Paris, early May.
Over the Quai D’Orsay that runs along the Seine, a chorus line of trees in emerald gowns jeweled with sunlight nod while waving their spring-heavy branches. Morning dog-walkers are suited crisply for the promenade. Traffic hums in a steady stream. Bicyclists ping their bells. Vespas buzz.
Our boulangerie a block away is pulling fresh loaves from its ovens. I know this because it’s Saturday morning, the hour when I can always taste hot wheat in the air. Today, the flavor comes in one lusty throatfull through our windows thrown wide open.
They’re open next to where our oldest, Parker, is seated at the family computer desk in the corner, finishing a paper. His high school graduation is in one month. The street sounds – trash collectors, the random visitor trying without success to parallel park, students and tourists and neighbors chatting on the sidewalk beneath us – bubble into our space, which is silent except for my son’s clickety-click on the computer keyboard.
He sits, his back to me, only ten feet away. I could stand up – if it entered my mind – and walk over any time I want. Close to him like that, I could touch his shoulder and stroke a hand across his hair, maybe smell his skin, hear his voice, meet his eye.
But I don’t. I’m focused on something else.
“Okay everybody? Sorry, but you’re just going to have to live with this for as long as it takes. I’m working. And we all know what that means.” I button up a man’s shirt, roll up the sleeves, and cover the parquet with a ream of old newspapers.
This time, my “work” means face-lifting some pieces of older furniture by changing them from homey pine to the sleek, minimalist look of a wet cloud. “Dove gray” is the paint I’ve chosen, and I’ve sought out a special high gloss version, which the paint store gentleman, head cocked, warns will require more layers and a longer drying period than conventional paint.
So I paint. I let dry. I paint again. I let dry again.
I paint away while my windows waft sounds and smells of the home I am tortured to leave.
I paint while Paris breezes all around the son I’m sad yet satisfied to see heading off to a life at college.
In five weeks, only days after his graduation, the movers are arriving to pack us up for Munich. I’ve been hanging by my fingertips, inching down the many rungs of my To-Do list: I’ve long since packed most of our belongings in several dozen boxes. Then I’ve stacked them literally everywhere along the periphery of our apartment. After packing and stacking, I’ve draped our larger pieces of furniture with old sheets and pushed them up against whatever bits of periphery are left. Now I can paint away in silence.
Parker’s there, peripheral, too, his back to me and mine to his as I taste the strange blend of boulangerie and paint fumes swimming through our apartment. The hushhh-hushhh of my paintbrush covers with slow, silvery licks the top of my writing desk. And I hear Parker, his clickety-clicks insisting from a far corner, no more than a muted background to my task-stacked, project-preoccupied inner soundtrack.
I glance up once in a while and grin casually, noting how my boy is a man now, and I wonder offhandedly about the details of what lies ahead for him in a few short weeks. Roommates, laundromats, his first bank account, when will we squeeze in finally getting him an American driver’s license?
I’m elbow deep in gray – paint and thought – dipping and stroking the gloss, taken (if only fleetingly) by my child’s self-evident future.
I rock back from my knees to my haunches, wipe my hair from my face, admiring my slick gray project.
My son’s T-shirted shoulders are over to the left, barely in my range of vision.
Here I am again, almost six years from that May morning – all those May mornings, that long string of precious but wasted mornings.
If you were to come to my home, you wouldn’t find a single piece of hand-painted dove gray furniture. Anywhere. It all arrived in Munich, that much is true. I watched coldly while the movers hauled each piece up the stairs, through our double doors and into the middle of our apartment.
But the pieces just stood there in all their haunting grayness. Maybe you understand how I couldn’t walk close to them, let alone touch or use them. Their sheen stared dully at me, filling me with a landslide of sorrow. Is a nightstand really capable of mocking? Because I felt it mocking me.
Within that first week we’d contacted Markus, a man from church, who’d shown up with a big moving trailer hooked to the back of his family car.
“Do anything you want with all of it,” Randall told Markus, who stood outside our big black apartment doors. “We can’t have it here. It’s too. . .Melissa can’t keep these pieces.”
And so Markus and Randall carried everything, including my massive writing desk, down the dark stairs and out the front door of our building. From where I stood behind bathroom curtains, I watched out the window as the two men carried each piece onto the street, watched the shiny pieces go into a trailer, watched while grinding my jaw on the sharp contours of insoluble regret.
I watched, and while I did I couldn’t help but replay how I’d knelt day after day after day, painting thoughtfully, tenderly, how I’d painted as if I really loved all that dead wood, painted while my son – life trilling from his fingertips, breath coming from his lungs – sat right there within my reach. Every minute spent with paint, I could have spent with Parker.
I walked from the window back into our entryway, relieved in a small way to see the proof of my folly disappear in a trailer down Widenmayerstrasse. And there, from atop a bookshelf outside the bathroom were Parker’s eyes looking at me from the photo on the front of his framed funeral program.
I see life with a scrupulous eye, the saddened but sharpened eye of someone who knows.
I know things.
I know certain things in a way that people who have not lost abruptly cannot know. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t say that with pride. I say that with a sigh of resignation. I know and am constantly aware that my time with those I cherish is limited to the pinpoint moment in which I stand. I know that it is these relationships that deserve my complete mindfulness. I know what lasts (love) and what, ultimately, doesn’t (stuff), and what therefore needs my whole soul and what doesn’t warrant a major investment of either energy or time.
But I also know I should write.
And this, friends, is where the conflict arises. This is the juncture to which I’ve been bringing you. Because more and more, I find myself here. . .
. . .and I find my children here. . .
This year alone I’ve discovered the seduction with which the virtual world churns; and let me tell you, that’s some alarming, breathtaking, and time-devouring force.
Or maybe you’ve already noticed?
When I am writing, particularly these posts, I always focus on who’s reading – you, for example – and imagine that off-screen you probably have real relationships, too, like those I have, relationships that deserve your full presence. Which realization makes my fingers stiffen at my keyboard, and my back shiver in my chair. Why? Because it’s a serious thing in my book, to invite you here for virtual connection – my layer after layer of dove gray gloss – when there might be a live person on the other side of your room, within your reach, even, someone clicking at thier own keyboard, maybe, a human being you love who deserves you.
Who deserves your time and attention – crazy as this is going to sound! – more than I do.
What a thought.
Have my words ever pulled you away from the person in the room? Or have I invested rightly, and my words have helped you understand that person in the room, propelled you to lean a bit in that direction and love with more intensity and devotion?
Don’t answer that.
But do consider this:
If I post drivel, if reading me (or anything else online, for that matter, but I won’t get into critiquing other online material) is not worth the priceless minutes invested, minutes you could spend on your flesh and blood connections, will you please, please call me on it?
One last important thing: I know that my son has forgiven me for spending those last weeks next to him but not really with him. Not, at least, as I, in hindsight, wish I would have spent that time with him. He’s long since smiled that laps into the past.
He also knows that I must write. He knows, as do I, that there can be life-changing electricity generated through shared words. In fact, he is the one who continues to prompt me to have courage to write all I possibly can.
I hear his warning, though, and it is wise. I’ll share it with you:
Write, Mom. Yes, write.
But not to the exclusion of the most vital narrative, the one with blood and pulse and breath, the living narrative that outlasts – yes, it does outlast – anything you or anyone will ever write.