The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Split July 30, 2017

For the first time in a year or more my son is resting in my bed on a Sunday morning as I sit in my favorite chair, writing. This had been our routine for most of his life until one day, it wasn’t. Last times are evasive; there is so seldom the awareness that one is experiencing something for a final time, but it has to happen sometime, right? I try to be as mindful and grateful of all the little everyday routines that bring joy to my life because there is always a tiny voice in my head which whispers “this may be the last time….”

I can remember the last time my father was downstairs in this house. It was a delicate procedure to get him down the steep cellar stairs in the first place, but I’d just painted the main room and installed a large carpet, making it truly habitable for the first time ever, and Elihu and I had wanted to share our triumph with his grandparents. I can remember watching dad’s laborious ascent of the stairs at the conclusion of our visit, and thinking distinctly “this is the last time dad will ever come down here”. It wasn’t a sad or overly nostalgic thought either, it simply was. In this case, the last time was pretty obvious to spot. But most of the time the ‘lasts’ are not always so clear.

With adolescence come many ‘lasts’. Elihu’s spending a weekend night in my bed was a routine event when he was small, but of course the dynamic between us has been changing this past year as he has become a young man and no longer a small boy. Things that felt effortless and natural just a year ago don’t feel quite the same these days. Late last night (I now retire before the kid, cuz he stays up til all hours fabricating airplane models) he came into my room saying a large bug had gotten into his bed and it freaked him out so he wanted to sleep with me. I was half asleep myself, but the significance of the moment wasn’t lost on me. I knew that it would mean one more lazy, sweet morning with my son next to me. One last morning in which he’d reach out to me and say ‘mama’ before falling back asleep, one last time when I’d rise early to let the chickens out and return to my chair with a hot cup of coffee. We would have one final morning the way it had been for so many years. As I sit here in my chair, my heart finding relief upon hearing the breath of deep sleep coming from my son, I am savoring this window in time, knowing that it may very well be the last of its kind.

Most times there are no single defining moments to mark the end of an era. Often last times aren’t known to us until we look back in time and identify them. We look backwards and can more clearly see where trends slowed and new ones replaced them, we can understand in hindsight how interests and passions waned and new ones emerged. In retrospect we may even find the dates and events that mark these changes. But for the most part, change is gradual, beginnings and endings are undetectable, invisible. But sometimes, they are not.

When I was eighteen, I broke my neck. In one split second the whole trajectory of my life changed. Many times I’ve reflected on how curious a mix of life events that near-tragedy provided me: I can surmise that without having broken my neck I never would have met certain dear friends, experienced the life of a musician, fallen in love with my ex-husband, given birth to my son. That was an obvious moment; and obvious ending of one era and start of another. Of course at the time none of these positive outcomes could be guessed, but certainly life as I may have envisioned it had been redirected in an instant.

When I was eleven or twelve I experienced a moment which also became a marker in my life. The smallest, most mundane thing had become transcendent. I will never forget that feeling, the enormousness of the revelation, the way I fairly weakened at the dawning, the way I knew, in that moment, that I was a changed person.

It was a summer evening, and I was walking home along the road on which I now again live, some forty years later. As usual, my glance fell just a few feet ahead of me on the gravel, keeping watch for my footing. In the damp of the June night a small red eft had crawled out of the grass and was heading perilously for the road. I carefully allowed the tiny creature to crawl to the safety of my hand, where I would inspect it, marvel at it and then return it to the wet overgrowth. I looked down at this creature and was smacked hard with a profound realization: we were related. I saw his four limbs, his tiny fingers, his eyes, his mouth… I marveled over the symmetry – in both of us – and was simply stunned. I guess I’d always known that each and every creature on this planet is of course in some fundamental way related, but this just got to me. I remember standing at the side of the road in the waning light and thinking “We are all related. We are all of the same family.” I remember standing there a little longer and literally thinking “We are all one.” It almost frightened me, but for some reason I remember laughing out loud. I can’t explain this moment any better. It was huge, it was tiny. Miraculous, mundane. And it was also a last. And a first, too. And I knew it.

Elihu was with his father in Chicago for six weeks this summer, and I enjoyed a great stretch of useful, solo time. Determined that I would finally expunge my house of all the physical objects that we no longer needed, I embarked on the enormous task of sorting, culling, organizing, boxing and bagging. If my son had been home the project would have been impossible. Exhausting as the project was, midway through I could see a new life emerging on the other side. My very being was feeling light and changed; I sensed a fresh new life awaiting me upon completion…

On the fourth of July I closed the chickens in shortly after the sun went down, then got myself cleaned up before heading downtown to watch the fireworks (my goal this year was twofold: one, I would finally wear earplugs so that I could actually enjoy the visuals without the horrible explosive noise and two, I would plant myself downwind so that I could savor that uniquely summer smokey scent.) Recently I’d learned a new trick to accommodate my changing vision needs; I wore a contact in just my right eye, leaving each eye its own focal length. This made it possible to both see the road ahead as well as focus successfully on things at close range, without the need for reading or distance glasses. As I wound down the hilly dark country road, I felt that my contact needed adjusting, and so leaned in to the rear view mirror to take a look…

Crack! The car hit a boulder, a log, a tree – something – which made a sound as loud as any firework… My body was immediately flushed with the cold, electric sensation of adrenaline. What had happened? It was darker out than I’d thought, and as I pulled to the side of the road it was hard to see…. And when I did, everything changed. Instantly I felt nauseous. I’d done what I so many times had cursed other, more careless people for doing. Oh no. This was horrible. I couldn’t bear to look… My mind raced through the implications. I knew I’d done something terrible, but perhaps could something good come of it? Certainly, it would change the way in which I pointed an accusing finger at others. Now I was the selfish, insensitive human I’d blamed others for being. I had hit an ancient creature of the woods. I had caused immense pain and suffering to an innocent animal who was quietly doing what she had been doing for years and years. Not only that, but if she wasn’t dead already (which at this point I prayed she was) she would be soon, and therefore I had ceased the creation of more of her kind. I had ended her lineage. Maybe even ended the existence of her kind in our quiet woods. My car had struck a snapping turtle.

Many of us who live in the country have carefully re-directed a snapping turtle or two; we all know to keep well away from those frightening jaws, we all understand how lightning fast they can spin around, how easily they can break off a finger… And yet compassion moves many of us to pull over, search for a good sized stick and begin the process of saving the creature from the dangers of the open road. Mostly, these animals are mothers seeking to cross over to the adjacent pond (why in hell they can’t just stay put I’ll never understand) in order to lay their eggs. In my experience, turtles do this in the daylight. I had never thought to be on the lookout for such a migration at night. But then again, should I not be mindful after dark of bolting deer, lumbering porcupines and other occupants of the forest?

As it turned out, she was still alive. For a moment I considered running over her again in order to bring her a more swift and humane death. But then I considered her shell, and my tires. It could make for more trouble. And besides, there was no guarantee I could do the job as I intended. In the end, I chose to move her as carefully as possible to the side of the road to allow her to die. Her shell was, as I feared, completely split up the middle of her underside. I prayed that her body had gone into shock, and I prayed she didn’t hurt as badly as I believed she did. I placed her in the grass, and then drove into town.

The fireworks took on a whole different feel to me now. I walked through the crowds in a daze. I’d forgotten my earplugs and the shocks were loud. From where I stood in the wake of the smoke clouds, the fireworks appeared in the sky over the roof of the historic casino building. Instantly, these munitions were not entertainment; I saw and felt them to be the explosions they symbolically recalled. Each explosion birthed a wave of fear for my life, for the lives of those around me. War, I felt, must sound just like this. The experience was transformed by this new perspective. I imagined the casino itself to be hit, with bricks and stained glass crumbling to the ground. Deeply frightening as it was, I forced myself to stay in this experience for a few moments. I felt the need to grab the nearest humans and hold us all together in safety. How strange it was, I thought as the sky lit up the park like daylight, that this should be held as an entertainment for we of this modern, Western world. Easy, I supposed, as we here in this culture know nothing of war firsthand. I wondered how citizens of currently war-ravaged countries in the Middle East would feel about such a display. Would it bring on symptoms of PTSD? Would it throw children into tears, would it make mothers cry out for their babies and grown men shrink in terror? I thought it surely would. So strange, this mix. Triumphant and celebratory, menacing and evil. At every cracking sound I relived the moment when I’d hit the turtle. One moment I was thrilling to personal victory on a beautiful summer’s night, the next I was dumbfounded and heartsick. This time, I had known the precise moment when things changed.

These days my fingers are hurting more. Usually the first thing I’m aware of when I awake is that my fingers hurt. The irony of a musician losing her fingers to arthritis tempts me to indulge in self-pity. I lament that I haven’t played with other musicians since my son was born, and the way life is going at present, I’m not likely to again. I think of the ‘time before’ and my heart aches. When was the last time I played in a band? Who were the last people I played music with? It saddens me that I can’t recall. Just when did my decolletage become crepey looking like those other, older women (whom I was never supposed to become!)? This doesn’t just sadden me, it angers me. Just when did my left pinkie begin to bend out in a bizarre and unnatural way at the far joint? Just when did this trend towards jowls and sagging neck actually begin? Many of my thoughts these days are an effort to come to terms with aging. With the process of saying goodbye to the way things have been for so long… I tell myself that the process has always been molecule by molecule, cell by cell. That, thank God, it happens gradually. Kind of like pregnancy. You get a whole nine months to adjust to the new reality. But there’s also something silently disturbing about slow change: you can’t stop it, and you don’t quite know when it’s coming or how it’s happening. Your past splits away from you without your even realizing it. And then one day you get it as you didn’t get it before. Oh shit. It’s over. And there’s no going back.

A few years back I played the music behind a student production of “Tuck Everlasting”. It’s the story of a family who is stuck in time; no one ages and life for them stretches on and on without end, while life and death continue on as usual around them. I’d never thought too deeply before then about life from the opposite perspective. But it certainly struck me as a hell in which I’d never care to live. It gave me consolation about the aging process: we all do it, and pretty much all at the same rate.

Troubled as I am by my mortality, I still continue to fully enjoy and participate in the experience. Admittedly I am vain, convinced that most of the time I am right, and often full of pluck and bravado. But at the same time I am also timid, unconvinced of my talents and deeply fearful about my future. I am a mix of these things all at once. These qualities all wrestle for power as the reflective side and the reactive side continue to fight each other for dominance. It’s fascinating how humans can be all of these seemingly contradicting things all at once. Yet truly, we are all things at the same time. Our lifetimes are spent swinging from one awareness to the next, from certainty to uncertainty in the blink of an eye. One minute we are whole, and the very next – we are split.

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Post Script: Feeling that this post was already verging on way-too-long I omitted these two recent incidents which further expand on the idea of life circumstances splitting in an instant: The happy day when Elihu returned home from his father’s, I tripped on the suitcase on his bedroom floor and broke a toe. A week before, lightning had struck The Studio and fried the just-out-of-warranty AC units, resulting in three thousand dollars worth of damage. Thankfully, the IRS just granted us our official status as a nonprofit entity after a three-year application process. Split indeed.

 

 

 

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