Friday morning, the strangest thing happened–I was early for work. Significantly early. I’m so used to chasing my tail in a rush that I decided to enjoy the 20 minutes of peace and sit in my car. That lasted about three minutes. As I stepped out of my SUV then paused to pick up the Diet Coke cans, peanut shells, unsigned permission slips, and My Little Ponys that came rolling out onto the pavement, Cindy pulled up in a white BMW convertible.
Y’all. Her car is so CLEAN. I peaked inside and the only thing on the passenger’s side was a little net with a nicely folded shopping bag tucked into it. Of course, the car is also so small that she had to pop the trunk to get her book out.
I blurted, “I can’t wait to have a tiny car that only has room for ME!”
She said, “Well, when my son turned 16, I gave HIM the minivan and bought myself a convertible.” Awesome. And so much easier on the insurance budget.
Drooling over Cindy’s tiny white convertible took me back to a hot Saturday afternoon in April, 2004. Richard had found an old rotor tiller at the dumpster that only needed a $3 spark plug. He would have torn up every inch of lawn and put in tomatoes if I had let him. On Friday night, he had tilled up a space for a vegetable garden and an herb garden. He was thinking about putting in CORN, but ran out of daylight, thank goodness.
So there we were on a muggy Saturday morning in the bugs and the heat, ripping out the flower beds that run allllllll the way across the front of this house. Monkey grass and ivy snarled every inch that wasn’t covered in old snaggly holly bushes. All of it was coming out. Every blade. Every prickly leaf.
The $3 tiller lasted about another hour. Pretty good for our investment, but it left us with hours of work left to do. We each got a spade and started digging up monkey grass and cussing. Four, five, six hours later and we finally had the beds cleared down to red dirt. Then came the cow manure–15 bags to stir into the red clay. Hoeing, raking, shoveling, stinking. Ah, homeownership. And it was HOT. H-dammit-O-dammit-T.
Richard was never one to quit halfway through a job or to say, “This can wait until tomorrow.” So as soon as we had the cow manure mixed in, it was time to plant azaleas. We toodled on over to Cofer’s and dropped a bunch of money on deciduous azaleas, native azaleas, and two little variegated specimens that he bought because they were called “Ashley Marie.” Sweet.
By dusk, we had it all done. You know how gardening is in the early stages–dinky and spindly. I was left underwhelmed after all our efforts. Neither of us could move. As we lay there, prostrate on the reawakening spring lawn, one of our neighbors drove by in a tiny white Miata with the top down. Her strawberry blonde hair sparkled in the last light of day. She was smiling, and as she drove past, slowly, she checked to make sure we weren’t laying dead in the front yard. Richard and I each raised a hand in a weak wave and she waved in return before cruising down the hill in her convertible, into the sunset.
In that moment, I so envied her car and her freedom and the energy she had to be kind. I rolled my head over towards him and said, “I bet her azaleas are already established. Pfffffft.” I felt myself looking forward, into the spring days ahead that wouldn’t require all that back breaking work. The days where I would awaken to a yard filled with flowers and a tiny white convertible all my own.
I still don’t have the silly car, but I do have the flowers. Every spring, they make me smile, remembering all that sweat and toil. Working on something together. I think he would have loved how they turned out.
Sunday Sweetness is all about the quiet moments, the gentle times, that make life sweeter. Today, click on this teapot to read a sweet story about a kind man who used a teapot in an act of kindness. Enjoy!
One time, I was teaching a 7:30 a.m class in a portable trailer classroom. Typically, Security would turn off the alarm system on their early morning rounds. But on that day, when I arrived at 7:00 a.m. and opened the door with my key, the alarm began to shriek. BLAP! BLAP! BLAP! BLAP! BLAP!
No worries. I picked up the phone and called Security.
“Hey. This is Ashley. I’m down here in the trailer and the alarm is going off. Can you tell me the code to disable it?”
The security officer said, “OK, ma’am. What’s the alarm saying?”
I paused for a second. What a dumb question, right?
I said, “It’s saying BLAP! BLAP! BLAP! BLAP! BLAP! Can’t you hear it?”
The officer chuckled and said, “I mean, what’s the error code on the alarm?”
July 1, 2004–a day when I said one of the dumbest things I’ve ever uttered in my life.
Richard lay half reclined on a hospital bed in the oncology ward, his khaki-clad legs crossed casually atop the neat white blanket and his shoes suspended carefully off the side. Not one to make a mess. The ambulatory center was full that morning, so they had to put him in a regular room for his transfusion. It had been 12 hours since a hematologist/oncologist here in town had confirmed that Richard had leukemia. And not the good kind. In another 12 hours, he would be in Baltimore, admitted to Johns Hopkins, but he had to receive some platelets before any doctor would allow him to make the trip.
We were both in a blind panic, but pretending that everything was going to be fine. Just. Fine. (smile)
His contract at the university had expired on June 30, the day he got the news. He had a new contract sitting on his boss’ desk,
ready to be signed. What if she found out that he wasn’t going to be able to teach that semester and pulled the contract…along with his health insurance? I, in panic mode, suggested he run over and sign it before anyone said a word. Richard, being honorable, called her to explain the situation. His boss, also honorable and kind, told him that he was cool–he had a job and insurance and her full support.
Here’s where the stupid utterance comes in. While Richard was on the phone that day–with his parents, his friends, his boss–he broke the bad news over and over and over. Even while putting a chipper spin on it, he kept saying, “I have cancer.”
After he hung up with his boss and we took a deep breath about his health insurance coverage, I said, “Stop saying ‘I have cancer.’ You don’t have cancer cancer…you have leukemia.”
He looked at me across the IV pump pushing blood and platelets into his body and replied, “And leukemia is….what?”
We laughed, but I’ll never forget the feelings that were piling up inside me as I sat there by the tidy white bed watching someone else’s blood drip into my sweetheart. All while he called person after person and said, “I have cancer.”
All of those feelings added up to NO. No no no no no. NO. I refuse to believe this. No. Nope nopety no.
I don’t want this to be true.
It’s called denial, and it exercises a powerful pull. If I can just prevent this from being true for a couple more hours…NO.
I’ve been thinking about the “cancer cancer” conversation over the last few days. When I wrote about my fears regarding Carlos’ speech problems, several of you who are educators (or with-it moms!) commented about the tendency for people to deny that their child might have a problem. “He’ll grow out of it.” “Boys will be boys.” Teachers dread having to break the news that a kid needs extra help. I hear you. I blanched when I got a packet of forms on his first day at the new preschool and the header said “Special Education.” That voice of denial in my head said, “What?? No. He’s getting specialized education. Not…that other thing.”
La la la la la…my kid is in Specialized Education. It’s tooooootally different.
Well, regardless what we call it, Carlos will be getting every kind of education we can find for him. In the words of his pediatrician, “We don’t hide from this.” I hold on to that.
Being afraid of a word is OK, I guess, as long as I’m not afraid of the work.
Tonight, while Vivi and I were picking out her clothes for tomorrow, my hand brushed across this black dress hanging in her closet, a dress she’s never worn. Size 7, light hounds tooth with a smocked bodice, a sash, and a lace trimmed color. I got it for $8 at the fall consignment sale and it’s been hanging there in her closet through the winter with all the other lovely dresses that she never wears.
Vivi has never been to a funeral. But one day, she’ll need a black dress. We never know when, but the days come. I remember my own nephews at Richard’s memorial. Jake was about three. He came up to me in the vestibule at the church and when I knelt down to give him a hug, he reared back and grinned proudly then announced, “We got new SHIRTS!”
A friend from high school lost her daughter this weekend and even though I never met the dear girl and I haven’t seen her mama for 30 years, looking at that tiny black dress in my own daughter’s closet stopped my breath in my throat. It reminded me of a story of a mother, a daughter, a weary heart, and a black dress.
Many years ago, my stepmother’s niece was living her life the hard way. She had spent so many years lost to drugs and alcohol that it was difficult to have any hope that she would ever be free. That hole, that emptiness inside her–she tried to fill it with liquor or cocaine or whatever oblivion she could afford, but the hole only got deeper and darker. No matter how much love came her way, tough or patient or long-suffering, she seemed determined to throw her life away with both hands. Her addiction ate up her marriage and her relationship with her own children. Her job, her home, her family. She threw everything onto the fire.
Big Gay’s sister suffered through it all like mothers do. She tried to help her baby, she tried to warn her, she tried to be strong. But one day, after a nasty scene in her driveway, she had to step away and let her daughter live with the consequences. As the police drove away with her daughter, she found herself calmly pondering whether or not she had a black dress in her closet. She was that sure that she would need one. That is a tough moment for a mother–when she has to watch helplessly as her grown daughter hurtles towards her death.
There was a happier ending to that story. Big Gay’s niece got her life back. Her mother never needed a black dress.
It’s hard to write this next part because I don’t want to share the wrong thing at the wrong time. The young woman who died this weekend died in a single-car accident. Her mother got that horrifying message in the dark of the night that we all dread. She said, “I can’t say that I haven’t expected a call in the night but expecting it and getting it are entirely different things. Please, please, please let this hit home somewhere…”
So that’s why I’m writing about black dresses and mothers and daughters. It hit home with me. We can’t control our children once they are grown. We can’t keep them safe no matter that we would give anything to be able to do so. We can only hope that they will have enough time and good luck to get the chance to save themselves.
Rest in peace, M.W. And peace to her mother and her sister, in their black dresses. Grief is the price we pay for love.
My first conversation upon returning home Monday afternoon:
“Hey, Vivi. How was your day?”
She looked up from the couch where she was engrossed in a Hardy Boys mystery. Her pink sneakers lay on the floor beside a pile of dirty socks.
“Um…it was pretty good…but I got a red.” That’s the system in her class–everyone starts the day on green then moves to orange or blue for good choices or yellow then red for bad choices.
I’ve given up on making a big deal about the color of the day, because most days she’s on green. Last Friday was an orange day. Today, red–tomorrow, who knows? We focus instead on the chain of events that led to the result and recognizing the moments when she has the chance to determine which way it will go.
“So how did that happen?” I asked her, while rubbing her back. G came in the room and listened in.
“Well………” she popped her finger out of her mouth–she still sucks on her finger when she’s tired or lost in a book. “I was on yellow then I went red.”
“I understand that, but usually red happens after several bad choices. Can you remember what happened before you went to red?”
“Um….I got too rambunctious doing the conga.”
G’s shoulders were shaking at this point. I tried to keep a straight face but I turned to him in all seriousness and said, “This is ALL on you. That’s your half of the genes, Senor. No one in my family has ever been chastised for excessively exuberant conga dancing.”
Now, if she ever gets sent home on red for unbridled square dancing…that will be my half of the genes.
There are some days when parenting makes me want to throw my hands in the air and shake my body like I just don’t care.
P.S.: I know that Carmen Miranda was more famous for her samba, the Brasilian dance. The conga originates from Cuba. But first graders don’t samba. It’s not on the CRCT until third grade.
Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote last year about going to the beach with my little love, Carlos:
“Small things–the fish and the butterflies–small things with great journeys ahead of them, making their way across the wide sky, through the deep sea, into our lives. My boy.”
Click his little nose to read on! The story is called “Short But Sweet.” It is. He is. I hope you have a great day, filled with giggles and hugs. And cookies.