Online registration for Family Weekend at Oberlin College is frustrating. Even the woman on the other end of the phone, an Oberlin employee who I have called for assistance keeps reminding me so, although the knot in the base of my skull is reminder enough. It is the second time I have run through the series of “next” buttons to move through the pages, filling in the required pieces of information. I am back to entering the names of the family members who will be attending the President’s Breakfast on Sunday morning. This time there is a gitch in the system. “It’s never happened before” she reports as she walks me through each step. As Family weekend is only two days away and we are a late registration I assume my contact has been through this a number of times. “Oh, quite a number,” she assures me, with a certain rattled disquiet in her voice.
I enter myself first, then Alan and then Chris, who is flying from Philli to meet us to spend Saturday afternoon and Sunday visiting Kari at her new college “home.” I do not have to add Kari, yet I sit poised on the edge of the keyboard at the next empty box, my tongue at the tip of my mouth. I am about to say, “Then there’s Jesi. She doesn’t need a seat, but she’ll be there,” before I stop myself.
When Alan and I drive into Oberlin on Friday afternoon the sun illuminates the square in the middle of the college campus casting a blaze of orange and golden light through the autumnal trees and throwing long shadows over the grass and walkways between them. A handful of students meander along paths or relax on the grass, in the pavilion or lean against sculptures scattered throughout the lawn. There is a gentle, almost inaudible murmur rising from the square above which the sound of cars passing on the road can be heard. Alan and I wait outside Kari’s dorm for her to appear. I remember how anxious I felt leaving her here only two months ago. How would she like it? Would she be homesick? When she appears I realize how different I feel as I sense her commanding her environment, casually greeting the other students we pass in a relaxed friendly manner. She offers to show us around. We head for the town to buy lunch and then to the rooftop garden of the Conservatory to eat.
Once on the rooftop Kari shows Alan and I her newest tattoo. A couple of weeks ago she had two inverted hands, and the word “beloved” written below them, etched into the skin of her left forearm. I did not have to ask what it signified when Kari first told me about it. I had my own memories of hands.
They say time heals. Perhaps even with death, there is an element of truth in this. Or perhaps time blunts the memory and it is this which allows one to revisit the cavern of despair without despairing completely. So on the rooftop garden of the conservatory on the sunny Friday afternoon I told Alan and Kari the story of how, on the evening I said good bye to Jesi, the evening before she lapsed into unconsciousness, her hands and my hands connected in a most unspeakable manner; communicating SIMPLY EVERYTHING through touch. I go back into that place now and I know what love is. Her hands touching mine. Her skin gently brushing my skin along my inner forearm, around my wrist. My fingers around hers, hers around mine. Running circles, stroking up and down, cupping her hands, placing my hands in her hands. On and on it went. Magnetizing. Rooting me to the place I was standing next to her bed, unable to leave her side. Unable to tear myself away. Unknowing of what lay in store. That this was the final goodbye. That the next time I would be with her, her brain would be locked inside an unresponsive body. That this would be the end of understanding, until we meet on the other side. Time had blunted that memory. Until I chose to open the door to it again, and share it with Alan and Kari on the rooftop of Oberlin Conservatory.
The following afternoon we drive to the airport to pick up Chris. As we are driving away from the airport Kari announces “Now we are all here together again. It’s been ages since we’ve all been together. And Jesi’s here too.” I don’t say anything. Kari and I instinctively thinking the same thing.
Back at the Conservatory Kari makes a bee line for the Timara Lab to show us where she has been learning to synthesize electronic music. Whereas I am feeling lost in a sea of black boxes and shiny silver knobs, Chris immediately understands what all the equipment is and does. Alan notices Kari has a file of her work on the computer.
“Can we hear some of your work?” he asks.
A month or so ago Kari told me she was working on a piece for her Timara (Technology in Music and Related Arts) class using Jesi’s laughter, Jesi and her talking, Jesi coughing and the ventilator to construct a piece. I remember feeling both protective of her and that she was incredibly courageous to use such raw material to both work with and present in front of her classmates, especially when she said, “I feel like an outsider in this creative community mum. I’m just so different from the other composers and sometimes I feel really challenged because of it.” Then about a week later she called again, really upset. The peer critique of her work had been negative and hurtful.
She got a 100 % grade on the work.
“You sure you want to hear it,” Kari replied to Alan’s request. “It’s hard to listen to. It might make you sad.”
“I want to,” I replied. “What about you Alan?” Alan nodded. “Chris?” Chris nodded also.
Kari’s piece is striking in that it is initially lighthearted and gay, with laughter and talking and bird-like song which she produces by playing the Theramin (an instrument played, without touch, by manipulating sound waves) only to end with the deep somber sounds of the ventilator, drowning out all other “voices.” She does this to indicate how every action carries so much weight with it, and that things inevitably change through time. She uses repetition to build tension. She also develops themes, for instance, occasional coughing evolves into gasping for air and the repetitive narrative “Kari you’re going to kill me” (Jesi says this as Kari is making her laugh so much, yet the sound of her laughter also could be construed as crying), and the eventual plunge into the dark sound made by the ventilator. The narrative ends; consumed by the sound of birds going awry (the Theramin) and the ventilator, initially in the background becoming louder and louder until it overtakes all other sound, drowning out the entire sound set until the piece plummets into an eerie darkness. Kari is showing us that joy and pain (like love and hate) are in reality closely linked to each other.
I am stunned… I think of how must have been for Kari to be down in the Timara lab late at night recording that work until she got it the way she wanted it. And then walking back to her dorm and trying to go to sleep before she had to get up for 8.30 am lectures the following morning.
Sunday morning; before Chris and Alan and I pack up and return to Philli and Boston respectively, Kari takes us on one of her favorite nature walks to the Arboretum. It is another warm and sunny morning, just the sort of lazy Sunday when walking on a dirt track around a pond, watching the changing perspective of colored leaves reflected in the water (itself the color of the sky) reminds me that despite everything happening in the world, there is good and we are in the midst of it.
Chris also reminds me of this when we come upon a piece of fishing line with both sinker and hooks attached. It has been carelessly thrown aside on the earth. “Some poor creature might get caught up in that,” he announces, before he scales a nearby tree and lodges the hook firmly in its trunk with the line wrapped so tightly to it so nothing can get caught up in it.
We continue on our walk in single file along the narrow path. I walk last, content to meander and listen to the birds and gentle buzzing sounds from the grasses, and gaze into the pond watching the water insects flit along the surface, (and of course, take photos.)
Since our walk on September 11 at World’s End where we spent Jesi’s second anniversary walking in the woods, I feel that even without words there is some special connection happening as we wander and stop to gaze at the pond, Kari pointing out her favorite spots, the rope swing where she swims, the place where the dogs gather and plunge in, her running track… And although there are no words spoken about the missing member of our family, I know we all share thoughts of Jesi and she is there too. I can feel that something special in the air. Something that makes the morning whole and fulfilling.
Then we get back in the car we set out on a long drive through the Ohio countryside. We have our lunch with Kari and one of her friends, visit the local museum and the cat rescue to cuddle some kittens before we head to the airport to fly home.