Shelter from the Storm

In June of 1988, I caught my first glimpse of a gray winter sky.

It didn’t look much different from any overcast day in Singapore, the eight-year-old me had reckoned, though I was sure I was far from home. Where we came from, poufs of mist did not escape your mouth every time you spoke or exhaled. Also, no one bundled themselves in this many layers of clothing. I was wearing a robin-egg-blue cardigan my mother had hand-knit especially for this family trip, but it was buried too deeply beneath layers of pullovers to be seen.

“Where’s the snow?” I’d asked Mum, hoping she could explain why we hadn’t stepped into a Christmas-card-worthy snowscape which to my mind was synonymous with wintertime. For her part, my mother was too preoccupied with the logistics of collecting our luggage from the coach we’d just alighted. I never did get an answer as to why winter was gray and not white.

While waiting to enter our hotel for the night, I studied the streets of Christchurch. In place of falling snow were dead leaves. They were everywhere, blanketing the ground and swirling in the air. On this dramatically drafty day, passersby hurried about with their faces shielded from the onslaught of leaves, their hair blowing in all directions.

I didn’t mind the wind so much. I was eight with a chinadoll bob, also known as a permanent bad-hair-day. No weather condition could do further damage to that.

___________

This morning, thirty years and two months later, it felt like  NZ c.1988 all over again. On a walk around my condo grounds, a familiar scene played out—same leaden sky, same blustery wind, scores of dead leaves scattering about like confetti. Under other circumstances, I’d take that as a clear sign that a storm was imminent and head back indoors. But this morning, I was in the mood to linger just a little.

Sure enough, the rain soon came pelting down in sheets. Together with the cleaning and landscaping crew, I ran for the nearest shelter. But while I revelled in childish delight, I couldn’t say for same for the janitors and gardeners, whose dismay was apparent on their faces.

They’d after all spent all morning painstakingly clearing away fallen leaves and branches, scrubbing and hosing down dirty spots, and tending to the beautiful greenery my condo is known for. And a fifteen-minute downpour was all it took to undo all of their efforts. This was not an uncommon scenario, but it still bummed them out every time it happened. Once the sun came out, the place would be littered leaves and foliage, with slush and wet bird droppings added to the mix. The results of their backbreaking work only ever lasted until the next turn of weather.

When today’s mini-storm passed, I ventured back outdoors to resume my walk. Only a handful of the maintenance crew had returned, however. Can’t say I blamed them for sitting it out a little longer. In fact, if I were them, I might just choose to tear off my cleaning gloves and call it a day.

I began to imagine an alternate scenario. Suppose I decided a large garden was just too much to handle and instead cultivated a tiny garden in a sheltered area. There’d only be enough room for just a few plants and maybe they wouldn’t grow as tall and luxuriant without direct sunshine, but I’d make up for all that with conscientious care and landscaping. Protected from the destructive winds and rains, my tiny garden would always be immaculate. Most important of all, I’d always be in control.

Except, how boring would that be?

Isn’t that large garden we spend our whole lives slogging to make perfect a whole lot more exciting, even if storms constantly reduce it to a grubby mess? Why should the thought of a little rain hold me back from enjoying so many more plants and trees? Do I love them only for looking beautiful, or do I love them for the potential they have to grow and flourish under my care?

As I gave up the idea of the tiny garden, I saw more cleaners and gardeners return. They picked up their equipment and resumed whatever they were doing before—mopping, sweeping, cleaning, pruning and trimming. Some were whistling, as if the rain hadn’t happened at all. The gardens would always be restored, I reckoned, for these people wouldn’t have it any other way, whatever the weather conditions.

On my way home, I realized I had the answer as to why the New Zealand winter of 1988 had looked gray instead of white. The country’s coldest months are June, July and August, but I was there only at the start of the season. There’s a time for rain, as there is for snow.

___________

It finally snowed towards the end of our trip—one morning we woke up and saw the frost on our hotel windows and the roads beneath. It’d snowed while we slept, and we’d missed it.

But just as I’d imagined, winter was white.

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Everything Takes Forever: A Story of Waiting (Part 17)

Most people form positive associations with ice-cream. Today, however, as I stare down at my gleaming dome of Belgian chocolate, I wonder if I would sooner dissolve into a puddle of tears before it melts into a gooey milkshake.

No, I will not get emotional. Not at my favorite Häagen-Dazs cafe in the middle of an upscale shopping mall.

I text my husband, who’s at work. “I saw Dr C,” I begin.

“How did it go? Everything OK?” comes his reply.

I pause. That is a tough question to answer, and is contingent upon how one defines ‘OK.’ It’s certainly nothing life-threatening, so in that sense, I’d check the ‘OK’ box. But how do I explain this heaviness in my heart that can’t be assuaged with some Häagen-Dazs?

He calls me back before I can formulate a coherent answer. “What happened? Wasn’t it just a routine check?” he asks.

“Yep,” I bite my lip. Persistent months of mid-cycle bleeding had concerned me enough to make an appointment to see my ob-gyn, but I’d remained hopeful it was just some manifestation of PMS and hormones out of whack. The worst-case scenario would be cancer or some other troublesome condition that would require an invasive procedure. So no, the worst hasn’t happened.

Trouble is, not-the-worst can still feel pretty terrible. I plunge my long silver spoon into my dessert, as if that might keep it from melting.

“Seems I have some polyps. They’re benign and apparently not uncommon for women around my age,” I elaborate, feeling old as that phrase escapes my lips. “So we’ll just monitor the situation for now.”

“Phew,” he says. “That’s good news, right?”

“Yes, but—”

“But what? By the way, where are you?”

“Ion Orchard. Having ice-cream.”

He sighs in that way that he does whenever he knows the implication of my words or actions. Such as my impromptu urge to travel downtown for dessert on a random weekday afternoon. “Hang in there, I’m coming over. Talk later.”

By the time he arrives, I’m buoyed by the double hits of caffeine and sugar, having ingested both my ice-cream and a cup of Americano, so he finds me in a much calmer, even chirpy state.

“What’s bothering you?” he asks, in that no-nonsense-give-me-the-deets tone of his, as he gratefully accepts a glass of water and a menu from the attentive waiter.

“We can’t have kids anymore,” I blurt.

Certainly not a revelation he was expecting, judging from his raised eyebrows. In a graphic novel, the thought bubble above his head would probably contain a huge question mark.

“As in, it’ll be complicated, with the polyps issue,” I go on.

He looks at me, confused. “But we don’t want kids anymore. You yourself said you were done. So how’s that relevant?”

“I’m not upset,” I say, surprised by the defensive tone in my voice. “It’s just, barely a few years ago when we had Belle, I had no polyps, and now I do.”

“And?”

“And in a short period, I went from being able to have kids, to not being able to—if I were to change my mind.”

“But have you changed your mind?”

I consider this question carefully. The answer’s clearly no, but that doesn’t seem to cushion the impact of my new reality. What am I grieving, really? Several more years of fertility I thought I had?

Ferris Bueller springs to mind and I see him, pajama-clad and staring into the camera, uttering the all-too-familiar platitudes. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

“I haven’t changed my mind, but I don’t know why this still feels sad to me,” I admit.

The husband sighs again, semi-exasperated but mostly sympathetic. “It’s OK,” he says, patting my head while I hold back my tears. He makes a comment about the Sephora paper bag next to me, stuffed with impulse purchases, and the distraction makes me laugh.

The irony of my situation isn’t lost on me, however. Perhaps it’s the finality of closing a chapter that’s making me wistful. There used to be just Rachel BK (before kids) and Rachel AK (after kids). Today, though, a new era begins: Rachel NMK (no more kids). Maybe this is how some women feel when they enter the menopause, I don’t know. But I make a mental note to stop wishing away monthly periods and the excruciating cramps, because somehow they still make you feel like you.

We order another scoop of ice-cream, not saying very much for the rest of the afternoon.

[Continued from Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14, Part 15 and Part 16]

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Everything Takes Forever: A Story of Waiting (Part 16)

[Continued from Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13, Part 14, and Part 15]

That damn dream again. It was years ago—singular, inconsequential, illogical—but it’s stayed at the back of my mind, refusing to fade from memory.

I’m sitting in a hotel room with green patterned wallpaper. Everything’s sort of out of alignment in the way that picture frames are slanted and door knobs are oddly placed and purposefully out of reach. When I stare hard enough at the walls, they melt a little and threaten to close in on me.

I’m in some sort of maze or sick escape room situation. This ornate room is reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s Places des Vosges apartment, except I’m at the Grand Hyatt, even if I have no idea how I arrived at that knowledge. I try to exit the room, but each doorway leads me deeper into a labyrinth of hallways.

In the next scene, I’m at the pool, presumably on holiday at a resort. It’s a nice sort of urban oasis, though the motel-like blocks flanking this one main pool are low-rise and people are chilling on balconies. I’m with someone from my past, and his presence troubles me. Maybe he’s telling me this is our last vacation together, or something in that vein. There is something final and absolute about being in that pool at that specific moment. Enjoy it while it lasts, is the message, but I’m unable to.

In the next and final scene, I’m fleeing. I’m desperate to get away from the mixture of humiliation, sadness, anxiety, and fear that’s bubbling inside me. Along the way, I spot a friendly face from a distance. Someone is waving and calling out to me and at first I think it’s a neighbor because he’s standing in front of a laundry line, in what looks to be a backyard. However, as I approach, I see that he’s that someone from the pool.

He seems like a different person—for one, he’s completely dry and is acting as if whatever conversation or agreement we had earlier at the pool never happened—but he’s eager to tell me something.

I’m relieved to see him and I listen in. But then he breaks into a fit of hysterical laughter that is at once frightening and condescending. “I believed you were better than this,” I say, before turning to run.

As my bare feet pound the ground, his laughter trails me all the way. It echoes in my ears long after I’m jolted awake.

I still remember that crazy hotel room with its green-patterned walls threatening to melt into me. The very pool scene where I felt compelled to put on a happy face even if I was dying inside. However, the thing that haunts me most is that humiliating, maniacal laughter.

Everything about this damn dream chills me to the bone to this day, and I’m almost angry at my inability to simply forget about it. I’ve certainly had dreams I’ve struggled to remember, but never this one. This dream will likely follow me to my grave.

Which is why I may as well write about it.

[to be continued]

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