The Long Shadow
“Shall the shadow go forward ten steps or backward ten steps?” 2 Kings 20:9
“Shall the shadow go forward ten steps or backward ten steps?” 2 Kings 20:9
IShe lay almost limp against me, this adult child of mine, drained from running the 26.2 miles of the Chicago Marathon. The rhythmic clacking of the Blue Line train lulled her to a half sleep, my arm around her slim shoulders, her head under my chin. Unlike Laura, my awareness was at a peak--this moment was mine to tuck away for when she was gone again. At 25, she was all elbows—barreling into my arms for a quick hug and then pushing off into another motion. Once for a school project about family, her little sister drew Laura as a tornado with a face.
Nearly twilight, the L rose to where I could see into apartment windows. Lights were coming on, pops of brightness in the dusk, allowing me to see people moving through their homes. As we traveled further out of the city, the architecture changed from sleek to haphazardly stacked homes and apartments. The mid-century style of the apartment buildings reminded me of an old sit-com I used to watch with my father, and I expected to see Ralph Kramden throwing open his apartment door, hallooing to Alice. In one tiny kitchen, I saw a woman’s back as she faced the two-burner stove, and I wondered what warm supper simmered there as she approached the end of her day. What pain and loss did she stir into the evening meal? What list of worries did she roll through her fingers like rosary beads?
At the next stop, two fortyish couples stepped onto the train. High pony-tails bobbing on their heads, the women wore close fitting tops and bell-shaped skirts that fell mid-calf. The men wore shirts cuffed across their biceps, their white socks showing between rolled jeans and loafers. I blinked to make sure I hadn’t dozed off into a Kramdenesque dream, rolling my mind over the many plausible reasons they might be dressed in costume, but a sort of haze surrounded them, as if a gauzy curtain had fallen between two time periods. Their bodies wore the clothes easily, poodle skirts and loafers comprising just another outfit for just another Sunday. Even the train car appeared to be from another century with its narrow frame, cracked leather seating, and nicked metal handles. Shaking off this odd time blip, I closed my eyes and focused again on Laura, loving the still warmth of her against my side, protectively drawing her closer with my arm.
I could feel the woman’s stare even before I opened my eyes. Her eyes fixated in our direction, she stared at Laura and then turned her gaze to me. She lifted her hand and pointed a long finger at us, slowly and deliberately shaking her head no. Lowering her hand, she pulled her lips into a strange smile, without dropping her eyes. I shrugged my shoulders at her, as if in question. She shook her head again and held her gaze.
At our stop, Laura shifted her weight and sat straight in her seat. Walking down the platform to the street level, we seemed to fall back into this century, but I carried the woman’s foreboding gaze forward with me like an overhanging shadow.
“Did you happen to see that woman sitting across from us?”
“The creepy one who kept staring at us? Yeah, I did.”
So I hadn’t dreamed her, her outfit, or her eerie stare. Maybe she’d had one too many before she boarded the train. Perhaps she was toying with us because we were out-of-towners in our marathon t-shirts. Even in the acknowledgement of these possibilities, the words la bruja bubbled into my thoughts. Was she an emissary from the fifties? Did she know something that I didn’t? Or what did she know that I did, but couldn’t face?
If I had one of those big world maps, I could track Laura with push pins: Pittsburgh, D.C., Sacramento, Tokyo, Florence, Cinque Terre, Rome, Paris, Chicago, Arkansas, New Orleans, Houston. I would tie a piece of embroidery floss between the pins to connect her to me, to where she began, creating a visible link. Instead, we are tethered by Facetime, text messages, Instagram, and Facebook posts. I see her and hear her, but I can’t touch her, bring her chicken soup when she’s sick, or meet her for coffee. My motherhood is walled by many varieties of “I can’t.” Part of me aches for her all the time: my hands yearning to smooth back silky hair, my arms twitching to enfold her, even against her struggle. My body does not forget.
At the sound of my morning alarm, I imagine her still asleep, curled on her side, two hours behind me. We are connected by phone lines, divided by time differences. In college, she called me while riding her bike home, my mind tangled in the three lanes of traffic she had to cross with a phone held to one ear. Sometimes even now she calls me while in line at Starbucks, saying "Bye...love you" as she reaches the register.
When we talk, I tamp down the gray froth of worry that skirts our conversation. I make an effort to brighten my tone, sometimes patting myself on the back for how well I conceal the sum of her absence, hiding my sorrow that she's not closer so we could sit over lunch. I lock away the vision of our heads bending toward the steam rising from our coffee.
"Be happy, Mom," she tells me. "Are you happy?"
The outwardly calm way I go about my life-- teaching my classes, reading, deciding what to eat for dinner--camouflages the void that used to be Laura-filled. Late at night, our house still creaks under her residual footsteps. We look at each other with half smiles on our faces: “Did you hear that?”
The first four years after she left home, Laura spent playing Division 1 lacrosse in California. The way it works when you sign your child over to a Division 1 sports team is that everything else now comes first, before you, even before her. Workouts, practices, games, team meetings, study time filled up every little blue line in her planner. One weekend, her father and I drove 500 miles to see her when she came East to play, leaving after work, both of us bleary-eyed already, arriving in Connecticut just after three a.m. For the last 50 miles of the trip, I drove lurching in the right lane over curving roads nearly covered by a canopy of ghostly tree branches. At the exit, I turned left into the hotel driveway, nearly hitting a barrier there.
Nothing mattered, though, except that we would be sleeping in the same hotel as she, that when my alarm went off at 8:00 a.m., I would fling open the door, pound down the steps into the breakfast room, where Laura would be, miraculously, my daughter, mine.
That first day I was lucky. Laura had the afternoon off--the promise of three unclaimed hours before the rules kicked in again, and we spent it in our hotel room, seeking some semblance of home life, she and I sitting hip to hip on the sofa--me usurping the spot next to her. We watched television, flipping channels to find a show we'd once watched routinely together, recreating a scene of familiarity.
I don't know how to explain what happens between us. Perhaps my voice loses its precarious balance, the slipping of an octave indicating disapproval. Maybe I am just too much up close and in person, pressing Laura to remember that she is indeed a part of me. As a baby, she fought against the highchair, kicking and drumming until she was released, the rest of us bouncing her on our laps while we finished dinner one handed.
At school sometimes, I have to close my office door, so I can get some work done. Perhaps my leopard rug extends an invitation, and students and faculty alike wander in, drifting to the chair in the corner, telling me about their days, inviting me into their lives. We laugh everyday while my children look down from their pictures on the shelves. As we talk, deep inside, my heart aches to think that I share daily with others what I can’t with her—this easy chatter, these moments of confidence, the laughter over a shared experience.
A photograph taped directly in my line of vision over my desk shows three hands piled on top of each other, each wearing the beaded beach bracelet my youngest daughter Rachel buys for us. We wear them until they fall off, and we compare stories of their longevity. All for one, and one for all our picture promises, a solidarity of Sunday women, a trio who once sat in wet bathing suits on sandy picnic benches at Le Bec Rouge.
By the next morning of our Connecticut visit, I was an irritant, so much sand under her tongue. Chatting about her Chicago internship the following summer, I wished aloud about a weekend visit, one for me that promised a sunny city adventure in a place that we could reach by car. Ever since I heard about her acceptance, a comforting mantra ran through my head...she'll be closer...she'll be closer, the Chicago location making real the possibility that if I had to, I could get in the car and find her, fall out of the car into her world, nothing between us but a day's drive.
"I want to have time for my friends," she said. "When I was in Japan, I had so much fun with the people I met there...I just want to have time. It will all go so fast."
Blinking, I looked away. Rejected, I sat quietly, smarting as if I’d been slapped. Still, Laura's words threw me back 30 years to when I was her age, packing for a semester abroad in Spain. My mother paced the room, making me nervous as I tried to calculate what I might need for a new life.
"Maybe I'll come visit you in March," she began hopefully. "I've been looking at some brochures about Marbella."
"Can't you just let me have my own experience?" I sputtered, physically recoiling, gasping for breathing space. "This is my life, not yours. You've already lived your life.”
My words were full of such an obvious desire to be free from her, from the small life I thought she lived, that I don't know how she survived them. I can do nothing now to change that day--no matter how many times I revisit it desiring to sponge those words from her brow. Instead I carry the words with me like the polished stones Jews leave in the cemetery for remembrance.
After the game, I waited with her father and brother, leaning against our car, chatting with other parents about all that is our daughters. Arriving at a trot, with a quick embrace for her men, she caught the eye of another mother, one she saw far more often. Heads together, arms around waists, they nodded knowingly at each other's words, walking easily together toward the food table.
Where did I belong then? I stood conspicuously alone, the miserable figure on the fringe of a movie set, my red coat too bright. It's how she survives, I told myself, a strong young woman so far from home in a world that asks so much from her.
IV"What is that supposed to mean?"
I looked, my head in a swivel, to see what had annoyed my daughter.
"Well?" she snorted, glossy nails drumming the table.
Ah, she glared at me, her eyes full of blue flame. I've done it again, I guess. An involuntary sigh, an innocent expulsion of breath escaped from my lips, from deep inside my chest. I've become famous in my family circle for this sigh, to whom it means much more than an exhalation of carbon dioxide. To my daughters and sons this sigh equals negative commentary about their facial expressions at any given moment, their ambition or lack of thereof-- their worth weighed and measured by my single breath.
I decided to ask my sister about it, thinking that she would debunk the sigh as adolescent angst. "You do sigh a lot," she said instead.
So, I stand guilty as charged, although I believe in my innocence. My defense is this: I admit that I sigh, but I don't plan to sigh, and I swear, oh I do swear, that I don't sigh in judgment of anyone. I think, instead of the personal condemnation my children believe them to be, my sighs are a safety valve, a little of life's build-up hissing out slowly here and there, my own despair leaking into the atmosphere.
My secret despair is not so well kept if it automatically makes itself heard. How can I explain that this black mess I carry within me has nothing to do with them? I pile things on top of it--happy moments--but the vapors ooze out around them, moving up my windpipe and out through my mouth. Images swirl in the despair--my father stuffing a sponge into my mother's mouth while she kicked at him from the floor--my brother's pillowed head in the cheap gray coffin, wax plugs almost stopping the trickle of blood from the entrance and exit wounds--the sheriff's deputy's quick rap at my door, his large hands bearing a thick envelope of foreclosure --my mother's open-mouthed last gasp for breath as she died alone, the sight of her face molded by rigor mortis --the simple understanding that life is a series of losses, that nothing is certain, that what you know to be true never is. My sighs are my mea culpa, my gasp for air.
"Mom?" she asked, tossing her bangs back from her face.
There are things better left unsaid.
1. I was a woman often alone with four young children. I was hollowed out by a long work day, the shuttling of children between after-school activities, cooking a dinner that satisfied four disparate appetites, supervising multiple levels of homework, and refereeing a near Olympic competition for attention. Underneath the daily flurry, ragged worry about money consumed me.
At my daughters’ bedtime, I pulled myself up the steps, my mind already calculating how many hours I needed to spend on the project with the looming deadline before I could finally climb into bed. When they reached out to me for another story, another conversation, sometimes with recriminations and tears, my mind was already halfway through the door.
2. I was a child born into violence and chaos. Much of my childhood was spent reading stacks of books I carried home from the library in grocery bags. My six-word memoir could read: She sometimes chooses books over life.
3. I didn’t want that long shadow to touch my children, but it rose around my feet like flood waters.
I wanted her so badly. I’d lost a baby between my second son and Laura. With every turn of her tiny limbs inside of me, I cherished her. I packed a tiny white corduroy bonnet trimmed with satin flowers deep within my suitcase. When I first held her, her clear blue eyes locked on mine, and I relaxed into the possibilities that awaited our journey together.
Here’s what my children might never know. I wanted to be perfect for them.
When I was in my twenties, after I'd dropped my briefcase on my bedroom floor and laced up my tennis shoes, I was out the door and up the long curved driveway that emptied onto Bower Hill Road. At the top of the hill, my walk turned into a jog, then a run, and I focused on the repetitive sidewalk squares as I pounded past the synagogue, the Catholic grade school, and the entrance to the community pool. About 30 minutes later, I’d turn back, this time at a slower pace, letting my muscles cool down. I walked leisurely past the single-family homes whose lawns butted up against the sidewalk. I took note of these homes every night, chronicling and charting changes and additions: the newly-cut grass, the half-cleared picnic table, the colorful whirligig spinning in the small garden. The homes nearest the crosswalk were simple brick ranches, mostly pale yellow, now and then interrupted by the roughness of deep red, three steps leading to their concrete porches, overhung by patterned aluminum awnings. As I got closer to my complex, the houses grew, expanding into two-story stone constructions. Poppies and purple puffs on long stems waved in flower gardens, and redwood planters barely contained tumbling blooms. A cool darkness was just starting to fall, and sugary yellow lights clicked on up and down the street.
I loved to look into the windows, drawn by the emanating light like an insect. I don’t remember the sum of what I saw, save for some white lace curtains, an abandoned game on a dining room table, and a set of rich maroon velvet chairs. I longed to curl my back into the dark plush, to roll the dice and count off spaces, to own the view from inside the lace-trimmed windows, to be part of the circle within. The soft light cutting into the near darkness comforted me, beckoning me to a life where people read after dinner in soft chairs, where voices were calm, where the sound of fist meeting flesh was absent. I usually stopped at the last house nearest my own cross walk, a rambling Cape Cod sided in white with red trim, the entrance just off kilter a bit to the right of the sidewalk. The door was a beacon, and I had to stop myself from raising the engraved knocker.
Now, so many years later, I am still gazer when I pass through a neighborhood at night, the windows again backlit, though the promise is more elusive, and the stories I imagine are more realistic. Once, I could outrun life to grasp a little of the light in my palms, to roll it and form it into something of my own. I knew just a little about loss, but nothing at all about the deep wistfulness that would follow or the long shadows we cannot escape.