Balancing Act

Sari was a good, if dizzy, mother. Distracted by another brief swell of disorientation, she realigned her position on the rattan love seat. The breeze that swept through the screened porch lifted her hair from her forehead and neck as she eyed the length of emerald yard. She felt like she could capture butterflies today, for her trajectory across the grass would likely be as zigzagged as theirs. Still, being outside–she was not fully inside, at least–helped. She thought of the maxim that if seasick the remedy was stepping onto the deck and fixing on the distant but immutable horizon. She could see a glowing line of deep blue sky meet the tips of wild grasses that edged the yard and boundary. She did not move her head now that her inner ear had re-calibrated.

The roar and squeals of Andy and his best friend careened toward her as they zapped each other with streams propelled from their water pistols. A big squirt splashed onto her feet and she turned to see the boys takeoff. They were like uncaged and semi-ferocious animals frolicking in the summer heat, oblivious to cares of the world. She would never voice that. Andy had just turned eleven and was about over being a child, he informed everyone at his birthday dinner. Kelly, seventeen and ready to leave “Teendom”, had snickered then laughed until he punched her–without rancor. It had been a good celebration, replete with both sets of grandparents and his favorite Key Lime pies for desert.

Sari had teetered upstairs as soon as they’d all left and the kids had become engaged in other activities. Raff had clamored down to his basement workshop to work on another project, a miniature ship, a walking stick, or repairing the two-seater bench for the front porch. She had stood at the vanity mirror, her head listing inside though her body still. Lines wriggled out from edges of her eyes and along indentations that had once passed for dimples. Her hair, still dark, was sleeked back tightly in a short ponytail.  Eyes were bleary despite sleeping well enough. She was always weary, give or take a little. Vertigo should be renamed “dizzy-and-tired-to-the-bone disorder”.

The window was open. The infernal crows were at it with their nattering. When she looked out at the branch the three sat upon, they ceased. Behind darkening trees the sun was edging its way to another place and leaving a wash of crimson and tangerine. Sari wanted to follow that sun, hopefully to a tropical paradise. Lie in a hammock and swing, swing, swing until she dreamed of something good.

******

Up and ready again to schmooze or tackle the drones of industry, the gears of progress, the pinnacles of success, Sari kissed Andy good-bye and she and Raff exited, got into their separate vehicles and started up the engines. Ready, set, race!

Few knew how exhausting low-level vertigo was but Sari was nothing if not a gracious, attentive, tolerant wife and mother, a creative brain-powered employee. Or that’s what everyone saw, even her mother-in-law who praised her cooking as well, parenting and work advancements in Railing & Sundstrom Architecture. Sari usually got a kiss on both cheeks from their parents for such competency, help with the children as needed. Raff beamed at her, arm about her waist as if he was attentive by nature and was sharing his deep appreciation of her. She smiled widely.

The greater truth was starting to leak out at work. She found herself staring at her computer screen and new blueprints, slouching and slow to answer when spoken to.

“Are you depressed?” Martine asked her at lunch.

“Why would you say that?”

“You’re a few beats behind the rest of us when usually you’re even a few ahead. You do not seem yourself.”

“That noticeable? Dreadful. I must perk up and act smarter.”

“I’m serious, Sari, what’s going on besides being a little dizzy at times?”

Sari sucked the last of the icy lemon seltzer water through her straw. Being a little dizzy, why did no one understand how hard this was?

“I don’t know. It seems to be hanging on longer. Damned virus. I lost nearly a month at work from the virus and resultant vertigo and still feel like the room is swishing about me half the time. Hard to explain. Maybe a little like being inebriated, if that helps but all the time.”

“Well, I can relate to that. Miserable. But I thought medicine helped.”

“It does but not enough.”

Tony sauntered up, arms flung out as if shocked to find them there. “Hey there, you ladies have a spare chair for me?”

They looked at him blankly, then Martine waved him away.

“Oh, sorry if I’m interrupting. Just thought we might informally run over the Thompson project.” He smiled at Sari a beat too long and she looked away. Too fast. The familiar swish inside her head. She closed her eyes a split second then focused vision on her coffee.

“Sure, Tony, have a seat,” Sari said and Martine kicked her shoe under the table.”Martine and I were talking but we can get together later.”

But they wouldn’t. There was dinner and the kids; Martine had her miniature greyhound and her partner.

“Good,” Tony said leaning into the table, sizing her up, then nodding as if everything was settled. “We have to nail this one, Sari, sooner than later. What’s your take on it?”

Must they really, at lunch? But she knew her work wasn’t as good as it should be. She only desperately wanted to lay her head down on the table and take a long, happy nap.

“I have, if not the ultimate answer, then a runner-up–but let me unveil it for you at the office. Right now I have to finish this seltzer and a salad of weedy goodness. You brainstorm, Tony, while I eat.”

Martine gave her a cautionary look, shouldered her purse, got up to go. “Call me sometime, Sari.”

******

It was a quiet house.

The children had learned to make it so. To mute their energies, to speak in whispers, to take their rowdy impulses into the basement rec room, down the block, to the far corner of the yard where a swing hanging from the towering sycamore tree and a trampoline were set up for summer.

Raff made his way to one of the porches or garage, to the basement or the den. He carried a book or magazine with him, as usual, but now he was gone a couple of hours not a half hour or hour. But he also labored over more woodwork. Watched classic movies or something with the kids while Sari moved from kitchen to couch, from porch to bedroom seating. She wanted to stop moving. She wanted everyone to stop moving so much and some days they seemed to slow down like she did. Life was now reconfigured in slow motion–or was it all in her head?

She hadn’t asked for such quietness. She hadn’t been aware of needing more pf it–only her physical balance reinstated, please–but she did realize she acted half-ill at home where she could let down. They were waiting for her to return to robust form.

Raff was barely waiting.

“It’s become a malaise, what you’ve got, not just garden variety dizziness. It’s like you’ve settled into this half awake state and gotten comfortable with it, have sunk into it like a fat floor pillow and don’t want to get up.”

Sari looked up from her architecture magazine. Right to the point, that was Raff. What was he saying? That she wanted to be sick, that she had given over to it?

“Wait. I’m taking care of the household and children plus working again and you’re accusing me of being lazy? Or feigning sickness?”

“No, listless, not lazy. You aren’t faking it exactly, no,” He put his hands in his pants pockets and looked over his glasses. “Maybe you’ve given in to it, that’s all. Are you doing your eye exercises? Are you making sure you keep stretch and shake out knots during breaks at work, take your anti-vertigo medicine at night at least? Are you…” he paused, hand going to his short steel-gray beard and the stroking that betrayed nervousness. “Are you doing okay, that is,  mentally… or losing it, hon?”

She frowned from beneath cover of her long bangs.  “Hon” grated on her with that accusatory tone. “Why do people think I want to be compromised by a chronic, negative state of health? The doctor said it would take time, a few weeks to months. Is it because you can’t see it like a rash and I don’t have a temperature anymore? I missed work for four weeks, that’s all, I had the time coming. I’ve been back for several, yes, but I’m not perfect yet. I know it seems like I do fine what I’m supposed to do, but it’s a struggle every single day, some much worse than others!”

“Mom? Can I go to Lena’s?” Kelly stood in the doorway, eyes darting from one parent to another. This was not their usual intense conversation, it sounded like the start of a fight. She stepped back and waited.

Her mother’s illness had been hard to get used to but it would be over soon, any day now. She did not want to hear them arguing about something that was just a body glitch, something only medium important. No one was dying. It was an inconvenience. Her mom couldn’t drive some days, for example, so Kelly or her dad had to take Andy places. She helped make a very basic dinner a couple of times a week, which was okay since she needed to learn how to cook better to be on her own one day. She and Andy were doing their own laundry. Andy whined but she told him to zip it, give their mom a break. He took his loud mouth outdoors more, that was nice of him. But they both forgot sometimes. And Kelly got sick of being on duty so much more. Her mother overall seemed so normal, good at everything as ever. It was often hard to think of her as short of fantastic. Even if she did get on Kelly’s nerves, as usual. Sometimes a lot.

Sari glanced at her daughter. Continued. “It’s not something I can just take control of, not something that can be entirely remedied with a pill or a few exercises, Raff. I don’t wield power like that. I have to wait until my body recovers its healthy state of homeostasis. And furthermore, working is not a breeze even on the best days, it’s a terrific battle to get to top of the heap and then not slip and slide my way back down to middle ground– unlike your job where you inherited a vintage jewelry business, so no one is expecting you to prove yourself! Because you’re the boss! And you never get sick so how could you possibly understand?”

“Mom! Can I spend the night at Lena’s? It’s Friday, it’s almost eight o’clock, I want to leave soon!”

Enough already, Kelly wasn’t going to listen to the ole silver spoon in her father’s mouth rant, she wanted out. Andy was at Jamal’s already, shooting hoops, and was staying overnight. Let their so-called grown-ups sort things out, give Kelly and Andy a decent break. Honestly, parents could be so blind to real life. They should just finish up, make up and move on to something more interesting.

Sari slowly turned her head and ran fingers through her dark mane, exposing a face more wan than it usually was.

“What, Kelly?”

“She said she wants to go to Lena’s for the night. Yes, Kelly, you have permission to go to Lena’s. Back by 11 or 12 to help with the lawn. Your brother has weed duty with your mom, you mow.”

Kelly moaned. She wanted to ask him what he was going to do, wash his car, trim his beard? Love him as she did, he could be too much the King of their tiny kingdom. She held her tongue and her shadow melted from the doorway.

Raff’s impatience made him stormy. He hated feeling powerless, he just wanted her to get well. He also wanted to tell her about his plans.

He turned back to Sari. “I am trying to get it.” He sat down opposite her, watched her face go empty, slack as if shuttered. His plans; this was not the best time but it was the only time. “Let’s drop it, we both know I get impatient.”

“You’re a person who wants things down right, right this minute, but it isn’t happening here.”

“I know.” He took her hand, kissed it, let it drop back into her lap. “I wanted to talk to you about something else.” He waited for her to look up but she was studying her pale nail polish.”Ted and Harrison asked me to go fishing tomorrow. Well, for the week-end, stay at Ted’s place. I know it’s last-minute, but another guy cancelled. I haven’t fished in so long, this would be a chance to get back to it with excellent fishermen–”

“I think that’s a fine idea.”

“You really do?”

“I do.”

“They have extra gear but I need to find some old stuff in the garage or basement. I have to get up at five to drive up north with them.”

Sari studied her husband a moment, the shrewd questioning eyes, a full lower lip hidden by the well-groomed beard, chin a little weak but overshadowed by his sturdy build and bearing. He was authoritative. And he was asking her with a plaintive air for a rare week-end off. They both needed this.

“Go on, Raff, have fun.”

******

The night felt made of glass at first, clear and brilliant and empty as she sat within it on the screened back porch. Her ears were ringing loudly and she wondered if that was a part of the vertigo. The week-end splitwide open in her thinking, a sudden tear in her life’s whole fabric that she had to make do with, somehow, and it was not the worst thing, but a foreign thing. It felt as if the time was solitary with no Raff, even with the kids in and out.

She relaxed into the darkness. Wondered what the stars meant by blinking high up in succh timeless designs? They had been there longer than men and women. An evolving but ever present universe. That certainty, that was what she wanted, that was missing. Ever since the morning she’d awakened unable to stand and walk across the floor–she had just been able to crawl across to her phone on the trunk at the end of their bed…since then, nothing had been certain.

Had it ever really been, even with all their plans, their security? Why did she feel such doubt? Is this what chronic illness did, then, take  a person’s existence and make it into a stranger’s life?

She let her head fall back against the love seat , her legs sprawl before her and savored the stillness. The absence of answers. The possibility of renewal, coming to her as loss.

******

He had left without disturbing her. As she awakened, she felt fair to moderately good, and then felt better about that. And then she thought this malady begged to be outwitted and she might be up for that if she could stay alert and get up some steam.

But she remained in bed, donning reading glasses, book propped up. She did not smell any coffee drifting up the stairs. Did not have a hunger for bacon and eggs or pancakes and sausage. There were no thudding feet on steps, no shouts over who got the comics in the paper first or the television remote. No heads popping into the room and asking what was up, it was nine o’clock. No Raff pestering her with his list of things to do or relentless kisses, depending on his mood. Cushy quiet filled the space except for the neighbors working on their fence for the second week-end and the birds chirping and dogs barking at the cats evading them all down the street.

She read a next page and smiled, her mind a fresh page, too, if she wanted for at lest a day or so, and the July sunlight fell across the coverlet like nectar on a field of flowers.

******

By afternoon things were busier, then curiously tranquil again. She and Andy had weeded and Kelly had mowed the grass and then the two of them were off to the subdivision pool. Sari considered giving Martine a call for a chat but the impulse passed.

She wandered about the house, picking up things here and there, getting a laundry load started, even sweeping the front porch. There was a twinge or two in her head that unsteadied her but briefly. She needed music as she worked so put on a jazz singer she liked and hummed along. Her indoor pants needed attention; she took the blue watering can, dancing while moving to and from the kitchen to get water. Just as she was about to try a gentle spin across the wooden floor, she stopped– best not to encourage the vertigo. But what was the worst that could happen, falling down? Deciding being a bit off kilter was worth the pleasure of an empty house, music and a dance, she  determined to let loose.

Sari set down the watering can, twirled around the rooms carefully in slow motion, hair flung off shoulders, bare feet turning deftly on the floor. And stopped. Arms falling to her sides, breathing easy.

Where was the delayed whirling in her head that gathered power as she tried at first in vain to recover balance? Surely it would come now; it lived inside her, it had been absorbed into the core of her body’s daily existence.

She waited. It was the barest dash of dizziness, not enough to regret a thing. She felt cogent, engaged in the moment. Satisfied with the simplicity of it all. She warbled along with the music. Retrieved her watering can for the remaining plants, walking past the rich wood of an upright piano in a living room corner near the porch. Stopped moving, singing.

It was as if she hadn’t seen it before or not in eons though of course she had, it had been there ten years, since Kelly was 7 and wanted to take lessons. Or they had wanted her to take lessons. She did well enough for six years and then was done, busier playing with her school volleyball team, hanging out with friends. Andy had given it a try for a almost a year but quit out of boredom and a sorry lack of talent.

Sari liked the musical instrument kept right there, despite Raff wanting to sell it, and it had become part of the decor, attractive but impotent among the groupings of furniture. When the children had practiced early on she’d sat on the piano bench close to them, helping place their hands and fingers, interpret foreign script that was the notation and musical language. She had told them she had played as a young girl and that was all. Raff wondered abut her knowing so much but had little interest in music and so could not see more. Sometimes she had played the piece all the way through for them first so they could hear it to recall it. It made them happy to have their mother play sop easily, be involved in their learning at the stat. Then they found her involvement off putting, as if her presence was a harsh correction, a reminder of what they did not know.

Now Sari was pulled to that piano as if someone tugged a cord tied to her middle. She sat down, opened keyboard cover, placed her fingers over the keys for a C major chord but did not depress the keys and so made no sound. She formed another ghost chord and another, fingers flying above ebony and ivory and she began to hum a piano concerto that was resurrected from memory’s depths.

She had not told her children nor even Raff the rest of the story, and had asked her family to not refer to that part of the past; it was meant to be past. The piano came so naturally to her, the music so easily that she had been promised help with tuition to a private fine arts high school. But her father had fallen ill with cancer. Soon the bills piled up, they spoke of selling the house. The family’s focal point was him, as was needed. Her wonderful piano and many other good things were sold. Lessons ended at fourteen, her teacher aghast.

Sari simply had to put away music. That was that. It was necessary for the good of the family, she understood, though every day she felt bereft, lost, confused. Who would she be without her piano? How had it come to mean everything so that now she had nothing? Sari started to have headaches, felt enervated, wouldn’t get up for school. This was not tolerated by her mother or father (who fortunately survived and was able to work two years later) and so her grief came to an untimely end. She was an only child, was going to get top grades, enter college on scholarship and graduate with honors. And she did.

But the spirit of the piano, its storied music never left her. She fell asleep playing it in her head,  daily yearned for its return. Then she grew up, she became an architect, and found renewed passion to create. Married well.

What was not good about her life? It all held together so well.

Until she had become ill with a virulent illness, then ended up with severe vertigo which had unmoored things bit by bit even as she slowly improved. Feeling that helpless had been a nightmare that somehow echoed her father’s demise though she was not critically ill. She felt resistant to tackling each day’s needs for fear of not being able to perform well. She faltered more. Even her marriage became suspect; and she had mounting anxiety about losing Raff. He did not like sick people, she’d discovered. She was less and less trusting her work. Even her mothering skills.

She had nothing to lose from this secret experience. Sari’s hands fell upon the piano keys. She played gently at first then forcefully but stumbling, pausing, starting measures over, finding the theme again, false starts on chords. Then they arrived richly; the notes ran pure and lucid and free. She played another piece and another in parts, then began making phrases up, hands embracing keys as if they were loved ones given to her care and her mind was afire. No hint of vertigo crept up on her as she bent over the piano and let the music enter her blood like powerful medicine.

That house swelled with music it had never before heard, flung to the yard, the street, the sky. When she was worn out, she sat with back erect, body still. Nothing was spinning inside that skull now, only music and a resounding adoration of it. Nothing was off-balance within her but herself. Her life was her very own, not her family’s, not her profession’s. What would she do or give to make it more whole once more? Joy and surprise and peace filled marrow and sinew, every cell.

She was not alone; she could feel it so turned around. There stood a handful of neighbors and her children assembled in her living room, silent, stunned. Her face grew hot. She was afraid the room would spin and leave her defeated once more.

But they began to clap, one after the other, louder and louder.

“Wonderful! We didn’t even know you played! Encore!” they shouted as they came up to her.

“Mom, why didn’t you play before? Why was this a secret?” Kelly asked.

“Make more music!” Andy demanded.

Sari rose to give a little bow and even if she did wobble some, her children were there at each elbow. Her neighbors surrounded her. All she needed was Raff. She hoped he understood. She hoped he appreciated what music she had to offer but there was no turning back.

 

4 thoughts on “Balancing Act

  1. Oh, the beautiful power of music to unleash our inner voice, be it for an audience or for the joy of simply speaking a language that has no words, but vibrates with every beat of our heart’s joys and sorrows. I feel so blessed to have had parents that encouraged us children to play from a young age – and thanks to Cynthia’s father, we were doubly blessed to have the very finest of nurture in the music programs in our very own public schools. What a beautiful story once again! Thank you!

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