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The Invitation

November 8, 2011

Lately all my best-laid plans seem to go awry. Perhaps it’s because there are too many plans; I like to know exactly what’s going to happen next. It’s like walking on an uneven surface with a bad knee—I want to be able to see where I’m going to place my foot, and test it for just a moment before putting much weight on it.

Sometimes I do that, though, and the surface moves under my foot anyway, and I flail my arms and take another little unplanned step and manage not to go down. That’s what a lot of this fall has felt like.

Yesterday we found out that the reason Walker has had a low-grade fever and headache since last Thursday is because he has mono. So he is forbidden to go to school or participate in any of his many extracurricular activities—including teaching chess lessons to the kids who take them from him—for a week. If this doesn’t sound like much rescheduling to you, then you don’t live with a teenager. And then there are all the little chores he usually does around the house, like getting in the mail and taking care of his sister’s rabbit now that she’s off at college. I’m doing those too, because he is massively, impressively tired. He drapes himself on furniture and wilts. And he has no appetite, which is continually disconcerting.

There are worse weeks for one of us to be sick. It’s kind of like how our power was out when I woke up this morning at 5:30. It came back on at 7:10 am, which was pretty good timing. We needed to reset a bunch of clocks anyway.

We all get to sleep a little later, since we don’t have to have Walker at the high school on their schedule. Of course, this isn’t the week I’d have picked to get to sleep later. But I didn’t get to pick. We just have to roll with it.

I’m not very good at rolling. I’ve never been the kind of person who can gracefully drop in on anyone; I need an invitation, preferably engraved. So I’m thinking of this poem by Stephen Dobyns:

The Invitation

There are lives in which nothing goes right.
The would-be suicide takes a bottle of pills
and immediately throws up. He tries
to hang himself but gets his arm caught
in the noose. He tries to throw himself
under a subway but misses the last train.
He walks home. It is raining. He catches a cold
And dies. Once in heaven it is no better.
He mops the marble staircase and accidentally
jams his foot in the pail. All his harp strings
break. His halo slips down over his neck
and nearly chokes him. Why is he here?
demands one of the noble dead, an archbishop
or general, a leader of men: If a loser
like that can enter heaven, then how is it
an honor for us to be here as well—
those of us who are totally deserving?
But the would-be suicide knows none of this.
In the evening, he returns to his little cloud house
and watches the sun set over the planet Earth.
He stares down at the cities filled with people
and thinks how sad it is that they should
rush backwards and forwards as if they had
some great destination when their only
destination is death itself—a place
to be reached by sitting as well as running.
He thinks about his own life with its
betrayals and disappointments. Regret, regret—
how he never made a softball team, how his
favorite shirts always shrank in the wash.
His eyes moisten and he sheds a few tears, but
secretly, because in heaven crying is forbidden.
Still, the tears tumble down through all those layers
of blue sky and strike a salesman rushing
between Point A and Point B. The salesman slips,
staggers, and stops as if slapped in the face.
People on the street think he’s crazy or drunk.
Why am I selling ten thousand ballpoint pens?
he asks himself. Suddenly his only wish is to
dance the tango. He sees how the setting sun
caresses the cold faces of the buildings.
He sees a beautiful woman and desperately wants
to ask her to stroll in the park. Maybe he will
kiss her cheek; maybe she will love him back.
You maniac, she tells him, didn’t you know
I was only waiting for you to ask me?

Now we’re all standing around my house wondering why we’re not rushing between Point A and Point B. We’ve stopped. It makes me think of a story my friend Phyllis tells about a stopped commuter train, and the guy who started repeating the question on everyone’s mind “When. Will. The Train. Move. Again.”

Maybe not for a while. The trick is to find a way to enjoy the view.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2011 8:49 am

    Love the poem. I’m feeling a lot like him (the would-be suicide) nowadays, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone. Wait, no. I’m not feeling suicidal, but that many of the best-laid plans are not coming to fruition.

    “Maniac” is the perfect word to use there. The tears of depression in heaven produce mania on earth.

    The last line is great, it’s one of those sentences where you can put “only” between any two words (or at the beginning or end) and have the sentence mean something slightly different.

    • November 9, 2011 8:04 am

      Yes, “maniac” really is the perfect word there, isn’t it? It’s one of the things that keeps this from being just another carpe diem poem.

  2. November 8, 2011 8:55 am

    I got mono at the end of my first year of grad school and didn’t realize I had it for a couple of weeks. I had been taking finals, staying up late writing papers and training for a bike trip I’d been planning on taking and figured I was just tired. It wasn’t until I got up early to sing a graduation ceremony and discovered that my neck was suddenly twice its normal size that I realized there was something else going on. Mono is weird that way- easy to ignore if you’re a busy person. And yet it’s the most serious illness I ever had — I was in bed for three weeks and it was several months before I felt completely better. And that was exactly the worst part about it — I didn’t know how to stop rushing from point A to point B. Maybe it was a good thing for me to learn. There are things to be enjoyed about it too. Once the headaches subside, anyway. I hope W’s feeling better soon.

    • November 9, 2011 8:06 am

      We have canceled everything but an hour of rehearsal this week because Walker needs to go to one of the biggest chess tournaments of the fall this weekend near Cincinnati. Next week is going to be much harder. The play he’s in goes up next weekend. A perennial problem with high school theater–one actor getting mono.

  3. November 8, 2011 9:26 am

    One year when I was in high school, everyone in my family got mono except me. It was like suddenly moving to the quietest, slowest place in the world. I liked not being sick, but it was kind of freaky to see everyone so withered and devoid of the usual zestiness that filled our house. I hope the rest of you manage to stay healthy, and that Walker gets his chess legs (as opposed to sea legs) back soon.

    • November 9, 2011 8:07 am

      Thanks. I don’t know how the chess will go, because it takes a certain amount of endurance. It is freaky. I miss the continual singing. It’s eerily quiet around here this week.

  4. freshhell permalink
    November 8, 2011 9:27 am

    Well, try to enjoy you down time, such as it might be. Had a taste of that yesterday, home with sick/recovering Red. November is a month of appointments….appointments that usually get rescheduled because invariably someone (usually me) will get sick. Hope he’s feeling better soon. I do hate those schedule interruptions but I’m getting better at accepting them.

    • November 9, 2011 8:08 am

      My getting nine hours of sleep a night is going a long way towards restoring my equanimity!

  5. November 8, 2011 10:25 am

    I was and am (can you tell?) angry that when I got mono I had to tough it out. Mono was always presented to me as one of a few times in life when you should stay in bed and just get better, and then I got it and was told that my career depending upon me getting up anyway. I kept going. This is wrong. Tell W to stay in bed for me.

    • November 9, 2011 8:09 am

      He will be glad to do it, on your behalf. It looks to me like mono is one of the times in your life when you really need a mom.

  6. Lass permalink
    November 8, 2011 10:30 am

    I love the poem, and can strongly relate to not doing well without a fixed routine. I have mild Asperger’s and my ability to function well is strongly tied to having a very set schedule.

    • November 9, 2011 8:10 am

      It only takes me a day or so to have new routines in place. This week’s includes everybody going towards bed, even if it’s only to read, by 8 pm.

  7. November 8, 2011 11:01 am

    Oh mono. Whenever I read about some 18th century heroine “going into a decline,” I wonder if she actually had mono. My daughter got mono on top of strep and developed a staph infection in her throat TOO. That was the mother of all sore throats, I can tell you – we spent a week in the hospital which mostly consisted of one-word conversations (“Hurts”) in between morphine injections. Poor Walker! Is there some tiny part of you that feels a little relieved that at least he is getting some rest?

    I love the premise of the poem – and that line, “Suddenly his only wish is to/ Dance the tango.” Suddenly that is my wish too.

    • November 9, 2011 8:12 am

      There is a very tiny part of me that is relieved we’re not dashing here, there, and everywhere this week, as we would have been without a doctor saying he must do nothing. I’m also relieved to know what it is, of course.
      You have fun doing the tango, and we’ll be over here, sleeping.

  8. November 8, 2011 9:50 pm

    Wilting is disconcerting too, but also sweet. Hope he gets off easy. It sounds like you are an excellent mom for a sick kid to have. Something about that poem feels 19th century to me. The tone of the humor. I’m almost thinking . . . Kipling?

    • November 9, 2011 8:14 am

      I think it’s the combination of the humor and the narrative. This is from an old favorite volume of mine by Stephen Dobyns, Cemetery Nights. One of these days I must discuss the title poem.
      The wilting is a little bit sweet, because I never see those moments when he completely runs out of energy anymore.

  9. PAJ permalink
    November 8, 2011 11:53 pm

    Not sure why I liked this poem so much (too tired to figure it out right now), but I did.
    Sorry to hear Walker has mono. He absolutely must rest. Really. Or he’ll feel awful for months. Probably you won’t have much trouble getting him to rest until he starts to feel a bit better; then it’s like holding back wild horses, if your teen is anything like my teen.
    Hope he feels better soon.

    • November 9, 2011 8:17 am

      We’ve had no trouble getting him to rest because a) he still feels terrible, headache all the time and b) the doctor said this was his job this week if he wanted to play chess this weekend. After this week it will get much harder. Next week he wants to compete in some kind of thing in the evening in Columbus and has not agreed to give it up yet. That’s on top of another evening meeting and nightly rehearsals, plus the doctor’s note about school is only for this week. I guess we’ll see.

  10. November 9, 2011 12:35 pm

    I hope he feels better soon! It’s amazing to me how much my kids do to help around the house even at their ages (10 & 7), and I really notice it when they’re under the weather.

    • November 9, 2011 6:53 pm

      It does make me appreciate how he usually pitches in to help do things.

  11. November 9, 2011 2:22 pm

    Happy healthy low-key but vital energy thoughts for Walker! I had mono in college and no one let me take a week off. ugh. I feel for the guy. And you, too, to have to juggle and reschedule and feel topsy-turvy.
    All the best to all of you.

    • November 9, 2011 6:55 pm

      Ha, he’s tired of hearing me say that if he has to have it, he’s lucky not to have it in college. Having it in college is awful. I’ve seen so many first-year students have it derail their entire semester.

  12. November 9, 2011 9:16 pm

    I’m very sorry to hear about Walker. I’ve heard about mono and it can really knock you for a loop. I hope he gets back to normal soon.

    As for the poem … WOW. Just loved it! A little story all right there. Perfection!

  13. November 9, 2011 9:50 pm

    I am so happy when people who don’t read a lot of poetry really like one I discuss!

  14. drgeek permalink
    November 17, 2011 5:26 pm

    Someone recently posted this on Facebook: You just cannot hurry carmelizing onions. It just doesn’t work.

    I replied: In fact, the less you hurry, the better they are.

    I think life is like that sometimes… the less you hurry, the better it is.

  15. November 18, 2011 7:45 am

    We’ve had way too many reminders to slow down this week. Sometimes regular life grinds to a halt and you’ve got to find a way to get it back on track.

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