Looking behind me, I twisted my torso and pressed down on the tin canister that sat in the passenger seat as I backed up the car. A horrid pop song played on the radio. I don’t normally think the word “horrid”, but I was in mom mode, so my mind ran towards affectations in hopes that my son, Hazen, would never reach my level of Midwestern banal. The tin canister contained his ashes, and today was his 14th birthday.
I squabbled with him in my head. I may have been underestimating his taste in music, but I thought that he for sure wanted to listen to that horrid song. All fourteen-year-old kids must have been listening to that song, so of course he would want to, even if he knew that it lacked merit in the areas of composition and vocal execution. Hazen would probably be too cool to take mainstream pop seriously. He’d like some obscure 80s crap his father listened to, but still, he had to listen to that song on the radio in order to laugh about it with his friends, tease the girl he had a crush on who genuinely liked that horrid song. It was really, really important that he listen to that song. And if I didn’t let him listen to it, I was a mean, unreasonable. Dammit, I am the mother in this situation, I thought. “You can sulk all you want, but we’re listening to NPR.” I resolutely turned on To the Point with Warren Olney. I was doing us both a favor. Even if neither one of us liked it. Besides, given the current state of his matter, I was immune to Hazen’s sulking. You can’t sulk any further than being a canister of ashes.
I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew I needed to get out. I felt that way often: cities, relationships, conversations. Even yoga. Sometimes I beat myself up for leaving scenarios, running away, and wished I could be one of those people who stuck with things, like a person who stays in one house and watches it appreciate in value with some hard work, or a person who falls in love with their childhood sweetheart, and is just as happy decades later as the day they met.
I was that kid lying in the grass looking up at airplanes. Wanting to go somewhere other than where I was. I spent my life looking at things from a distance, and part of it looking for things, but I didn’t know what. I thought it was a family and a home, but that didn’t turn out the way I decided it would. Since moving to Los Angeles from New York four years prior, I learned that I wouldn’t explode if I faced things, like feelings. Some days, even, I could just be.
One of my places in Los Angeles to” just be” was at a theater group’s cold reading series every Tuesday. Writers bring in 10 pages of a script they’re working on, and actors read them aloud without any rehearsal. The actual theater company is based in New York, and I used to sporadically attend the same series there. In Los Angeles, the night was my Cheers, and I was Norm. Hazen’s birthday fell on a Wednesday that year. So I did what I always do on a Tuesday, went to the theater. I almost stayed home to stare at the wall, but pushed myself through the waves of sluggish depression to go. There weren’t a lot of female parts that week. Usually when that was the case, I would end up reading a character role, a larger than-life person with an accent or quirk. They’re great parts. You’re in, you’re out, and have to jump in fully to do the role any justice.
This Tuesday, however, was primarily brimming with male roles, and the occasional ingénue. So one of the guys running it asked me if I wanted to read Stage Directions—the “We’re outside a dark glass office building, she checks her watch,” stuff in a script—I wanted to act, but reading stage directions beat sitting in silence. I’d get to read a lot of words, which is nice on quiet days when the only voice I hear is the one inside my head.
I sat in the very last row of the theater, next to an older writer I never really talked with before.
“Do you get nervous when you go up there and act?” he asked.
I thought about it, thought about what I felt. I didn’t really feel anything much at that moment. Except tired.
“No. Not really,” I said.
“I would think it’d be nerve wracking.”
“You forget about yourself and help out the person who’s saying the words.”
His earnest smile revealed a boyish gap between his teeth. He kindly continued the conversation. Yet as much as I was sick of the day’s silence, I didn’t want to think about using my words that evening. I was searching for somebody else’s. So I shrugged my head down with an apologetic smile.
I scoured the script. The smile disappeared. It was about a couple searching for their abducted son, whom they feared to be dead. I sighed. Not because the script hit close to home—my child wasn’t abducted, my child died of cancer—but because the death of a child is the world’s largest violin, and without the instrument, the piece would be pretty bland.
Personally, I could talk to a blind orphan quadriplegic who lives under a freeway and nine times out of ten he’d tell me, “But it isn’t like losing a child.” I could never verify the comparison, as I intended to keep my legs and never live under a bridge, God willing.
Although I understood that a deceased child is melodrama’s version of a horror film, exploring horrible feelings in a safe environment, I rolled my eyes as I glanced at the pages. I could just picture the actors emoting with a glint in their eyes, thrilled about the opportunity to take an emotional shit all over the stage. “What a cliché,” I thought, as I tossed the script on the floor.
The thing about reading stage directions is that it’s a thankless job. Everyone knows that. That’s why the group only applauds the person reading them. As my group settled in to read, I introduced myself. Everyone cheered wildly. Genuinely. I was taken aback by the love as a hundred clapping souls pushed away the boulder on my heart.
I read using my theater voice. I spoke from the diaphragm versus the chest, but I wasn’t all there. My voice was strong but my mind was chasing the words as I read them. It was fine overall, though. “I’m in control,” I thought, and lowered my voice half an octave to support the illusion. I read aloud that the father of the missing boy is at work. He’s in a meeting. His boss is droning in numbers about quarterly reports, as bosses tend to do. The father’s thoughts drift off. He is transported to his son’s last birthday party at Griffith Park. There are children and cupcakes. The stage directions walk us closer into the party. I see the words “balloons” and “Happy Birthday” for a very long time before I say them aloud. All of a sudden I’m me again. And I’m the father. And I’m sad about our missing boy. And I so badly want to see the balloon again. And my son again. And it’s his birthday tomorrow. And what are the chances? I stop mid sentence. “Sorry guys, I can’t do this today,” I said, sounding like I had a grapefruit in my throat, and quickly exit stage right. Crying. What a cliché.
After a morning full of “Thank you for your kind words.” And “Yes, it’s his birthday.” And “Love you too”, via phone, Facebook, and text, I felt like I deserved a cup of fancy coffee. So after I backed up the car, I drove through the alley and turned left. I drive everywhere now, after strictly taking the bus, or walking, or riding my bike for my first four years in LA. The best part about driving through the alley vs. riding my bike is that the Mexican auto mechanics across the street, thinking I’m Mexican, catcall a little less when I’m in the car. The Armenian auto mechanics on my side of the street, thinking I’m Armenian, never catcall. Although one did try to sell me his 1995 Infiniti Q45, white with gold accents, declaring the car was perfect for me. For some reason that felt creepier than catcalling. After all, I kept visiting the Armenians to ask their thoughts on the Toyota Yaris.
I turned right on Rosalia, left on Fountain and parked across the street from the old KCET studios. which are now owned and operated by Scientologists, much like everything else in Los Feliz. Lucinda Williams’ “East Side of Town” was playing on the radio. I never heard it before, but it made me think of my boyfriend, who is Westside-centric, given the fact that it’s a few degrees cooler over there and he lives alone/doesn’t have three roommates like me. But the Eastside is far more interesting. More vibrant. Maybe a little douchey-hipster with its precious art and food scene, everyone spending a fortune on screen-prints and sauerkraut, but, there is hope in creation.
As I walked, I felt Hazen. Probably because his ashes are in your backpack, I thought. Hazen’s remains, combined with my laptop, felt as heavy as when he was a baby strapped to my chest for the first time. We went to the Food Emporium, a grocery store on the ground floor of Manhattan Plaza’s 10th Avenue tower. It was winter, so that was the best I could come up with. I remembered his eyes scanning the brightly colored packaged food, as if he were reading the labels, categorizing options.
That was before the Baby Bjorn. Instead, we had a cheap little Fisher Price carrier that wobbled and felt unsafe. I remembered running up subway escalator steps, in a hurry to catch the 6 train, immediately after the World Trade Center attacks. Running to my Aunt Hulya, who was in town from Istanbul. Wanting so badly to see her, please her, show her that we were all right, that I missed a step and nearly crushed Hazen from a fall. But didn’t. We were both safe. At that moment.
I walked to Dinosaur Coffee, which was one door down from McDonald’s on Sunset. Hazen liked Dinosaurs. Well, he tolerated them. He learned their names but could care less about seeing their bones whenever I dragged him to the American Natural History Museum on Central Park West. I remembered recently going to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles for Biology class, a requisite to finish my Bachelor’s Degree, and feeling an almost going to pass out numb because its marbled interior looked so much like New York’s and had dimly lit dioramas. And dinosaur bones. Here it was just coffee. Loved by some, claimed overrated by some on Yelp.
The place was serene. White walls. Scales of sculpted plywood hung from a sturdy wood beams ceiling. Windows ate the walls North and South. In the back, the only greenery in the place, a wall of ferns, framed a pink neon sign that said, “Everything will be fine.” I picked up the message like it was a note passed under a closed door, and decided to open it later.
I ordered a coffee for here and waited for the French Press to happen. As I waited, a regular from the McDonald’s next door started walking across the benches of people sitting outside. The regular was a longhaired blonde homeless man wearing nothing but a full piece women’s red bathing suit. His body was caked with soot, I noticed, as he walked in and started reciting gibberish.
“That’s a dude,” one girl, also waiting for her French Press, said in a disenchanted- ala-Ellen-Page sort of way.
The young manager didn’t know what to do. She sent a male barista, short in stature but with a perfectly manicured beard, to chase him away. The blonde man came back, and started screaming at a patron’s barking dog outside. So the manager finally called the cops. The blonde man went away, and people went back to the chitin of laptops and lattes.
I thought about how cruddy it was that Hazen saw the blonde on his birthday, as he lay hidden in my backpack. I felt bad for thinking the word cruddy. This wasn’t very festive. Well. Maybe it was. He’s seen worse. I thought about our time in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. That was before the Pinkberry and American Apparel came in. Drug addicts smoked stuff on our playground. I didn’t have the nerve to chase them away. Instead, we left, breathing in the secondhand smoke of whatever it was. In Los Angeles, there was so much more space. The air felt segregated. I drank my coffee and listened to grown men discuss wine country on the cheap. “It’s time,“ I thought. I had been avoiding making a big to do, but it was time to acknowledge Hazen’s Birthday, so I ran out as soon as my cup was empty.
The cashier at the 99 Cent Only Store rang up an avocado, a box of stevia, and a tri-pack of seaweed snacks. “Can I have one of those too, please?” I said, nonchalantly pointing to a Mylar balloon that said “Happy Birthday”. He wiped his scanning hands on his sides as he looked at me. Maybe it was because he assumed I spoke Spanish, given my olive complexion, and was surprised to hear the word “can” with a Michigan “A” so hard you could open a bottle of pop on it. Maybe it was because I looked like the most somber person ever asking for such a happy balloon. Maybe he just knew. Whatever the reason, he ceremoniously untied one for me.
“Four fifty,” he said. I gave him a double take. He knew exactly why. “Fifty cents to blow up the balloon. ”
I looked at my receipt with skepticism.
“Nothing is free,” I sighed. “Oh well. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars spending hundreds of dollars here.“ Besides, Hazen was on my back and we didn’t walk down the toy aisle. No gift bag. No treats. No begging to go somewhere better, just a dumb balloon. What a cliché.
Balloons reminded me of Hazen’s life. After treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering, I would walk Hazen home in his stroller and cut through the park. We lived across town and twenty blocks down, but Central Park was our buffer between the hell of treatment and staking a claim in normalcy. One time, after a treatment that zapped all of Hazen’s nerve endings, an experience so painful it may have been deemed too brutal by the Spanish Inquisition, we stopped at Sheep’s Meadow for a rest. It was hard to stop moving. Stopping meant coming down from the high of happy—a forced personality hooked into the crapshoot of positive thinking thanks to all the Wayne Dyer, Joel Osteen, Florence Scovel Shin, etc. my cancer mom friends were giving me. I could love Hazen’s cancer away. We could laugh it away. Laugh away the pain. The anxiety. The fucking hell of not knowing if we would be together next year. But Hazen had no energy, he needed to rest his body, so I entered the dank cage of reality. We sat in the meadow. It was fairly empty, even for midweek. I scanned the field. There were a couple toddlers and their nannies in the middle of the park with two balloons tied onto their parallel-parked strollers. The wind knocked the balloons into each other, making them look like a couple of discombobulated clowns. I pointed out the balloons to Hazen.
“Ouch! What are you knocking into me for?!? That hurts,” I said, channeling the balloons.
“Who me? I can’t help it. I wanna play with you, Bob.”
They knocked into each other again. I felt Hazen’s slight body rise and fall with laughter as he rested in my lap.
“Ouch! Quit it! That really hurts! I don’t want to play, Roger!” “But, Bob! Bob! I wanna,”
Boink. Boink. Boink.
The more Roger beat up Bob, the more Hazen laughed. We could both laugh out our frustrations. We were Roger. Bob was everything else. I wanted Bob to pop. After Hazen’s funeral service, his father orchestrated a procession from St. Malachy’s church on 49th Street to May Mathews, a playground park with basketball courts, on 46th. Hazen called it the “Choo Choo” playground because of its old jungle gym train. The park was sandwiched between tenement apartment buildings. A fading mural depicting the strength of the local community working together loomed over the courts. We have pictures of that mural: me, pregnant and pretending to make a basket, Hazen, riding his scooter. I wondered if anyone would take a photo now, as I watched hundreds of our friends and neighbors stand on the courts distributing red and blue balloons. I felt like a spectator at my own son’s funeral. At his father’s count, everyone let go of their balloons and watched them float up in the air. My friend’s three-year-old daughter called out to Hazen as she watched a balloon fly through a basketball hoop then up into the air.
“There he goes. He’s flying! Hi, Hazen,” she said, about to timber backwards from waving uninhibitedly as she followed its flight. It didn’t surprise me that she could see him. Hazen wanted to marry her.
This was the first year I had custody of Hazen’s ashes. Eight years after his death. I promised his dad I wouldn’t scatter them into the ocean. Even posthumulously he doesn’t trust me to take care of our son, I thought, suppressing my bitterness about our still-pending divorce. Now that I finally had custody of Hazen’s remains, it was important to do something special, versus live in the swampland of unidentified emotions. So, I bought a damn silver Mylar Happy Birthday balloon.
“Hold this,” I said in my head, as I plopped Hazen’s ashes unceremoniously on the ribbon of the balloon. We proceeded to argue.
“Mommm I’m not a baby anymore. I’m fourteen. I’m too old for balloons.”
“Relax. It’s just a dumb balloon,” I thought, like a seasoned mom, immune to her teenage son’s crap. Then I doubted myself and wondered if I was too curt. “Is that what he would say? Would we have teenage hormones affecting our relationship now? What would he say? I don’t know what he would say.” I had no idea. So I said something.
“I get that you’re older, but, sorry kiddo, you’ll always be almost-six to me.”
Holding onto the last bastions of Hazen’s life was a glue trap that kept me from communicating with him in my dreams. I wanted to see him as healthy and whole. Limitless. Ageless. But mostly I saw him as a really sick boy with a mind older than his years, and a body ravaged with cancer.
Cancer and Hazen didn’t belong together, but I couldn’t break them apart. I wanted to let go of the predatory nature of disease. Every time I would start to think of Hazen in happy ways, his painful demise would prey upon the happy thoughts, eat them bloody and raw, then shit them out to grow again. Like the Nitrogen cycle. They say, or I’ve been told, that once grief subsides a little less, your loved ones come to you in your dreams. I’ve seen him there once or twice, but always from afar. We never speak. He’ s fine, or trying to be fine, but I feel melancholy, feeling remorse because he doesn’t know how sick he is. All I’d want to do is hold him.
Despite seeing that it was closed, I parked the car by the carousel in Griffith Park. Hazen loved the one in Central Park. His favorite horse was Bubbles, a black lead horse who stuck his tongue out. I bet Hazen can walk through walls, I told myself, not knowing where else to go. It doesn’t matter if it’s open or closed. What matters is that I can talk to him here, I thought. Moommmmm, I’m too old for carousels. A strange man passed by as I walked down the hill.
“Hello there,” he said. “I expected it to be open today.”
He was alone, a spectator like me. I barely acknowledged him, unsure if he was a psychopath or just a simpleminded dude.
He could kill me. He could come back and kill me, I thought. No, that’s not going to happen. You’re protected. Especially today.
I plopped us down on a bench under a tree facing the carousel. We were sitting next to a dumpster, which helped make the bench feel like a private room. I appraised our party clothes. Me in my California casual wear, jeans and a fancy sweatshirt, Hazen in a tin canister wrapped in a purple Nepalese bag. I held on to the silver Happy Birthday balloon.
Well? Ya gotta say something, I thought.
“Happy Birthday, Hazen, “ I said in a whiny, cheery voice, much like a kid forced to say “Thank you” when they don’t understand why they have to say thank you and they just want to run away and play.
The balloon began to dance. Because of the wind. I’m grateful for the wind. Sometimes it’s the only thing I feel.
“God, Angels, Saints, Universe, I look forward to the day that I can communicate with Hazen in my dreams without the sadness. Every time I see him, he’s sick, or we don’t talk, or both.“ I felt a great disappointment. Deeper than my grandmother’s, who was sure that Hazen could become President. He was that kind of kid. I took a breath.
“Thank you for choosing me, Hazen.”
That’s what we used to say to each other. Only afterwards, did I discover on Youtube, or a snarky comment section on some blog that even saying that to each other was cliché, but I didn’t care. We said that. That was us. That was ours. Besides, clichés exist because they’re true.
“I’ll always be your mom. I love you. I miss you. I know that you’re right here.” I folded my arms.
The balloon bobbed back and forth, so I let it go and watched it circle upwards.
The sun hit the silver Mylar as the balloon sailed away from the carousel, up across the 5 Freeway and up towards the mountains. I wondered if any drivers or bikers or joggers would see the balloon and say something like, “Ah. A kid lost his birthday balloon. Ya gotta hold on tight to those things,” Without ever knowing that only by letting go can a balloon do what it is truly meant to do, bring random happiness to everyone who crosses its path.