In August the Obamas went for a week’s vacation in Martha’s Vineyard: Ten-year-old Malia’s head already sprouted almost above her father’s shoulder—she is tall and willowy, feminine like her mother, lithe like her father. Gorgeous Michelle followed behind the two with her arm around Sasha: all the “girls” wore shades as Barack waved from the tarmack at the camera.
He did not wave as he boarded the helicopter on the Wednesday before the Labor Day holiday to fly with his family to Camp David with health care reform and the war in Afghanistan looming. But I recall his wave.
I recall my sister’s wave before she got on the plane to Ethiopia, willowy at seventeen, three days before her eighteenth birthday that she would celebrate on her arrival and where she would marry. Her fiancé was in the Army on the base—gone!—in Eritrea. Thirty-five years later she would die on a gurney, legless and about to lose her arms because the blood from her heart could no longer reach her hands, blue with loss and the diabetes that took her life in 1993.
Her wave, full of hope and risk—that fearless wave. I write a postcard to her now: Wish you were here.
How do I deal with all the leavings?
How do I deal with the desperate longing for a new beginning?
How do I deal with the shame of Internet dating that resulted in my daughter’s assertion, “You are fickle, your fickle ways,” said in merited disgust. I am in love and out of love: She recounts: “The psychiatrist who one day is the love of your life and the next, dangerous to your life. The college professor who one day is the love of your life and the next … .” Need I go on reporting how I failed? How she must wonder, I suspect: Who is this woman I have called my mother?
Meanwhile The New York Times reports that “fewer than half of [Obama’s] appointees are in place … a reflection of a White House that grew more cautious after several nominations blew up last spring ….”
Who are the appointees in my life?
I spent another Saturday night with him and I write him on Sunday morning:
It’s hard for me on leaving you, as you could see yesterday. Sometimes, as over this weekend, it is also hard for me to be with you. I think that is because you are not yet able to be fully with me, to express the “need” to be with me in some way that makes sense to me, to put words and gestures around the need. You did seem to do that Saturday when you came over to me, when you sort of asked to stay, when you most poignantly laid your head on my chest. I needed to be cautious because if you had stayed, I would have given myself to you body and soul. That is what I want to do, need to do because I love you, flawed as I am, flawed as you are.
I sense that I must take on—but you point out when I say this, “unfairly to yourself”—the blame for what seems lacking, something nameless, something I think, must be my fault and that needs to be “named.” That doesn’t mean I need to “understand” or have full disclosure about your journey toward your self, or in any way invade your privacy, but something seems withheld, almost as if to accept comfort from me would be to accept blame on your part. I am to blame. I must be. And I don’t want you to take on my blame or yours with the stuff (talking, touching) that would help.
I have held back, I think, because I tend to see our relationship as “all or nothing.” That my approach to you in any measured way would mean or be interpreted as full engagement—and be found lacking, because it is not yet full engagement. I have tended to be silent to protect that space I need to work through my personal past [what does he mean by that? for what is between us is personal? Don’t we share the past?] for a while, but I hear from you that, if I am present, you can also be present and help without full engagement. I do know what full engagement means and looks like, and I don’t want you to think that I want something short of that. I am trying to get to the point of full engagement, and need some space—not totally—still to get there. I tend not to talk about that because I think it’s hurtful to you, even though it has nothing to do with you and is not a rejection of you.
I slept and dreamt after D. left me on Saturday night. I suppose this is one of those classic dreams like the airplane dream: I am driving a big dark grey car—not like my father’s Chevy, not a big rectangle, how I always thought of that bulky car he loved. I’m driving a hyperbolic bullet, sleek and large, probably a Toyota on a road that is soon covered with snow. I tell myself to slow down on this surface but can’t keep my pedal off the metal. The snow is filling up my side windows and the rear window so that all I can see is forward. I know this is not a safe way to drive but I keep going though I don’t know where I am going except that I am on Route 66. As the snow begins to fly off my peripheral windows and my vision opens up, I realize that I have passed a store at a mall where I am trying to meet my parents and my sister. She waves from an unknown location. I know I need directions. I know my parents and my sister are dead. This thought is always a sad thought, sadder now that my husband has left me. When they died, I mourned their loss but had a sense of safety in my marriage. Now that is lost. My loneliness is profound, not unique, but profound. I must stop the car and get directions. When I do, I discover—the way dreams work— that I have driven onto the top of the drugstore soda fountain counter like the one where my father and I used to eat coddies and drink chocolate sodas on Dolfield Road in Baltimore while my mother got her hair done next door. He liked the chocolate soda better than I did. I always wanted an ice cream soda and he could be counted on to get me one.
I am lost but dream: D. waits with his arms open. He kisses me full on the mouth, deeply, with desire, and with admiration if one can feel that in a kiss. I think one can.
He is so slim, so beautiful and in real life so totally unattainable.
I send him this poem with the note: Remember this?
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
—W. H. Auden (1907-1973)
And he replies:
Think not lost, perhaps nearly born.
I recall D.’s heart and being like the drift of the Caribbean sea over the sand, the strand of light that reaches through the clarity of that sea. His touch and his kiss that once expressed a clarity of vision that took me in its sight and held me so that I let go, floated in its buoyant assurance.
I may not know what I am doing but I do know that what I have just written bears itself on the incontrovertible.
I must understand the multiplicity of irreducible people, of the irreducible D., and that my humanity lies therein. We will not have perfection in discourse. But I must seek humanity in discourse. That responsibility weighs heavily on me as I think it should.
And so, I wave. I wait for the sea.