Cynthia Yancey

Read excerpts from my memoir below!

 

SUPERMAN AND HIS NOT SO SUPER MOM

For the longest time I thought this superman story was about Zak and our young family and the way we survived on a daily basis, but I have recently come to believe, it is really Jacob’s story and how for his young mother, daily life was often a balancing act. There were children’s bodies to be fed and protected; there were spirits to be nurtured. Sometimes there was a father who took part in that feat; more often there was not.

Just two days home from the hospital after my third child’s birth, I was slowly but surely coming to understand that our family was on the verge of collapse. Years would pass before I would realize that my baby’s father had been with his lover when I was laboring alone in the hospital to bring our beautiful boy Jacob into the world. Where his father was this particular day, I don’t know, or truth be told even care, but there we were, me with my 5 year old son, my fifteen month old daughter, and my two day old baby boy.

My oldest son Zak still sucked his thumb with a blanket beneath his nose, the longer since its last washing the better, for breathing in whatever savory scent it might hold to comfort him with its familiarity. Whenever both hands were needed, the little fellow knew just what to do. His alter ego had long since been superman, so he would simply tie the old smelly blanket around his neck to flap in the breeze as his superman cape at a moment’s notice.

On this early winter afternoon, just two days after his baby brother had arrived in the world, he found me, his sleep deprived, weary mother at the very end of my proverbial rope with his baby sister tugging at my leg, freshly born brother in my arms. Sarah, still so little herself, was not about to give up her daily rocking before the afternoon nap just because there was a brand new baby in the house, who seemed to need her mother to do EVERYTHING for him. Intuiting the situation, my little superman ran up to me, tied his blanket around his neck and held out his sweet little boy arms to help.

“You know, Darlin’,” I smiled down to him, exhaustion spread across my face, “I could really use your help right now. If you could hold this baby brother just long enough for me to get your sister to sleep…” Zak, ever so willing, did not hesitate to take this tiny boy all swaddled in newborn blankets, as I gingerly transferred our newest addition over to him. I pulled Sarah up into our familiar embrace and scurried off with her for the quickest rocking­to­sleep I could muster.

No matter how nervous I must have been about my five year old tending my two day old, still power rocking would not do for Sarah. I sang and cooed my sweetest lullaby, and rocked as soothingly as I could, to help my little girl fall off to sleep. Time and time again, sweet Sarah said in her own way, “No, Moma, I need to be in your arms a little longer. This is my place too.” Each of the first few times I tried to gently put her to bed, anxious to get back to my newborn, it was a bit premature; she cried again, and back we went to the rocking chair. Then finally, she gave up and slumped into a deep slumber. I don’t know how long it had taken, but long enough for me to be more than a little anxious to relieve Zak of his superman duties with my brand new baby Jake.

I tiptoed as softly as ever I have and eased that door open to see how my boys were faring on the other side, only to see a superman cape agilely sailing from the hall to the sunken living room, then back around the kitchen and down the hall to me again. In an anxious whisper, I called out to my oldest son, who had definitely graduated that day to full­fledged mother’s helper. He ran up to me with his baby brother still in his arms and chuckled, “Moma! He doesn’t cry so much, if you run with him!”

————

Many years on down our family’s road, this moment seems so illustrative of who we were becoming. Zak would continue in his role of little man in the family, a responsibility he relished, that certainly robbed him of so much. Jacob was the one no one really had time for and who, from his very first moments imprinted his big brother’s face in his heart as primary care giver. Sarah would eventually move over and make Jacob her very best friend, her sister when she needed one, her confidant, but just after his birth, she would hang on a little while longer to her baby girl status, and get what she wanted one way or another.

But this is Jacob’s story. Why did I stay up late at night to be with his father sexually after all of our affection for one another had waned. I still believed we needed me to bring one more very special child into the world who would be more sensitive and smarter than the rest of us. I definitely had not yet raised my head up out of the sand it had so long been buried in to see who his father and I really were, what we each individually hoped for, or how terribly disparate were our dreams.

Many years on down the road, with Zak in his deepest trouble, me bemoaning our divorce as the cause of some our family’s darkest moments, adolescent Jacob summed up our situation quite clearly, in a moment of uncanny insight. Jacob retorted to me, “Mom, don’t beat yourself up. You and dad are like two pieces of a puzzle that could never fit together.” Truer more succinct words may never ever have been spoken.

 

OUTSTARING DARKNESS

Just before Christmas in 2006, I met my one true love in the most unlikely, modern way. My best buddy Rae had helped me onto a “serious” dating website, saying I had been alone far too long. At first appeared a plethora of unenticing bikers, leaning back on their Harleys, going absolutely nowhere. Then there was Steve Snow, retired journalist, new doctorate of counseling, long divorced, dedicated family man to his four grown children.

After two months of fun phone calls, we met in March at the Thomas Wolfe house in downtown Asheville. Rae had fully prepared me. “Low expectations,” she said, “is what I find crucial in these circumstances. I mean, you know he’s not going to be as handsome as his pictures, right? You haven’t seen it yet, but he’s got a bald spot…and I wouldn’t be expecting him to stay out too late. If you could manage to somehow strategically drop your napkin during coffee, you might just see the ankle band below his pant leg. They’ll be calling him in early.” She rambled on and on in a phone conversation as I drove to meet Steve for our first date.

Sure enough, his precious little bald spot was the first part of Steve I saw that first day when I found him busily rummaging through the trunk of his car in the Thomas Wolfe parking lot. He was searching for his first gift to me, a gardening book. Fully forewarned of this moment by my best buddy, I found that his dear little bald spot made the twinkle in his eye all the merrier. All day, we strolled the streets of Asheville, then finally settled into a vegetarian dinner at the Laughing Seed café. Such excitement was in the air between us.

In fact, there was no ankle band. Nearing midnight back on Thomas Wolfe’s old historic porch, we rocked side by side. As the moon arced its golden rays to our bright faces, full of renewed hope to have perhaps found the life partner who would make all of our daily trials more bearable, Steve Snow made his first proposal to me. He would move up the mountain from Charlotte, “if it comes to that,” he said on our very first night together. Not a man of restraint, Steve was living and working alongside me within months. He would have given the entire golden moon to me, had I asked him for it.

In one of our early conversations, I asked Steve who was his best friend, thinking a man so eager to come live with me needed to have other close connections. He quickly replied, “That would be Ed Fierstos; he’s the one who helped me outstare the darkness of my youth…” After a pensive pause, he went on to say, “He’s the one I have always been able to call any time of night or day to ask for help. All he ever would have asked me was whether or not to bring a shovel to bury the evidence of whatever trouble I had gotten into.”

Steve proposed to me on our first date, and died in my living room two years later.

In the ten years since, I have written long and hard of his strength and spirit, of his huge­hearted love for me, but not of how hard it was to first realize he had lied about his age on his Internet profile. I have not written what it was like when we occasionally came to impasses in our relationship. I’ve not written a single word of how I felt the first time I chose my nearly grown children over him, and he marched back down to his cabin saying he felt as if I had sliced him open and poured salt into his wounds, or of how my back went out afterward as we sat at our separate computers in our separate houses writing the entire weekend in an effort to find our way back to one another.

I have not written how it was that Sunday morning when he invoked my dead mother to help us. He wrote to me of how he had imagined us going together to her grave to solicit her wisdom. He wanted her to help the grown woman I had become who had lost her when I was just two years old. He wanted my mother, who I hardly ever knew, to help me see how I had filled that abyss in my soul with my children like only she might. It seemed only Steve would imagine that I might require my dead mother to enlighten me in this way. Reading his attempts to understand me as no one had ever tried before, I hobbled down to his cabin, knocked on the door, and without speaking a word, fell into his embrace, then went with him back to his bedroom to finally sleep for the first time in several days, wrapped in those strong arms of his again.

And then there were our days of rain dancing, out in the hot, dry summer. Steve shared my enthusiasm for gardening. Early on in our relationship when the time came for him to head back to Charlotte after a weekend at my place, he would look at his watch and say, “I’ve got thirty minutes! Let’s weed the garden!” With two, it went so fast. When I would lean over and kiss his sweaty face across a row of beets, he would smile broadly and thank me for what seemed an unexpected tenderness. Steve’s rain dance bestowed a quite magical note onto our garden space. He would start with me at arm’s length from him in the very middle of the garden and would begin a monkish sort of chant. Steve possessed a choirboy’s voice, and there dancing his rain dance, he would invite me to join him, telling me it took two to invoke the rain gods. I would both hum and mime him as he bent over, touching his hands down to his feet, stomping them all the while in tandem. We would circle around one another either in the garden or the front yard, with my big kids watching from the porch. Insolent as they could be as teenagers, they, too, were happy to see two aging lovers out dancing for rain. Sometimes when my laughter interfered with the ceremony, Steve would briefly chasten me, with a twinkle in his eye, reminding, “We seriously need rain!” More often than not it worked. Perhaps he was watching the weather and picking his dance times wisely in an effort to make me believe, but nearly always that evening or the next day, as the rains tumbled down from the heavens, he would smile and say, “You see! I told you!”

I didn’t know how to be so adored by anyone as I was by Steve Snow. I had waited three months to kiss him, saying to myself at least, I had to be sure I felt a lasting love for him before that first kiss. If he were real and true, he deserved utter sincerity from me; nothing less than lasting love would do. Then one night, after watching Little Miss Sunshine in our movie room, with the fire blazing, zany family fun and love in the air, I turned and kissed him square on the mouth.

Steve melted a little that night, knowing this was a big step for me. The following weekend when I went to his place in Charlotte, he led me to his bedroom for what he later told me was to be a nonsexual massage. He could have massaged me any way he wanted that night; it would not have mattered. I was ready to feel my skin against his all night long. Steve was like a boy, playful and shy, impotent actually that first night together. He said he was just nervous, but not to worry, it would come back. He confessed, “All day today, walking through the streets of Charlotte, holding your hand, I needed a piece of duct tape to keep it down! You’ll see.”

That first night of physical intimacy was a rare moment for us, in that I was brave enough to let him see me naked. Why not later, I’m not completely sure. As I grew to love him more, I feared he might quit wanting me as much. If he saw me for who I really was, he might not love me so intensely must have been my fear. But that night, after rolling around the bed together for some time, kissing and exploring one another’s nakedness, I got up to use the adjoining bathroom. Because no man before or since ever responded to me like Steve Snow, I hope to always remember how, when I walked back out naked in the shadow, he gasped and whispered, “I’m not accustomed to such beauty.” I beamed and, in that moment at least, believed him.

Pisces to the core and never quite so free and giggly as out on the river, I asked Steve to go with me in the spring to raft the French Broad River. There in the boat, with me in whichever little summer suit I might have been wearing, he sat across from me, drinking up this attraction he seemed to always feel, quietly reveling in having outstared another darkness of loneliness, living fully in the light of his choosing.

Steve loved living up on the mountain with me. When I was cooking, he was most often out chopping wood. He taught me to chop wood too and to use a chainsaw. We cleared a mountain slope of briars to put in a vineyard; we made outdoor furniture together.

After nearly two years, having survived our initial misgivings, there we were, living and working together. I was finally coming to trust Steve. I was slowly but surely realizing that had this man been someone else’s and not so obviously in love with me, I would wish he were mine. Thank God I had begun to tell Steve how very thankful I was for him to be mine.

Christmas of 2008, he gave me his last letter at the dinner table, just before we went up to spend the rest of the night before my bedroom fire, making plans to tell our families of our upcoming engagement.

————

Dec. 25, 2008

Dearest Cynthia,

I think it is time for me to begin a new tradition: an annual letter to you, expressing my feelings and hope for the coming year. I’m not exactly sure where this will go, but let’s see, shall we?

As I head into my 61st year, and you into your 55th, I am so grateful to know you and for you to be in my life. Despite our personal challenges, here we are at midlife, before each other and, slowly, becoming more whole together as we separately set aside our fears, pretenses, and protective armor.

I did not suppose that love could be so enthralling, frustrating, joyful, irritating, and absolutely wondrous. That it is all these things, and much, much more, tells me it is real, not some storybook fantasy of pretend intimacy or feigned infatuation. It is iron sharpening iron, each honing the other, polishing the rough edges; strong, yet shapeable.

Our “fit” is not the saccharine perfection of movies but the life­lived connection that includes difference, shared belief, and compromise. These things are borne only in deep respect for each other, respect that is both the child and parent of trust that grows stronger with each experience.

So I find myself not hopelessly in love with you but instead hopeFULLY in love with you, that is, filled with hope for us in the coming year. This will be the year, I hope, when we test our trust by moving to a new level of relationship and commitment—a step closer to the final public commitment of permanent union.

I hope for our continued growth and continued freedom to become who we truly are, and that we will give that most precious gift to each other: to hold each other up to the light, as the Quakers say; to see the God in each other as we seek the truth together. Drinking the same drink from separate cups; joined yet not submerged one into the other; interdependent, forgiving, delighting, and expecting the best both for and from each other.

I hope we will continue to seek the best place for all of our children in our lives, not too close and not too far, and that we will encourage them both actively and through our modeling to become as great as they can be—agents of goodness in the world.

I hope we will play more, disagree less, laugh until we cry, cry until we laugh—building our life together even as we build our first little house together, a life as rich, grounded, and real as the earth we are building on.

You are my Sunshine, Cynthia, and I love you truly, deeply, always.

————

Then two days later, he was gone.

Rae came back just after Steve died. She sat with me crying out in the orchard and said, “When someone dies, it’s as if we put their lives into a sieve. All the pain and sorrow they caused us sifts right through, and we’re left with a saint to mourn all the rest of our lives.” She knew Steve had been a saint for me in many ways. She also knew our union was far from perfect. She would remind me, as would my children, of all the times we sparred, mostly because I wasn’t ready for matrimony after the first few dates. Steve’s early obsession with me surely came from the hungry little boy in him who saw in me the same wounds from our separate childhoods, and imagined we would complement one another and fill in our separate empty spaces that had never before been filled.  Perhaps at some level Steve knew he did not have forever.

Our last day together, just after Christmas of 2008, when he began work early on the clearing for the cabin we had purchased together at the One Special Christmas auction that year, he invited me to stay at the house to clean up some overdue desk work. I had planned to cook for us midday. Instead though, he came down before expected through the back door, looking uncharacteristically frightened as he said to me, “Do you think I could be having a heart attack?” I promptly grabbed the phone to call 911 at the same time I was stretching him out on the couch, putting his feet up, giving him aspirin and all. Going between him and the operator in conversation about needing emergency medical help up on the mountain didn’t last long, because Steve said to me, “No, I don’t need an ambulance. I haven’t told you, but my stomach has been bothering me. I ate those out­of­date eggs yesterday and then had diarrhea this morning.” A part of me was relieved. The very last thing I wanted was for the strongest, sweetest man I had ever known to be having a heart attack. Still if he were, time would be of the essence. I went back and forth from the phone to Steve. “What? Are you sure?” He said he was. I wiped his forehead and told the operator to put the call on hold; we would call back if we needed them.

All afternoon I begged Steve to let me take him to the hospital. He assured me over and over it was not necessary. I told him, “Who cares if it’s not serious and we ask for help? Even if it is just your stomach, they can give you intravenous fluids and

medicine to make you feel better. People do that all the time.”

He said he neither needed nor wanted medical help. I believed him.

I was wrong. After I had wiped his forehead as many times as he could bear, and had given up on winning the argument to seek medical attention, he sent me back up to my room to work. Just as I was hesitantly leaving the room, he took my hand and said, “I know I have worried you today. I’m sorry. I am going to be all right, sweetheart. I love you.”

I had hardly sat down at my desk before I heard him vomit again. I flew down the stairs to find him lifeless on my couch, then frantically screamed for my teenage son Rob to come quickly. We got Steve on the floor and began CPR while calling the ambulance. This time I told them they simply had to come. My son performed chest compressions while I breathed for Steve. Then I took my turn doing both. It took nearly twenty minutes for the ambulance to arrive, yet quickly, with oxygen and electrical shock, Steve’s heart was back in a normal rhythm. I was never so relieved and ecstatic to see his monitor strip show life again. I KNEW he could do it. Yet as I drove behind the ambulance to the hospital, there was violent weather that seemed to portend the coming crashing of wind and waves into my soul as I was told that Steve was dead. When I walked through the hospital door, noticing his vomit on my face for the first time since my mouth had been on his, I heard one of the ambulance folks say, “She’s the wife of that bad case we brought in.”

I may never remember anything else that was said that night, only being led to Steve in a brightly lighted emergency holding room and seeing him there lifeless and not being able to fathom the moment. They left me there alone with him for a while. It seems so odd now what came next, yet I feel compelled to write that I felt an undeniable need to see his naked body one last time. Though the weight of the night was like an anvil on my shoulders, I gingerly lifted back the sheet. Steve had been patient with me about my shyness around nudity, and had never forced me at anything, yet we had hardly seen one another naked. I had always imagined him so big as he had seemed under the covers and in the dark. But there that last night, I was quite surprised to find him such an ordinary man under those hospital sheets. I realized then the part of him that had connected us so well had been made large by his enthusiasm for me and for us. Life was gone from this larger­than­life man of mine. He would not be on this earth with me anymore.

Sleep did not come to me for days. Food wouldn’t go down either. I wondered why we hadn’t planned better for some way to communicate after death. If only we had seen it coming, I thought, we might have created a language to send messages back and forth somehow.

The shock didn’t begin to lift until some months later. Twenty pounds lighter, I was ever so little by little beginning to make some sense of it all. In two years I hadn’t come to know Steve well enough to understand he could deny his own heart attack. His family knew that about him; I did not. But why in the big cosmic sense of things would this robust man come to me for two years and then leave without notice? There may always be some mystery in that for me.

Outstaring my own darkness was helped by building our cabin, putting in the grapevines we had planned in the spring, finishing the big outdoor red oak table we were building before he died. I hated going to grape­growing conferences all alone, but the planting of the vineyard and the building of our cabin with his old buddies from Charlotte were both medicinal. Sometimes I would feel his teardrops coming down on me from the sky, and every single day his kisses on the wind would brush against my cheek.

Steve gave me so much, his great big heart on a silver platter, his poetry, his utter adoration. A soothsayer after his death suggested that his last gift may have been to teach me to never again not trust my own intuition around matters of the heart and health.

Steve also gave me a new sense of death and dying. Some days now, driving home from work I see myself being killed in a car crash like my mom, and within milliseconds, Steve is there coming to get me, with outstretched arms. It is a young Steve Snow, a broad smile across his handsome face, exuberant, having waited for me all these years, who comes and takes my hand to lead me on to the next plane.

And I realize outstaring darkness is a lifelong affair for all of us.

 

© Cynthia Yancey

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