I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Month: October, 2014

The Ones Left Behind


What If?

If I had worked in the World Trade Center, I would have been one of the obedient workers who listened to the announcements urging employees to not panic and to stay in their offices. I would have died. Instead, I went to a meeting in a windowless conference room in midtown Manhattan from 9-10 am, only to emerge to the horror unfolding on the television in another conference room. It was surreal. I was numb, unable to process that this was really happening 2 miles downtown. When it seemed that finally outbound trains were running, I made the walk across town to Grand Central to make my way home. Sirens. Smoke. Dazed people. I looked down Fifth Avenue where those ugly mammoth towers that I took for granted no longer stood. There was no anchor to the Manhattan skyline.

I was not a first responder. I did not lose anyone close to me. I got home safely. But my life felt changed that day. We watched the constant coverage. Perhaps the most horrific images were those of the people jumping. Regular people who woke up, chose what to eat for breakfast, chose what to wear to work, and then had to choose whether to die by burning to death or to die by jumping to death. What was that like? It still brings my husband to tears.

My numbness suppressed my tears at the time. But when they surface, occasionally, when I let them, my tears are for the loved ones left behind. The frantic last cell phone calls saying “I love you.” The 2-year-old neighbor waiting for her Daddy to come home from the train, who is now 15, my son’s age. The parents who lost their children. The “Missing” posters. Unspeakable. Grief.

We went to the 9/11 memorial yesterday. Normally, I would have been too busy busy busy at work. And I am! I am! But, my husband was downtown for a ceremony honoring his (and others’) longevity as City of New York employees. It’s so easy for me to be dutiful to my work and to take my husband and my family for granted. But, what if, today is your last day? What if today is my last day? I would be sad that I did not share this celebration with my husband. So, I played hooky. I took care of a few things at work and then hopped on the subway to meet my husband for a celebratory lunch. And then. We went to the 9/11 memorial yesterday.

It is profoundly somber and massive. From the water pools in each tower’s footprint bordered with the names to the processional ramp down. Down to the foundation. As you process down and down and down, you hear the voices of the loved ones left behind sharing their love for their lost loved ones. Heart breaking. The beautiful and poignant art installation by Spencer Finch, Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning. It is overwhelming. At the pools, I paused and placed my hands on the names bordering the water pools. Trying to imagine. Trying to connect. Where are their souls now? How are their loved ones coping? What if it had been me? Me, who died. Me, who was left behind.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we were desperate to be helpful, desperate to connect with others and to show our pride in New York City and in America, and desperately afraid. I hugged my children tightly. I held my breath commuting in the tunnel to Manhattan. I looked up fearfully at every airplane. Even when we got back to “normal,” there was a new and consistent desire to make every day count and to make sure nothing, no one, was taken for granted.

We seem to be in a new era of fear. War, genocide, rape, poverty, climate change, disease. Ebola. Yes, I know, I’ve read the articles calming us down. The risk of Ebola is nothing compared to the risk of crossing the street or getting the flu. Really though, who knows? Like the announcements telling workers to stay in their offices, no one seems to know what to do. The one thing that seems certain is that the next 50 years I was counting on living is not certain. It changes the calculus of decision-making. From what should I do over the long term to what is meaningful if today is my last day? I will be hugging my family and friends a little tighter.




Boys Soldier On

I’ve spent the last year focused on preparing my daughter (and myself) for her leaving the family nest and starting college. My son, on the other hand, spent the last year quietly growing up. I think he thinks no one noticed. Maybe he wishes no one noticed. But I did. We did.

Not that long ago, he was still sneaking in (occasionally) for a reassuring snuggle around 4 am one or two nights a week. We never chased him out because we knew the day would soon come when our boy-man would no longer galumph into bed with us. Sure enough, that day came.

Not that long ago, his little boy voice would crack as his young man voice began to assert itself. Now, the little boy voice is gone. Family and friends mistake him for my husband when he answers the phone.

Not that long ago, he would chatter away endlessly. Now, I get one-syllable answers mixed in with eye-rolls and grunts.

I recently read a post about creative ways to get your child to talk to you about their day. Instead of “How Was Your Day?” try “What’s the funniest thing that happened today?” Yeah right, I tried that years ago and just got “M-o-m!” accompanied by an eye roll. It didn’t help that as a working mom, his school day was over eons ago by the time I got home, hindering spontaneous sharing sessions.

Now, he is shaving the scrubble from his face, at least once a month. (“Scrubble” is a combination of scruffy stubble, appropriately descriptive.) And learning about styptic pencils, while I grimace as I imagine the razor slicing his still-quite-smooth face.

The signs appeared on his door over the summer, around his 15th birthday. We had gotten into a bad dynamic where I nagged him to clean his room and he passively-aggressively didn’t. Keep Out! No Coming In! Fair enough. I don’t really like nagging him anyway. Clearly, he was ready for some privacy and some ownership of his space, of his self.

My son is sweet, empathetic, and sensitive. When he was a little boy, I worried that he would get teased. I balanced my desire to keep him sweet and naïve forever with the knowledge that at some point protective layers would envelop him. And so they have. Part of growing up, especially for boys figuring out how to be a man in our culture today, is to adopt some outward characteristics of being cool, which usually means acting like you don’t care, even if you do care. Deeply. And I know he cares. Deeply.

As John Mayer sings in Daughters:

Boys, you can break

You’ll find out how much they can take

Boys will be strong

And boys soldier on

But boys would be gone without warmth from

A woman’s good, good heart

I listened to Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech at the UN. Intently and gratefully. The one where she mourns the fact that her male friends stopped expressing their feelings by the age of 18. The one where she invites men to support feminism and to recognize that men are damaged by gender inequality. The one where she hopes for a world where men can be sensitive and vulnerable and valued as fathers. Because when men don’t feel they have to be aggressive and controlling, then women won’t feel they have to be submissive and controlled. I encouraged my son (who has had a long-standing crush on Emma Watson, though I’m sure I’m supposed to not know that and I’m sure I’m not current on his current crushes) to listen to her speech. Just as I hope my attempt to expose him to lots of nutritious food will someday pay off with him opting for a broader range of food choices beyond macaroni and cheese, so I hope my offerings about life and love and the search for meaning will serve him well as he learns to be true to himself and not be overly bound by social conventions.

Right now, he is eager to fit in and to become a man. Right now, that means appearing to be too cool to care too much. Right now, that means spending more time with friends, identifying with Dad, and carving out some personal space where Mom is not welcome. At 15, that is as it should be.

Mothers (and Fathers), let’s be good to our sons. They will learn how to love from us. While he sorts out who he is and what kind of man he is becoming, I will follow his lead. I’ll listen when he’s ready to talk. I’ll help when asked. I’ll cherish our hugs and Mother-Son movie nights. I’ll imprint those last boyish expressions before they are gone forever, so proud of my young man, who feels so deeply.

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