all that our arms can carry

This morning there was rain. I rose in the dark to run and was surprised to be greeted by the sound of rainfall on the brick patio outside the hotel lobby. Lovely, but not inviting this particular morning. I took refuge indoors to the sprawling fitness center where, on the treadmill facing the walkway, I let Apex Manor’s “The Year of Magical Drinking” distract me from the muted talking heads of mindless morning television. Across the bottom of the screen the headlines are absurd and without context: “Bleak portrait of poverty is off the mark, experts say.” How exactly, I wonder, might the real portrait of poverty be a cheerful one?

I am at something of a crossroads. This year leading up to forty has presented me with challenges to which I have not always felt adequate to rise. And yet mercifully, time goes on. Morning follows night, ceaselessly, and now that the date itself – with all its attendant expectations and fears – has passed, I am left feeling a bit bewildered. A bit bereft, even. I have expended so much energy in tending these anxieties, in carrying these specific burdens, that putting them down now introduces new fears. My arms are so empty now. What, then, shall I carry?

A few months after my daughter was born, we moved from Providence to New York City. I took leave from the graduate program in writing that I was in, and followed the job opportunity that presented itself to Z.’s father. It was a great offer, one he was fortunate to have, one that it would have been difficult to refuse.

We lived on the upper east side, a few blocks from the 92nd Street Y. I was at home with Z., full time. B. was gone a lot. He worked long days, traveled quite a bit – the west coast, Asia.

After the first couple months, I hired a babysitter for a couple afternoons a week, just for a few hours, and I would use that time to run errands, or to see a film or a museum exhibit, or wander aimlessly in the park. A little escape from the routine of baby care.

Eventually, I started using the time to write again. I sat on the great wide steps of the Met and wrote sketches of the tourists walking by. I imagined myself in their lives or in any number of other lives. Although I didn’t consider myself unhappy, I wanted to write my way out of the life I found myself in. I imagined all the paths I had not taken. Decisions I had made long ago – I turned these over and over in my mind, tried to carry them out to other conclusions. I was lonely, I think. I was beginning to realize that perhaps we did not have the same dreams, my then-husband and me. I was restless. Adrift.

The adoption literature will sometimes reference a sense that adoptees may have of feeling like they are not where they are supposed to be. Like they are lost, like they are wandering in a place without maps. Significant moments in the life of a family – celebrations, anniversaries, birthdays, reunions, vacations – all of these can feel particularly alienating precisely because they are supposed to feel reassuring, comforting. But these markers only serve to heighten the sense of difference. Why am I not happy when I am supposed to be, we wonder. What is so wrong, then, with me?

There are times when my friends grow impatient with me, and who can blame them. I look around and try to see my life as others might view it – the richness of it. Its considerable gifts and charms. And I want – so desperately do I want – to love it all, to be ecstatic with it, to embrace it with a joyful heart, a buoyant heart. But this sense that there is somewhere else I should be, that there is something not quite right, that a part of me – something deep and old and inexplicable – is not where it is supposed to be – is unshakeable: a phantom limb.

In the daydream life I sometimes imagine, my mother comes to visit me. I show her around my garden. It is the height of the summer – hot and dry – and the lavender is in full bloom. I have rows and rows of it, and it comes up to our knees, spills out over the borders of its beds in great purple profusion. I kneel down and cut a bunch for her – its perfume so fragrant and heady. She takes it from me, smiles, reaches her hand out to touch my cheek. Already, I can smell the lavender on her hands.

I gather up more of it – great armfuls of it to bring inside to dry, to tie with ribbons. She tells me how beautiful my house is. How beautiful the garden – how much she loves the white roses that climb up the makeshift trellis I’ve built against the neighbor’s garage. And the purple clematis entwined with it. How the irises along the back fence remind her of the house she grew up in, a house I never got to see. How the way the sunlight falls on the brick patio, dappled through the branches of the holly tree, and the patches of green and gray moss that grow along the stone wall, and the gentle splashing of the fountain that burbles in the tiny pond that we dug ourselves – how all of this – is like a dream. What beauty you have gathered around you, have tended here, she says. How all that you’ve touched seems filled with light.

How you, my daughter, are filled with light. How I love you, my daughter. My beautiful daughter.

We take the lavender in to the kitchen, lay it out across the counter. Wait, she says, I have an idea. She takes a handful of blossoms, crushes them between her palms, releasing and warming their fragrant oils. Bring me your coat – your winter coat, she says. She is excited, her cheeks flushed. I run upstairs and come back with it – an old navy wool jacket, its sleeves worn at the elbows. Here, she says, tucking crushed blossoms in each pocket. So even in winter, when it is so cold, you will remember this.

Imagine: filling your pockets with lavender.