Reconstruction Day

On Good Friday last year, my step-daughter checked into the hospital for the second phase of post-mastectomy reconstruction. As we packed to go help her through the recovery, I found myself pondering the word, “reconstruction” as if I’d never heard it before.27288_10151213158720924_692673827_n

Reconstruction is what people do after tsunamis, floods, fires, and wars. Builders in New York and New Jersey can’t keep up with the demand to put back what Hurricane Sandy took.

It is a short leap from “reconstruction” to other “re” words: Restore. Revisit. Reword. Reinvent. Replace. Remove. Remodel. Renew. Hope lives in these “re” words. I too have at times clung to them like a drowning person hugs a hunk of driftwood. Revise. Retrench. Remarry.

But does any amount of rebuilding truly replace what is gone? The answer is no, of course not, though, years ago, I believed that attaching “re” to the front of a verb meant I could erase a mistake or some damage I had done to myself or others. In order for “re” to work, you have to incorporate bits and pieces from the past even if they are not wood and brick, flesh and bone. Sometimes the only things left to work with are lessons learned or memories shared.

My stepdaughter and her husband have been caught in a storm for the past seven years. It took their child. Then it took her uterus, her breasts, several lymph nodes and countless ounces of bodily fluids or bits of flesh required for medical tests. It attacked the economy, their livelihoods, drained their savings and stripped away any illusion that life was fair.

They don’t go on about it but we know that rebuilding is painful. There are daily reminders of what has been lost: bills, surgical scars, chronic pain, pink ribbons crossed in solidarity with other women and pink roses planted to remember their little girl. Each day is an anniversary of what might have been.

Still, there she was last year on Good Friday, heading into surgery to continue the reconstruction of her breasts. There he was, telling her a joke to make her laugh and then holding her against his chest and telling her how much he loved her. It was impossible to see that surgery as anything but an act of faith, if not in the future, then in themselves and in each other and in that one moment.

It’s been nearly a year since then. In that year, there has been a shift in the tides. Things are still not easy for these two we love but the cancer is gone and they celebrate that. He has completed a Master’s degree while working a full time job. She works on her art and at her job with a wellness center that specializes in helping people with pain and with problems like autism. We are often mystified but delighted by the running jokes and movie references that  crack them up on days when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.

Without ever saying it, they remind us every day that while the instinct to rebuild or restore may be in our DNA, acting on it is a conscious decision that takes courage. Rebuilding is an integral part of the healing process, not an attempt to conceal the pain or damage. They remind us that true healing doesn’t mean that the pain goes away or that things will be “good as new.” It means understanding that nothing is permanent and then choosing to really live, right now, in the best way possible.

For them, for all of us, every day is reconstruction day,  an opportunity to begin again. And again. And again.

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Naked on a Plane

I woke this morning to the rumble of jets overhead, one of the sounds that marks the start of a new day here. It’s one of the perks of living a few miles from the airport but I didn’t think about the noise. I thought about some friends I got naked with for a few hours and never saw again.

And by naked, I mean as revealing as one person can be to another without removing a stitch of clothing.

There was the woman beside me who showed me her post-mastectomy, reconstructed breast and asked, “Would you like to feel it?”

There was the man behind me who told the story of how he walked away from his wife and daughter and never saw them again.

There was the man in first class who loved his wife and still desired her so much after twenty two years and three children he would sit on the floor outside their bathroom so he could see her emerge naked from the shower.

They were strangers on planes. I encountered them only once and in the time we shared, we were as intimate as only strangers could be.

If you are lucky, these moments can and do happen anywhere but I am struck by the number of times I’ve stumbled into these brief intimacies on airplanes. Perhaps when you pack people tightly enough together, the friction rubs some of that protective veneer away whether you want it to or not. There you are, shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-midback, sharing an armrest, breathing the scent of each other’s breath until you know what your rowmate ate for breakfast and how her stomach feels about it. For an hour or twelve or more, you occupy a village enclosed in metal, surrounded by nothing but clouds and sky. I can’t help thinking that I may die with these people. I check the hand of the person next to me and wonder whether it would be the kind of hand I’d want to hold on the way down or if the owner would want to hold mine.

Once I’m airborne, I understand in a visceral way that I control nothing. No one in my plane village does either. We are all in the hands of the pilot, upheld by the laws of physics and engineering and the grace of whatever diety controls the weather. All we can control is what we give and receive.

Like most of my fellow passengers, I work hard to avoid the burden of connection. I burrow into the book I’ve brought, the game on my phone, or the movie in front of me. Sometimes I try to sleep away the hours so that the time folds like a napkin and it feels as though I’ve stepped directly from departure to arrival.

Other times, though, I’ve been ambushed and then seduced by a stranger with something to share. Maybe they are picking up a signal I don’t even know I’m emitting. They may need to talk but more than I realize, I need something too.

When Mary invited me to feel her new breast, right there on the plane somewhere between Greensville, South Carolina and Newark, New Jersey, she taught me something about resilience, fearlessness and joy. (I did and you can read about that moment here).

John, the man who loved and desired his wife was unselfconsciously in love. The cynic in me initially thought that he was reminding himself of his obligations before he got swept up in a mid-flight flirtation. As we chatted, though, it became apparent that he was simply and unselfconsciously sharing, as though he wanted the last words that filled his mouth to be ones of love. As we talked, my own feelings of love and desire for my mate stirred and stretched like children let out to play.

I never knew the name of the man who left his family years before but his dead, matter-of-fact tone echoes now. He had no intention of returning. Ever. In fact, he  was about to leave his current girlfriend; by telling me his story he seemed to be saying, “This is who I am.” I had always wondered what it would be like to just walk out a door and never return. He showed me one reason I am glad I never tried to find out.

With each encounter I fell in love with life a little bit more deeply. Something in me that was closed had opened. I loved these people for giving that to me.

What are your most memorable encounters on a plane or anywhere else? Do you think you made them happen or were they pure serendipity?