12 January, 2008

of exams, and then comfort

I know "The Book of Common Prayer" tell us that "in the midst of life we are in death," but it seems to me that more to the point, in the midst of death we are in *life*. Now Martin Luther had a much more esoteric and philosophical interpretation of this idea, but it's very simple actually. You can't just turn yourself off, or stop the world and get off. In fact you cannot really even pause to give due attention to the significance of loss, sometimes, because the vast and yet minutely particular machinery of life tugs at you relentlessly. Just so was our day yesterday.

It began with a driving rainstorm and an early alarm clock because, in the midst of our sadness and loneliness, The Exams Must Go On. Well, I don't know if they must, but they did. So in the dark of early January morning, we got ourselves to Godolphin and Latymer School for the first of the three every-Friday exams that have loomed so long on Avery's horizon. She, full of blueberry muffins, pancetta and strawberries (never let it be said that anxiety affects her appetite, bless her heart), packed up her Pony Club pencil case (her little ritual of taking every item out and describing it to me broke my heart: such a serious little girl) and we set off in a taxi. Not for me the search for a parking spot, not on such a day.

I let the taxi go and walked Avery to the door, but before I could properly hug her or anything, she was swept up by the throngs and I just pecked her cheek and off she went. I felt totally bereft! Slogged my wet way to the Hammersmith bus station (a place that has the potential to kill completely any interest you might have in humanity's continuing past today). Home on the bus, frankly half asleep, and staggering into the flat. So depressed. But there in the sink was a beautiful bouquet of white lilies from Avery's school. That's the sort of gesture that makes things worthwhile. So I did my little chores, looking at my watch, and then finally succumbed to an hour under the duvet with my cats and a hot water bottle. The alarm (two in one day! what a horror) woke me in time for the second bus ride of the day, back to the school.

You would have laughed at the pickup ritual! I suppose if they had actually poked the children with hot little pins it MIGHT have been more unpleasant, but not much. The hundreds of wet parents, all smelling like dogs or bears, crowded into the assembly hall, lined with ginormous wooden plaques listing all the gulls in perpetuity who have won this or that scholarship, nearly all with the words "Oxford University" or "Cambridge University" after their blameless names, with the occasional "Yale University" sprinkling the English tradition with a little heretical American dust. At precisely 12:15 a formidable young woman stepped up onto the stage, smashed a gavel down on a table and shouted from a microphone that she was the deputy head. I cannot lisp the tender syllables of her name because of the babel of parental tongues that would not shut up. Finally she got across the information that our gulls would come out onto the stage under the auspices of the room number in which they had undergone (to say "taken" does not adequately convey the anxiety in the room) the exam. Then she proceeded to bellow out room numbers, and groups of six or eight cowering little shapes would slink onto the stage, whereupon six or eight adult arms would wave frantically and the bodies attached to the arms push in a MOST un-English way toward the stage. Just awful. There were tears, lots of tears. Had the exam been that bad, or could the gulls in question not find their parental arms? I never found out.

Finally Room 14 was announced and there was Avery in her little group, looking remarkably calm, pencil case under her arm. I retrieved her and we went out (the rain having, mercifully, stopped), and we ran away as fast as we could. "So? How was it?" I asked, and she stopped dead on the pavement. "If," she said dramatically, "you were ever to run into the person who wrote that exam, in a dark alley... RUN FOR YOUR LIFE." I had to laugh. "No, seriously," she insisted, "it was two and a half hours of PURE EVIL." This made the whole awful morning worthwhile, I have to say, and there was more where that came from. Specific examples of evil, like "a+b-c=41" and also "a-c+b=52." What are the values of a, b, and c? These two problems (or some variables like them) were apparently true at the same time. Pure evil! There's no other word for it.

And the comprehension! And the essay. Thirty pages of hell. She has no idea how she did. I have to say I was impressed that she had done any of it at all. My last experience with test-taking was the night before the GRE (Graduate Record Examination to those of you lucky enough not to take it). There we all were, seniors in college in October of the year, at the bar naturally, having those last six drinks before going to bed. "What do you have on tomorrow, Kristen?" someone asked, and I looked at my watch and said, "Oh no! I'd better go, I have the GRE tomorrow." From this anecdote it will be apparent that I did not prepare overmuch, nor worry. Well, Avery is made of different stuff. After all the work that child has put into her studies, she had better be rewarded. That's all I can say.

She was sufficiently recovered at lunchtime to eat an enormous bowl of macaroni and cheese. Then we headed off to the skating rink. I sat with her friend Jamie's mother Victoria, who was just what the doctor ordered. A really supportive, lovely talk with her about John's dad, about the exams, about priorities in life and parental responsibility and grief and faith. What I would do without my friends I do not know. Becky took me in hand on Thursday afternoon and fed me handmade beignets and sympathy. I think the only point in grief and loss (not there has to be a point, but it would help) is that after one has been through a thing oneself, one has true empathy for other people going through it, and helpful advice. That is, one does if one is a good person as Becky is. Her kitchen is always so comforting. With three children of her own and mine there as often as not, there are always four bowls of each tasty snack, four glasses of whatever to drink, four voices babbling and clamoring for attention. It was lovely to see the girls express their sympathy for Avery, and then in typical child fashion, move directly to their dress-up clothes and imaginary animals. Most reassuring.

Anyway, back to dreadful Friday. After skating we went out to dinner with Becky's family and it became apparent that neither Avery nor I had what it took to get through an entire evening. We finally made our apologies and slumped off home, whereupon we both alighted on the perfect situation: under the duvet in my bedroom, hot water bottles all round, cats on our laps, and Lord Peter Wimsey's "The Nine Tailors" on the telly. A little girl in a white nightgown, a cold wind blowing outside, and a long phone conversation with John, his mom and sister from Iowa, helped to dispel the horrors of a day that had started so early and been so difficult. It's the perfect movie for one (or two in our case) in need of comfort: bell-ringing, snowy New Year's Eve, lots of scotch and hot water, and an unloved victim. Perfect. We slept well.

And today was much the same. We hung around in bed finishing the movie until nearly noon, and then it felt like the right thing to do to open the curtains, get a fresh breeze, make our beds, and some chicken soup. Guess what? Although I stand firmly behind a chicken soup made with the remains of a good organic roasted chicken from your own homely oven, you know what you can do in a pinch? Make sure you have good quality chicken stock in your cupboard, dump it in a saucepan with some sweet little Chantenay carrots, some sliced celery and a handful of Manischewitz fine noodles, and ten minutes or so later you're in business. The perfect lunch for me for whom any sadness or trouble goes right to my tummy, and for Avery who, though intrepid in every way, loves a good bowl of chicken soup.

I took her off to her first acting class of the term and she has a new teacher! Someone who purports to have some high-level casting responsibilities! And he stopped her in the hallway after class and said, "That was very good," so we feel sure fame and fortune are just a matter of time. There was, however, a brief kerfuffle at pickup. She didn't see the car, I couldn't see her, and we both thought something horrible had happened. It's so luxurious when John is here to drive, while I go in to get her! Avery wailed, "A little person like me needs two parents!" I had to laugh. Isn't it pathetic that I consider it an accomplishment simply to get to the acting school without getting lost, get from there to the grocery, and back again, and home, no accidents and remembering to lock the car. Most people can accomplish this whilst at the same time composing symphonies or trading millions of dollars in junk bonds.

We are surviving. Actually more than that. I wonder if it isn't maybe even more useful and satisfying a parental experience to get a child successfully through an awful time, than it is to enjoy a good time. It's hard not to be able to do anything to prevent a sad loss, or to put out a hand to make the hurt go away. But if you can take the job you've been given, not curl up in a ball and give up, and come out the other side still standing, it's not a bad thing. And tomorrow she gets the whole day at the stable. And... it promises to rain ALL day. After all, we wouldn't want anything to be too easy.

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