Finding balance in the second half of life

Daughter:Detroit

In Family on March 26, 2017 at 2:42 pm

“Why does it have to be in downtown Detroit?” I thought, as my husband and I drove down the Lodge Expressway in a small U-Haul carrying a bed, a futon, and three hand-me-down bar stools. Our 20-year-old daughter was somewhere on the road ahead of us in her second-hand station wagon, loaded with clothes and books to last her six months. It was a cold, gray day in February, and we were moving her into an apartment in downtown Detroit for an internship.

DetroitMy husband had grown up in a suburb of Detroit in the 1970s. One of his favorite childhood stories involves his brother watching out an upstairs window as his Dodge Dart was getting stolen out of their driveway. (“A Dodge Dart,” he always says, incredulous.) Detroit was a little scary. Over the next few decades, it got a lot worse.

In 2012, Forbes named it America’s Most Dangerous City—for the fourth year in a row. Its crime rate, which was more than five times the national average, had a ripple effect. People and businesses moved out, eventually leaving 78,000 abandoned buildings.

In 2013, it became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. For a while, it looked like the city would sell off some of the art in the Detroit Institute of Art to help pay its debts. In the 2013 book Detroit: An American Autopsy, Charlie LeDuff wrote, “It is the country’s illiteracy and dropout capital, where children must leave their books at school and bring toilet paper from home. . . There are firemen with no boots, cops with no cars, teachers with no pencils, city council members with telephones tapped by the FBI, and too many grandmothers with no tears left to give.”

I knew that Detroit had been slowly improving since then. I had heard about Quicken Loans founder and Detroit native Dan Gilbert and Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Illitch pouring millions into redevelopment. Still, as we pulled off Exit 2B, it was my old notions of the city that I held onto. People had tried to revitalize Detroit before—most notably in 1976, with the Renaissance Center—and had failed. Out my side of the U-haul, I saw new shops and restaurants, renovated buildings, and an outdoor rink filled with young skaters, but I was unconvinced.

As I helped unpack the flotsam and jetsam that makes up my daughter’s world—a half-knitted scarf, succulents she named Maeve, Calvin, Mini Stanley and Mega Stanley, and a poster “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are”—in her new apartment, I still had no idea how I could bring myself to drive away, leaving her without what I consider to be the basics—friends, life skills, and an alarm she doesn’t sleep through.

I watched her hang up a photo of herself the first time she’d been on a horse. She still looks the same, mostly. When she was a baby, she had a heart defect. I rocked her to sleep every night, willing the small hole in her heart to close. She had a fighting spirit even then. Her hole went away; the fight stayed. She punched me in the nose when she was three, ran away regularly when she was six, and started jumping horses—and falling off them, and getting back on them—when she was nine.

In high school, her struggle with anxiety and panic attacks began. I recently asked her what the hardest thing she ever did was. She thought for a moment, then said, “The hardest thing I ever did happens every time I have a panic attack.” In spite of that, she hasn’t let anxiety get between her and living.

When an entire class of students who had been her friends shunned her during every class for a semester, refusing to sit at her table even when all the seats at the other tables in the room were taken, she could have dropped the class. She didn’t. She went to every class, sat alone, participated in the discussions, completed group projects by herself, and aced the class.

There’s a famous Chrysler car commercial that aired during the Super Bowl in 2011, called “Imported from Detroit.” Maybe you remember it. It starred Eminem and shows scenes from around Detroit, not all of them pretty. In one part, the voice-over says, “What does a town that’s been to hell and back know? More than most. It’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.”

As my daughter lifted her arms to hug me goodbye at the door of her new apartment, on the doorstep of her new life, I caught a glimpse of the nautilus tattoo on her left bicep. ShetattooBW got it last spring, at the end of a particularly difficult year. I cried when she got it—cried at the permanence of the ink on her tender, alabaster skin. But now the tattoo strikes me as the mark life has literally left on her. She has taken all comers, living and learning faster than her peers, and she’s still standing.

And that’s why she has to be in Detroit. Because every day she will see its grit, its perseverance, its fire in the belly. She will see herself, and she will remember that she already has everything she needs.–Christine MacLean

How to Say Goodbye to Your First True Love

In Fulfillment, Romance on February 16, 2017 at 4:41 pm

First, when a mutual friend calls you out of the blue and says it’s time, are you coming, say yes. Cancel all your meetings and appointments except your haircut. Hate yourself for caring about looks at a time like this. Cancel the haircut.

Tell your husband of 30 years where you’re going. Try to explain why. When he nods, mentally give him 100 points on the running tab you keep of your marriage.

Turn the house upside img_3946-2-1down looking for a specific photo—the black and white one you took from the audience when he was playing first chair in the orchestra. The one that shows off his cheekbones. Give up after two hours. Settle for the one you took of him cradling his dog like a baby. Hope it will make him smile.

Think about what you will say to him. Time will be short. He can’t focus for long. Never has it felt so important to be concise. Eloquence would be nice, but clarity is job one. You decide on “I came because I wanted to say thank you. You made a difference in my life.” Write it down. You will be nervous and might forget.

Think about what you will say to his young adult children. They likely have never heard your name until today. You decide on “I have to be honest. I feel awkward being here and I’m afraid I will say the wrong thing. Thank you for letting me come so I could tell your dad he made a difference in my life.” Write it down.

Forget to think about what you will say to his girlfriend.

Take food. It’s what people do. Bagels are good. They can be frozen for later. You buy a dozen bagels, fresh, and cream cheese.

On the drive to his house, get lost in the fog. Not just turned around, but so lost that you can’t find north. Think of how it’s a metaphor. Pull over and try to learn the car’s navigation system. Curse technology. Set the route. Get back on the road.

To calm yourself, take deep breaths and recite Nessun Dorma. When you get to the last two lines—“Until I say my real name on your mouth/Let all lights shine and no man sleep”—let yourself weep, but only for two miles. After two miles, allow for another 20 miles. Better to get the ugly stuff out of the way now. Wonder why, exactly, you are sobbing. For him? For your long-lost youth? For the loss of possibility?

Ignore the navigation system when, five miles from his house, it says, “You have reached the end of your charted route. No more information on your destination is available.” Acknowledge that you are off the map in more ways than one.

After you park, give yourself a pep talk. You can do this. It’s important. Forget to review your notes lying on the passenger seat.

Go inside. Introduce yourself—just your name. Don’t take off your coat. You’re not staying long. Thrust the plastic bag of bagels into his daughter’s arms. Silently berate yourself for not thinking to put them in a nicer container. Say, “Nice to meet you. Thank you for letting me come.” Forget everything else.

When things cannot possibly get any more awkward, make your way to the hospital bed set up in the living room. Find a fifth gear somewhere inside yourself. Do not show you are alarmed by how small he has become. Even though his eyes are closed, his children and girlfriend are watching. Be cool. By all means, do not think of the shape of his arms when you knew him, sculpted from wielding a planer all day. Touch his hand and say, “It’s me, Chris,” even though you go by Christine now, because that is what he called you back then.

Say, “I came to say thank you. You made a huge difference in my life.”

When he arches his eyebrows and answers with genuine surprise, “I have?” don’t panic as everything that was the you and the him together comes rushing back at the sound of his voice, which you had forgotten, the distinctive way he shapes his vowels. In a heartbeat, it will level you.

Regroup. Do not let all that is in you come pouring out. Do not tell him how often over the years he has shown up in your dreams, not as a lover but as a priest of creativity. Too complicated. Stick to the plan.

Smile so that even though his eyes are still closed, he can hear the smile in your voice. Say, “Yes. You showed me a different path—art and music—that a creative life was possible. You changed the direction of my life.”

Don’t be disappointed when he doesn’t respond. You have done what you came to do. Squeeze his hand. Say, “Rest well.”

Make small talk with his children. Say, “I knew him when I was just 18 and it changed everything.” Leave it at that. As you are walking out the door, remember the picture of him looking down at his dog. Hand it to his son. When it makes him smile, give yourself over to gratitude—for this, for everything.–Christine MacLean

Things I wish I had

In Uncategorized on October 28, 2015 at 7:09 pm

A butterfly bush in the front yard.
A clothesline in the back,
so I could feel the sun
and virtuous at the same time.
The thing with feathers.
A ride on the swing
with my daughter
when she was four,
her legs wrapped around my waist,
her face backlit
at the height of our arc.
Courage.
My sister-in-law,
back from the dead,
doing her impression of a stewardess–
a staple at Thanksgiving–
pointing with two fingers
towards the exit.
Or even
the sharp memory of her laugh,
which is feathering
just three years,
three months,
and one day
into forever.

–Christine MacLean