Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Who would count eternity in days?

A strip of concrete walkway connects the slender patio at the back of our house with the driveway.  Just wide enough for Robert's wheelchair, one of the sections is inscribed along its long edge next the grass with our names, 'Roger  Jeneva  Robert  Edith  2002'.  In early November that year, just before the concrete set, I used a stick to write us permanently into our surroundings.  Our back yard was very linear, quadrated, if that's a word, divided into sections: the garage, the back patio, the planting bed left by the last owner, and her picnic area under the grape arbor as well, sections of lawn in between them all.  Orderly and of a certain composition, both what we found and what we made, and now signed with our names as though a hidden message at the hem of a garment.

This act of inscribing would appear, on the surface, to be public.  Like graffiti, say: we were here.  But I saw it as more of a private act.  A claim, yes, but a modest, side-long claim, a marginal claim at the edge of attention.  As I etched the letters that form our names, I wondered what the future inhabitants of this house would think.  Would they immediately erase us with a concrete patch?  Would they find it unique and charming and let us live on at the margin of their existence?

No matter how long we live here, someone else will eventually inhabit these spaces, just as furniture has a life beyond its maker and the first who use it.  Our claims to the contrary, which is what I meant when I said it was a private claim.  These letters that form our names mean something only so long as this is our stake.  These our noticings, these our names.

Not recently, but not so long ago, I wondered if we might lose the house or the house, us.  We made the house.  It was our plan, our ideas channeled through an architect into the blue and white lines that define spaces and outline a life. We planned to be here for a long time, for ever, if not forever.  My husband said we would be buried in the back yard.  Zoning, apparently, be damned.

The house was designed with Robert's disabilities in mind: no doors downstairs, handles instead of knobs upstairs, a special tub, an elevator, wide doorways and space for turning and maneuvering the chair.  A giant powder room downstairs in which, until recently, we did his personal care.  And more than that, I had selected the light fixtures, the tiles, the paint color for the walls, the look of the baseboard and the window trim, the style of the windows themselves.  Rather than adapt ourselves to the space, we had adapted the space to us.

The original structure gutted, what remained of the former owners--two members of a family who had lived there sequentially from the time the house was built in 1938--what remained were structures in the backyard we could not, at first, afford to change: concrete planting beds, the now second small patio underneath the aging (and ailing) grape arbor that extended from the aging and narrow garage.

And, so, perhaps I meant to leave a message for any future owners that the house, in fact, was ours and always would be.

Or perhaps it was a form of wishful thinking.  Our names, there, all in a row, oldest to youngest, a date for good measure to put us into some irrefutable context.  But at the time, Robert's health was uncertain and remained so for quite some time.  The first Thanksgiving in this house was postponed because Robert was in the hospital with pneumonia.

What we found and what we made.  A huge piece of brain coral, left by the previous owner, sits in the back, at the edge of our patio.  Daffodils and narcissus bloom each year from bulbs I never touched.  As Robert and Edith have grown, and Robert's health has stabilized, they finally parted ways this year--Edith into the pink room we had always intended for her, Robert remaining in the green room.  For a time, Edith was worried about making the switch--what if Robert woke in the night and she heard him while we didn't.  But, in the end, all has gone according to plan: each child in the intended space.

When I read about childhood disability from other perspectives, some people say that God has a plan for all of us.  I don't know if I believe that.  When I think of God, I see him watching us sort of the way Milton describes it in Paradise Lost: He watches from a great distance, as if, perhaps, on a hill, knowing our fate, but unable to change it or affect it.  Because we have free will--thus, He is doomed to watch us live out our mistakes, our tragedies, our joys, and our accomplishments.  This is painful for God, but He endures.  God's helpless pain is the way Milton resolves the idealogical conflict between free will and predestination.

Orderly and of a certain composition is the world in which Milton lived.  The four seasons correlate to the four humors of the body and to the four points of the compass and the four ages of man.  The number of our old house, just up the street, was 4405.  Individually, those digits add first to 13, unlucky, but then to 4, the number of stability--in Renaissance numerology, anyway.  While I lived there, I was always conflicted about this.  The new house number is 4415, which adds to 14 and then to 5.  I admit, I don't know that 14 has any special meaning, but 5 does; it's the number of perfect harmony of man and woman.

I can't say that I've been in perfect harmony with my husband under this roof, on this lot, since we moved in.  In fact, I might say the challenges have often overwhelmed us.  But our names are there on the sidewalk, all in a row, ordered, composed, as though we felt that ourselves.  And the house was designed with balance and harmony in mind--the shapes a bright container can contain.

So, after years of disorder, things are going according to a plan: ours, God's, the architect's.  Which one?  I'm not sure I know.  But who would count eternity in days? ... (I measure time by how a body sways).


Elizabeth said...

Wow. I don't know how you do it. Weave your story in this seductive way. Thank you for some beautiful writing (cause almost nothing else moves me these days!)

kate hopper said...

Lovely, lovely post, Jeneva. Thank you for your words.

Faith said...

Thank you Jeneva for your posts, remarkable not only for their clarity and beauty, but for their persistence through time, their faithfulness with readers. I hope there is joy in your holidays and that 2011 is a good year for you and your family.