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Friday, November 2, 2012

The Intangibles

The day before Natalie, my mother-in-law, was about to return to Iowa after a long stay, she found me in the kitchen, putting away dishes. Noah was sitting in his highchair, and he used his grubby fists to shovel Cheerios and banana into his mouth.
        She started in without prelude. “I know we’ve had our differences, but I want you to know something. I’m not hard on you without reason.”

I placed a plate onto a stack in the cabinet; when Natalie first arrived she reorganized our kitchen without asking first. I was too busy and tired to put it all back, and now I was used to the new arrangement.

“That sounds ominous,” I said with half a laugh. A week before my defenses would have erected immediately, but on this morning I was in a pretty good mood.

Natalie, however, seemed intense. She stood, back against the wall, and spoke without moving. “I never told you the story of David’s death.”

I had been bending over the open dishwasher, grabbing the silverware box, but at her comment I straightened myself. Residual water that had been clinging to my utensils dripped onto my legs and feet.

“I know how he died,” I said softly. It was of a heart attack, and it was years ago. Monty and I weren’t together at the time, but Jack and I were good friends, so I went to the funeral to support him.

“But did Monty ever tell you about how I found him?”

I shook my head no.

She let her gaze wander up to the ceiling, and I could see her shoulders tense. “He was fine the night before. We watched television together. It was a movie – Runaway Bride. It wasn’t even that good, but we laughed and enjoyed ourselves. Then we went to bed. And I next morning I woke up…but, well. You know this part.” She took a deep breath and focused her eyes back on me. “He had a heart attack. In his sleep. And I woke up and found him dead.”

I was still clutching the silverware box, so I put it in the sink and approached her. I placed a hand on her shoulder, but I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I said nothing.

She blinked away tears. “I loved him, you know. And he was here one day, and then he was just gone. And I still miss him, every single day.”

I nodded. I could understand missing your husband, but I couldn’t imagine knowing that he was never coming back.

She continued talking. “Then Monty went to live in Africa, and I couldn’t reach him most of the time, and when he got sick, there was nothing I could do. I felt so powerless. So now, when he goes back, I worry. I can’t help it. I just do.”

“I know.” Standing so close to her, I noticed that her eyes are green. They’re like Monty’s eyes, and like Noah’s eyes too.

“So,” she said, about to conclude her story, “I’m hard on you because I know you can keep him safe. He’ll listen to you.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. At that point Noah took the opportunity to chime in, and said “Ga ick ba bee.”

We both looked over at him and smiled, and he smiled back, oblivious to our somber mood.

“No,” continued Natalie. “He will. If you tell him not to go back, then he won’t go back. I know my son, and I can see that he’s crazy about you.”

I turned away, grabbed the utensils from the sink, and moved to the drawer and put them away.

“Don’t you want to dry those first?” Natalie asked.

“They’re fine.” I stacked spoons on top of spoons, forks on top of forks, knives on top of knives. Everything in its place. “I told him not to go back, you know. And he agreed.” I sighed. “I don’t know if it will last. It’s his job, to travel. And he loves it.”

“But it’s not good for his health,” Natalie stated simply.

“I know.” I put the spatulas, cooking spoons, and kitchen knives in their rightful spots. “Four years ago he took this job, before we were together, before we knew I was pregnant, before we had committed to each other at all. And then I was worried that everything happened too fast, and he’d get nervous and bail. But he stayed. And I felt like I couldn’t ask him to sacrifice what had brought him here in the first place.”

Noah babbled some more, and dropped a lump of banana, which landed on the floor with a splat. Natalie smiled, grabbed a paper towel, and cleaned up the mess.

“Thanks,” I said.

She walked toward the garbage can and threw the paper towel away. “You need to think more of yourself,” she said. “Make him stick to his promise. Because I guarantee you, it will be worth it.”


Two days later she was gone, back home to Iowa. The kids started their new daycare, and Monty recovered from the flu enough to finally go back to work. After his first day back I asked him how it went, if he had told them he could no longer travel to Africa.

“Yeah, we talked,” he said.

“So what did they say?”

He rolled his head a little and tapped his fingers against his leg. “It’s going to take some negotiating, Lucy. Travel was 30% of my job. They need to decide if they want to rewrite my job description, or if they want to transfer me to a different position.”

“But you’re still employed?”

He said yes, but I could see the defeat in his eyes.

The next evening, after I rocked Noah to sleep, I found Monty in the living room, staring at the television. Images of Hurricane Sandy filled the screen, and Monty was transfixed. He lived in NYC for many years, and now he couldn’t look away.

I sat down next to him, snuggling so close that I was practically on his lap. He put his arms around me but kept his eyes on the television.

“It’s crazy,” I said. “Here I was, so worried about you in Ghana. Yet if you were still living in New York, who knows what could have happened.”

He tapped his fingers against my back. “True. But if I was still living in New York, we wouldn’t be together, and you probably wouldn’t care.”

I pulled away and looked at his face. “That’s not true. I’ve always cared. Even when we weren’t together.”

He moved his eyes away from the screen and looked at me instead. Then he kissed me. “That’s good to know,” he said with a smile. I kissed him back, and we sat there, safe in each other’s arms, while the world around us was falling apart.

And I’ll end by saying just one thing about the campaign. On Thursday night Chuck Todd said that the “intangibles” had somehow shifted into Obama’s favor. He couldn’t prove it, but there’s just a feeling now that things will go well for him on election night.

I’m hoping for an actual, tangible victory. Yet, I can see his point. Having the intangibles in my favor feels good, even though something so abstract is bound to be temporary. So I’ll count my blessings while I can.





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