Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Life, Death, and Lanyards

Well, we have just been having a week and a half so far this week. Bear in mind that none of this is happening directly to us. We're fine. It's just stuff happening that causes a person to stop and reflect. You all already know about terrific-Thomas, who has us all delighted and terrified in swings of emotion.

And then, I was wandering around the house yesterday, trying vainly to bring some order to the disaster scene we've created. (The dust bunnies defeated me in straight sets, but that's another story.) I look outside and I see one of my parish priests standing in the driveway. I know I didn't invite him over and I am not ready for company. Seriously NOT. But what am I going to do? Let him stand out in the cold and pretend not to be home? It turns out that he had been called to our next door neighbor's house to administer the Sacrament of Anointing to the 91-year-old grandfather of the family; he was just looking for their house. He (the neighbor; I don't know where the priest went) was sent immediately afterwards to the hospital, and Dave and I scooted off to visit with him while he was still quasi-conscious. As far as I know, he lived through the night, but it won't be long now.

And all of this has to be told to our children. You have a new cousin. He's fabulous and perfect, but we don't know much about the future for him. So, you get to fall in love with a little being, and you may well get your heart broken. Sigh... And this old gentleman, who acted in the grandfather role for you for so many years, is dying a fairly undignified death, poor soul. Another sigh.... In the car on the way to N's hockey game, of all places, the three of us got into a strange and important conversation about family love and how it generates no actual obligations. Yet at the same time, we all have a feeling that the love must move us to action of some sort. We just have to make our peace with the other truth that anything we do is paltry compared to the depth of feeling it's responding to.

Which led us to this poem by the U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins. Buy his books, really. He's helped me to like poetry, and I never thought I would.

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly -
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift -—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

My green and black leather mother's-lanyard is on my keychain. It does make us even. Well, we were always even, but it's a great lanyard.

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