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Monday, April 26, 2010

The Dream

In the hazy state of consciousness between being fully asleep and fully awake, when the colors of the room are all in shades of grey, Mitchell's mind slowly separated the layers and images of the dream from the early morning chirps of warblers and tanagers outside his window.

In his dream, Mitchell had been riding on a school bus. It was the kind of dream that seemed so real that the realization of it as something his brain had created in sleep was startling and disconcerting. He'd felt the vibrations of the bus as it rolled down a dirt road, felt them course through his skin, muscle, and bone like that of a bass guitar whose regular hum buzzes steadily below a melody. Through the windows, he'd clearly seen the woods whisking by - strobe images of strong tree trunks interspersed with ferns and saplings. Mitchell was seated toward rear of the large bus, but other than the driver, whose face he could not see, he was alone. He had the distinct feeling that there had been other people, children, on the bus before, but that he was the last passenger. This had been the case when Mitchell was in grade school and he felt sure that this was the case now. Though in his mind he felt he was all of his 40 years, in the dream he felt he was looking through the eyes of his younger self.

As the bus dipped into ruts and bumped over the uneven road, Mitchell felt his body alternate between pressing firmly into the vinyl seat and losing its weight. The smells of summer were rich in his nostrils and Mitchell recalled wondering why he was riding a school bus in summer. The verdant trees formed a cathedral canopy over the road and light filtered in as if through stained glass. There were occasional bright reflections of sunlight coming from the bus metal that drew Mitchell's attention. It was as if there were someone flashing nautical morse code signals to him; the light flashes were regular and specific, but Mitchell couldn't decipher the message. He felt a sense of regret, but couldn't assign it to anything in particular. The fact that it was broad and vague lingered as Mitchell watched the woods go past.

The trees nearest to the road were blurs, but when he widened his gaze, everything seemed to slow down. In the distance, deep in the woods, he thought he saw a face. Somehow the face kept pace with the bus. It came and went with the alternating reflections of light peering down through the trees. Then the face came closer and Mitchell saw that it was his own adult face and that it was being reflected in the glass of the window through which he was looking.

All of a sudden the woods receded from the road. Just as on a high speed train, where the terrain changes quickly - like you're stationary and a vast panoramic scene drawn on a broad canvas is flying quickly past. The woods were now far off and between Mitchell's window seat and the trees a field appeared, grew, and widened until it filled his entire span of vision. The field began as tall, wispy grass and then instantly became filled with bright wildflowers of purple, yellow, and orange. Then he saw a lake. Somehow the lake stayed in the center of his view even though the bus continued forward. The water's surface was wrinkled by wind blowing across it.  On the opposite shore of the lake was a solitary dock harboring a small rowboat. From this distance, Mitchell could only see the figure of a person reclining in the vessel. The hat adorned head was resting in the crook of the bow and crossed legs were visible as they stretched toward the stern. Mitchell could feel the undulating water below the boat as if it were him in the boat. Then he felt that undulation as the bus bounded down the country road.  The lake finally began to move and passed from view giving way to open meadows and infinite rolling hills rising one behind the other in the distance.

The bus began to slow and Mitchell's attention turned toward the windshield. Past the seats in front of him, which now appeared as pews, past the driver who now wore a minister's gown, through the windshield which now was stained glass (though somehow still transparent) Mitchell saw ivy covered iron gates, ornate and grand. He couldn't see past or through them and to either side were Robert Frost stone walls. The walls were grand and obviously ancient - the sort that made Mitchell wonder at the skill of the craftsmen who assembled them so long ago.

The bus continued to slow and as it did Mitchell could now make out the individual notes of sound that had been filling his ears. The rushing of wind past his window ceased to make its whoosh. He could hear the bus engine, the squeaky leaf springs of the suspension. He heard the the sounds of individual rocks and stones being crushed into the hard-packed dirt road below the tires. Then the bus creaked to a stop. The driver reached to his right and pulled the door lever handle slowly. Mitchell saw the rubber closure of the two bus doors separate and widen. The driver didn't turn around but Mitchell understood he was to exit.

Mitchell slid from the window to the aisle and pulled himself up by the back of the seat ahead of him. He walked forward. He felt his hips brush against the alternating seats as he passed them. As he neared the driver, he could now see the his reflection in the rearview mirror above. It was the face of an older man, deep crow's feet alongside Paul Newman blue eyes and several days of white stubble were the indelible features. The old man winked, kindly and knowingly. Mitchell ducked down low to try to get a better look at the gates through the windshield. Above them he was able to see only the long frame of a slate roof atop a building far behind the wall. When Mitchell reached the front of the bus and turned to address the driver, he was gone.  This did not cause Mitchell any unease. He simply turned to his right, gripped the hand rail and stepped confidently down the stairs out of the bus.

When his feet touched the ground he became aware that he wasn't wearing any shoes. He felt the pebbles and dirt between his toes. The earth was warm from summer's heat. Smells of lilacs, wild berries, pine, and grass enveloped his senses. As Mitchell approached the gates, they slowly began to open. Through the widening gap, he saw a long gravel drive bordered by a wild and unkempt garden on either side. It led to a large and wide two story stone manor. Stairs from the drive rose to a front porch that stretched the length of the building, wrapping out of view around its sides. Six granite pillars supported a roof shading the porch. There were six empty chairs on the veranda, three on each side of the stairway. The chairs were wrought iron with pristine white and comfortable looking cushions. Next to each was a small matching round table. The chair to the far left was the only one upon which the afternoon sunlight shone. On that table, Mitchell saw a pitcher of what he knew to be iced tea. A glass full of ice stood next to the pitcher. As Mitchell took this all in, a figure appeared at the top of the steps. It was a woman, also barefoot, in a sage colored dress  and a wide brimmed summer hat.  The hat covered her eyes from view and all Mitchell could see was a beneficent smile.  Though she did not speak, he understood that she'd long been looking forward to his arrival.

From behind him, Mitchell heard the bus doors close. He heard the bus shift from park to reverse. The bus began to to beep loudly - the reverse warning alarm.  Beep...beep...beep.  Mitchell turned back to look. The sun's reflection in the windshield was blinding and Mitchell could only manage to squint at the diminishing outline of the bus. Beep...beep...beep. Mitchell stared as the bus slowly and steadily faded from view, disappearing backward  into the woods. Strangely, the sound of the bus' reverse alarm wasn't becoming more quiet as it receded. Instead the beeping grew louder and louder. Beep...Beep...Beep. As Mitchell tried to make sense of all this he turned back to the manor just in time to see a thick fog roll swiftly in and obscure his view of the barefoot woman in the summer hat and sage dress. The beeping grew louder and the fog thicker. Finally he couldn't see anything but shades of grey.  BEEP...BEEP...BEEP.  Then all turned black as if Mitchell's eyes were closed. Only the sound of the alarm remained.

The alarm. Mitchell opened his eyes, saw his bedroom in the grey light of dawn. He reached to the nightstand and pressed the button to silence his alarm. Mitchell's wife stirred briefly beside him and then he heard her exhale deeply in the manner he knew meant she was soon to be deep in sleep again. As Mitchell became conscious of what was real and what had been a dream, he closed his eyes to try to cement what he'd just experienced. The sound of bus, the sight of the woods, the lake, and the man in the boat. The kindly bus driver with white stubble and crows feet. The feel of the dirt between his toes and the scent of lilacs. And the woman in the sage colored dress. The harder Mitchell tried to imprint these images in his mind the faster he felt them slipping away.

Then the cat on the bed stirred and rose to press her head lovingly against Mitchell's shoulder as she purred. The dream that had just been so real - the sounds, scents, and sights - faded from Mitchell's senses and were replaced by those of his bedroom. He smelled coffee being automatically brewed in his kitchen. The sounds of the morning birds outside mixed with the occasional whir of a car or truck of an early riser passing down the road. By the time Mitchell heard his young son plaintively calling "Daddy" from his bedroom, the last visceral sensations of the dream were nothing more than crumbs - so minute as to barely resemble the whole of which they'd just been such an integral part.  Mitchell rose slowly and slid his legs off the bed.  The once familiar smooth, cool hardwood floor pressing against the soles of his feet now felt strange, though he no longer knew why.

Monday, April 19, 2010

I Am Not Running

If I weren't injured I'd be running the Boston Marathon today.  As I've been telling many people it's a good news, bad news proposition.  The bad news is I am not able to run the marathon due to a nagging Achilles strain.  The good news, I say in jest and to mollify my disappointment, is I don't have to push my body 26.2 miles.

As I write this entry, I have the marathon on television.  The elite runners are pushing through the head winds and behind them the throngs of other runners have begun their arduous and inspiring journey.    When I began my training this winter and was struggling up the rolling hills where I live and run I'd imagine I was trudging up Heartbreak Hill.  When I was descending the hills, I'd imagine it was the long and steady descent that marks the beginning miles of Boston.   I'd say to myself, if I can't do this how will I manage on marathon Monday.

As January became February and I increased my long run mileage from 10 to 12 to 14 to 16, I was making the steady progress required to complete 26 plus miles.  But then in mid-February, on a short easy recovery run, I felt a twinge in my left Achilles.  In the weeks that followed, I stretched, I iced, I took copious handfuls of ibuprofen.  I ran through the pain.  When all of that failed to demonstrably reduce the inflammation, I ceased running and began to do my aerobic workouts at the gym on the bicycle and elliptical trainer.  The pain was less, but still present.  I went to physical therapy and held out hope that I'd have enough time to both recover from the injury and still fit in the necessary training miles before it was too late.

The pain ebbed but not entirely until finally, with just about 6 weeks remaining before Boston, I decided that if I was going to be able to run, I needed to get back on the roads and get in the miles.  I set out on a crisp Saturday morning in early March.  I was determined to endure some discomfort, but was also mindful that too much pain might be signaling catastrophic and long term injury.  After just a few miles I felt the familiar soreness with each stride.  I tried to run lightly and gently, but after a couple more miles wisdom prevailed.  I called my wife and asked her to pick me up.

On the ride home I tried not to sulk.  I tried to focus on the correctness of my decision.  I knew I was doing the smart thing, but I also knew that the structure of my days would now fade. I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn't be exercising for a while.  I enjoyed not just the running, the being in shape, but also the commitment to training.  Because a marathon is a serious undertaking, one can't shirk the training - at least I can't.  I am not a natural athlete.  It is work for me and without fear of pain that the marathon represented, I felt certain that my commitment to running would slide.

I was right.  After that day, I have largely failed to do my ankle exercises.  With the exception of a 10K I ran a couple of weeks ago (with mild Achilles pain the whole way), I haven't done much in the way of aerobic exercise.  As I sit now, watching the marathon, I think I am beginning to understand why.  I am pouting.  Pouting, just like the pouting I witness in my two year-old, only punishes the pouter.  I've used my legitimate injury as an illegitimate excuse to wallow.  Now with the Boston Marathon here and nearly gone, it's time to put my disappointment to rest.  I was not at the start of this race and I won't be at the finish.  It is what it is - an experience to learn from.   Through the process of training, injury, sulking, and watching these runners runners today, I've come to realize that I'd rather be running.  Time to start rehabbing my ankle.

Congratulations to all the marathoners.  I sincerely appreciate your accomplishment.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cloaked Triggers

Linda and I watched In the Valley of Elah the other night. The film follows a father named Hank (played by Tommy Lee Jones) who learns his son is AWOL after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq.  It isn't long before we learn that his son has been murdered and the movie's plot centers on Hank's efforts to learn who perpetrated the crime.  In the course of the action we learn that Hank and his wife also lost their only other child, another son ten years prior in a military helicopter crash.

Watching the film, one can't help but feel tremendous sympathy for Hank and his wife, played by Susan Sarandon.  Two sons, both dead.   Watching a fictionalized portrayal of this kind of parental loss isn't easy.  You likely know parents who struggle with child illness and death.  Sadly, it may be you.  Death  - in whatever form it comes  - is something with which we all must eventually encounter.  But parents who've actually had to endure such tragedies must both cope with the reality of their situation and also figure out a way to live a life amongst those who haven't.  And for those of us who have lost a child, sometimes it's hard to know when those wounds, however long ago inflicted will be reopened.

Toward the end of In the Valley of Elah, when director Paul Haggis lays the sentimentality on pretty thick, feeling sadness rise in me, I glanced over at Linda and saw tears welling in her eyes.  Immediately, I knew that these were not tears for the characters in the movie.  They were tears for Leo.  After eight months of normal pregnancy and for no known cause, Leo was stillborn late last July.

So much has changed since then.  Our son Max is nearly two and half years old.  As parents well know, children of this age develop so rapidly that even a small amount of time can encompass monumental change.  Though a short amount of time may pass, it seems more has owing to the rapid rate of transformation.  Six months ago we lived in a city condo in Massachusetts.  We now live in the quiet country of Connecticut.  And while we've changed much in terms of our surroundings and circumstance when we think about Leo and linger in those thoughts for even a brief moment, all the same feelings come rushing, bull rushing back.  How can it be that Leo's not with us?  How can it be that this has happened to us?  This should not be!  And while Max is more than we could have ever of dreamed, by all rights we should have two sons.  We should have Max and Leo.

Moving to a new town, meeting new people.  They don't know us; they couldn't know our story.  They see us with Max and wonder where he gets his curls from (not from us but from his birth parents).  They ask if we have just the one child.  We answer yes because what else would we say to a new acquaintance?  But we can't say the words without thinking we should have two.  It's not that we want to immediately tell everyone we meet about our dear departed Leo (because, face it, that would just be plain weird), but in not doing so a significant part of our identity remains hidden. By not revealing this fundamental information it paradoxically highlights Leo's absence to us all the more.

Last fall, in Leo's honor, we planted a green mountain sugar maple tree on our family property -  The Farm as we call it.  We dug the hole and sprinkled some of Leo's ashes in amongst the the dirt and roots.  We staked the tree to keep it stable in the stiff breezes that blow across the open expanse.  During the cold and dark days of winter, I'd occasionally inspect Leo's tree to make sure it was fairing well.  In talking to Linda, I discovered that she, too, was doing the same.  Visiting Leo's tree, touching its trunk and caressing its branches is a way of communing with him.

Spring has finally sprung here in Connecticut and with the warmer weather I find myself outside at the Farm quite a bit more.  I have the opportunity to go to Leo's tree more and I do.  It brings me great comfort to see the new growth at the ends of the branches, the buds forming.  Soon the leaves will blossom.  I can't wait.  Yet even as I type this, the notion of the rebirth of Leo's tree fills me with mixd emotions.  I'm grateful for the symbolism embedded in nature's seasonal rebirth.  I am also more frequently aware that this tree which though it brings me so much serenity reminds me of the son that isn't in my arms.

Linda and I have undergone a tremendous amount of healing in the several months since Leo died.  Most hours of most days, you wouldn't, couldn't see the anguish that lies below the surface.  We can often have a normal conversation about Leo and get through it without the rush of emotion that used to be unpreventable.   But there are times when all of it comes at us with no warning.  Sometimes I wake up and feel the pendulant melancholy has returned, a sadness I owe and whose debt has come due.  Other times I feel right as rain, but then a scene in a darned Hollywood movie that, though the circumstances are vastly different, triggers familiar waves of sorrow.  I've never felt and earthquake, but understand that it can feel like the earth is undulating under foot.  This is how the grief sometimes feels.  One moment the ground beneath me is firm and then with little warning, it feels unstable, unpredictable, and I unsteady.

When I saw Linda weeping next to me on the couch and understood who the tears were for I didn't say anything.  I didn't know what to say.  Often there is nothing to say.  For a while we just sat there, adrift in our heartache.  Eventually Linda moved to get up, but I wasn't ready for her to leave the room.  I pulled her back down to the couch and we embraced each other for several minutes in silence.  I was trying to muster my strength to utter the only words that filled my head.  Each time I thought I was ready to speak, I couldn't bring them out.  I wanted to say the words without my voice cracking.  I wanted to say them in one breath.  I know not why, but it was important to me that I deliver them clearly, plainly.  I knew that they were the only words I'd be able to say that night.

"I miss him a lot."