The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Delay December 22, 2013

Although Elihu was scheduled to have flown to Chicago last night, the weather looked threatening enough for Southwest to re-book him on an early flight this morning (one benefit to flying as an unaccompanied minor). It was such a welcome gift of time. Through a miraculous chain of events we went from nearly missing the new flight to being the last ones to board – to meeting the pilot. Earlier that morning I’d written a thank-you note to the pilots, one which we handed the fellow as he and Elihu boarded together. I have never once taken for granted the skill and professionalism of the people that get my son – and everyone else’s loved ones too – safely to a faraway airport. And especially on a day like today; black ice sheeting the roads as rain continued to fall and freeze all around. I suppose I also chose to write this letter today because given what I’m currently going through I have a heightened sense of how precious and important friends and family are.

Yesterday afternoon we went next door to visit dad in what was to be the first of two final visits for Elihu. While we were there my oldest friend in the world (she’d also been matron of honor at my wedding) and her family, husband, daughter and son, all came by to say hello… and goodbye. There were eight of us together in the room, visiting, sharing stories and catching up on life events. Although dad responded very little and spent most of the visit with his eyes closed, he lit up when Sherry took his hand and said hello. And somehow, once again, dad and Elihu had a quick exchange of their fake language for all to enjoy. What a deep and good feeling it was to hear laughter in the room. Dad and Elihu’s little bit was still so delightful, so hilarious. Plus it sounded so authentic that my friend’s son (a high schooler) actually guessed it to be Russian. Imagine that! Success! Those two have that certain talent, that certain thing. Something that not just everyone has. How lucky I felt to witness it one final time, and to have shared it with a room full of old and dear friends. While dad may indeed have one foot outside this reality of ours, he is still present enough to appreciate the company of friends and family.

Last night after supper, Elihu and I went over so that he could make his final farewell. Dad was markedly less present than he’d been only a day before; he was still able to speak, but so much weaker, so changed. I tried to make it clear to him that Elihu was going to Chicago for the holiday, and that he was here to say goodbye. Elihu leaned in and stretched his arms over his grandfather and kissed his cheek, telling him again how much he loved him. When he pulled away dad said something strange… “When beautiful January comes….” and he trailed off. I took it as a sign that he’d wait til then to leave us, and I pressed him for more, but nothing came. I could see that there was no point to stretching this out. This was the tidiest ending we were going to get, and sad as it was, it was time to go. I left the room first, and turned back in time to see Elihu wave, almost casually, as he said “good-bye, Grandpa, see you shortly”. I know some may think it was just a mimicked, stock phrase of parting that my son chose, but I think differently. I believe that my son knows that he will one day see his grandfather again, and in the infinity of the cosmos, it is truly nothing but the merest moment in – or out – of time.

Today was another gift, as old and dear friends made an incredibly long car trip just to see dad one last time. The man who visited, along with his daughter, is a musician who’s been a part of my father’s professional world for going on four decades. And in that time his family has become part of our family too. This was an important moment for the both of them, and while my father may not have been able to communicate very successfully, it was a necessary final visit. I turned away to give them privacy, but I longed to hear their voices in conversation. From where I stood, I heard very little. I’m sure that dad, at this point, was barely audible. Still, it was an important moment of closure. After they departed for a long return trip I remained there with Andrew and mom. I sat with dad, just holding his hand, stroking his head, rubbing his feet. He twisted in the bed, trying in vain to find a comfortable pose. He tried in vain to lift himself up to shift positions, then hollered in panic when I put my arms under his shoulders and pulled him back up in the bed. I knew to disregard this, but it still didn’t feel great to hear. But what was more frustrating was his unending search for stillness. His hands tugged and this and that, he tried to move from side to side, and eventually began trying to curl up into something that seemed on its way to a fetal position. Oh, poor dad. No amount of pillows or propping or shifting seemed to give him peace. And every now and then he’d grimace in pain and even moan as something in his gut had taken place. All I could think of was the bleeding that continued, slow and steady beneath the covers…. Was this his colon breaking down? Did this bleeding hurt or not? Was this just gas? After a few episodes of extreme discomfort mom finally administered some morphine. It seemed to help, but after another hour he was back to tugging on his sheets and writhing in his bed. Hard to watch, and it made me feel pretty ineffective.

I went home to get some rest, but just as I was sitting down I received a call from an old friend who’s parents live ‘next door’ (a quarter mile down the road) to mom and dad. This gentleman now lives in Boston, and he was here on his annual visit to see his folks. Good timing, as he’d not seen my parents now in two years, and this was clearly his last chance. After catching up a bit on the phone I suggested to meet him at over at their house. We hung up and moments later both pulled in the driveway at the same time. He was very good and gentle with dad; I’d warned him what he would see, but having been through a close friend’s recent fight with pancreatic cancer he assured me that he was comfortable with anything. He took dad’s hand, and spoke his presence, although I was disappointed to see that this time dad barely registered a response. We enjoyed a very brief visit, and at his leaving my heart warmed with gratitude and love as I saw him lean in to kiss dad’s hand. I had to turn away, this again was so real, so very sad and final. I only wish dad had been more responsive. It made me wonder, was this the way things were going to continue? Would he remain in a semi-conscious state until his death? Things had changed so much in just the past twelve hours…

So now I’m at home, catching up in this post, wondering whether I should try to get some sleep in, or if I should rally and just go back over there. I have some old down pillows I’m anxious to stash under dad here and there in hopes it might take the edge off whatever ill-ease it is that he’s experiencing, but I don’t know. I am tired. Got about four hours sleep last night, and it’s nearing seven in the evening now. I’ve been given the rare gift of time here; no more workdays for the next two weeks, no mothering duties either. My piles and to-do lists don’t matter. There is only one thing on my to-do list now, and that is to see my father off into death. I do not want to miss it. But how do we know when to expect it? When mom and I asked the hospice worker today if dad’s death was likely to happen ‘soon’ she responded fairly confidently that she didn’t think it would be that soon – as he still had some ‘transitioning’ to do. Well if this shutting down, bleeding out, sleeping all day, seeing dead relatives and uttering poetic platitudes isn’t considered ‘transitioning’, then what exactly is? Mom and I were a bit taken aback. However, mom is holding Christmas in her heart as the date to which dad must make it – and she hopes that he will choose to go after the day is past. Not sure why, but why not? Standing at the kitchen sink, looking out to the songbirds that flitted about on the feeders, her eyes filled with tears as she said under her breath “he’s got to hold on til Christmas“. I guess I hope so too. Yet in some way I just want it to be done. But in a million more ways, I want to stop the clock completely.

I have a plan. I will rally, deliver the pillows, stroke his head, hold his hand, see to it that he’s resting, then return home. In this eleventh hour I don’t want to skimp on anything. If I can do anything at all to help my beloved father stay in peace, then I need to do so. My time stretches out before me open and without obligations for the first time in months – it’s as if life itself has given me the gift of time. And so, with this ever-waning commodity, I need to honor it, use it, savor it. This is one delay I am very thankful for.

Post Script: The extra down pillows I brought over were just what we needed to get dad snug and comfy in his bed. He didn’t fully wake, but he did respond to me as I made some adjustments. Then I sat with him for a while, my hand on his head, my hand on his hands, and over his heart, just trying to comprehend the moment, trying to memorize all the parts of my dear father, and trying to understand what is was to say goodbye – forever.

And when I left him just now, he was peacefully sleeping. A new event however is a faint gurgling sound that  now accompanies his breathing – and I think I remember reading that this is one of those ‘near to the end’ signs. I myself am currently doped up with half a sleeping pill which I hope will let me rest until 2 am, at which time I will go over again and help mom change his undergarments. Then she can go to bed, and I’ll resume watch. What a strange time. Just how do you plan for a death? I sure am lucky to have all the time in the world in which to do it. I’m in rather a daze, going through the motions, keeping my focus on the task at hand lest I become a sobbing wreck. The tears will come when they must, but not just yet…

 

The Wait December 21, 2013

Harder than the not knowing, I think, is the knowing. Knowing that my father will die any time now. Maybe during the night, maybe tomorrow. Likely after tomorrow, I think, as Elihu will be leaving tomorrow night to visit his dad in Chicago. I think dad will probably wait until he’s said goodbye to his grandson. But either way, his death is not as far off as I’d recently thought.

Seems I’ve been fooling myself in tiny ways. I talk about it, I try my best to be upfront and honest, thinking it will help me to wrap my brain around this, maybe even deep down thinking that my talk will stall the event too. And in my waking day with all its distractions and busyness I am ok. Even though I speak of it, somehow it still doesn’t fully exist as a reality. But when I awake in the middle of the night and find myself alone, the moon lighting up the snow-covered fields, I am scared again. I look to the darkened woods towards mom and dad’s home. It gives me comfort to know he’s still just there, somewhere close, still alive. And it shakes me profoundly to imagine him no longer there. It doesn’t seem real, this waiting for death. Knowing it’s coming, knowing this time it’s not a case of almost. Not a case of weeks more, not even a case of days more, and not a case of more opportunities for forgotten stories, for recountings or great revelations. I suppose there are many cases of death bed surprises, but I don’t forsee any here. The only surprise will be in the finality of dad’s absence. And waiting for that is so hard. But lest I complain too much, I stop myself in time to realize that we are very, very lucky here. My father is dying at home. So many people are robbed of that possibility. Nursing homes and hospitals are most often the places for farewell. My father’s final breath will be taken in his home, and God willing, the three of us present for his departure.

I’ve seen my mother falter now, yet still she remains ever in charge, on top of things and very much ‘in character’. I see the edges of her soul curling in though, beginning to yield to the immense wave of sorrow that is almost upon her. Her eyes tear up, but she doesn’t give in. I’ve hardly ever seen her cry in my whole life. Because she is always in charge, dammit. She holds her own world so tightly in her control. Sometimes I think if she were to cry she might never stop. She’s got years’ worth stored up. She is due. While I personally do not look forward to having to go through both dad’s death and mom’s newfound expression of grief, it will be so very good for her. And it may be healthy for us, too. She is always the rock, the solver of problems, the caretaker. Maybe relinquishing all of that – if only for a few moments – will be a very healthy thing. Might even alter our dynamic. Certainly things will be different after we experience the death of her husband and my father together. It’s funny how even though dad is mostly sleeping, and for all intents and purposes not truly with us, the family still feels normal. Each of us in our roles, the four of us existing as a unit. A dysfunctional unit to the end, but a unit nonetheless. So this too will change.

Mom is planning on going grocery shopping tomorrow and leaving Andrew to sit with dad, in order to give him some private time to use as he will with his father. He and dad have always had a sort of ‘non’ relationship. No anger really, no overt animosity, however Andrew has seldom had much to say to dad. And I can get that; Andrew’s not functioning fully as a healthy person to begin with, and then they have so very little to talk about. Dad lives in a world that we, outside his academic, early music world don’t really know or understand well. And beside the bits of humor he uses as a means to communicate, dad has never had much to bring to the table conversationally. At least not in the past five years or so. Not since he stopped being the active director of his Festival of Baroque Music. He had a full and rich life at one time, but we as children knew little of it. When he no longer had that life – essentially by the time we moved here to New York – there was simply less to talk about I suppose. Even I myself (chatterbox though I may be) had very little to say to him save small talk – and dad had little to say in response. My world was so different from his, unfathomable to him you might say. So our relationship was based mostly on an unspoken love simply because he is my father and I his daughter. I don’t know how Andrew will act. I can’t begin to know what’s going on in his head now. But I suppose, no matter what, his heart is breaking too. Because after all, this is still his father.

Elihu and I visited mom and dad tonight. Our hope was to get two good visits in, one today and one tomorrow before we leave for the airport. Elihu will say his final goodbye to his grandfather then. I was able to sit with dad tonight by myself, and I’m glad of it. Somehow, with the cover of nighttime, the gentle glow of the Christmas tree and the Robert Shaw Chorale (for whom my father once played harpsichord) singing the ancient music of the season in the background, it was the perfect environment for close, tender words. Dad smiled nearly the whole time, and I was able to elevate him in the bed to a near sitting position. I showed for him a photo I’d enlarged of the two of us from fifty years ago, me as a baby on his lap at the harpsichord. I was happy to see recognition in his face. “Oh, what a cute baby” he said. “This was in Hamden” I offered. He nodded. Good, I thought, he understands. I began to cry, and before I knew it I was almost sobbing, holding his hand and leaning over him. I had some things I wanted to say, but it still felt a little silly, cliché perhaps, to launch into this end-of-life monologue. But I had to. I started by telling him that I just couldn’t believe he was now such an old man. And said that getting old like this sure was a bitch, huh? To which he, of course, laughed weakly and solidly agreed. I thanked him for making me the musician I was. Then I thought better of that, for I’d always considered myself something of a just-enough-to-get-by, jack-of-all, master-of-none sort of musician. My dad was the real thing. So instead I said through streams of tears “Thank you for giving me the gift of music.” Holding his hand the whole time, I lowered my head many times, kissed his cheek and told him I loved him over and over. And I thanked him over and over. He said something, and I had to put my ear to his mouth. “What, dad?” “You have always been the most outstanding child” he repeated to me. And he too told me over and over that he loved me. Then he said something so out of the blue – and instantly I recognized the child in him; “I miss my dad, and my mommy too.” I’d never heard him use any word but ‘mother’ before in talking about his mom. Did he once call his mother ‘mommy’ as a young boy? I tried to comfort him, and told him that he’d see his mom and dad very soon. I hoped this gave him ease, but if so, it didn’t register on his face. Instead, he had a distant look, and he was lost to his thoughts again. I could hear that Elihu and mom were wrapping up their visit in the kitchen, and I sensed our window was closing, so I backed away and let my son move in close to his grandpa.

Elihu had drawn an Ivory Billed Woodpecker for dad, and held it up for him. Again, dad took it in with appreciation. Elihu set the picture down and himself leaned in to speak to grandpa. Elihu, wanting to convey his deepest love to his grandfather, kept saying over and over that “he was just the best grandpa ever” and he told him over and over that he loved him so much. I wish I could have heard more, but I did hear bits of dad’s response… He spoke of loving him forever and nothing would change that. And Elihu agreed. Then dad went off onto a lovely sort of speech…”Every day is a new day, and a beautiful day. And every night is a new night, and a beautiful night. And we will all live together forever…” He said more than this, but I struggled in my mind to latch onto these worlds, that I might take something away with me. Mom came over and took a few pictures of us, I took some too in a vain attempt to capture this final visit, but I doubt in the dim light any will come out. She fed him some chocolate pudding which I was happy to see he ate and enjoyed – and I was happier still to see him wipe his moustache clean. Somehow it gave a slight relief to see him doing something so ordinary without thinking twice. And then we shared a moment I believe we were so lucky to witness one last time; Elihu and dad spoke their made-up language to each other, with gestures (dad’s greatly reduced!) and all the inflections and such to imply content. It was a weaker version of their bit, but still very funny and we all four laughed. That was nice. Truly, I didn’t expect it.

We put the bed flat again for dad to rest. We’d been there nearly a half an hour, and we’d found the natural conclusion to our visit. Elihu, mom and I went to the kitchen. We needed to get home – it was already turning into a late night, and I had yet to make dinner. While mom and Elihu chatted, I snuck back for one last peek at dad, who was not yet asleep. I put my hand on his, leaned in again and told him I loved him. “I love you too, Elizabeth” he said, and then I left.

Elihu doesn’t seem as hit by this as I’d thought he would be. After all, he’s the kid who gets things. But maybe it’s precisely because he does get things that he isn’t as worked up. He even told grandpa that he should leave us now – and then said to him “don’t worry, it’s just like turning a page”. ! It could also be said that for as precocious a child as he is, he is still a child. I myself don’t remember being whalloped by my grandparent’s deaths… I do remember the heartbreak of losing my maternal grandma, but I also remember getting over it rather easily. I was eleven. Hm. He even said to me recently that he doesn’t like to get sad, because that would be like getting mad at what is, and that would be a waste of energy. Ok my little Buddha boy. I think he’ll get it at some point, but sadly for me, his memories of Grandpa Robert as a functioning, alert man are diminishing, and so he doesn’t feel the loss as he would have if there’d been no gradual decline. After all, it’s been a few years since dad was ‘himself’. But thankfully, Elihu has had five years to know him, and at least a couple of those were good. We didn’t visit as often as I would have liked, due mostly in part to Elihu’s acute allergies and mom and dad’s cat-filled house, but I can’t kick myself for that now. I remind myself that we visited as we were able. And that Elihu and grandpa had plenty of lovely moments. Elihu may not remember them well, but I do. I have to be happy with that. It’s more than lots of folks get.

I must get to bed. My stash of sleeping pills is running low – and I’ll certainly need one tonight. I can’t begin to sleep. My head continues to ache and I’m full of dread. I’m flat-out scared of saying goodbye to my only child tomorrow, and then turning back to the business of watching my father die, and watching as his lifeless body is taken away… How in hell will we do this? I know, I know… everyone goes through it. This is nothing new. For millions upon millions of people this is nothing new, I know. Only thing is, for me, it is.

And for now, the hardest part is the wait.

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Mom told me as we left tonight that dad had hemorraghed a huge amount of blood the night before and his bleeding was slight yet ongoing. He seems in a lovely state of comfort and ease, so we don’t need to worry what caused it. Our only concern is he not be in any pain. This does seem to indicate however that his death will come fairly soon.

 

Holding Pattern December 19, 2013

I’m afraid my last post was probably too emotionally charged. It generated many responses and communications from people and had me wondering if I hadn’t made too much of a stink about things. Even though I expressed myself truthfully, I wonder if it wasn’t a bit self-indulgent. And I wonder if I may have stirred the pot too soon, as it were. I say this now because, after making a big deal of all that’s been going on, I begin to wonder if Dad won’t be here a little longer than I’d originally thought after all…

Why? Because he’s got a big, comfy hospital-style bed in the living room now. A bed which self-inflates and self-deflates in different zones in twenty minute intervals in order to prevent bed sores and keep circulation going, a bed which can raise him up to eat in a sitting position, and lower him down to sleep. He has been given – through this miracle operation of hospice – a full range of gadgets and accessories that promise to make his life cleaner, more comfortable and healthier than it has been over the past few weeks (if not months). All that and his lasting and evident sense of humor are telling me he may stick around for a bit.

I kinda wish I had a bed like that myself to hide out in right about now. Frazzled with a sudden influx of things going on at school and falling behind in a myriad of domestic chores, I haven’t showered in at least three days and my son and I haven’t had a fresh vegetable in nearly a week as I’ve had no time to catch up. I know it’s not just me; this time of year we grown-ups have a lot on our hands. With presents and parties and cards and driveways to shovel, I know I’m not the only one up to my ears in laundry and dirty dishes. Even the gal who drives my son to school in the mornings – usually a fairly upbeat and energetic woman – even she seemed a little worn and tired this morning. I thought I recognized that look, I certainly felt the same. So now that dad and mom are getting into their new groove, I’m feeling a bit of relief. This afternoon we finally have no commitments. No doctor’s appointments (Elihu had his braces put on yesterday), no car pool duty, no chorus to accompany, no students. So I’m taking the opportunity to go grocery shopping. Last night we ate the last of the pasta in the house and rounded things out with leftover party food. Ich. Can’t wait for a salad…

Elihu flies to Chicago this weekend too. I’m so very happy for him, he’s beside himself with anticipation. I’ve never seen him fill the Advent calendar so eagerly (ours is a series of pockets into which we insert a feather a day). I’m happy for him, and also relieved in that I don’t think dad will go while he’s gone. Never know, but I have a feeling. Having the house to myself is most welcome, but at this time of year it can be bittersweet, too. Last year was my only Christmas with Elihu here, and it wasn’t exactly a success. Santa found him alright, but a household of just two can be lonely on Christmas morning. So my heart is lifted to know he’ll be with his baby brothers, grandma and full household. On our end, it will be strange. Dad in his big bed, Andrew wordless, silent, unreadable, and mom chattering away to fill the space. And the tv on behind it all. I’d say jokingly that alcohol is a welcome buffer, but is it then fair to drink in front of Andrew? I don’t know. I really don’t like this situation. Likely I’ll drink. Most likely.

Mom and dad have the same birthday, January 6th. Epiphany. Imagine that. I still find it fascinating. I mean, what are the odds? They’re seven years apart, and their total years always add up to an odd number. A quick tally tells me they’ll be 165 this year. I find myself wondering if dad might wait til then. I wonder. Nothing is certain. How we’ll handle it, how I’ll be able to keep my professional self together until then, and after then. How life continues. I realize I’m sounding like the first person ever to have gone through this, but until an experience is personally yours, it kinda feels like it has no relevance at all to you. And really, it doesn’t. You pay so much more careful attention when you are living through something. You just don’t fully notice or appreciate things until you’re dealing with them. Like buying a car, or getting a haircut, or having a baby. As soon as it’s on your mind you start to seek out information. You want to hear other folk’s take on things. And then when that’s done, it’s off your mind again. And the time in between events is sort of a coasting, a living on auto pilot sort of thing. At least for me it is; it seems I travel through life from one heightened sense of awareness to another, with great wafts of less intense time in between. I feel a queer mix of both right now. With the house soon to be empty, and this great not-knowing going on, I don’t feel I’m really anywhere. Strange place, this nowhere.

The weather might be a bit blustery for travel this weekend, so part of my attention is going to that situation too. I think of my son’s plane, being de-iced, sitting, waiting on the tarmac for the opportunity for departure. Here too is an uncertain situation. He’ll be bringing a good book, a bottle of water and his DS. So he’s prepared for a long wait if need be. Never once in his years of travel has he ever been re-routed on account of weather, and I pray things remain thus. Nothing I can do about the outcome, so I’ll just have to wait and see.

There’s a lot of wait and see these days. Like an airplane in search of safe landing, we’re all just in a holding pattern for now.

 

Going December 17, 2013

Let me tell you a bit about the scene: Mom and Dad’s house is an open-plan, post and beam beauty in which life takes place in the kitchen – which is the first room you walk into through the garage (as with most of the world, they never, ever use their front door). As soon as you come in, the dining room is just beyond the large kitchen island, and the L of couches to its right. (A Franklin stove sits near the couches but has been dark and unused for the better part of the past two years, unlike decades before when it was well-tended and in daily use.) There is a large tv that bisects the kitchen and the living/dining area, and it is constantly on. Mostly it’s the old black and white movies, sometimes it’s the cooking channel, and in the evenings it’s set to the local weather. Mom has become ever so slightly hard of hearing these days, and so the tv plays at a volume that adds a certain frenetic energy to the room. I always have to turn it down in order to hold a conversation. And through it all, dad – at least the past few years – has either been sitting at the island on a stool, sitting in his chair to the side, or lying down on the nearby couch. Since we four Conants moved him from the stool to the couch this past Sunday night he has lain there ever since, and it’s my suspicion it may well be where he remains until he dies. Because there’s little question about it now: my father is dying.

As I’ve said before, we Conants – at least mom and dad, Bob and Nancy, that is – aren’t very comfortable with physical displays of affections. Or spoken expressions, either I suppose. It was only through a very intentional campaign made by my ex husband years ago (when he was still my very new boyfriend) that I learned to say “I love you” to either of them. Thank goodness it was over the phone – I don’t think I could have done it in person. But at the end of my catch-up calls on Sunday evenings from Chicago to sleepy Greenfield, just as I was about to hang up, Fareed would lean in close to my face and mouth in an exaggerated way ‘AND I LOVE YOU!’ and he’d shake me til I said it. I thank my ex for a couple of things in my life, and this is one of them. From that time forward it because customary to end conversations with an ‘I love you’. But in person, not so much. And after I moved here, even less. Only in the past few months have I made an effort to revive it. Because, well, now’s the time, you know?

When my parents began their post-city lives here they found themselves in a cozy little social group which included a gay couple (that they were gay never registered to me until I was way into my own adulthood – they were simply my beloved Jim and Everett), an ‘older’ (as in my age now) opera singer, husband and wife musicians who ran an old-fashioned farm and maybe a couple extra characters that joined in the parties and concerts over the years. But the core group was always Frank and Martha, Jim and Everett, and Ruthie. Over the past decade I’ve seen all of them die. Except Martha, that is.  (One might joke that she aint never dying. And if you knew her, you’d laugh, shake your head and tend to agree.) Since only the trio has been left, it’s naturally had me wondering who would go first. And now I’m pretty sure we know.

Mom did finally call someone to learn our care options at this point. And finally, there it was, “Hospice”. For me it wasn’t a shocker, but the idea hit mom like a train. I heard it in her voice on the phone – she even readily admitted that even she wasn’t emotionally prepared for hospice to be brought up (the suggestion actually surprised her!). Later, when we visited, her eyes began to well with tears as we talked about the next phase. She’s held out til the last possible moment, and while I myself might have done many things differently, none of that matters now. Dad is still happy, so if we can keep him comfortable and healthy, he will die here at home. That, in my world, is a HUGE blessing. But regardless, it is still the death of my mother’s partner of over fifty years we’re talking about here. As much as we might toss it all around like so many common plans for the to-do list, we all know what this means. We are getting ready to have dad die, right here, and very soon. She is facing the biggest good-bye of her life. And after that, the house will be empty. She will be alone. Shit. This is hard. So goddam hard. It’s not like we didn’t know it was coming, either. “So how long did you think he might still live, Mom? Three years? More?” “Oh God no!” she snapped. “But then what, like another year?” I pressed. I’m not sure she herself knew. One doesn’t tend to actually sit down and map this stuff out. “I don’t know. His mother lingered like this for years….” she trailed off. That may have been so, but it looked like we were closer than that. Never know though. You hear stories of folks being put on hospice care and then living for years… Just never really know. But then again you kinda do….

Now that it’s real I feel a mix of three things: first, concern for my mother (and Martha too). How will she react? Will she allow us to see her cry? Childbirth gets so heavy that all modesty goes out the window; will she behave in a similar way with the death of her spouse? How does this work exactly?? Next, my brother. Just how will he react? How will this affect him? His drinking? Will this be what he needs to finally rise up and get healthy or will he sink to his own final funk? And then I myself feel a queer mix of sorrow and relief. The two battle it out inside me; when I take a closer look at his existence, it seems we only want him around us for ourselves, plain and simple. He himself would probably greatly appreciate an escape from this tired, confused body. But even as my mother had admitted a few weeks back, just having him there – even if he’s asleep, checked out, for all intents and purposes ‘not there’, his energy and presence is still very much there. And you feel it. You just know he’s there in the room. And it makes a difference. We both try to imagine the house without dad in it somewhere (as it’s been for the past quarter century) and the house seems almost pointless. Good thing mom has that goddam tv to fill the house up with crap and distraction I guess. Sigh. Elihu has great compassion for mom and her need to ‘fill the space’. “She just doesn’t want to really understand how far things have gone. She’s scared, so she tries to ignore it.” Yeah kid, probably a good bit of truth to that. Whenever I mutter about mom under my breath he says “I understand. She doesn’t mean it. She’s just trying to figure out how to behave”. Yeah, once again, thanks for keeping me on track. This isn’t easy for any of us.

When we went over earlier today, dad was resting on the couch. It was a different sort of resting now. Having continued to lose weight, his cheeks took on an extra sunken look in his horizontal position. Honestly, in his current condition, if you just glanced at him, you might think he was already gone. But no, he is there. He is there. Still. While Elihu chatted with grandma, tv continuing to do its thing, I sat next to dad, hoping for something. Some new pearl, some word, a smile…. Sadly, gone was my hope for a cute anecdote or story, it was all he could do to recount his two childhood pals by name for Elihu last time; now he related tiny blurred scenes to me, and all I could do was to try and understand what he was seeing as best as I could. Which I noticed became increasingly hard to do as mom continued to badger me with useless and uninteresting facts about this and that… a constant stream of crap that may as well have come from the goddam nightly news… Can’t that wait? I’m thinking, but biting my tongue lest it come out as I think it might… Please, lady, just shut up!! Can’t you see I’m trying to hear what dad is saying? But I don’t move, my focus is essential here. I listen, then I place my hand on his. We are connected now by touch, and I swear I feel him relax. His eyes have been closed the whole time. “Hi Dad, it’s me, just sayin hi”. He opens his eyes and smiles gently. “I love you so very much, dad” I tell him. And in a not-too-faint voice he answers me “Oh Elizabeth, I love you so very much”. Then he closes his eyes again. But my hand is still on his, we are still engaged with each other. Mom comes over to us and leans over the couch. I hope she doesn’t stay long, because she’ll probably start asking him what he wants or trying to make sense with him, asking him things that require answers – hell, that require opinions. And dad just doesn’t care now. Can’t you see that, lady? I’m thinking. Dad opens his eyes and looks at mom, saying “Pop is here…” then trails off. Mom laughs it off as the nonsensical mis-firings of an Alzheimer’s-riddled brain, and thankfully, she leaves. But I know that something is going on in there, and I stay with it. Me, I believe he’s just seen his father. His Pop. A pause. He closes his eyes and smiles. “I am in pleasure” he says, with a slight tone of humor. But then again, I take it to mean that he’s feeling ok too. He’s letting me know. “Susan” he then says, his eyes opening and looking a bit off into space. “You mean Susan, your niece?” “Yes, Susan. Where is she?” he asks. Now me, I personally believe he’s probably just seen Susan himself. She knows he’s coming soon, so she’s letting herself be seen. “Your niece Susan died about a year and a half ago. It was rather sudden. She was living with Jean in Florida. She got very sick and died.” What else to say? Sorry was not what this was about. He seemed to be thinking of – if not actually seeing – family members that were now gone. Sorry was the opposite of what was going on here now – all I felt was ‘yeah, this is it. Yes, there is some love and comfort awaiting him when he goes.’ And thank goodness! It makes me feel much better about things. A moment passed after the Susan thing, then he raised a finger and pointed a bit out and to the right… “who are all those people waiting by the curve?” he asked. “Oh, Dad, I wish I could see them too, I wish I knew who they are, but I don’t.” As if to keep things real, keep humor in the house (a staple of our family) he summons a bigger voice and in a funny accent says “I weesh to be reech”. He repeats it again, closes his eyes, and a wide, happy smile settles on his face.

This is the fork in the road at which many of my friends may choose to part from my company. Because for me, I do not believe dad’s words are meaningless bits of information, retrieved randomly from disparate areas of the brain…. I do not see this as a purely physical phenomenon taking place. Surely it is on some level just that, but there is another equally ‘real’ phenomenon occurring now which is not something than can as yet be quantified by science. I recognize my father is becoming less vibrationally in tune with this reality, and he is now becoming aware, if only in the faintest way, of the new reality he’ll soon be joining. Bunk and booey to my neurotransmitter-as-only-real-data-channel thinking friends, I know. My dear friends of the ‘it’s either working or it aint’ school of thinking will know dad’s behavior to be nothing more than a failing system of data transmission. In short: a body breaking down. Yeah, I’d agree with that. But I’m going to take that other path from here on, the one that knows we are more than an organic machine, and that there are countless energies we are a part of that no meter or machine can measure. I know that ‘real’ can be real without tests, trials and placebos. My dad’s death is certainly a real experience to him, and that, ultimately serves as the Truth here and now. Quantifying or qualifying his Truth does seem rather silly, don’t you think? A moot point really.

One day I do hope we’ll have the opportunity for a good laugh together about it all as we re-evaluate our Earthly lessons and kick back for a little respite after our exhausting lives on this tricky planet. Cuz I believe this is one tough-assed school. And I believe we’ve come here to work on things. We’ve found the right groupings and scenarios and countries, bodies, talents and occupations – the whole shebang – so that we might most effectively learn what it is we need to in order to become better. Dare I say, more Godlike. When I put it like that, kinda makes me laugh. I mean man, this planet don’t exactly seem like a good choice for a mission like that, huh? Pretty crappy place sometimes. Sure aint easy, even when you do have it easy. Plus there is this existential uncertainty which thrums through us our whole lives, nagging at us to try and answer it if we dare listen. But thankfully, there are lots of diversions here to muffle its drone. Yeah, you can easily go through your life and never give a shit about anything but just getting by. The challenge, however, is to care, and to widen your sphere of caring and loving influence. And we all know that is much, much easier said than done. The distractions are so very tempting – and easy. But a life spent mostly on the path of love and caring is one spent pretty well, at least I think so. Certainly more of a step ahead than not. And my dad has made many steps forward here. He’s also had to carry some burdens that I wish he hadn’t. He grew up knowing he was loved, but he grew up in a culture where love was not expressed. A handshake from dad before he went off to the Army. Nurses instead of mother. Boarding school from a young age. I’m glad that now, in these final, restful moments on the couch that I can tell him I love him.

Because if he’s going soon, all he really needs to know is that we love him. The rest will sort itself out on the other side.

 

Evidence December 16, 2013

“I still don’t understand how people can not believe in Santa”, Elihu said from the backseat as I drove him to friend Keithie’s house for a birthday party. I considered for a second asking him to explain his thinking, but decided instead to let him do the talking. We were on thin ice here, and I wanted to see where this was going. How he, in his ten-year old world was working this all out. “I mean, how can you not believe when there’s so much physical evidence of Santa?” he continued. Again, I said nothing. I so did not want to blow this by leading the witness. So, uncharacteristically of me, I remained silent in the front seat and contributed nothing to the discussion. “How do people explain  all the presents if they don’t believe in Santa? How can they? How is it possible that there are so many presents around the tree if it’s not Santa?” he said with a hint of impatience. Ah, I thought to myself – presents, of course. I got what he meant. And from that perspective, I can understand his thinking. Kinda hard not to believe in the face of all that physical evidence. I knew he’d be spending the next few hours with some rough-neck country kids who hadn’t believed in Santa since Kindergarten. I prayed to myself that the topic wouldn’t come up, cuz these boys probably wouldn’t hesitate to tell them what they thought. We were traveling outside the nurturing, childhood-preserving culture of the Waldorf School, so anything was fair game. But Elihu was resolute and fully committed to Santa, even now. Even moments after singing “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” and discovering for the first time the lyric “you may say there’s no such thing as Santa, but as for me and Grandpa we believe”. (I had felt a pause in the car. A moment of thought, of mulling things over after hearing that line, but then somehow sensed he’d made it work and it didn’t end up challenging his beliefs). So if those boys had other ideas, I had a feeling Elihu still wasn’t ready to buy em.

The last few years we’ve had a handful of unexpected things happen to us around Christmastime which have certainly helped to keep the magic alive. When Elihu was six, we returned from seeing Santa to find that one long-awaited paper white bud had finally opened, a miracle he attributed to the Christmas Spirit we’d generated by being with Santa. One year we pulled in the driveway to find a beautiful, wrought iron birdfeeder holder – complete with birdfeeders and bags of seed. I myself was so stunned that I didn’t have to worry about faking a thing. Equally as surprised as Elihu, I searched my mind for the likely suspects while Elihu just accepted it with the most matter-of-fact attitude. He knew it was Santa, who was being kind to pay an early visit here in Greenfield, as he knew that Elihu would be in Illinois for Christmas. While it was thrilling, it wasn’t beyond belief for him at all (as it was for me!). And last year we had a fresh Christmas tree miraculously show up on our doorstep. Again, he took it in stride. My mouth was still hanging open while he was already working on getting it into the house. This year the miracle was perhaps smaller, but it gave me pause. A few years ago I made a large outline of a dove in white lights which I hang over our garage door. It’s a pretty large installation, so finding that half of it didn’t light (after I’d checked and then gotten up on the extension ladder to hang it, argh) was a huge bummer. I decided to keep it lit anyway, hoping it would motivate me to take it down and fix it before too many days passed. But one morning we woke up to find the whole bird perfectly lit up. It had just fixed itself overnight. I was flabbergasted and incredibly relieved. Elihu, however, has come to expect the unexpected and simply told me it was simply “the little extra bit of magic that hadn’t shown up yet”. ! Whatever the cause, I was appreciative and grateful, and secretly I took it as a sign that things were going to be alright. That I should finally free myself of that persistent, internal hum of worry that followed me through my days and nights…

I shouldn’t read meaning into things that aren’t meant to convey anything special, and yet the spontaneous re-lighting of the dove, and just in time for our party (mostly snowed out – the only folks who came were neighbors with tiny children. It was one of the loveliest parties ever) signaled to me that the world was ok, and some magic force wanted me to know it. My heart was lifted, my stress eased just a bit. Things seemed hopeful again. But as with anything in life, things never stay just so for long.

Whether it was the storm, the county plow truck or our own ‘dumb Mike’ the plow guy, it didn’t really matter – but the sign for our family’s Studio – the concert hall in which dad had hosted his Festival of Baroque Music – had become dislodged from the frame and now hung awkwardly, threatening to fall into the roadside ditch. There for many a year, many a storm, and today it goes. A strange feeling of something not being right – of being somehow different and wrong – came over me as I saw it. It’s a large, heavy sign, and I surprised myself in finding I was able to free it from it’s frame and drag it to the safety of our driveway, where I rested it against some trees. Then we continued up the driveway, past the Studio itself and up to mom and dad’s house for a quick visit. Things, I’d just heard, had been quite strange and different with dad the night before. The broken sign at the road seemed to me like an omen of sorts.

Last night had been brutal. Dad was found in the morning sitting on the couch in his own excrement, upset, detached, unable to make sense of the simplest instructions. Mom and Andrew were able to clean him up, and somehow mom got some food into him too. But by the time Elihu and I arrived, dad was slumped over in his chair, his hands nervously moving, twittering in a strange, new fashion, his gaze fixed on the floor. When I went to him and tried to say hello, he didn’t even lift his gaze. After some coaxing, he did respond to me, but returned within seconds to odd little non sequiturs, bits of sentences that still – God bless him – were very well-constructed and incredibly ‘almost’ plausible-sounding. And after some tricky discussions about action plans for the next forty-eight hours (mom is so defensive and controlling about the whole subject it’s very difficult to make progress. It’s the old ‘lead a horse to water’ thing going on) we decided he needed to be returned to the couch, where he’d likely stay the night. It took all four of us – me, mom, Andrew and Elihu to get dad to the couch. Yeah, things were different now.

I know there are good days and bad days, and they can come and go, but even so, this really did seem to be an entirely new level here. (I was losing my faith that we’d see him bright and engaged again as we did just two weeks ago.) We got him comfortable as possible, but his hands were still trembling, tugging, moving, searching for something… he was still unsettled. But as the minutes passed be began to grow more calm. That was good to see. Before we left, Elihu did his best to connect with grandpa. He leaned way over, putting his face inches from dad’s. Elihu told him that he loved him so much, and immediately dad’s face transformed from that of a vacant, old man to that a young boy’s grandpa. He smiled, made eye contact with his grandson and said “Oh Elihu, I love you so very much too”, they kissed goodbye and then we left. On the way out I put my arm around mom’s shoulder, told her I loved her too, and that I knew this was hard. Once again, I saw her eyes become damp. She does not cry. She does not relinquish control. This is going to be a very hard time for her.

On the way down the driveway I see the sign, resting on its side for now. The sign was due to come down in the next couple of months anyway. We’re having a parking lot put in the woods just to the left of the Studio – phase one you might say in ‘our’ (my) plan to separate the Studio from mom and dad’s property. If we’re going to have our own stand-alone arts center, we can’t share a driveway with the neighboring house. And much as my mother may use her best dramatic passive-aggressive tone when speaking of ‘my plans after she’s gone’ – as if I can’t wait for her to leave already (!) she must understand that one day her house – gorgeous and memory-filled as it may be – is a house that someone else will be living in one day. (I point out to her that I already have a perfectly good house. What do I need with this one? This she seems to understand. And yet, she must not get it completely, it seems…. sheesh.) And I am fairly sure a new family wouldn’t want to share their driveway with an arts center. Cars, people, comings and goings… Naw. So we’ve got to do a little restructuring now. So, as I said, the sign was due for a move soon, anyway. It just came unexpectedly, abruptly, like this new phase with my father. Who is finally the least like my father of all the versions I’ve seen so far. Yes, it feels there is a changing of the guard coming soon, and that there are signs all around, both little and big, to help remind us.

I got home tonite to find two pieces of mail. One, a bill. The second, quite likely a solicitation for money from my kid’s school. Already the guilt began to grow inside when I recognized the Emma Foundation – crap, another campaign I am in no position to contribute to. But I would, if I could! Crap, I say to myself under my breath as I open the letter. And at first, I can’t understand what it is I’m seeing and reading, because my expectations were so the other direction…. And then, I get it. And probably because of all the emotions that have gone on over the past day – seeing my dad like this, seeing the imminent end of my child’s innocence, realizing that there is so much unknown before me – all of it and more – it all just sort of wells up in me and I do what I know my own mother would benefit from ever so much more than even me in this moment: I cry, I cry, and I cry. I get a mix of feelings – it’s kind of in the same space as a mystery Christmas tree showing up from out of nowhere at your door just when you had no idea how you’d be able to afford one yourself, it’s that, it’s a feeling of instant humility, a prideful dash of ‘do we really appear that needy?’ and then finally, a gentle reconciliation with what’s just been given to you in love – and most likely after a healthy process of consideration. In this case, a vote has likely been passed, several folks have been putting their heads together on this, and they came out voting for Elihu. He is the recipient of a generous donation towards his Waldorf tuition. The note is even signed by the mother who lost her own ten year old child and who created this fund in order to create a lasting legacy in her daughter’s honor. Wow. Hardly a humbler, more honored feeling than this.

Change is everywhere, yet it’s so embedded in the everyday that we can’t see much of it for ourselves. The evidence of that change is there, but actually recognizing it for yourself is the challenge. In my own casual, armchair efforts to better myself as a student of life, I’ve long reminded myself to notice the tiny voice within, magnify it ten times, and then heed its message. Sometimes we know something’s changing, but we don’t want to believe it. Some will think me a naïve tree-hugging Spiritualist to hear me say that I do believe things happen as they are supposed to (not to be confused with things happening as we’d hoped they would). As with my surprise divorce and out-of-character cross-country move, these were unwelcome changes that created the opportunity for so many new experiences we’d otherwise never have had. Suffice to say, sucky things can beget better things.

The evidence tells me my father is going to die soon. The evidence tells me that my son is growing up. Both of these are hard things to understand.  Thankfully, the evidence also shows us that there are some people in this world who act towards others in love and kindness and will go to great efforts to do so.

And it still does kinda seem there’s an awful lot of evidence to support this Santa thing too.

 

Party Time December 14, 2013

Those who knew me personally ‘back in the day’ will remember The Party my ex and I held each year before Christmas. While still living at home, in my college years, I had begun to host a party each year, and so continued the tradition after I moved out and into my small apartment on the shores of Lake Michigan, in Chicago. My boyfriend moved in shortly after I did (I’d never truly lived alone until this divorce and cross-country move) and so the two of us began to host these annual parties together. By the time we closed our doors for the last time, we’d thrown twenty-one such parties. I’m slightly ashamed to admit, but I was disappointed that the dissolution of our marriage also meant that The Party would come to an end. Personally, I’d fancied very much seeing “Elizabeth and Fareed invite you to their fiftieth annual Holiday Party’ on an invitation one day, but clearly, with the time I have left here, and what with the ‘clock’ starting all over again, I will not make that milestone. I suppose I should feel lucky enough to simply have gotten back on the horse again after a six year hiatus.

It’s hard to begin a social life anew while in one’s middle forties, parenting a young child and navigating the cost of living as a newly single person. A few years down the line, it’s better, but my life in general certainly doesn’t have that cozy, familiar sense of place and of belonging than it did in the city where I lived my professional years. So to compare my situation as it is today to the one in which I lived fifteen years ago is ridiculous, I know. And yet I can’t help it… Those parties, in their heyday, were just magic. And to be frank, they were probably the most magical of all when the world was new… When we were, all one hundred or so of us, crammed into that tiny two bedroom coop in Rogers Park, crowding around the piano, singing, smokers elbowing for a spot on the balcony, me, shushing through the crowd in a killer dress, arm above my head supporting a platter of meticulously-crafted hors d’oeuvres…. The parties got larger over the years – our home got larger too – and the nights grew longer. One year the thing went for twelve hours non-stop. No kidding. Looking back, if I were to choose the years that stood out, it would be one of the first years in the apartment. Cozy, alive. And then there would be that first year in the mid-century behemoth. I have a shapshot memory from behind the piano of all my beloved friends, carol books before them – many even lining the balcony above our heads – all singing, beaming and just radiating love and happiness, the gorgeous, twenty-foot tree behind them, a crackling fire warming the room.

We were young, all at the doorsteps to creative, inspired careers. Some of us were already full-swing, many have since gone on to wonderful places. And many have, like me, settled into the next phase of their lives. The lives of parents, the lives of those with just a little bit less energy (less motivation to drive around looking for a parking space!). Lives that don’t include parties with tuxes and gowns. (I must add that the tuxedoes worn to our gathering had nothing to do with choice and everything to do with the fact that the wearers of them had just concluded a jobbing date and were on their way home from ‘work’.) These were electric gatherings, and we were young, merry and good-looking. I can’t help but feel a little pang of nostalgia in remembering. Perhaps if I’d known the end was coming it might have given me a sense of closure about the whole thing. But in that the divorce itself was a surprise, the end of The Party was also unexpected. There was no way to know that a tradition would be coming to a close. We did make it to twenty-one though, kinda like the party ‘came of age’, in a way. Anyway, that’s how I like to think of it. Helps me to close out that era in my mind.

So here I stand at the start of a new chapter. Tonite will be our second party. I still don’t dare use the word ‘annual’ on the invites, as I’m just not ready to commit yet. But if I make it to a fifth year, I just might. I still want an out if I need one. Still not even sure who it is I might expect to see – I’ve never cared for RSVPs. In my ideal world, a party should have a life of its own. I provide the opportunity, serendipity creates the magic. Or not. It looks as if we’ll have a snowstorm tonite; such a forecast can change everything. And I’d rather have people stay away than get stuck in my driveway. So we’ll see. Much up in the air. I’m also not very good at actually inviting people either, I make a quick ‘handout’, send out emails and almost always forget half the folks I’d wanted to include – suffice to say, if you live here, we’re friends and yet you haven’t received a proper invite from me – paper, email or otherwise – please don’t take it personally. I can assure you, you’re invited. My form leaves a bit to be desired these days. Ich. I’m gonna blame it on the chickens. !

Elihu is still sleeping, and I wonder if I too shouldn’t sneak back into the warmth of bed. It’s going to be a long day. Many farm chores await, as well as a last-minute cleaning of the house and general tidying. Yeah, think I will climb back in for a bit. I’m ok for now, and as ready as I’ll ever be. A moment’s more rest, a chore or two and then it’s time to get this party started…

Pianist Laurence Hobgood’s performance of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ in all twelve keys was always a highlight of our parties… here’s the link to his new CD which I highly recommend. Highly. You can still get one in time for a Christmas gift. And yes, it includes the aforementioned ‘twelve in twelve’.

 

Post 400 December 11, 2013

My first post was written in March of 2011. I have a hard time realizing that it’ll be three years soon. When I started out here, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was intending to do other than to gain a little witness to what I felt to be a pretty unfair situation. While I still feel there’s much about our situation that has been far less than fair (I can hear my mother’s voice in my head ‘who ever told you life was fair?‘) I can now see with much greater clarity – due in great part to this blog and the wonderful correspondence it’s inspired – that what had started out as a personal tragedy in my life began instead to show itself as a rare opportunity. In the beginning, when I began to write, I felt like I was talking to myself, but I always held out hope that there was somebody else in the room with me. After all, I was feeling very alone in the early days of The Hillhouse and this was my only link to the world. Thankfully, it’s a big world, a big room, and as it turns out I haven’t just been talking to myself this whole time. Phew.

There are now over eight hundred of us here, there are four hundred posts in the archives, and The Hillhouse has been visited over thirty thousand times. Wow. ! That’s fun to know. And the world map – man, impressive. I’m waving hello to all of you, wondering as I stare at the list of countries – did you happen upon us by accident? Are you a local or a lonely expat nostalgic for the U.S.? Do you visit because you too have gone through a divorce, because you too can’t make peace with growing older, or because you too have chickens? Or are we a serendipitous, tangential stop on a walkabout thru cyber space? I wish I could meet you in person; I’ve seen and read many of your blogs, and you’ve opened so many windows to other experiences and places which otherwise I’d never have known.

Not meaning to sound dramatic here, but this whole blogging adventure has been life-saving for me. Really. You have all helped to save my life – my hope, more accurately – and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I so appreciate your friendship and emotional support. I send mine back to you. This planet is not for wimps, and it’s not possible to get through the adventure solo. So again, thank you, thank you, thank you.

See you again soon…