My grandmother’s house has some unwelcome intruders this year. Recently, she and I discovered a bee hive in her basement. Since it’s gotten colder, the bees have begun to climb up the vents to her upstairs windows. Here, they sluggishly crawl around and then drop to the wooden panels beneath them. I remember reading somewhere that some bees hibernate. I figured thats what these bees were doing since they eventually ended up in piles on the floor. I explained this to her and then called an exterminator to solve the problem.
Grandma did not take this lightly in the least bit. Every time she got on the phone she mentioned the bees. She told her banker, store clerks, family members, and strangers about them. She even got her neighbor interested enough to bring an ancient encyclopedia over to identify the mysterious creatures. Several times throughout the course of this bee infestation, I’ve been startled by an enthusiastic, ”Megan, I found another sleepy bee!”
As I watched her excitement and wonder while examining a “sleeping” bee one day, I realized how much her raw curiousity reminded me of the 3 and 4 year olds I used to work with on a daily basis. It’s not that her mind has regressed at all, but I am catching glimpses of an innocence that wasn’t there before. She is beginning to surrender to vulnerability. Not only does she want me to google things like, “What does escarole look like?”, she also lets me cook her dinner, do her hair, and help her pick out daily outfits. She enjoys celebrity gossip and swoons over the likes of Ryan Gosling and George Clooney. She even comments on Justin Bieber’s choice of briefs over boxers and watches Youtube videos of bands playing live music with a brightened fervor of someone who just discovered a new treasure. I know that she has fought giving into this for quite some time, but as I watch her live her days now, I can see her coming to peace with herself. She is beginning to look at the world through the eyes of an innocent as she did when she was young.
I can see now that time maybe isn’t as cruel as I originally thought it to be, and I hope that I can be lucky enough to get excited over sleepy insects when I am 82.
I watch my grandmother as she shuffles down the aisle of the church, her walker creaking with each step she takes as if it’s trying to prove a point. My grandmother was married in this church in Brooklyn, New York 60 years ago today at exactly 11:30am. I look at my watch. The time is exactly 11:25am. The walker’s entrance causes the scattered members of the congregation to raise their heads, which, moments earlier were bowed in silent prayer. I look around the cavernous space. It was clear that it had, at one point, been beautiful, but the hands of time had marred its once breathtaking features. The hand painted statues, carved exquisitely out of wood, appeared distorted due to the chipping acrylics. The stained glass windows, once spectacularly detailed, were dull and dark from the dust and rot accumulating from both the outside and inside of the building.
A train rumbles by and the vibrations cause a large chandelier above me to swing in a slightly diagonal direction like a confused clock pendulum. This adds another sound to the walker’s initially solo attempt at revealing the age of its owner. Now it’s turned into a chorus of creaks and groans, echoing sorrowfully into the space around us.
My grandmother spots a statue of Mary and slides over to the pulpit that stands before it. She sits down upon the padded seat on her walker and bows her head to pray. I can hear her crying and I bow my head too. I am sitting in an aisle a few rows back from the statue to respect my grandmother’s space. I try to hold back tears to remain strong for her, but grief overcomes me and I surrender to it. My grandfather passed away two months prior and the sorrow of the loss is easily unearthed whenever I feel my grandmother missing him. I realize that at this moment I am not crying for my loss. I am crying for hers.
My grandparents had a love for one another that was beautiful to watch. I often found myself trying to catch secret glimpses of their interactions because I knew from a very young age that their relationship revealed something special and rare: love in its truest form. From the tenderness they shared to their brief and often humorous tiffs with one another, the glow of love never left the two of them. And, long as you were nearby, you could feel its warmth too.
Each night before my grandfather would go to bed he’d blow two kisses to my grandmother and she would say, “Say goodnight Gracie!”
Because his voice was deep and his speech eloquent, everything he said sounded stately, even when he was being funny.
“Goodnight Gracie!” He would bellow with a joyful chuckle.
It never got old.
I think about this before I let my thoughts give into hating the unfairness of it all. Time and death are cruel. The present state of this church and my grandmother’s increasingly frail frame are evidence of this. But, as I watch my grandmother wipe away her tears and rise up from her makeshift seat, I realize my grandfather is here with us. Not in physical form, but in the preserved state of my memories. I can still hear his jubilant laughter and its echo is much louder than the creaks and groans of the present. My grandmother lends me a smile as she makes her way back down the aisle where she once walked toward a future with my grandfather 60 years ago today. This time, she’s walking in the opposite direction without him by her side. I hear her sigh as I open the door to lead her out, and then as if she is thinking the same thing I am, she quietly says, “Say goodnight Gracie.”
We both smile because we can hear his voice as clear as day momentarily abating the sting of his absence.
At the wedding of my grandparents: October 6, 1951 Brooklyn, NY
My grandmother walking down the very same aisle 60 years later.
For those who were curious, here’s the 411 on my sudden disappearance from the 303:
(Thanks to Ms. Vinizzle who inspired my initial confession :)
I had been getting unusual ‘hive-like’ bumps on my chest and shoulders since June of last year. It started with typically only one or two at a time and if I didn’t bother with them they went away on their own. Since the hives were sporadic I really didn’t think there was any cause for concern and I pretty much ignored them. Simultaneously, I had noticed as the year progressed that my energy levels were abnormally low. I typically struggle with this when the seasons change each year and either learn to up my exercise or go to bed earlier, but this was different. I could barely keep my eyes open and was somewhat short of breath for no reason. My lymph nodes were also extremely swollen and I was getting oddly profuse nosebleeds on a regular basis. I was diagnosed with Epstein Barr (mono’s evil cousin) and was told to wait it out. Honestly, if that’s what I had it definitely lasted much longer than 6 months (the average Epstein Barr bout). There were periods of time where I barely found the energy to take a shower much less leave my apartment. I thought I was depressed because of work related stress but I had never experienced it this severely before so it made me wonder if there was something else going on. After two ER visits and no clear answers (blood tests showed no signs of further infection in April), I went the holistic route and began to see a chiropractor. This seemed to help a bit though the malaise sometimes grew worse after my treatments. I plugged along determined to survive the rest of my school year, but in retrospect I should have quit in April because things were about to get much worse. On a morning in early Spring I woke up to a slew of hives across my chest covering my collar bone and shoulders. The hives themselves were not painful at all, only slightly itchy and uncomfortable at first. When they began to burn and swell I went to the doctor and was put on antibiotics for what they thought was a secondary infection (cellulitis) though they did not culture the locations for Staph or Strep. They did, however, take a biopsy of one on my shoulder to rule out Lupus. The test results only showed negative for Lupus and the doctor diagnosed it as severe eczema. I was prescribed a topical steroid and a topical antibiotic to address the infection after these test results. The steroid seemed to work almost immediately at first but the infections never seemed to go away entirely. A few weeks after I was finished with the first round of antibiotics I got another ‘flare up’ - a series of small bubbles and this time I noticed that the lesions that were turning into scars were bubbling up as well. Where they had taking the biopsy on my shoulder was almost completely healed into a shiny pink scar - swelled and felt like it was ‘burning’. Back to the doctor I went. This time I was diagnosed with neuro dermatitis, and NOT eczema, but they cultured the lesions which tested positive for staph. I was given doxycycline (a stronger type of antibiotic) - a month long regimen. After this there was not much more information I could get from the doctors other than the fact that I had to ‘stop scratching what was not there’. In so many words they had resorted to telling me that I was creating the blisters due to a neurotic tendency to scratch. Because I knew that this diagnosis basically went against the law of physics, I began doing research on my own. Going to the doctor had become a bit unbearable needless to say. I tried everything from bathing in bleach to taping chunks of garlic doused in oregano oil to no avail. Besides smelling like Italian salad dressing, the homeopathic remedies were tame at best. Drinking tons of water seemed to stave off outbreaks and exhaustion but I had a difficult time determining what helped and what definitely didn’t help. Between flare ups ‘the scabs/scars never seemed to heal entirely. Up to this point I had never felt more helpless or hopeless in my entire life. There was nothing I could do, no one had an answer, and my skin was beginning to look like something out of a horror movie. When my grandfather passed away in August, I visited with my aunt whose sister is a diagnostician out here in NY. My aunt was convinced that she could help me if I could somehow pick up and move out here. I knew the moment she mentioned this that it was something I needed to do. So, I packed my apartment, gave away my cat, threw some clothes into suitcases, and dragged myself onto a plane looking like crap and hoping a scarf would cover up the damage enough to convince other passengers I wasn’t a walking biohazard. I had been a shadow of a daughter, sister, teacher, friend, and human all year, and all I know is that I immediately maneuvered into survival mode the minute I realized I couldn’t handle things on my own anymore. Luckily, one month after my move to NY, I’m on the mended side of my path to recovery. No one was able to give me a straight diagnosis, and it’s unclear as to what it was exactly as I am still getting hints of an impending hive or two. I’m struggling to regain normalcy in my day to day routines, but I know that I can never go back to feeling like ‘myself’ again. I’m an entirely different person now, not only physically but emotionally. I’ve got some rather hideous scars to prove it. I figure I can look at this two ways: I can either choose to remain trapped in wreckage or push myself through it. It’s black and white. I can agonize over the series of scars on my chest, or I can stop hiding them and myself from the world and accept that they’re now a part of me; for better or for worse. Now, please don’t get me wrong. I know how lucky I am that I am not dying, didn’t lose a limb, or get the hives on my hands or face. I am eternally grateful for my health. I know things can be much worse and I probably seem shallow for complaining. It’s simply going to be an adjustment is all. It’s hard to look in the mirror and see an unfamiliar version of yourself especially when an area of that version is mangled and distorted where it wasn’t before. Among the thousands of deep varied lesions on my chest during the flare, there was one location that caused a terrible infection and left a large quarter sized scar in it’s wake. As scars go, this one belongs in the ‘How the hell did that thing conglomerate in that manner on that location?’ category. It is an ugly mother of a scar. Since it’s fairly new it’s still sort of otherworldly to me. I haven’t quite accepted the fact that this sucker, no matter what I do, it here to leave it’s mark and make a freaking point. It’s angry too, because it knows I don’t like it. I’ve decided that in order for me to take the steps necessary to regain my life back, I need to make friends with this thing somehow. I’m not saying I’m going to embrace it and don a v-neck to expose my décolletage for all the world to see (not yet anyway), but I definitely need to let it know that it doesn’t have the power to control my thoughts or behavior. As superficial as this all may seem, I realize that this is the first step I have to take before any other. I have to make nice with this new version of me. Sometimes you have to break - crumble into pieces - in order to become something more than you were before you were broken. Things are better now where I thought they might never be. I think the scars can serve to remind me of this.
“Because,” explained Mary Rommely simply, “the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of the world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”—A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith (via onlyecho)
I have this strange relationship with New York City. While I have been going there since I was a young child because I have family there, I think my deeper connection to the city itself stems from my stay in 2001; the year the twin towers fell. I was living and working as a volunteer in Jersey City at the time, directly across the river from the World Trade Center.
September 11, 2001 was a beautifully sunny and crisp Fall day. I was heading to work on that morning and it was when I reached the train station that I quickly noticed something was amiss. Everyone around me was either on a cell phone or anxiously looking around the station as if they didn’t quite understand what to do next. I heard one of the phone conversations - something to do with planes crashing. I headed back up the stairs to see what was going on. I turned my head towards the Manhattan skyline and it was then that I saw smoke streaming out of the top of one of the World Trade Center towers. It was as if someone had taken a sharpie marker and repeatedly scratched a thick line onto the blue canvas of the sky above the building - the cruel joke of a graffiti artist’s attempt at a poorly drawn antennae. Something clenched in my stomach. All I could think of was that it looked evil - an image from some horror movie, and not something I was actually witnessing firsthand. It took me a bit to compose myself as I finally came to the decision to head back to my house. All along the way fire trucks and police cars with their wailing sirens sped past me. As I picked up my pace, I noted the irony of the weather. The light was shimmering through newly yellowing and bronze leaves and the sky was vividly blue. People were strewn about in small clusters along the sidewalk with their eyes glued in the direction of the black smoke on the horizon. It was shortly after I reached my house that the first tower fell and everything stopped.
For two months, the massive mountains of rubble seethed black smoke like angry volcanos The air smelled of death - and even across the water you could sense the awful energy of evil vibrating though the train stations and subway tunnels.
But, while fear and despair seemed to grip the city in its chokehold, something beautiful was simultaneously born out of the destruction that had taken place. Human kindness. People took the time to look at one another in subway cars and on the street. The dragon-like intensity of the city dissolved into a slower, more human-like flow. People used their words and manners in crowded spaces, quieted down, and acknowledged one another with nods and smiles.
For a girl like me who was used to a more “Western” pace, I found it easier to find my way around and explore the city without feeling frightened and rushed. It was easy during that time to breathe the city in and feel connected.
I’ve been back a few times since 2001 and the energy of New York has returned to it’s original intensity. But, while the smoke and rubble are long gone, and its veins and arteries rapidly pump energy through its bloodline, if one stops long enough to take a breath, one can still catch glimpses of basic human goodness.
I think I’ve realized this through my personal experiences in the city now that time has healed it just enough to gain its strength back.
The first time I returned to New York after being away a few years, I was staying with a close friend in Brooklyn. I was on the subway heading back from the Upper East side. It was late. I ended up exiting on the wrong side of the station which put me smack dab in the middle of a pitch black street surrounded by housing projects. My phone had, of course, died, and there was absolutely no one else around save for a group of men surrounding a car across the street from where I was standing. I began to panic and walked as fast as I could back to the station entrance. It was locked. I kept walking vainly hoping that I would somehow find my way to a familiar street.
"What are you doing child?" I turned to see an elderly woman. She seemed to come out of nowhere and was dressed in a pink house robe. She shuffled towards me in her tattered pink slippers.
"Honey, this is not a neighborhood to be taking a stroll in the middle of the night. Where you goin’?"
"Oh you be turned around. You need to go in the other direction. Here I’ll walk with you."
And just like that I was home, I thanked her, as she chuckled at me and said a few “Looord child”s before the darkness of the street quickly swallowed her up again.
The latest visit was this past July. I was silly enough to think I could handle dragging a 65lb rolling suitcase from Rye to Downtown Manhattan. Each transfer out of a train and onto a new one involved pushing through swarms of people with this cumbersome suitcase. But as embarrassing as it was, each and every time I struggled, someone was there to help me. Whether it was a man or a woman, they were always there guiding me along with their directions, offering to help with the bag, smiling talking to me at times when I needed reassurance. At one point a platform elevator’s doors jammed while I was stuck inside of it, and sure enough, someone was quick to come to my aid - even running up two flights of stairs to notify the MTA authorities about my predicament.
In a city where it’s easy to feel like you might be swallowed up whole, it’s rather amazing to realize how much good surrounds you. I always think of this when I get discouraged by life and feel “detached” from people in general. When things seem to be awful - even unbearable, if you open your eyes and look for it, you realize how much life subtly balances itself out. The good may not always outweigh the bad, and we may not always understand why horrible things happen, but we are never ever alone in our suffering. Maybe if we all try harder let our guard down long enough to realize how much good there is in this world - allow ourselves to be vulnerable - to be helped - to be loved by others, life itself might take on a whole new meaning.
“On the morning after the State of the Union speech was delivered, John Hockenberry, co-host of the NPR program “The Takeaway,” read aloud President Obama’s declaration that “we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.” Hockenberry commented: “You scientists, engineers and techies know who you are; but what about the rest of us?”
What about the rest of us, indeed! Obama had just got through saying, “We want to reward good teachers,” and he went on to make a pitch for new recruits to the teaching profession: “If you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher.” Not, however, a teacher of English or French or art history. Obama doesn’t say so, but by the logic of his presentation, these disciplines are not when he has in mind when he talks about the “Race to the Top” and calls it “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”
Race to the top of what? We get a hint from this statement: “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”
Now it’s clear what is going on here. Obama is developing his major theme: we need innovation to catch up with China and other advanced societies. And it is perfectly reasonable to tie innovation in certain fields to the production of citizens who are technically, mathematically and scientifically skilled. But is that what’s wrong with American education, too few students who acquire the market-oriented skills we need to compete (a favorite Obama word) in the global economy and too few teachers capable of imparting them? Is winning the science fair the goal that defines education? A dozen more M.I.T.s and Caltechs and fewer great-book colleges and we’d be all right?…”
"It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, - is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate." — Rainer Maria Rilke