50 Stories, Week 11: Just The Two of Us

Recently, my son Jackson turned twenty two but thanks to the current pandemic and the fact that we live on two different coasts, I haven’t seen him since January 3rd in the Hong Kong airport. I have an unapologetic, wild love for Jackson. We have always been deeply connected souls. I understand that not everyone has this with their children or parents, and that’s alright. Love is a spectrum. And yet, he has my whole heart. Sometimes I think he is the culmination of unsettled lives I lived before this one. As if I was waiting for him to arrive.

Since his birthday, his early years have been on my mind. Women have been having babies forever, so while Jackson’s birth was extraordinary for us, it was not so remarkable in the big scheme of things. What was astonishing though was how quickly I loved him with every fiber of my being. How his pain became my pain, instantly. When he discovered something new, it was as if I was discovering it all over again. And in my youth, I thought we would always be two peas in a pod. Just the two of us. 

But that is not the natural evolution of a parent-child relationship.

I no longer know his thoughts or motivations, his deepest fears and greatest hopes. My heart breaks when I watch him struggle and know that I cannot help him. I understand that this divide is normal. Necessary for growth, for both of us. I’m grateful for our grown-up relationship which allows for philosophical, meaningful conversations as well as having a good laugh at ourselves.

And still, what I would give for him to be small enough again to hold in my arms and smell the sweet toddler sweat on his head. 

So, for Jackson, here are a few entries from my journal when he was a wee babe and some of his own musings as a toddler…

6/6/98

It’s difficult to know where to start because there is so much I want to share with you. You are four days old and you are asleep on the couch with your papa. I will start by introducing him. He has a certain naivete about everything and I know he will share all of his knowledge and excitement about life with you. Your father and I met when we were just 21. Two weeks later, I had moved in, but it was a tumultuous, changing relationship. When I became pregnant with you, I knew immediately that I loved you and I prayed your father would too. But he has done more than that. Nothing is giving him greater pleasure than to hold you, change you, kiss you. He is truly in awe of how many wonderful ways that bringing you into the world will change our lives. 

Your father and I care about each other very much. We have different ideas, however, in regards to what love is. You have already changed so much of that, though. After you were born, I took a quick cat nap and when I woke, I looked across to your papa holding you in the rocking chair with tears running down his face. He loved you since the moment he met you. Never lose faith in him.

8/30/00

Sometimes I miss you a lot, Jay. I got to spend the last two days with you before I started my new job. It was so energy consuming but I loved it. I love you. I love hearing you say Mama. I love listening to you try and explain things to me. And it’s tough to understand you, still. And now that I’m away from you again, I keep hearing your sweet voice in my head. How you amaze me, Jay. How you tilt your head to one side when you ask a question. With your buoyant blond curls dangling from your head. Just perfect.

11/9/01

Jackson – you cannot imagine how many times I have sat next to you while you slept – staring at your precious face, your soft pink cheeks and puffy lips, your curly locks – just wanting to hold you, cradle you again like a baby. But you hardly let me anymore. You’re so big and when you wake up, you’re like a tornado! I miss you already. I miss the baby. A boy has taken over and there is only the need for Mama when you are hurt or scared. I cherish those moments now. I love our conversations – you are thoughtful and articulate. You bring your memories to me and we figure them out together. I remember talking to you as if you were the little monkey – I’d speak and you’d cock your head to one side and run off. Now – you understand everything. When you go to bed, you ask me to lay next to you for just a minute. So I do and we are silent or I sing a song. And some nights you say “Let’s talk, Mama.”

“Okay, boy. About what?”

“Um. How about camping?”

And we talk until one of us decides to tickle the other, or roll over on the other, and then we know it’s time for sleep. And some nights, like tonight, you ask for the candles to be lit and we stare at the flame in silence for a bit. Sometimes we make shadows and tell stories. And we always end up laughing… 

I love you more than anything, little bird. I love you like the stars.

Jackson’s musings from toddler years…

Mama, do you think there is a king of the stars?

Wouldn’t it be nice to visit the moon? How far away do you think it is? Really? It looks so close. Why does it look so close?

Where does the water in the shower come from?

Is heaven real? Where did I come from? Did I walk into your belly? Am I an angel from heaven? 

Mama, what is drinking and drugging? What is sin? What is advertising? Why do people go to church? 

Mama, you don’t cry like I do. The tears just come from your eyes, down your cheeks. Not like me, I make noise.

I love you. Even when I don’t get what I want, I still love my Mama.

You feel me?

Before I get into my trip to Italy, I’ve had something else on my mind this past week, this trip, this lifetime.

Being understood.

I read a quote recently that “being loved is great, but being understood is profound.” I heard that and I thought YES! Of course we need love but we also need understanding and these don’t always (or often) go hand in hand. I want to be got. You feel me?

During this month away, I’ve had many moments where I’ve felt like someone just does not ‘get me.’ The language barrier, the cultural taboos, not to mention breaks in wifi or cell service. Travel can be rife with miscommunications and misunderstandings. Usually after a short round of charades or oversimplification of words, our needs can be met, but the feeling that goes along with not being understood leaves one feeling exposed.

Everyone has had these moments. You explain something to a friend or colleague and they look at you like… um, come again? Or a family member that knows you’re expressing something important and they are trying to get it but… no dice. As a writer, it can be crippling to know you’re leaving people confused by what you’re trying to convey. Part of the problem is that we are not taught to be good listeners. We are often crafting our response while the person speaking to us is mid-sentence. We don’t ask enough questions, to get clarity and even help move the conversation forward.

The other part of the problem, though, is that when we’re most in need of being understood, we are at our most vulnerable. And to feel heard, we can be emotional, over complicate, talk in a stream of consciousness, try to get everything out but end up missing the point.

This is where our actual, honest to goodness friends come in. You know the kind – compassionate but clear, loyal but won’t put up with any bullshit. People who will listen, truly listen to your process, and help you get clear on how you feel, what you mean to say. People who can say, “Listen, I love you but you are being a crazy person right now. Stop. Rewind. Start again.”

All of this is to say that while traveling can sometimes leave you raw, reconnecting with loved ones can heal you up. So thank you to the friends and family that have checked in on me during, or become part of, my journey.

And to clarify, in case sharing my experiences here have given anyone the wrong idea (like the anonymous commenter trying to invalidate my observations,) I did not hate India. I can be radically honest here and share my experiences but I can’t control how they are perceived. This was all true, for me. I’d be lying if I said the trip was easy, but I wasn’t looking for easy, I was looking for real. Beautiful, difficult, happy, terrified – it was all the things. As a friend of mine told me – Mother India will take you in, chew you up, and spit you out – hopefully with your soul a little bit cleaner. That’s all I could have asked for.

Truth.

So on to Rome, Modena, Florence… oh my! My sweet friend Jennifer met me in Rome where we had a much needed girls weekend. It felt like a real vacation for both of us. Then we came back to Modena (think chef Massimo Bottura and show Master of None fame,) where she and her man live. We took a quick day trip to Florence yesterday, and on Sunday I’ll head to London to visit my sweet niece and see three inspiring plays.

Some observations this past week:

  1. Food. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about food in Italy? Nothing. Just come here and eat your heart out.
  2. In Rome, we walked up the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica – 551 steps up. And it occurred to me that places like these are not accessible to everyone. I don’t mean the privilege of having the financial means to travel. Even if they got here, many people could not ascend the steps (or cobblestone roads of these ancient towns.) Inside the basilica, there is an elevator that gets you about halfway up but the other 200+ stairs are through narrow walkways. When I say narrow, I mean from the width of my shoulders with maybe an inch or two on each side to spare, with the dome wall curving inward. So, even if you are able bodied, if you are the size of an average American, you couldn’t do it. Maybe sideways. If you’re blind, someone could walk with you. If you’re not able to walk, you could hire people to carry you on their back. But what if you’re a larger human being? Then I thought, are we going to take all of these historical and architectural masterpieces, along with the towns they are in, and change their integrity and accuracy to accommodate absolutely everyone (#inclusivity)? I can’t help but think, though, that there are reasons we keep historical artifacts (and plain old facts) the way they were. That was my inner conflict for the week, when I wasn’t preoccupied thinking about how to change the completely insane shooting epidemic in my own country.
  3. Nobody wears helmets here either! Ok, on motorcycles, yes, but bicycles no. And while it may be a cultural thing and I’m the odd one out here to think people need them, I will never be cycling around without one. Jackson, his Dad, my husband and I have all had bike accidents and wearing helmets did us a world of good. I get it, the culture is different so car drivers don’t have mad road rage for cyclists like many parts of the U.S. But still, why take the chance with your one and only melon? It is very cute, though, to see old ladies and old men peddling around, especially when they throw their grandkids on the back.
  4. Winter comes to Modena, hardcore. It’s currently 35 degrees and snowing as of this moment! Yesterday in Florence it was 40 with whipping wind, but this has actually been good because every tourist attraction was a breeze to visit.
  5. Italy really does have super stylish people everywhere, young and old. Either very sleek wearing black head to toe or completely over the top with shiny sparkly silver or gold shoes and brocades and fur and bright red lipstick. Love.

Photos!

When navigating to find our restaurant one night, we literally walked into the Colosseum. Very cool during the day, yes, but beautiful and eerie even at night.

I found my people…

Typical Roman apartment balcony. Just sweetness and greenery.

Funny story about this photo below at Trevi Fountain. Back when I moved to NYC, a woman I’d briefly known 10 years earlier in SF sent me a Facebook message, asking if I wanted to be connected to her attractive, available brother. I said yes, of course, but the first photo I ever saw of my now-husband was him in front of Trevi Fountain from a recent trip. I remember thinking, damn, she was right, so handsome. Did I mention he’s half Italian? Here I am expressing that I won the jackpot.

Here is the view of Rome from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica dome. Insanely high, yes!

Probably a familiar painting, right? Touching the hand of god and all but you know what? It’s small. And it is one of dozens of other equally impressive ceiling paintings. Technically you’re not allowed to take photos but once I saw a group of Japanese tourists breaking the rule, I didn’t stop myself. Maybe they don’t want people to know how tiny his ‘charm’ is.

This, on the other hand, it huge. It feels even bigger than its 17 feet. It is awe some, beautiful, breathtaking even.

In a cafe in Modena, they have famous people and quotes on the wall, including the inspiration for the name of this blog… “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

Cute girls freezing their tails off in Florence!

A view of Florence from the Uffizi Gallery. Bellissimo!