Today, all I can think of is Gabriela. I think of her, a freshman at the University of Dallas, walking across the college campus, the brick pavers under her flip flopped feet, the warmth of the Texas sun unable to penetrate her dark mood. Today is the first day of classes and it should be a good day but Gabriela suffers from anxiety. I knew that and yet I let her go to that far away school. I let her because it suits her. I let her because I thought she would feel at home there but now she calls me crying. She uses words like “hopeless” and “gloom” and I feel my own panic start to creep in. I am no psychologist. I don’t know if I should say, “suck it up,” or if I should tell her to come home.
When do you give up? Not the first day of course, but is there a time to call it quits? Is there a time to say that maybe anxiety can’t be ignored or worked through? There are pills but they make her feel bad, slow, detached. The idea of taking them makes her panic even more. I don’t pretend to understand and I am afraid to assume it’s nothing. I only offer words because words are what I know. I say, “strong” and “brave” and “positive” and I talk about prayer.
Gabriela knows prayer, like I know words. Prayer is what has brought her to this point. It is what sustained her through her boarding school years, through the many times when her soul was so heavy with fear that she could not even lift herself from her bed. She wonders now if God might be calling her to be a nun and I wonder if she is hiding under His promise of protection. She feels more comfortable in her church then she does in her room here at home. She has taken her faith way beyond my own and left me to stand behind and watch her as she walks away.
I was dreaming of that scene, the one where she walks away, but it was onto the college campus, laughing, surrounded by friends, flip flops slapping happily across those warm Texas pavers. It is only the first week of school. I have so much hope for her to adjust to her new surroundings, to find friends, to face the challenge of her classes with joy instead of fear. I have hope that she will have good days and call me with happy news. I look forward to a time when I hear her voice on the phone and in it there is no pain, only joy. I pray for that. Pray and talk her through it. It’s all I can do.
On a cold and moon bathed night while attempting to hike through a snowy pass in the Colorado Rockies, sometime between midnight and sunrise, I experienced both the depths of despair and the heights of elation. Hip deep in snow with a seventy-pound pack on my back, I found myself doubting my ability to move ahead. The gravity of my situation seemed almost pathetic to me. Only one month earlier, hadn’t I been sitting safely in my Connecticut home feeling as though my life was speeding by and I hadn’t lived it yet? Hadn’t I complained to anyone who would listen that I had no direction? Who could have guessed that within a few weeks, that direction would be so obvious; to get out of the hole I was in, or die trying. It was that simple.
Back at home; before I signed up for this life and death moment, I had been coping with the fact that the guy I lived with for three years had left me for a woman who he said was, “more interesting.” That was over a year ago and still, each and every morning as I awoke, I felt the hollow ache of loneliness in my gut. I decided that it was time to take drastic measures. It was time to become interesting, so I signed up to do something I never would have done before. I would risk my life in the Colorado Rockies in the Outward Bound month long survival training program. Without thinking twice I sent my check, bought my gear, even though I didn’t know what half of it was used for, and flew out to the mountains. How hard could it be to be interesting?
Holding my ice axe with hands that burned with the beginnings of frostbite, I pierced the ice in front of me so that I could pull my numb and exhausted body out of the hole, only to find that the weight of me would collapse into the snow once again just three feet ahead. This was my progress that morning. Sweating in the frozen air, struggling to keep myself in a positive frame of mind, I had only hours to make it through the mountain pass before the temperatures rose and the chance of avalanche increased dramatically.
I remembered that my Outward Bound Instructor had said, “It’s a matter of will power; your body will do what your mind tells it to do.” Of course I knew that, but the saying took on a whole new dimension up there above the tree line, under the vastness of that ultra marine sky, where there was only my fellow climbers, each of us dealing with our own holes in the snow, struggling to move forward. Coming to this mountain range, putting myself in danger, was my own choice and now that I saw the full impact of my decision, I knew that although I was not alone, it would be up to me to make sure that I made it home again.
Every move we made on that midnight hike through the pass would affect the whole group. We had to be efficient and smart. We had to move quietly, so as not to disturb the snow with any sound waves that might trigger a deadly avalanche. We had to help each other by not becoming a burden, by not giving up.
One step at a time I pulled myself forward until we reached firmer snow, a sheet of ice where we used the ice axe again to move ourselves along, being sure not to scream out if we suddenly slipped and began to tumble downhill. We had been trained just days earlier, in the lower areas of the mountain, at basecamp, where the late June snow was barely a foot deep, to use our ice axe in case we were falling out of control. Since my whole life had been about falling out of control up until then, the idea of using the ice axe didn’t scare me but rather, it seemed like a wonderful way to get my footing once again.
Down at the basecamp, playing around, laughing with my fellow survival-training classmates, life was not so serious and the ice axe lessons had seemed too grim, but tonight I understood. I hadn’t really been living at all, just passing the time. There in the bitter air, as I stood at the top of the pass, trembling, elated to have made it, I embraced my companions.
Together we looked up at the sky full of stars and realized we had arrived at our beginning. We were invincible.
My neighbor, Gordon, buys and sells other people’s treasures. Weather permitting, on the first Saturday of each month of the summer season, he will hold an estate sale of sorts in the lily lined driveway of his ornately trimmed, Victorian home. The event is advertised in papers as far north of us as the Springfield Republican and as far south of us as the Hartford Courant, but after all of the years he’s been having the sales, anyone within reading distance, who enjoys antiquing and collectables, knows when to come without being told. Friends, neighbors and strangers arrive by car or bike, with a basket of course and sometimes pulling a wagon. Everyone marvels at the history they encounter there, where past and present mingle and an affection for vintage goods is a shared passion.
One afternoon, I was surprised to see my father there, bent over a long table, a sturdy black cane supporting his 99 years as he poked through the items on display. There were ancient hammers whose grips and faces were worn and chipped and pointed awls with bulbous handles, there was a six inch mortise gauge made of fine grain wood with brass fittings, browned with age, there were planers and saws, hatchets and clamps and even a wooden box to keep one’s favorite tools. He picked up a bevel edged chisel, obviously admiring the quality of the tool, the heft of the steel and wood in his hand. The traces of paint that remained on the handle, the fact that it had seen better days, didn’t seem to take away from his appreciation of its utility. His eyes sparkled under the weight of his sagging brow and the corner of his mouth turned up just a bit.
“What are you looking for dad?” I asked.
“Files, I’m looking for files. I need a half-round.”
“Oh really, what are you making,” I asked.
I found myself talking to him in a sweet tone, as if I were talking to a child, which was silly, because at 99 he was still as sharp as ever. It wasn’t his partial hearing loss or his slow and uncertain steps that made him seem vulnerable to me, it was really his refusal to recognize his own frailties. He hadn’t asked me for a ride to the sale that day; instead he drove his John Deere Gator through the woods, over muddy trails and across a small stream.
“A spurtle. I’m making a spurtle,” he said, as though I would know what one was.
“Haven’t seen one in years so I thought I’d make it myself,” he continued, running his thick old fingers, rough with New England life, darkened from the sun and hardened from handling rope and rigging on sailboats, for most of his younger years, over the piles of trinkets strewn before us on Gordon’s table.
Many people arrived that afternoon and the tables were picked clean except for the old tools. People seemed to gravitate toward the table lamps, the ones with the rooster base or the blue and white dish set with just a few chips and not enough cups. They liked the furniture too. Mahogany desks and bedroom sets, tables and chairs and sofas. I myself, furnished three bedrooms for a very reasonable price, just by showing up first to Gordon’s driveway one Saturday morning. But the tools were always a hard sell, most likely because there were newer and better tools to be had.
We searched through the heaps of items on every table for the files, but there were none to be found and so my father, brushing me aside as I tried to help him return to his gator, motored off into the woods where the trails would lead him home.
Many months later, on Christmas morning over at my parent’s house, I received the most wonderful gift. In my stocking, I found a long wooden spatula of sorts, or maybe a flat spoon would better describe it. It was smooth and sleek, carved from Maple, the wood from my father’s property and tied with a red ribbon. From the ribbon hung a tag that read, “This is a spurtle. Love Dad.”
The spurtle turns out to be a very useful tool. My husband loves it because it slides across the bottom of his nonstick pans and causes no harm. I love it because it mixes my blueberry pancake batter so nicely and scrapes the curving sides of a bowl unlike any of our less gracefully shaped spoons or spatulas.
I never asked my father where he got the files he needed to make my spurtle, I suppose I’ll never know. Surely he searched far and wide, risking life and limb, which is what living requires when one is 99.
My four children sat together along one side of the long farmhouse table. It was late in the afternoon, dinnertime, and they were hungry from all of the activity of their day in the hot Florida sun. The fact that they had chosen to sit facing me as I poured the Cheerios into their bowls was not lost on me. It was almost comical to see their faces, desperate for whatever I prepared, staring at me as I worked behind the kitchen counter directly in front of them. As usual, my middle children, Andrew who was six and Juliana who was five, began to fight. I was surprised when their older sister, Christina who was eight, turned to them and said with authority and perhaps a bit of distress, “Shhhh, mommy’s cooking!”
I froze in mid pour, one Cheerio rolling off of the counter and onto the floor. We heard it land, a crisp little smack and then nothing. Quiet. What was I doing to my precious children? How is it that I could be raising children to believe that pouring cereal was the equivalent of cooking and that it was so stressful that I needed quiet in order to concentrate?
For a fleeting moment I thought of the benefits, both in the saving of energy and cash and how much easier my life would be if I let this hoax continue. And then I looked into Christina’s face, in her huge turquoise eyes, almost tearing up as she stared back at me, and I found my conscience. She was a sponge, intelligent and eager and always alert. I sighed and realized that I had to step up and admit to her, to all of them including the baby, Gabriela, who was only one at the time, that pouring cereal into bowls and adding milk, albeit fortified with calcium and extra vitamin D, was not really “cooking” at all. When, I asked myself, did I stop enjoying cooking in the first place? Was it after the first child, or the second or maybe the fourth?
When I was growing up, my grandfather kept a garden where he grew the rhubarb and the strawberries for our pies and the grapes for his own brand of sticky sweet wine. Every meal at his house, which he prepared together with my grandmother, featured his tomatoes, red and plump, his crisp lettuce and green beans that snapped like a pencil when you picked them. There was the famous family recipe for spaghetti sauce, whose secret ingredient turned out to be more than a pinch of sugar. There were also years of hand made birthday cakes and Christmas pies, fudge and plum pudding with hard sauce and each and every summer there were whoopee pies by the tray full. So what happened to me? Why was I not sharing this wonderful family legacy with my children?
I imagined that one day they would be asked, “What was your favorite family recipe?” Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch; certainly one of these would be their answer. I knew that for me that question would be difficult only because there were so many wonderful memories having to do with the preparation and the consumption of food in my family, that I would be hard pressed to choose one recipe over another. Perhaps my grandfather’s strawberry rhubarb pie would win-out, at least today anyway, tomorrow I may remember something else. At any rate, I never asked for their recipes and I never helped them cook. I was a spectator and I let the family tradition die with my grandparents.
Ever since that day in my kitchen when I learned just how little my children knew about the wonders and diversity of food and the joy that “cooking” can bring to a home, I have tried to step up, to be a better example for them. It will never be a passion, I can’t fake that, but my cooking has improved over the years. I am sure now that one day, if they are ever asked, “What was your favorite family recipe?” they will actually have a few choices to consider other than the list of cereals they once enjoyed.
Her artist friends wore colorful jackets. They wore silk scarves in brilliant hues, jewelry made from their own hands; large stones and silver expressions of joy, of passion, of wonder with the world around them. They wore skirts made of linen and gauze, long and flowing ikat or flowery blossoms floating along behind them, dancing and swirling in the sparkling sunlight that seemed to wash over these women as they moved from place to place.
Her clothes were plain. The simple white tee, the dark pants, did not announce her passions when she entered a room. Her art was tamer too, tamer than her friend’s art at least. Their boldness was a vivid brush stroke upon the canvas of her day and she harbored an inner fascination for the women that wore those colors, those patterns, those textures, women whose creativity spilled from their insides out and into the lives of everyone around them. They splashed their paints onto canvases, or smashed the cobalt and ruby glass to make marvelous patterns held together with lead; melted, bent and shaped to evoke a narrative of sorts, the same narrative that they expressed through their personal style.
Had she imagined her own story was a simple one? Maybe her clothes were misleading at best. Behind the white, the darkest of blue, that were her choices of clothing, there were the colors she used to paint the sky in the landscapes she tried to capture on canvas; the umber, the ochre, the ultra marine and yes, the white. The colors in the eyes of her children, the green, the gold, the cerulean; the colors that filled their home with warmth, the browns and blues and golds, the apricots and warm yellows that surrounded her as she went through the day.
Her personal style did not reflect her artist’s soul, as her friend’s did, it wasn’t in her to reveal herself for all to see as they passed her on the street. She was glad though for those artists who had embraced her, even as her lack of flair should have given them the impression that she was not like them. Instead, they saw through her, realizing that her creative self was a quiet gift she shared with only those who knew her well.
Sometimes when you close a door, you say to yourself, I will never touch this knob again. Sometimes you just know. You know when cardboard boxes are packed with your belongings and your voice echoes through empty rooms of a house, that you won’t be back. You know when you take one last look around your dorm on your last day of senior year; you won’t be back. I might have known I would never see my sister or her house again when I pulled her front door shut behind me ten years ago, but the thought was buried deep under my denial. The kind of denial you need to stay sane. The kind of denial that allows you to believe that you’ll be back.
“See you at Christmas!” is what I would have been shouting over my shoulder on any normal summer visit to my sister’s house in far-away Chicago, but this was no normal visit.
I left without even saying good bye to her beloved cat, Ricky, who must have searched everywhere for my sister after we took her to the hospital days before––searched the white kitchen with its rooster plates and collection of mismatched teacups, the bedroom with her medicine bottles spilling from the bedside table onto the carpeted floor, the bathroom where the wig and the walker and the bed pan were left abandoned. Abandoned just like Ricky, like my nieces and their father, like all of us. But maybe Ricky already knew what we didn’t know, or didn’t want to accept.
It was the last time I would ever step foot in my sister’s house, and I wish I had taken the time to look around, to take note of the home she had, with so much joy and love, created for her family. I forgot to ask her the name of the color of paint on her parlor walls or where she found that little rug in the powder room. I forgot to appreciate the way she organized her linen closet or to find out what she kept in those sweet hat boxes in the guest room, the ones with the lavender flowers that were tied shut with a wide grosgrain ribbon. I forgot to tell her how beautiful her garden was, with the deep blue hydrangea and fat orange roses that flanked the back porch door. I didn’t mention that the bed I slept in was soft and the sheets were lovely and smooth, cool on my skin even in the heat of the July nights.
Sleep didn’t come easy in her house that summer. It wasn’t because my sister hadn’t made her guest rooms welcoming. No, sleep eluded us because she cried out sometimes. Moans that carried with them the weight of loss. It was a sound that settled heavily into the air, making its way down the upstairs hall, slinking uninvited through open doors like the oppressive heat we tried to keep at bay. The night left us anxious and ashamed of how we couldn’t help her. The comfort of her rooms was eclipsed by the stabbing pain of our hearts breaking slowly as she struggled to stay with her family for one more day, one more night.
Beside her, in the dark, my brother-in-law must have propped her pillows and adjusted her morphine-soaked body on the memory-foam mattress that burned the skin off her back, buttocks, and calves. Around her was all the softness and beauty that she had created, but none of us could feel it, see it, or smell it. She had become all there was in that house. Her pain, her every breath, her moans, the sight of her––so foreign except for her eyes, the lightest blue with a hint of green. In the kitchen, meals were reduced to whatever the neighbor left in the freezer. The table was a neglected space, unburdened from fresh picked flowers or the pointed elbows of family and friends.
When my stay was over, there were no farewells. There was only denial––the kind that involves letting myself have hope. Hope that the door I pulled shut might one day open again. Convincing myself that if I didn’t say goodbye, maybe she wouldn’t go.
Before it would become one of the worst days ever, it was the best. On April 15th, 2013, my husband and I drove two hours into the city to see my niece Lauren run the Boston Marathon. We arrived just after noon, excited about having a runner in the race, and it seemed like everyone else felt the same — the spectators were as full of energy as the runners themselves. Later, when the day turned into a living nightmare, I would remember the mood of the crowd as we had arrived.
We were tracking Lauren, with a cell phone app that allowed us to follow her progress. Somehow we had failed to catch sight of her as she passed by the 40-kilometer marker on Beacon Street, the place where we had positioned ourselves to watch the race. Searching the mob of runners for her familiar face, I could feel the level of adrenaline in the air, the effort of the runners so close to their goal, and the jubilation of the spectators, including my own. But by the time I refreshed my app once again, wondering where she could be, I saw that Lauren had just finished the race.
Let’s go meet her at the finish line, my husband and I decided, and off we went.
It was 2:48pm.
What a perfect day, was the common sentiment between runners and spectators alike — cool but not too cold, and if I remember correctly, the sky was a whitish-gray — not uncommon for an afternoon in New England — a dull haze of a sky that the sun spends most of winter fighting to cut through. The kind of day that seems to highlight the rugged character of a place like Boston, its winding cobblestone streets, historic brick buildings and the black water of the harbor with its fishing boats, gulls and restaurants. It was a great day to be in Boston, and a great day to run a marathon.
Lauren is my sister’s eldest daughter. She runs the marathon in memory of her mother whose death from cancer in 2005, while Lauren was still in college, gave her that extra drive to take on the enormity of the race, to raise money for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, to turn her hurt into someone else’s healing, something positive and beautiful.
We’d never been spectators at this particular event even though it was Lauren’s sixth year. Usually her father flew in from Chicago to watch, or my mother from Florida, or my brother and his family who live in the Boston area. Some family member always came to cheer her on. This particular year, it was my husband and I, and it was a bittersweet honor. I couldn’t have been more proud of my niece for the tremendous commitment she had, but I also knew that my sister would have loved to have been there — and she was in a sense. I’m sure that she was with Lauren as always, every step of the way. And she was with me too, in my heart and mind. Her memory pressed hot against my eyelids, blurring the faces of the runners, it filled my chest, making it hard to breath. I watched that race with the pride of a mother and the love of a sister as well as an aunt.
We never heard the sound of the explosion when it went off at 2:49pm.
We first realized that something had happened a few minutes after we started to make our way to meet Lauren. We were approaching the underpass at Mass Avenue. Runners, the look of frustration and dismay on their faces, found themselves in a bottleneck, police officers forcing them to stop less than a mile from the finish line. What’s going on, we asked to anyone in the crowd. We began to hear the people around us talking about an explosion ahead, then two explosions.
At the finish line, they said.
Lauren was there, at the finish line
I know I must have looked at my husband in disbelief before we both took off through the crowd, like so many others, needing to see for ourselves if our runner was safe. Tears streamed down my face, as my mind screamed, she must be ok, please God, let her be ok!
All around us the world had changed from one of cheering and joy, to a sea of bewildered faces, some crying, some just lost and confused. Like a tidal wave of energy building, at first there was just the sound of one siren, then another, then another. Police cars, military personnel, and helicopters appeared. Within minutes, if not seconds, the first responders swarmed upon the scene as if they had been waiting in the shadows, ready for anything.
A soldier dressed in military fatigues, appeared before us— she stood in the middle of the road and raised her hand — directing us to turn back the way we had come. My mind was whirling. The military is here. Where did they come from? What’s happening? How frightening and yet somehow comforting it was to witness the instant response to …to what?
We still had no idea.
I followed my husband out of the sea of people like a child following her parent. It felt utterly unnatural to be walking away from Lauren, away from answers. I was one of those shocked faces in the crowd, my desperate focus was on my phone as I tried and tried to contact Lauren. Bits and pieces of other people’s conversations reached us. We heard that there was carnage caused by a bomb.
When exactly did those bombs go off?
I kept asking.
Be calm, my husband said.
But with every call that never connected, to Lauren, to her father, to her sister, to my mother— my panic escalated. We finally connected to a daughter in Florida and as she watched the television news coverage of the marathon bombings, she filled us in. Terrorism, she said. Two bombs, people maimed, people dead, horrific, tragic end to a beautiful day.
All I could think of was my sister. If Lauren was in that mess, then her mother was with her. The kind of connection my sister had to her daughters was just that sort of powerful. What I didn’t know was if Lauren was protected or greeted by her mother. I was praying for the former.
Spilling out over the streets of Boston, people began to head away from the event. Spectators and runners alike, zombies, the triumph of the day sucked out of the atmosphere. Our car was parked a few miles away and yet, I was so engrossed in our search for Lauren, I can only remember how I watched my husband’s feet ahead of mine, one step after the other — if he stepped up, I stepped up. He was my eyes along the path as I dialed my phone, time after time.
Everyone seemed to be looking at their phones, desperately searching for news, for answers. Eventually we began to receive texts from family members who told us that Lauren was safe. When we finally heard from Lauren herself, nearly an hour after the bombings, I was able to take my first real, deep breath, a trembling sigh of relief.
By the time we were back in our car it was almost 5:30pm.
Heading out of Boston we were drained yet profoundly grateful. The day had held so much promise of the great accomplishments of athletes from all over the world. But after all, the greatness we witnessed was of a different type all together, the kind that’s tragic to experience, but very good to know exists — the first responders at work — efficiently directing the terrified masses of people, bravely running toward unknown danger to help however they could, and capably caring for the injured. It was nothing less than awe-inspiring amidst the panic of the day. As we drove west along I-90 toward home, lost in silent stupor, we watched as dozens of police cars and ominous looking, dark vans belonging to tactical units from surrounding states, sped toward Boston to help. Impressive, we agreed. Thank God for them, we said.
I started the day with tears of joy and pride and ended it with tears of horror mixed with sadness and exhaustion, and for my family at least, relief. I had been so excited to finally be able to do the cheering that my sister would have wanted to do for our Lauren at the Boston Marathon and, like everyone in that crowd who’s energy had so powerfully filled the atmosphere only hours before, I was left with only shock to fill the void, at least at first.
Because no terrorist attack would stop those die hard athletes.
The race has gone on and Lauren will run for her tenth and final year in the Boston Marathon this year, 2017, and for that we are blessed. But Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, and little Martin Richard, who were killed on April 15, 2013, as well as the police officer, Sean Collier who was shot three days later by the same terrorists, will be in our hearts always — as will all of the people who were injured that day.
The reaction that the citizens of Boston, and for that matter, people all over the world, had to the terror that the evil Tsarnaev brothers caused on that April afternoon, will forever remind me that people come together in moments of crisis. All of the events of that day, from the thrill of friendly competition between runners from around the globe to, in the end, being witness to the unity of humanity in the worst of situations, will remind me that we have the capacity to reach deep within ourselves, like marathon runners, and find there, strength, and courage in the face of adversity — and most of all, that there’s a love we have for each other, that lies gently under the surface — there when we need it most.
Christina has finished her classes at Brown. Edgardo and I went to her mid-year ceremony. I am so proud of her. She wore her hair up in a bun, tied up with indifferent ease. To me, she looked like a movie star, one from those old movies whose hair waved around her face in classic feminine beauty. The kind of beauty my mother has looked for in all of us, (her girls), but those of us not born with the proper amount of waves, or the time to create them, have fallen short. And there was Christina, her make up from yesterday, enhancing the deepness and the brightness of her eyes with her accidental movie-star hair and her little dress made of florets, crocheted in deep scarlet yarn.
She didn’t recognize the importance of the event until it was over. And I, of course, forgot my camera.
I drink my coffee each morning from cups that proudly proclaim the names of the colleges that our kids attend. This morning, as I took my Brown University mug from the cabinet, I was thinking about Christina and how in the second grade, she had decided that she would go to an Ivy League School. She and her best friend proudly wore tiny little Oxford University tees to proclaim their commitment to this magnificent dream. Years later we travelled from our home in South Florida to tour the colleges of the north east, where the architecture of the Ivy League schools fills you with a sense of belonging to something grand; something time worn and traditional and yet a place where traditions are constantly challenged by curious and innovative minds. Yesterday we watched Christina receive her degree from Brown University at a ceremony that was both light hearted and awe inspiring. The pride I feel for her is bigger than the words I have at my command. I know it has been a hard road and she has still many challenges ahead, but to have a goal, work towards it and see it accomplished is so huge and so very satisfying. So, as I sip coffee from my Brown University mug this morning I am smiling at the memory of little Christina in her Oxford tee! You did it Chris, you are amazing and I love you!
Susan D. Abello