Signs of Spring

Spring in Pamela Park

After about five solid years of winter, I’m seeing signs of spring –not necessarily in Mother Nature, who is usually still sleepy and moody in Minnesota this time of year anyway– but in my own nature. For example, I saw a heavily lacquered Barbie plow her Escalade between two lesser automobiles (instead of patiently waiting her turn) at after-school pickup yesterday and it only irritated me for about seven minutes; 25 is the norm. I have switched from Adele and Bon Iver to Madonna and Fleetwood Mac, watered my plants two weeks in a row, and bought two articles of clothing that aren’t black or grey. Spring!

 

Really, though, I know spring is finally here because I’m looking at my life through windows instead of imagining it from behind doors.

 

I am sure you’ve heard this saying: “when one door closes, another one opens.” It’s true, but I have spent a lot of time standing in the dark after the first door has closed, waiting for the next one to open. Either I’m longing for whatever is behind me, re-imagining it until it bears no resemblance to the reality, or I’m staring at the door ahead of me, looking for light through the cracks, writing a story in my head about what will happen in the room beyond before I even see it. In the meantime, I’m trying to take as little notice as possible of what’s around me in the space between.

 

If you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life, you can understand this approach. While you’re sitting in the bedroom where your adorable, thoughtful, truly classy stepmom is about to die of breast cancer, you don’t want to absorb into your memory her rattling, gasping breath, the medicine smell, the anemic sun straining through the clouds. You want to reinvent that scene later from a safer distance, from the other side of the door, where you can replace the smell of painkillers with the scent of lavender soap; where you can replace listening helplessly to the labored breathing with reading to her from a magazine; where you can replace the weak sun with a brilliant one.

 

Nostalgia and speculation are destructive habits if you can’t see beyond them.

 

And you want to imagine a sunnier room behind the next door, where you can sit and heal and remember how she made damn sure she was at both your rehearsal dinner AND your wedding in December, though nobody thought she would make it past February (she made it halfway through April on sheer will). You want to picture a room behind the next door where all of your most important people can come to visit, sit with you and put their arms around you and let you cry about how hard it was to lose such a special lady. It makes sense to picture that room, invent several scenes in it, hope for it, even if the room you get is another sickroom, this time at your mom’s house, where your stepdad will die less than a year and a half later of melanoma.

 

But even after these traumas and several others have passed, after you have absorbed all the losses and near-losses, it can be hard to give up the doors. Nostalgia and speculation are destructive habits if you can’t see beyond them; they let you skip over the crucial points that explain why something (or someone) has to stay in the past or allow you to dream a life for yourself that is far less beautiful and spectacular than the one God is dreaming for you.

 

Yet I will never be the kind of girl who lives in the moment; that’s not typically how artist brains work. I need to have a view into my past and some vision about the future to make meaningful connections, to write. For a long time I couldn’t do that –the past was too painful and the future too scary. I needed the doors in place for protection, so I could feel brave enough to keep feeling my way in the dark, knowing there were barriers between what happened yesterday, me today, and what would happen tomorrow.

 

Now I have begun replacing some –not all, but some– of the doors with windows. I can see into the room now at Children’s hospital where I stayed with my Caroline last August, she watching Olivia and I listening to music while she sat leaning against my chest in the little bed. I have kept the doors on all the other hospital rooms for now.

 

I can see through a window into Kyle’s memorial at his parents’ house in Milwaukee –the singing, the cooking, sleeping in a bed with my cousin Jessica like we would when we were little girls. But there’s still a door on my visit to the same house to visit Kyle the month before.

 

I can look through the windows in one room to see another, finally understanding that they belong together –they belong to the same life.

 

I can see into Linda’s room the day she died, see beyond the rattling breath, the medicine smell, the weak sun to the honor of being there when she finally felt brave enough to let go. I can see into Steve’s den, past the tiny man who bore so little resemblance to the one I knew, to the one I did know asking an uncharacteristically vulnerable question: “Where will I go?” I can hear my own answer through the window: “You don’t believe in Heaven, I know, but I believe in it for you.” There’s the medicine smell in that scene, but also a little bit of lingering pipe smoke –the memory makes more sense to me with both.

 

I can see through these windows some of what used to be, who used to be, and be grateful without being cracked open all over again with grief or heartbreak or fear. I can look through the windows in one room to see another, finally understanding that they belong together –they belong to the same life. At the same time I can see vaguely into the rooms ahead, imagine someone who’s missing from the room in front of me showing up in a room beyond it, imagine what might be, who I might be, and remember that God will write it way better than I can. In the meantime, there’s a lot more light where I’m standing now.

 

In another month or so, I’ll see outward signs of Spring…peonies and roses in my dad’s garden, that mossy, electric scent coming from the earth, and all kinds of whackadoos jogging in 60-degree weather practically naked. I’ll wear dresses and open-toed shoes and maybe more jewelry. I’ll leave this house with all of its painful memories and close the door. I don’t know if I’ll ever replace that particular door with a window, but I might. Knowing I might is my first sign of spring.

 

Investment Strategies for the Only Child

Bridesmaids 121199

I, like Pebbles Flintstone and Cinderella, am an only child.

 

Everyone thinks only children are spoiled, but it’s not at all true; my parents bathed me in tap water and everything.

 

I do have to concede that I enjoyed some damn good birthdays and Christmases, though being the product of a broken home didn’t hurt in that department, either. I went to camp every summer for a month each time (my friends called it Camp Condo, but a lot of them were those freaks who like to wander around the wilderness carrying canoes on their heads, so you have to take their assessment with a grain of salt). My bedrooms were pretty, my clothes were pretty, and the places my parents took me on vacations were pretty. I regularly attended symphonies and plays and musicals, was encouraged at adult dinner parties to share my ignorant adolescent opinions on a range of subjects, and my parents never called me by the wrong name.

 

I would have willingly sacrificed the material trappings of only childhood (though not the privilege of pontificating at parties) for a couple of siblings.

 

But I was lonely –sometimes I’m still lonely. I had cousins with varying levels of interest in taking on sibling roles, step-siblings with absolutely no interest in taking on those roles, and truly remarkable friends, but if you have siblings (or, I guess, even if you don’t), you know it’s not the same. It’s not the same when you don’t have allies on the playground, it’s not the same when there’s nobody to tell you to stop wearing your original puffy paint sweatshirt creations to school in 10th grade, and it’s not the same when both of your parents lose their spouses from cancer in a year and a half and there’s nobody but you to love them (and yourself) through it.

 

I know plenty of Onlies who didn’t mind their solo gig and even a few baffling weirdos who seemed to love it, but I would have willingly sacrificed the material trappings of only childhood (though not the privilege of pontificating at parties) for a couple of siblings. Obviously, if my parents had only been ABLE to have one child, then I wouldn’t be whining right now (or would at least be whining about something else), but there were no real impediments to their conceiving another child other than the fact that they could barely stand to be in the same room at the same time. So okay, I understand. Anyways, by the time I arrived it was already too late, because I wanted OLDER siblings, not some annoying brat who would take all the attention away from my mediocre clarinet playing and practically inedible homemade éclairs. I know, I know, that’s totally something an only child would say –see what they did to me?

 

My friend Julie has accused me more than once of romanticizing siblings. Not true –why shouldn’t I assume that any big brother of mine would be a lot like Albus Dumbledore (only without the late-adolescence power obsession)? For my fantasy sisters, I’m less fanciful; Cate Blanchett and Nigella Lawson would do just fine. Really, all I’ve ever wanted was a brother who would tell me which of his gorgeous, thoughtful, brilliant friends to date and sisters who would share their amazing clothes and crush my enemies.

 

I have always thought of siblings as a kind of peer relationship insurance policy. It’s expensive, but you’re not denied based on your history of self-destructive, irritating behavior and someone will always make them pay if they try to opt out. Friends, of course, are more like stocks and bonds –the shortest-term ones are the highest risk, and all you can do if the bottom falls out is have a stiff drink and try to absorb the loss. Sisters and brothers can’t throw you away, even if they’re tired of your intensity or your whining or your complete inability to handle violent movies. They know they’re going to have to face you at Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day or at least next summer at the cabin, so they have to keep trying. They HAVE to.

 

I have always thought of siblings as a kind of peer relationship insurance policy.

 

I don’t have insurance; nobody in my life has to put up with my shit. My darling Julie did not have to come over and help me clean my house when I returned home after a weekend away at my cousin Kyle’s memorial service to dead flowers on the counter, laundry everywhere, dishes in the sink.

 

My cousin Jessica did not have to blaze all the way down to Mayo Clinic from Minneapolis to deliver a salad and giant piece of cake to Caroline’s hospital room, where I was stuck alone with my three-year-old, waiting for her to have a massive seizure so we could figure out where it was coming from. My friend Michele did not have to call my favorite bakery (which doesn’t deliver) and talk them into delivering a huge box of pastries (she made sure to buy only the stuff that would last several days) to my house before Caroline’s surgery.

 

My friend Mary does not have to call me every time things go radically south in my life and tell me exactly what she would do, step by step, to take care of me if she were living in Minneapolis. My friend Betsy does not have to sit on the phone with me every Thanksgiving and Christmas, going over the WHOLE menu, telling me the best way to roast asparagus, cook bacon (I can never do it right), or tweak the recipe for her mother’s chocolate cake, which is my perennial birthday cake, to make it exactly right.

None of them have to do anything (that’s not at all an exhaustive list of my phenomenal friends or the beautiful things they’ve done for me, by the way –if you weren’t mentioned this time, you can bet you will be eventually). They don’t have to keep me around, they don’t have to listen to me lecture and cry and long for the jerks who don’t care whether I’m in their lives or not. They just do because they want to, because they love me and they know I love them and usually try give as good as I get.

See? It’s not the same. If I had brothers and sisters, the insurance, they would be expected to take care of me by doing what insurance will usually do for you –the bare minimum. Maybe they would do more, but they could just as easily do only what they were obligated to do, resent it, wear me down, demand proof of my claim. Stocks aren’t like that — choose good strong ones and they’ll always pay because that’s how it’s set up. Once in a while, I’ll invest a lot of energy and heart into a relationship that seems good, strong, promising. But they get busy or bored and drift away, run away, throw me away. It hurts; every time it happens with a friend I really value, I wish I had the insurance. I wish they didn’t have the option to take everything I’ve given them and run. I wish I could MAKE them stay.

But I don’t really. Obligation is not a good insurance policy. I want my investments to value me as much as I value them, to strive always for loyalty and transparency and innovation. When they don’t, I have a stiff drink and absorb the loss. Then I call my stocks and bonds –a good portfolio has always been the best insurance.