The Depths of Love (Almost submitted to Real Simple Magazine)

REAL SIMPLE (almost entry….)

When did you first understand the meaning of love?

I was 41 years old, beginning peri-menopause and the mother of three sons ages 4, 8, and 11. Because I was concerned that I might be ill, I secretly took a pregnancy test and when that pink plus sign popped up I was shocked. We lived in the exclusive community of Southampton, Long Island, and though we were far from exclusive ourselves, we built the first “non-toxic” home in the area and were featured in several newspapers. When at long last it was built, it was a thrill to move into our beautiful, healthy, fragrant home that smelled like freshly squeezed lemons. At the time, my husband, Shep was a successful realtor, earning enough income to allow me to be a happy stay at home mom.
That was of course, until the bottom fell out of the real estate market on Black Monday, 1987. The first thing to sink was real estate, particularly the second home market in a resort area. We were essentially without an income overnight. We argued, we cried, we scrambled and we became very creative. Shep took a job as a school bus driver and in doing so, earned a bit of money but most importantly received the same healthcare coverage as the teachers did. By night he waited tables for the rich and famous at the Hampton’s hottest restaurant at the time, Sapore di Mare. There, he learned culinary skills that remain with him today and a great appreciation for well-prepared, quality food. On Wednesdays we distributed organic fruits and vegetables to our affluent customers, which we purchased in bulk and resold at a profit. Carefully wrapping the heads of butter lettuce and rinsing each tart cherry we placed the orders in the refrigerators of our celebrity customers. A benefit was that our family got to eat well for little investment. On Friday afternoons we would pack clothes for the weekend and move in with our kids. We shared their beds so that we could rent out two bedrooms as a Bed and Breakfast. Often, we netted about $500 minus the cost of scones and jam. On many Friday nights, I helped cater some of the Hamptons coolest parties. This is how we survived from week to week.
Although I really was happy being home, I was also glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel of babyhood and the possibility of getting involved in things other than La Leche League and playgroups. So, finding myself pregnant by surprise was not only an obstacle but also a deep disappointment. I phoned my long time friend, Joan, sobbing on the phone and asked her to meet me for lunch at The Driver’s Seat. She met me with much trepidation, fearing that I was about to tell her that either I was in the midst of a torrid affair, or had a life threatening illness. When I told her why I was crying, she stared at me in disbelief as if she wanted to break into song “Is That All There Is?” I lamented how broke we were, that I already had enough kids, that I needed to work now ad nauseum. I also had this shameful feeling that I was too old and now too poor to have another child, anticipating the disapproval of others.
Because I have always been in awe of childbearing and because I am a huge breastfeeding advocate, the actual pregnancy was comfortably woven into my life. However, I did ruminate over sending bad vibes to this baby with thoughts of being unwanted throughout the nine months. On an icy evening on January 17, 1993, some 42 weeks pregnant, I began laboring at home with two kind midwives. It was my most difficult birth and labor never seemed to end. I struggled, finally actually screaming that baby out into my soft bedroom chair at 1 am. Once he was born, we all understood the struggle as he weighed in at 10 ½ pounds! Sweetly, in my arms, we melted into bed together. He tenderly came to my breast and I began to cry from sheer, unbridled joy, exhilaration and the sight of my now four sons surrounding me, along with the loving eyes of Shep. We named our newest bald, little son, Gregory, after a dear friend. Now my stand up and shout song needed to be, “I am Woman, Hear me Roar.”
During the next few months, we put our cherished, green home on the market and made plans to move to a more affordable home in North Carolina. I spent many hours in my lovely, peach bedroom, nursing my precious, squishy baby always whispering into his head, “I am so glad you are here. I love you. I am so blessed that you are mine.” We sang “Blue Eyes” along with Elton John to him since he was our only non-brown eyed child and I danced with him to Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World.” Once settled in North Carolina, Gregory and I went to Whole Foods every Tuesday while we took one of my sons to a homeschool group and we strolled in the afternoons to pick the younger boys up from their new school. We rocked in Shep’s grandmothers old rocker at naptime, watching the latest developments on the OJ Simpson case. I felt grateful for the joyful life I had with the hopes for more of the same, when I would lie in bed nursing Gregory to sleep staring out at the North Carolina pine trees
In May of 1995, we decided to take a trip to visit our old Hamptons friends. Gregory was two years old and always unhappy in his car seat so he and I flew to New York while Shep drove the minivan with the other three boys. Once in the Hamptons, we listed all the friends to visit but made one stop first. This was just an “acquaintance” as one says when one is classifying levels of friendship, but a La Leche League mom who had just given birth to a new baby she wanted me to meet. Shep and I disliked her husband, intensely for his infidelities, false bravado, and reputation for being an extremely dishonest politician, so we went when he was not home. However, he did come home while we were still there and monopolized the conversation. We were attempting to leave but, the rest as they say, is indeed, “history” and for us, life-changing history at that.
Two of my boys were playing outside, while Gregory followed them around. He tended to “shoot baskets” by throwing the oversized basketball down to the ground and then looking up at the hoop to see if it had miraculously gone in! Early May in New York is not yet time for swimming but, Gregory found his way into the still cold swimming pool. The shocking sight of him floating in his yellow sweat suit remains engraved in my mind forever. An ambulance rushed him to a local hospital, followed by airlifting him to a huge medical center. Bathed in complete and utter terror, I sat next to his soft, naked body as the doctors administered bolus after bolus of Lasix, breathed for him, and tried all things humanly and medically possible to keep his heart beating. We prayed and begged incessantly. We watched the lines on the monitor. We listened to the beeps. Never in my life, did I realize the depths of desperate, yearning love that one could feel for another. I wanted my beloved son in any form, in any condition, but I wanted him alive and present and at my breast so that I could nourish him back to health. My heart pounded with continuously outpouring, searing love. My begging tears fell onto his small chest. Occasionally, I would look up into my frantic husband’s eyes and say, “What should we do?” My 11 year old son wandered in the hospital hallways, imploring, “Mommy, do something.” Despite all the love in the world, Gregory drew his last supported breath at 6 am the next morning.
Suffice to say, as a family we spent the next several years in deep grief, continuous counseling and the vital support of church, family and Compassionate Friends. We were and remain today, five humans, changed forever. For me, navigating my way through deep connections of an unexpected love followed by a violent, tragic loss, taught me a previously unknown meaning of real love. We each carry with us that love, manifesting itself in different ways, some productive, some not so helpful but real and honest, nonetheless. We learned that no matter how much we love and how much we want to hold onto the one who we love, sometimes, we are left with only the understanding.

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When Did You First Understand the Meaning of Love? (Submitted to Real Simple contest)

When did you first understand the meaning of love?

It was mid-December 1956 and my father arrived for his nightly ritual of feeding me my supper in the isolation ward of Linden General Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. I was five years old and could rely on him coming every single evening despite the fact that he was working three jobs. “Daddy”, I whispered, “there is gristle in the meat” as if I wanted to be sure no one heard my complaint. He reassured me that it was okay and he would remove it before I ate it. I secretly relished him actually cutting my meat and feeding it to me forkful by forkful. It felt nourishing and caring to me and I can remember sighing dramatically, while eating. Then, I reassured him that I was okay despite being alone all day because I always had “Joanie the Bride doll” and Louise- The-Red- Headed-Nurse who came with me to x-ray every morning. I chose not to mention how loudly I screamed each morning when she came to give me my daily shot of penicillin. In my tender young heart I sensed his exhaustion and stress and I did not want him to worry more than necessary.

My father had plenty on his plate. He was a parking meter collector by day. He trudged through the relentless, summer heat and the cold, snowy winters collecting the dimes from meters for the City of New York. By night he sold Fuller Brush and Baby Tender high chairs at home parties. I was particularly taken with the wind up teeth he would launch at the beginning of each party to get a laugh and relax the crowd enough to spend their money. His weekend stint consisted of knocking on the doors of delinquent customers in a city housing project, attempting to collect money owed for “religious statues.” Even as young as I was, I remember thinking there was irony here in owning and supposedly praying to a large plaster statue of The Sacred Heart of Jesus, or Mother Mary in prayer, that remained unpaid for! It was a dangerous and grueling business; since these customers never had the money they owed and threatened his life regularly.
My mother was nine months pregnant and became ill with a serious case of strep throat. She never once came to visit me during my month long hospital stay. Labor finally began and my baby sister was born on December 18, 1956. My grandmother was busy tending to my grandfather in yet another hospital since he had just suffered a heart attack, so she couldn’t visit me either. Somehow, my father made the rounds to all three hospitals every day.

My diagnosis of pneumonia did not come easily. After many visits to Dr. Bursen and Dr. Willens (the official doctors to the East New York housing project children) and many frustrating misdiagnoses of possible dust or chocolate allergies, finally one of them realized I had pneumonia. I had missed most of kindergarten sick at home, wheezing and sneezing for weeks on end. I would awaken in the middle of many nights, sure that I was dying, unable to draw a breath. I would call, “Daddy, Daddy, I can’t breathe.” He would always come, dazed and half asleep to rub Vicks Vapor Rub on my chest. Then, he’d sit on the edge of my bed until my gasping slowed and breathing returned enough for me to fall back asleep. So, when I finally received a real diagnosis, it was a relief. However, in those days, pneumonia was a pretty serious illness so I was admitted to an isolation ward, at five years old.
I spent a lot of time crying alone in that metal hospital bed, hour after hour dreading the shots that made me holler and the daily x-rays. I played endlessly with Joanie and acted out her wedding on a daily basis. I tried to draw pictures of ladies the way my mother did. I never could and my mother never showed up to teach me the skill. Louise, the nurse with the red hair, was sweet and would chat with me about my doll in the mornings before she got too busy.

On New Year’s Eve, I was declared well and discharged from the hospital. My new sister, Alice, was now two weeks old and home with my mother. I couldn’t wait to see her. My father came to the hospital from work, picked me up and wrapped me in a navy blue and red English wool blanket with fringe all around it. To this day, 55 years later, I can feel and smell that blanket. It was coarse but soft, firm but comforting and very warm. My big, strong daddy carried me out into the freezing night and the cold, fresh smell is one that stays with me to this day. When I looked up at the lamppost I saw a torrent of snowflakes and stuck my tongue out to catch one, giggling all the while. I felt free for the first time in a month and I was as ecstatic as a five year old could be. Most of all, I felt completely loved and rescued, burrowing my face into my father’s shoulder and the cozy blanket. Whenever I think of that moment, being carried to my chariot, my father’s 1951 Black Chevrolet for the ride home, tears well up, my heart races a bit, and I remember that I was loved.