Saturday, May 14, 2011

Day one thousand two hundred and twenty-eight . . . It all depends on the day.

There's a beauty to being so little you have to reach up for the door knob.

You stand in front of it and that's about all you see: the knob. You don't see the name or number-- that stuff is usually three-quarters up at least. You don't try to peer into the spyhole because that's way too high, even on tippytoes. And normally you don't even deal with a key unless it's your own home (I wasn't given my own key until I was probably eleven). The door is either unlocked or you have to wait for someone to unlock it. But if it is unlocked then you just take both hands and cup them around the knob and turn and hope for the best.

As we get older things even out for a while. The silver, gold, brown or black knob sits right there at your mid-section in your tweens and a simple bending of the elbow is all it takes and you've got it. Then, hopefully, as the years go by you grow so that it's finally (and subconsciously) a mere flip of the hand, and viola, you turn the knob, the door gives way and you're in . . . or out depending on the situation.

1980 was a difficult year for my family. Eugenia C. Johnson, the matriarch of the Johnson clan, and my grandmother on my mom's side, (or Babush, as I called her) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That was, I believe, sometime over the summer. I was only ten so I'm a little foggy on the details. But I remember spending many evenings in Worcester, where we would go for her treatments, sitting on the floor of the generously appointed waiting room with my bag of fabric, poly-fill, buttons, ping pong balls, and fur, which I would then use to make puppets of all stripes and sizes, colors and species: monster, human, plant and animal. I'm sure I was as much of a pleasant distraction to the others waiting there with me as I was to my own worries.

The whole year is a bit of a blur to me, not just because of my age, but I believe because I knew this was the end of an era in my life. I knew that at some point in the near future I would lose the most important person in my world besides my mom. My babush had taken care of me during the daytime from not long after I was born until I was old enough to go to school. This allowed my mother to work as a teacher which she did for over thirty five years. We had a special bond, the kind only a grandparent can have: once removed from the child, but knowing of the connection that runs deeper than the shape of a nose or the angle of a pair of ears. The wisdom and the experience that comes from raising a child to the point where they can place one in your arms trumps any and all past grievances on either side. And the child knows it, too. But he or she knows, as well, that the stakes are just a wee bit lower. You might get a treat your mom would never give you. You also might get away with something that would never fly in front of "the boss."

You live and you learn.

And so it came to pass that on November 3, 1980 I was picked up by my aunt and mother in a big 1979 station wagon from my uncle's house in Newport, RI. I had been brought there to spend a couple of days after my babush took a turn for the worst. The tone of the visit was somber and the dinners were eerily quiet.

When the car pulled up one morning I could see from the look in my mom's face that my babush was gone.

Then came the wails from the deepest reaches of my soul.

It's strange how a loud sound like a fighter jet overhead or an ambulance can make me cover my ears. I protect them now. They're part of my toolbox, as it were. And I have done some damage to them that I'd like to at the very least keep to a minimum.

But the acoustics in that station wagon--white metal edges and long, rectangular glass, made for a personal public address system the likes of which the world had never seen.

I wailed and cried.

I sobbed.

I almost threw up.

And the more I cried, it seemed, the less my mom and aunt tried to stop me. They knew it meant as much to me as it could have. And when you are a parent, I'm guessing, it's better for your child to understand the gravity of a situation when it's happening rather than have to explain it to them when they're older.

I cried every drop of salty water I was made of. I cried so much I was drinking my streaming tears. A wet, salty, stretched, wrinkly face, that's what I felt when I held my hands to my head.

A ten year old, from what I remember, has an affinity for a face full of tears. They cry when they do something wrong; they cry when they want something they can't have; they cry when they've fallen down; and they cry when it's time to go to bed. But the tears I cried that day felt different. These were hot tears. These were more than salt water. I could swear there was blood mixed in there. And if there wasn't I remember wishing that there was because I wanted to be gone, too. I wanted nothing to do with this world without my babush in it.

She was the first one in my life to leave for good. And that, in itself, takes on legendary status.

That left a bigger hole than the space one walks through on an open field.

But life, of course, goes on if you're are here for it. This life I speak of left my grandfather, my mom, my aunts, my uncles, and my cousins to take care of moving on.

And my mom was turning forty that coming May.

May, 14th 1981 to be exact.

Today, thirty years ago.

Now, I don't remember Thanksgiving that year; or my Aunt Lynda's birthday in December; Christmas; my grandfather's birthday in January; Easter; or even my eleventh birthday in May.

Those memories just aren't there though I'm sure there are pictures confirming their occurrence.

But what I do remember from the year moving forth is the majesty of a surprise party my aunt and grandfather put together for my mother.

They hired a string quartet.

They sent out secret invites that were produced, lovingly, at my grandfather's print shop to all of my mom's friends and a select collection of colleagues.

They had a cake made that was about as big as I was if you add up my length, width and depth (I was a "husky" child).

And they made sure that it was slated for the day after my mom's birthday.

And I also remember the feeling of reaching up for the doorknob with my mom behind me at seven o'clock sharp.

I remember the purposeful way I grasped onto that knob and turned with all my might and swung that first door open into the foyer. Then I waited until my mom closed the door behind her, leaving the two of us sandwiched uncomfortably in close quarters for ten seconds.

I remember looking up at her in that little entryway, with the springtime twilight sneaking in the semi-circular front door window and smiling for a second.

"Okay, okay . . . let's go, Frederick." She said.

And I remember that odd silence that a room full of people can create.

That strange forced hush when thirty people are about to joyously ambush someone. It's a paused frame in an action movie. The energy is vacuum sealed in that five seconds of time right before the lights go on. Shapes swirl. One last whisper escapes. Hands come out of pockets. Pupils adjust to the temporary darkness as all eyes turn towards the inside foyer door.

And then . . .



I remember looking up at my mom, a lady who had walked into her sister's apartment a thousand times at least, and seeing the look of amazement. She had come down here for every occasion imaginable in the past: for dinner, to watch TV, to argue, to make up, to drop off her mischievous son. But never before had she come into this five room apartment to 30 friends and family, a string quartet, and her little boy all smiling at her.

I hugged her and she brought me in close.

I had pulled it off.

I had kept the secret.

I hadn't even slightly screwed up.

And now I was off the hook and I could just enjoy the party.

When I had brought my dear mother downstairs I was wearing my normal street clothes: Mork and Mindy t-shirt and cords with a pair of Pro Keds. Probably. That was one of my favorite combos.

But as I let my mom off into the throng of well-wishers and family members I swiftly turned around and opened the doors that led up to my part of the house. I changed into my very best clothes (clothes, my mom always attested to that I picked out myself) and returned to the soiree.

As you can see, for some strange reason my cousin, Heather, donned a French Maid outfit for the event. I am to my mom's right, next to me is my cousin, Dirk, and my Aunt Lynda, the ringleader and orchestrator, is in the blue.

Now, this day will always resonate with me because I believe that this day was the first day that the pain from the loss of my babush (and the ensuing depression) started to lift just a little. The world we all lived in (it was a tiny little bubble of a world) would never fully recover, but there was a feeling of honest celebration that this party brought. It was a reminder of the joy that life on earth is sometimes capable of. Regardless of the fact that my mom had no choice in attending this auspicious occasion I remember her really relishing the attention. Everybody who knew her knew that she had been through hell and back. The loss of one's mother is never easy, but going through the ordeal she went through--taking care of her mom at home and in the hospital through a horrible and furious cancer--was life changing. I don't thing she ever really recovered, but this party was a start.

It was a beginning of a new chapter in her life.

She still had her sister.

She still had her brother and his family.

She still had her father.

She still had her friends.

And she still had her little boy.

And this little boy, while stumbling more than a few times on his journey in life, eventually turned into a man.

He learned the joy of a surprise and the tricky emotional and physical affair it can be to keep it secret.

He learned that life is fleeting, changing, coming, going, and, ultimately, entirely what you make of it.

And he learned that the doors we walk through are really just a little bit bigger than we are.

As we get older and as we get closer to their threshold, both in height and in width, the doorknobs even up to our midsection. Ultimately, all we need to do is approach them and lift our hands just a little and turn the knob, walk through, and hope for the best.

The keys that we carry around grow in number and complexity.

Sometimes we are the ones that lead those behind us into a surprise party.

And sometimes it is us who are the ones left standing with a room full of people smiling and staring, eyes adjusting to the sudden bright light flooding the ceiling, floor and walls.

It all depends on the day.

This story is dedicated to my mother, Judith Ann Johnson, who would have been seventy years old today, though to me she was always ageless.

Happy Birthday.

Sto lat.

I love you.

I miss you.

I will see you again someday.

And that, my sweet mother, will be quite a surprise party, indeed.

Thanks for reading.


It is days like today that I make a donation to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. It helped us share many more months than we might have, otherwise. I owe them a debt of gratitude that money could never repay but I suppose every little bit helps.

If you feel the same way, please click here and show your support.

1 comment:

Kyle said...


You always break my heart just a little in a very good way. Your mother would be so proud to see that little boy as he is today.