04 August 2009

All good gifts

Today has been a rollercoaster.

It was cool-ish in the morning, and I had an early afternoon date to have lunch with a friend, the estimable Mrs. R., who is an administrator at the daughter's school. I thought that the most productive use of my morning would be to do some much needed gardening in the side yard, which always tends to look a bit wild and overgrown, though in a small way, I like that about it. It always appears cool and green and a little romantic.

Still, something has been crashing around out there late at night, a opossum or raccoon, and I figured that a bit of grooming would likely produce a tad less crashing. For two hours, I trimmed and pulled and dug and generally made things tidy, the heady scent of the stephanotis wafting every time I passed the vine.

It wasn't nice for long. The weather's been a bit tropical and humid without the pleasure of rain to break the heat, and the breeze died off. Soon I was steaming and sweaty, batting away the bee that buzzed unhappily around my damp hat. Ants ran around in circles, and spiders of all shapes, sizes and colors ran for their lives while I worked. As I ripped out the last of the bacopa (lovely hanging from a basket, loathsome as a ground cover), I discovered that someone had shed its silvery skin. It was roughly the size of the alligator lizards that make my garden their home, but I'm not sure if they lose their skins. It might have been a small snake. The former owner was nowhere in sight, at any rate. So I sat and took in the details of the translucent shape that so perfectly mirrored a small reptilian shape. It felt like finding an unexpected treasure.

Halfway through my labors, I heard the daughter's bedroom window open and a small voice said, "Good morning, Mommy!"

And that was quickly followed by, "Can I have some zucchini bread for breakfast?"

After filling four bins, I was surprised to see it was after 11, and decided that it would be a good time to shower so I'd be fresh to meet Mrs. R. When I was drying myself, I heard the daughter call me, her voice small and a bit frightened.

"Your cousin LL called," she said. "She needs you to call her back."

My heart sank. LL and her husband PM only call me when it's bad news. Otherwise we shoot emails back and forth. I called the number the daughter had taken down, fearing the worst.

"You know," LL said when she answered, "it really sucks that I only call you..."

"When it's bad news," I replied. But I took heart from the fact that she didn't sound hysterical, so probably PM and their kids were all okay.

And they were, but it was bad news.

I read the paper every day, and every day there is some awful story, a few paragraphs long, and I stop for a moment to think of the family who was left behind, who have to live with the loss of the loved one. It never occurred to me think that one day that family would be mine.

My cousin B.'s youngest son had been found dead, the victim of an apparent accident. The boy's body had only been identified this morning; his father had just received the news from the coroner. It's been a difficult time for B.: his wife, the boy's mother, died a couple of years ago from a degenerative disease.

Usually, even when we have to share bad news, it's news of an illness or the death of an elderly parent. The loss of a 20-year-old who'd gone off into the mountains on his own, and who as near as anyone could tell, fell off his skateboard, is unfathomable. Seeing it in black and white in the newspaper did not make it more real, just more horrible.

During the few minutes that we spent talking, both LL and I realized how long it had been since we'd seen each other. I hope that we hold to the promises we made to get back into contact once they return from the boy's funeral, because life is simply too short.

I thought again of the shed skin I'd found in the garden just a few hours earlier, the intricate whorls and patterns on the discarded husk. How quickly people slip out of this life, leaving behind their own whorls and patterns, their part of the design finished.

Both my own children needed reassurance once they'd heard the sad story. After I'd returned from my luncheon with Mrs. R., the daughter was prowling around the kitchen, alternately hugging my head and looking in the pantry.

"I want something sweet," she announced.

But I hadn't really bought anything like that at the store, so I told her we would bake a cake, which made her ecstatic. She did the work while I just provided guidance, and together we worked in the kitchen, step-by-step, creating a cake.

While the cake baked, I put dinner together--halibut marinated in yogurt and tandoori paste, raita, salad and naan--and because time was short, I quickly whipped together the buttercream frosting, leaving the daughter the job of icing the cake after we'd eaten. She was pleased, and finished it off with rainbow sprinkles. We ate it and applauded, while the daughter sat and beamed.

It was the hottest day of summer to date, 99F when I glanced at the thermometer, and I never bake when it's that hot so as not to waste electricity trying to cool down an overheated kitchen. But today, the daughter and I made a cake. Because that brief moment is a treasure. Because life is too short.

Go listen to some music: "All Good Gifts" from the musical Godspell by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. I can't explain why this song immediately came to mind when I got off the phone with LL. Perhaps because B., who is years and years older than I am, was the family hippie. He hitchhiked out to our house to be my youngest sister's godfather. Curiously, this song was frequently used as a hymn at the same church when I was a child.

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