Not every dream comes true, not every flower blooms, not every song will be there for you in the morning. Love is, love is not. Tonight we held each other, we cried softly into each other’s familiar dreams. My gal and I, just me and my girl.
I knew when we first met. Her baby, almost 16, was, how did she describe him, he was just like a baby. His voice had not yet changed, no fuzz on his chin, he could only raise his head lying flat on his tummy, but just a little bit. Spontaneous squeals and giggles, sometimes shrieks. Unpredictable to us, certainly to me, and to be sure, not even possible to predict from within his circle of lights. You see he had no control of this thing we call life.
We whine and complain all the time about things out of our control. Silly things, the traffic, our teams lose, the boss is a jerk. Or we just miss out on something, a new job, a raise, a girl, that college we had to get into, shit it’s often about something even more tawdry like money or clothes. We’re spoiled you and I. We take our blessings for granted.
See, Bencè, that is his name, now 21 this coming December 16. He has not seen life for a lifetime. He’s never had a girl. He hasn’t tasted a chocolate truffle, nor been drunk with his teenage mates. He hasn’t even swallowed his peas or finished his spinach. He’s never been sent away from the table or made to sit at the table and “finish your plate and don’t even think about getting up until you do”.
He has been late for school. He’s taken his required achievement tests, at least he has leaned, slouching with the impossible posture of an invalid, and blankly stared at the test, cause that’s how we fund our public education system and reward teachers. We require everybody to take these damn tests. We pull everybody through the same damn knothole because of our collective foolish selfishness. No sense in seeing with our own eyes and hearing with our own ears the yawning cave of sorrow and despair of so, so many people whose hearts beat for quiet brains.
This young man should not have left the hospital that day 21 years ago. He was born oxygen deprived, cortically blind as a result, other deficits included cerebral palsy, chronic spontaneous seizures, eventually a feeding tube, essentially an empty shell of a human being. Later in life, just fate slapping him down further, his scoliosis required a year-long recovery complete with MRSA and a vacuum suction device to drain the puss away every 2 hours on a tight schedule, 24/7.
On his birthdays, we let him swirl a small bite of Boston Cream Pie around in his mouth, and we pretend we can see him smiling at the delight. Imagine tasting sweet once a year. Imagine not even having the sensation of taste. It happens. It’s the least of our concerns of course. 10 years ago, he aspirated one too many times. Pneumonia was the result. Sick in the hospital for the 3rd year in as many Christmases, pneumonia! So we decided, actually with the doctors twisting my girl’s arm, though quite correctly so, to surgically implant a feeding tube.
Bencè cannot even swallow. So a feeding tube is his upper GI nowadays. And we are his mouth, mixing and swishing and stirring a mixture of protein, vitamins, home made vegetable and chicken broths, anti-seizure meds, and the occasional vitamin C when sickness is in the house. That’s his sustenance and it’s the best it can be, what with good doctors, decent medical and nutritional advice ubiquitous nowadays. Most of all of course my gal, his mother. Bencè is a lucky boy. 21 years old, hard to believe the blessing he has been to our world these many years. Hard to describe, hard to believe, hard to deny. Luck is just a wicked curve in someone else’ life, anyone but yours.
We met on-line almost exactly 6 years ago. She’s a beautiful girl. Smart as hell. Got her PhD, actually finished her dissertation the same December as her maternal initiation. Mathematics. I’m always tempted to show me ciphering ability to impress her. She’s kind, polite, perhaps just bored enough to allow my boorishness. The question is never asked as to who’s the brains of the house. It’s self-evident, like Adelbaran. Orion, the Grand Canyon, the stripes on a zebra. As long as you can see, not corrected vision, just making out the myopic sky, or landscape or safari exhibit at the zoo, you must acknowledge these things.
I still remember the leopard skirt she was wearing, the focused intensity of her sparkling eyes, beneath the concentrating furrowed brow as she stepped out the of the Museum Kathè Köllwitz in Berlin. This picture, etched in my mind, is what compelled me to nudge her again on Match. I was still married, so I think the category I had checked was “it’s complicated” or some silly euphemism like that. True enough, not hiding anything, as after five years of counseling, far too late to salvage my first marriage of 28 years at that point, but fact was I was still spoken for in the most official sense.
A word of advice for young lovers, newlyweds, marrieds for awhile. Find a counselor, make a pact to never miss an appointment and learn to communicate. Don’t wait til you need counseling, it’s too late. Fact. It’s not a natural skill set for human beings. Coping is learning to accept things that aren’t acceptable to you. And marriage, love, coupling is not about coping is it? It takes 3 to communicate. The two of you and someone who knows how to listen, and translate and advise, without the advice. It’s a special skill set. So if you don’t both like the first, second, 10th one, keep looking! S/He’s out there. Find her, find love and find your shared love, and find the full potential your love has to offer. Jesus had a counselor, Abraham had a counselor, so did Mohammed, so did Confucius, so did Buddha. I’m reaching here cause I can’t prove it, but wisdom requires dialogue and honesty and you can’t find that in your shallow, lonely soul.
So she, and she’ll tell you to this day it was against her better judgment, she responded and we made a plan. Of course this was at least six weeks after our first tentative nudge of possibility and chatting on the phone until all hours of the night. Her voice, the most magical flute I had ever listened to at that point, still is of course. I crawled across the floor in the dark with my flip phone one night trying to find the charger and plug it in to an outlet. We had talked so long and I didn’t dare lose her. Playlists of that year’s vintage are dedicated to her. Still love songs, still love.
Yes we made a plan to meet. I googled her name, figured out where she lived, generally, learned what her students thought of her. She’s a college prof, and another thing that I really dug about her then and more so today, her students they respected her. They genuinely thought of her as a stand up prof. One who didn’t take any bullshit, who was conservative but reliable in her method, and one who got recommended by students to other students. I say students to contrast with gamers and scammers just trying to get a degree and skate as lightly across a program of study as possible, who just barely rise above the threshold of math credits to get that degree, for that job they’ve been pushed at for so long.
We made a plan to meet at a local little bar and grill on the water. Middle of June in Arizona, and yes on the water, but critically, not open. Closed! Closed up tight. She comes flying in, late as is often the case, hair still wet from the shower and there I am sitting under a date palm with the sun-shielding straw hat covering my unprotected-by-hair head. I honestly don’t remember what happened next, did we shake hands, hug, just stand and stare. I don’t know. She accuses me of shaking her hand, being business-man like, yeah like the perfectly incorrect behavior for her iron-curtain, communist youth camp upbringing. Another reason why I dig her, she’s a communist, well actually a socialist. We are so brainwashed, communism bad, capitalism good, that some of you will stop now, and that’s ok. I’m not for you. My gal is not for you. And this love story is not for you.
We caught ourselves quickly, I explained that the restaurant was closed – summer hours in Arizona. I had another idea close by. Thai food. We hopped in my jeep. Score one for me! She had never ridden in a jeep. No AC, but WTF, we rode with the windows down! Nothing like a hot breeze fanning a spark. You guessed it, the Thai place was closed too. No problem, keep making right turns, it’s safer that way and you can still get where you want to go. Columbus taught us that, kinda? Next stop, her idea, and I learned to imitate Hungarian, egozsat von dragam, means you are right my dear!
Cause this place was open. Efès, a Turkish restaurant. This place shoulda been closed too, cause we were the only ones in there. Perfectly romantic, like someone had planned to marry us off that day. Quiet, sweet attentive, but not bored out of her wits let’s find somebody, anybody to chat with, server took good care of us. I ordered the lentil soup and babaganouj. She ordered a lamb skewer. Our orders arrive, the soup first. Most delicious, perfect, even on the hottest day of the year. I ask for another spoon and offer to share. Scored again. Her ex, long gone had not been the type to suffer sharing food. Kinda like Columbia panic dude or weird UM party bus guy who advised that he’d never let somebody hit on his bowl. What good is food or drink or smoke if it’s not shared?
We savored, we talked, we swirled honey all over our experiment. We spent two and a half hours there. I remember exactly because we were supposed to meet at noon, didn’t actually find a restaurant serving love until half past, and Wiretap was on in the background of my enormous crush all the way home. My heart was screamin, screamin so loud I feared leaving the windows down. Her last words, really an old soul soothing me,
You’ve got some things to figure out. But if you ever need me, I’ll be there for you!
My heart is smitten, cleaved and repaired with Merlin’s magic sword, Cupid’s stardust, magic was in full conquest, the Ghengis Khan of love had invaded my heart and it was not mine, never again as it turns out. One day, I’ll share that letter I wrote to her the next day, maybe. I actually sat on the patio and sat with my then wife, asking only politely, not really interested, where I’d been cause she knew my This American Life and Wiretap NPR habits on a Saturday afternoon. We sat and shared a few screwdrivers, probably went for Mexican I really don’t remember. And I fell asleep.
The next morning, the love virus was in full control, and I wrote her, you know who I mean, come on man, a note, burned her a CD and sneaked it over to her windshield. I’d dropped her off the day before so I wasn’t exactly stalking. I’ll share that letter perhaps some other time, ok now it’s a promise, but the point is that she was headed back to Hungary, Budapest in fact, her home for her first 18 years, for the next 3 ½ weeks, to leave me stirring in my love tonic. I was miserable. I attended a family reunion in the Black Hills, my family did not yet know of our divorce decision, me and my first wife. We were civil, even the kids didn’t know quite yet, at least officially you’ll say. But seriously they were shocked when we told them a month or so later.
As that day after the Efès of love closed, the hot evening sky turns to dusk, I sat on the patio watching the skies scanning from west to east, hoping to catch some glimpse of the British Air flight that was winging her to Heathrow on the longest leg of her journey. I think I spied it. No matter if I’m right or wrong, only I had just called her at the airport, this gal with a 16 year old, helplessly disabled bag of bones resting in the airport stairwell because the elevator was out. Her 14 year old daughter was there as well. So I had just spoken with her and learned more of her strength, her special gifts as a woman, a heroine really, a person to be admired, if not loved. I was smitten further, helplessly falling, falling, gone. So yes, I knew I was watching her plane, I had to be.
The next 3 weeks passed like a kidney stone, slow, painful, fits and starts, no ability to communicate with any reliability. I taught myself how to put a music video together and I burned a movie of our few pictures we had shared, to a Damien Rice song, you know the one, “your taste” is that the lyric? It’s a great song, a love song. It ends ominously if you listen really carefully, and oh so carefully did I listen. It was perfect. She listened and watched from Lake Balaton in Hungary at her exes summer lake house, actually his father’s.
And it’s so complicated. Cause she wants to take Bencè back every year along with her daughter to keep ties alive with family. And she does. And she did. A 55 kilo sack of bones, I mean no disrespect, just mean to highlight the challenge of simply lifting his 6 foot body in and out, up and down, on and airplane you know. He’s 6’ 5” now, as near as we can tell his body is so gnarly and crooked. So our holidays right up to the present come with my gal and her ex, my ex and her new guy, my old man, all of our kids and their others. It’s actually pretty sweet. We argue most of the year. But not at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Now it’s six years later. We have a house together. We have shared multi-family responsibilities, obligations is a better word for some of it. I just don’t have the unselfish gene I guess, or maybe I am simply humbled in the glow of a saint like my sweetheart.
We cry softly tonight, a whimpering mournful tearing, like you can hear the sky make when her stars fall without a prayer. We pray though, I know we do, our silence is not without memories, hopes, sorrow. Bencè squeals in the next room. 21 years of beating the odds, of defying medical genius. My girl reminded me early on, as in the beginning that I would never be better than the 2nd man in her life. I didn’t understand at first, maybe still don’t. After the first phase, my competitive machismo took over and I thought I’d win the race. I’d try and I’d win.
Nothing has changed, I’m still second. I love her more than ever. I admire and respect her more every day. I gave her a ring last year, Black Hills gold, with a low band of diamonds profile. Bence is a baby remember? A 21 year old baby. I have described only the relatively easy bodily functions and hygiene that only others, nearly all of it my girl, his loving Mom, can do for Bence. “A mother is a mother still, The holiest thing alive.” Coleridge had a gift.
We watch Call the Midwife on PBS. It’s a sunshine of loving energy show. I insist you get the DVDs or find it. We are hooked. We watch this season’s, the latest, second episode. A woman gives birth to a stillborn baby. She is overcome, overwhelmed, quaking with a grief from the depths. It’s tragic. Her pain continues, perhaps even more intensely, the doctor discovers an undiagnosed twin. I walk, tiptoing over to join my precious on the couch. I gently put my arm around her and hold her tight. She clasps my hand. Squeezes. I hear a muffled moan, trapped it still escapes it’s emotional cage, deep in her heart.
The woman on the TV, she pushes him out, his dead sister’s brother cries for breath. He is alive. He is well. He is healthy. Oh God, why? How do you mock us? How do you reveal yourself? How can you be? It’s only a TV show. Get over it.
Bencè had a twin also. He was stillborn, cold, dead, lifeless, devoid of that gift of baby miracle. While in the womb, Bencè’s twin, somehow compromised his own brother’s blood and oxygen supply. Bencè’s brother robbed him of his blood and then somehow died himself, before he was born; still in the womb. Bencè was never really born either. Yet he lives?
For the first time ever in our being together, Katie whispered to me,
You know Bencè’s brother is upstairs?
I nod, unknowing. What must she mean? She continued,
He’s upstairs in the dresser.
Only the subconscious in me remained operational in this suspended moment, I sputtered,
His ashes? He was cremated?
If something should happen to me before Bencè goes, you have to bury his brother’s urn with me?
Katie looks at me with a question introducing her instruction,
I look into her eye, a glimpse of recognition of the implicit counter-message in her meaning,
And if Bencè should go first, we bury them both together.
Our hug is long, joining like an alloy. Love, an inadequate word. Not every dream comes true.