susan d abello

Painting pictures with words, sharing vignettes of a colorful life.

A Quiet Gift

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.

The Last Visit

Sometimes when you close the door, you say to yourself, I will never touch this knob again. Sometimes you know. You know when cardboard boxes are packed full with your belongings and your voice echoes through the 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 your senior year; that you won’t be back. You know when you travel abroad and you stay in that nice little room in that quaint little hotel, that you probably won’t be back. I might have known that I would never see my sister or her house again when I pulled the door shut behind me some 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, it was my last visit.

I wish I remembered what her house smelled like. Maybe it didn’t smell like anything at all. Maybe it smelled like tollhouse cookies, warm chocolate and brown sugar or maybe it smelled like her cat, Ricky. Ricky, who must have searched everywhere for my sister after she had gone, 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 bathrooms where the wig and the walker and the bed pan would all sit abandoned, like Ricky, like the rest of us. Or maybe the house had smelled like impending death and Ricky already knew what we didn’t know and didn’t want to accept.

It was the last time I would ever step foot in my sister’s house and I forgot to look around, to take note of how she had lived there. 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 once again the way she organized her linen closet or to find out what exactly she kept in those sweet hat boxes in the guest room closet, 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, the deep blue hydrangea and the fat orange roses that flanked the back porch door. I didn’t mention that the bed I slept in was soft and the sheets 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 but not because my sister hadn’t made her guest rooms so hospitable. No, sleep eluded us because she cried out sometimes. When she moved her pain became a moan that escaped through her mouth and sharp like a blade, it cut us to the bone, leaving us wounded and anxious in our own comfortable beds, braced for her next cry.

Beside her my brother-in-law may have propped pillows for her, adjusted her morphine soaked body on the Tempurpedic that burned the skin off of her back, her buttocks, her calves. Around her was all of the softness and beauty that she poured into her home over the years and none of us could feel it, could see it, could smell it. She had become all there was in that house. Her pain, her every breath, her moans, her smell of bed pans and diapers, the sight of her, small and white and withered.

No, there were no Tollhouse cookies baked the last time I went to my sister’s house. There were no farewells that included, “See you soon!” There was only denial.

The kind that causes you to shut the door behind you and not to look over your shoulder, to tell yourself that you’ll be back, to tell yourself a lie.

The Boston Marathon

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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.

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More Thoughts on Chris’s Graduation

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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.


Christina’s Graduation

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