A Kiss Good-Night

MarianDave

Every year around mid-August I begin to feel the impending anniversary. I can be writing, driving or on vacation. I don’t even notice it at first. The sadness is subtle, like a low-grade fever or a toothache. Then I see the sky. With barely a warning, the summer sky shifts from hazy white to crisp, beautiful and impossible blue.

The sky stayed stubbornly blue for weeks as a blur of cards, flags, teddy bears and quilts poured in from strangers around the country and the world.

It is the sky from September 11th, 2001, that I remember most. I was waiting for my husband, Dave, at a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn to celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary. I remember thinking the sky was the same blue as on our wedding day, only dotted with a few white clouds.

I don’t know whether to blame the sky or the day’s events for how vivid everything looked. The smoke looked blacker, the planes looked shinier, the dust and fire more dramatic against that ludicrously cheery backdrop, like a children’s theater set for a Shakespearean tragedy. My son, Aidan, then five years old and attending his second day of kindergarten, sat in his classroom oblivious that our lives would change forever.

The sky stayed stubbornly blue for weeks as a blur of cards, flags, teddy bears and quilts poured in from strangers around the country and the world. Every surface of the kitchen was covered with homemade lasagnas, hams and soups delivered by my neighbors. Aidan and I hunkered down in our apartment together—life rafts for each other as we helplessly watched the world change.

I wanted a fresh start in a place that didn’t remind me of Dave.

After a week, Aidan’s principal called and gently suggested I keep bringing him to school. Each morning, I reluctantly dropped him off, squeezing his clammy hand as parents patted me on the shoulder, their eyes wet with tears.

Soon, my sister began walking Aidan to school while my world spun with endless wakes, funerals, phone calls, protests and meetings. I came home exhausted and desperate to see Aidan. His rituals grounded me in time: dinner at six p.m., a bath at seven, books at 7:30, two songs and a kiss good-night.

When the parade of families in Park Slope became too much to bear, I moved Aidan to a carriage house on Staten Island I know his father would have loved for its history and wide, wooden beams. I wanted a fresh start in a place that didn’t remind me of Dave, but single parenting seemed even more pronounced in the suburbs, where minivans were adorned with stick-figure stickers advertising large families.

To keep myself distracted from the dull ache of grief, I kept endlessly busy. I wrote a book, served on boards, ran a nonprofit and shuttled Aidan to guitar lessons, tutoring, art classes and karate. The ritual was now a 7:30 p.m. bath followed by an 8:30 book. We read The Wind in the Willows, Harry Potter and Narnia. I often looked up from reading to see him falling asleep, his eyes like petals closing in the dark.

In second grade, Aidan was diagnosed with a learning disability and I spent long hours coaxing him to finish homework packets and projects for school. He discovered music and made friends while I met and fell in love with a photographer from Brooklyn, who moved in shortly after Aidan’s 10th birthday. Aidan stopped taking baths and wanted to read on his own, but he still let me kiss him good-night.

In middle school, Aidan disappeared behind a curtain of stringy hair and covered his walls with Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix posters. He played guitar in his room and formed a band called Tasting Neon with a girl and two boys from his school. Soon he read only books he’d been assigned, but he often confessed things to me in the quiet of his dark bedroom:

“Our band broke up.”

“How come?”

“Julia stuck her tongue in my mouth.”

Aidan

After becoming engaged to the photographer, I moved Aidan to a private school in Brooklyn for seventh grade. His hair grew so long it covered his mouth but he enjoyed reading again. He asked me to read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby with him.

In the summer before Aidan entered eighth grade I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought I might have been Hitler in my past life, especially when my second book was abruptly cancelled and I called off my engagement. I quit all my boards, stopped writing and slept all day in my bathrobe. But I kept up my routine at home, picking Aidan up from the ferry, making dinner, taking him to lessons. He started taking long showers and asked me to buy him razors. I kissed him good-night, but on the cheek.

I survived breast cancer and began writing again, but nothing prepared me for the challenge of full-throttled adolescence. My therapist warned me that Aidan’s separation would be difficult based on our closeness and the trauma of losing his father, but his defiance and rebellion left me feeling like I had been dragged behind a car. Aidan’s one saving grace was that, even in the tensest moments, he can make me laugh. “If you weren’t funny, I probably would have eaten you by now,” I tease.

I met and fell in love with a lovely man after struggling on the dating market for nearly a decade. Three years in and I love him even more for his seemingly endless patience with the slamming doors, the angry rants, the tears, the loud music, the cursing. Best of all, when I fall into his chest and cry when it all seems too much, he tells me I am a wonderful mom. I try to believe him.

Aidan graduated from high school this past spring and, after a long and torturous consideration, decided to defer his acceptance to college—to “let my frontal lobe develop,” as he says. How could I argue with that?

SHOP_A-Widows-WalkHe works five days a week as a busboy at a busy Manhattan restaurant and was a production assistant on the set of Boardwalk Empire a few times this summer. On his second day of shooting, he stood on a hot Long Beach boardwalk for so long, he got a severe sunburn on his neck and face. It took every cell of my being not to shake him and scream, “Did I not slather sunblock on you your entire life?” But parenting a teen is counterintuitive: It often requires no response at all, which is the opposite of what I’ve done his entire life. He is on his own and never home before I go to bed. I sometimes text him, “Good-night. I love you.”

Today, for the first time in many years, Aidan and I will spend September 11th together. If the weather permits, we’ll go to Jones Beach, a place his father loved and lifeguarded for 16 years. The other lifeguards built a small, beautiful memorial there. I will tell Aidan about the deep holes Dave used to dig for him to jump in. I will try not to miss Aidan’s small clammy hand in mine. I will try not to expect too much and simply accept what the day brings, blue skies and all.

Photos courtesy of Marian Fontana