This boy, that dog, our afternoons together…kind of an on-again, off-again thing, for ten years or so. Makes my throat tighten, to see all that white on Rocco’s face, how tall that boy is now, an impressive thatch of chestnut brown hair under that hat, too. Hard evidence of how much time lives between these photos, feels both like a flash and someone else’s long-ago life I’m remembering.
Nearly ten years ago, when Jill returned to teaching after Otto was born, shortly after Bob died, I watched Otto a few days a week for Jill and Jade. I sometimes wonder, if they knew how precarious my entire being was then (or, how precarious my neighborhood was, for that matter—like, that one afternoon when Otto and I were having lunch, and I watched a St. Paul police car swoop in and slam to a stop outside my front windows, followed by another, and another, and another, and another, until my street was dammed up with squad cars and a swarm of bodies with SWAT emblazoned on their backs poured out the cars, down my boulevard, pooling around an abandoned house a few doors down), they might have thought twice about leaving their baby with me.
But, every time that sweet little face showed up at my door, my deep sorrow eased back just a bit, to make room for him. I didn’t stop thinking about Bob while Otto was there, not for a second, but when Otto was with me, Bob wasn’t the only thing I thought of. For a while, my head got a little break from its incessant looping, and my heart stepped in to help out a bit. Thing about grief is, you’d give anything for that to happen more than it does those early days, weeks, months, hell, even years following such a great loss, but there’s not a whole lot you can do to speed up the process, or get out of it. That’s not to say I didn’t try, lord almighty did I try, short of literally molting out of my own skin, I tried so so hard to escape dying-on-the-inside. That little boy, for a long time, was my only reprieve.
Ten years ago, Rocco took a liking to that little boy who’d come to visit twice a week, and I’m sure it’s in part because there were traces of yogurt or mashed potatoes on his face. Otto would just sit there and let Rocco bathe him with his tongue. It became a constant battle, every time I’d turn my back, Rocco would sneak in for a lick or 28; I’d separate the two, then go to the kitchen for a snack and come back to find Rocco snacking on Otto’s face again. I like to take credit for Otto’s spectacular immune system.
Ten years later, same cast of characters, but this time, instead of a myopic, singular tragedy, the whole wide world is sharing a precarious state, global crises piled on in thick, dense layers, impressing deep sorrow into each our beings, so much gone in the past year, it’ll take years to tally up the losses, if it’s even possible…I’ve started hanging with Otto once a week, so Jill can get Amelia to tennis lessons in the cities (which is why I never excelled at sports, just for the record—not because I wasn’t any good at them, I just didn’t need or want the hassle that goes along with supersportsstardom, okay?).
We had a busy night last night, Otto, Rocco and me. We walked a big bag of organics waste down to the compost drop-off site, stomping through puddles and throwing snowballs along the way, I was feeling kinda lazy and offered to get takeout from anywhere he wanted for dinner, but Otto was unimpressed with the choices I tossed out; when I suggested I make a roast with veggies, his eyes lit up as he exclaimed, “That’s my favorite!” So roast it was…I made dinner while he read a book—he forgot his at home and most of my books are still packed away, but I handed him a slim volume of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe, by Rebecca Elson, an astronomer and poet (I can’t imagine a more perfect coupling of passions than that), and asked him to read a few poems.
“‘What If There Were No Moon’ Jenny?” he said to me, then began reading:
There would be no months
A still sea
No spring tides
No bright nights
Occultations of the stars
No moon songs
Terror of eclipse
No place to stand
And watch the Earth rise.
I think of how many nights I’ve kept the moon in close company this long year of losses, how I’ve come to know her waxing and waning shapes, native names to her fullness at different times of the year (we’re approaching the Full Snow Moon, or Full Hunger Moon, on the 27th), how she gives form to night branches, and glows in my living room window in the evening and greets me in the early morning hour through my kitchen window on the other side of the house), how sad it would be if there wasn’t a moon, we both agreed. And, already we were able to cross off two squares on his Reading Bingo card without even trying: read a poem, and read something someone has recommended to you.
I looked at the card to see what else we could x off. “Write a poem,” I read. “Hey, have you ever written a poem, Otz?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I don’t even know how to do that.” I said, “what if you used the poem you just read as a guide? What was it about again?” Right away, he said, “What if there wasn’t a moon?”
So, we decided to contemplate what would it be like if there wasn’t a sun. I asked, what would happen, do you think? Could you write five lines about it? He got right to work as I finished making dinner and by the time I had our plates served up, he presented me a poem that was even longer than 5 lines that I’d asked for. “What If There Wasn’t a Sun?” he asked, answering his own question:
Oh, if the
no bright ol’ sun
No more asking
if it’s light
or dark out oh
what a shame it would
be if the sun was gone.
“It’s not very good,” he said. “Are you kidding me?” I said, “That’s a wonderful first poem, Otz—it makes me really sad. A good poem makes people feel deep feelings, Gramma Kathy would be so proud of your poem!”
We then made a list of 10 homophones (hair, hare), another list of 10 alliterative sentences, like “Mom mowed the meadow on Monday!” and x’ed off two more Bingo squares, made a few passes at trying to tie his shoes, an exercise in torture for him, an exercise in patience for me. I’ve decided there’s no teaching how to tie shoes—I swear, it happens like magic for every one of us, because I was even confusing the hell out of myself trying to break it down for him. I thought he was going to break down in tears, so I shared with him one of my favorite sayings, “Hey, bud, in order to be great at something, you have to start out sucking,” and I asked him what is something he’s really good at, “I’m really good at math,” he said, so I said, “You weren’t always really good at math, were you ?” (Actually he’s been a math freak, since practically his first day out of the womb, but I hoped he wouldn’t remember this detail.) “I mean, when you were in preschool, you didn’t know how to do math like you do now, right?” “No, I probably thought 3 x 10 was something like 845, that’s how bad I probably sucked!“ he said laughing. “But then at some point, it just clicked, right? And you probably don’t even know when or how it happened, but now it’s so easy for you, and you just keep on doing harder and harder math! That’s what’ll happen with tying your shoes,” I said, “one day, all the pieces will fall into place and you’ll be so surprised when it does and you won’t be able to explain how or when it why or maybe even when it happened, but it will…” It didn’t happen last night, the shoe tying; instead, he fell back onto my bed, which was Rocco’s invitation to jump up and resume their decades-long lick-fest.
This boy, that dog, our afternoon together…as I cleaned up after dinner and Otto went to call his dad, I though about those long sad days ten years ago, how every day, I thought I sucked so terribly at this grief thing, I was never going to get better, I was always going to be stuck, like a fly in amber, and wouldn’t you know it. Here we are 10 years later, a flash and lifetime later, smack dab in the middle of an epic crisis, the whole world so precarious, we’re barely holding our shit together, but I feel a little better prepared, this crisis-go-round, like at some point the things I did ten years ago, overandoverandover again, began to gel, stick, hold me together, and there’s no way I could break it down and tell you the recipe…while I would not say I’m nailing this pandemic, I will say that I think Brene Brown nailed it when she advises to “embrace the suck.” After a 10 year residency in sucking big time, I can honestly say embracing is a far better strategy than railing against it, both are insanely difficult, but for vastly different reasons. xo.