Saturday, March 15, 2014

Baby Paris

(I was asked to speak at my 2 ½ year old niece’s Wake. This was what I read for Baby Paris that night.)

I did not plan to stand before you tonight to speak…I know my cousins did not plan to ask me or anyone who spoke to stand tonight before you to speak. But God, in His sovereign wisdom knew that this day, at this moment, we would gather here together to send Paris home.  I want to be transparent with you…I don’t want to stand before you today.  I stand as a broken family member, a confused mother, full of questions, and filled with agony. 

What can I say about Paris?  I can’t reach into my treasure box of memories without chuckling a little.  She was so feisty. She had more spunk, more energy, more life than what was supposed to be humanly possible in that little body.  I don’t think that it was because she wasn’t aware that she was supposed to be frail, supposed to be too sick to be happy---I think Paris just did not care that she was supposed to be too frail or too sick to be happy. She just was.

I remember just a few weeks back visiting the family in the hospital.  We were at the Ronald McDonald home and Night and Chris gave me and Wlad the update.  I was filled with dread. She was in the ICU, so obviously, she was very sick.  I pictured her laying there, fatigued, eyes closed and I dreaded to open her door.  But when we went into that half lit room, she was sitting up, her famous pig tails bouncing around, and she had a bed pan in her hand and she was banging on it like a drum.  She looked up and laughed at us.  I’m sure she was thinking, “What strange, worried faces! Do you guys need this bedpan?”

To Paris, that hospital room was her playpen and she was going to have a good time.

I had many encounters with Paris; I wish I had known to treasure every second of it…My encounters were mostly when she was in the boxing ring of life, swinging her arms at challenges and winning small and big feats.  But my favorite was when Night and the family came over at our house and Night tried to take a picture of me and Paris. I was holding her, of course, and Night would count 1…2…3…cheese! Paris would smile real big at the camera during 1…2…but when it got to 3, she would quickly turn to look at me to see if I were smiling. She did that a couple of times. 1…2…3, are you smiling??  We finally had to click at number 2 because she was just too busy making sure I was doing what I was supposed to do.

I think, for sure, Paris learned to laugh and smile at adversities through her grandmother, her Lola.  One of my earliest memories of her was in the hospital room in Long Island and Auntie Estella was there and I had tried and tried to make her acknowledge me but she wouldn’t. But whenever her Lola picked her up and said, “Hi, Paris,” she would squeal and laugh…and I don’t think she did anything but smile through every difficulty and every hurdle after that.  I think, Auntie, you taught Paris to smile through it all.

And then Paris taught me and tried to teach all of us, to smile through it all.

To fight adversities like a trained boxer,
To face fears without flinching,
To be feisty and look at pain in the eye, turn an object like a bedpan into an instrument, and laugh.

It’s partly genetics, really. Last night, I watched my cousin Nightingale comfort many who wept in her arms. I watched Chris walk with people up to Paris and be their support and strength. And amidst the muffled cries, I heard the sound of laughter from my cousin, Night, and I thought, there it is. There is Paris. That baffling laughter amidst all the pain. She will always be with us.

I say the strength in Paris was partly genetics, but all God.

After the Lord came into that hospital room to call Paris home, to end her fight, to give her rest—after what felt like forever of brutal agony, my cousin Nightingale managed to pull herself together, step out of that room for a moment to call everyone to let them know that Paris was no longer with us.

I was in that hallway with her and I had been given strict instructions by a hospital staff to be strong for the mom. So, I put on a strong front. But deep down, I kept asking God,  “Where are you? Where are you?”

And Nightingale, trembling in agony and anger, overcome with sorrow, her face drenched in tears, looked at me and  said, “I have peace.”

And I knew, I knew then where God was. He was right there in our midst.

Chris and Night, I can’t pretend to know the measure of your pain but in your pain, in your sorrow, Jesus is there.

And in those moments, because those moments are going to be many, when you feel that excruciating pain of loss,  know that the Prince of Peace is with you and remember Paris and her smile...and if you can, find a bedpan,  bang on it and keep on marching.

That’s what Paris would do.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Bag Lady

I have become the bag lady.  Not the kind that collects bags--although I admit that's a weakness that needs a soft intervention--but a bag lady associated with long coats, drooping hats, mismatched socks, and a smeared red lipstick.

You know the kind. The crazy ones.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror this past Sunday, as I frantically made my way to meet a post graduate student I needed to supervise and I had to stop and glare at my reflection.  I was wrapped in a black, floor length wool coat, the belt clumsily tied across my waist, a hand knitted scarf wrapped 3 times around my neck.  You couldn't see my hair because it was covered under a drooping newsboy hat, my eyes hidden behind dark rimmed glasses.  I think my head tilted a bit and I examined myself for a quick second.

A nutty professor.  I looked like a nutty professor.

I had turned 40 the day before.

I think what disturbed me the most was the psychotic giggle that escaped my lips. For that split second I felt like I was at a crossroad.  I mean, I was 40 now.  I had always held intelligence over beauty on a pedestal and here I was, middle aged, looking like a scattered nut.  My hair under the hat was in absolute disarray, knotted and frizzy.  My eyebrows were growing in 5 different directions.  And as always, the corner of my lower lip was peeling.  I was the visual antonym of my student who was young, with piercing blue eyes and long, shiny luscious hair.  But she clung onto my every word because I was the expert across the table.  She was brilliant herself but clearly, she found me a genius. How could you not?  I looked like a lunatic, and aren't all geniuses teetering on the side of insanity?  I thought, I like this...this feels right. And I felt a little emotional at the possibility of joining a small army of eccentric bag ladies, the kind that students look up to but crack jokes about.  The very thought of students cracking jokes about me was disturbingly appealing.

But then a few days later I went to visit a school I supervise.  I cloaked myself in the same fashionable hysteria and the lack of acknowledgment bothered me. I sat there, looking at these young teachers who did not seem moved or startled by how knotted my hair was and how dry my lips were.  They were clearly accustomed to my clumsy appearance. But they are equally used to hearing me come up with ideas that don't work and my level of genius does not impress them. I drove away from that school ruminating on beauty and womanhood and being 40. And then I thought of what Audrey Hepburn once said: "The only beauty that doesn't fade is elegance."

And so I faced my crossroad at that moment as I drove through Coney Island in Brooklyn.  I can be a brilliant nut like a handful of my professors in college who did not care to bathe or change their clothes. Or, I can be a Diane Sawyer, who clearly does not trade elegance in exchange for smarts.

The next day I woke up slightly earlier to iron out my hair and to pluck my eyebrows.  I don't have to go downhill just because my age is going uphill, I decided.  I will maintain a level of poise and beauty, along with some level of expertise that come with education and with age.

But today I woke up and looked at my reflection in the mirror. Hair in disarray and lips hopelessly dehydrated.  I realized that a bit of toothpaste had dropped on my black shirt.  I got to school and one of the teachers, tall and pretty and young and perfectly put together, went to my office with a wet paper towel in her hand.

I'll clean your shirt for you, Ms. Anna Marie.

I looked down at my shirt then looked up. Nah...who cares?

I could tell she did not know how to react. She chuckled a little then walked away.  I smiled after her, a psychotic giggle escaping my lips.

So much for that crossroad.  Hello, Bag Lady.