(Columnist’s note: I wrote this column on Sept. 11, 2011, the 10-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. My feelings haven’t changed since I wrote it. I still stare … memorize … manage to exhale. All four of us are still here, just a little older. I must Never Forget my own words. Every moment matters. There is no better time to remember that than on Sept. 11, that time is not guaranteed.)
My husband gets on airplanes the way the rest of us get on busses or into our cars — no biggie, just part of the daily routine, just another random business trip, just another random Tuesday morning.
I kiss him goodbye when he heads out the door, and try not to worry while he’s in the air, but there’s no try, Yoda, and I fret and fuss until the moment my cell phone rings: “Hi, baby, I’m on the ground in Chicago…” “Hi, baby, I’m on the ground in Philadelphia…” “Hi baby, I’m on the ground in Madrid…”
And then I exhale.
Sometimes, when we’re lying in bed at night, the moonlight through the curtains gently backlights his chiseled profile … forehead, nose, lip, chin, all rimmed in a thin, golden glow. I soak it in, and then close my eyes and run my fingertips slowly, lightly, over every inch and curve of his face, recording each plane and angle.
“What are you doing,” he’ll ask me, sleepily.
But I don’t add, “just in case.”
My son had a rocky childhood and adolescence, for sure. He flew the nest at the first possible moment, and weren’t we both relieved about that! He hit stride in his 20s, got through college, entered the workforce and is even starting his own business. Life wasn’t kind to Jimmy, but he’s succeeding. Anyway.
I feel like I held him for the first time just yesterday, and now he’s almost 30! He’s so old!
I’m so old.
I inhale deeply, and exhale slowly.
Visits with my son are more like watching standup comedy than conversation — I’m merely the rapt audience of one. Why fight it. I sit back, just along for the ride, and absorb the cadence of his voice, the wild, wacky expressions and raucous, lively laughter. Life may have taken a bite out of his hide, but not his sense of humor. His eyes still sparkle with mischief and wonder just like when he was a toddler. I peer adoringly through the veneer of adulthood, and I can still see my sassy, saucy, spunky little boy, but so animated is he, telling his story, he doesn’t notice. He doesn’t ask me what I’m doing. But if he did, I’d reply, “Memorizing.”
Just in case.
My daughter lives in San Francisco. She walks, bikes, busses and BARTs her way around like she owns the place, and God help the panhandling soul who looks at her the wrong way. Conquered college, conquered The City, and life, well … life, I suggest you submit to her will now. Why make it hard on yourself.
Fearless as a honey badger, she is. And yet … every moment she’s away has an asterisk, a niggling tug on my mind’s sleeve: My baby, all alone in the big, bad city.
And I hold my breath. Even as I breathe, I’m always holding my breath.
Until I see her. Then the asterisks dissolve, and I can enjoy the moment — maybe a bottle of red over tapas, and plenty of intelligent, sharp conversation. Suddenly, I’ll feel giddy. And not from the wine. Just from listening to her.
Where did this bright, beautiful being come from? Certainly not from me. I was just the conduit. And she’ll catch me gazing at her in starstruck wonder, and fix her ridiculously huge, green eyes right on me.
“Stop it,” she’ll command.
She calls it staring. I call it memorizing.
Just in case.
Profiles. Laughter. Conversations. I burn them into memory, etch them into my very neurons, every mannerism and inflection, every bump, every eyelash, every embrace, every “I love you.” They complain that I “stare” too much. But I could never stare enough.
I can get away with tracing my husband’s face, memorizing with my fingertips, creating a tactile trail, and he patiently obliges because he’s accepted that I’m a bit nutty that way. But my children would never tolerate that. Of course, they don’t realize I’ve already done it.
I can close my eyes and in my mind, trace every round, silky curve, the tiny earlobes and lips, the tender nostrils and firm, sweet cheeks, and brush my nose through the curling wisps of hair, and inhale the intoxicating scent of heaven itself.
This is my “Never Forget.” And not just memories past, but moments present. Because sometimes husbands don’t return from random business trips, and that cell phone never rings. And sometimes sons choose to go to war rather than college, and you’re left to peer at your little boy through the veneer of the grave. And sometimes brave, bright young women are hard at work in some big building in some big city, and then a jet flies into it, and nothing’s left but ash and memories.
That’s what Sept. 11 taught me. We must Never Forget. Just in case. Because life is flippantly cruel and unpredictable enough on its own, without any assistance from crazed religious fanatics. And you never know which phone call or story or conversation will be the last. So, trace a nose with your fingertip and laugh out loud and share a bottle of wine, and be thoroughly, exceedingly, dizzyingly grateful that we’re all still here, we’re all okay. Inhale, exhale … just keep breathing.
But Never Forget: Every. Moment. Matters.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at email@example.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com