Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hair color for the soul

It was a sunny Friday afternoon just a few weeks ago. The smell of beauty products hit my nose as soon as I opened the door to the salon and the promised land of a long awaited and much needed pedicure was right in front of me. As soon as my feet touched the bubbly warm water, I felt an enormous relief; the kind that I haven't felt in months...or maybe even longer. “Ahhhh, I can sit and do nothing for the next 45 minutes”. One minute, two minutes, three minutes....I decided to throw in some useless information into my brain, as if there wasn’t enough of it in there already. I opened a Cosmopolitan magazine. I was in for a treat: mindless, silly, uncomplicated indulgence. Or so I thought…

Angela, my manicurist started doing my toes. It felt great. “Steals for under $25”, said the cover story in the “shopping section” of the magazine. I looked around. The salon was pretty full. Three women sat down just a few feet away from where I was. All of them had their hair colored. All were wearing the special dark robes they give you at the salon to make sure you don’t mess up your clothes. The women kind of resembled nuns. All three looked fairly young, yet all somehow looked tired (puffy eyes, irritated by the hair colorant?) Unexpectedly, like it often happens in life, in the midst of my mindless indulgence, their conversation (in which I became accidental participant) shook me to the core and I can’t stop thinking about it ever since.

The talk among the three of them and Angela was about a funeral. They were discussing the price of the flowers, transportation from the morgue to the burial place, how the prices for everything went up since the years past, how to choose the best rabbi, etc. I wasn't paying too close attention, trying to concentrate on being in my thoughtless, happy, empty-minded state, until I heard one of the women say, "He could die today or in a few's unknown. His only luck is that he is on enough morphine to sedate a horse". Then I stopped reading and looked up because I realized that the funeral is being planned for someone who hasn’t died yet.

“I hope she is talking about a great-grandma who is 120”, I thought. And my pedicurist, Angela interrupted that wishful thinking, looked at me and said, “Can you image, her husband isn’t even 40…just awful.”

“Your customer here is a bit confused, Angela.” Laughed the woman whose husband was dying. With her hair covered in dark colorant, she looked like a bird covered in oil during an oil spill.  She turned her gaze to me, “You are probably wondering, what on earth are these crazies doing in a hair salon at a time like this.” And before I could protest, she continued. “Well, I’ll tell you. The last year of my life has been sheer joy and sheer hell. Yes, it happens. There are always blimps of joy even in the sheerest of hell. I’ve done enough praying, crying and begging God to intervene. Now I surrendered. But, I haven’t lost my sense of dignity and womanhood.” Then she stopped, unable to continue and her friend picked up her train of thought. “This is a funeral party of sorts.” I just stared. The future widow interrupted her and said, looking directly into my eyes, “When they ascend…you know, when the soul ascends…I heard that they kind of hover around for a bit. Certainly, for the funeral. So, I figured, if he looks down on me from above, he is going to notice my ugly gray hair roots! And just won’t stand for it!” They started laughing. It was a heavy, sad, sarcastic, hopeless laughter, but laughter nevertheless…and I joined in.

Then the woman pulled something out of her bag. “My son is 7. He has been writing letters to his dad…some of them are prayers.” She took a deep breath. “This one, for example, says ‘Daddy, all of my friends want you to get better. If we all wish really, really hard, you are going to be okay. I just know it. Love, Simon”. We all passed the letter to each other. It smelled like crayons. “I’ve been preparing him for the possibility that his dad might not be okay. But how do you prepare a 7-year-old for something like this?” She looked at each one of us, slowly moving her gaze from face to face, clearly in search of an answer, which of course, none of us had.

The hair-dresser came over “Time for your wash sweetie.” He held the woman’s hand, "like a good understanding doctor”, I thought.

“Here”, she said “while I am getting washed, you can read more of his letters…” She handed them to me. What was to be my moment to indulgence, became a significant moment for introspection, empathy and profound sadness. The letters were truly heartbreaking, innocent, and hopeful. I was thinking that she must share them with someone, with many people, if possible, because holding on to them on her own must be unbearable. To be the sole witness to the trauma the cruel fate is inflicting on her child must be too much of a burden.

“All done” said Angela. I stared at her unable to comprehend what she was talking about. Then I noticed the magazine still on my lap, on the same page where I left it. The pedicure was over.

I was searching for words. Is there nothing at all that could be said? I didn’t want to leave just like that. What could I do? What could I say? Things were popping into my head, as I was putting on my shoes. “I am so sorry for what you are going through”, “May I come to the funeral?”, “Is there anything I can do to help?”, “Your hair looks great!”….and an on and on like that.

Her hair now dry and eyes less puffy, I noticed that the future widow was incredibly beautiful. Her face reminded me of the medieval representations of Madonna – dark hair, deeply set eyes, defined eye brows, and fair skin. As I was walking out, I handed her back the letters. We looked at each other and I just shook my head. And she nodded, as if to say “Yes, I know, what can you say”. Then she smiled and said, “This is like the hair color for the soul – for his soul and mine”. And I smiled back, with the heavy sad smile, but a smile nevertheless.

A few days later I called Angela. She said that the woman’s husband died a few days before. All I could think about, after I hung up the phone, was the fact that there is a little 7 year old boy starting on a journey into the unknown world, a world where even if you wish really, really hard, some things are just impossible to fix. And there is a young Madonna, who somehow needs to pull herself together and make it all okay for her 7 year old boy.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Till next Tuesday

"Is Spritzer making a comeback?" read the headline. The image that came to my mind was of his wife's face on that awful day when she stood by him, while he was apologizing to the world for betraying her. I thought at the time that if hell exists, this is what a woman's hell must look like.

The newspaper belonged to a middle aged man. The woman next to him was reading Nicolas Sparks' novel (too cheesy and predictable for my taste, but, one might argue, is a good subway read). From time to time, she would peak into his newspaper to see what he was reading. At times he looked up to check the station the train was at.
Not a word was said between them. At a first glance they looked like two people who don't even know each other. But the nervous body language gave off a strange vibe. An occasional touch of the knees, the close proximity of their arms, her tendency to lean into his space as if to make a claim, to mark a spot...I've been riding subways long enough to know that if two strangers get this close, a fist fight is not out of the question. Yet, these two didn't seem to mind. I found myself feeling like an intruder into some private moment...
"The next stop is 42nd Street, Bryant Park", said the conductor.
His stop.
They looked at each other.
He got up and picked up his overnight bag.
Something unspoken emerged and hung in the air (or was it something unspeakable?)
He kissed her on the forehead.
In one, speedy gesture he slipped a wedding band on his finger and said "Till next Tuesday".

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I really like him

I was an unusual mother-to-be. This is probably an understatement. I was plain weirdo. Hadn't been exposed to small babies, well, ever, let alone to the wonders of pregnancy, I was simply in a perpetual state of denial.

Let me be more specific... My colleagues at work found out that I was expecting a baby only in my third trimester (one “insightful” colleague was shocked at the news, saying that she thought I was fat and depressed). To the standard questions such as “is it your first” and “aren't you excited," I answered dryly, but honestly “Yes, to your first question, and no, to your second, more like terrified, ”. I was not bitten by “oh, it is such a cute baby outfit” shopping bug. I only bought the book “what to expect when you are expecting” and gave it to my husband John to read. I even remember writing him a note “they say babies don't come with an owner's manual, but I found one. Enjoy it!” I looked at the baby sonogram pictures with an unmasked bewilderment - is this baby actually living in my body?? All of my insanity wrapped itself nicely with my complete and utter ignorance of the basics of baby care. I mean basics, like changing a diaper. But one of my biggest worries having a baby was the idea of not liking this new person in my life.

Don't get me wrong. I realized that there is no exchange and return policy accompanying newborns. It’s just up to that point in my life (with exception of very close family members) I got to CHOOSE whom I “hung out” with. And now the nature...the universe was going to choose for me and hand me this person to live with and to love, “satisfaction NOT guaranteed” mind you! I freaked out.

So, when I anxiously blurted out to my best friend Anna “what if I don’t like him?”, she wasn't surprised, she was saddened. “What do you mean “like him”? You are going to LOVE him. We are talking about your child!” exclaimed my dearest friend, a mother of two beautiful boys by then. “Well, I know I'll love him. But what if our personalities are incompatible? Like, he could be shy while I am loud, he could be an owl while I am an early bird, he could like country music and hate museums, things too horrible to even mention...the list is too long!! How will we ever get along? Do you understand?”. “Yes, I do” said Anna after a pause “you are hormonal. It’s just that in your case the hormones have the opposite effect.”

Then, ten days overdue, we went to the hospital to be induced. All I can say about my labor and delivery - everything occurred exactly as it should have. Not as planned or hoped for, but exactly as it should have. A lot of it was a blur; my favorite memory is of Adam sleeping comfortably on John's fatherly shoulders.

It’s now been almost 5 years since Adam was born. I know it’s a cliché, but during this time I've learned more from my child than I had in all of my life. When Adam was born, I told John, “He is perfect. Lets do our darnest not to screw him up.” Little did I know what a “challenge” (as we say in the corporate world) this will be. “Challenge” being the code word for – it’s frigging impossible and you are crazy for even suggesting it.

In fact, almost every day, I worry….whether I am good enough. In her revealing, honest and funny book called “Just let me lie down”, Kristin van Ogtrop, says that she fears that one day, on her deathbed, her children will lean over and whisper “Mother, I forgive you” [for being a bad mother]. And what if they don’t forgive at all?

Questions swirl in my mind…. Will I be able to navigate through the maze of all the “right things to do for your child”? Will I feed him enough fruits and vegetables? Will I be able to pick the right school? Help him be in the right place, at the right time? Not be judgmental of his choices in life as he gets older? Allow him to be himself? Be honest enough with him so that he is not disappointed in me when he “sees my true colors” and alternately, not scared of them? Will I ever be able to earn his trust so that he can confide in me without a fear of punishment? Will I nurture his spirit enough so that he can “pay it forward” to the world? Will I be able to buy the right furniture for his room, the kind that doesn’t break on the first day of use…but I digress. Basically, HOW CAN I NOT SCREW HIM UP AND STILL BE ME?

And guess what? Yep, you got it, since the day I met him, I really like him. The irony, of course, is that he isn't like me in many ways and I’d be really sad if we were as “compatible” as I wanted us to be before he was born. What a bore that would be? BUT, oh joy, this is the grandest gift of all. Now I have a new worry – I hope he likes me!

And so, with all my heart, I say to him, “I love you kiddo. As you’ve notice thus far, I am far from perfect. I make mistakes (sorry about buying the wrong Mack truck), but I’ll always try to fix things and will do my very best to earn the honor of being your mother…every day”.