For a long time — for most of my life — I turned over the smooth, round, shadow-grey stones at my feet, hoping I would lift them to find some treasure or fulfillment, or at the very least some small, moving salamander or even larva, underneath. All I found was dark, damp, brown dirt. I was looking for a singular gratification — some idealized, seductive version of Cupid/Psyche love or some item to make me feel…I don’t know…whole, completed, triumphant?
We spend far too much of our lives railing against those we feel have wronged us or not appreciated us, slighted us or hurt us. We look for love, engorged wallets or shiny baubles when we want closure and when we overlook, don’t appreciate or fail to fully understand those who have loved us unconditionally for who we were and are.
We seek redemption and help at the unworthy or pathologically unprepared hands of those who, as my astute friend says, “don’t do anything for others that doesn’t make themselves look good or benefit them” — and those who could likely never change that interior orientation.
We look to be rescued where we cannot see who has actually saved us multiple times in our lives and how perhaps we have saved ourselves. Instead, we want to be subsumed into some dream scheme of our White Knight, as though through someone else we could bypass this middling, watery middle-ground that is the state and substance of our lifetime.
Suspended in time
Getting old is a luxury. It’s a luxury to look back, sift through your life and discover how you have come to the spot you are at now. It’s a luxury to understand who, truly, you have loved and who has loved you. It’s a luxury to reinvent, to feel renewed joy, to cry holding someone you love, to drive on an unseasonably warm day through the winding hills of the parkway unabashedly belting out songs.
My sister — my funny, beautiful, outrageous, courageous sister, Hannah — no longer has that great extravagance of time, twirled in between her fingers like a reclining flapper leisurely interlacing her many loosely draped pearl necklaces in her hands. The rest of us left here twist and wind around the days, while Hannah sits in the brass-framed photo on my bookshelf, forever idling in her twenties, her buoyant, listless, exciting, fraught twenties. She’s sitting on the hood of my father’s 1955 Dodge in her skin-peach shirt and cut-offs, tilted head and blond hair arched over her movie-star sunglasses and bare shoulder.
She’d asked our Dad to take that photo of her on a sunny day on a Connecticut back road, achingly deep in the ends of summer. She thought it would make a good photo. She was right. It captures her actress good looks, her whimsy, her long, graceful legs, her love of nature and Rockabilly style and the way she could pose so accurately for the camera.
She is smiling — but only half. It’s the photo she would have chosen to reflect how good she looked, but the better photo I have of her is when she and I are doubled over in laughter at our cousin’s wedding. We’re no doubt laughing at something stupid we both thought was funny, made funnier by the fact we were supposed to be quiet and composed in the church and with our family. Hannah is covering her mouth, and the corners of her eyes are joyous, unselfconscious creasing. I’m holding onto her and laughing.
What do photos (and music, too) do for us but capture and transport us back to a moment, even moments we were never present for. In them, we fall into a specific space and time we could never occupy again — a discrete moment forever singularly vibrating in time, like an unmanned satellite in space, sealed unto itself but somehow sending messages back to us as it spins out into infinity.
After getting my house back from the caretaker couple who had rented it for the better half of last year, I’ve been going through trunks of books, photos and other lifetime ephemera that had been stacked and stuffed in my closet. This weekend, I went through thrown-together boxes of random photos, academic certificates, report cards, letters and novelties like my grandfather’s madras ties and my grandmother’s silver brush set. I’m airing out photos and notes that had been buried, forgotten and quite literally locked away, in some cases, for decades.
One of my newly rediscovered favorite photos — that I can’t remember being taken — is of me and my friend, Tom, in our college gowns at graduation. I am the vibrant, budding pink cheeks and gilded hair of nearly-established adulthood, looking at the camera with beatific smile but percipient eyes. Tom is kissing my cheek, eyes closed. His black mortarboard is fixed in an upwards soar. His ebony hair is curled around his ear, and his honey and walnut tartan tie and its Windsor knot are tucked neatly beneath the white neck band of his black and white hood. My arm is wrapped around his back and my fingers lace around his neck and peek through the tassels of his graduation cap to the camera.
Tom: my old friend, who rescued me not once but twice, and who — in a particularly low moment — came over to my college dorm room after I didn’t answer the phone and didn’t stop knocking on the door until I answered. Then he put a note on my door about “getting the hell out of dodge” and swept me across our college campus to live with him for what was at least a week but may have been more.
It was more than a simple act of generosity. Though we had always been friends, if you had asked me at the time, he wouldn’t have been my first thought for who would demand from the world the resurrection of my security and feeling of peace. But, it was indeed he who took the action and who would do so again later in our lives.
Who rescues us? It’s not always who we expect. It’s also not always like in the movies or some dramatic scene where the helicopter hovers and the stokes basket just reaches you as your savior buckles you in and secures you, and you evacuate, slightly spinning, into the heavens towards certain safe harbor. Sometimes you get a high-humored savior like Tom, but I probably didn’t realize it as such at the time, being so deep in the collateral fallout of my own hurting world.
It may be only in retrospect that you look back and realize your head was nearly underwater or you were about to slip when someone laced your fingers into theirs and lifted you onto higher ground. It may not be as discrete, as seemingly profound (at the time) or as romantic, but when I look at the photos on my shelves of Hannah, Tom, of friends, relatives, godparents and the great-grandmother I never met, or when I turn in my hand the stones my friend Lisa gave me, I see woven lifelines looping me up.
My greatest devastation is that Hannah’s lifelines couldn’t have foreseen or pierced through the malicious intent that resulted in her death. She doesn’t get the continuity in her lifetime to help and love her friends, to grow in herself with and through others, to exchange a knowing smile with a stranger on the street or to receive people reciprocally giving her those things back. I know for sure that Hannah wanted those she loved to feel love and not to be hurt by others. She needed the same for herself. Those things are what the decent among us all want.
Healing in purgatory
Nearly two decades ago, at the start of my long-term relationship that ended two years ago, I lost a pin belonging to my great-aunt that my grandparents had gifted me on the same graduation day when the photo of Tom and me was taken. That day, my grandparents and I walked around the central campus building (the same building where Tom had provided me refuge in his dorm tower room a few years earlier) on our way to the ceremony, and my grandmother handed me a little mulberry-colored velvet box inside of which the pin sat.
It was a small Art Deco bow pin with a hundred seed pearls strung and bound at each end of the bow, cushioned by tiny diamonds. Inside the box’s cover, my grandmother had inscribed a note from her and my grandfather about wearing the pin in good health at this next stage of my life and appreciating it for its value and beauty.
A year later, while visiting a good friend at her hotel downtown, I took the pin from its box for the first time and wore it. I’d had a hard time clasping its little pin stick and snapping the fragile-seeming clip over to lock it in place. That night, it later must have slipped from my blouse. Though I searched the hotel room, my apartment closet and retraced my steps outside, I couldn’t find it.
Out of filial obligation or guilt, I called the hotel where I lost it for weeks afterward and then at intervals over the ensuing years to see if anyone had happened to turn it in. I looked for that pin on auction sites. I searched through boxes, in more closets and behind curtains, believing and hoping my memory of that night was faulty or that the pin had gently slipped into some nook I had overlooked.
Coincidentally, I looked for that pin during the entirety of the time of my relationship with my ex-partner. Its loss was a quiet current for so many years. I couldn’t stop looking. Then, earlier this month, on what has become a probably semi-quarterly check-in, I found the pin on an auction site. I no longer had the appraisal to confirm it was definitively the pin, but I remembered certain idiosyncratic qualities like a different colored rose gold pin stick and that notoriously tricky clasp.
But, then, after all that looking, I didn’t know if I wanted it enough to pay for it to be mine again. Was the finding enough? Was it worth buying it back (which felt slightly ugly and unfair, even at a discount rate by the seller given the backstory)? Would I ever wear it, or would it sit in my drawer untouched and unaired until I gave it to my daughter on her graduation?
I would have thought finding it would bring closure, but the wound of losing it and searching for it had scarred so wide that the simple discovery of the pin’s still presence in this world was not enough to stitch me back to the way I had felt when I first received it. In the end, I showed the listing of it to my daughter and asked if it was something she liked and would eventually want. What does a six-year old know of jewelry — or time? But she said yes, and that was enough to persuade me to get it back.
In the end, whether I initially vacillated about bringing it back or whether it is the exact pin or its cousin, it doesn’t matter. I have recovered the pin as I remembered it and, more importantly, placed it back in its box. No longer does the box talk about good health and value with an empty, unattended place where the imbued pin should sit. Now, I open the box, and the pin gently sparkles as she once did.
There is some finality, but the chasm of long heartbreak and lost time is not neatly or definitively knitted back together. It feels like I was adrift for so long, looking for the shore. Now that I have found it, I still feel the rocking sea in my chest as I stand on solid ground again. I wonder if that feeling will ever go away, inasmuch as I am grateful to have my roots again. Though, every time I’ve opened the box since the pin returned, I take a soft step closer to that original elusive feeling of both calm and excitement as when I first lifted the cover and saw it.
We are not the value of our stuff, I know, and our stuff ends its life with us when we die (to be passed on to our inheritors, lost in the recesses of an old house or through a grate, stolen, or sold and owned by someone new), but I wonder about the signs and meanings of this physical stuff and the material world that operates around us, often wondrously, as it ties to the occasions and intervals of our time here. What does it mean when little delicacies happen in our lives like an answer to a question we’ve been asking for so long about our pain or loss — when we search and find or when we find without knowing we are searching?
When I cleaned around the brass-framed photo of Hannah this weekend, I moved a small, round box in front of it and found a sprightly ladybug underneath. I wondered what the odds were of finding her in this middle-winter in front of Hannah’s photo. After she revealed herself to me, she walked over and crawled onto a Sailor Jerry-type drawing of a swallow, those birds famous for their transcontinental migration patterns and their faithful return home every spring, wrapped in a sash with the words “TE AMO”, which was the backside of a small mirror I’d leaned on the bottom of Hannah’s photo.
When I drove back to the city that day, the crows over the BQE were suspended in air. They had captured a driving wind, momentarily floating in perfect stasis above a background of buildings and the derelict grain terminals touching the margin of the Erie Basin and looking out to the Narrows tidal strait beyond. They rested in time the way the little ladybug climbed to — and then didn’t move from — her spot next to the hearted end of the sash over the bird on the back (or maybe front) of the Sailor Jerry mirror. The reflective glass of the mirror reflects back on Hannah who is caught, lost, honored or simply smiling from a moment in space at a time before all of this heartache and carnage.
Saturday morning at dawn, I drove alone across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. It was unseasonably warm in January — like Spring’s early crowning in March, except it was so out of order for the middle of winter.
There were few other cars around me, and it felt like the city was opening herself to me. Beyond the invisibly raising portcullis under the bridge’s double arches, the sun’s rising rays from across the river melted into Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Their metal faces shimmered in silver-blues and pink-yellows, the way sunlight marries oil caught in puddles in a pavement parking lot, and the prosaic becomes sublime.
Time began to march slowly. The moment of crossing the bridge was suspended in a good-hearted cartoon fairy godmother’s magical bubble: the just bleak, sullen face of the winter city now veneered in dazzling warm colors.
I was thinking of Hannah and how I am living a life for her and for me. Crossing that bridge, I felt like she surprised my eyes for the drive, settling into mine and feeling wonderment at the sparkling buildings, like twinkling stars over the sweeping Wadi Rum dessert on the darkest night. It was wide magic: where they had just trapped winter light with flat, cold effect, buildings now danced and pirouetted.
I’ve become so used to this city, sometimes so tired of this city, and suddenly, my spine was alighted with fireworks. Chills coursed my ribs and arms. As I curled the car around to the east side highway and watched the sun rise beyond Brooklyn, I thought of how few mornings I’ve seen the light like this — and how many more I would. That whole drive, I felt like Hannah was sitting next to me or — I couldn’t place her exactly — maybe in me.