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Paper Cranes

By Tara Badstubner

My boy makes me paper cranes. They sit grouped together on my desk. Origami was never an interest of mine (I lack that abstract eye) until he began quietly leaving them scattered throughout our home, waiting to be found. Now they are a reminder of silent conversations between mother and son.

It started with an orange crane. I found it on my bureau one evening, tiny and off-kilter. I thought it was left there as an afterthought, the unwanted result of some art project at school. Later I found a purple crane, steady on its feet and more substantial in size. A few weeks passed and a crane made of lined paper appeared, and shortly thereafter another made of a map. My husband, amidst this proliferation of birds, informed me that our son was reading One Thousand Paper Cranes in school. After a bit of sleuthing, we learned it was a true story about a girl, Sadaku, who became terminally ill with leukemia from the radiation of the Hiroshima bomb. During her illness, she learned of an old Japanese legend that promised a wish granted if a thousand paper cranes were made by hand. She died after making her 644th paper crane, never reaching her goal or her wish for a full recovery. Loved ones and friends continued on, folding and creasing small papers, until the thousandth crane was made—a final memorial to Sadaku and her unassailable hope.

Now that I understood the genesis of his idea, my son’s message rang pure and clear. The message had a ripple effect of thoughts that I had fought off for years. For the first time, I allowed myself to consider all the hours my son spent alone outside playing on the swing set or up his favorite tree while I was in bed, unable to move. I thought of how, when he was hurt or afraid, he always called for his dad, the reliable parent. The tally of missed events and moments was too long to count, and it amounted to a heavy sense of loss. I also considered the possible unspoken conclusions my son harbored. All his young life, he had known me only as sick. He watched me struggle with such ordinary mom things—grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, outings to the park. On especially bad days, the children regularly found me passed out on the floor. They would step over me on their way to the pantry or the backyard and yell upstairs to their dad that mom was out on the floor again. Despite all they saw and heard, our worst fears were never discussed. I suppose we harbored a naïve hope that death had not entered their realm of consciousness. There seemed no point in causing more anxiety. We regarded it as a passing illness that would one day, miraculously, tire of me, up and leave.

As I look at my paper cranes in all their various colors and forms, I see more than a reminder of illness. I now see a young boy trying to cobble together a message of recovery and health and love, all without words. This realization sends me looking for other quiet missives that have slipped past unnoticed. I am not left looking very long.

There was a time when my husband and I decided to have twenty-five trees in the backyard cut down—not all the trees, but some. We were thinking of our son and his siblings and a grassy area to play. Like most parents, we moved ahead with confidence that we had it right. The cutters came, marked the trees with orange ribbon, and systematically dismembered them limb by limb as our son watched. He said very little during those two or three days of continual buzz. Up in the cherry tree in our yard, high in the branches, he sat watching it all unfold. He brought his notebook and colored pencils and I thought he was drawing. Weeks later, I came across his notebook and looked for the drawings, but instead found words. How sad he was to learn that mom and dad would kill living things, even the imperfect and troublesome trees. His favorite climbing tree had been cut down. The disappointment of my son humbled me.

He reaches me in other quiet ways. The family piano for many years was a source of nothing more than jarring and dissonant chords and scales. Somewhere amid lessons and practice and recitals, my son evolved past his thick fingers and heavy hands and learned to play. I do not know when, but at some point he learned of my fondness for the tune “Edelweiss.” I remember when I was young and attended a girls’ camp, the older girls would come round at night and serenade us while we lay in our beds waiting for sleep. They came with lit tapers, huddled beside one another in the cool New England night. “Edelweiss” was in their repertoire, and I always hoped that they would meander into that song before they left my campsite. Long after they had moved on, their thin voices lingered.

One day my son played “Edelweiss” while I was stuck in bed, the tune carrying up and filling my bedroom. For the few moments the song lasted, I was transported. Sometimes, all I needed was the briefest respite to elevate the day beyond survival. In the time it took to play the song, I reconnected with the young girl I was, unencumbered by body or mind and enamored of her future and all its possibilities. There have been many times when my son has come home, learned I was not well that day, and gone to his piano and played that song.  Over time, the song’s associations have changed. Now they are not so much about my childhood remembrances; now I think of the boy downstairs. I think of the gift of his presence scattered throughout my life in so many different ways—in the forgotten notebooks filled with his words and images, in the music he plays, and in the lovely paper cranes.

The Japanese believe paper cranes are the silent wishes of one’s heart. I too have a silent wish. My wish, could I have it: a heart big enough to hold all I witness. To remember all the quiet ways my son’s compassion has come and found me.

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