Be a Star (To Matthew)

Be a Star (To Matthew)

….From where you are
To where I am now
Is its own galaxy
Be a star
And fall down somewhere next to me….

Pretty Things by Rufus Wainwright

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Photo by Cora Lynn Deibler

You were afraid of us when we met you. I was newly off to college when my father was your professor. You were a student who played the piano with more power and technique and expression than any student of his I’d ever heard. That he’d ever heard. You yourself were nearly silent, and you held yourself in so closely, so controlled, so contained, away from the piano you barely moved. My father was always attuned to his students; to the whole student, not just the pianist in the student. He thought you needed a friend, and support, and he began to talk to you, and to invite you home with him for dinners. He was afraid you weren’t eating. He was afraid you were so desperately unhappy you might harm yourself. He began to talk to you, and my mother did too, even though you didn’t yet talk with them. Your trauma was deep, like a dog that’s been beaten over and over, and so comes to expect nothing more than more beatings. They spoke quietly to you and moved quietly around you. They offered you good hot food served in a comfortably untidy kitchen, lit by candles for evening supper. They listened to music and laughed with each other while they ate, and spoke to you, even though you did not yet feel brave enough to answer them. But over the weeks, as you realized there was no judgement of you coming from them, as you relaxed your shoulders and your back and you allowed your heart to open up just a little, they reached out their hands and drew you in and you began to laugh with them too. And your story began to come out. And you became, over time, part of our family. Because everyone needs family to love them.

In time, my father asked students who were having problems three questions: Are there problems at home? Are you afraid you drink too much or have a problem with drugs? And the third question, which was often the root to affirmative answers to the first two — Do you think you might be gay? What right does a teacher have to ask these questions of a student? This isn’t what their parents are paying him to do. Stick to piano lessons. But to the student who can’t form the words, even to themselves, it is a relief to have someone they respect and trust form the words for them and do so in a friendly way, with an offer of help with navigation of the new landscape. A relief to the student whose parents have sent them off to college and told them they can stay in school, that they’ll continue to pay for their education so they can have a livelihood, because they’re not cruel for Christ’s sake, but please don’t think you can come home ever again with that in your heart. You have a little brother or sister – who knows what you’d do to them, and what about your grandparents, what will they think? And the neighbors, and people at church, and where have we gone wrong and why why why are you doing this to us, never mind that you’ll spend eternity in hell. How can a child then show up for Christmas, begging to be let in?

Your parents were unequipped for life outside the narrow rural confines of their harsh and nasty Christianity. Your parents, from the tangled depths of their ignorance and confusion, their angry grief at the death of their lifelong assumptions,  made it known you weren’t welcome in their house. Their God told them you were evil and needed to change. And not just change, but repent, and repent with fervor. But they were wrong. They were the evil that damaged you from the get go. Your life afterward was a constant conflict of running away fast and hard, while also trying to find a way, any way, to fit back in. My father, not your own, taught you to tie the necktie you borrowed from him before a recital. My mother, not your own, fed you and hugged you. My parents, not your own, made sure you had money for groceries and someone with whom to talk over the decisions that have to be made in a newly blooming life. You considered changing your last name to ours. And we would have welcomed it, we loved you so deeply.

And how you bloomed, with your courage and determination, and my family as your touchstone. You traveled and met people, and lived in cities all over the country. You repaid my parents a hundred times over with your love and a soaring ride in a glider over Long Island for their birthdays.You took them to the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve Gala with you; my father, in his tuxedo, and my mother, nervous she wouldn’t look right, in a black suit and black suede pumps. She wore diamonds in her ears and the pearl necklace she wore for her wedding. They saw Die Fledermaus sung on the most famous opera stage in the country, and at the elaborate dinner afterward, rubbed elbows with Tony Randall and Kitty Carlisle Hart. You brought us to your home in Santa Fe, and sent us off on a trip to the Grand Canyon, booking hotel rooms and steam locomotive tickets for the ride to the rim of the canyon because that’s what my children would enjoy. And we did too. But you couldn’t come with us because by then you were very sick, and had found out you were HIV positive.

And we were so afraid for you. It was that time before really effective treatment, but new diagnoses were coming thick and fast, and the stigma of a positive status was still damaging. Not quite the death sentence of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but one had to be so aggressively proactive to obtain good treatment. Under the New Mexico stars, we sat out in the soft night by the fire, talking, me holding your warm hand. Loving you. Telling you. Not wanting to leave you. We were your family, and we were glad to be with you. Together is what we do best. Your sisters, by then, had pushed the rantings of your parents to the background, and rallied to your side. I was so happy for you. When we had to leave, they were arriving to help you. To join hands and solder that circle of strength for the murky future. You and your three sisters.

Your second oldest sister is a veterinarian and made of tough rural stock, and once performed minor surgery on herself. She gets things done and has managed to build a loving family of her own despite her parents’ parenting. Not satisfied with the treatment you were getting in Santa Fe, your kidneys failing, she got you an appointment at Johns Hopkins. You and your three beloved dogs flew to Baltimore on your friend’s private plane. And it was there that your aggressive lymphoma was diagnosed and where we gradually came to terms with your almost certain death. We visited you. So did your father and his new meekly poisonous wife. He told you you were going to hell, and why, so you’d know and it wouldn’t be a surprise when you got there. While he talked to his son this way, his wife nodded and smiled her support of his cruelty. After they felt they’d scared you enough to reawaken the self-hatred you’d spent years trying to sweep from your life, they produced a handful of religious pamphlets for you to read that would save you. Ignoring his wife completely, you found the strength to tell your father to leave and not to come back. That was good for you. You went to live with your sister and her husband in her big sunny house with your dogs snuggled in around you, and we could visit you while you grappled with chemotherapy and radiation and the brutal effects of antiretrovirals begun too late. It was a gift for me and for my parents to have you close. To be together.

There were a few weeks over Christmas that year, your favorite holiday, where the doctors told you you were free of cancer. You gained weight and felt good and played with your dogs and we began to hope that this was permanent. You missed your piano and Santa Fe. You missed the house you were building there, and the fireplace carved into the adobe, painted pale green and dusted with chips of mica that reflected the light of the flames so the whole thing sparkled like an enchanted corner. You and the dogs flew home. But by early January, you were weak and confused. Your sisters all went to be with you as the cancer roared back, peppering your brain and your spine, your hip, and your lungs. It was over long before you finally gave up, with the three of them holding you close in your big bed, along with the dogs who refused to leave your side. Looking out at the snow topped mountains in the distance, they read aloud our many messages of love and caring to you as you slipped into days of twilight sleep and finally died. You were only 31 years old and it was far far too soon.

I cried every day for months. Missing you. Not daring to admit or wanting to know I would never see you or hug you again. I hoped with a bone deep fury I rarely feel that your mother and father would forever be tormented with grief and guilt for how they had treated you, and for making the brief life you had so largely miserable. My parents were gutted by your death, you fully their son, but bore it stoically. They spoke often of you and laughed at the many good memories they had. You were the godfather to my sweet middle boy, and my children’s vision of you was the fun uncle who brought them books about a family of slugs afraid of salt, and books about pooping, and who loved Edward Gorey. When your sister had a baby boy, she named him Matthew, after you.

A year and a half later, we all flew to San Francisco for your memorial service with your sisters and their families. Your parents “couldn’t make it,” and I was glad they weren’t there. They didn’t deserve this last chance to be with you and to see you off. I went with my parents, my sister and her husband, my three children, and my husband. We stayed in Stinson Beach, a cozy town tucked in on the coast north of the city. It was my first view of the PDSCF0025acific Ocean, and my eyes filled with tears when I saw it. I knew you loved this place, and I wondered if you also stood here the first time, looking with tears in your eyes as you saw something so huge and so far away from where you grew up. From how you grew up. Did you ever believe then that you, a sensitive young gay pianist born in a rural wasteland that treasured nothing of what you were, would be in this place looking at this ocean with a family that loved you for exactly who you were? I wept to know that I would never stand there looking at it with you, holding your hand, we two country born Pennsylvania children, growing up so differently, but coming together into one life, in this place together.

We have no official permits. There are no funeral directors involved. You told your sisters to scatter your ashes on the westernmost point of land in Point Reyes National Seashore. All we have for this task is our love for you, some poems, some songs you liked, and you in your small wooden box, carved by your brother-in-law John, sanded and smoothed with love. We drove north from our houses on the foggy roads at sunrise to arrive at Chimney Rock before 7 am. What we are doing is illegal, and I know you’d have liked that. On the way there, we had to stop, as a herd of black and white dairy cattle crossed the rutted road. One stopped in front of our car and gazed at us with a deep black liquid look as her herd walked past her across the muddy road and disappeared into the fog lingering on the pasture. She looked at us for a long time. Still. Watching. Then she moved on. It was important and we were quiet in the car. You always liked cows, and liked the Point Reyes cattle as they wandered where they wanted, and people had to make way for them. We park our cars and walk a mile or so through the wind-beaten beach grass on a trail that leads out to the rocky point far above the ocean. The gray sky weighs on us, and I’m afraid, and dreading the deep wound of grief this morning is going to scrape open again. The wind blows off the ocean, cool and damp, but the fresh salt smell is exciting to me, so used to being landlocked. I think this is probably how you felt too when the smell of ocean filled your nose and blew your hair straight back, and it was clean and damp and scoured your heart of the stains left there from your struggles. I needed some scouring myself. I dared to hope that maybe I could find something in that wind from you to soothe that weeping wound in my core that doggedly refused to heal.

DSCF0084_1024We sat all together on the grass. A sea bird circled up above us, gray and white against the soft rolling gray of the sky and the fog, occasionally calling, soaring, diving down, way down, to touch the water, then winging back up, high over us again. Staying there with us. Your brother-in-law Jim, who always loved you, speaks to us, and we remember some of the good times. Times when you made us laugh. When we did things together; picnics, swimming, camping, city visits, your love of nature, the wilder the better. We remember Matthew who was strong and healthy, and free of pain and confusion. Matthew, who loved to tease and could always make us laugh. Matthew, who played the piano with passion and tenderness, pulling magnificent volume and gorgeous soaring music from the instrument with just his two hands and his big heart. And then we listened to music, the Indigo Girls, and that was when I started crying, and felt your absence most keenly. I knew for certain then, that this was our goodbye, our release of you. We truly never would see you again and now we’d have to keep you inside us, each on our own, to remember you. Such a fragile tenuous tie to you. Memories can be lost so easily, and are weak comfort when loneliness for you weighs me down. And while I desperately want freedom from this sadness that seems to have set up permanent housekeeping in my heart, I also never want to forget you.

The wooden box holding your ashes sat on the ground in front of us. Your sister brought a rock from home for your resting place. Your name was etched onto it, and the dates of your birth and of your death. We were each invited to gather up a handful of you, and take it to a place on that great jutting point of land high above the Pacific. A place we each felt was beautiful enough to hold you forever. I hesitated to touch you. I never had seen human ashes before, and wasn’t sure what they felt like. Dry and grainy, the coarse gray white dust with some larger ivory colored shards lay leveled in the box. I will never forget how you felt in my hand when I gathered you up. As I held you, and walked to the rocky edge to choose the right place for you, I thought to touch my finger to my tongue, to put a few grains of you into my mouth so you would be with me and in me forever, but I didn’t. Now I wish I had. I walked the edge of the cliff alone, my husband helping my children handle the emotions of this day. My parents standing together as they always have in everything. I was traveling my own path. I looked down at the heavy surf and saw a single sea lion rolling and diving in the blue gray water that glittered and shifted dully like a piece of polished labradorite. She stayed there by the rocks, looking up at us, maybe curious. Maybe knowing. I knew this was the place for me to put you. We each did this, choosing a place for our own reasons, on our own impulse, and parts of you were sprinkled everywhere in that big beautiful wild place. 

We stayed there with the quiet whooshing of the wind and the tide for a while, and then I knew it was time for me to leave and start down the path to the new life without you in it. I walked into the wind, salty, and eucalyptus scented, and it shushed past my ears with a quiet soothing sound. My footsteps were muffled by the cushioning grass. My tears dried and I took a shuddering breath. And then I heard my name. I turned, thinking my husband had caught up to me, but there was no one there. My heart began beating in my ears and all my senses were pinpointed on that sound, on my name in the wind. I looked around me. No one. I held my breath, knowing it happened, willing it to happen again. Above me, that gray gull was still circling, watching us leave this now sacred place, spread out, filing back to the car. All of us alone in our grief. I felt some comfort in my pain.

That day was now almost 15 years ago. And despite my fear, my memory of that moment hasn’t faded. I still miss you. I will miss you for the rest of my life. Every year, on August 13th, I send you a birthday thought, and every year, on January 29th, I remember the devastating pain the news of your death brought. I don’t think of you constantly anymore. Not even weekly. But there are times when something happens, something funny or ridiculous, or if I’m hiking, and the cedar-scented air is filling my nose, I think, “Matthew would have liked this.” When I’m with my family and we’re laughing, as we always are, we remember you and say to each other, “Matt would like this.” My middle son, your godson, is getting married in a couple of weeks, and I will surely think of you on that day, and wish you were there to celebrate with us. And sometimes when I’m running, my muscles loose and warm on a chilly misty day, when my mind is emptied out and relaxed and my music is turned down low, my breathing easy and rhythmic, I’ll feel you with me. And I’ll suddenly miss you with a sweeping wave of palpable awareness of you. And that moment is just for me, from you. You calling my name as the wind blows on my ears and a bird languidly circles in the sky over my head.

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Safe Passage

WindowI had a front row seat when they began to dismember her. Chunk by chunk, they dissected her and spread her out and scrutinized her. They scooped and sawed and chipped at her until there was nothing left inside; until eventually the wire she was made to walk became so narrow, tight, and sharp, no one could have walked it without bloodying themselves in the inevitable fall. With no recourse left to her, she fled. Her paychecks, every single one vitally necessary, ceased, and for weeks she lived by her wits and her faith in God and in the loving arms of her friends. Her children watched, angry and confused, to see how their mother, loved by so many and loving so many herself, suffered. They struggled with adolescent embarrassment and childish fear for the parent who had always been their touchstone, which she continued to be despite her shattered world. Swirled into this thick soup of pain was their fierce loyalty for the mother who loved them equally fiercely. Ultimately, they stood beside her. On the side of the right. As she taught them. They inspired her with words she used to inspire them, and in the end, they comforted each other and held each other up above the mess. She, so hurt and damaged by people she respected, trying to keep the love that was the focus and the force of her life, the impetus for all she did and all she was, in the forefront of her new reality, gritted her teeth, screamed inside over and over, shed frustrated grieving tears, pacing through those long quiet nights, and when the sun came up, just slogged on through the mud, as she had many times before. I have never respected anyone as much as I respected her in those desperate days.

One day after she had moved and was gone, I received a call from our friend who was at her empty house. “There are some things here that I don’t know what to do with. Can you help?” And I, of course, can. And do. It was clear she had endured all she could before just shattering and disappearing into the abyss. Her home was no longer her refuge. The army had arrived, banging on the door with hard fists. They ransacked her tired defenses and left her life in ruins. Desperate, she gathered her children and fled. I’d have done the same, but much sooner. We sorted through possessions and loaded a truck with things to save for her, and put some things on the curb and some other things to donate and we, silent and sad, locked the door behind us, and felt so empty and drained on that starry fall night. We said quiet goodbyes to each other, friends who get together often, but it had the feeling of forever in it. The way we were was done, and we were as hollow and bereft as the house we’d just emptied.

I couldn’t go home to my own home that night. It felt too greedy and self-satisfied; that to take refuge there in that place where I always find my peace would be mocking the searing tragedy I’d just left. I walked a long way in the dark, trying to forget. And trying to remember so I wouldn’t ever forget. I looked in the windows of the houses as I walked, and wondered about homes and houses and what defines the difference.

I pass the “green” house of an ardently eco-conscious young family. The florescent bottles 2ceiling lights give off a cold blue light, as if they’re living in the butcher shop my grandmother and I walked to in the dark on Saturday nights to pick up the Sunday roast. There are no curtains or blinds on the windows. They hold dust and tempt allergies to set up lodging in this pure house. This sterile house. I see the children working on a project at the table by the window. Brown cardboard. White glue. Cotton string. There are no markers, glitter, paint. There is no art on any of the white walls to inspire them. This is not a house where I’d want to live. The serious mother reads in a chair under yet another cold blue light. Her eyes will be saved. The photographs in her book will appear as intended in the correct lighting. Would she know what to do with warmth if it should appear and bathe her and her children in a golden glow? Are they missing it? Do they know they don’t have it? She’s saving the earth, but for what?

There’s a spectacular house on this street with candles in every window. It is filled with antique furniture and has big brick chimneys that puff out smoke from multiple fireplaces that spread delicious warmth on the cold nights of winter. It is beautifully landscaped. It is a showplace. It is perfect. It is all hollow show. Inside there are petty fights and slammed doors. There are tears and angry phone calls. There are ultimatums and threats and little deceptions and mistrust and long silences. It is a house that masquerades as a home.

Whole HouseI pass a house where inside I know a grandfather is dying. His children won’t make him take those last steps alone and they sit by his bed and hold his hands and he smiles as he comes and goes, and comes and goes. After it is done, they rest awhile with him and with each other, sharing memories, shedding tears, and yes, laughing, before making the call that sets that express train of EMTs, ambulances, and funeral directors in motion and he no longer belongs to them. They wash him. They pray. They tend to him for the last time as he did for his parents; as the love and duty in their family assumes. This is a home.

I stand in the dark on the sidewalk across the street from that sad loving home. The smoke from my cigar, cedar-scented and peppery on my tongue, like this beautiful woman now gone from my life, rises past my eyes and up into the black sky, and tears roll down my cheeks. And I’m grateful to have had the chance to finally really help her. And help myself.

Her house was a home. Always scrubbed clean, it was warm and fragrant with candles and cooking. Laughter filled it up and spilled out the door and down the steps. Her quiet patience permeated every corner. There was discipline for her children that framed their world and contained it; that gave them something to count on. When I got that call and saw her house, still filled with things, filled with her, I felt my heart gripped and twisted. I felt her desperation, her fear, her urgency. And even though her new job is good, her new home is nice, and her children are happy in their new town, I finally sensed what she never betrayed as she struggled to stay strong for those in her life who counted on her for everything. I finally understood the depth of her despair, and her terror as that misguided power forced its way into her home, held her prisoner, and wouldn’t leave no matter what she did until she was wounded and worn out with the struggle.

We three friends sorted and carried things to the curb. We recycled and boxed and bagged and saved and discarded and shed tears and sweat. An exorcism of anger and worry and finally, finally a physical manifestation of our love for her to wear us out and dispel some of our grief. Here finally was the help we’d been longing to give. Here finally was something we could do for her. The people who loved her boxed up the pain and the fear, swept the desperation into a dusty pile on the floor and threw it out once and for all. We tidied up the tattered debris of years of anger and confusion and betrayal for her, and finally cleaned that slate. We keep her things for her, tending them, until she comes back to reclaim them. Until she comes back to reclaim us. To see us, to laugh with us, to hold us in hugs that we never want to end.

I stub my cigar out in the grass at my feet. I wipe the tears off my face. I walk home.

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The Quiet

Traffic noise on the street is a constant refrain. Music and shouting, cans rolling on the pavement, angry cats fighting, neighbors clamoring for all the air and space they can grab and it never stops. The noise inside me that no one else can hear is just as deep and loud and even though it’s silent, and although I don’t invite it in, it crashes through the door and then won’t leave. I have dreams at night that won’t let me alone when daylight comes, and the next night I dream about the dream from the night before filled with worry and trouble and no control over anything that will happen and walking through mud on legs weakened and weighted and pulling breath into lungs that refuse to inflate. Tornadoes roar an approach and children won’t listen to me to run, and run now, and I can’t gather them in and the wind is screaming and I know with visceral conviction that a suffocating nimbus of death is coming. The noise of my dreams drowns me with their weight in the quiet of the night. My husband sleeps beside me with his hand resting steady and warm on my hip and I lay awake rooted and listening to the noise thrumming through my head, amplified and booming in the dark.

In the morning the coffee drips and I slowly let in the lighted world and my fuzzy-headed waking isn’t strong enough or discerning enough to sift all the information accumulated while I slept and movie stars are misbehaving, and drones are striking and cranky people are bitching about life and it’s snowing again and bad grammar and the things they cannot escape or will not, and I can’t stay away, I have to know it and read it and listen to it and watch the clips and connect and comment because I’m certain my small weak thoughts will power a change and I have to read about the wrongs and the troubles because it is my duty as a voting citizen with all of society and my family and my friends on my shoulders and rail against the injustice that is living, until I want to throw it down and walk away to the shower. I scrub and scrub with hot water and peppermint soap with the water pounding my face and the soap blocking my ears and I think this is what it sounds like deep under Niagara Falls below the foam of the falls breaking where it is tons of pressure in that sonic boom of power and I ponder aromatherapy and the search for peace through my nose and think that if I just knew more I’d be set and quiet at last, and then I’m towelling dry my hair and my ears clear and the noise starts again as the sound of the water drips away and my list of obligations begins to shout at me and I know I’m running out of time to get it all done before I have to leave for work and all I want is a day or two or a week of quiet that is quiet.

How do I explain to the people I love and who love me that I need to be away from them to hear myself? It hurts the ones I run to daily for refuge and help, for calming and care like my husband and my parents, sisters and brother and friends and their eyes and the set of their shoulders say isn’t this good enough and haven’t we been here to prop you up all those times when you sucked out our energy and our patience and we gave it and gave it freely and willingly until it was gone and now it isn’t enough after all? Well thanks a lot and go then, but they’re hurt by my desertion, and when I’m really looking for the quiet I have to run away or drive away or send others away and then I choose my company carefully. My notebook. My fountain pen. My hiking boots. My camera. My orange cat. My night under the moon. Just watching, alone, on my dark porch.

The moon at night is quiet, known and unknowable, a pearl out of reach, and the trail through the pine and oak forest is quiet, pulling hectic energy out of me and dissipating it in the cedar scented breeze, and I could ask you to come but would you hear the quiet and let it be or would you try to fill it to lay claim to it and name it?

That’s the risk right there.

Field 2

Putting It To The Flame

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
― Ernest HemingwayA Moveable Feast

He used to stand in front of the TV in denim overalls, hands tucked into the bib, riotous blonde curls on his head, to watch Sesame Street. Ready to dance, to sing along, to call me in to see at a moment’s notice. He handed out fierce hugs frequently, kissed his aunts’ hands when greeting them, and was my little shadow for years. Lap sitter. Hold me. Can I have another kiss goodnight? A re-appearer on the stairs after tuck-in to tell me just one more thing: Mommy, you’re so smart. You’re beautiful. I wanted to say thank you for my lunch box. He grew up so fast, as busy children – and parents – do. And while I may not remember every little word, gesture or moment of the growing up, I will remember the ache of complete and blindly obliterating love in my throat and my heart forever.

Banquet Final

Reverence for food runs through our lives like a deep dark river, and has for generations. Food is sacrament and sustenance, celebration and consolation. Preparation is joyful meditation, and sharing is a fulfilling communion. Conversation grows like morning glory vines scrambling up a string to bloom. Love is passed along with the roast spring lamb embedded with garlic, crusted with sea salt, rosemary and lemon juice; along with the pasta with fresh ricotta and spring’s baby arugula; with the winter’s chicken and dumplings, rich and feathery. The garnet wine, the black espresso, all become the easing lubricant for a life that can be a creaky and cumbersome burden. And the laughter that leaves us breathless is the real dessert along with the cream and the dark chocolate.

This weekend, I saw my son in new light; the focused laser of a being who hears and heeds his calling. He volunteers to help a friend with the cooking for a benefit dinner that is stalled in the planning. Their welcome of his expertise and practical suggestions turns him into the executive chef, and I’ve offered to help. How did this sensitive little boy grow into this young man so in command of his kitchen? He exerts full control with calm and humor and an understanding of human nature beyond his years. He rescues the fraternity brother, a volunteer, from the dish pan to which he’s been relegated, and asks him “How are you with a knife?” The boy replies, “Uh…OK, I guess.” My son gives him a knife-proof glove, gives him quick clear instruction, reassures him he can do it, hands him his lethally sharp personal santoku knife, and the fraternity brother is suddenly making a good chiffonade of fresh mustard greens to go into the braised chicken. Clearly, he likes this a lot more than the dish pan. My son as mentor with a sense of humor.

There’s a skill to getting five courses of dinner flowing to the dining room. Even more skill is required when the dining room is half a mile away from the kitchen. He has a crew of volunteers and amateur cooks, a clipboard with pages and pages of notes,Knives recipes, schedules, and lists of tasks to be completed, who’s to complete them, and in what order. This is the daredevil boy who rode his bike down the biggest hill he could find, as fast as he could go, ditching the bike helmet as soon as he left the house and my eyesight. This is the boy who set off a roman candle inside his car just to see what would happen. He runs his kitchen like an engineer runs a locomotive. It can’t be stopped or the whole thing derails. Timers tick away and ring their alarm. Pots are boiling, sauces simmering, oil heating, cold things kept cold, hot things kept hot. 60 plates heated in the oven until they are screaming hot. You can’t touch them without towels and even then you get burned. Bowls for sorbet and tiny spoons popped into the freezer to chill, then kept in a refrigerated truck until the sorbet is served before the entrée. One of the diners has an allergy. We prepare his appetizers and entrée separately, using dedicated knives, cutting boards, dishes, utensils, even gloves. He assembles his crew, checking items off the list as he doles out the duties. It all hinges on him and his organization, and he’s ready.

Instead of engaging in a showy tug of war for control, he quietly does things his way with no discussion and no fanfare, this boy who muscled his way through the terrible twos (and threes…and some of the fours…) with fearsome tantrums. My respect grows. There are two of us that he trusts completely, left in the kitchen to finish the cooking with him. I am honored to be one of them. After a lifetime of cooking for him, I’m now a bit intimidated by his knowledge and his skill. Do I measure up to the standard now set by my son? There are no do-overs here, and I don’t want to disappoint him. We fry 65 creamy polenta circles, we pull apart 10 braised chickens. I am told to thicken the braising liquid, redolent of white wine and chicken stock, and I am relieved when he pronounces it “perfect.”

The food is finished cooking, wrapped and covered, and stored in hot boxes for transporting to the tent at the site of the dinner. We plate the salads in an assembly line. He watches to be sure that the salad will stretch. There is enough left for two additional salads. Good planning feeds generously, while minimizing waste. The salads are cleared, and sorbet is served. A fresh mint leaf and a frozen spoon are settled into each little white cup, and trays are whisked away by servers. We set up to plate the entrées. He tells us all to get fresh gloves. We will plate the allergy sufferer’s entrée first. A circle of polenta goes down onto the plate. Next, a handful of hot chicken pieces. Hands are a much better, more satisfying way to judge how much you’re serving than an impersonal spoon. A ladle of the braising sauce is poured over the chicken. A warm salad of blanched, still crisp green beans combined with chopped peppers and a vinegar dressing is added to the plate. Passed along the line, a garnish of chopped mustard greens is sprinkled atop the chicken, a vivid orange nasturtium blossom is tucked in beside the beans. Each beautiful plate is passed to the “wiper” who makes sure each one is perfectly clean before it’s put on the waiter’s tray. My son keeps a close eye on each step, his final instruction telling the waiters to set the plate onto the table with the chicken covered polenta at 6 o’clock, and the nasturtium on the left. Uniformly beautiful and delicious.

The entrées are all served, and then we plate desserts. First, fresh gloves for everyone. Thick slices of carrot cake with buttery cream cheese frosting gets a rosette of whipped cream. Alternatively, there is a dense moist chocolate cake sweetened with puréed beets, covered with a glorious chocolate ganache. More whipped cream is piped out, and these dark plates get a mint leaf and a fat red raspberry as a little extra gilding. Entrées are cleared, and desserts are served. My son is called into the candlelit tent by the dinner’s organizers, and their chef is introduced to the assembled group who have paid $50 a plate for tonight’s meal. Their enthusiastic applause brings tears to my eyes. He waves a modest thank you. He is exhausted.

The last few diners linger over their coffee and dessert, and then leave, and finally we can begin clearing up. The job is enormous. Everything must be taken away in trucks; glasses, plates, bowls, cups, every spoon and fork and knife, transported to the dish washers waiting at the University. The refrigerator truck must be driven away. Tables must be taken down, linens bagged, chairs folded and returned, food wrapped and saved for donation or discarded as unsafe to eat again. I return to the prep kitchen, which also must be cleaned. I leave my son loading piles of chairs onto a pickup truck. An hour later, he returns to the prep kitchen where we are finishing up the wiping and washing. He grabs a broom and even though he looks ready to drop, he makes sure the floor is clean, he sorts out his knives and cleans and dries them, putting them away in their canvas roll. He packs up the bins of blenders and propane burners, stock pots, spoons, whisks, grill scouring pads, and all the paraphernalia essential to the success of an event like this, and carries them to his car. This boy, whose bedroom was a chaotic stockpile of clothing, video games, books, music, lacrosse pads, sneakers and computer parts for years, puts his broom away. He casts a final appraising eye over the kitchen. He’s left it cleaner and tidier than he found it. And at 11:15 PM his day is over. I invite him to the house. I give him a beer and we share a drink and a cigar in the quiet cool back yard. And we talk over the day and he makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts. I tell him how proud I am of who I saw tonight, how fortunate to be able to work with him in his chosen and hard-won profession. I am so fortunate to find deep respect for this child of mine. I feel that ache of love in my throat again, as strong and deep as when he was 3. I always will.

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