Archive for ‘memoir’

April 16, 2010

“Cloud Journal”

Illustration by Tim Durning

The cirrus is the coming or going of stormclouds, their vanguard or their echo. If the ground is wet, the sky was violent yesterday; otherwise it will be tonight.

August, so the smell of rain on hot asphalt lingered. An evening thunderstorm blew out quick, and the sky bled orange and purple through every window. You would leave for the war in the morning. I was afraid but couldn’t say so. I slammed the house door and the porch door and got goosebumps from the air suddenly chilled. I wanted to walk to clear my head. I walked all night. By the time I returned, the moon had risen and set. I fell asleep on the couch. Your car was gone when I woke.

A note on the kitchen table:


Went early to spare you. We’ll talk soon.

We live under the takeoff path. I ran outside and tried to find your plane flying over our house. All I saw were cirrus clouds marring an otherwise perfect sky. No trace of last night’s rain, no trace of your jet trails. I wondered if the cirrus were for last night’s storm, or one yet to come.

Cumulus humilis form in fair weather. They are light and fluffy, and abundant on idyllic spring days. Often found in the memories of young lovers and parents teaching their children to fly kites.

It was inevitable you would fall in love with airplanes. I don’t blame you, of course—we live by the airbase because I love them too.

Six years old, running in a dandelion-spotted field hidden in Virginia hills. Your mother and I felt young under the endless cumulus parade. We lied in the May grass and let our eyes hop from one cloud to the next, while you made jet noises and ran zigzags on the hill, your arms outstretched. You soared over and hovered above us, a sunlight corona around your head and shoulders.

Daddy, you said, can you fly airplanes?

I smiled. I used to, but not anymore.


I wanted to be with you and Mommy.

I want to fly airplanes too.

Your mother rolled her eyes. I leapt up and flew you around in my arms, and we made jet noises together.

When it seems as though the sky simply wants to deny you sunlight—that is nimbostratus. It looks gray all day but never rains.

Annapolis, twenty-two. The pictures never show a gray commencement—God knows mine wasn’t. The hats went up anyway, as did the cheers.

I was proud, of course, but anxious. I knew what came next: Pensacola, then San Antonio or Corpus Christi, then maybe home to Virginia. Oceana is where they fly the fast jets.

I’m gonna get those gold wings like my old man, you said.

I told you I loved you no matter what you did, but I don’t think you believed me. Somehow in your four midshipman years—and maybe in the years of daydreaming before—you had made those wings the only way to make me proud.

I was proud when you acted in the school plays, too. Or when you wanted to learn the guitar.

Anything you did would have made me beam, but you couldn’t see.

Cumulonimbus—the granddaddy of clouds. Towering, dark, sinister beasts so full of power they humble a man just to look at one. Pilots know to avoid these as best they can. But sometimes they come too fast and grow too big. Then you just have to punch through and hope you stay in the air.

Tonight’s storm has hail to it; you would love it.

I forgive you for leaving how you did. I know why. I’m sorry I couldn’t say what needed saying better.

The first deployment is always the hardest, but easier these days. Your mother and I will write you every day, and send you videos if we can figure out how to work the camera. Don’t forget how many people care about you here. Keep safe for them as much as yourself.

I won’t say anything about the job. You have plenty to tell you about that where you are.

This is going to be a long summer without you around. I already miss naming clouds and airplanes on our morning run. It will be a long fall and winter too. We just have to push through, as always.

If I were a braver man, I could say some of these things to you. There are old pilots, bold pilots, but no old bold pilots. Having lived to see you become you, I am happy to not be bold. More honest, I wish, but there it is.

You will not read this soon. It doesn’t matter, though—the clouds won’t come in different shapes then.

September 23, 2009

“The Science of Swings”

Night looms, but how could we pass by a swingset? It is eternally correct to mount a swing on a fall night, like a schoolchild grasping hard at what strands of summer remain. All the more under sleepy orange sodium-vapor lamps screaming night even louder than the indigo sky. So we grasp the plastic-coated chain links, sit tentatively on the slight rubber curves that, mercifully, had dried from the earlier rain. We shove airborne from the mulch.

And we become wave motion, making between us a lattice of our respective amplitudes and frequencies, our crests and troughs. When in phase, I turn to look at you. I have always reveled more in the upswing than the backswing. Some prefer the back; it’s the anticipation I suppose, of all the joy waiting at the top of the arc. This, they say, is more enjoyable than the apogee itself.

I want to hang at the top of a swing forever; I wish my inner ear would keep rising higher ‘til I lose all sense of balance, sense of self, to childlike exultation. Here is flight for us common earthbound.

I breathe a bit easier when you close your eyes on the upswing, kicking out hard to remain weightless a moment longer, exactly as I do. I know we will leap into the mulch at the same time, and return to this swingset tomorrow. The next day too, if the weather doesn’t puddle the seats.





November 23, 2008


A long one, but I was proud.


July 19, 2007

"The Last Time I Came Home”

            The television whines when I come inside, and I hear the buzz of the fluorescent bulb above the kitchen sink, but my ears don’t twitch with the presence of another person.

            She ought to be here. But then, I know to take nothing for granted with Mom. It’s been—what?—ten years of this madness? There’s a glass with a few drops of clear liquid in it left out on the counter. I sniff it by instinct.

            It’s water. This time.

            “Mom?” No answer. Students’ papers litter the kitchen table. Essays on Frankenstein and MacBeth. The papers haven’t been graded—those poor students. They’re dated from last month. Criminal that they have to suffer a woman destroying herself.

 The smell of cigarette smoke has gone deader than usual. A week-old ashtray rather than a chain-smoker in the other room. Because I don’t gag in my own house, I’m concerned. Because the atmosphere has calmed, I can approach her room, her domain of drink and smoke and self-imposed solitude. This is what you’ll never hear at the seminars for dealing with addicted family members. They speak in hopeful terms; they’ll let you imagine a future of magical change. They never explain the failure, the cycle repeating endlessly as she drowns over the years in regret and lost opportunities. Nothing prepares you. You think you can handle it as it comes, but sometimes…

I am not ready for the blood.

The couch is caked in it—who knows for how long? A thick trail leads to the bathroom. I find her bloody, broken—hardly a person at all. I kneel closer, choking back vomit to see her struggle for breath. She hasn’t eaten for days, and a small, bantam woman as it is.

I wonder if today I’ll see my mother die.

I dial 911 slowly, like a drumbeat.

Things begin

            to fall apart

like a string-doll losing tension,

                        falling to its base.

I connect; I disconnect.

And then, as I hear myself give name and address,

I wonder,

After so many years and,

So many she’s hurt,

So many chances she’s squandered,

If I woke up to an atmosphere

even calmer than today’s,

and I saw a glass on the counter

without needing to smell it,

Would it be,


So bad?

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