Sweet Old World

(There are links throughout, a purple that looks like green (apologies). These are just a few of the songs Marty loved.)

I’m having a tough day.

In the early years, my father-in-law Marty was often critical of my work. But as time went on, he became one of my biggest cheerleaders. “You should write about that,” he’d often say. He wanted me to write about everything: a picture book about twin brothers; my thoughts on feminism; the life story of Harold, our neighbor.

After years of submitting I recently came close to a book deal with HarperCollins. My agent had pitched a book, and an editor liked it. But after working with this editor through several rounds of edits, the editor couldn’t get it past acquisitions.

Marty, who often didn’t read our emails, read the one I sent him in March, letting him know about the rejection. And he emailed me back, a rarity for which I’m now grateful. At the end he wrote, Never give up. Your book is brilliant and beautiful and it will be in print one day. I repeat. Never give up.

Did he not know that his complexity as a human was, in part, what made him so brilliant and beautiful? How could he tell me not to give up when he, himself, while writing that very email, was planning on giving up?

I think he’d want me to write about this. He always recognized writing’s therapeutic affects on me, and when the twins were 1 and Sophie was 3 and I was throwing my shoe at the door in frustration he’d say, “You should write,” just as one might say, “You should have a drink” or “You should go to therapy.” And he always admired truths in writing.

Of course, there are things I can’t write about.

There are things I won’t write about.

So I’ll begin with words I’ve already written:

Andy’s dad died unexpectedly yesterday, and we are heartbroken. He loved to read, and he and I have long bonded over books – in the early years, Barbara Kingsolver; most recently, Jesmyn Ward. He loved good music and he introduced me to many fine musicians. Although he sometimes had little patience for humans, I’ve never met a more gentler, kinder caretaker of living things – the houseplants he tended to all his life, the birds he fed and the many fine labradors he raised. He was deeply inquisitive about the world we live in, which is why I’m struggling so much to understand why he felt he needed to leave it. He loved to capture our world – on vacations it would not be uncommon to find binoculars, a film camera and a video camera all strapped around his neck. He was a harsh critic but that only made his recent compliments to me so dear – a song I sang, time spent in the kitchen, words that I had written. He hated Trump. He adored his grandchildren. He loved baseball. He always had candy in his pockets – Werther’s, Canada pink mints, jelly beans, Double Bubble – of which my kiddos were well aware. He always had extra for them. I hate this. I hate this so much. I suppose you never truly know someone’s inner battles and all you can do is love your someones as best as you can. So I will try to remember the good moments (there were many) and I will think of him every time I read a sentence so beautiful that I have to put the book I’m holding down for awhile (he did that often) and every time I tend to my African violets, of which he helped me nurture so well. I just wish I could have told him all of this in person.

Marty died June 20. If I have it timed out correctly in my head, in the moments he was leaving this hard, beautiful life, I was working through books of poetry, trying to find a poem I half remembered.

I remember feeling calm when I found it. “What Kind of Times Are These,” by Adrienne Rich. It was political, to me, and fitting to the news that day. I posted it. I had hoped Marty would read it.

Did he not realize that even in times like these, still, despite everything, we could have talked about trees?

He loved trees.

Two nights later I curled myself around Sophie while she fought both sleep and what had happened. She was on a makeshift bed in the boys’ bedroom, wrapped up in her favorite blanket, holding a stuffed lamb like she did when she was younger. I stroked her wet cheeks and damp hair, and I ran my fingers up and down her arms for two hours before she fell asleep, trying, and failing, to answer the questions none of us have answers for – in the end, I mostly listened. She’s 10, old enough to understand more as an adult and less as a child.

It is in these dark hours that my sadness and empathy slip away, leaving room only for anger.

***

The evening of June 23, with a house and front porch full of people, the children, bored, asked to light sparklers. I stood on our bottom front porch step and lit them, over and over, with family all around.

I noticed Sophie, her face set tight in concentration, waving her sparklers around furiously. I asked her what she was doing.

“I’m writing a message to Grandpa,” she said.

It was a long message that required six sparklers. She wouldn’t tell me what she wrote.

In the early years, the kids would go months without seeing Grandpa. But now he lived, with Grandma, in Cincinnati. The two of them went to every soccer game. Every baseball game. Every concert. Everything. And still, with every hello and every goodbye, he insisted on hugs. Marty babysat the kids, recently solo, over two nights while Andy and I were both away. He chauffeured them. He told them stories, of playing baseball and wrestling as a kid, of swimming with dolphins and scuba diving, of growing up in Florida, of living in Germany. He practiced shooting hoops with James and Owen in our driveway. He helped Sophie with her gymnastics, and brought her books to read. He played chess with the boys, and bought them new bats. Neighborhood friends would come over and he knew them by name. For Christmas, he asked for a kite – a gift he knew the kids would love to give him, a gift, he said, he hoped they could use together. They tried to, recently, at my parents’ house (see above). But the wind wasn’t strong enough to make it fly.

Yesterday, Jill brought back the kite. And the two combs Marty owned. One for each boy, which they used to comb their too-long hair after their baths last night.

The depths of the hole his absence leaves is, I believe, far greater than he understood.

The night after the sparklers, after a meal we did not cook (neighbors and friends have been almost unbearably kind), we, along with Jill, Fran, Lizz, Eric and sweet baby Carmen, went to get ice cream in town and then walked to the park. It had been a rainy few days but this night was an exception. As the sun began to set and we walked back to the car, Sophie spotted a bright red cardinal perched on a stone wall. It sat, still, watching us as we walked closer and closer.

“Look, Mom,” she said. “Look at the cardinal.”

I did.

We continued to walk closer.

It watched us a few seconds more, and flew away.

Silently I thought, Mozart’s starling. Recently he loved telling the kids all about Mozart’s pet, concerto-singing starling, whom Mozart held a formal funeral for.

We looked up.

The sky was filled with pink puffy clouds, as if someone had dotted it with the same sugary sweetness that often filled Marty’s pockets.

I took a few pictures, and then Sophie asked to take several more.

She grabbed my hand and we walked, everyone long gone ahead of us. And every so often we’d stop, and marvel at the beauty of this particular sunset, and take more pictures.

“You know,” I said. “Everyone has different beliefs about what happens after you die. I like to think something bigger than us happens, even if we can’t understand it. And in moments like these, I like to think tonight – the cardinal, the sky – are signs from Grandpa.”

Sophie burst into tears.

It turns out, signs are exactly what she had asked for the night before, when writing her message to Grandpa with sparklers.

Once home, the kids showered and Sophie climbed into bed with me, her dad’s pillow soaking up the water from her wet ponytail. I showed her the pictures we had taken on my phone. She said she saw letters. She ran out of the room and came back with a notebook and pencil. We spent a long time looking at the pictures of clouds, deciphering and deciding on letters. She wrote our best guesses down.

“It’s just like a word scramble,” she said. “It has to be from Grandpa.”

Marty often had contract jobs away from Jill, and as such, they’d only see each other on the weekends. Still, every night they had what I liked to call their nightly date – Marty would call Jill and for a half hour to an hour they’d stay on the phone with each other, sometimes not even talking, just being, working online as a team on word scrambles.

So far, these letters remain scrambled.

And perhaps that’s all they are – cloud’s illusions. But Marty, while not religious, did tell me, several times, that he believed in something more. Or, at the very least, something other. He believed in ghosts. I’m waiting for a ghost story. He always loved a good story.

***

The day before Marty died, he posted a song on Facebook, “Sweet Old World” by Emmylou Harris. This fact hurts. I don’t remember seeing this post come across my feed, but even if it did he posted songs often and Emmylou Harris is one of his favorite artists. I know that hindsight offers clarity but still, this (and several other facts) hurt. It wasn’t until after he died that I clicked on the first comment in this post. It was from Marty. He had commented on his own post, and in it, he simply included the song’s lyrics:

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world 
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips 
A sweet and tender kiss 
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring 
Someone calling your name 
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm 
Didn’t you think you were worth anything
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world 
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
Millions of us in love, promises made good 
Your own flesh and blood 
Looking for some truth, dancing with no shoes 
The beat, the rhythm, the blues 
The pounding of your heart’s drum together with another one 
Didn’t you think anyone loved you
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world 
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world

I tried to listen to this song in the car today. I sat sobbing in the parking lot of Sally Beauty Supply, needing a full 10 minutes to compose myself before I went in to buy the hair dye that Andy will use tonight to erase the grays from my hair for tomorrow’s family wedding.

***

Andy was out of town the week prior to Father’s Day, June 17, and he arrived home a little after 4 p.m. on Sunday. So we decided to celebrate Father’s Day with Marty and Andy Sunday evening. (I took the above picture on the 17th. It’s the last picture I have of Marty.) Andy asked his dad what he wanted to eat and, at first, he said it didn’t matter. But ultimately he chose simple cookout food – burgers, hot dogs, chips, baked beans, potato salad, melon.

The kids and I had had a busy week and weekend, and I was solo parenting. During the weekend alone we had a Girl Scout event, two birthday celebrations and my dad’s Father’s Day celebration. By Sunday evening, I was tired. I had planned on making a banana cream pie for dessert Sunday night, but while picking up looseleaf chai tea as a gift for Andy, the kids and I decided to instead buy a selection of tortes from Whole Foods.

“Is the potato salad homemade?” Marty asked that night.

Before I could answer, he took a bite and confirmed that it was. And he was happy. He loved that potato salad recipe. I had thought about buying pre-made potato salad at Whole Foods. I know it doesn’t matter, but I’m glad I didn’t.

After we ate I asked him if he liked banana cream pie – I hadn’t been able to remember.

“I love banana cream pie,” he said.

“Darn,” I said. “Well, I promise to make it for you and Andy next time.”

He just smiled.

I’m an old man now
I can’t do nothing
Young folks don’t pay me no mind
But in my day I sure was something
Before I felt the heavy hand of time.
I’m an old man now
I’m bound for glory
Time to lay these burdens down
Had enough of this old world of worry
Gonna trade my troubles for a crown.”

— “Where Rainbows Never Die,” The Steeldrivers