I was on my bike this morning, riding to work. I looked at my watch to make sure I was on pace to get to the ferry on time. And I noticed the date — August 1.
It was in this month, 10 years ago, that my mother passed away after a long battle with cancer. It was three months before my daughter, Grace, our first child, would be born.
There’s something great about being on a bike, going up and down hills, because it gives your mind time to roam. And my mind jumped from thinking of these past 10 years to a poem by Billy Collins. It’s in his book, The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems. It’s called The Lanyard and, for me, it is a wonderful expression of the conditions of love between a parent and a child.
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past —
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift–not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
The painting above is one I did of my mother and father, Janet and Gordon Livengood, who I miss every day.