4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I am in a JetBlue plane, somewhere between Massachusetts and Philadelphia, snapping gum, fighting for elbow room, staving off sleep. Every time I cough, the woman next to me flinches. The Jersey shore girl behind me keeps talking about tube tops, which is odd, because it’s barely 40º outside.
I am headed home.
I haven’t been home much since my father died, 17 years ago, although during some of that time I actually lived in Philadelphia. But New Jersey, New Jersey is different.
I am going home to New Jersey for a funeral. My husband made me fly, because he hates the idea of his sleepy wife zipping along the highways and byways of the Northeast. But for me, something about the time it takes to get from here to there in a car allows for the slow immersion, the gentle slide back in time.
My minivan can become a time machine, the roads becoming more familiar, exactly like I remember as I ease from bridge to turnpike to exit to highway to Rte. 130 strip malls, the same six-lane highway I crossed on my three-speed Schwinn bike in search of Baskin Robbins’ bubble-gum-flavored ice cream.
But flying is the sudden jarring upheaval, the Auntie Em gone missing as we lift off in our rarefied air and then touchdown.
When my father died I was living in Rhode Island, at a monastic school. I’d traveled down to Appalachia. It was Kentucky, I think, in a van filled with kids eager to avoid spring breaks with their parents, looking for college essays or perhaps, truly looking to serve. We were going to be building houses.
During an overnight stop on the drive down I called my father, who was in the hospital. I was in a hotel room I shared with a 15 year-old. My Dad told a joke or I told a joke. He sounded sick, but he pretty much always sounded sick. I wish I could remember the joke. I remember the hotel carpet was blue, but not the joke. I said, “Love you,” when I got off the phone, because that’s what you say.
Two days later, the first morning of our stay at the mission house, I was brought to the kitchen. My mother had called. It was an emergency, I was to call back. And after 27 years growing up in a family where at least one family member was likely to die, where every phone message from my mom was prefaced with, “Hi, Jennie. It’s mom. Everything is fine…” I knew that everything was truly not fine.
Standing in the kitchen surrounded by kids making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I slid down the wall, clutching the phone, crying. I remember the boy watching me, not his name, but his face. I don’t remember what my mom said.
A local woman volunteered to drive me to the nearest major airport, four hours away. And as I traveled these roads so unfamiliar, past choking kudzu and mountains, with a woman who I didn’t know, I felt unhinged, off-balance. I lost my boarding pass in the airport, vaguely remember yelling at someone at a service kiosk that my father, at age 60, was dead and this man needed to fix my ticket because today had already been too much.
At my childhood home in New Jersey we gathered, all untethered balloons, only half-filled with helium, sometimes colliding, mostly drifting off to corners with our fraying ribbons dragging behind us. A neighborhood friend took me to the mall to buy a black dress. The first chance I got I ran the two miles to my besty’s house where I knew I could breathe for a minute before returning to be deflated and emptied.
Later we helped to transfer the casket from the gurney to the hearse and it was shockingly heavy for a man who had been so sick for so very long.
I remember my besty being in the back of the church, her husband by her side. She was like a beacon. She was there to comfort only me. For the briefest moment I glided into her to hold on and then away. I filled myself with her, but just for a moment.
But it meant something so large. The people who traveled from New York or western Pennsylvania or just up Rte. 130, they mattered. The on-again, off-again boyfriend who did not come to the funeral, that mattered, too.
Today I am flying home to go to my best friend’s Dad’s funeral. He was 91. He was always very short with me whenever I saw him, “Mother! Get Bean. It’s her friend.” Maybe he knew about the time the car broke down on the Schuylkill Expressway on the way to the James Taylor concert, how we’d had it towed and then acted surprised to find it not starting up the next day. Maybe he knew I’d sometimes make her raid her sweet mother’s stash of frozen Christmas cookies in the basement freezer. Maybe he was just already old and tired, even in 1986.
Now my best friend is a mom herself, and a wife and teacher. She is the glue that holds things together, she is the helium that fills our collective balloons. She is just one of this man’s amazing children. Her three smart, dear children are just three of his eleven grandchildren. In my book, he lived a wonderfully complete life.
And so, I return home now to celebrate his life, yes. But I return home more to be near my friend and her family. To be a face she recognizes at the wake, to fill the church at the funeral, to drive to the cemetery for the folding of the flag and the playing of taps. With her full life and the time and effort expected of her right now, I don’t expect to see her for long. When I told her I was coming I said that I just wanted my aura to be closer to her aura. I want her to know that I am near. I am always near.
When my Dad died I called another friend whose dad had died years before. I told her I didn’t know how to be without a father. I wanted guidance from someone who had gone there ahead of me. I don’t remember what she said. I do remember her voice though, and her love streaming over the phone, her empathy.
You show up. You go to the funeral. If you can, you just do it. You go.
Mother, artist, daughter, wife, and friend: with four children in three years things get pretty crazy. Finding time to reflect on motherhood, identity and making art, brings me back to sanity (or as close as I’ll get in this lifetime.)