Harvest

I received an email from my father today. It read, “My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

Attached was a photo of several smallish reddish tomatoes, with only a few scars from growth, photographed in a tangle of thick, sweet tomato leaves and vines.photo

It’s not necessary to write he is very proud of these tomatoes.

Eight months ago, I heard him make rumblings about buying some tomato plants. He mused about it for a while, thinking aloud. Then one day I came to the house and found two large decorative terra cotta pots, once neglected and cracking with hard cores of gray dirt cast inside, filled with fragrant, moist ebony soil and two optimistically leafy plants tucked inside – a tomato and a pepper.

The pots were equally spaced and set on tiles, for proper drainage, on the front patio my parents never, ever used during the 30 years they lived there together – and in the two and a half years since cancer took my mom. I was quizzical.

Soon after, he left town on another of his “if-I-am-moving-my-grief-is-more-bearable” trips and asked me if I came to the house to be sure to water his plants. I came by only once or twice and dutifully and skeptically gave them drinks. I figured the plants would be dead in a month or so, composting victims of his scattered focus, collateral damage of the other distractions of the new life he was jamming awkwardly together.

But they didn’t die.

When he came back from the trip, I mentioned to him he ought to move the pots into the sun.

I figured he would forget.

But the next time I came to the house, they were in the sunshine and had small, white blooms. He was nearly ecstatic with these latest gifts of nature — blooms on the vines!

“Do you think I’ll get tomatoes?” he asked, a kid, asking me to predict the Christmas morning take.

“Well, if you’ve got flowers you’ll probably get tomatoes. That’s what that means,” was my snap-ish, erudite response.

Then he left again, this time recruiting a neighbor to support his campaign.

When he was gone too long and the weather was too hot, she fed them and cooled them and reported back. The tomato and pepper plants hadn’t expired of heat exhaustion. They were thriving.

He asked me about them all the time. Had I been by? How had the tomato plant seemed? Was the soil wet? Were they wilting?

I. Didn’t. Get. It.

Finally, the neighbor sent my dad a text. “We have a tomato.”

The night before a Transatlantic journey home, he wrote to me excitedly, “I can’t wait to see my tomato !!!”

I was miffed. He might also mention his daughter and her family. Enough about the tomatoes!

Maybe it was another goofy stage of his grief process, which is a maze for us all, and presents particular challenges for a child who must observe a beloved parent suddenly and tragically forget themselves, go astray, come back, follow rocky paths, want to die, want to hide, want to go back, pine for happiness, try to disappear, then reappear and need you (only you) and not need anyone at all ever again and need someone who is never, ever coming back again. These are agonizing circular challenges of your loss and their loss and your loss and their loss. Ad infinitum.

But still I puzzled, not seeing anything other than tomatoes. Fruits masquerading as vegetables.

When I got the email today, I glanced at it on my phone without really reading it. I asked him about it. He serenely told me he had invited his neighbor over so they could both be there when they picked the tomatoes. “I was afraid a critter might get them,” he said, his voice bearing all the protectiveness and vulnerability of a new mother.

And something in my heart changed. Dissolved. Clarified.

My father had planted, nurtured, worried over, babied, cooed at, cajoled, fed, and then, finally, brought to life something way more significant than fruits or vegetables.

He had harvested hope. For the first time in three decades, he wrote. (But I think he meant four because my oldest brother is 40.)

After Prima and Secondo were tucked into bed, I crept to my computer and looked again.

“My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

I love you, Dad.

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What Our Friends See in Us

Mr. Bailey told me recently he admires me for my resilience. By “told me,” I mean one day when I was feeling particularly low I prodded him to tell me what he liked best about me. Anyway, that’s when he said the thing about me being resilient.

Modern Mary considers the future, reflects on the compliments of the past. Amazing painting, “The Future” by Felicia Olin. http://www.feliciaolin.com

It delighted me, as I was feeling not so resilient at the moment. So maybe it was a Jedi-mind trick that he executed quite well.

In any case, it wasn’t the first time I had heard that particular trait called out.

My teenage years consisted of much intense falling in love. In my mind, though, I was not boy crazy. In fact, I despised my classmates who were always talking about some boy or lusting after some dude who they were too shy to speak to or who would not give them the time of day.

Instead, (shameful admission forthcoming…) I chose to be that outgoing, annoying girl who perennially had a loser or scumbag boyfriend who she kept breaking up with and getting back together. Ad infinitum.

Sometime in this morass of teenage girl angst, I found myself bottomed out in the aftermath of yet another lame-o boyfriend break up. I was whining to my best friend, when she said nearly the same thing.

“Mary, you’re nothing if not resilient,” was what she said. (Yes, we did speak like that then.

I may be modern, but I still have a thing for Walt Whitman.

We were major literature lovers who just as often quoted Whitman as we did The Cure.)

The comment, back then, stopped me in my tracks. I had not considered my passionate falls into love and writhing agony I felt after each break up as being resilient. To me, it felt confusing and weak.

Modern Mary considers the idea of “resiliency”. Another amazing painting by Felicia Olin, http://www.feliciaolin.com

As life turns out, resilience has turned out to be a pretty good trait to possess. At my (ahem) tender age, I’ve dealt with a good helping of suffering, betrayal, isolation, depression, grief, change and challenge; humbling humiliation and heart-stopping, hope-busting loss. This last go around had me walking underneath Eeyore’s black rain cloud for the better part of two years. It made the teenage years look like an episode of The Facts of Life. I never thought I would emerge with a place for hope to rest in my soul again.

As it turns out, resiliency as a defining characteristic/flaw is not easily dashed.

But I’ve realized another part of resiliency’s tenacity lies in the precious people you have around you to point it out to you. In that regard, I’ve been ridiculously blessed by a host of amazing friends/sisters/life guides (and, of course, Mr. Bailey, who must deal with all of my crazy crap my wonderful friends are spared).

Thank you for being a reason to find resilience again, for quietly, patiently marking the path back. Thank you for gathering up the broken pieces I had discarded, for believing when I didn’t, for crying with me, for whispered prayers, generous pours, and, mostly, for forgiving me my general lunacy.

Birdhouse in Your Soul by Felicia Olin

I hold so much gratitude to you for helping me repair this birdhouse in my soul.

Mary ama dormire (Modern Mary loves to sleep)

Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love to sleep.

Whether waking or sleeping, Modern Mary makes sleep a priority. Postcard image by Trish Grantham

It might be in my genes. My father has always been a notorious sleeper. Give him 5 minutes in a comfortable chair, regardless of the hour, and he will give you a nap.

I’m not so much the napping type as I am the sleep-for-10-hours-at-a-time type. I often tell Mr. Bailey, “You know what I’d like to do? Sleep for two weeks.”

In times of stress, I like to head to bed around 9:30 and sleep, preferably, until 8 or 9 a.m.

If you’re a sleeper like me, you know dreams sometimes play a role in the experience.

Since my mom died, my dreams have become rich, offbeat and resonant parts of my nighttime routine.

It seems every suggestion or fear is immediately processed into my subconscious and put into the dream queue.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to the absence of constant conversations with my siblings, the important conferring, the unity of our family as we fought cancer collectively. I am in the midst of deciphering what our family will be like now that my mother, the spoke, the emotional home of our unit, is gone.

In my midnight dreams, my three brothers and I are in my grandmother’s old house, together, sharing memories, looking around the dining room, theFloridaroom, laughing, when suddenly we hear the new owners arriving home. We all run into the yard, dashing like mad from our nostalgic breaking and entry.

I keep forgetting to put my hair up in rag curls at night!

I’m running blindly, trying to keep track of my brothers, desperate. Where have they gone? I catch flashes of their clothes as I dash down a set of stairs somewhere. We need to stay together, I insist.

Awake, I have fretted about the coming holidays, with their ties to home and family, memories like glittering lights on a twinkle string. They seem to illuminate only sadness without my mom.

At night, my third eye takes me to a future peculiarly reversed. It’s a future in which my father died instead of my mom. There we are in the midst of the holidays without him, all of us gathered where we always do – in my parent’s kitchen, surrounded by friends, family, trying to make sense of the first holiday without him.

In our daylight conversations, Mr. Bailey suggests we do something completely different and take a trip toNew Yorkright before Christmas.

As I lay sleeping, I dream we are stepping out of the airport into aNew York Citydecorated to the hilt with festive lights, swaying in a brisk winter wind. I feel the straps from the luggage I carry (with two kids we always have lots of luggage) dig into my shoulder as we cross a busy street to our hotel. Then we’re walking through a warm hotel, a corridor decorated with trees and ornaments and people milling, all sorts of people, here, and not home, for the holidays. It feels strange, exciting.

When I wake, I tell Mr. Bailey about myNew York dream.

“You are so impressionable,” he says, his eyes twinkling.

The dreams sometimes detract from the restfulness of my sleep, and sometimes enhance it. I wake with a sinking feeling so often it’s become a part of my morning routine. I imagine actually sinking into my bed, being swallowed by it. It’s not unpleasant.

Eventually, when all of the fantasies of slumber have been dislodged by the slanting soft light of morning, I get up. I RSVP for tonight to my sheets, my pillow, my comforter, my dreams.

Wrestling with Hope

You know what hope is?
Hope is a bastard
Hope is a liar, a cheat
and a tease. 

Hope comes near you?
Kick its backside,
got no place in days like these.
–Picture Window, lyric by Nick Hornby, music by Ben Folds

I have been hearing the lyrics to this song by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby over and over in my mind over the last week. It’s a brilliant lyric I wish I had written.

Not sure how thoughts and emotions bounce around inside of you, but sometimes my brain cannot think anymore along linear pathways. It’s not capable of rational thoughts that further my growth. When that happens, music tends to take over.

I hear the music of poems I’ve read, snippets of stuff I’ve written and then – as though filing through an old-school rotating round Rolodex, I hear my brain flipping through 34 years of music and lyrics for that One.

Sometimes I hear a foggy, faded version for days until I can consciously recall the words and the tune, solidly.

When it does finally jam into gear, the song usually flattens me. Literally. The best way to channel this music and tune it into my emotional center, to let it express that which I am unable to access rationally, is to lay flat on the ground next to a speaker and play the song. Loudly. And repeatedly, if necessary.

Ryan Russell Design

It sounds crazy, surely. Maybe it is. But it works for me. When I’m sung out, wrung out, cried out, a mellowness comes over me and the wave of song has disintegrated, is being pulled back out to sea.

This song came to me out of nowhere, driven by two things happening: 1) letting myself venture into the anger stage of grief, allowing the fury I feel at the whole bullshit cancer saga my Mom and my family went through and 2) suddenly remembering Mr. Bailey, at least a year ago, singing part of this lyric as he listened to it for the first time. I did not recall what it said entirely. Something about hope was all I recalled. But suddenly, I had to track it down.

After my ritual, I realized “Picture Window” should be handed out *preferably at the precise moment a cancer patient/caregiver gets completely sick of hope* as a cathartic listening device. I’ve come to appreciate the song’s power too late.

Eventually, I recalled trying to listen to it when Mr. Bailey first presented it to me. But I wanted none of its bluntness or pessimism then. Hope was my only friend, my only consolation and I didn’t feel able to disrespect the notion of it then.

Now, I’m fine with it all. Why? Because hope isa bastard. (Or as my Mom used to tell me, “Sometimes, life’s a bitch!”)

Hope by George Frederick Watts

Sometimes, hope just flat out lets you down.

And still we hope. This song expresses what I didn’t want to express then – the desperate position one is in when they turn to such a fickle (yet powerful) notion like hope and proceed to make it the center of their perseverance.

Hope made my Mom take that last chemo treatment that made her last months a hellish physical battleground. Hope brought her down to 100 pounds. Hope stole her hair, her beautiful eyelashes and eyebrows. Hope kept her injecting herself with insulin, bloating herself with IVs, swallowing pills, forcing down food she couldn’t taste. Hope influenced so much of how we approached life during those two years.

And we got a cruel result.

Perhaps years from now, I’ll have a better grasp on Hope. I’ll be able to find some cockeyed and optimistic way to tell you, dear readers, that the Hope we had and used to

our own advantage made everything – or even something – better. Or maybe not.

In the meantime, I’ll have this song.

(Click here to hear “Picture Window” in full.)

Broken hearts: then and now

Unlike the real Mrs. Bailey, I was a romantically dramatic teenager. There were loser boyfriends and break-ups and get-back-togethers and heartbreaks upon heartbreaks. I grieved in my room for days sometimes. I made mix tapes and wept to girlfriends about the loss on the black rotary phone in my bedroom. In college, there was a heart-wrenching break-up that nearly took me over the edge.

Is there ever a time in life when heartbreak is behind you?

When I met Mr. Bailey, I thought to myself, I won’t ever have a broken heart again! Hurray! Adios, sad sack mix tapes!

Life makes such fools of us, doesn’t it?

Two years ago, my mother, the rock of my life, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

My Mom is very sick now. Late one night about a week ago, after being up for nearly 24 hours, I was driving home from my parent’s house. Trying to stay awake, I had the windows down, the music playing. Up from within me, a deep hollow pain started to rise. The warm evening breeze blew through my open window and wisped through my chest, curling around an abscess of aching beginning to spread.

It seemed a discomfort that was familiar. In my sleep-deprived stupor I could not at first place it. Tears came, a reaction to the pain. A song playing hit an empathetic tone and I reached to increase the volume. I wanted to feel the vibration of the song in my chest, curve my body to it so it would fill the space now opening wider.

That’s when I recognized the pain – it was heartbreak. It was a heart shattered with loss, dislocated due to a discombobulated reality that was utterly unwanted and impossible.

Only then did the foolishness of my newlywed glee become so completely ridiculous to me.

There are many different heart breaks in life, I thought, and no one comes through unscathed.

What was losing my mother going to feel like? I had wondered during these last 700 days. It was going to feel like the worst broken heart I had ever had. And it wasn’t going to go away. Ever.

The heartbreak would be total, I knew, and irrevocable. Unlike the delivery of the shoebox of mementos ceremoniously returned to a ninth-grade boyfriend designed to facilitate a visit, a short talk, maybe a last kiss, any one-last-talks with my Mom would be out of the question. And contrary to what that guy in 12th grade told me as I cried, never speaking to my mom again was not going to make it any easier.

I knew, then, this whole heartbreak would have to be endured. Like I had done anytime I had bid farewell to treasured parts of myself in the form of boyfriends, outdated friendships or un-nurtured creative passions or the independence of single, childless life. Just get it done¸ I would tell myself.

The endurance is what gets you through heartbreak. You just outlast the most bitter parts and, at some indefinable nick in time, it ceases to sting so much. Your mindful memories remain and guide a new you, sewn together at surprising junctures. The wind moves around your chest warmly, but then doesn’t penetrate, because the heartbreak has made you stronger at the broken places.