Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout

Forget “falling” and “head-over-heels.” New love that leads to the madness of marriage might better be described as a somersaulting, limbs-flailing, tandem barreling down a rocky mountain that will end in either Nirvana or Death. Drawing a little blood screams that you are alive, but in any case there’s no stopping. If you could grab a hand- or foot-hold, well of course you would, and quit making such a flapping idiot of yourself.

Doug and I were already in the tumble by about the third date, when the 40-something childless man who was definitely going to be my second husband asked, not for the first time, “So how many children do you have again?”

Four. I have four.

My significant other — an erudite PhD and Renaissance Man who explains the intricacies of cellular biology on a regular basis — held up fingers for himself.

Not long after this, serious introductions were made between my daughters and their stepfather-to-be. The girls ranged in age from between 6 and 13. He began the process of trying to memorize their names, and they began the process of getting to know this newcomer who would have such a tremendous effect on their lives. Doug and I had arranged for all of this to occur during a day-long outing to relatively neutral territory, his family’s beloved vacation house on the Pigeon River near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Tucked deep into a cool, leafy green peace, the house was a fine place for me to do a lot of hyperventilating, stricken as I was with the fear that my children might devour alive the man I loved.

After a few hours, I relaxed a little. Things were going OK. We were all eating lunch on the screened-in porch, mostly hidden by rhododendrons, talking, laughing. Being fairly normal. From our side of the screen, we could see tourists float past on the river in rented inner-tubes, causing near blindness in their new fluorescent swimsuits. Birdsong was interrupted by bursts of screaming and yelping as they hit and tipped around in easy rapids. This was great — my embryonic new family had something to dogpile on together. Stripped of even a trace of self-awareness in their unfamiliar surroundings, tourists beg to be made fun of — by local residents with real family ties to an area, and all young people, ranging in age from, say, 6 to 13.

Young people who say something like this, from oldest to youngest:

Geez. Those tubers are really stupid.
Yeah. Totally annoying.
Woof woof. Who let the dogs out?
Dumbheads   . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“I don’t know,” Doug said. “They are also capable of asexual reproduction. That’s pretty cool.”

No really, it made sense. Right there on our lunch plates were dollops of homemade potato salad. And a “tuber,” for the rest of us not so erudite, can also be defined as “a swollen, fleshy, usually underground stem of a plant, such as the potato, bearing buds from which new plant shoots arise.”

Sure, perfect sense. The whole big somersaulting, limbs-flailing, barreling down a rocky mountain madness of it. And six is even better than two. Totally.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Laughing and Crying

What a weird week this one was, of losses and gains. At the top of the "losses" list, I learned of a friend's death Thursday, moments before one of my 23-year-old daughters was walking out the door to leave for a six-month internship. (She will be too far for any visits during that time.) That made for a strange parting for my daughter and me, a collision of emotions, happy and sad. I hated it that she was worried about me  --  that was all backwards.

The next morning, I was surprised to find that I couldn't stop crying for the loss of this old friend, whom I hadn't seen in years and years. (In fact, I didn't even know he had brain cancer, so what kind of a friend could I really even call myself?) The first morning after a death is always the hardest, though, I think: you wake up to a different world and your foggy mind has to wrap itself around the new reality for the first time. So at work, even when I successfully turned my attention elsewhere, the tears kept flowing, like I had allergies, like someone had blown a big puff of pollen in my face. To try to pull myself together, I wrote a letter to my deceased friend, with no intention whatsoever of sharing it with anyone. Then I thought, well, I will share it with my journalism friends who knew him; they will have their own similar stories to add. And from there, with their encouragement, I made it publicly available on this blog. It didn't feel perfectly right, like it was now about self-promotion rather than the ode to a friend originally intended.

One of the gains for the week was the realization that it's been so long since I've been to a funeral, I no longer have "the funeral dress." (How lucky is that?) Lots of you will know what I'm talking about  --  the outfit you pull from the closet solemnly and use for no other purpose. The one that hardly ever sees the light of day, but that's there to save you from having to think about something so dumb as what you will wear when your heart is so heavy. The one that goes on like a cloak of love and respect, no different in its way from the uniforms standing behind a 21-gun salute. It is classically devoid of style or decoration, so that it is ready for duty, no matter the vagaries of fashion at that time. Though my weight hasn't changed since high school, my figure sure has, and I distinctly remember the day some years ago that I decided the Funeral Dress had to go. The split in the seam at the rib cage was officially beginning to show. It felt as though the dress deserved some rites of its own, after all we'd been through together, some of the hardest times in a person's life.

I am old-fashioned in my belief about what to wear to a funeral, but struck out at Abingdon's one dress shop that was open late enough Friday night. So on Saturday morning, this girl who practically wears pajamas to work was rifling her closet in a panic. In the end, I'd gathered just about every black thing I owned, put it on (I was an "onion," I had layers)  --  and looked like I was heading out to fetch myself a new widower. (See? Dumb.) The more I primped to correct the Tart Look, the worse it got. I visited my mother for a little while before the funeral and told her this. She laughed in absolute agreement and said, "Just keep your coat on."

Dang if it wasn't 80 degrees in the funeral home.

There, dumb concerns aside, I became glad that I'd shared the letter to Keith. In it I had described a bubble-world that only some of us knew, so I am glad those memories have been added to "the memory pot," so to speak. As an Atheist-With-Caveats, I don't really believe we "commend souls" at a funeral. I believe we commend memories into the hearts of the people who attend. It's a cliche, but death really does put the meaning in life. Everything we do passes through that filter in some way. We live on in memory, and the influence we had on others.