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THE 42ND FLOOR

My nephew Michael is ready to get on with the next, and important, stage of his life. In fact, he is feeling terribly urgent about it. He needs to attend to it right now. Right now we happen to be sitting down to dinner at an airy lodge where a picture window looks out on dreamy corn fields. We are sitting down to the wedding dinner for my youngest sister. Michael is very, very antsy. My sister, on the other hand, is not. She is relaxed. In fact, she is having fun. I can see it in her face, in her smile that is wide and easy. She is radiant as we would all hope for her. But more interesting than her glow is the clarity in her eyes. She is at the cusp of the next, and important, stage of her life. Unlike Michael, however, who wants to hurl himself into his future, she is not grappling with the way she will find herself changed and in a new world. My sister is here in a moment she has pictured herself into for months, maybe years. She is here on the brink, here in the hold of this day.

"Mommy," Michael says, yanking my sister-in-law's hand. "Mom -- mee! I have to go!" He pulls on her finger, just the size for his own small fingers to grip with any force. He pulls her hand and arm as far from the table as he can, his uncomplicated notion of physics being that eventually her body will have to follow. He is a mouse trying to drag a dog. My sister-in-law rolls her eyes. "He doesn't have to," she says. She is unruffled, a woman who has seen it all, a woman who has his number.

And yet Michael understands well the most important thing is that he not give up, that he put his whole heart and soul into his desire. He is dressed for this celebration like a little man -- shirt, tie, slacks. His shirt tail won't stay tucked in; it keeps coming unbuttoned over his round belly. The formality of his outfit is undermined by the unmistakable bundle of his diaper. He pulls on his mother's hand in one direction, then the other. He shakes it. He conducts a war of attrition, which finally works -- on me. "C'mon," I say, getting up from dinner. "I'll take you." And we walk, hand in hand, to the ladies' room.

It's no coincidence that Michael has chosen this moment to take potty training seriously. Occasion, a sense of high purpose, pervades the air. As we enter the restroom, however, I begin to see the folly of my offer. What do I know about potty training little boys? I hedge, trying to take my lead from him. "What do you want to do here, Michael?" I ask. He doesn't answer. He is looking at the toilet paper dispenser as if he is in the presence of a holy object. "Ohhh," he says softly. "I love this." He studies the toilet itself, reaching out to touch the handle and gently find the play in it. On the toilet tank sit three extra rolls of paper. He stretches on tiptoe to run his hand over each. "Ohhh," he says again, with reverence. And then he is ready to leave.

Who can attend a celebration such as this without becoming impatient for the landmarks of your own life, however subtle? Who can witness a rite of passage without wondering when and how you will next find that your world has changed, that you have become someone unexpected to yourself? And yet this is a long day of suspension, a day remarkable in its warmth and simplicity. Here is my brother Jeffrey, now of Arizona, leaning in toward his two best friends -- a strong friendship born of softball games on crickety summer evenings. Here is my Uncle Carl, in whose face I remember something of my own father, who died too young. Here is my sister dancing the long bridal dance with her new husband, her maid of honor, friends. Here is the young, wild dancing of all the many children of our family. Anna and Lindsay, Katarina and Matthew and Sara -- twisting their small bodies into single muscles to spring and twirl for all they are worth. "Aunt Sally," Michael pleads, grabbing my hand, "come dance with me." And we dance, little Michael and I, his baby hand on my back beating out perfect 4/4 time. And I know that what is most important is right here, that whether we have earned it or not is beside the point. Here is the pure story of our lives, this place from which we have struggled to emerge, and to which we return. Here are those to whom I am most bound, the relationships that have and will endure, the relationships that hold all the me's that have emerged, all the me's that will return.

Later in the evening, I step out for a breath of fresh air, joining my cousin and brother on the steps of the veranda. Hundreds of stars are overhead, and the air we breathe in is fresh and crisp. We are, with each other, kids again, lingering at the streetlight on the corner long after our mothers have called us in. We are facing a thick lush golf course and yawning sand trap. We have conducted ourselves with decorum all day. Now we must do what we should not.

And so we run and jump -- for the joy and ridiculousness of it -- into the sand trap. My cousin loses her balance as she lands, and slides through the cool sand. We laugh over her scraped knee and grass stains, but when we see my sister on the porch, we are sheepish as children, hoping we haven't caused her embarrassment. She says nothing, but kicks off her shoes, and we realize she is going to jump too. And then she does -- her long, full wedding dress floating out behind her. She lands. I know she does. But in my mind, she is still leaping and floating, her white dress as luminous as the stars and the moon, an ethereal, happy figure, gathering momentum from this day and from all the many kinds of love here, some newer, some older than even she, traveling on air into the next, and important, stage of her life.


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