The Day After February 5

[ Note:  This entry is a companion SSW (silent sustained writing) to the previous posting two weeks earlier.]

February 6, 2020

Is there such a thing as a grief hangover?  Is the whole thing a hangover?  Two weeks ago, on Ang’s birthday, I wrote that I had to power through to February 5, and then start breathing again.  Today is February 6, and I’m breathing, but it’s a bit labored and troubled.  I was thinking about the “getting through” or “getting to”—but not the “getting beyond.”  What does February 6 and beyond look like?

I think such things because today had such prominent features to it—a mixture of (1) the world in your face (snow day in February) and (2) entrenched defiance on my part not to let the world interrupt who I was, and wanted to be, and what I wanted to do today.  I’ve fallen into a solitary morning routine the past year or so, and, like an old cranky person, I’ve grown protective of it.  I wake up early, stay off the computer (the only time of the day that’s true), and I engage in an increasingly regular ritual of getting ready.  I make lunches;  I brew coffee with the French press;  I leave a full thermos for the girls to have when their day starts hours later;  I clean up the night’s dishes and run the dishwasher, hoping to earn some credit (and to help the kids avoid censure for the mess they left);  I put on WFMT, and find accompaniment in the soft tones of both the music and the through-the-night announcer;  I shower;  I dress, my clothes having been laid out the night before (another old-person tendency creeping up on me—way over-preparedness about trivial things, obsessiveness in procedures);  I look through the house to see what the others will wake up to, and I try to smooth out what could disturb or inconvenience them.

Today was just another one of these mornings, but everything was amped up, all these tendencies put on steroids. First, I woke up way early.  Was it the worry over the weather?  I wish I could say it was, but the truth is I’ve been waking up earlier and earlier—to such an extent that I wonder if I sleep at all at night.  It’s become just another brief nap—that I, of course, need more of, since I’m not sleeping at night.  Is it the January-February grief cycle that’s disturbing my sleep?  Maybe.  I think it’s more the grief I feel over my broken heart of life at SXU—the stress of committee and department work, the inability to hit the stride of making things work, finding the truth, living our mission, bonding with colleagues, transitioning out of past roles, and on and on.

The morning routine has been a kind of retreat for me into my own solitary peace.  I’ve felt so alone—whatever the cause—be it Angelo or the sorrows of SXU—and I’ve found comfort in the quiet and regularity and interiority of computerless/deviceless domestic procedures, followed by the zoned out, but purposeful drive in, with minimal traffic (so important to beat the traffic, and my earlier and earlier start to the day was motivated by a quest to find that time that was early enough to beat the rat race.  I’m not sure I found it, but I know it’s before 4:55 AM.  At some point I’m going to begin hitting up against the prior day’s late traffic rather than this day’s early traffic).

So this morning—out of a desire to protect the routine, which was threatened by the snow, and to increase the psychological medicine of “being of domestic service” to help the family get started on their days, and to lean in a bit hard to the “man of the house” father stereotype (but in a good way?), I woke up an hour early, not planning to do all I did, but just falling into it.  I decided to unbury three cars, get them started and warmed up (not that they’d stay warm, but so that the windows could all be cleared, at least for the time being).  Loretta’s car had a broken scraper, so I switched that out with mine.  That was hard to do, since mine is like the most luxurious, most functional scraper-brush on the market.  But I felt so proud to surprise her, and so proud of my sacrifice, which seemed to say, “I will do anything for you, dear. (Yes, even this.)”

This morning, in some kind of productive frenzy, I even turned on the computer before going out to dig out the cars.  I thought, “I could start the cars, brush them off a bit, leave them on, come back in the house and read a report, then go back out and finish up the cars.”  I was moving—and I wanted to get ready for SSW, about which I had changed my mind several times (write about grief?  write about SXU’s troubles?  write about this afternoon’s committee meeting and our lost way?).

It was later when I got in the car and started driving that I realized what was going on with all my productiveness that morning.  A song came on—as it often does—and a miracle of emotion and utter stopping of what was going on, and a transport to the Other Place (where you needed to be all along) takes place.

I came to realize there might be something wrong with my morning routine, that I might be escaping from life, withdrawing inward, trying to control the uncontrollable, trying to secure some inner peace—but maybe leaning in too far with it.

I have an image from long ago of me wiping the kitchen counter in a circular, repetitive motion, in a Zen-like way, while the kids, all five of them, when they were young, were in the other room, being joyful and crazy and annoying and impossible.  My wiping motion was control:  “I’ve pushed back the forest, and this space is mine, and it’s clean, and it’s regular, and look, it’s clean…and round and round, it’s clean, see…?  Peace.”  There in the kitchen was my little clearing of counter—and the radio or little under-the-cabinet mounted TV with the ballgame on, quietly providing other context, giving me the illusion of not complete escape into the interiority of my own circles and clean space…:  “I am still connected (and how could I not be, with those five dervishes of energy, just in the other room, bursting with so much growth and drama and other reality?).”

So much of my dream in life has been the quest for such peace, and I wonder if my current morning routine—justified in this way, is still just a little too much.  Am I out of balance?  Did the growing of the kids, and their movement into other rooms, farther away, allow me to fixate too much on my circles?

Yesterday we had Ang’s godparents and his cousin Jane and her husband and three dervishes of kids over to have a celebration of Ang.  I’m grateful for the bustle of life in such an event.  Loretta’s day in the setup was nonstop—a full day beginning with a work out, Mass, a trip to the cemetery, shopping at Costco, shopping at Jewel, going to Freddies (yes, Freddies) to pick up the chicken parmesan, gnocchi, lasagna, ravioli, meatballs, and salads.  I am grateful for the way the kids all chipped in, the way everyone came over, the conversation, laughter, storytelling, and reminiscing.  I was a happy and sociable participant in the gathering—but also a little quiet and off to the side.  Was I thinking about my morning routine, that was just a few hours away?  I was a bit.

Was I feeling the grief hangover then?  Was the hangover the result of the social interaction or the intense inner withdrawals and worries over getting things done?

One big lesson I learned from Ang was that “we’re not in control”—and a version of that lesson came home to me when the song came on.  Without planning, without setup, the transport took place.  It was Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in a duet of “True Love,” from the movie High Society (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl5EPEzukNQ).

When the song came on so many of my prior—and unperceived—anxieties and preparations became apparent.  I had been stressing out about how to honor this 9-year anniversary;  maybe I would write about random and brief Ang memories in SSW (the stoplight at 58th Avenue that starts up a conversation with him every day?);  maybe I would focus on the gratitude I felt for the text message from Lorenzo, “thinking of you today”;  maybe I would write about SXU’s leadership, and how they are pulling the rug from so many supports that have enabled SXU to grow and be strong over the years—i.e., maybe I would not write at all about Ang, because it’s just too hard, too involved—next year will be the year, that ten-year mark, and my “tenure” in grief will have been earned, and then the turning point.

The song brought Bing Crosby’s silky smooth baritone that alone in itself is miraculous.  But the duet is with Grace Kelly, who is more than “royal”—what is Grace Kelly?  Magic is too harsh a word;  there’s something softer, more beautiful, more transient and eternal, hopeful, and absolute about her, or the symbol of her.  Together they sang:

For you and I have a guardian angel
On high with nothing to do
But to give to you
And to give to me
Love forever true.

It’s romantic love they’re singing of—but it’s another kind of love, too.  The love of a protector.  Is Ang the guardian angel?  Or is there a guardian angel unseen keeping him close to me?  The words and feelings of these lyrics swell up and fill me.  Time, leisure, love, protection, generosity, sharing, and eternity:  Bing and Grace sing it, and I drive on snowy streets without a word from Ang these long nine years, but with a guardian angel’s efforts, breaking through, giving me a forever that might be, maybe?, redeemed.

January 23, 2020

[Note:  This entry is an example of an SSW session written during workshop with my freshman writing class at the start of Spring Semester, 2020.  SSW stands for “silent sustained writing,” a weekly practice of 40-minute writing sessions conducted throughout the semester where the entire class, including the instructor, “looks at the world as a writer,” selects genres and topics of the author’s interest, and writes.  The weekly sessions build into a “writer’s notebook,” that explores what Nancie Atwell calls an author’s “writing territories,” and that approaches the task of “teaching” writing through a process of “cultivation” of a writer’s identity, rather than through specific instruction in teacher-chosen skills.  Early in each semester, I try to model how the process works for me—and how it has evolved for me as a writer over time.  It’s about writing as a way of being, rather than something learned, mastered, and checked off….]

So it begins again.  Another writing notebook.  Today is a special day.  You can tell so much about a semester’s writing from how it starts.  I hope my students can grow into this routine … I feel I need to help it work for them, to model, to get them started.  But today is special for other reasons, or rather one big reason.  Today is Ang’s birthday, and there’s so much to remember—so much to think about.  Loretta will be going to All Saints cemetery this morning to be close to him.  It’s her tradition on January 23rd, one that was never quite right for me, and as she says, we all grieve in our own ways.  For me, one of the most healing things I could do, one of the best ways for me to “be with” Ang is to write about him, and so the two worlds meld.  I’ve had so many SSW sessions thinking about Ang, being with him.  I look forward to today’s.

Thirty four, and just under nine years since he left us.  That other anniversary, February 5, is in two weeks, and so I’ll need to power through till then, and then start breathing again.  Is it this time of year—the doldrums of late January?  Or is it the need to reach 10 years beyond losing Ang—that theory of mine that there would be a 10 year adjustment to the loss of him, whereby my life could slow down, stop, turn, and then slowly start up again—with new memories, new foundations, new hopes….  One more year, and I’m feeling that my suspicion was right—the time was needed, is needed.  Ten years is about right, at least as a minimum.

On Ang’s birthday the past few years I find myself going back to 1986 and that experience of childbirth, or rather witnessing childbirth, for the first time.  That was an eye-opener.  But then, everything about Ang was an eye-opener.  I feel a need to convey something of Ang to my beloved students.  He was so special to me, and they are all special, or becoming special to me, the way students always do.  I hope they let themselves go places today that surprise them, touch them, and open up new possibilities.

That day in 1986 was about five days before the Bears played in and won their first Super Bowl.  I was a huge fan that year—as was just about everyone in Chicago.  I was scheduled to work my security job that Sunday and miss the game … but Ang was born and so I was able to take off.  That was his first gift to me, and it was a good one.  On the day of his birth, while I was at Walgreens picking up some needed things (diapers?), I saw in the checkout lane a very expensive (to me, at that time) commemorative magazine previewing the big game.  It was $5.00.  I was very poor at the time and couldn’t justify spending that much on a frivolous thing like a Bears magazine.  But Ang gave me the excuse!  It was a present for him.  And it was, and when I told him about it when he reached the age of reason, he cherished it, he read it, and he kept it close (till it became tattered and lost).  But really, standing there in Walgreens, I just wanted that magazine.  On Super Bowl Sunday, I placed him in his baby seat, put him in front of the TV, and told him, “Ang, you’re about to see something that no living person has seen, or could appreciate.  You’re starting out life well, young man.”  And he continued well, becoming a huge Bears fan and sports fanatic, in the healthiest way.  He died on February 5, 2011, the day before the Packers won their last Super Bowl, and I thought, wryly, what Ang would do to avoid seeing the Packers win….

But that was not really true.  Though he did have a healthy and playful sense of rivalry with the Packers, he wasn’t bitter about their success.  Terry reported grousing to Ang about the Packers in one of his last conversations with him.  Not only had the Bears missed a very easy late-season opportunity to eliminate the Packers, but they proceeded to be eliminated by them in the first round of the playoffs.   As he often did, Angelo transcended the dynamic saying, “Yeah, it sucks that the Bears aren’t in it, but it’s the Super Bowl!”  And so, on he moved, with joy and purpose, commencing one of his last organizational acts, collecting baht, and running a pool for the Super Bowl for his friends in Thailand.  (We got the winnings the next week when we traveled to Thailand to bring Ang home.)  We have pictures of him running the show, organizing things, at a bar, of course, looking as though he were conducting significant business, but really just making squares.

I wish I could create a picture of Ang for my students.  I think of my longstanding reflection of “no explanation needed”—the great comfort in there being so many people who knew Ang intimately, and who “got him”—who would remember actions and gestures and stories and tone of voice—immediately, instantaneously—deeply and expansively, without any words.  Angelo was a landscape, and the memories of him are the flash of lightning that illuminates the entire territory in an instant, giving you a view of more and more dazzling imagery than you could imagine unless you had first seen it.

In so many ways, he was just an ordinary college-type kid—funny, self-absorbed, conscientious, concerned about social justice, concerned about social outings, tireless, indulgent, generous, the center of attention, the guy in the background, the bursting through life of life itself.

His friends still visit him on Facebook, posting links to news and culture that remind them of him.  Sometimes they just call out to him in longing for him.  I don’t visit the page much, just as I don’t visit the cemetery, I guess.  I’ve been fearful of locking down on one experience of him, becoming dependent on it, and then having it go away.  The part that doesn’t go away is my own memories….  The store is limited … but he’s still so alive in those moments.  He speaks through them, in a way that seems new and changing.  He was such a presence for me, and he always surprised me—so I’m missing those surprises—but I still have the smile, the wryness, the energy, and the illuminated landscape that makes me feel “wow.”

We’ll celebrate tonight, with cake, and one of his favorite meals, probably pizza—though we’ve been debating what he would choose, since his diet changed so much in the last few years.  We will gather and be the normal, well-adjusted family we always are.  We might tell some Ang stories, but maybe not.  We all will continue grieving for this lost landscape—so known, so understood, so appreciated—in our own ways.

October 23, 2019

Yesterday we buried Uncle John, age 90, the last of the Bonadonnas, at least his generation.  In the five days since he died, my reactions have run the gamut, so it’s time to take stock:

  1. Every family needs a Genevieve, an archivist, an artist, a family-loving soul. It’s nice to have all these rolled into a single person.
  2. I feel oddly connected to John. He was both inside and outside our insane Bonadonna family.  I don’t take it lightly that he changed his name (to Bonadona).  His identity needed a new name.  I have often felt both inside and outside my own family (i.e., the family I grew up in, not my current family).  Yesterday the topic of smoking came up:  why hadn’t I started when everyone else had?  That’s a simple point of divergence for me, but there are many.  John had his divergences too, but there he was in the thick of it.  I think of John tending bar as a twelve-year-old, carding people older than him, staying up till 4-5 AM (“we had a late license”)—being “a part of” the family, but also being “apart of” the family—always being a team player, going along with it, but also finding ways to run away and be on his own.  He was the younger brother, the “punk” who my father, three years older, told to “go away.”  John’s mixture of greatness, apartness/a partness, of solidarity, resonates with me.  My choice to separate myself from my family, like John’s I imagine, was not a conscious or deliberate decision.  John was handsome and charismatic—more so than me, but I have been handsome in moments, mostly as a baby, but that still counts (as an adult, John was tall, I am not).  His charm and charisma had to give him confidence and effectiveness.  In snatches in my life, maybe more with my education than my physical presence, I’ve felt the kind of confidence that I like to believe was behind much of John’s distinctive approach and demeanor.  But with both of us there was this other side, a self-effacing humility, an honesty about limitations, and an unafraid directness in confronting and talking about those weaknesses.  In the video, John talks about his nature as a student (“I was not studious”).  He says he doesn’t think he graduated high school, and I believe him when he expresses uncertainty.  That tentativeness about his graduation (surely he knew, any onlooker would say) was not done out of self-protection;  he probably was genuinely uncertain.  It didn’t matter all that much to him, but it kinda did too.  He had a way of presenting the truth just as it was, without a lot of packaging.  The truth was enough.
  3. Each one of his stories opened a universe of personality, history, culture, time and place.
  4. His close brush with murder, or attempted murder, shows what a border creature he was. His laughter in saying, “Who’s going to see this?” as he proceeded to tell the story of his adventures or misadventures of being a landlord revealed his openness, his pragmatism, his realness, his connectedness to actual life functions and purposes—and his filter that kept him balanced and out of jail.
  5. His eulogy by his neighbor was a kind of perfection and a sad sign of absence. Others felt a need for a more personal or familial touch here.  But John was loved where he lived, and he lived a lot of his life on that street. We thought so much about why more family were not involved in the funeral, the eulogizing, the whole saying of farewell?  Why hadn’t we as a family been close all those many years—John’s 90, or our 60-plus?  Sarafina hit the nail on the head when she summarized the “I don’t want to put you out” motive.  I don’t want to put you out, so I won’t tell you my wife died and we had a funeral for her.  I don’t want to put you out by inviting you to parties.  I don’t want to put you out by calling you and having a relationship with you.  There was that.  But then there was the time John was with you, and he would talk—about anything, without guile or packaging or spin.  He was with you in the moment, and his life was a kind of unfolding event that, when you participated, you got all of him, but when you weren’t around, you weren’t all that much in existence.  I’ve come to view this approach as genuinely respecting the transient moment of time we all inhabit:  why record, why build, why strive toward this greater thing?  Just be.  Be right now, with the people around you, and when those people change, be with the new people, with just as much of all of you as there was in the prior group.  In a way, the ideal is Dory in Finding Nemo, encountering the world in the moment, and with added benefits of joy, surprise, and all-in-ness as you enter into new moments.
  6. In the car, in the spaces between funeral home and cemetery and restaurant, there were reflections about boys v. girls as children—how the women kept a family together, and surely that was a part of the whole dynamic.  (But the women in his life kept moving on to the other side way too prematurely.)
  7. The neighbor’s eulogy captured moments of John when he was just “being” at home, being a person, being with people. John’s core was one of generosity, and goodness—no agendas, no real push towards self-interested goals.  He was once called the Mayor of Palatine (the street he lived on), and he did own the block.
  8. So many of us need to watch and share reactions to the videos that Gen created. “An afternoon with John Bonadona.”  The conversations started, hinted at, completed, left incomplete.  On that day, I grew to know John as a story-teller, as a rich, complex person, so confident and easy-going.  His willingness to hold forth was generous and kind.  Then there’s Gen’s picture.  I resist the glorification of Mob culture that is inescapable when you’re a fan of the great storytelling of The Godfather, The Sopranos, Good Fellas, and the like.  But I’ll make this exception:  Don John Bonadona on the couch surrounded by his family—that’s a splendid mob boss photo, if ever there was one.
  9. Hearing him talk of his days in the army, in school, on vacation, in Cuba, on the job—all of it, brought me back to the texture and rhythm and way of life of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and more—some of which I had direct contact with and, in a grimy way, welcomed back into living memory. He grew up during the Depression, and all those other things that happened in the 20th century.  Some of the stories, particularly about school, about being a cook in the army, and about avoiding active duty, might invite criticism.  But you listened to these narratives and you couldn’t help feeling you knew the man, you were the man.  Maybe that’s part of my connection to him—his everyman aura.
  10. He suffered unspeakable loss—at every point in his life, losing all the women he loved and lived with—beginning with his sister in her mid-twenties, his daughter at a much younger age, his first wife at too young an age, his mother at an advanced age, and his second wife at too early a time for separation. He smiled and worked hard.  He smoked till the end.  And he was really handsome in the casket.  So what’s wrong here?
  11. His life was full, and by all measures, complete: I should exhale and recognize he did it the right way and was not cheated.  In seeing him go, I can say that I’m not overwhelmed with sadness—other than to think that, in so perfect a life and so correct an approach to time, this long span of 90 years, it still feels wrong that he should have to go away.  He did have more cigarettes to smoke, more stories to tell, more stories to live.

October 3, 2019

Today my mother would have been 90.  For the past few years on October 3rd, I’ve had one strong thought about the date and the remembrance of my mother.  Odd:  When my mother was alive, I never once thought this thought.  She was just my mom (or “Mother” as we kids referred to her—never to her, but only years later when speaking of her;  another oddity.  Could you imagine addressing her as “Mother” to her?  Are we British or East Coast aristocrats?).  But since she died, there’s something about that date, October 3, 1929….  Today I learned it was a Tuesday, as I looked up the more famous date in that October than the third.  It was exactly three weeks later than October 3rd—October 24th—that that Tuesday happened:  Black Tuesday.  A Tuesday with its own epithet.

For the past few years, I’ve been thinking about how my mother was born before the start of the Great Depression.  I wonder what those three weeks were like?  Did she take full advantage of the Roaring Twenties?  Did she, in Vicari, Sicily, bask in the success of the 1929 Cubs?  That’s another new dimension added to my mother’s memory bank, and it comes by way of her grandson, Terry, baseball historian, my son, and lover of the 1929 Cubs, as ill-fated a team as ever in the history of that ill-fated franchise.  So … it seems most unfair for my mom to have had those three weeks but to have been too young to really indulge in the party.  But my mother was not selfish or self-absorbed, and she never complained about that missed time.

When I think of my mother, I think of her caring for me … and I think of every shameful thing I did.  Such guilt … I have to let it go.  I really didn’t do anything shameful in a big way, but it’s those little things, stupid kids’ pranks that haunt me.  I remember a particularly dumb one I did, probably about the age of 12.

“Mom, not everyone can do this.  It’s a test of dexterity and concentration and mental capacity.”

[I probably didn’t use words like “dexterity” and “capacity.”]

“Okay, tell me what to do,” she said.

She was always ready to help.  I recall that whenever I asked her for something, she gave it—and not only for needed things, but for my hobbies and interests.  When I became a model builder and science geek, she helped me with the Visible Body—the painting.  I could do the major organs—the liver, stomach, colon, intestine—but it was the veins and arteries on the plastic, clear skin that required dexterity and precision.  She painted the red and blue along the lines indicated on the inside shell of the skin—and the finished model was a piece of art to me, fit for an anatomy class.

“Take this quarter [I handed her a quarter], and starting at the top of your nose, roll it down—straight—to the bottom of your nose.  That’s it!”

What my mother didn’t know was I had taken a pencil and had coated the edge of the quarter with pencil lead.  So she took the quarter, put it between her two index fingers, and proceeded to roll the quarter down her nose.  She did it easily and readily, and smiled at me.  And it was in that moment that the indelible shame set in.  For the trick worked:  she had a stripe of grey down her nose, and she looked perfectly ridiculous.

It breaks my heart these fifty years later, and my eyes well up with tears as I write this in class with my students, all of us typing away.  I think of the simple goodness of a parent who would do anything for her child.  I think of her smile.  I think of the immediacy of my regret, and I wonder why—why does our sense of humor prevent us from seeing the hurt we cause, even when we see it so clearly in the moment after?  My mother didn’t express any anger or disappointment—she just wiped her nose when I revealed the trick.  I wonder if she saw my regret, my horror at being mean to the kindest person in the world?  Did she worry about me living in regret for years to come?

She made things easy.  Her life was hard—but for us, she was there.  We took her for granted, and that was bad—but really, the story was the absoluteness of her generosity.  I don’t want to say she enjoyed it—but it had that feel.  She was my barber for my first 30 years till she gave up her beautician business.  I remember her always being available for a haircut appointment.  It was always my schedule that mattered.  Her schedule?  She was there ready to be available when I needed her.

As I write these words, I’m feeling like a monster.  I was not … I was good.  But I somehow feel a need to exclaim:  I was not good enough.  I didn’t deserve her.  But of course I did.  I loved her, and she loved me.  She loved all of us, in a way that was easy.  And in my life I’ve seen so many mothers who behave so similarly.  It brings to mind my “no explanation needed” reflection I felt when Angelo died.  I clung to his friends and the family members who knew him and didn’t need me to explain his sense of humor, his gestures, his quirky smile and expressions.  They all knew it, had experienced it—and thus there was no burden on me to convey the reality and depth and feeling of the experience of him.

I feel the same with my mother.  So many mothers in the world have precisely the same kind of selflessness, of generosity, of willingness to be and live for her children that my mother had.  So I feel others can relate—can know—just how deep the feelings go, how deep my shame goes for missed opportunities for kindness back, for saying thank you—and for avoiding mean, gratuitous acts that accomplish nothing but etching a pain in your soul.

But stepping back from my malingering feelings, I hear her voice, and I see her smile and her easy way.  She had been through worse.  Her entry into the world on October 3rd meant she had to partake in the fall the collapse of the economic system, even in so far a place across the world as Vicari.  But she took the hit, and it must have formed her with a resilience and strength that were to help her raise and raise well five privileged brats who all, no explanation needed, grew to love her beyond human limitation.

Beyond All Endgames: A Mother’s Love

Many have praised Avengers: Endgame for a range of accomplishments: its spectacular special effects; its light touch in being so spectacular; its deft use of cameos; its fast and loose, serious and ridiculous, forays into the logical binds of time travel; its narrative economy in wrapping up a franchise with story lines mind-bogglingly diverse and intertwined; and the list goes on. My response has been curiously personal and “off topic.”  An unexpected reunion scene amidst the frenzy of the endgame struck me deeply and oddly, articulating for me something larger and more dramatic and more complex than the intense storylines of the Avenger franchise—namely, the power of what it means to be a parent. I was left nodding, yes, yes—easily and gratefully and tearfully—if those things can exist side-by-side—for a depiction of love and grief and transcendence, and all their resonance and possibility, distilled to a stolen moment, out of time and eternal.

How does one serve up such a poignant moment? Recipe: Start with an archetypal relationship—here, a mother and son. Put them in a difficult, relatable situation involving loss, separation, a reunion after drastic changes, a stolen chance for intimacy, and an effortless “moment” of being together, without frenzy, without agendas, without judgments, without urgencies. Next, enact the moment with perfect pitch, as though there had been no separation. Pack in several archetypal dynamics—parental advice, childish submission, a mother’s acceptance, a child’s need for the mother’s recognition—and through it all maintain the effortlessness of just being together. Make it lighthearted and comical. Deliver it in a rush amidst chaos, in a slow calm so it can be what it is, so it can transcend the rush and rise into the realm of truth and beauty. Fold in a lot of setup.

Parenting and good storytelling are all about setup. Telescoped into each moment is all of its past, all the drama, disappointments, joys—all the history that makes the moment a universe of its own.

This reunion is between Thor and his mother, Frigga. Thor has come from the future, and he has a chance to see his mother, on the day he knows she will die, no less. He sees her, but he cannot speak to her. Thor is a time traveler, and there are some strict rules here. You can’t interfere with the past to change the future, etc., etc. So Thor has to keep his cover, not attempt to save his mother, or change her fate. But all the rules get thrown out the window when Frigga sees Thor. She knows him and loves him instantaneously, and registers no surprise or fear or confusion whatsoever, despite his extremely unusual appearance. Her ease of encountering him is the most magical moment of this blockbuster film, with all its special effects. The acting by Rene Russo as Thor’s mother puts to shame all the CGI flight and fight and thunder, even Thor’s, that fill most other moments with unrelenting action and crisis. This is the acting of a “parent’s transcendence of all the mess,” and just knowing, and being grateful for, and being sublimely calm about this chance to connect in the most uncertain of circumstances.

A little more on the setup: The actor who plays Thor is Chris Hemsworth, an apt candidate to embody the Scandinavian God of Thunder. His portrayal was built over several previous movies, and we have come to know him as a boyish, lovable, good-hearted kind of god, prone to rash acts at times, though always with good intentions. Above all, he was so powerful and beautiful, and completely without ego, this god among humans, just breezily being godly. And the voice—a god’s voice, with something of a slur, deep and resonant, and completely unpretentious. Hemsworth originally had to get completely buff to play the role, adding 30 pounds of chiseled muscle to ripple and pop when he held the mighty hammer and channeled the lightning of the universe to show his power and achieve his ends.

But that was all in better days. The current Thor in Endgame—and this is a true spoiler for those who love the godly Thor—has put on a few pounds (70?), as an effect of his, and the earth’s, loss after Thanos’s finger snap had obliterated half of the universe’s population at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. Thor has let himself go, in beer drinking, video-gaming, and general bro behavior. He’s somehow managed to keep his jaunty, comical demeanor through the devastation of both his chiseled body and the general universe. And that is why we are struck at Frigga’s no-surprise reaction to seeing Thor.

While unfazed, Frigga does notice something is wrong with Thor’s right eye. We know it had been put out in an earlier movie, and then restored completely in a later movie. Of all the changes in this broken god, she has zeroed in on the one that is all-but invisible. But the eye is the window to the soul, and his mother knows. She looks at him lovingly and says, “You’re not the Thor I know at all, are you…? The future has not been kind to you, has it?”

Our hearts break, for at once she recognizes what her son has been through, and it doesn’t matter, and her broken heart, if it is broken, is healed by the love she feels, and this opportunity, after so much loss and grief, to look upon, yet once again, the son she lost and had to learn would have such a difficult path ahead. Of course, it’s only we who know all that, but now she knows it too, and we feel her grief and joy, all the more accentuated by the other knowledge we have—that this is her end—and this is Thor’s final chance to be with his mother, a fact he knows all too well.

Thor denies that he’s from the future. This god has powers, and he puts up a good front—for about a second, till he breaks down and confesses, like an errant teen, “I’m totally from the future.” Hemsworth’s comic delivery never lapses here or elsewhere, as he completely avoids the self-pity or loathing that might stem from his fallen nature. But it’s not Hemsworth that brings the emotional focus or magic to this unexpected scene.

It’s the acting of Rene Russo, as Frigga looks so lovingly into Thor’s eyes, without judgment, without worry, without anxiety, and just drinks in this chance to be his mom and talk with him and hold him, in a kind of serene acceptance of what the moment could afford. Despite the transcendence here, she keeps it real, asking “what are you wearing?” She cuts through the nonsense of her child’s excuses saying she was raised by witches; she injects sibling dynamics into the exchange saying he should leave the sneaking to his brother Loki—and on it goes, with a little slapstick humor thrown in. But none of it registers beyond the calm union here, the manifestation of parent-child love, in circumstances that, if absurd, are irrelevant. Love does conquer all—be it death, disappointment, fear, grief, uncertainty, time travel confusions, and the rest. And this subdued scene of love displayed in such a serene and automatic way, despite such distractions, is enough to make Endgame, as a movie, a true “marvel,” all on its own.