Thursday, November 29, 2012

Facebook Ghosts

The news came in a public place.

"Let me just make one quick call," I told my daughter, Laura. Leaning our heads together over the small table at Panera, we'd been laughing over something funny, the particulars lost to me now, one last day together before she flew back to her separate life in California. She left the table for a minute, for a napkin, some ice? I don't remember now. I made the call, and Laura found me, head in hands, mascara pooling on my fingers. The familiar settings of Panera-- the upholstered booths, the rectangular tables, the people with cups in hand--all blurred and faded from my field of vision.

"Mom? What's wrong?" she asked, dipping her face in front of my bowed head. Poor girl--I'm sure she thought the worst about one of our family members, so undone was I.

It took a while for her to understand. A friend was dead, not because cancer had eaten her from within or because a car took flight. This friend chose her end.

We'd known each other for 30 years, two women in an original band of friends long dissolved by betrayal and divorce. Somehow, we'd stayed connected, rising and falling in and out of each other's lives over the years. We took different paths, me to marriage and four children--her to seeking love in all the wrong places, a quest by a dangerous and willful beauty.

The stories I've heard about my friend's death must surely be incorrect, I think. I want to ask Elaine: did you hear what they're saying about you? I want to tell them: there's no way that the glorious woman who once told me, when I was in a rough spot, "you know, Jill, God cares for you. He holds you in His hand. Don't you ever despair" is the same woman who cut the tendons in her right wrist one week and hanged herself the next.

Still, she seems to be gone. In the weeks after her death, I typed her name into the "search for people, places and things" bar on Facebook, just in case. I clicked through her albums, running my mouse over her image like a caress. In some photos, her head is thrown back in gleeful laughter, sun bouncing off of her blonde hair. In others, she looks straight at the camera--a "take me as I am" glint in her eyes.

One day, a curious post appeared in the midst of the "I will always remember you"s and the "I know I'll see you again"s. This one read: "I know you are all right now. Thank you for that." Oh, how I wanted the story behind that post. I thought about "liking" it and adding a comment: "Please message me and tell me how you know she is all right!" Somehow writing about her, around her, through her on her own now lifeless page seemed wrong, so I moved my finger away from the Enter key. I'll probably check again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Earthquake Kit Revisited

There is no magic-- black or white,
no good juju, no incantations, no sacrifice
of bloodless, headless chickens—but I stay silent, working a charm of protection, just in case.

                                                        The Earthquake Kit 
(previously published in Connotations Press)                                                                                                                   

     When my youngest daughter Rachel was little, she worried a lot about the weather. The worrying part she got from me, the weather-watching part from her father. We were a beach vacation family in those days, and some of her earliest memories must surely involve late-night deck sitting, where we witnessed red lightning cracking above the smudged line of black water. One year we drove into Corolla, North Carolina on the windy heels of Hurricane Bertha, stopping once or twice to drag away tree branches blocking the single lane roads which led to Atlantic Avenue, just off of Highway 12.
     A random assortment of pine needles, bark, and murky sand covered the driveway of the house we’d rented that year, a certain sign of things to come. Nature had been vigorously shaken, and we were in the midst of the fall out. Trekking back from the beach, covered with a fine grit of sand, we stopped en masse at the outdoor shower.  We were a family who never used the inside showers, even the little ones preferring the sweet kiss of warm air on their skin, but this time, we backed out-- a formidable wall of Sundays—scurrying away from the aggressive encampment of big-headed, spindly-legged spiders.  Later that week, we were treated to a gathering of tree frogs, leaf emerald in their greenness, their sticky pads sucked tight to our glass door. Coming for the insects that had been drawn to our inside lights, the frogs’ tongues spun out, darting so rapidly that the insects seemed unaware of their fate. We watched transfixed, spellbound by this little life and death drama played out before us on a vacation house storm door.
     Later that week, we were all awakened by our oldest boy’s shouts. We’d had rain all day; the fury that had been Bertha was long gone, but another hurricane was pushing up the coast. We’d tucked our two youngest in, whispering reassurances  against the pounding rain on the cupola skylight, but now a steady torrent of water forced itself around, under, and through the skylight seal, pouring into the open center of the house, pooling on the first floor where the Godzilla marathon the boys had been watching still flickered on the screen.
     Rachel learned about the ugliness of nature during this and other beach trips, slapping her hands at fat black sand flies, shielding her eyes from the piercing sting of wind-borne sand, overturning turtle shells all but scraped clean of red meat, watching the glassy green sea whip itself into angry gray froth.  On our way south, we often drove through wild storms, once caught in tornado on the beltway around D.C., once driving into West Palm just minutes after a tornado touched down, sideways pelting rain having unnerved us all.
     “Maybe we shouldn’t stay,” Rachel repeated in a kind of litany, rolling her worry between her fingers like beads.
     We looked at the broad palm leaves sheared in ragged segments lying around the pool. “It’s over, honey. We’ll be fine.”

     That trip marked the beginning of Rachel’s sojourn with the Weather Channel. While the tornado was indeed over, unfortunately the remainder of our vacation week was fraught with the kind of hazy heat and pressure that were often followed by ominous thunder storms. Rachel sat rigidly in front of the television several times a day listening for the word tornado on the Weather Channel. Any mention of impending rain heightened her panic.
     “I’ve got to see the Local on the Eights,” she’d say as we rounded up our children for application of sunscreen.
     “Come on, Rach. If we don’t get to the beach soon, the clouds will start building. Let’s go get some sun.”
     “Do you think it’s going to storm today? Maybe we shouldn’t go to the beach today. I want to go home! Can we please go home now?”
     And so it went, her tone becoming more insistent after we’d run up the beach walkway seeking shelter from the inevitable storm. I wonder if the confident young woman she is now remembers the hot tears she cried that week, her blue eyes wide with the fear of waiting for the worst to happen.
     Another summer, we hurried the short distance home from the community fair, after hearing a tornado warning broadcast over the loud speakers. “Don’t worry, kids,” I said to my four and two young friends. “Tornados don’t usually come to Pittsburgh. They are just being careful, that’s all.”
     We sat playing games in my family room until a strangely orange sky shone through the front windows. The glow was unnatural, eerie, and even I was a bit undone.
     “Let’s go guys--time to play in the basement.”
     Smiling while I boosted them up into the crawl space, I joked about me being a crazy worrywart, thinking all the while that the six children in my care would certainly replay this experience in their nightmares.  I held my breath while I sat guard on the cellar steps, waiting for the ghostly sound of the rushing locomotive.  When we emerged, our local news reported downed electric lines, fallen trees, and lifted rooftops just a few miles away.
     Rachel is mostly grown now, a leggy blonde with a wild sense of humor and a no-nonsense attitude.  A fierce “what of it” glint rises easily in her eyes if push comes to shove. Seven months ago she moved 2,577 road miles away from home to Moraga, California. When we packed up her suitcases in August, I checked St. Mary’s “Things to Bring List.” Reading it aloud, a part of my brain eliminated the Earthquake Emergency Kit, perhaps pretending that she wasn’t going quite so far, that she wasn’t my youngest, that I hadn’t quite reached this stage of my life. What bag of tricks could possibly help during an earthquake, anyway? What could I possibly buy to keep my girl safe?   

      Earlier this week, I noticed a link on Rachel’s Facebook page: Sign of California Quake to Come? Below was Rachel’s comment: “Just in case, I love you all.”
     Yesterday, the phone calls and texts began in earnest. “Have you heard anything about the earthquake that’s supposed to hit here tomorrow?” Laura’s message read.  “Call me. Call Rach.”    
     I tried the explanations out in my mind…the geologist doesn’t know what he’s talking about…it’s just dead fish and a low-hanging moon…earthquakes don’t happen where you are…I promise you will be safe, but all of them felt like so much dust on my tongue.
     When I talked to Rachel, after my husband tried to distract her with humor, I asked her “Are you nervous?”
     “Promise me you will get a memorial tattoo of me if I die in the earthquake. Use the picture of me standing on the bridge with Heinz Field in the background. I’ll tell you where it is.”
     I have a mental picture of a large black, intricately-inked tattoo stretching across my 55- year-old back. “I sure hope I don’t have to do that, Rach.”
     “Promise me.”
     “Okay. Sure. I promise, but you are going to be fine. You aren’t right on the fault line, and no tsunami could reach you because you are too far away and too high up on the hill.”
     “Just in case, I’m sending a goodbye text to everyone I know tonight.”
     “Rach, you know that anyone of us could die at any time from a lot of different causes, and we don’t send goodbye texts every night. You will be fine.”
     The truth, though, is that things don’t always work out for the best, and, even in the sweetness of her youth, Rachel understands. She’s seen the footage from Japan and Haiti. She’s walked into my mother’s hospital room to find the rigid contour of a lifeless face against the pillow. She’s heard the crystal splintering, sharp glass shards glinting on the leaf-patterned cloth. She’s picked up her phone to find really bad news emanating from the earpiece, news that she hadn’t invited, dreamed of, or wished for at all.
   The real truth is that Rachel comes from a legacy of sadness, just a breath away from shoddily hidden grief-- from someone who knows quite well that a ringing phone can’t be trusted, from a mother who has so desperately wanted to create a pocket of safety for her children, but who is sometimes irrevocably lost to the day when her brother died from a bullet to the brain.
     Rachel made herself an earthquake survival kit, just in case. She filled her black and yellow Vera Bradley backpack with snacks, Sarris chocolate, bottled water, a flashlight, and her Tide-To-Go pen.   

      I have an earthquake kit too, but Rachel probably doesn’t know that I started mine many years ago, long before she left me, perhaps on the day I stood in the funeral home, feeling the wax slug filling the ragged entrance wound near my brother’s right ear.
     Sometimes the kit does work. I wish I could share its logic with her and my other children, providing them with a checklist for survival, a nicely printed list of circles to fill in with a sharp number two pencil, but part of the process is that each of us must confront impending disaster alone, gathering chicken bones and feathers to ward off that which might harm those we love.  My kit is a ragtag collection, including, but not inclusive of, spastic hopes, lopsided prayers, and improbable deals made in the dead of night. Yesterday, I added my promise to Rachel, praying that my vow will be enough to keep her safe, that I’ll never have to lie under the buzzing tattoo needle, feeling her “I love you all” worked black drop by black drop deeply into my skin.