The doorbell rang. This is a tiny detail, but I love tiny domestic details. I love them in Virginia Wolfe and Elizabeth Berg and Anna Quindlen and Ann Patchett. And yes, I love writing them. The doorbell rang. I was cooking and quickly washed my hands. I dried them off and remembered to grab a mask before I answered it. The mask–a contemporary domestic detail that I do not love– tiny, but with a dark dystopian overlay. I put on the mask and opened the door. The delivery van parked in front of my house was from my favorite florist. The delivery person, a welcome stranger, held out fragrant flowers in every shade of blush. I reached out for this beautiful gift. I took the flowers in, and placed them in the center of our dining room table. The flowers were from a dear friend who knows me well. I read the card. Her message was full of the hope she knew I needed. She knew my hope was tired. “Now you can breathe again.” I smiled at her loving generosity and took a great big deep breath.
Life is beautiful even when we think it isn’t. Beauty interrupts as a firm reminder of what we are in danger of forgetting. A doorbell rings, a bird sings, the world’s tilt rights itself. Beauty interrupts fear. Beauty is hope’s calling card.
The accident. The phone call. The late-night drive from the beach. An ambulance. Another. A transfer. A trauma team.
The life that was saved was my youngest son’s. He and his wife and his baby girl were here visiting from Chicago. How many Little League games? How many high school baseball games? “Safe,” called the umpire back in those long-ago games. “Safe,” said the doctors as they made their rounds in the trauma ICU. Safe, but be careful.
What was to be a two-week vacation turned into five days in a hospital and a month’s recovery at our house. We have a big blended family and a quarantine squad of friends; I am so grateful for both. Step-parents and parents and siblings and siblings-in-law gathered with the common bond of love for John and Megan and Sylvia. Matthew stayed by John’s side the night of the accident. Jodie created a playroom for Syl, Susanna and Matthias provided lots of chocolate and love and support. Charles helped to adapt the guest room to support John’s recovery and set up a work station for when he resumed work. We were ready and when John came home, a full house welcomed him.
Syl asked me for the story every day as she worked to understand. “Da-Da?” she would ask. I would tell her: Your daddy got hurt and had an operation, but he is strong and getting better. He can’t pick you up now but he will one day soon. We are strong and beautiful and smart and we can wait. We can do hard things. Everything is going to be better. “Again,” she would say. And I would tell it again. I told the story to her and I told the story to myself. The story was full of hope.
Hope was an ally, but my battle with fear was a curse. Fear is a bully and cornered me when no was looking. Fear had my ear; I was afraid to name it, but my son knew. “Stop asking me if I am okay.” It wasn’t that I didn’t know better…I did. I do. Are you okay? There is an unintended message that jogs beside that benign-sounding question. Are you okay? (You might not be.) Are you okay? (I don’t think you are.) We ask a simple question hoping that a simple yes will vanquish our fear.
“Yes, Mom. I am okay.”
“Ha,” says fear. “See, I am still here.” If I paused for fear, hope would not let me stop for long. But oddly, I also felt that I was increasingly unable to linger for hope. It is fear that makes us afraid to hope. Fear tells us that hope will make fools of us. But hope doesn’t make fools of us. Courage is action in the face of fear. Hope is invisible courage. Hope surrenders the outcome, and at the same time knows that everything is going to be okay.
In no time the walker was moved to the basement. Megan and John’s tentative walks around the block turned into miles. We began the day with omelets and ended it at “Ice Cream O’Clock,” a term cleverly coined by Megan. We settled into a rhythm of family. I know for each of us some days were longer than others. We lived a rhythm of children’s books, bubbles, playdough, and big thick crayons. Syl sat on my lap for Zoom meetings. She joined my Zoom exercise class and did Downward Dog and sang “Happy Baby.”
“Ah-BEN,” said Syl from her highchair at the end of the prayer. We laughed with delight. Saying grace was her favorite part of the meal and one night we said it three times. Sometimes after dinner, Ben played the guitar and we sang. The Fox Went Out on a Chase One Night…Hush Little Baby Don’t Say a Word…Froggie Went a Courtin’. While Megan put Syl to bed, John dealt the cards.
I couldn’t write, even though I am a habitual write-myself-awake-every-morning writer. I couldn’t write because I was holding my breath. I learned minute by minute how to do the next right thing. John resumed his work as an architect from the guest room. Step-parents and parents came together for a meal on our porch. Megan made a cobbler with Virginia peaches.
The stitches came out. John made pizza. We laughed at Will Ferrell’s Eurovision. We laughed a lot — in this house, even the baby is a comedian. Megan edged and weeded flower beds. The days looked long in the mornings, but by night we wondered where they’d gone.
“Still here,” said fear.
“But so am I,” insisted hope, my old friend.
I was learning fast what I’d known in my bones my whole life: hope and fear are not either/or propositions. They are traveling companions; but we have to choose which one we want to sit with. Fear fuels irritation in a crisis. Hope fuels joy and laughter and creativity.
We celebrated the last night together with a cookout. The next day we ordered in our favorite sandwiches and had one last lunch together before they left. As they walked toward the car, we blew kisses and waved and I held back the tears. “Fuv,” said Syl (her word for love). “Fuv,” we answered in our grandparental call and response. It was what we’d all hoped for. When they got home, they Facetimed us as John was getting ready to grill dinner. They were embracing the normal and familiar.
I could breathe. We are okay.