Saturday, October 26, 2013

Autumn Sonata

Fall—true fall—has come relatively late. On Thursday, I wore gloves for the first time while biking to work; this morning I put on a fleece hat to walk the dog. I haven't given up hope that there'll be a few more chances to wear shorts.

I recently had new windows installed, finally allowing light to enter unobstructed by scratches and corroded screens—although a new building across the street means less light for the bedroom through those expensive new panes. Still, I'm happy.

I have my second cold in a month. This time, except for vitamin C, an occasional hot ginger-lemon toddy, and something to treat the symptoms, I'm letting it run its course rather than trying to fend it off with Cold-Eeze or Zicam or Airborne ("invented by a teacher!"). It always comes full-force eventually—why delay the inevitable?

My dog is moving slowly but hanging in at age 15 or 16. There's a crisis every so often—the latest being what appeared to be a broken bone or joint problem but turned out to be a  treatable hip-muscle sprain. I carry her up and down the six brick steps to the street; she can walk fine, but I don't want to push my luck. Someone is often going by just as I'm scooping her up or setting her down with a pat; sometimes I have to pause in the middle of our descent, holding her in my arms, to let a pedestrian pass. I usually get a look of one kind or another. I'm sure some think I'm simply a coddler—which would be more believable if she didn't weigh 40 pounds. Most often I get a sympathetic smile.

This time of year, as the light slants through clear or clouded glass, perhaps we're being asked to bide our time, to wait for the frail to pass or be borne up, to attend with compassion, even joy, the colors' late burning.


Monday, October 07, 2013

Are You Alright?

On Friday, July 6, of last year, I got the news from a hospice nurse that my almost 92-year-old father probably wouldn't live through the weekend. I left work and made the 40-minute drive with my brother from the city to Dad's assisted-living facility in the suburbs.

I'd made that journey countless times in the preceding four years, and before that to the house in another suburb where he and my mother had lived for half a century: to deliver prescriptions, figure out why the cable wasn't working, bring a meatloaf, take him to the doctor, take him to physical therapy, take him to McDonald's, shovel the sidewalk, have a cup of tea, try to cheer both of them up or run interference—just be there.

Now, I realized, this might actually be the last time I'd make that drive for him. (Mom was still very much alive, though in the grip of dementia.) Each time I visited, there was less of him there. His small, thin body curled in bed or slumped in a wheelchair, the ever-shortening sentences of this linguist, this man of words.

I'd been slowly saying goodbye for years.

In the car, my brother and I knew, there was little left to talk about. What do you say when all of life has been lived, all measures taken, all opportunities for denial or solutions exhausted? So we awkwardly chatted about our jobs, our health, the weather—I don't even know what. My brother manned the text messages—to his wife, our two sisters (both out of town), his office—as I drove. We made more small talk, then were quiet for a long stretch.

I don't remember if the radio was already playing or if I turned it on at that point. But into the silence came a familiar voice. 

Are you alright?
All of a sudden you went away.
Are you alright?
I hope you come back around someday.

Are you alright?
I haven't seen you in a real long time.
Are you alright?
Could you give me some kind of sign?
Lucinda Williams. I'd never heard this particular song, though I used to follow her avidly. As we drove on, I gazed out the window listening to her unmistakable car-wheels-on-a-gravel-road voice, full of the ragged strength of survival and the fragility of longing. I felt as if a piece of music I didn't even know had flown out of my heart, giving voice to my worry and anticipated loss. 
Are you alright?
I looked around me and you were gone.
Are you alright?
I feel like there must be something wrong.

Are you alright?
'Cause it seems like you disappeared.
Are you alright?
'Cause I been feeling a little scared.
Are you alright?

But it wasn't only the words. It was the timing of it, the mind-reading. 

I begged the silence to continue till the end of the song, then directed the sentiment to my brother: Please don't start talking, I thought. Please. Let's just listen. 

And this, underlying it all, directed to someone else: Don't go before we get there.

Are you sleeping through the night?
Do you have someone to hold you tight?
Do you have someone to hang out with?
Do you have someone to hug and kiss you,
Hug and kiss you, hug and kiss you?

Are you alright? 

We made it through almost the entire song, were less than a mile away from our destination, when my brother spoke. 

"Are you a Lucinda Williams fan?"

I flinched and for an instant didn't want to say anything in reply. He'd broken the spell, intercepted the message. But I answered anyway. I couldn't hold it against him.

"I am," I said, "but I've kind of lost touch with her."

Are you alright?
Is there something been bothering you?
Are you alright?
I wish you'd give me a little clue.

Are you alright?
Is there something you wanna say?
Are you alright?
Just tell me that you're okay . . . . 
I'd seen Lucinda live, had several of her albums. But after 2001's Essence, which a friend gave my ex and me when we were living together, I never bought another. No particular reason—like friendships, sometimes musical relationships wane or go on hiatus, through no one's fault. Here she was again.

The song finally ended, and my brother and I were there. 

For the next 13 hours, we sat with Dad, my partner, D., joining us for most of that time. We brought Mom in for a short while—a chance for our parents to complete a circle, even though neither was fully aware. It gave us peace of mind.

Just around midnight, he died. And another long silence descended.

Sometime after that day, I put the song on my iPod. I haven't listened to it too often, and I haven't yet bought any more of Lucinda's music. But I know it's there, waiting.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Smoke, or a Belated Account of a Memory

Occasionally I'll come across the following unfinished vignette among the drafts of blog posts I've never published. I can't even tell when exactly I wrote it, because the date has changed to the most recent time I opened the file. I can say that the events described would have been in 2005 or 2006. 

There's not much to the story other than what you see here. I  just now put an ending of sorts on it. But in actuality it's only a sketch in a longer narrative about a period in my life that I've yet to write—a house with so many doors and windows that I have no idea where to enter. Maybe this is a start.


It was just about exactly two years ago that I met a guy online who was doing reconstruction work in Iraq and was in DC for a training session. I guess you could say we had a little fling over the course of his few days here, though the fling was mostly composed of dinners and walks and e-mails commenting on past dinners and walks or setting up the next dinners and walks. Mostly.

Really, we only saw each other on three evenings, not even successive ones, so I'm exaggerating just a touch.

He was an extremely sweet guy with whom I had little in common, except for the wish to be company for someone who obviously was in need of—and appreciative of—that. Okay, maybe I wanted company, too.

He had been in Iraq for a year or so and had just signed up for another. He wasn't in the military, though he looked as if he could have been. (He got his hair cut by the military barbers.) He did administrative work—training Iraqi businesses owners in accounting, in which he had a degree. I'm pretty certain he was a Republican, though we both tried to avoid the topic of politics, and largely succeeded.

On our last night together, we went to his hotel room and he spent an hour or more showing me pictures of himself, his coworkers, and sights in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Middle East—that bleak, ravaged, armored landscape we see in the paper and online every day. It was fascinating, and kind of unreal, to be looking at someone's computer and clicking through pictures he'd taken in a war zone. He had ridden down Baghdad's infamously violent Airport Road, which I read about again in yesterday's paper.

He had virtually no social life over there. I asked how the military crowd he worked and ate meals with was with his being gay, and he said they were cool, it wasn't much of an issue. I now think he probably wasn't out at all in his workplace.

With the passage of time, I've also started to suspect he might have been in the CIA.

The next morning, we exchanged e-mail addresses—it was a Monday, and I had to call work to say I hadn't slept well and would be late. I walked home from his hotel thinking we'd stay in touch, that maybe I'd be one of his few contacts with gay life for the rest of his time in the Middle East. My lips were raw—that I remember well. 

I e-mailed him right away to thank him, and at least once more after he would have been back in Iraq. He never replied.

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