The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Out, Away, Over November 28, 2013

A lot has happened in the past twenty-four hours. Just yesterday Elihu and I awoke to a cold house. I knew we were approaching the witching hour, and had begun to keep the house at a brisk fifty-five degrees in order to stall the inevitable. I’d done my paperwork and made the calls to receive our long-anticipated annual heating oil grant, so now it was just a waiting game. My heart positively sank to think I might have to live out the holiday weekend in a cold house. I had lots to do, and doing it in forty degrees did not appeal. Thankfully, I learned I’d been relieved of this fate when we returned home from school yesterday to find footprints in the snow and a respectable seventeen inches of oil in our tank. You know that feeling when your paycheck first hits your checking account? That blissful moment of security, of hope… of possibility? That’s exactly what I felt when I retrieved the oil-soaked yardstick from the tank. To know that we’ll be warm for the next couple of months gives me the greatest relief. This oil is a gift I fully appreciate. I no longer take something as basic as this for granted – the way I did in my previous life. In my fine, suburban Northshore home, going without heat never once appeared on my radar – not even close. But here, now, it’s a real concern. There’s no pipe that magically delivers fuel into your home. The thermostat no longer hovers endlessly, mindlessly, in the mid seventies all winter long. (I remember my mother telling me as a youngster to go and put a sweater on if I was cold. Now, my kid tells me the same thing when I begin to complain about the chill inside our house!) There are consequences here in the country for not properly budgeting your resources. And even while I admire the replenished level in my tank, I do that know I’ll have to start saving for my next tank soon. But this does give me a week or two of respite. And that’s pretty big. Definitely something I’m thankful for.

And Elihu is gone now too. No longer a bittersweet event, instead it’s a time I savor and use wisely. Like my fuel oil, it too won’t last, so I must use it as efficiently as possible. Last night I allowed myself some veg time, as I waited for his father to call and let me know he’d arrived ok in Florida. With about two hours to kill, I grazed my way through the leftovers in the fridge as the comedy channel played. I surfed the internet, seeking out all the information I could on the culture of Orlando. With Steven Colbert in the background, I perused Wikipedia articles and poured over images. It struck me that this place was very sci-fi like in its growth. It reminded me of the bizarre city of Benidorm, Spain. Once a nothing little coastal town, it sprung up virtually overnight, growing into a cluster of vertical glass hotels and artificially created tropical gardens. I first saw the place when I awoke from a nap in the backseat of our car. It was nighttime, and we were driving north to Barcelona. I thought I was dreaming at first; in the middle of a vast, black nothingness arose the futuristic vision of a gleaming city. When I figured out that I wasn’t still dreaming I awoke the others and alerted the driver. This we had to see. Glad we did – it was probably the most surreal place I’ve ever visited. Nothing natural about it. No evidence (that we could see) of any history or organic pattern of growth. This was a cancer on the land that had struck quickly. It strikes me that Orlando is much the same. First came the early settlers and later the orange farm magnates (Dr. Phillip Phillips, crazy!) and finally giant tourism-based corporations (Walt and friends) and then boom! – from the 1980s til now the place has exploded. It’s a manufactured destination, like its Spanish cousin. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. And if one goes there with that in mind, and one visits not for the indigenous, historical characteristics, but instead goes with the goal of experiencing a fantastically fabricated, commercial smorgasbord, then I suppose it’s a fine place to visit. I’m not a fan of the whole Disney/theme park thing in general, but I readily cop to enjoying the luxury of a five-star hotel. I remember well what it was to travel, stay and dine in top-tier luxury. And no matter one’s ethics or values, I believe few humans would ever disdain such an experience. And that’s likely what Orlando is built upon. Transient luxury and faux finery are better than none at all, I suppose.

Elihu called around eleven. He was beyond thrilled to finally be in Florida. (A couple of hours earlier in the Albany airport he’d said to me “I think I’ve been to all fifty states now.” And yes, after a seven thousand mile tour with his dad this past summer, plus all of his previous travels, I agreed he’d come close. “How about Hawaii?” I asked. “No” he answered, “that doesn’t count; because Hawaii is its own country”. I assured him it was not, that it was the fiftieth state. Impressed by this fact, he added it to the list of places he aspired to visit, coming in right behind New Zealand and Australia.) He was beside himself with anticipation being in a place where it was not only warm (when just this afternoon he’d been lobbing snowballs at me) but where there was also an abundance of wildlife. His father had told us that the place was “sick with water birds”, so he was stoked. I’d even packed Elihu our favorite pair of binoculars – this was an opportunity no self-respecting birder could miss. And dad had reported seeing a golden-colored tree frog in his friend’s pool. This trip promised some serious stuff for a nature-loving young man.

He and his father had called me from their table at a restaurant in the Orlando airport. It was situated inside a giant atrium with both an enormous palm tree and a Christmas tree bedecked with lights and holiday decorations. The height of the ceiling impressed him as did the panoramic view of the airport beyond. It being nighttime, he could finally see outside – and was aware of distance in a way that he cannot perceive at all by day’s light. He told me he could see lights twinkling in all directions. “The ceiling here is like nine stories tall and I can see outside for miles!” he told me excitedly. My heart rose in my chest at his joy. How happy I was that he got it; that he was fully getting his sense of place. I was also very thankful that his first vision of this place was at night. I would never have told him that, as it would bring attention to the vision thing, and likely turn our conversation sour. But this was all I could think as he continued to tell me with great, childish excitement, about all the new and wonderful things he was seeing for the first time. I was so grateful for the dark of night, for the sparkling lights and the promise of a magical stay to come. ‘Enjoy this my dearest son’, I thought to myself, ‘because like your most fantastic dreams, before long this too will be nothing but a memory.’

Elihu safely and happily off in his own world for the next few days, I went next door to see how life had been going for mom and dad. Andrew had spent much of the past week drunk, and dad had just had a particularly bad episode. Following a long and challenging night, mom had finally gotten to bed after four a.m. With these two variables in the mix, plus a visit that needed to be made to housebound friend Martha, we agreed that our Thanksgiving would not be a sit down dinner at a given time, but rather we’d adjust ourselves to things as they happened. Mom agreed that she’d still make all the food (this gives her joy and purpose, believe me) and she’d just set it out for us to eat as we showed up. I’m still not sure how this will all happen; a trip to Martha’s means that dad is left alone. If Andrew and I go along as well, that is. Maybe I’ll stay back with dad. Not sure. Might have to bring some Scarlatti along with me! Hm. I begin to think that this might be a nice little opportunity to spend some time alone with dad – without others (namely mom) around. Mom tends to speak for him more and more… taking away what little voice he has left. He’s much more himself when she’s not around (no mystery there – she’s been hen-pecking at him for fifty years!) Yeeks, such a relationship they have. Symbiotic, I guess. They each seem to stoke the other in ways that work. Not saying it’s healthy, but it’s been going for decades. On some levels it obviously works for them. Who am I to judge? Happy or not, they are deeply linked and dependant upon each other. I guess it’s getting scarier for mom these days, and that’s upping her need to control things. She’s not from a generation that expresses themselves well – or at all – so that makes things all the more difficult at this stage of their lives. At least she’s giving in to it slowly and is finally accepting help (been pushing the in-home respite caregiver thing well over a year and only this week has she had someone to the house!!). Yeah, tomorrow will be a strange day for all of us Conants.

Fareed’s family is beginning to turn a corner too. Nelly, I understand, is now living with Fareed and his new wife (in our old home – and in the very room we’d once planned for his folks to live in as they aged. Same plan, different spouse.) She’s receiving some in-home care too. As both she and Martha have begun to have in-home care, my own mother is finally coming around to the idea that this is a good solution. Far cheaper than a full-on nursing home. And, though no one likes to talk about it, I added today that it increases the likelihood of Nelly or dad dying at home. I know neither of us – my ex’s family nor mine – have ever spoken in such specific language about this final stage, but at the very least I am confident that all four of them would hope to die at home rather than at an old folks’ home. Imagine them comfy at home, with a nurse to visit and make sure they’re taken care of, family around to visit and keep them connected… until that final time when they  just become too tired to stay around much longer…. could one wish for a better end?

Most of us contemporary American types aren’t good at talking or thinking about death. But it’s a-comin no matter. So I’m readying myself as best I can. Almost envy my peers who had no warning. Whose parents went quickly, tidily. Yeah, right. That’s easy for me to say. I don’t suppose any one way of losing a parent is easier than any other. No easy way to see this through, no matter what happens. But it will happen. And for those folks who are living through a lingering, meandering process, it can give those final holidays and landmarks a surreal and almost sickeningly poignant feel… knowing damn well this is the last time, knowing damn well that by Spring he either won’t know you any more… or he’ll be gone. Or maybe he’ll live another ten years knowing no one. Maybe. Anyway, you’re getting there. And you look back on last year and realize that it was your last, real Thanksgiving. Wow. It’s over. And yet, somehow, it’s not. Not yet. Not quite. A strange netherworld in which to live.

Being out of a resource, being far from home, or seeing a long-standing tradition come to a close are all things that get one to thinking. Thinking about the things we cherish, the things we take for granted, and the very transient nature of life. I know it’s hard to convince a teenager or a twenty-something that life is fleeting, but that’s ok. You’re not supposed to think that way when you’re young. You shouldn’t be thinking like that, or at least I don’t think so. Instead, you should be living those moments, feeling what it is to be in that experience, smack in the middle of your life. It’s that first half of life that gives you the standards by which you make your later-in-life observations (you know, like the ones I’m making here!). You can’t truly realize how precious things are until you know different. I do realize that life doesn’t always work like this for everyone, but it seems the usual course for most. Me, I find myself looking back and marveling over the routines I’d always taken for granted as the ordinary landscape of my life. And actually, I’m finding a lot of extraordinary in my past that I hadn’t quite noticed before. Never know what ya got til it’s gone… or til it’s almost gone, I should say.

Tonite I’m thinking to myself how blessed is the ordinary. How thankful I am for all of the ordinary I’ve ever known. I may go without for a time, or I may go for a time knowing true abundance, but either way, I must find as much contentment as I can with whatever it is that I have. If things aren’t going so well at present, at least I know that I have a future to look forward to. (Sometimes it’s nice to know that things keep changing.) Happily, I can say that in this moment, on this day, I’m thankful to have just enough.

 

2 Responses to “Out, Away, Over”

  1. Gene Burnett Says:

    Great post Elizabeth. I’m very grateful for my mom, who was and still is a psychotherapist, and talks very freely about death. She’s over 80 and sharp as a tack, she knows the score and has been getting her affairs in order for some time. She’s got her faults for sure, but being in denial about the big “D” is not one of them. I think about it quite often myself. Not morbidly or fearfully, but it is a constant companion and partner in all of my work. Keeps things real ya know? Have a good Thanksgiving, however it pans out. Enough is enough. ;~) GB


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