I wake in the night to my son, climbing into bed. He smiles as he crawls between us, then settles in, spreading himself out like a starfish. I think for a moment about trying to make a deal with him: “If you can go back and sleep in your own bed, like a big boy, we can put a magnet on your chart,” but I am too tired for negotiations, so I pull the comforter tighter to my chin and turn away.
They are moving a bridge here and now that I am awake, I can hear the pounding in the distance, its steady drum beat, punctuated by jackhammer bursts. This is, I suppose, what we have to look forward to – this nightly serenade of the urban landscape.
We bought this house in 2005 – giddy with its grandeur – a stately old Victorian with a steeply-pitched roof. The entry way left us breathless when we saw it for the first time – high ceilings, wood floors with mahogany inlay, the wide staircase with dark wood banister curving up as far as we could see. It spoke of another era. We made up stories about the lives we’d live in it.
We were planning for a baby. This baby, the one whose bony elbow bruises my ribs in the night. We were not yet expecting, but expectant. Hopeful.
Several of my friends are planning for babies. Hoping. It is hard for me to imagine starting now. My daughter is just a few years away from college. Just thinking about babies makes me tired, makes my arms ache. Weeks away from my fortieth birthday, I am grateful to think that as far as children go, I have done what I will do, and I will not do it again: That at least, behind me.
My mother was 44, my father 47 when they adopted me, and then my sister three years after that. “The happiest days of my life,” my mother would often say, and even as a child, I remember feeling a bit of sadness for her, wondering why there was not more happiness in those first forty-four years.
I know what she meant, of course. Watching your children grow into the world is a heady thing: the inexplicable joy of seeing the world through their eyes, bearing witness to their moments of discovery, to the expressions of their raw, unfiltered passions.
Sunday, in the park with friends, we watched our boys strut across a raised platform, brandishing their wooden swords. “You have to watch our show,” they shout, as we sit in a patch of shade, grateful for a few minutes of adult conversation. The worlds that 5-year-olds create and inhabit are glorious, but exhausting.
We talk as we often do about writing. One of us teaches, so we talk about that. We talk about the lives we live here, and the lives we have known in other cities. The siren call of New York, always. About the choices we have made and the choices we did not realize we were making until we lived the results of them.
My mother’s father, I am told, arrived in New Bedford on a whaling ship from Rio de Janeiro. He left his ailing father and his anxious mother behind in Lisbon, where they wrung their hands and prayed the rosary, lighting candles in the windows.
“Rio was no place to live,” he had told her. It was a dangerous, lawless time. When the sun came up on the dusty side streets of his neighborhood one morning, it revealed the bodies of three men scattered in the courtyard, dark red blood running into the gutters. “That was the morning I knew that nothing was there for me in that city of death.”
In his pocket, seventeen dollars. On the ship, he befriends a man who gives him the address of a boarding house in New Bedford.
Her mother was an island girl, watched the men build their lives around the sea. Their life was a rugged one, and her beauty rugged, too. She had thick dark hair and olive skin. Her hands were strong. Their courting, as the story goes, was simple and knowable.
They married in an old stone church on the banks of the Acushnet River. She had white daisies in her hair that had been plucked from her bouquet.
They had two children before my mother was born, two boys that did not survive. After my mother, another girl. Then, another stillborn baby before the last child, a girl, my aunt.
From there, the stories all are written.
We live these lives half in the dark. We marry, we raise our children, send them off to places we have not seen. We love each other, or try to love. We map out what we think our lives will be. And all the while, we carry with us the knowledge that all this will end, that the end is built in to the beginning. Our fragile human bones.
Recently, I received some terrible, sad news. A 42-year-old woman, the daughter of family friends, took her own life after years of struggle with depression. We had spent time together, in the grade school years, L. and me. She was older enough than me to be preoccupied with very different things – chief among them, as I recall, a band called Menudo.
One afternoon, she made me call a radio station, pretending to be a television reporter (“You have a great voice,” she said. “You sound like Kaity Tong.”) to try to get free tickets to a Menudo concert. I do not understand the logic behind this, but at that age, when summoned to service, I complied. She gave me a script to read (something along the lines of: “Hi. I’m Kaity Tong from NBC news and I’d like tickets to the Menudo concert on July 7….) She made me call several times. Needless to say, whatever powers of oral persuasion I may have had at 12, I was not able to secure the tickets. I told her this, gravely, confused by my task, but disappointed nonetheless at the failure. She hugged me though, tightly, and laughed. “That’s OK. We’ll try again later.”
L. was boisterous and her personality was big. Her laugh was loud and infectious. When I saw her, at least, she was always exuberant. I did not see the dark days.
Our lives took separate paths and we did not stay in touch, but occasionally, I would hear news from my family about the various milestones – her first marriage, her divorce. Her remarriage. Her many years of trying to have a child.
“She just wants to have babies,” her mother would say. “She can’t do the one thing she wants to do.”
Dawn is breaking here. I think of my own dark days. I think of L. and how if you were in a room with her, and she was laughing, it was impossible to imagine darkness. I think of the women I know. Of my own children. I think about the day that is about to unfold before me. Like so many things these days, I don’t feel ready for it. Don’t feel qualified to rush ahead into these days, these months, this lifetime – this unknowable, baffling lifetime. That our lives are what they are – that mine is mine, and that L.’s was hers – stuns and stupefies me. May all of us – the living and the dead – find our peace.