From the kitchen where I was cooking dinner, I could hear the introduction of “Con te Partiro,” Bocelli’s slightly rough tenor voice, a resonant timbre thick like chocolate syrup with the sugar course, not yet melted, swelling with the ascending scale in a gradual crescendo leading to the refrain. Every night after work, my husband, Mike, would come home, take off his tie, loosen his collar, scoop up our two-year-old son, and tucking Scott in the crook of his arm, sit down in front of the computer. The song played in a continuous loop, providing not only the music for all three of us, but also a swirling psychedelic picture on the computer screen for Scott and Mike to watch until I had dinner on the table. Each time it began to fade, Scott clapped, saying “ ’gain, ’gain,” until it started again.
Mike remembered life as a young child, when the men ate at the dining room table and talked about important things and the women and children ate in the kitchen. As a teenager, he had once declined one of his mother’s freshly baked blueberry muffins. His father, incensed at Mike’s disrespect, hit him so hard that Mike fell several feet backward and landed against the kitchen cabinets. The first time I met Mike’s parents, Joe entertained me with stories of World War II while we ate okra and catfish Frances had breaded and fried. Never having eaten catfish, I didn’t know to slide the meat off the nearly invisible skeleton of the fish. When Frances realized I had a mouth full of fish bones, she leaned toward me, squeezed my hand, and with a little smile and wink, told me I could be excused to the restroom. Somewhere after Belgium, between Germany and Pearl Harbor, Joe told Frances to get out her famous banana cake she had made just for me. She made it from scratch, of course. A rich, sweet, heavy cake, perfectly moist because of the buttermilk, the icing made of cream cheese and vanilla. If it hadn’t been our first meeting, I would have had seconds or even thirds. Joe said he thought she could have done better.
For Mike and I, our early married life was more reminiscent of my joyous, contented childhood where harsh, unkind words were rarely spoken. We were grateful for one another and our good fortune. Like the kitchen from my childhood home, ours was warm with the scent of pot roast, herbs, fruit, chocolate, cinnamon. And just as my father had been joyful to see us at the end of his day, Mike seemed glad to come home to me. More often than not there were fresh flowers on our table, delivered mid-day every week or so just because Mike had thought about me while he was at work. Our dinners were sometimes elegant: baked salmon, fresh asparagus, brie leek soup; and sometimes hearty: lasagna, garlic bread, salad. Even when I fell short and made a disaster of crab cakes, Mike said they were nearly perfect. That is what I remember of our life then, nearly perfect.
Mike and I were unprepared when my pregnancy was cut short by Scott’s premature arrival. Mike disappeared emotionally, hiding behind a veil of silent anger. I disappeared too, spending every minute I could at the hospital during Scott’s three-month stay; the nightly return home for food and sleep was just a hindrance, preventing me from being with my sick baby. Scott’s brain bled and, though the doctor’s were able to stop it, there was no way to know what kind of damage had been done. A constant uncertainty about Scott’s future replaced our gratitude for a time until it was clear that our son was learning and growing, albeit at his own pace. We learned to take joy in Scott’s steady gaze—knowing that it meant he was understanding, connecting to us and his world. We rejoiced at his baby laughter and his frustrated cries—signs that he knew what he liked and what he didn’t. We didn’t take for granted even the smallest indication that his brain and his body were functioning. By the time Scott was two years old, I knew that the three of us listening to opera while we ate dinner was a simple gift, and I was grateful for it. I loved our evening ritual. It reflected our lives: melodic, harmonious, and refined, but not too much so.
Our operatic ritual continued even as our lives began to change. Mike became gruff, edgy when he came home. He would sometimes acknowledge me or Scott and sometimes not as he passed through the kitchen on the way to the computer after work. At first, Scott followed and climbed into Mike’s lap and Mike held him. But it was not long before Scott would instead keep his place under my feet until dinner was ready. It was the inconsistency—not ever knowing what mood Mike might be in and therefore what mood we would all be in—that was the most troubling, and it made me hyper-aware, like a skittish cat. Where we had once shared our mostly good days—Scott’s music lessons and play dates, my women’s auxiliary, Mike’s work, politics—a negativity began to permeate our table, and the good days were outweighed by bad.
By the time Scott was three, Mike’s boss was stupid, Scott’s doctors were stupid, my friends were stupid, the world was stupid. Bocelli still played but I was unaware that I was no longer hearing the opera in the way one should, losing one’s self in the emotion of it. I was listening, instead, for the sound of anger or resentment in Mike’s voice, and watching for an irritated nod and raised eyebrow. This vigilance was self-protecting. Without it, I would certainly make some grievous error. I might take a shortcut in my cooking, which Mike would certainly catch. “My mother would never have used a mix.” It wasn’t so much the comparison that bothered me, though I did not appreciate it; it was the look of absolute disgust. At the time, I felt deserving of the criticism; after all, Mike worked hard all day and the least I could do was provide a decent meal for him at the end of the day. No matter what his feelings were, I would rather he direct them at me than at Scott. Scott fed on both my nervousness and his own little kid energy, and his ability to follow Mike’s strict dictates—“sit up straight, napkin in your lap, be quiet, eat your food…”—was limited. My solution was to feed Scott before Mike came home and let him play while only Mike and I endured the uneasiness.
It eventually became clear that this was not merely normal family discord or a temporary, bad mood. As a family we were digressing into the grasping, suffocating arms of Mike’s terminal depression. Mike’s became somewhat delusional, believing that very young ladies were flirting with him, and he was almost always certain that the hospital administrators were trying sabotage his practice. He argued with everyone with whom he came in contact—waitresses, bank tellers, pastors, and co-workers—peppering them with angry outbursts of criticism and hatefulness. At home, he would often retreat to his office where I would hear his deep sorrowful cries, sometimes sobbing uncontrollably for hours. On some evenings, those that seemed normal and almost pleasant, we still listened to our music out of habit and to stabilize us, the way people whose house has nearly burned down still lock the front door. It gave us the illusion that something was okay.
By the time Scott was five, perhaps because it no longer gave us joy, or perhaps because its joy mocked us, we stopped listening to Bocelli. Clanking silverware became the dissonant melody that accompanied our meals, so tense and devoid of joy that our occasional attempts at stilted conversation only emphasized our brokenness until eventually only Scott and I ate together, Mike preferring the solace of the emotionless computer.
Nine years have passed since the last time we listened to opera together, and five have passed since Mike succumbed to his depression, taking his own life. Scott is fourteen now, and his memories of his father are few. I want Scott to know that his father was not always depressed and angry and frightening—and that he was, at one time, gentle and loving, good to Scott, simultaneously strong and soft, the way a father should be. I try insistently to elicit the good memories that I’m sure must be locked in Scott’s brain somewhere by keeping pictures of Mike hung on our walls and telling stories. “Remember the song dad made up? He used to sing it to you? ‘Scooter-Wooter Bootle Bottle Baby Boy’?” I ask. “Nope,” he answers with matter-of-factness, no longing to remember, no melancholy or nostalgia. He is not burdened with terrible memories, he does not hold onto very many experiences with Mike at all. He remembers differently than most children. His brain hemorrhage affected his memory and his sense of time. He might hold onto a memory that seems random, unimportant, like an expression on a stranger’s face, but forget something monumental—a trip to Walt Disney World. Something that happened a week ago, he may remember as years ago, and something that happened last month could have happened last night. I don’t know how this will affect him as he matures.
Sometimes I think that if I talk about the precious times they will find their way into Scott’s memories and into his person—the fiber of him—and give him foundation, a sense of pride, a strength that comes from knowing his father was a good man who loved him. I keep trying, trying to give him the childhood I want him to have had.
“Remember sitting on dad’s lap on the mower?”
“Nope. I remember the time dad was yelling at you in the kitchen and you told me to stay in the living room and the dogs ran away from him into the living room with me and hid under the table. He scared the dogs. Do you remember?” He says this without sarcasm or resentment or anger. Yes. I remember.
“Yes. That was very scary. We were all scared, weren’t we?”
He often remembers that day; it is his strongest memory of Mike. But, he never owns the fear—it belongs to the dogs. I think about the many times I pleaded with Mike, whether he was yelling or crying, “Please be quiet, you’re going to scare Scott,” protecting Scott, of course, but also protecting myself from admitting that I was scared, too. I handed my fear down to Scott and he handed it down to the dogs, and they have no need to remember or forget at all. I don’t want Scott to remember that day. I want him to remember the childhood I had planned for him with two loving parents nurturing him into adulthood, unjaded, free from tragedy.
* * *
A couple of months ago, Scott and I were in the kitchen together. It was a partly cloudy day, but bright enough to illuminate our kitchen that I had recently repainted in pale blue. The walls used to be papered with ugly flowers, the floor had been carpeted, and one dim light served the large room. I hung new lights myself, laid new flooring. Darkness can no longer intrude on our kitchen. On one wall hangs a large framed antique German muslin cup-towel embroidered in slate blue with the saying: “Arbeit und Urdnung erhalten das haus, Liebe und Einfracht schmucken es aus.” Translated it means: “Work and Order decorate this house, Love and friendship put on the finishing touches.” It comes from distant relatives by marriage and has always hung in that same spot above the espresso machine, next to the Hoosier cabinet. I like it even though it is backwards; work and order are secondary to love and friendship. On another wall hangs my most treasured piece of art, a clay yellow fish surrounded by blue water that Scott made in art class.
I was cooking a lazy Saturday chocolate-chip pancake breakfast for Scott. It may have been as late as ten o’clock, I don’t remember, really; we take our time on Saturdays. I got out the big griddle as I do every week. I am able to make the pancakes from scratch, but I didn’t. I used a mix and added a little vanilla, maybe a little cinnamon, some chocolate chips. Pancakes are Scott’s favorite, but I don’t care for a sweet breakfast, so I made eggs for myself. We set out a book of Jack Prelutsky poetry and a deck of cards, in case we want to read silly poems or play war. Usually, we just talk as we eat and enjoy our time together.
I’m not very strict with him about chores and helping around the house, but I had Scott set the table. As he plopped one saffron yellow placemat on each side of the table, he said, “I had this memory of dad this morning. We were sitting in front of the computer and it had all these colors on it and we were listening to some guy sing opera or something like that. It was kinda cool. Isn’t that weird?”
I would like to say that I was calm and nonchalant about this, but I wasn’t. “Yes! Yes you did that! We did that! Do you remember the song? Did it go like this?” I sang a bit of Con te Partiro.
Scott’s eyes opened wide in discovery and surprise. “Wow, yeah, that’s it! What is that?”
I ran down to the basement where years ago I had tucked the CD away in an effort to assert my independence, telling myself that Carreras and Domingo were better vocalists, that Bocelli was pop-ish, not true opera. If I wanted to listen to pop, I would. If I wanted to listen to opera, I would, but the combination of the two no longer suited me. Bocelli had been Mike’s choice, not mine. Truly, though, it had little to do with taste; I loved Bocelli, but listening to him brought both the lovely and the horrific memories too close. I was unable to throw it away or give it away, but I could not listen to it, either. When my sister asked to borrow the CD, I acted as though I could not find it. I cannot say exactly why I was so selfish with it that I would not even share it with my own sister, who is also my best friend, but I even refused to share my feelings about it with her, preferring to keep it all to myself as though it was so precious that sharing the memory would destroy its intensity. So I tucked it away in the limbo of the basement; it was not hidden, just out of sight. Years before, I had withheld from her the severity of Mike’s depression for as long as I could, as though by not acknowledging it, I could make it less real. That Saturday morning I found the Romanza album easily. On the cover is a close-up of Bocelli wearing a red shirt, leaning forward on his crossed arms. His head is tilted to the right, his blind eyes closed.
I ran back upstairs, put the CD in the player, and sat down at the table. Scott smiled just slightly, content, maybe relieved, maybe happy. He moved around to my side of the table, and with his plate he scooted my egg plate aside, put his plate down in front of us, and sat down in my lap to eat. I put my arms around him and laid my head on his back. “Oh God, Mom, you’re not going to cry, are you?”
“No.” Not just then, anyway. We listened again and again on a continuous loop until we were done with breakfast.
“What does it mean, anyway? In English?”
I had no idea, so we looked it up together.
Time to say goodbye
to countries I never
saw and shared with you,
no, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
on ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer.
I admit that when we looked, I hoped for lyrics that would fit my version of our lives. I wanted the words to have some poignant relevance and, without failing me, the refrain did. The irony was compelling. But, the verse refused to elucidate our acceptance, our peace, our new life. It reflects a life left empty by longing. It was not what I wanted it to be.
When I’m alone
I dream on the horizon
and words fail;
yes, I know there is no light
in a room where the sun is absent,
if you are not with me, with me.
There is indeed light without Mike, for me and for Scott. Our days are full of joy that we set alight in each other. The sweet early memories I have of Mike are still mine and they are who he really was. I write them as I remember them and how I wish to remember them. I write about our tenderness, our joy, and our strength, hoping I can somehow solidify those moments, and obscure what I wish to forget. For now, they are nearly always preempted by my more recent memories him – as though my mind has no regard for what I wish to remember. What I wish to remember is what I wish Scott could remember, as though by giving him those memories I can give him the future I want him to have. I have come to see that Scott’s mind lets go of what it needs to and holds on what it needs to. Maybe it is not Mike he needs to remember for now, or even what I need to remember. Perhaps it is just my lap, my cheek against his back, and the two of us listening to the melodic sound of Bocelli.