Thunder growled in the trees outside our bedroom window. Sleep shuffled away. In the darkness I listened to the falling rain. It rattled the crunchy autumn leaves piled in our yard. I could hear a slow wind blowing through the tree trunks and shifting the curtains of leaves. Waves of cool air brushed passed the window screen and pooled in our bedroom.
I listened to my wife breathing, curled into the comforter, and leaned my cheek into the warmth of her back. In the stillness, my waking mind returned its tools to their places after being scattered across the driveway of my dreams. There was no drowsy argument about remaining in this cocoon. My children were also silently sleeping. If I woke now, I would have an hour of silent solitude before the frenzy of family arched into consciousness and attacked the opportunities of the day in tides of growth, learning, frustration, and humor.
My hand found the soft clothing huddling on the floor in the dark. I pulled the clothing on and crept down the stairs trying to avoid parts of the stairs which moaned with weight. I entered the kitchen and turned on a small lamp which bathed the room in yellow light. I could smell the pyramid of tomatoes and basil stacked on the counter. These smells reminded me of my mother’s and my grandmother’s kitchens. My children built these pyramids the night before after harvesting the latest round of vegetables from our backyard garden. As the temperatures cooled with autumn, I expected them to be the final fruits of the season.
Our dog, noticing me, stepped off the couch and leaned into a stretch. She shook off her sleep, walked toward me, and sat down at the edge of the kitchen. With mild interest she watched me as I retrieved a stockpot and silently set it on the stove. I smoothed her soft ears. Her eyes were drowsy, but she was not tired enough to miss the fragments of food which may come her way as I removed salsiccia and beef from the refrigerator.
I drizzled the stockpot with olive oil. I chopped the onions and garlic. I confessed my sins as I peeled the skins from the tomatoes. I began the slow heat with my supplications and began to covet the cool air and sound of the rain from the upstairs bedroom. I unlatched the kitchen window and cranked it open a few inches. The smells of the rain, mud, and leaves mixed with the scents of basil, oregano, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. The chirping of the birds entered the kitchen with the breeze to accompany the bubbling of the tomato gravy. I watered the used dishes until they were clean. They drip-dried over a towel.
The coffee was ready. I prepared toasted bread, stacked it, and circled the plate with the butters, jellies, and jam my family loved. I carved apart apples and watched them rock on the plate while smearing peanut butter into a bowl beside them. I waited in the silence. Soon I heard the staccato footsteps of my youngest as she marched down the staircase. She arched her feet in order to hook one tiny hand over the railing. Without any help she had managed to get into her purple, fluffy “fairy dress” as she called it. She also got her feet into her favorite shiny red shoes. When she saw me she smiled like the dawn. “Got my dress, Daddy,” she said. I scooped her up and set her on a chair. I lathered some bread with butter and jelly for her. I poured her a sippy cup of orange juice.
My oldest arrived draped in a blanket and jammies. She sat down at the table and told me she slept well but was still tired. I kissed the top of her head as she began to prepare her bread. My youngest began to pepper my oldest with a series of questions. She wanted to know if she liked her bread, butter, jelly, apples, books, jammies, cars, paints, crayons, and the purple fairy dress. Our babies, I thought.
I thought about how my mother would’ve treasured hearing this conversation. She just returned home from the hospital after a brain surgery which attempted to remove an aggressive cancerous stage four brain tumor. As she recovered from surgery we hung on every word she spoke, unsure of what the ultimate result of the surgery would be. Would she be confused? Would she have personality changes? Would she still have her memory? Would she recognize us?
As she surfaced from sedation she would ask my brother and me, “How are our babies?” She wanted to know about the grandchildren. We would explain to her the latest funny things they said and did. The corners of her lips would curl into a slight smile. She would murmur “Our babies” as she drifted back into a sedated rest.
I looked at our babies as they munched their breakfast. They didn’t know how their simple presence created a world of glory in my heart, in my wife’s heart, in my mother’s heart, and in my father’s heart. They were just eating their breakfast. They didn’t know how the simple exploration of their abilities and the world we inhabited were medicine for us. Their chatter was a balm which soothed bruising tragedies. Their laughter diluted the caustic, raw burning of loss. Witnessing their discoveries softened our calluses developed over thousands of days. Their joys suppressed our itch toward anger. The salve of their presence transformed the crusty, mundane details of life into sacrificial movements toward meaning. They were promises of an unfolding, brilliant eternity. They were the relief which took us beyond the dull, cold confines of ourselves.
While the faithless inflict themselves with battery, defeat, and collision, they shout obscenities from splitting throats toward an ear that never hears. Our babies, in their essential, effortless combat, did not shout this way. They acknowledged their place in the circle and raised their eyes to ours. Their whispers and their giggling were a banner of victory which respectfully conquered death, no matter how ferocious its posture.