as she knows the love of her own mother.  She reflects on her own thoughts.  They strike her as misdirected, the focus on his future somehow wrong.  She looks down at her belly still rounded from pregnancy and places a hand there.  So much will happen, all in a string of moments like this, and there is nothing to do but breathe through it all.  She stands and lowers him into his crib, runs her fingers over his plump cheek.  His head jolts reflexively, as if a fly had landed there.  She glides to the kitchen, places the kettle on the burner, and wraps her hands around a cold empty teacup, waiting for his cries to signal it’s time for cheese toast.

Inside/Outside: Philosophy and Me

Three years after completing my course work, I finally defended my philosophy thesis mid-June.  I’m happy to be moving beyond the era that began with “taking classes for fun,” a long process-driven period of study that, to my surprise, ended with a product.  A thesis, bound and soon to be shelved in a library.  There was nothing fun about creating the argument, nothing fun about the commitment of hundreds of hours of my baby’s first year of life to reading and writing abstractions, but when I hit that moment and could say without regret “it’s done,” the feeling was of calm satisfaction.  Staying with a project over many months and creating a long work that hangs together is good practice.  Perhaps that is the lesson I have made a part of me.  Writing and defending philosophical ideas also gave me a real appreciation for and understanding of what professional philosophers do, a valuable perspective on what it means to think through a problem.  That understanding will no doubt serve me and my tribe as I continue the hard work of being alive.  I’ve surprised myself before, but this time I’m confident:  A friend of philosophy I remain, but I leave the good work to the professionals who find their voice in its singing.

Better Yet

Eight month old Alex perched in his high chair yanks at his bib, pulling the Velcro tabs apart.  I reach behind him and reattach.  He does it again, does this repeatedly, teasing me with each pull, defying my resolve to keep him protected from flying morsels and a free falling sippy cup.  Again and again I reattach.  More than once, we’ve endured ten rounds of this in one feeding.  I have said it so many times now I wonder why I don’t give up and find a safety pin:  “You can’t do that, sweetie.  We need the bib ON YOU to protect your clothes.”

“You can’t do that, Alex,” my deceased father hears me say, and now he’s that guy who leans in to correct the pronunciation of something I’ve said in the lobby of a concert hall or at the counter of some cafe.  “Na-BO-kov.  Not NAB-o-kov.”  Excuse me?  It’s weird these moments.  I politely offer thanks.  He nods in recognition of the point he just scored, looks the other way.  I look down as if in deep thought.  A decent enough guy, but I can’t deny my urge to punch him in the face.

I’m having a conversation with my son when the ghost of my father leans in. “You mean he mustn’t,” he corrects, his voice a masterfully controlled contrabassoon that soothes as it stings.  “Mustn’t.  It’s not permissible.  We see that he can.”  We’ve been through this before, dad and I, many times.  Can, can’t, may, may not, must, mustn’t.  “Everyone I know uses ‘can’t’, dad.  It’s perfectly acceptable.”  “Well,” he says, focusing on the wall behind me, “it’s not the best choice.”

I’m not the indignant teenager I once was.  I know his years of instruction have added up to a better me even if I struggle with the lessons.  No matter.  The intrusion is pop rocks in my head.  Alex drops his rattle, stares at me as if to say, “What now mommy?”  In the uncomfortable quiet I plumb the depths for an answer.  Peas.  You must eat your peas.  I make the “ah” sound and insert another spoonful into his mouth.  He swallows, bounces gleefully, locks me into his gaze.  Milliseconds later, he’s ripping off his bib and slinging it to the floor, painting the universe in puke green slime.  I surrender to a new outfit and grab the sponge.  What I would like to say to a flesh and bones version of this specter is “pull up a chair, swellhead.”  Finish your handy work.  Fix my speech.

Sometimes the memories cascade.  I say can’t.  He says mustn’t.  He says mustn’t, and instead of exploding, I lie back and take in the sites.  The soft serve swirl of his white hair, the dry creek beds of his forehead, loose jowls like chicken skin.  I’ll visit his difficult eyes, the bridge of his once-broken nose, his square matter-of-fact chin.  He’s at the head of the table, trunk large and strong, spine bent but confident.  I sit across, shoulders hunched, eyes watering by the flicker of the candle’s flame.  And listening.  He’s a force, this man.  A survivor.  He has things to say.

Alex is ready to roll.  I pick him up from his high chair and steady him as he walks toward his pile of toys.  He’s distracted by the rocking chair, leans over to sink his teeth into its dark wood.  “No, dear.  We don’t eat furniture,” I say while directing him toward his favorite bear.  I think of all the boundaries a parent sets, the pointers, the corrections, the challenge of getting the balance right.  I think of how lasting are these words:  no, can’t, don’t, mustn’t.  And though it’s true that I still sometimes bristle when that contrabassoon windstorm blasts me home, I’m saddened Alex will never know its song.

So this is how it is in death.  Hallucinatory and lifelike.  The candle burns.  Dad’s there sitting on the other side of our old kitchen table, the whole man, gazing out at his fig tree, secretly pining with me in the silent space.