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The Shipwreck Rose: Sweet Bird of Youth

Thu, 07/13/2023 - 08:57
The author's daughter near Bolinas, Ca., earlier this week.
Michael Light

I’ve somehow managed to land back in the hospital — it’s my third extended stay in the Chateau Southampton since June 6 — but at least this time I have a bed by the window. The window is the big perk, the lucky-straw draw. Mine fills the wall and looks out over the hospital’s main entrance, and I lose hours staring out it and mildly (limply, without judgment) observing the ebb and flow of people coming and going. They wear shorts, and hold the hands of bouncing toddlers in the striped crosswalk over Meeting House Lane. Everyone has such tanned legs! It’s midsummer.

Limp and without judgment is not my normal state of mind. But I have floated deep and deep enough down into this somewhat dreamlike medical zone — the world of what we used to call an “invalid” — to rather enjoy the sensation of inhabiting a place apart. Just lying here, not thinking about much. We are all (we the backless gown-wearers, the shufflers in socks) woken before dawn by the hustle and bustle that precedes the nurses’ morning shift change. I wait a decent interval, until at least 6:30 a.m., before I raise the blind and begin my out-the-window-staring. I can tell the wind direction by the flapping of the American flag in the little plaza by the main entrance. It’s shifted from easterly into the west-northwest.

Today, in addition to monitoring the arrivals of doctors and visitors out my big window, I am avidly tracking an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 as it makes its progress across the continent. My daughter, my own sweet little girl (who was only so small, her fist the size of a walnut, her tiny grasp reaching out for a Ritz Cracker, only yesterday), is in the jet, headed all alone to California to visit a family friend. I hit “refresh” on the website tracking page every 15 minutes. She has just flown west over Lake Michigan at 36,000 feet. The airline ticket was her big birthday present from her dad.

I hope she is napping on the plane. She turned Sweet Sixteen yesterday, and went to bed late, after a surprise party thrown by her besties in an Amagansett garden. They sent me pictures: such beautiful youths, all with such gorgeous hair — long curtains, straw-blond and chestnut and black — and thin arms thrown around one another’s necks, shoulders, and waists. A pink birthday cake, a blue-and-white tablecloth, and roses in a vase.

Nettie has always been a high-jumper. It’s very like Nettie to brazen her way through Kennedy Airport, flying solo, the day after her 16th birthday. She is wearing a gold necklace with a gold pendant in the shape of a key, my own present for her Sweet Sixteen. She says she loves it and will never take it off. I hope that’s true. (I need to get a gold necklace with a gold heart pendant for myself.)

I’m very birthday-party-oriented, and love few things more than to party-plan, and had spent most of the last year dreaming up visions of the party I could throw my daughter for this big one. I really wanted to hire a tent for the backyard and have dance music, like a quinceañera (not that I could have afforded it!) or to set up one of those extra-long tables you see on Instagram, with wildflowers and paper lanterns. Nettie didn’t want a production, however, and as life turned out, my celebration with my girl was watching her pull her gifts from a big, white paper shopping bag, sitting on the ledge of the window beside my bed in my hospital room. Memorable, anyway. We won’t soon forget this birthday.

Baking a birthday cake and decorating it with icing rosettes is my way of communing with the lost world I was born into, back in another century, another America. Organizing parlor games, hanging the bunting, digging out from the pantry a small box that always goes missing in which live a dozen tiny silver circus animals that carry birthday cake candles on their backs. Touchstones of happiness . . . souvenirs from a world that recedes ever further into the past. The filament is as thin as spider silk.

Does anyone remember the Cake Lady? She lived — I think — in a small house on Old Stone Highway in Amagansett? Your mother would phone the cake lady, and she’d let you choose the flavor of the cake and the color of icing, as well as the theme of the decoration she’d pipe onto it: pony, clown, ballet slippers, tiger, airplane. . . . The Cake Lady made large, flat sheet cakes with the sort of soft icing that acquires a fragile layer of sugar crust before the candles are blown out. The Platonic ideal of a birthday cake.

My hospital bed is equipped with push buttons that raise and lower not just the head and feet but the knees, and it self-adjusts — a shifting magic carpet — without prompting, to relieve pressure points, I guess. There must be invisible sensors. My bed is shifting below me, and Nettie has just flown through Kansas and is pointing onward into Colorado.

Nettie has always been a high-leaper. She is a natural-born dancer, a wonderful dancer, and when she was younger and took dance lessons, excelled at what they called “lyrical dance,” but she wasn’t a natural ballerina. In ballet class, she wasn’t the most graceful of the girls — her “port de bras” was somehow too angular, sharp elbows rather than smooth ovals of arms — but each grand jeté was leaps and bounds higher than the other girls’, and she lingered in the air a full beat longer on each pas de chat or sauté. She’s a bouncer, a bounder. She springs skyward.

Out my hospital window, I can hardly believe the ease with which everyone moves. Women my age riding cream-colored bicycles in white cotton dresses. Older men with rolling sailors’ walks coming out the main door in flip-flops. I’m drifting off into a reverie of remembrance, thinking of my own daring first trips and solo flights when I was a boarding-school kid of Nettie’s age.

I remember the Eastern Airlines shuttle that took me and my classmate Antonia from La Guardia to Boston Logan for something like $45, no reservation required. Smoking on the airplane, eating peanuts, keeping my eyes wide open in case there might appear a punk-rock boy with black combat boots and home-bleached hair.

(I never met a cute boy on an airplane, but I was hopeful that travel might bring romance — always hopeful, always expecting love — having the summer before been approached by a suave, slim tennis pro in the bar car of the Long Island Rail Road. This was between my sophomore and junior year of high school, Nettie’s exact moment. I was only 15 and drinking a gin and tonic as the Cannonball rollicked and rolled eastward. The tennis pro was in his mid-20s, with fine white-blond hair on his strong, tan arms, and even though he walked me home from the train, I am proud to report that despite being flattered, I was wise enough at 15 to find his attentions creepy. I never saw him again.)

I was a fine ballerina in those years, actually, the years I first flew solo, 15 and 16. It’s long enough ago now that I can say so. My leaps and jetés were not especially impressive — nothing like Nettie’s — but I had a good pointe, a good arch, and waved my arms gracefully. (Waved them gracefully, like a conjurer, as if summoning something with magic.) I did not own a gold key necklace, or any gold necklace at all, although my father had given me a precious pearl choker for my 12th birthday, which, sadly, I lost in the vast crowd of agitated peaceniks at an antinuclear demonstration at Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant the following summer, the summer I was 12, the summer of 1979.



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