Thursday, June 19, 2014

A MOTHER'S VOICE by Jessica Rosenthal

As the cold scissors slide up my blouse to cut it open I can hear my mother’s voice, “Always wear clean underwear, just in case.”  My clean panties were in the trunk of my now mangled Honda Civic because I had picked up my laundry from the wash & fold the night before and didn’t bring it in the house.  Today, it was a cold California morning in October and I was too comfortable to go outside in my pajamas to get the bag of clean laundry.  So here I was, in the back of the ambulance, the EMTs trying to keep me conscious – and I was NOT wearing clean underwear.  My mother would be so disappointed.

My mom Lois, or Lotus Blossom as my father affectionately calls her, has a very definite idea of right & wrong and structure.  This discipline contributed to her and my dad’s thriving even though they had very little money.  They first lived in a small one bedroom on Colby Court in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.  I don’t remember the first few years of my life there, although I can see certain images from the home movies we watched on holidays.  I could imagine our time there from the narration that went along with the silent films.  Nowadays, we rarely break out the projector but when we do, my parents play “dead – not dead” and my dad always winds up crying.

I spent a lot of time with my dad in the early years of my life.  By 1976, my parents had been married 4 years (though they began dating each other 9 years earlier) and they had moved to a two bedroom apartment in the Warbasse neighborhood of Brooklyn.  They lived in the same building as my mom’s parents, and one of my grandmother’s brothers and his family.  My dad, an electrician, was furloughed from work at this time, so my mother went to work at Coney Island hospital in the billing department while my dad stayed home and cared for me.  I loved those times.  For breakfast, he would add uBet® syrup to my Rice Krispies® so I would be sure to drink the milk at the bottom of the bowl.  Our days were filled with fun excursions, like going to the park, or walking over to his mother’s house on Brighton 7th Street, where her sisters all had houses too.  I would sit on the red stoop and listen to the grownups talk, or roller skate on the uneven payment, or perform for my great aunts and grandmother.  I was the first of all the grandchildren, #1, and I garnered a lot of attention.

Occasionally, my dad and I would spend the afternoon in the apartment. I would stand on the wood galley table and dance to Bob Dylan as my dad held my hands and sung along to the record, “Everybody must get stoned…”  Some afternoons, his friends would come over and they would smoke cigarettes that they rolled themselves from a wooden cigar box.  In high school, before I knew what getting stoned meant, I pictured people throwing rocks at other people like they did in the Salem witch trials.  I didn’t understand why my Dad liked that song so much.  In my twenties I told my dad that I remembered these times, and he assured me that he NEVER rolled his own tobacco.

Music has been an extremely powerful influence in my life.  At first, after my accident I couldn’t listen to music at all.  Knowing my love of music, my dad would suggest turning on the radio from the remote control attached to the bed, but I was too afraid.  What if something played that made me sad?  I didn’t want to cry anymore.  After many little surgeries, it was time for the big one.  Using shards of bone, pieces of my shattered pelvis, titanium plates and bolts, the doctor planned to put my hip back together.  I was sedated to the point of being out of my mind and body, but I was scared.  While my dad stayed with me until they rolled me into surgery, my mom had gone back to the hotel to shower and get some rest after several days of sleeping in hospital chairs next to my bed.  He kept me conscious by reciting the lyrics of as many Dylan songs as he could remember.  And there were a lot.  I sang along, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet…We sit stranded but we’re doing our best to deny it.”  It kept me from thinking about the possibility that I wouldn’t make it out of surgery alive, or never be able to walk again.  One after the other, we sang together until the attendant came to wheel me away.  My dad followed close behind to make sure the orderly took great care in transporting me.  Any abrupt movement was painful as my leg hung from a gurney and a pin temporarily kept it in place.  As the nurses greeted me, my dad wished me luck and told me, “I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

And he was.  The surgery was a success and I was relieved to move to the next phase of recovery.  I was still afraid to watch TV for fear of the Allstate commercial where they show a collision and you can hear and see it happening. I still didn’t want to listen to music.  Slowly though, as the days turned into weeks, I was less and less afraid.  I began with the doo wop station, upbeat and light hearted.  A couple of songs here and there were enough to remind me of the healing power of music.

I learned to lift myself out of the bed, onto a plank and into the wheelchair. Then from the wheelchair to the walker; Standing, shuffling a few feet while my dad pushed the wheelchair behind me in case I had to sit down midway down the hall.  When I was able to get to the end of the hallway and back to my room using only the walker, I was ready for the music.  I found myself singing the Grateful Dead, “…gotta get back to where you belong, little bit harder, just a little bit more, little bit further than you’ve gone before.”  I emailed my friend Dave and asked him to send me some CDs.  When they arrived, I listened to that song, The Wheel, over and over again. 

Eventually two months from the fated day, I was able to climb a flight of stairs, albeit slowly and sometimes by using the rump bump tactic.  I was released from the hospital rehab and allowed to go home.  My mom had already flown back to New Jersey two weeks earlier, barely arriving in time for my sister to give birth to my twin nieces.  I can’t believe I missed that special morning when my nieces were born.  Regretful, but out of my hands, I was in California.  My dad stayed with me for several weeks, until I could live again independently. On our way home, we went to Home Depot so my dad could buy materials to build a sturdy bannister that would help me up the 12 steps to the front porch.  I wasn’t used to wheeling myself around.  My arms were so sore the entire next day that all I did was sit and watch old concert footage, barely moving from my favorite armchair.  By the third day, I was feeling better and the bannister was complete, wooden stain and all.

It was an eye opening experience using a wheelchair.  I knew I was lucky that this was only temporary.  After months of physical therapy, I would be able to walk again and not be wheelchair bound.  But I noticed things that had been unimportant before.  The cuts in the curb on the sidewalk were often too bumpy for me to wheel over alone.  Without my dad, I had to ask a stranger for a push.  So many places in my small little town didn’t have a ramp or a handicap bathroom.  It was a simple injustice, but it felt like a personal “You are not welcome here.”  The most enlightening and sad thing I noticed was that people wouldn’t make eye contact with me.  They would talk right over my head to my dad, as if I wasn’t there; Or that somehow the wheelchair left me unable to think or speak for myself.  I think people were afraid to look, in fear of what they might see – what they imagined could be wrong with me.  I wanted to tell them that I was okay, and that in a few months they wouldn’t even know that I had not been able to walk.  But before I had a chance there eyes would dart away and they’d be gone.  Now, I always make it a point to make eye contact with and smile at people in wheelchairs.  Immobility does not define a person.  Nobody likes or deserves to feel ignored.  Everyone wants to be asked to dance.

Monday, June 2, 2014

FOG by Sonja Leobold

When Jacques and I were together, so many years ago, we hitched from Paris across Europe, ending up one night in Bavaria. We had no idea where we had been dropped off, only that we found ourselves in a dense fog.

We walked blindly, not even knowing if we were still on a road. No cars passed us, and every once in a while, we could see through the mist, fields, and, once, at a distance, a barn, which gave us hope that we might be able to sleep somewhere for a while. Jacques crossed the field to see if we could get into it, but a dog began to bark ferociously and Jacques backed off.

We walked most of the night, hardly able to see a foot in front of us. The fog enveloped us, but sometimes retreated, trees appearing from nowhere, sometimes a house or two, then disappearing. We kept losing sight of each other, too, only to rediscover one another just a few steps away. But we never saw another human being. It was as if we were between worlds—unknown places. Nothing seemed real.

As the fog lifted and light drifted down from the sky, things around us began to stir. A farmer left his house and headed across a field towards his barn, a dog at his side. Once in a while, we saw a cow or two standing as if in a trance, slowly blinking. Morning was breaking.

At some point, we heard a truck coming our way. It was a milk truck and the driver was kind enough to pick us up. He said he would take us into town. We had started out to try to find an old friend of mine who lived in Oberbayen, a small town in Bavaria, south of Munich. Amazingly, the driver told us we were practically there. Once he dropped us off in town, we were able to find the small inn where Robert, my friend, was staying.

It was good to see Robert. Robert. Solid, kind, wise. He was 65 and I was 21. He had lived a complicated life. He was German and as a young man, had served in World War I, only to emerge from it, shell-shocked and with a horror of war. During World War II, he had worked in the underground, helping Jews escape. After the war, he had come to America, living there for many years, and doing many things, some of them simultaneously. He started an old-time one-room schoolhouse, worked as a therapist, treating people who were “lost causes,” was a water-color painter, and was in the midst of translating the verses of the I Ching. 

The quality in Robert I found most impressive was his ability to focus. When you were with him, he was totally attentive and fully present, so that even five minutes with him was completely satisfying and felt like five hours. And, perhaps because of that focus, he was acutely perceptive and sensitive. He learned so much about you without you having said a word. I think that’s why I had wanted to come to see him with Jacques. I felt so conflicted in my feelings for Jacques, and thought that perhaps things would clarify in Robert’s wise presence.