Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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On a walk last week, unable to fully understand and articulate his grief about the isolation of the pandemic and the way our lives have changed, my eleven-year-old son said, “I know it sounds bad, but sometimes I wish I was dead.”
We live in a small town, a place of bucolic farms and orchards half an hour outside Boston. When the stay-at-home order came down in March, my son and I began walking in the woods first thing in the morning. It was a way to build structure into days suddenly free of structure — and a chance to give my wife an hour of quiet and rest. Feeling ambitious in those early weeks, I had my son choose a small object each morning to bring home and put on the windowsill, a collage of our time together. He brought back acorns, jagged bits of mica, brittle leaves. The windowsill filled up. When it became clear that we couldn’t keep bringing the outside in, we started journaling about our walks. In a notebook we jotted down what we saw: three crows winging over the dairy farm down the street; screeching blue jays in an oak; chickadees fluttering in the dormant forsythia. It snowed several times, not more than an inch or two.
Now it was late summer, a lifetime since those wondrous spring days when we’d gathered pine cones and pretty rocks.
“That’s something people feel,” I told my son, about wishing to be dead. “I struggle with it myself sometimes.” Having carried home too many deer ticks that summer, we walked the road instead of the woods. “It’s a feeling,” I said.
“It’s OK to acknowledge it.”
We came to a big pumpkin patch whose plants had recently blossomed. A few young green pumpkins already bulged on the vine. I could imagine the patch come October: nothing but dry stems and dirt-clumped orange orbs shining in the sun.
In the early days of the pandemic my wife and I cooked every meal at home. With something always bubbling on the stove, I couldn’t help but think of my grandparents and the slowness of their days: The way they looked forward to the simple task of watering flowers. The afternoons spent sitting in lawn chairs, telling stories. They lived in southern Illinois, and my brother and I stayed with them for two weeks every summer. Their backyard garden was full of bloated zucchini and caged tomatoes, and in back of it was an old cinder-block incinerator. Every night at dusk, while my brother and I caught lightning bugs, a tanker truck rolled by, spraying for mosquitoes. I remember the hiss of its sprayer, the poison’s sweet mist, the lazily revolving yellow lights on its roof. I didn’t know anything about the Great Depression or World War II, where Granddad had taken a bullet to the chest in a Normandy orchard. I knew only the lines in their faces, their soft, calm laughter, their kindness.
In the evenings we played pinochle. Sometimes Granny got a phone call in the middle of a hand, and we waited while she talked with a friend or a neighbor. She curled the phone cord around her fingers, uncurled it. There was no hurry. We had all the time in the world.
Making coffee for my wife, I remember Granny’s glass coffee mug with the stenciled valentine hearts, her spoon swirling streaks of cream.
I remember bedtime: a bath, her pink hair rollers, the dimples in her cheeks after she’d taken out her dentures.
The scent of rose water.
A good-night kiss.
In midsummer we got my son an inflatable pool to splash around in, and I sat in a lawn chair in the driveway and watched him the way my grandparents used to watch me. He and I played catch with a kickball, counting how many times we could pass it back and forth before dropping it. The sky was indelibly blue, the clouds bright white. A catbird warbled. Dragonflies hummed. In the pool my son was happy, his hair hanging to his shoulders in wet ringlets. He pretended the ball was an atomic bomb about to destroy the world, and only he could save it.
My son spent the first three years of his life fighting an undiagnosed stomach ailment. Babies cry, the doctors told us. We can make him a little happier with some antacid, they said. But nothing stopped his shrieking: not burps, bottles, swaddling, singing, or a change of diaper. For a thousand consecutive nights he didn’t sleep for more than two or three hours at a time. A thousand nights of pain, confusion, and rage. As I lay awake, listening to him, my mind conjured a gun, big and black. That could solve all our problems. If I couldn’t ease his suffering — our suffering — what other mercy was there? In the other room, right as the thought crossed my mind, my son started crying. Without hesitation I rose and went to him.
Even after a doctor finally diagnosed his condition, he had delays in speech and language development to deal with, low muscle tone, no fine motor skills. Without a private aide, which we couldn’t afford, preschools refused to accept him. He cried too much. He couldn’t understand or follow directions. What we learned in those years is that doctors will deny your pain. Insurance companies will quibble and stall, grinding you down until you give up. We learned that you can’t give up.
Friends of ours have started to crack from the strain of the pandemic — managing work, kids, solitude, the rising death toll. To us the strain of the unimaginable feels familiar. We know this place of uncertainty, this limbo.
Those thousand nights of sleeplessness live on in my body, an unwanted guest. When my son gets frustrated with trumpet practice and kicks the case shut, when he throws his pencil across the room in disgust during math homework — any time he screams or cries — stress hormones flood my brain and send me back to that darkened bedroom where I’m holding him, begging him to sleep. Where he doesn’t sleep.
I live in dread of feeling that helpless again. I am plagued by the thought of what I could have done differently, and by guilt for the times I didn’t meet challenges with grace. Even after all the care my wife and I gave our son, any salvation came down to luck: A job came through. An insurance denial got reversed. Medicine worked. When you have been through something terrible, and you know deep down the outcome could have been otherwise, you develop a strange gratitude for everyday life. The smallest acts of generosity can make you cry.
When my son finally started preschool — at a place for kids with special needs, of which our insurance covered 80 percent of the cost — I had a three-hour round trip to pick him up after work. September cornfields along Route 2 dried to dust in October and were shaved clean in November. Snow lined the black furrows all winter. In the spring Canada geese arrived by the hundreds to peck at dandelions and weeds. Rain, snow, darkness, light. The insane crush of traffic, brake lights shining on the slick black asphalt.
One day cars coming from the other direction began flashing their brights at me. It was December, getting on toward the winter holidays. I didn’t understand: My brights weren’t on. Why were they flashing me? It was only later, after I’d picked up my son and strapped him into his car seat and started the engine, that I realized my headlights were out. I’d been driving without them in the dusk. By then it was full-on dark and getting cold. I would have to call a tow truck — and my wife, to figure out if we had enough to pay for the tow. Out of answers, I slammed my fist on the hood: Come on! Work! And by some mercy — I don’t know — the headlights came back on.
The summer before the pandemic I went to hear the artist Andy Goldsworthy give a talk about his new installation at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. A nine-by-fifteen-foot granite chamber built into a hillside, Watershed collected rainwater runoff from the museum’s parking lot and diverted it into an outlet in the chamber’s far wall, where it spilled over a series of concentric stone circles. In his talk Goldsworthy said the ubiquitous stone pasture walls of New England had served as his inspiration. He hoped that on rainy days people would take refuge in what he’d created.
He also talked about his rain shadows: The second it starts to rain, Goldsworthy finds a patch of pavement — a driveway, a sidewalk, sometimes even the street — and lies there on his back, eyes closed, the rain coming down. Then he rises and steps back to gaze upon his creation: a crude outline of his body against the wetness of the street.
In the slide show accompanying his talk, photo after photo showed him stopping everything to lie down on the sidewalk in the rain. Unlike the granite installation, which would abide season after season, his rain shadows were made to vanish. The audience was often only Goldsworthy himself and a few members of his crew, who stood around grinning while their white-haired boss reveled in being a kid again.
I thought about what it must feel like to lie in the rain, cold drops pelting your face and hands, seeping into your pants and shirt, your socks and shoes and underwear. And I wondered how many rain shadows Goldsworthy had made in his life, how he’d gotten started, what kept him doing it. Each act of creating the rain shadow is a return not only to childhood’s whimsy but to every other moment when the artist had intentionally paused his life to do it. Just as those New England walls were built of stacked stone, the meaning of his rain shadows is built of those moments, stacked one atop another, here and gone.
On our morning walks I steal glances at my son’s face for a glimpse of the child I remember being. He resembles my wife more than me, but I recognize myself in what goes on inside him: The way he has trouble falling asleep at night. The way he wakes every morning at the crack of dawn. How disappointments drag him low. How nothing is ever quite good enough. How no one else, not even the most well-meaning person, seems to understand. How he remembers everything. Remember when I fell into the vernal pool? Remember when you got a kidney stone and we took you to the hospital? Remember getting Dell’s frozen lemonades on Cape Cod? Remember reading Frog and Toad Are Friends? On our walks he builds the story, moment by moment, stone by stone, of who he is — of who we are. I let him talk, occasionally chiming in with stories of my own. Sometimes we walk in silence. It’s hard to believe I’m his father, or that I was ever as young as he is.
He and I didn’t have time like this before the pandemic. We had the mad rush to get to school in the morning, making sure homework was finished and lunch was in his backpack. We had music on the radio, traffic. At school he’d wave goodbye and dash down the sidewalk to join his friends, and I wouldn’t see him again until I swung back to pick him up at five. Then it was dinner, the TV hour, brushing teeth, bed — week after week, month after month, the routine punctuated only by weekends and holidays, which we spent recovering from the slog of our days.
On one of our walks in the woods, I told him how special it was to be together like this, that someday when he was older, he’d remember these mornings.
He said maybe someday he would walk these woods with his own kids.
“You want to be a dad?” I asked.
“Maybe . . . maybe not.” He said he might want to live alone in an apartment in New York City, or move back to Nebraska, where he was born. I told him he didn’t have to be in any hurry to decide, and he said he knew that. Then he asked if we could change the subject. He’s sentimental but also private. Like me.
That was all in the early days of the pandemic. The isolation of these last several months has changed him. We talk less openly now. He has become angry and depressed, more inward, prone to talk back. Nothing we do — the virtual visits with friends, the bike rides and walks, the science kits my wife purchased in bulk at the beginning of the summer and has been doling out ever since — changes the fact that his life has been hijacked, that all our lives have been hijacked. Even as ridiculously privileged as we are to be able to ride this crisis out from home with only minimal changes to daily life, it’s still tough. For me, having watched him suffer so much as a baby, what hurts most is not being able to help him. I’m angry and depressed, too. Some days I lose my cool and lash out. I say things I wish I hadn’t. We both do.
But in the morning, with clear heads, we have breakfast and take our walk. The way the air smells, the sound of the breeze, the crickets, the sunlight on green leaves, the bunny nibbling grass under the forsythia, the catbird nesting in the rhododendron, the little white farmhouse down the street with its barns and sheds, the calves peering quietly from their pens — for a moment our lives are free of judgment.
That day last week, when my son confided in me about sometimes wishing he were dead, I told him, “You’re going to feel all kinds of things.” We were looking out at the pumpkin patch. “It’s what we do. We feel things.”
“It is OK,” I said.
“Will you please stop talking?”
I said OK to that, too, and we walked on. The walking mattered more than the words anyway. The ritual of coming out here day after day. Like those summer weeks with my grandparents, the memory of these walks could someday reveal to my son that underneath everything is an invisible net of love waiting to catch him.
One morning, while we’re on our walk, it’s sure to start raining. If the ground is dry, and it comes down hard enough, and we’re able to catch it just right, I might just grab my son’s arm and make him lie down on the pavement with me. Maybe this will never happen — sometimes I have grand ideas that fail — but maybe it will. We’ll close our eyes as the cold drops pelt our faces and soak into our clothes. A passing car will honk. And when we can’t stand it any longer, we’ll jump up to behold our masterpieces: the dry outline of our bodies on a road wet with rain.