Life Is Divine

Some stories encourage and build stamina.  Some stories touch and heal. Yet, some stories break hearts and forever refuse to be forgotten.  This is one such story.

It is the story of a love so intense, so our and blessed, that in the city of Chogoria where it took place, it is current news for any and all with a heart that feels.

Her name is Minne. A girl wellbroupt up but orphaned at fourteen. Both parents perishing in a fatal car crash that left Minne in a wheelchair for a solid year.  She recovered.  Using crutches at first but through sheer determination, she went on to walk and later to run.

It is her physiotherapist who owed gratitude for seeing her walk through encouragement long before the pain of the injuries had dulled.  She fell in love with the angel helper.

Five years later she wed him. Bliss. Heaven. Paradise.

Not nine months later when baby Roy was born.

The seemingly healthy child had jelly bones and could not support his head even at six months.  His droopy eyes said more to the father with the medical background than the young mother in love with her cherubic angel.

By eight months, even the mother sensed paradise was losing something.  Roy could not sit unsupported. He drooled nonstop.

The doctor’s report was devastating. However, it was not as devastating as the suggestion by the father that they give the boy up for adoption.

“What!”  The shocked mother howled at the husband’s suggestion.

“Baby,” he called cooly as many a doctor would react even in the face of bad news to a patient.  “We cannot afford to keep him. You aren’t even work. How do you expect we shall take care of an autistic child.?”

Minne’s heart shattered into a thousand shards.

She looked Roy senior in the eye and didn’t recognize him.

She looked him further and saw a stranger.

She wept. O how she wept, as she hugged her sweet innocent cild who for no fault of his own would have to depend on parents longer than other children.

That was not the worst.  A week to the day, Roy senior did not come home from work. Neither the following day nor the one after.

Minnie called him. She called the police. She called his only sibling, a sister. None had an answer for her.

At the end of the month she received a letter.  She was to vacate the doctors’ quarters since her husband had deserted his duties at the hospital. Shock and disbelief and finally belief as she moved out of the house a fortnight later.

To where? To whom? With what means?

She wept silently at first and then she wailed.  When Roy junior joined her in this unfamiliar who, she had to gather strength and calm for his sake.

She sold cheaply what she could, gathered what she could carry and went back to the old deserted home where she was born.There she sang sad lullabies to her son. She great chickens and tomatoes in the yard.

Roy walked at four years of age. Roy went to school at seven. At thirteen he could ride a bike. At seventeen he could read and write. At twenty-on he fell in love for the first time and did a painting of his girl. He was a great artist.

At twenty-four he married Wendy in the local church.

Roy missed all this. He missed the twin boys born of this beautiful couple.

Love conquers all.

Originally published in Autism: An Advocate Initiative

© 2019, Nancy Ndeke

NANCY NDEKE is the Associate Editor of Liberated Voices,  a Poet of international acclaim, and a reputable literary arts consultant. Her writings and her poetry are featured in several collections, anthologies and publications around the globe including the American magazine Wild Fire, Save Africa Anthology. World Federation of Poets in Mexico. Ndeke is a Resident Contributor of the Brave Voices Poetry Journal since mid-2018. African Contributor to the DIFFERENT TRUTHS, a publication that sensitizes the world on the plight of Autism edited by Aridham Roy. SAVE AFRCA ANTHOLOGY, edited by Prof. Dave Gretch of Canada and reviewed by Joseph Spence Jr., has featured her poetry and a paper on issues afflicting Africa and Africans.

Health Is Health, But Love Is Love

Those who have heard the story of baby Leon have had constant tears running down their cheeks.  It is the story of loss, grief, and love beyond what many think they can handle.

Leon’s birth was difficult.  The mother was a young university graduate waiting to report to her first job after three months.  Leon’s dad was abroad at the time his beautiful wife went into labour.

The waters broke at midnight.  Mary was expecting the baby in ten days, so it was a surprise.  She was rushed to the hospital by a kind neighbour.

That was the end of good news. Mary labored for the next ten hours and by the time the resident doctor took her in for a cesarean section, Mary had lost consciousness and there was no baby movement at all. Mary only woke up long enough to name the baby.  She passed on without ever seeing her son or ever holding him.

Baby Leon was a silent baby.  He made no sound after a thirty minute struggle to have his breath.  His father found the body of his wife and the baby with tubes along his nose and IV drip in the nursery.  Joseph was inconsolable.  But like all things life and death, he had to attend to the final rites of his beloved wife and bury her.  Then he came for his baby.

The doctor could not look him in the eye as he explained what he could expect from his son.  That it was quite possible that Leon’s brain was damaged by the difficult birth process.

How much could a man take, Joseph thought as he fought a fresh bout of tears?

“I see,” Joseph mumbled.  As a matter of fact, he did not see anything but a long stretch of misery and darkness.

He did take his son home. He had taken leave to take care of the matters surrounding him.  He installed little Leon in his bedroom and took to caring for his son henceforth.

It was hard and he had to engage a nurse.  The boy grew but slowly. Unlike most kids his age, he could not support his frame at eight months and only managed to sit at one-and-a-half-years of age.

Joseph had by then changed careers and was now a stay at home daddy working online to support himself and his son.

His family was supportive but in a very intrusive manner. His mother was of the opinion that he should marry another woman to help him take care of the boy.  Joseph knew not to argue though that consideration was a dead thought.

His sister had tried a hundred times to hitch him to a girlfriend of hers as a potential candidate for a wife.  Joseph, having installed a CCTV camera in all the rooms in the house was shocked at the prospective girlfriend’s reaction to Leon.  Horror was evident even as she sweetly smiled at him.

As years rolled on, Leon learnt some basics.  He smiled more to his dad. He could identify some animals on the chart that Joseph used to teach him. He could call the family dog, which was his best friend, as well as the sly cat that kept escaping his grasp every time Leon tried to catch it.  Those were moments that brought joy and tears to Joseph’s eyes.

Then, one day when Leon was seven, as the family watched cartoon in their living room, Leon turned and said, “Aba one you.”

Joseph almost fell over. In tears, he kept saying over and over again, “O my God! O my God! I love you too. I love you too, Son.”

He even called his doctor to share the good news seeing that he did’t have many friends.

He hugged his son on and on and kept tempting him to repeat the magical words.  Lean didn’t.

Most afternoons, Joseph took Leon swimming.  That was a recommendation from the doctor. So, after the wonderful affirmation that his son might eventually speak normally, it was time for their swimming class.

As Joseph bent over Leon to prepare him for swimming, something seemed strange.  Leon seemed to be smiling, but this time there was no drool on the sides of his mouth.  Leon’s brown eyes were fixed on his face.

Joseph sat up straight.

“Leon,” he cried.  Panic washed over him in waves.

“Leoooon!”

The empty stare and the fixed smile.

Joseph let out such a scream, the neighbors came running.

At little Leon’s funeral, Joseph allowed no one to speak of his son but himself.  Even then, he chose to recite a poem:

To Leon, My Broken Sparrow

You came whole baby sparrow,
En route, brokenness grazed your hand,
You landed on loves lap taking the tit away,
Leon, my broken sparrow,
You said you loved me and I believed,
You held my hand when insanity threatened to take me away,
You taught me about humanity beyond what psychologists could ever know,
Leon, my broken sparrow, how I loved you so,
And knowing about love and how it never ends,
Your body like your mama’s here I let you live,
But in my heart of hearts where soul lives eternal,
I treasure what we had and what we didn’t have, all in the safety of memories,
So goodbye my little sparrow for now you are made whole

Those who have heard the story of baby Leon have had constant tears running down their cheeks.  It is the story of loss, grief, and love beyond what many things they can handle.  Many thought Joseph had gone made. A few knew that Joseph had accepted his fate with his creator. Tears express both sorrow and joy.

Originally published in Autism: An Advocate Initiative

© 2019, Nancy Ndeke

NANCY NDEKE is the Associate Editor of Liberated Voices,  a Poet of international acclaim, and a reputable literary arts consultant. Her writings and her poetry are featured in several collections, anthologies and publications around the globe including the American magazine Wild Fire, Save Africa Anthology. World Federation of Poets in Mexico. Ndeke is a Resident Contributor of the Brave Voices Poetry Journal since mid-2018. African Contributor to the DIFFERENT TRUTHS, a publication that sensitizes the world on the plight of Autism edited by Aridham Roy. SAVE AFRCA ANTHOLOGY, edited by Prof. Dave Gretch of Canada and reviewed by Joseph Spence Jr., has featured her poetry and a paper on issues afflicting Africa and Africans.

The Damnedest Places

The hour-long litany of love and pain-stated-as-fact, went on and on. A mother dealing with the US health care system as it serves, and does not serve, an adult child with psychosis. Her child was in another state, both geographically, and mentally.

We sat in the back corner of the mall’s food court where my friend likes to meet monthly (“among life,” as she says) for spiritual direction. The food court’s back wall is all windows looking out over a sparsely-treed and, even more sparsely used, parking lot. Malls are no longer the place to shop. From those windows we have marked the change of seasons in the year we have met. Gazing from them, we have seen the young ash trees, planted strategically at the end of each row of largely empty parking spaces, as they struggled to grow in asphalt-topped soil. Life wants to live, though, and so those straggly saplings have gone from bare, to budded, to green, then brilliant yellow, and now faded and mostly naked again, without seeming to grow an inch.

We meet before the retailers are open, and well before the carousel and bumper-cars have been turned on in an attempt to amuse children who have forgotten how to amuse themselves. It is quiet in the mall before ten in the morning. The only people we see are the retired men who meet for coffee and complaints, and the sneakered “mall-walkers” who take their climate-controlled exercise on the cement floors of the upper level between shops filled with things no one needs, and many people want. It is all like a scene from the movie Wall-E.

On this particular day, my friend and I were both running a few minutes late due to traffic and life. As we greeted one another with apologies and hugs at our regular table with its three chairs, (one for her, one for me, and the third for the Holy Spirit,) we noticed a small, confused, bird darting from one corner to another, seeking some way out of the unnatural, nightless, treeless, world it found itself in.
We began, as we always do, with prayer. We included the little bird.

My friend began speaking, “I guess I want to start with my daughter. She has had a psychotic break. She had been doing so well.” My friend told me the story of her last two weeks, describing her daughter’s struggles with psychoses, addiction, and the challenges of gender transition. Her voice never quavered as we spoke about the conditions at Bellevue, where her daughter was receiving treatment, and the very different conditions at New York University’s Tisch Hospital just down the road.

She shared her daughter’s fear when placed on the male ward, where her body still qualified, but her mind and soul never had. She told me about unplanned bus trips into the City, and the friend who had opened his home to her; how she had made it a daily habit to walk from Bellevue to Tisch just to sit in a calm and clean lobby to gather her thoughts.

I listened, as I always do, noting the most tender bits of her story, noticing that she did not speak of her own heart, only what was happening with her daughter.

She didn’t tear up until the hour had ended and I asked about her feelings and her faith. The woman is grounded and centered, like the fabled tree planted beside a stream. She is also big-hearted, and her heart hurt for her child, and all the others she encountered. She told me how good most of the nurses, physicians, and social workers at Bellevue were. She could see God in these people, as clearly as we always saw the Holy Spirit in our monthly conversations.

We reflected that Christ is always present in the damnedest places; the places filled with pain, hurt, suffering and fear: in locked-wards, “factory farms,” battlefields and detention camps. Wherever the suffering are, the Compassionate One is there, also, waiting for us to recognize our eternal divine souls, even as our frail, human, skins tremble and quake, seeking a way out of the unnatural world we have created.

© 2019, Melina Rudman

MELINA RUDMAN is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader and contemplative activist.  Melina’s first book, Sacred Ground, will be published by Anam Chara Books in Spring, 2020.  The book is an exploration and memoir of spirit and life in the natural world.
Melina holds a BA in Psychology and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bay Path University in Longmeadow, MA.  She received her training as a spiritual director at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT, and has completed programs at Hartford Seminary (Women’s Leadership Institute) and Harvard Divinity (Executive Education Program).
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Melina is an avid gardener and environmentalist who sees the all things in God, and God in all things.  She grows fruit, flowers, herbs and vegetables in her backyard gardens, dubbed by a friend as “Generosity Farm.”
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Melina lives with her husband and puppy in central Connecticut, near her children and grandchildren.

The Singing Man

“Want the man singing! I want the man singing!” She pushed her small, sticky finger against my laptop screen. Heeding my two-year-old’s demands, I scrolled down. I passed Rosemary Clooney, scrolled beyond Bette Midler until “right there!” was barked from my lap. We found him. After a thirty-second auto insurance ad, the music began.

“A boy went back to Napoli, because he missed the scenery…” Daniel Boaventura, looking dapper in a suit, croons into a handheld, wireless, black microphone. The lights are low, and the instrumentation sparse as he describes what else the boy from Napoli was returning to. “….but wait a minute, something’s wrong!” A dramatic pause follows this revelation.

Liza took the cue, hopped down, and began bouncing with her microphone in hand. The ball of foil duct-taped to a toilet paper tube flailed around as she sang, “Hey mambo, mambo di-telly-ano!”

I sat back and enjoyed the show. While I was pregnant, my husband and I struggled with a name for the tiny performer singing in front of me. I was playing lots of Harry Belafonte in the house. His rendition of Come Back Liza spoke to me; he sang the name “Liza” so beautifully. We both loved it, and I think its incredibly romantic to be named after a song.

Soon she’ll start asking for Daniel Boaventura, the Brazilian actor and performer, by name. She’ll begin requesting his other covers, such as ABBA’s Dancing Queen and Sinatra’s New York, New York. Each time a video ends and the next song starts on auto-play, it carries potential to be our new favorite.

She babbled along until the final “That’s ah nice-ah.” I managed to convince her to give Mambo a break and let me get dinner started.

Experiencing the rabbit hole of music through a child’s eyes (and ears) has proved to be an winding journey for our family. Mr. Boaventura, who played Juan Peron in Evita, led us to show tunes and Broadway hits. Mambo Italiano gave way to Tell Me on a Sunday. Who else has sung “Baby I’m in the Mood for You,” as a lullaby to their toddler after finding Miley Cyrus’s cover of Odetta covering Dylan?

This year, we are asking Santa to bring Liza a real microphone. She’s going to be over the moon to have one just like our favorite Mambo Man. We can get a spotlight next year.

© 2017, Stephanie Williams


Performances mentioned:

Daniel Boaventura – Mambo Italiano
Harry Belafonte – Come Back Liza 
Daniel Boaventura – Dancing Queen
Daniel Boaventura – New York, New York 
Sarah Brighten – Tell Me on a Sunday
Miley Cyrus – Baby I’m in the Mood for You 

Remembering Mom

Mom and Me 1950, Brooklyn
Mom (Zbaida) and Me
1950, Brooklyn

I am the keeper of the dreams and the memories, the matrix where the generations converge, the record-book held between familial bookends. I am responsible for passing her life on to him that she may continue to live and that he may understand the consequences of history and culture as common people do.

He is the vindication of hope, his and ours. Her heart is the place were hope started. I can hardly think of my son without also thinking of my mother. They are the two people I love most in this world, though one of them – Mom – is no longer here. So for the record, I’m not sure why, but the pancake breakfasts I had with her at Oscar’s of the Waldorf are on my mind. We had rituals we honored until life had its way with her.

______

We spent time savoring the hotel before going into Oscar’s for breakfast. The Waldorf was decorated with so much gold color that despite the muted lighting we felt we were having our moment in the sun. The jewel-colored furnishings and plush carpeting invited us to find a place to sit. We indulged in wide-eyed rounds of people watching. The businessmen seemed busy with self-importance. The women fussed with their manifest charm. We always stopped in the ladies’ room with its uniformed attendants continually present. They provided each guest with a freshly laundered terry-cloth towel and double-wrapped soaps, lavender-scented. Mom would tip the attendant a quarter and give me a quarter to tip her too.

Waldorf Lobby & Clock
Waldorf Lobby & Clock

An important ritual was a visit to the Waldorf Astoria Clock in the main lobby. I’ve read that it’s there still, all two tons of it. It’s a place where people find one another. I’ll meet you at the clock. Everyone knows that means the clock inside the Waldorf-Astoria at Park Avenue. It’s a towering thing, the actual clock sitting below a replica of the Lady Liberty, hope of immigrants, and above some bronze carvings and an octagonal base of marble and mahogany. Standing near the clock gave us the sense of a history of which we were not a part. It offered the illusion of privilege, the true secret spice that made the blueberry pancakes at Oscar’s so delicious. The famed maître d’hôtel, Oscar Tschirky, Oscar of the Waldorf, was no longer there. He died in 1950, the year I was born.

_______

My mom loved the Waldorf and Oscar’s blueberry pancakes as she did everything she felt characteristic of culture and good breeding. Being well bred meant you recognized quality in a person or product: women who wore pearls, men who always tipped their hats in greeting, and dresses with deep hems. Well-bred meant you didn’t swear or use colloquialisms.  It meant that if you were a boy you never cried. If you were a girl you didn’t display your intelligence. You didn’t run. You didn’t shout. You never went out without wearing hat, gloves, and girdle.  You sacrificed sports and ballet at nine. You didn’t risk turning any tidbit of excess fat into unseemly muscle.

Given my illegitimate birth – which occurred when my mother was thirty-six – combined with our roots, peasant not patrician, and our working-class status in this country, it seemed Mom was forever posturing. Nonetheless, over time I convinced myself that my mother was indeed a most cultivated person. Hence my birth had to be a virgin birth. That would explain my father’s absence, though there was no kindly Joseph to lend an aura of respectability. Mom advised me never to kiss a boy. Kissing could cause pregnancy. Well, yes, if one thing leads to another, but how would my mom know?

'50s Style Theater seating
’50s Style Theater seating

Mom’s interest in culture was insatiable. What she viewed as high culture other’s would label popular culture. We consumed it regularly and with religious fervor. We were fickle about our temples of worship. We opened our hearts at the Harbor Theater on Wednesday night, the RKO on Saturday afternoon, the Loew’s Alpine on Sunday, and for whatever reruns were on television at any given time. Because of movies we knew what to dream. They were our world; their luminaries our goddesses and gods. Audrey Hepburn, goddess of fashion. Cyd Charisse, goddess of posture. Katherine Hepburn, the great goddess of elocution. Grace Kelly inspired us to wear pearls, however faux our own five-and-dime pearls were. We did our best to meet the standard. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Jimmy Stewart were the gentlemen gods who shaped our expectations of men.

Our home back then was a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment on the top floor of a six-story four-section complex that was built in the 1920s before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Each of the four sections had an elevator, often in disrepair. Our apartment had French windows, which we found romantic and from which we could see the lights of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at night. The bridge didn’t open until 1964 and so it came to our landscape late. The requisite fire escape was outside the kitchen window, the only window without a radiator below its sill. It made a fine place to sit and read, write stories, and watch the cars below and the clouds above.

The building in the 1930s.
The building in the 1920s.

Our apartment, D61, was often blessed with rain in the form of leaks. Manna dropped from the ceiling in the guise of paint chips. If the people downstairs were too noisy, we tapped on the wood floor with the end of a broomstick. When there was no heat or hot water we consulted with the landlord’s wife, a common woman whose carelessly open closet displayed a frowzy collection of cotton house-dresses and limp lifeless sweaters. Mom always sniffed as we walked away, her sensibility offended. She said the woman’s hair was entirely too long and youthfully styled for someone of her station and maturity.

I remember my mother as so refined that when conflict arose between us she never fought or yelled or slammed a fist on the table. After a quiet well-barbed soliloquy, she went silent. If Mom’s anger was white-hot, she might not talk to me for years. The last episode of protracted silence extended from my fifteenth birthday until after my marriage. I no longer remember my original offense but a rebellious marriage to someone of a different ethnicity did nothing to serve the cause of reconciliation.

________

00000001There’s my mother, the little girl on your left. She’s about seven in that sepia photograph – circa 1921 – where she stands alongside her siblings and her own mother. My mother’s mother is pregnant and in her mid-twenties. Eventually there would be eighteen children of which ten survived. Mom told me her parents were married young. They immigrated to this United States of America after the first two children were born, one boy (thank God!) and one girl.

I often look at that photograph of my mother and wonder what she was thinking. What did she long for? As she made her way around the old neighborhood and tried to grow beets in a wooden box on the tenement fire escape, certainly she dreamed of dressing in the latest rage. When, through the aegis of the New York Times Fresh Air Fund, she spent a month each summer at the Muzzi’s farm upstate, no doubt she fantasized about living where the air is clear and the spaces packed tight with solitude and well-occupied with growing green things. She often talked with longing of the fresh vegetables at the Muzzi’s and of a large accommodating farm kitchen.

Mom once landed a part in an elementary-school version of Aïda and got to wear a costume and make-up. Her father had her remove the red lipstick that was provided by a teacher. As an adult, Mom collected lipsticks. You wouldn’t believe how many different shades of red there are and how poetic the names: autumn rose, wild ruby, crimson dew …

Over time, the hope of being valued by a good man, of living in a much coveted garden apartment with something more than an efficiency kitchen, moved slowly out of reach. As Mom grew older, less nubile, and more invisible, she became more artful with her war paint and her dress. She no longer wore what jewelry she had as decoration, but as amulets.

Her decline must have started when she was pregnant with me. Coincident with that, she was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. Through the years and bit by excruciating bit, she lost organs: a breast now, then her thyroid, then her womb, a kidney and finally the second breast and lymph glands. I’m just a shell, she’d tell me before warming her soul by the cold fire of a movie screen. She would fight cancer on-and-off all her life. When the end came, she died in my arms of breast and colon cancer. She was seventy-six.

Mom was a good numbers person, almost always working as a full-charge bookkeeper or accouting clerk. When I was twelve, a particularly exciting opportunity came her way. A prospective employer flew her – a Kelly Girl ®, forty-eight years old – to D.C. for a trial assignment and a job interview. When she arrived, she found the possibility of permanent employment required a full medical exam. The exam, along with work history and evaluation, would be submitted to the board for review. All those men would see it. They might even discuss her lack of womanly organs at the board meeting, complete with board notes for documentation. Embarrassed, Mom declined the interview, packed her bag, and found her way to the airport. That afternoon, she arrived back in New York at Idlewild.

Subway Station
Our Subway Station

The next morning, without even a nod to the well-bred goddesses and gods of mortal fancy, Mom threw on some clothes and grabbed my hand. An hour or so later we were in Manhattan. We went straight into Oscar’s. We didn’t stop in the hotel lobby for people-watching or give quarters to the ladies’ room attendant. We didn’t pay our respects to the Waldorf Astoria Clock. We just ate. Rather, I should say I watched. Mom ate. She cut her pancakes at punitive angles and made doleful jabs at the pieces with her fork. When she finished her serving, she moved on to mine. By the time Mom gulped her third coffee, paid the bill, and left a grudging tip, even my child-mind understood that our visits to Oscar’s for blueberry pancakes would no longer be part of a wistful dream. Lacking sacred ritual, they would devolve into compulsion. This was the beginning of Mom eating much too much and of me not eating quite enough. While Mom endeavored to bury dreams, I sought to scrap their bones bare and set them free.

First publication: March 15, 2012, Connotation Press

© 2012, memoir and family photographs, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved /the photographs which include my mother are a part of our family album but they’re also covered by copyright. Please be respectful. Waldorf Lobby & Clock courtesy of New York Architecture. Theater seating by Reddi  via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license. Apartment building: public domain. Subway station by David Shakelton via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attritution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license.