Monday, May 16, 2011

May 17th Coming Up

Certain dates acquire meaning. For most of my life, May 17th was a day I wouldn't notice passing by for any particular reason. Then I gave birth to my son, Simon, on a May 17th. And suddenly that date took on a grandeur and importance beyond any I had ever known. Not my own birthday, nor any other member of my family's. Not the day I got married. But May 17th, the day I became a mother.

Simon arrived eight days "late," having been predicted to arrive on May 9, 1997. It was a cool spring, and the flowering trees still huddled with their blossoms tight in buds. I don't recall being terribly impatient, that last "extra" week. Markus and I went in for one "post-due" monitoring appointment with an ultrasound check-up to see if things looked OK in there. I remember walking, in my winter coat, that Friday after the appointment. We strolled in the Arboretum at the University of Michigan, up near the hospital entrance. The nurse had offered to apply a bit of prostaglandin gel to my cervix to "help things along." But after checking for signs of softening and dilation, she decided I was on my way and would probably have my baby before the weekend was over.

She was right. I woke to sharp cramping pains in my low back the next morning. By mid-day it seemed like time to go in to the hospital. By 2:30 that afternoon we were holding our little boy (7 pounds, 13 ounces and fabulous).

When we took Simon home the next morning, the crabapples and cherries had begun to burst into voracious bloom. I wondered if Simon had been waiting for the warmer weather, just like the trees.

Tomorrow will be my first May 17th since moving back to Germany. And, as has been true for the past seven years, we have the strange task of marking the day of Simon's birth without him here to celebrate with. His last birthday was in 2004, when he turned seven.

For the first four years, we held Lemonade Stands on his birthday to remember him and raise money for childhood cancer research. In 2009 we took a trip to visit family in Germany (and for Markus to attend a conference in Istanbul). We celebrated Simon's birthday with my parents-in-law, eating a cake Miriam baked with her grandmother. In 2010, we were in Salt Lake City and kept the day just for the three of us. If I recall, we went out to eat at The Spaghetti Factory (in Trolley Square), which had been a favorite of Simon's.

We haven't made particular plans for tomorrow. We'll light our candles to remember Simon. Maybe we'll bake a cake or a pie. There's no easy way to do it. May 17th will never return to being any old day in May. And we had eight really good ones--the day Simon was born and the seven celebrations of that day with him.

Without him, we do our best. Maybe we'll take a short walk tomorrow. Or a bike ride. And remember.

A brief photo history:
Early May 1997

About a day old (1997)
Happy Birthday at Linda's house (1999)!
Happy Birthday in Family Housing, Ann Arbor (2000)!
Happy Birthday in Salt Lake City (2004)!
Lemonade Stand 2005.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ten Years Ago

Listening while I type to The Takeaway--streaming radio from the USA to get a grasp on the news that Osama Bin Laden was found and shot and killed yesterday. The incidental music, of which there is a lot today, twangs and twists through an impure internet connection.

Where were you when you heard? asks John Hockenberry, the show's host. If the world were a facebook page, its status would have changed overnight, he states. I was in the car this morning, having dropped Miriam at school, then Markus at work, giving both of them a bus holiday on this first day back after Easter break. The German newscasters, it seemed, were talking about Osama Bin Laden in the past tense. What's this?

I admit that I do not often give coherent thought to Bin Laden. But hearing the news of his death has opened a pathway of thought that reaches back ten years.

Remember ten years ago? For us, April 2001 was a family trip to Germany and Austria. Almost-four-year-old Simon, eighteen-month-old Miriam, and Markus and I, still in our thirties. We visited Vodosek grandparents in Stuttgart and extended family in Austria. Airport security focused on Mad Cow Disease back then. When we returned to Detroit, the customs folks asked if we'd been near a farm. We hesitated. We'd walked out in the country a bit. Just to be sure, customs staff briefly confiscated our shoes and washed them clean.

Pre-September 11th. Pre-2001. A different world.

For us, the year brought considerably more than the stupefaction of being distant observers of horrifying events in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. In November, the father of my dearest childhood friend died of prostate cancer. I sang Vaughan Williams at his memorial service: Bright is the Ring of Words (Robert Louis Stevenson). Already unsteadied by world events, we of Oak Street in Oberlin, Ohio, had lost our invincibility. We needed no further convincing that it is possible to die of unfairness. Yet immediate, additional proof nonetheless came when Simon (then four and a half) was diagnosed that December with the cancer that took him when he was seven.

I remember that April trip as being rooted in BEFORE. Before so many difficult changes. Below are a few photos that came before our first digital camera (scanned in from prints). We didn't know anything yet. But looking at Simon now, I can't suppress an obsessive thread of wondering if he was already carrying cancer. What's that yellow color in his skin? Just an off-color in the photo? It's hard to let that sort of thing go.

I have a volume of Vaughan Williams (Songs of Travel) out from the library. When the Bin Laden news cut me loose from any feeling of planned activity this morning, I eventually found myself at the piano, singing through the song I had sung in November 2001 at the memorial service for Jeff Blodgett, a man noted for his oratory:

Bright is the ring of words
When the right man rings them,
Fair the fall of songs
When the singer sings them.
Still they are carolled and said --
On wings they are carried --
After the singer is dead
And the maker buried.

Low as the singer lies
In the field of heather,
Songs of his fashion bring
The swains together.
And when the west is red
With the sunset embers,
The lover lingers and sings
And the maid remembers.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)

I'm not sure that I can make sense of any of it, even ten years later. But I do know that certain events require us to live through past events again. And perhaps during these iterations we come closer to glimpsing what has actually occurred.

Today I remember Jeff Blodgett. I remember traveling with two adorable young children in Europe. I remember the eerie stillness of every plane in the United States being kept on the ground. I remember singing in Jeff's honor. I remember (barely and with effort) how we exited the highway of life as we knew it and began to travel on this other one.

So many things, not least of them 9/11, could have turned out differently. But here we are now, and it's the only place we can ever hope to understand anything from.

Flashback to April 2001
Strollering in Stuttgart, April 2001.

Miriam, the architect.

Simon, the tree climber.

Simon making Easter eggs with Oma.