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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Memories and Gentle Wind

I am lying in bed with Lily.  Her eyes are heavy-lidded, drooping.  Her face is turned away toward the wall but I can see her eyes, still open, dreamily gazing toward her nightlight between languid blinks.  I am holding her hand with one of mine.  With the other, I am tracing a slow gentle arc from her cheek, over, around and behind her ear, across her hair, sleek and smelling of flowers from her bath, four fingers smoothing it back from her face and sweeping it over her ear.  Slowly.  Over and over.  She is very still.  I look at the clock.  It is 8:45.

My mind wanders as I perform this nightly ritual.  It wanders back to the first time I ever did it, lying in bed with Leslie, as she told me how her grandmother used to run her fingers through her hair in just that same way to calm her.  To put her to sleep.  She shows me on my hair.  It feels nice.  It feels soft and gentle with the faintest hint of a tickle, but not an uncomfortable one.  Like a sort of faint electric thrill at the nerve endings.  It makes me want to purr like a cat.

Virtually every night for twenty years I smoothed Leslie's hair back over her ear.  She was always early-to-bed.  I was always a night owl.  Before I ran or read, watched TV, played video games, surfed the net or wrote into the wee hours of the morning, I first would put Leslie to sleep.  Through the years that slow gentle arc over her ear morphed into back scratches, foot rubs, calf rubs, head rubs, or finger massages, but they all started with that first slow gentle smoothing of the hair from her face.  We called it her rubby-rub.  In the morning she'd wake me up with the same.  A back rub or scratch, a head massage...it woke me up.  It put her to sleep.  We limited it to ten minutes each to save on muscle strain.  It was always over too soon for me, the waking one.  She rarely maintained consciousness long enough to feel me finish my ten minutes.

Sometimes she'd take my wedding ring off and rub the finger under the ring.  It felt so good.  Who knew how good a simple finger rub could feel.  She'd pull the ring off clumsily.  It wouldn't budge, tight against the knuckle.  She'd yank it until I'd yelp then she'd get frustrated and give up, so I'd pull it off for her, twisting it as I pulled.  

Sometimes I think about how it shouldn't be any different, me being downstairs alone with the kids while Leslie was upstairs resting in bed, or me being downstairs with the kids with Leslie passed on.  But it is.  Of course it is.  It's just the knowing.  Observing something changes it.  If I didn't know that Leslie was gone would I still be as sad?

Sometimes at work, my mind trips over the phone call.  The nightly call home.  "Hey honey, taking off now.  See you in about 45 minutes."  The habit is there.  I never actually start to make the call, but the urge to reach for the phone and call her still exist, deeply ingrained after years of repetition.  Sometimes I briefly imagine she's there.  If I don't call her, I never feel the gut punch confirmation of someone else answering the phone.  It will never be her again.  But I can toy with the idea of her being there, and me just not calling.  Observing something changes it.

I once wrote a fictional short story around the premise of Schrodinger's Cat.  The idea that you cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead until you open the box to observe it.  It lives as a probability, no matter how minute, until it is observed to have died.  It wasn't about Leslie.  When I wrote it in 2011, Leslie was "cured".  In remission.  Our worries were behind us.  Instead, it was inspired by true events, earlier that week Leslie had gotten an email that a coworker's mother had died, followed by another email that she was not dead, followed by another that she was. Apparently there were three sons, and they had sent word of the woman's passing before the third son knew about it. . . attempted to retract it until he could be told. . . then sent it again once he was notified. She'd died, they just didn't want him to learn in QUITE such a shitty way. In my story, the "hero" gets a phone call that his girlfriend has died only to find out that it's a false alarm.  It is implied in the story that the girl dies shortly after the first call.  Certainly she is expected to, and when the phone rings a second time, the man doesn't answer it.  He packs all his belongings and leaves, taking only her picture with him.  If the box isn't opened, you can never be certain the cat died.  Its life continues as a probability.  So he leaves, loses himself in another city, another country, another culture.  Never calls never writes, never learns whether she dies and allows himself to believe that if there is a probability that she is alive, then she will always be alive.  At least for him.  He saves her life by never observing her death.  I loved the idea of it.  It seemed sweet and haunting but it wasn't great the way I wrote it out then.  It would probably be better now that death has touched me and grief and I are better acquainted. Write about what you know...right?

Anyway, I think of that sometimes.  What's the difference?  When Leslie was alive and I didn't see her, I always knew she was upstairs.  She existed as a probability in that upstairs bedroom.  A strong probability.  We weren't talking.  I couldn't see her, but I always knew I could visit her at any moment.  I always knew I could run upstairs, give her a kiss and an update on the kids, then run back downstairs before Lily grabbed something fragile.  But she wasn't with us.  She wasn't being 'observed'.  I wish I could make my peace with the idea of this unobserved 'better' place beyond where Leslie is...and that place is really no different than when she lay upstairs in bed...a different plane, a higher existence, but still at the heart of it...just "upstairs".  Just like always.  And nothing is different about the scenarios.  But everything is different.  Uncertainty is a sort of questionable deathlessness.  But observing something changes it.  And this isn't an invitation to anyone to tell me, "But Jim it IS just like Leslie is upstairs, you can still talk to her, you can still see her if you close your eyes and think about her" or whatever.  I know.  I know. 

When we told Lily that Leslie was dying, we told her that she was going to live in heaven but that she'd always be with her in her heart, and that if she needed to see her, she just had to close her eyes and remember and Leslie would be there.  That's an immortality of sorts.  Not a Shrodinger's cat kind.  Not a probability.  But a handprint left on the soul of someone who loved her.  Who loves her still. A spark of recollection.  An image of a face.  A remembrance of soft words whispered nightly by a mother who loves you.

And nobody ever is really gone even if you are sitting with her holding her hand as her breath stills and her pulse fades, as it was with Leslie, so near imperceptible that I didn't even feel it go until I questioned it.  Felt for the pulse.  Watched her breathing.  It was slow and peaceful, subtle and silent.  Observed.  Changed.  But everything she touched and everything she observed remained behind, changed by HER observing.  Like the wind.  You don't see it, but you observe it bend branches, and watch the leaves it stirs on the ground.  You can't see it, but it's real.  It is alive.  It exists.  Leslie is still with us.  The gentle wind. 


With Emma, I always tell her to listen to her mother's voice.  It's still there.  We know what Leslie would say.  We know her council.  We listened to it for years.  I can play it out in my mind...that's Leslie.  That's what she would say.  We know whether she'd approve or disapprove.  I can hear her voice saying the words.  Those memories, the way she changed me, the way she help shaped the kids, that's Leslie.  That is Leslie alive and walking.  A gentle wind bending the branches of our lives.

And so tonight in bed with Lily I'm thinking about these memories that keep Leslie alive and in our lives.  Not the funny stories.  Not the anecdotes.  But the things that she changed by observing them.  The things she shaped and developed.  The branches she bent and bends still.  The leaves she stirred and stirs still.  Our kids.  My parenting.  The presence of her moral compass.  And I'm thinking too about this life-preserving passing on of traditions, because here I lie in bed with my daughter, stroking her hair the way her great grandmother, a woman who died before I ever met Leslie, once stroked Leslie's hair.  And Leslie now gone too.  And yet I trace tiny arcs over Lily's ears.  And WHY do I do that?  Because a woman I never met once left an undying imprint on a little girl who grew to be the woman I married.  Who herself grew to be the mother Lily knew.  Who stroked her hair.  Who stroked my own.  Who imprinted me.  And I pass it to the girls.

I wonder who once stroked Leslie's grandmother's hair.  Where did it start?  I'm stroking Lily's hair and I'm thinking about how Leslie's grandmother is alive in this gesture.  I'm thinking about how Leslie is alive in this gesture.  And I see my daughter's eyes are closed.  And she is sleeping.  I look at the clock and it is 8:51.  Six minutes it took to put her to sleep.  It was the same with Leslie.