Fleeting Encounters, Lasting Impressions



    I told Kelley that I’ve finally stopped looking for answers as to where my students fit into my life and exactly how I belong in theirs –or for how long. I’ve foregone analysis in favor of acceptance, and given into the strange arrangement that has linked our lives.




    She needs, now, to do the same.




    Hers may be a taller order, though.
 
    
While odd attachments are a particular specialty of hers, this latest connection comes with an enormous weight –and an ongoing obligation. 

    
And yet, it’s one that has been placed upon her before. Perhaps that’s why she understands the fullness of the responsibility and shuns its forever commitment.




    She’s reluctant to take it on.




    But I know her.
 
    
She will.

    
She has no choice but to accept the weighty request. And we both know that. I also know that she will, as expected, rise to the task. 

    
We’ve covered this territory before –this interconnectedness which doesn’t always make itself immediately apparent. It’s an attachment of one life to another like the thread of a web, barely visible, but for the glint of sunlight that shows itself only from a certain afterward perspective. It’s often difficult to see where one span meets another, where filaments cross and then connect. Only sometimes, and at just the right moments, from an exacting vantage can you see how the fibers fit and that they do indeed belong together. 

    
That of course they do.

    
Somehow.




    Even if only briefly.

    
The students with whom I started at this little college are now seniors. They’ll be graduating in May, going off to their lives.

    
As they should.

    
A couple of them will keep in touch.




    For a little while.




    And then they won’t.

    
Kelley’s young charge will likely be a part of her life for a bit longer.




    But she can’t know that for sure.

    
Still, she’ll make the full investment in another’s life, and ask nothing in return. Because she can’t not. 

    
We both take our unanticipated roles as mentors more seriously than we should. With sincerity, we offer them “forever” and don’t expect a reciprocal return. It’s a one-sided arrangement.

    
In a good return on our investment, we’ll receive a thank-you. In a better one, we may truly make a difference in a life or two. In the best scenario, though, someday our young friends will give back. To someone else. If only briefly. 

    
To another person, they’ll promise to be there always, unconditionally, and not ask or expect the same in return.

    
And our invisible legacy will live on.




    Even if we never know that it does.




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Gloves



    I wear gloves. 

    
Out in the weather that calls for it, but also when I wash dishes. Always, when I wash dishes.

    
I’m sure this wasn’t always the case, though.




    My mother’s hands, which look just like mine, seem however to lack the nerve endings that denote pain. In my childhood home, I never recall actually seeing a pair of latex gloves. Even scrubbing toilet bowls at the motel, I don’t remember protective gloves being an option.




    But the first home with my name on the mortgage was old and its original plumbing was installed long before the notion of anti-scald. Not having inherited my mom’s ability to withstand oven-hot heat with bare hands, I opted for gloves. With toxic-burn temps, I would have risked serious injury if I even rinsed a glass or bowl without the gloves. I understand that a more rational person might have taken the time to find that sweet middle spot on the faucet that denoted warm -not me.




    So I donned gloves. Really good, rubber gloves.

    
And the idea stuck.




    Now still, to rinse a single glass or cup, I put on my yellow gloves and wash away. Those observing the procedure often note that it takes me more time to retrieve the gloves from under the sink and put them on than it does to wash the item. True.




    Still, the gloves endure.




    I have a set for New Hampshire. I use the hidden trove in Maine.




    Where am I going with this?




    Well, first off, you’ve got to understand (by now) I never really know for sure.




    And second –I just washed something without the damn gloves.




    And discovered something.




    Without the gloves, not only did I feel the not-unpleasant warmth of the water (this newer plumbing doesn’t answer with third-degree burns) but I also felt what I missed on the utensil –the bit of cheesy dough left behind.

    
If you’re still following –all this was a set up.




    With or without rubber gloves, I’ve always known exactly what to do to protect myself. 

    
Thus, I get it when I watch a few of my students do the same.




    Not so much with me –they seem to come gloveless to our sessions. But in their lives, with their friends, in a classroom, some of them don their own protective shields.

    
I can relate.




    I don’t always understand the connections I have with these young adults. Kelley instructs that it isn’t necessary that I do. Informs me that I may never understand why or how I fit into their lives.




    On the other hand, I acknowledge that a connection does exist and try occasionally to light a path if where they’re headed seems familiar.

    
I’d say this then to those wearing gloves.




    Sometimes, you have to risk the feel of that searing heat, getting scalded, knowing first hand pain –to get to the details of your life you could be missing.

    And the pleasant warmth that you can only feel when hand touches hand -and risks it all.


Keys to the Time Machine



    The keys are more likely to land in the laps of my children these days, but I doubt they notice the weight or understand its value. I’m sure the offerings would earn a much more worthy reaction if they came attached to a logo-emblazoned key chain.


    But they don’t.


    So it’s likely that the kids and their cousins miss the lead-in nuances. That they don’t sense movement of the vehicle until they’re fully onboard.


    Once strapped in, though, they’re in for the full ride. Usually, quite entranced and willing.


    I’m still a kid in the eyes of the next generation up, so I’m able to enjoy an occasional trip on the time machine, myself.


    Always a treat. Often a surprise.


    One of my students was recently assigned an audio project whereby he would record an interview with someone who had been a “witness to history.” His particular task was made more difficult because he didn’t have a means off campus.


    No worry, I assured him, among my peers and me, surely we could find a witness or two.


    Not so easy.


    The lot of us proved just a little too young, and a little too lacking in the pulse-of-the nation experiences that might have set us front-and-center at a few world events. Collective minds together, we came up with the one person who perhaps had the right resume.


    It worked. Norm at least had the college campus recollection of listening to the somber toll of bells that indicated President Kennedy had been assassinated.


    When I shared this story in a family setting, my mom, aunts and uncles, offered their recollections of where they were the day that Kennedy was shot. They each remembered. Vividly.


    But it was my uncle’s nonchalant memory of his buddy rushing to retrieve him with the statement,  Jack’s been shot. C’mon we’ve got to get back to the White House.


    What? Huh?


    You were in D.C. when Kennedy got killed?


    A shoulder shrug.


    How did I not know this? How did WE not know?


    (I called my cousin on the way home; she had no idea.)


    Let me explain. My uncle is not some political stalwart. He’s not a diplomat or a dignitary. This was merely one of those place-and-time situations. He was stationed in D.C. Just happened to be there as history unfolded.


    (Btw, he also attended the funeral, but I’m getting too far astray of the time machine message.)


    My uncle and his siblings hold keys.


    Last Thanksgiving, the same uncle regaled with stories of the Lavadora man, who rounded the streets of Boston selling his magical bleaching water. Holding court around a table full of food and family, he took us all back. To another time, to a different era.


    It was as if Einstein’s musings on the fluidity of time travel were being tested outside the lab, fueled on a satiated hunger, a bit of wine, and a rapt audience.


    The kids were enthralled. Some of the big kids were, as well.


    I wonder that we don’t appreciate the treasure chests available to us all while we still have access to their keys. What’s so easily unlocked with a small prod or a simple question can also be too easily lost. Unless we’re wise enough to grab a hold of the keys and give the time machine an occasional spin.







   




Firefly Light

firefly light   I’ve been going about it all wrong.

    I keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, some blazing sure sign that everything’s going to work out for the kids I know.

    As if life comes with that sort of guarantee.

    It doesn’t.

    Instead of allowing myself to be engulfed by the darkness, then, maybe I need to embrace a little night vision. As if I’m stepping in from the blinding white of snow, perhaps all it requires is an adjustment of perspective.

    Because the light is there, even if I can’t always see it.

    So I’m going to start looking for small flashes of light -from wherever they may come.

    When my student agrees to lay off the partying for awhile and seems to be following through, there’s a blink of light. And when I see the little girl who clung to her mommy’s leg as if she were gripped there with adhesive, now self-advocate as a teenager –again, I see that spark of light.

    My son’s hits of light may seem more moth-to-fame to his mother. Maybe with Michael it’s a little more difficult because he’s mine. Too many of the traits that frequently frustrate are those which are also too familiarly my own.

    But still there are flickers.

    Even if I sometimes have to be reminded when they occur.

    When I recently started a story with my sister-in-law, “Michael and I had a conversation-“ she stopped me mid-sentence. She wanted me to note it for the pleasant anomaly that it was.

    We had a conversation.

    They’re fairly infrequent. And should be appreciated.

    I might have missed it for the glimmer of light that it was.

    So here-on-in, I’m looking for light, however brief and undramatic. It likely won’t hit with lightning bolt clarity; I’ll have to pay attention.

    I’m not going to look to be bedazzled by the ten thousand degree flash from a star. Instead, I’ll lay in wait for those pinpricks of light, like the eye-catch of white that comes with firefly flight.

    So when Michael exits the car and leans in to give me a kiss on the cheek as if it’s still habit, I’ll note the spark. But I’ll also remind myself not to reach out for the flutter of light, lest I risk dousing the flame and turning it to ash.

 

Motley Crew


    My brother and I were standing at the back of the room when I looked to the people gathered around the family members.


    What a motley crew, I whispered to him.


    He glanced up, nodded and chuckled.


    We weren’t being unkind or inappropriately disrespectful in such a somber setting. It was merely an observation.


    And an accurate one, at that.


    Surrounding the casket of Mikey Fat (seriously –his lifelong nickname) were an assortment of my father’s childhood friends. Among the dignitaries were a construction worker, an accountant, a bachelor who’d managed to live unemployed until his forties, an attorney who’d gone afoul of his clients and the law, and the now-passed Mikey Fat –a much overweight gentle soul whose idiosyncrasies would have had him diagnosed with server neurosis if such  a term were used in his day.


    The commonality for these men was the corner in Eastie on which they all stood as boys. Hanging out, shooting hoops, shooting-the-shit, as my father might have said.


    That my father’s loyalties to this mismatched mix of men never wavered said something about the time in which he grew up. It said, I think, more about him.


    I remember my dad asking me to pen a letter in his name on behalf of the lawyer friend. The fact that my father’s own moral compass couldn’t have tolerated such a transgression didn’t matter. His friend was in trouble. You do for your friends. Like you do for your family. You stand by them, no matter what rules they had broken, no matter what mistakes had been made.


    The ideal may sound quaint in today’s world of ever-altering alliances.


    But I wonder often about that very simple premise –of standing up for and by someone, of having his back. And why it is today on such infrequent display. I see so little evidence of it in the world, in general, but more sadly in the generation of children who have become adults under my watch.


    When I asked one of my students recently how many of her college friends she expected to keep after graduation, she said she wasn’t sure, then quickly turned the question back to me –how many had I continued to call friend?


    None.


    Not the answer she had expected.


    Nor was its addendum –probably because I kept my high school friends.


    The fact that many of the people who remain most important in my life have known me since I was a kid probably says something about me. I’m not sure what. Am I unadventurous because I live within a 25 mile radius of where I was born and hold onto the connections that geography makes easy? Does my still dependable circle of friends indicate that I’m loyal or lazy?


    Hmmm.


    My friends would likely form a line alongside allegiance. But they can hardly criticize my long-term fidelity without calling into question their own.


    My father, my mother, my brother –all share this bent toward long-lasting relationships. Even my oldest brother, who traveled the world, brought along with him on his life’s journey a few of his closest hometown friends. I think he was better for it.


    I think we all are.


    My kids and my students seem to understand the bond of family. They get the idea of unconditional love from/to a parent or a sibling. I don’t know, though, if they see the potential for it elsewhere. Or rather, maybe they think they do –but then are too often disappointed. They either feel first-hand betrayal, or are themselves too quickly willing to forego effort for expediency.


    Maybe it’s all part of their hyper-connectedness beyond small circles. These digital natives seem to communicate well with the world. They do less well, however, communicating across a room. And the speed with which they do most everything seems to foster impatience.


    And if a relationship is truly going to stand the test of time, it demands a certain measure of patience.


    And perseverance -and loyalty.


    I  understand that  my young charges cannot fully fathom the notion of having friendships that have lasted as long as they have been alive.


    Makes me sound old. And maybe a bit naïve –because I still hold dear to a long ago ideal of loyalty that my father taught me so well.

Pet Compassion


    Michael was in first grade when I summoned the strength to make the right decision and put my cocker spaniel down. Nicki was 17, old, sad. I had known much sooner than I acted, that it was time to let go. 

    
I just couldn’t.

    
And then one day, I could.




    And I did.

    
I went by myself, told no one but the immediate family. 

    
I thought I handled it well enough when I told Alex and Michael, when I gave them a chance to say goodbye.

    Maybe not.




    I received a note from Michael’s teacher the next day.




    Apparently during “pretzels” time when the kids shared the likes and dislikes of their day, Michael said that he hadn’t liked when his mother killed his dog.




    Hmmm.




    We had to put our dog down again.




    Technically, this one wasn’t ours. But with only one in the family, we all laid claim to the little guy at one point or another.




    I told Michael what was coming, offered the idea of going by Auntie Dawna’s to say goodbye to Logan.




    He took a pass.




    Logan was a good dog.




    As his aunt, I took on an occasional dog sitting shift or two. Last summer, he and I got in quality time on the beach in Maine. During designated doggy hours, I walked/he ran; I threw/he fetched. We played, made friends –mostly the four-legged kind- and took in vistas of the Atlantic surf that force the deep intake of an appreciative breath. Salty sea air –cures all that ails you.

    
Well, apparently not all.




    Logan left us just before this year’s Fourth of July beach party.




    Appropriate, since he wasn’t a fan of the fireworks.




    We’ve put off fully processing his departure.




    But we did much processing beforehand.




    Somewhere in the midst of those many conversations, I would offer the observation that we often handle end-of-life decisions for our pets far more humanely than we do for the people in our lives. With our pets, we formulate a plan and take steps of action that assure they leave us without pain and with a form dignity intact. 

    
I don’t like to think about dying. I’m one of those without a plan.




    And I should know better.




    There isn’t anything worse than watching someone die.




    I know why Michael didn’t want to say goodbye to Logan. He’s always hated transitions and saying goodbye is the worst sort.  

    
I’m with him there.




    I don’t like that we lose people too soon.




    There are always conversations unsaid, hands not held, hugs not given.




    We want another year, another week, or just a day. A single moment, even.

    
When Logan left us, he could still run the beach, fetch a tennis ball. The last memory we’ll all have of him is likely a happy one. I wish I could say the same was always true about the people in our lives.


 


    Most of us know rationally the steps we could take to offer a compassionate ending to those we love. But we hesitate, just a bit –and it’s usually just a bit too long.



    Our hearts hold out for the chance of that one more moment, even when our heads know it’s time to let go.



Nancy Kerrigan


    To the chagrin of all my past professors and editors, I’m pretty adroit at avoiding controversy in my writing. Not a fan of the sensationalistic big headline stories, I’ll read them, but generally leave their coverage to those more itchy for a scoop than I. 

    
But the Kerrigan family story recently played out publicly in the courtroom and media has gotten my attention. Less for its front page drama splash than for the complex back story that was surely built upon decades of painful day-to-day mini-dramas. Because as many of us may see Mark Kerrigan’s sentence to two-and-a-half years in prison in connection to the death of his father as a story’s closure, I am certain those closest to the family understand that it is but another chapter in a life-long saga dictated by addiction. 

    
So much of this story’s coverage seems scripted for television. For Nancy’s sake, I hope no one chooses to further exploit what would most likely have remained a family’s personal tragedy, had in not been for the renown of one of its members. Perhaps the producers of such fare will take a pass –it does seem a bit too easy.




    Each of the actors in this particular drama played exactly the role one might expect; no plot twists, no shocking last-minute revelations.




    The sister, whose success outshone the other members of her family, stood up for her big brother. And in speaking for the victim, she said with likely accuracy that “my dad never would have wanted any of this.” 

    
The District Attorney spoke of accountability, but in the aftermath of victory, the Assistant DA acknowledged that “there are no winners here.” 

    
In handing down the maximum sentence, the judge pointed to “a middle-aged man” and his “repeated failure to address substance abuse and mental health issues.”




    Most telling, though, may have been the statement read by Mark’s aunt on behalf of his mother. Brenda Kerrigan said that she had “lost her husband and, for the last 16 months, have had only a shadow of my son.” My guess is that her son has been lost in the shadow of his addiction for much longer than that.

    
Anyone who’s been touched by alcoholism, even at its periphery, knows its cost is great. Certainly at its heart is always a single wasted life, lost potential, sacrificed relationships. But none of us is an island and the very connectedness that makes us human can also render us helplessly attached to those we love and the havoc they may wreck. The collateral damage of addiction spreads like shrapnel. None are left fully unaffected: parents, grandparents, spouses, aunts, uncles, children. And, yes little sisters. 

    
Families have a certain order to them and regardless of how old Nancy is or how well she’s managed in her life, in one facet of it, she remains Mark’s little sister. The seeds to her unconditional support for him were planted long ago. As difficult as it may be for her to continue to stand up for someone who continually lets her down, sometimes, it’s harder not to. Because hidden in the shadows of Mark’s addiction are stories that only a family can know, and which, to the chagrin of television producers, they most likely will remain unwilling to share.