Things here at the Hillhouse are quiet these days.
There are still the comings-and-goings of piano students and their families, and the chickens mutter to themselves and scratch in the leaves all day, a familiar sound which is almost always audible through the thin windows of my vintage ranch house. There is animation here; there is still a lovely sprinkle of energy from the visitors, both human and animal, which prevents me from feeling the absence of my son too acutely. And of course, there’s music; now I finally have time to practice a bit, to learn new material, to try things out. That helps keep the house from feeling as silent as it might otherwise.
But even so, my feeling about this new single life is tenuous.
My mood continues to ride the crests and valleys of a mildly manic state. I don’t reach the absolute lows that I know some people to experience. Rather, I experience what I can best describe as a loss of hope, a state which I can feel coming over me the way a person might feel a migraine coming on. I try to get ready; I check the calendar for my next student, my next appointment, my next diversion… Mindful of the imminent low, I try to find the footholds that will get me through.
And while I don’t experience the true euphoria of a manic high, some mornings I awake with my chest bursting with the thrill of possibility; my head swimming with enough ideas to fill a book. I pen dozens of notes to myself in a handful of tiny spiral notebooks which I keep throughout the house, having the absolute conviction that I will revisit these ideas, flesh them out and convert them into insightful posts. (A more honest part of me knows that this is not likely to happen.)
There are mornings when I lay in bed (grateful to finally be able do so!) and I wonder where my reason for living will come from in the day yet before me. It’s not a down place, it’s just a medium place. It’s where I live most of the time, actually. The to-do list always pulls me forward, but it’s certainly not something which gives my life meaning. (Lest I give the idea that I’m inert these days, let me assure you that I am not. Yes, there is a new, relaxed pace to my life, but it is still rife with a myriad of tasks and errands, many which have me grumbling ongoing complaints.) But in those first, quiet and undefined moments of the day, I am without a sense of purpose. I am adrift.
Like today. I awoke feeling neutral. Feeling nothing. The time of day was not apparent by the diffused light, my body felt good, rested and free of pain, my mind was empty. For a moment I did not even quite know where I was. Glorious absence it was. And then my critical mind awoke and reminded me: this was too much absence. Wait, was I here for some reason? I couldn’t remember. Figure it out, Elizabeth. Get up, do the morning’s chores, and figure it out.
These days I feel the need to get out of my tiny environment. To see old friends, to relax into relationships that I miss, to see people who already know me. Friends from the time that came before parenthood and life in the country. I need a respite, a change of scenery, a little dose of the city. I dunno, just something else. For the most part I am a homebody to be quite sure; I love my bed, I love my home, I love living far from the road surrounded by nature… I love all things familiar, comfortable and easy. But this place of domestic peace will always be here. My opportunities to get out and enjoy life will not. I’m getting noticeably older with every passing month (my arthritic hands are getting worse and worse each week), so if I’m to travel, to get up and out and far away from here, I need to do it soon. Soon.
Recently I’ve begun to consider more seriously the idea of giving away my flock. I don’t see how I can ever leave this compound if they are still my responsibility. Having my son go away to college has been immensely freeing – no meals to cook, no shuttling to school and back – and yet I can’t take full advantage of this new situation as I might like. I’m deeply conflicted about this. Recently I asked a farmer friend of mine if she’d like to take my flock. She said yes, but then asked me “Are you sure?” Yeah, she knew. I did too. A move like this needed some serious introspection. Having a flock of chickens all about the property is a lovely, life-enhancing thing. They improve the mood of all my visitors – and they always improve my mood, too. If they were gone this place would be very, very quiet.
So this is where I find myself now. Suspended between my old life and the new one ahead. Seems I need to be brave and wrap up this era for good.
Just not absolutely sure if I’m ready for the still to follow.
I love maps. I can spend hours looking at a map, imagining the topography, envisioning the reality of being in those places, and trying to more fully grasp the relationship between here and there. Landmarks are, of course, essential to figuring out where you are – and how to get to your destination. These days I feel as if I’ve arrived at another one of my life’s landmarks, and the time has come to plot my next course.
In an ongoing effort to distract myself from the realities with which I now must live my life – an eye injury which challenges me daily, extra pounds which do not come off my frame as easily as they have in the past, and a clinging sense of sorrow that my best days may well be behind me – I am trying to keep moving. I am trying to keep busy.
Of course I continue to teach piano, and in spite of a recent heartbreaking setback, I am still looking for a musical partner. I run the Studio’s Airbnb. These things are routine and familiar parts of my life. But they have not been enough to keep my spirits from sinking. This, I can now see, is going to take some effort. And while I can honestly say that I’m not pining for my son, and while I deeply appreciate not having to make a full dinner every night and drive a twice-daily shuttle to and from school, I have to admit that I do miss him. The house lacks a certain energy now, it lacks a certain animation. My son challenged me, he taught me things and encouraged me to think more critically. I sorely miss our wonderful daily conversations. Somehow, for as much as I treasure being alone, it’s not feeling quite as blissful as I’d previously imagined it might.
When I look at my mother’s life as it is these days, it saddens me. I see the parallels between our lonesome lives, and it makes me sadder still. Mom lives by herself, and she doesn’t have the benefit of students and their families coming and going. Her world has grown smaller as her strength and mobility have diminished, and now her only companions are the wildlife she feeds outside her window, her television and her emotionally dysfunctional adult son who speaks very little and almost always leaves her guessing as to what’s on his mind. But even so, he is her son, he is the one who gives her a reason to keep daily rituals in place. She pays his bills, buys him food, makes him dinner, and often speaks about the goings-on at her place using the plural pronoun “we” – when in truth my brother is hardly her companion in the true sense of the word. Sure he fixes things around the house on occasion and he joins her most nights for a meal – but he is moody, unpredictable and often angry about something. Many days he utters not a single word to her. But he is her son, and somehow that is enough. Yeah. I get that part.
We’re all fond of saying that life is short, and that you must live life to the fullest because you never know… And of course this era of covid has brought that message to the fore of our collective mind, yet how often do we actively heed this way of thinking? How often do we challenge ourselves because we know tomorrow isn’t promised? Me, I’ve usually been the one to try shit out. I’m usually the one to take the dare, the one who’ll do the crazy stuff. On some level I have always felt like it was now or never. So I get it, and I’ve tried to live it. But I admit I’ve held back. Especially during my tenure as a single mom. I put a lot on hold, and justifiably so. But now that there’s space and time before me, I feel an urgency about getting back on the horse.
I can honestly say that there is some bone-deep, existential shift taking place inside of me these days. I’m thinking much more seriously about the stuff that I have always thought I might do “one day”. And my new awareness is born of two things: the deaths this past year of several peers (who were also dear friends), and the magic of reaching this certain age. I can’t consider myself middle-aged now. That’s not really accurate. Even if 50 is considered to be the new 40. Fuck that. OK, so maybe our current culture affords us a slight advantage – after all, do your remember how a woman in her 50s just a few decades ago seemed like a dried-up granny? That’s certainly not true now – but the possibility of dying still looms, undeniable and ever-present. Cancer is everywhere. Covid is real. And accidents happen. For me, these days, life feels like a roulette wheel. So I gotta get going.
A few days ago I saw a neighbor’s post on Facebook. She and her family – including two young boys – had climbed a mountain. She’d raved about the gorgeous view, and stated that it was not a difficult climb. The day that I saw the post it was midday and sunny. I had no students coming, no side jobs, no Airbnb turnover. My day was wide open. I did a quick search for the mountain, downloaded a trail app, and within minutes I was pulling on my hiking boots and filling a backpack. Inside of an hour I was at the trailhead (if I’d known ahead of time how long and narrow the wooded road to the mountain was, I might not have gone. I’m grateful to now know about these ancient carriage roads; they won’t put me off in the future). I was off to somewhat of a late start in the day, but I was comforted by the sight of a full parking lot when I arrived. I’d be safe, at the very least, if something should happen.
The ascent was a challenge, inasmuch as my heart was pounding so hard I began to wonder if it wasn’t actually dangerous, and I was virtually gasping in air through an open mouth for much of the upper part of the trail. When I reached the summit, I was drenched in sweat. But as anyone who’s climbed a wooded trail can attest – the sight of light from above and the expanse of rock that meets you when you reach the summit restores your body and your spirit as few other experiences can. I think this is why people get hooked. I think it’s why I climbed another mountain a day later. And, in spite of how horrible I feel when the ascent becomes almost torturous, it’s why I hope to climb again soon. Tomorrow, in fact, if all goes well.
Not too long ago I began taking a Tai Chi class. It’s an expense that some might find imprudent when my means are so modest, yet it’s something I feel that I have to do. I love moving. I love dance. I love working on balance. One day I hope to teach a dance class at the Y – but for now this is how my love of movement is going to manifest. I don’t know much about Tai Chi, but I can’t let that stop me. What I do know is that it feels good.
And speaking of getting back on the horse – that’s on my list too. I have a few friends who ride, one of whom, like me, is missing her daughter and companion, and so I hope to go riding with her. It’s been decades since I’ve been in a saddle, and I remember how sore it made me when I was young, so I have no illusions about how it’ll feel. It’s gonna hurt, I know. But how many things that are truly worth it don’t require some discomfort at the start? I can’t think too much about it. Yeah, things can go wrong. And you can get hit by a car crossing the road to check the mailbox. No reason not to try.
When I crewed on a sailboat in the Atlantic many years ago, I also decided to go without a whole lot of mental preparation. I mean, how can you prepare for open-ocean sailing when all you’ve ever known is sailing a dinghy on calm, summertime waters? It kinda amazes me now when I think back on it: the captain had emailed from a port and asked me to please bring some baking supplies with me, so my modest rolling suitcase contained huge zip lock bags of flour and sugar… No one in security so much as batted an eye (different times to say the least). I had in my pocket a scrap of paper with the name of the harbor where I was to find the boat. I did not understand a word of Portuguese, nor was I fully understanding the logistic challenges required to get from the airport to the tiny coastal town. But somehow, in a pre-cell phone world, I made it to the boat after two days of travel. And before I could quite comprehend the scope and nature of the adventure before me, land was long out of sight and I was taking our bearings and writing them down on a chart. In spite of my inexperience, I was soon piloting a large boat and plotting courses. I just had to go step by step. I knew close to nothing when I began, but I’d learned a lot when the trip was over. Through some pretty rough storms, torn foresails and stalled motors we’d made it to our various destinations.
Whenever I hesitate to try something new, I try to remember the boat. I recall how not overthinking was key. I also remember how important it was to know where we were – and to know where it was that we wanted to go next.
I know where I am. I know that my body is not what it was. I also know where my body will go if I live long enough. No one can evade the physical reality of aging, no matter how healthy they may be. So while I’m alive and able, I owe it to myself to get on the boat and go.
I owe it to myself to check the map, chart a simple course, and head for the waypoint.
There are those who believe you get what you believe you will get. It seems a bit too simple to be true, but sometimes I’m not so sure…
My son drew the picture that accompanies this post when he was six years old. We had moved here only a few months earlier, and had impetuously bought ourselves a handful of chicks at the local farm supply store with the thought “how hard can it be?”. My child had been through so much (as had I) when his father and I parted, and we were both in need of some light, some relief… Something to distract ourselves, to give us hope, to give us something to look forward to. Raising these tiny, adorable feathered creatures didn’t seem a stretch to us then – after all, we had lots of room, no neighbors close-by, and no one to tell us it wasn’t allowed. It was completely up to us. In bringing home those chicks on that April day in 2009, we embarked on an adventure that was of our own choosing. It was a vision that we shared – and one that we ultimately made real.
That was the day when our adventure began in earnest here at The Hillhouse.
A box of six tiny birds came home with us, and I believe them to have first lived in Elihu’s bedroom closet (truly I cannot remember, as we’ve raised hundreds of birds since that time). But that seems right. Soon thereafter they moved to the garage; that I do know and remember well. (Back then I had no idea how much waste these small creatures left behind, nor how their dander daily covered every nearby surface with a thin film of dust. One season in the garage left us with years of cleanup afterward.) Jump ahead on the timeline twelve years and we find ourselves true farmers, well-seasoned and experienced in the world of avian husbandry. From hatching to growing, treating and medicating ailments, finishing and even butchering. Over that time Elihu and I have raised not only many breeds of chickens (as well as our own custom hybrids hatched out right here in our living room) but we’ve also been a home to parakeets, parrots, pheasants, quail, geese, ducks and even homing pigeons (King Louis and his bride Lily were a delight; they’d accompany us in the air as we walked the property.) Suffice to say we’ve both learned a lot.
Shortly after we acquired our very first birds, Elihu drew a picture of a coop and a pen and twenty chickens. He told me that this is what he wished for. A proper coop with a proper run, and twenty birds. Without money to spare at that time, and only a handful of chicks, this seemed a highly idealistic dream that would likely never come to be. But within a year we graduated from garage-as-coop to a wooden shipping container which his father had brought us as a gift. Next, Elihu’s grandfather gave us an incubator, and so in late winter of the following year we stocked it with what we hoped were viable eggs. Turned out they were.
And then somehow a few years later I was able to commission the building of a proper coop, a right impressive structure that had the charm of a small cottage. And a few years after that I myself cobbled together a fenced-in enclosure with materials I’d either scavenged or been given. It wasn’t very pretty, but it did the job, and it seemed to bring a certain completion to the homestead.
One day, as I was looking out of the window at the pleasing site of coop, run and birds therein housed, it struck me. We had truly achieved the dream – the very thing before me looked exactly like Elihu’s drawing of years earlier (an image which had been affixed to the refrigerator ever since.) Even the gable of the roof – a design not terribly common to most chicken coops – it too was identical to the one in the picture he’d drawn!
That evening, when all the birds were nestled on their perches, I counted. We were up to exactly twenty. I counted twenty birds in the drawing. too. I noted the roof which Elihu had drawn, and the run to its right. Exactly as it was here, now, in real life. It was the exact same thing which Elihu had so dearly wished for all these years – even down to the same number of birds. But it hadn’t come on a lark, nor as a matter of luck, nor had it come overnight, certainly not, but rather it had been the product of a long-held vision, one which we two had shared and worked toward together. Yes, we’d hoped for this outcome on some level, but it had never been a specific plan.
The similarities between the drawing on the refrigerator and the sight outside my window had me a little stunned. Man, this kid was good.
Elihu has been fascinated with how things work since he was a toddler, and when he first saw creatures flying right before his eyes, he had to know more. It wasn’t a case of simply being enthusiastic; he was possessed by an all-consuming desire to capture the miracle and beauty of flight itself, and then to share it with the world. You could see it through his art, the books he read, the facts he collected, the birds he so lovingly tended, and then later in the craft of his own design which he built, and the videos which he painstakingly produced of those planes in flight. He has built hundreds of planes over the years: passive fliers, motored craft, wooden craft, paper craft. All of them can attribute their existence to our very first chickens.
Today my son’s love of flight continues. The world of aviation has provided him with adventures, educational scholarships, opportunities and new friendships. It’s all pretty remarkable. He’s gone from having a simple admiration of birds to choosing a field of study in college, one which will very likely provide an interesting career beyond.
A dream and a drawing made manifest. Who knows, maybe it’s all just part of his destiny.
Elihu has flown the coop. He’s gone off to college and left me alone with the chickens.
I’ve certainly known this was coming, I’ve prepared my heart for weeks, for months. Years, really. This is the happy ending of a success story, right? All is as it should be. And yet, somehow things here still feel a bit off. Empty, and unresolved in some way. The house feels quieter than I’d thought it would. It certainly isn’t the first time I’ve been alone here, but this time it’s different. I can feel the absence of his energy. And my days are no longer structured around my son. Instead, my days must now be created in service to this new life of mine – one which I’ve yet to figure out.
There is no schedule to adhere to anymore. There are no mandatory breakfasts being cooked at sunrise, there are no shuttles running to and from school each day, nor to after-school clubs or rehearsals. There are no quick runs to the soccer field to make videos of a new craft. There are no appointments, no lessons, no trips to the hardware store for building materials, no kids meeting up after school at the downtown coffee shop, and there is no driving of friends home afterward. And – there is no dinner to prepare. This is what leaves the biggest hole of all. Each evening it’s just me and the TV. I suppose this is how much of the world’s lone-dwellers spend their evenings, but it’s not ideal. It certainly falls far short of the wonderful meals we shared each day which were always full of thoughtful conversation, imaginative philosophising, and of course, all-out mirth. (Doing some casual calculations I figure Elihu and I have shared some 8,000 meals at this table over the past thirteen years here!)
At the end of the school day when my piano students arrive, there is no big kid swinging through to show off a new parlor flyer or to bring a friendly rooster inside the house for an up-close visit. I catch myself beginning to tell a student an anecdote about my son, but then midway it begins to feel like a ‘you shoulda been there’ tale. A pointless rambling about the old days told by the backwoods piano teacher with all those chickens running around her yard. (‘Crazy cat lady’ comes too close for comfort these days.) So I resist the urge to bring in this extra character, because he’s just not relevant now. There is no house bassist anymore whom I can summon from his basement workshop to accompany impromptu jams, there is no tubist on the premises who’ll happily sit in for a few bars during a lesson. It’s just us now. We’re on our own now, the chickens and me.
The somewhat dingy image that accompanies this post is, sadly, the only photo I have of the canvas illustration which hung over my bed from the time I was five years old until the time I left the house. That image – of a young woman with a baby boy in her arms, cat and bird on her head, flowers all around – was deeply familiar to me. I saw it every day of my life as I was growing up. I had always adored the saturated pink and orange colors, and the picture’s charming sense of whimsy further endeared me to it. The image always made me feel like I was home. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I began to associate myself with the woman, but at that time I couldn’t imagine what my relationship to the child was. As the neighborhood’s babysitter, it seemed fitting that the young boy could easily be thought of as my charge. Many years later, after we’d moved to upstate New York, I’d found a photocopy of the long-since gone artwork and tacked it to the wall of my office. It comforted me to have a version of the piece still with me. But here in our new home – after our big change, our separation from life as a family of three and our having now become a family of two (plus the cat) – I realized that the picture represented me and my boy. This was also Mina, our cat, and the bird on the top, well, that was every bird that Elihu ever saw and loved.
The image represents so simply and beautifully the experience that we two have shared over the past thirteen years here at the Hillhouse. We have learned about more subjects than either of us will ever be able to recall. But more important than any academic knowledge was the experiential learning that took place on this very special homestead.
Because of our unexpected life, my son is a nature boy and I am a country woman, and we are both so much wiser, and our lives so much richer for it.
On occasion life seems to perfectly scripted, doesn’t it? In spite of twists and turns – or maybe precisely because of those twists and turns – things often work out in a strangely correct way. Wonderful outcomes can appear in the wake of chaos and disastrous events. Not always, but thankfully, sometimes.
Today my son is a high school graduate, and I am free.
One year ago today I injured my eye, and I have found myself a prisoner of that event ever since. Today, standing in the bright morning sunshine of a fine spring day (floaters still clouding my vision and an ever-present feeling of a foreign object still being in my eye), I find myself wavering between elation and terror at the future ahead. What will describe this new chapter? My opportunity or my injury?
I cannot convey the depth and breadth of our experiences over the past year, for they have been many and mighty. And today, as I sit in a house filled to the brim with the mess of one final week of tumult and year’s end chaos, I panic slightly at the idea that nothing will right itself on its own. All of it rests on me. I realize that my son and I have just concluded, and very successfully so, this era in our lives, so I should take heart. I just need to do this one final time. In the future there will be no such messes, no such disorder. All I have to do is muster the fortitude to do this once more. Somehow, however, this doesn’t seem to make it any easier. This time I don’t know where or how to begin. And so I nibble on the leftovers from last night’s graduation dinner, I pick at the frosting from the cake, I take a sip of the last dregs of a can of Mike’s hard lemonade I found in the door of the fridge. I feed the chickens, refill the suet, make the coffee. I begin a new post. I look over my Facebook feed. I stall.
Inside, the house is a riot of unwashed dishes, half-cut onions, piles of unopened mail, schoolwork and artwork and piles of musical charts to be filed, dirty clothes in heaps in nearly every room, and pair upon pair of muddy shoes, too (how do two people amass such a mess?). Clean laundry that languished too long before I could dry it (and now smells slightly funky) confuses the system in my mudroom and will force me to start the whole shebang all over again. The lawn is knee-high and rife with land mines of fallen branches and rocks that must first be found and marked before the grass can be cut. (And this is five open acres, no small task) The coop looks like a right proper hillbilly homestead with traps set, both humane and lethal, retired kiddie pools, garden tools, a few pumps and pond paraphernalia, a wheel barrow full of plastic junk and two metal grain bins, knocked on their side by the white whale of raccoons (who evades me still), their contents now fermenting and turning rank in the wake of recent rains. All a girl can say is oy.
This day is further loaded, as I think on it. Funny how June 12th used to mean different things in different chapters in my life. In my married years, it was my parents-in-laws’ wedding anniversary. Many years later it became known as the birthday of my former husband’s out of wedlock child, the day that changed everything for Elihu and me. The day that launched us on our voyage here at the Hillhouse. For years I was conflicted about the day: should I curse it or thank it? I certainly cannot curse any child, for his birth is not his own choice. But you can understand that it was a shocking time for me, all those years ago, and were it not for the miraculous way in which our lives turned out, I might still be nursing my wounds over it. I can’t say that June 12th doesn’t bring a bit of reflection. I have never before felt such acute emotional pain as I did on this day, thirteen years ago.
And now, the date has yet another meaning. Another change of plans that I must somehow accept. An injury that I must see as a catalyst to a yet unseen future that awaits, one that otherwise would not have been possible. Thinking back over the past year, I realize that I sought out new experiences as a means of distraction from my discomfort, and I can clearly see what the injury has offered thus far: my first forays into relationships with men since my divorce, a new awareness of physical health and fitness, a bad outcome with a relationship which offered an opportunity for me to step into a better sense of self-worth (the caveat here is that this is, sadly, still a work in progress), and lastly, a host of music performance videos and the small victories that I achieved as I learned how to organize and present myself in a new format. Overall, it’s been a good year. Every time I started to sink into self-pity, I used a new goal to pull myself up and out. Yeah, for the most part it’s worked. Mostly.
As friends and regular readers will know, I tend to indulge in excessive amounts food and alcohol to take the edge off when the shit just feels relentless. But somehow I managed to pull up and out of the habit last summer. I began to see an opening, a time when life would be mine again, and so I wanted to prepare myself, to lean in… I wanted to forget this troublesome eye injury and set my sights on the future… While I did get leaner and became increasingly dedicated to my physical improvement (and really came to look forward to my workouts), I suffered a bad muscle injury, and within weeks of a diminished routine, I fell off the fitness wagon entirely. This in turn had me newly depressed and brought along with it a resurgence of daily episodes with panic attacks. I kept up with the challenges as they arrived, but it was a struggle.
Added to the frenetic pace of Elihu’s final year and all that went on with me personally, stress began to mount… I lost a good portion of my hair inside of a few weeks in late winter (whether due to stress or changing hormones, it’s an alarming experience to say the least), the arthritis in my hands became significantly more advanced in a short amount of time (my doc said it was one of the worst cases of OA he’d ever seen in the hands of someone my age), and I saw a dear friend through a year of health problems which ended in her death two weeks ago. It’s definitely been a trying chapter. So naturally I fell back on the self-soothing mechanisms that I always have. The pendulum began to swing back, and I just let it. Knowing that I was creating a situation that would have consequences down the road, I continued on anyway, savoring the hell out of those carbs which I’d fastidiously ignored since last summer. Watching as one glass of wine with dinner easily turned into a whole bottle. I jumped into the pool, right into the deep end. And so here I am today, treading water, wondering how I’m gonna make it out again. I know I will, but the side of the pool still looks to be a long way off.
Things ebb and flow, and today I’ll just have to take it easy on myself. This day has become a strange landmark in my life, and I should pause to take stock: what does June 12th mean this time around? Might I look at it perhaps as a day of hope? Today is the first day I’m not the full-time mother of a high school student. The first day in which I have nowhere to be, no one to answer to (let’s forget for the moment about the some two thousand emails and two full voicemail accounts which must be gone through on Monday). Today I’m not waiting for the other shoe to drop, it already has. It’s what happens after that which intrigues me, and keeps me from giving up and crying into my hands. How can I give up? My son is about to launch himself into the world – a prospect which is nearly as thrilling for me as it is for him. I have my book to look forward to (yes, friends, I am going to set about the task of editing and formatting content from this blog for a publish-on-demand book) and there is the business of getting healthy and fit again. Lots to do, lots to do.
Once I can get this house in order again, I’ll begin to figure out what this new game’s gonna look like. If I can just hold on to that feeling of hope again, if I can just remember that out of chaos comes order, that a catalyst is necessary for growth, that growth, change and evolution are what this whole silly planet is about…
If I can just get myself there again, it’ll be a perfect storm of possibility, and I’ll be right in the eye of it.
In and of itself it’s not really anything out of the ordinary, however what brings some irony to the situation is that my friend once wrote a book about dying, and how to lose one’s fear of it. And she is not approaching her death as she herself has counseled so many others to do.
Back in a time when generous book advances were more common than today, she’d made a pretty penny from her work even before it had hit the presses. The book was written a few years after she had begun what was to become her most important gift to the world, the creation of a non-profit organization called ‘God’s Love We Deliver’, an operation which daily delivered fresh-cooked meals to sick and homebound people in metro NYC (in its beginning it delivered several hundred, today it’s upwards of seven thousand a day). Ganga had garnered some major street cred back then from ‘God’s Love’ which no doubt had something to do with the book advance. GL had also caught the eye of some well-known folks who had either chosen to sit on the board or give the gift of their time, money and visibility: comedienne Joan Rivers, socialite and philanthropist Blaine Trump (yes, that Trump family – by a former marriage – yet I personally believe her to be cut of a far different cloth), designers Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, among many others. When Ganga began to teach classes to men dying of AIDS on how to approach the end of life, it raised her profile in the culture of death awareness. She was a guru of sorts on the subject. Her teachings on acceptance of death were a perfect compliment to her mission to assist the victims of the AIDS epidemic with home-delivered, high-quality food, delivered with love. She advocated for both a loving approach to a person’s final days, as well as a practical approach to the death that was to follow. In fact, she encouraged people to lose their fear of death and accept it as a potentially wonderful experience.
She and I met late one night in line for the pharmacy at CVS some six years ago. It was her adorable Maltese dog named Bobby McGee who pulled me into her orbit, (she used to waitress at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan back in the day, where Janis Joplin was a customer of hers, hence her dog’s name) but it was the conversation about death which we stumbled upon so organically which called me to her friendship. I told her I had wished there was a book that addressed death in a simple, pragmatic way – and she told me that there was; she herself had written just such a book! I recognized in her a fellow human of similar energy and drive, so when she told me, I didn’t doubt her for a moment, and I eagerly awaited the story that was to follow. And so it was that she gave me the thumbnail of her life’s work. After hearing about her experiences, I knew that this was a woman I had to know better. How lucky was I that this special woman lived right here in my town?
That night when I got home I ordered her book, and read it cover-to-cover shortly after it arrived. In the wake of my surprise divorce a few years earlier, and in an effort to preserve my sanity and understand how better to make sense of the experience, I had dived deep into the study of things philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and so the main idea which she posited of an existence beyond this physical world was not foreign to me or without serious merit and consideration. I liked what I read, and I was relieved to find someone for whom the topic was so easily discussed (and especially so as it was examined outside of any religious constructs).
Ever since we met, death has been an easy topic of conversation for the two of us to continue. In fact, there has never been a subject we two couldn’t discuss. We always enjoyed deeply candid conversations; it was the main reason we two felt so connected. (I wrote on my kitchen white board something she had said to me this past week: “Your conversation is nourishing”.) But now, whether it’s due to her severe lack of memory or her primal, instinctive fear of the finality, she has come to completely deny that her death is nearing. Actually, it’s not so much that she denies it, for the subject never even arises. She simply carries on as if it were life as usual. She behaves as if her life is now the same as it has ever been, when any other person in the room can plainly see that it is not. And for some reason which I cannot identify, but respect nonetheless, I am uncharacteristically unable to address the subject with her. It just doesn’t feel as if there would be any real benefit from the discussion, and so I leave it be.
Recently she broke her left hip (she’d managed to get somewhat better and at least ambulatory after she broke the right one plus a kneecap two years ago), but after this second surgery she has simply gone downhill. And at this point, all the signs are there; she weights a mere seventy-six pounds, and hasn’t the strength to move her legs or adjust her position in the bed. She can’t even put food on her own fork, and beyond that just getting the food to her mouth has become a challenge. And tonight as I was tucking her in and trying to get her comfortable (this is hard to do at this point as she’s so very skinny and pressure on her bones hurts), we both noticed how purple the tips of her fingers had turned, and how cold they were to the touch. She assured me that they didn’t feel cold. Another sign…
Yet somehow she can’t even see this for herself. The past few days she’s rationalized that her current condition is the exception to the norm; today she is unusually tired, or she ate enough at the previous meal, or maybe it’s that she’d rather enjoy my company that waste our visit by eating. A few days ago I brought a chopped liver sandwich (her father made chopped liver and she often waxes nostalgic about it) and she ate with enthusiasm and delight – but a mere three bites. That was all she could take. All the logic in the world couldn’t convince her that this was hardly enough caloric intake to maintain her health, let alone make up for the twenty-plus pounds she’d lost since she’d her surgery.
The hospice nurse and social worker (the latter is truly an absolute bitch, how or why she came to this career choice is beyond my comprehension) arrived while I was visiting a few days ago, and I was asked to please leave the room. I waited outside while they told my friend of the change in her care from rehab to hospice. It didn’t seem that my friend understood. When I was invited back in, something had changed. It seemed that Ganga had made the case for my being family of sorts; she wanted me there to hear the information. The women gave their spiel again. I interpreted it for my friend in the gentlest way I could. “Oh no, I don’t want hospice!” she said adamantly. I explained that if she gained weight, if she showed an increase in strength and if she made some overall progress, that her status as a hospice patient would be changed back to that of a rehab patient. This new change in care was just a measure of relief for her; she wouldn’t be made to adhere to a strict diet (she always complained about choices being made for her), and she wouldn’t be made to endure physical therapy (through which she screamed in fear and pain the whole time). She could enjoy the break she so often asked for. Still, it didn’t seem to matter. The word hospice is loaded, and as lacking as my friend may be in memory and physical abilities, this was not lost on her.
I realize that it’s not important that she be completely aware of her patient status. And anyway, having her truly understand the situation is not really possible; her lack of short term memory prevents any new information from sticking. And whether she knows that her death is coming before long or not – it doesn’t change a thing. What does matter is that I try, as her friend, to maintain a certain level of joy, satisfaction and physical comfort in her remaining experience here. I will continue to bring her her favorite foods, whether she takes one bite or not. I will play the chants of Muktananda from her days in the ashram in India, and I’ll hang his picture on her wall. I will bring her my favorite down pillow and comforter from home. I will do everything short of burn her favorite incense (I’ve already been spotted as a rule-breaker on the floor, no need to tempt complete banishment from the place) in order to keep her as content and happy as possible. We will simply have to live each moment to the best of our ability. From here on in I will do my best to keep her life worth living.
I too might have to employ this approach with respect to my own life these days. We’ve lost fourteen birds – some dearly beloved and deeply important to us – over the past six weeks. My mother is eighty-six now and her health and strength wain visibly as the months go by. My own body has continued to change in unpleasant ways that break my vain heart daily, and behind all of this is the knowledge that my son and only life companion will be leaving me forever in just a few months, sooner even, when one considers he will pass much of the summer with his dad. How I will manage, as a single person in the world with very few friends? This I do not yet know. I will simply have to continue to witness the joy and beauty in my life as it appears. I can do no more, and I realize that it won’t serve me to do any less.
I understand that everything is transitory. I have worked for years on getting this knowledge to live inside of me. Yeah, I get it – and yet I don’t. There is the intellectual aspect of me which is well-informed and trusting, but then there is the deeper, more animalistic feeling that I just can’t shake. Yes, I do believe it to be true, as my old family friend Martha always used to say, that ultimately “everything always works out”. My head believes it, but on some level my gut doesn’t quite trust it to be so. Elihu will often defend Ganga’s seemingly strange behavior these days by reminding me that we are physiologically wired to stay alive, and that that drive is strong. Primal. Instinct wins over intellect here, he tells me. Must be what’s going on in Ganga’s experience. She knows it’ll all work out. And yet she can’t quite bring herself to accept it. Understandable, because the next thing on her to-do list is to die. Easy to rationalize when it’s someone else’s experience I guess. I certainly can’t know for sure that I myself won’t behave in the very same way when my own death shows itself to be coming soon.
Ironically, the day that Ganga died I had successfully made my online reservation for a visit at the rehab facility, and even had the screen shot to prove it (the online system didn’t always print out the time I reserved, so this time I thought I’d beat the system). Elihu and I went to visit Grandma after school, and after that I was going to go make my visit (feeling certain it would be my last). As I was getting in the car to leave, I received a call from her sister. Ganga has died peacefully at 4 pm, less than an hour earlier.
In my mind I played back last night’s visit. A dear friend with whom she’d started God’s Love We Deliver and her husband had made the long drive from Maryland to hold Ganga’s hand and be there with her in the time that remained. I remember seeing all three of them there in the gentle light of the small table lamp, her friend reading poems to her, holding her hand… I remember thinking it would merely be selfish if I were to interrupt the vibe by wishing to hold Ganga’s hand once more, or to kiss her on the head… I had only ever kissed her once, a few days earlier. I had been so conflicted about doing so (it still felt awkward to offer such a tender gesture for a woman who, like me, spoke her mind and swore like a sailor), but I made myself do it, and for this I’m now very relieved. So as I took in the scene, and before I pulled closed the curtain between us, I simply said “I love you Ganga, I’ll see you tomorrow”.
I last saw Ganga on Tuesday night, the first of June. She died the following day at 4 p.m.
It is Friday night now, and tomorrow morning I will make the drive, early morning, to witness my friend’s cremation. Naturally, I had to take some action in order to learn where and when it was to happen. It still amazes me that our culture is just fine with the idea of a loved one’s body being whisked away in the night and returning a few weeks later in a small five pound box, no questions asked. Seriously, no one is sentimental? Curious? In need of closure? Sigh.
As I write this, my friend’s body still exists. Ganga still exists in corporeal form. But in a matter of hours, she won’t. And this doesn’t matter at all, really. I can hear her in my head saying “Oh Elizabeth it’s bullshit. Don’t think for a moment that the body means anything.” At least I think so. That’s been kinda eating at me the last two days. I used to think I knew exactly what she would have said. But now I start to doubt…
It’s now Saturday morning. In two hours’ time I will watch the smoke rise from the wide-bore metal smokestack, carrying with it a portion of Ganga’s body upward and into the ether. Then I will pray, I will chant, I will wish her a loving and peaceful transition. I will probably cry too. And then her form as I knew it, the form which made me smile with its familiarity, the form that once served her so well and which later let her down so deeply, that crazy mass of now-decrepit cells will be nothing but bones and ashes, and smoke in the air. That which was.
It’s still super early. I didn’t wake up in a good place in my sleep cycle, so now I’m desperately groggy and trying on many excuses to see if I can allow myself to sleep in and simply miss the whole affair. But how often does one get this sort of chance to witness the final departure of a dear friend? With a mixture of sorrow, anticipation and a tiny bit of dread, I’m going to pack my bag and head off now.
I arrived at Albany Rural Cemetery a bit before 8 am, (as I’d been told that Ganga would go in first thing in the morning) and the kind woman I’d spoken to on the phone was there in the office. They were a bit backed up; Ganga’s cremation had first been moved from Friday afternoon to early on Saturday, and now it seemed as if they wouldn’t get to her until noon or later. It was time to elicit some more information to see if I might not nudge things a bit in my favor; I did my ‘thing’ and expanded the conversation as much as I felt her to be comfortable with (ok, I probably went a bit beyond that). She told me the guy who was working the crematorium’s name was Damien. “You’ll know who he is. He’s got a lot of tattoos.”
I parked in the shade just past the chapel, crematorium and mausoleum, all of which were housed in the same terra cotta-colored stone building. I walked around the perimeter once, and noticed that there was a large hall on the lower level with a door that was unlocked. It was a mausoleum, its towering walls made of smooth marble squares, some occupied, some yet awaiting their tenants. There was a table with a vase of plastic flowers and a guest book on it by the doorway. I stopped to read the entries. They were all family members come to visit parents and grandparents. Not a one of the messages was terribly interesting, and they all seemed to be desperate with loss and sorrow. I looked for something more personal or unique, but nothing stood out. We miss you Grandma, we love you Papi… Does it all just end like this? Not a lot of hope for closure or transition on those pages.
I decided I would leave a message of my own for Ganga. I sat down on the cool stone stairs, held the book in my lap, thought for a few moments, and then filled in a page. I took a pic, then returned the book to the table and stood back for a moment to regard the setting. All at once a bald man in a gas mask came running down the stairs at top speed, stopping short at seeing me – I believe I remember him even putting a hand to his heart, because it was clear that I’d scared the shit out of him. We both paused for a moment and I saw that his head was covered in vividly-colored tattoos. “Hi, are you Damien?” I asked, but he didn’t answer, he just offered a muffled “Oh I’m sorry!” from behind the mask and made a sort of slight bow of apology, and then ran back up the flight of stairs. It seemed as if he couldn’t hear me with the headgear on. I remained in the hall for a few more minutes, noting the fact that, as Sarah had told me, that because they were so backed up, the place wasn’t presentable to the public at the moment. Cardboard body boxes were stacked up in the common area, and a very industrial-looking apparatus used for holding caskets was parked in an adjacent hallway. At the end of the day, it’s a physical world, and there are physical jobs that need to be done.
Within a minute or two the bald man came back down the staircase, this time sans gas mask. Again he apologized, and of course I did too. Why should he ever expect a stranger to be here at 8 a.m. on a Saturday? I saw that he was indeed heavily tattooed (plus he had a thrice-pierced lip). Oh what a kind man he was; I told him why I was there, that it was important for me to be here when my friend was cremated. He said Sarah was right, they were a bit backed up, and it would probably be around noon by the time he could get to her. That was ok, I answered. I’d tour the cemetery and bide my time ’til then. So Damien left to get back to his job. But then a few minutes later he came down the stairs again. “I can get your friend in at 9” he offered. “You shouldn’t have to hang around here for so long”. I thanked him, this time I was the one offering a slight bow of gratitude. “I’ll get things going.” Damien offered. “And I’ll have your friend in at 9”. “Um… so which stack will she be in?” I asked, referring to the pair of metal chimneys. Without hesitation he answered “The one on the left”. I nodded. “Ok, thanks”. He turned to leave. I felt a slight rise in my adrenaline. “Wait!” I called out, and he stopped. In my mind I considered the things I might do as a symbol of our connection in this final moment – perhaps he could retrieve a lock of her hair? Perhaps he could take the flowers in my hand and have them burned along with her? In a flash I realized all of the legal and logistical problems that even a tiny request might create, and quickly said “Never mind”. No, there was nothing left to be done. He nodded, smiled kindly, turned and left.
I found a spot under a deliciously-scented flowering mock orange bush just twenty feet outside of the furnace portion of the building. I pulled out my phone to check that I had the chant correct. Om Namah Shivaya. I pulled out Ganga’s book, and then her small bible. I had brought a cushion to sit on, and was wearing her red beaded necklace from India. I tried to imagine that now tiny body, that white-haired dynamo of a woman, lying just behind that vent, behind that brick wall. That body was in lousy shape when she left it, and certainly it was less than that now. But being the deeply sentimental person I am, I couldn’t help but try to picture her in my mind’s eye. I could imagine her laying there, a mere shell of the woman she once was, and with that image fixed in my head, I said my own quiet inner farewell to that familiar form.
A few minutes before nine I heard some machinery begin to operate, and I saw the wavy heat lines of burning fuel rising from the stack (for me it was the one on the right; I was on the opposite side of the wall from Damien). Ok, I thought, it has to get up to speed first… And then, a moment or two after nine, there was one initial blast of sound, and one puff of black smoke… The smoke didn’t last. Within a minute the black smoke returned to the invisible waves of heat, rising, which continued for another hour and forty minutes. (Later I surmised that this initial burst of smoke may have been the easily-burned parts of the package like her hair, her nightgown, the dry skin, the box… the rest of the material was wetter and denser and would just be a low and slow process.) The initial plume stunned me into tears, as I realized the transformation was underway. I reached for her bible, the one with her initials embossed on the cover and which had been given to her at her first communion in St. Louis another lifetime ago, and I turned to a page in which she had once inserted a laminated card with the Saint Francis of Assisi prayer that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hate, let me sow love…” I read it aloud, through tears. I took a moment to consider it more deeply, and I read it again. And then I set to chanting. I readily admit that I’m years out of any meditative practice, so the chanting went in spurts – as did my focus. I needed to relieve my joints too, so a few times I stood, I walked, I considered the vapors rising from the stack. I thought of my friend’s physical state by now, and how I was moving beyond my sentiment for it. I stood in the shadow of the wavy heat lines on the pavement, and noted how our forms were casting shadows together. Likely it was far more fuel than body, but still… It was us, together for one last moment here on earth.
My friend had wasted away to a mere seventy-plus pounds at the end of her life, so after about an hour and forty minutes I began to wonder if it wasn’t time. But how to know? Would there be some mystical sign? Did she plan on letting me know? And within seconds of my pondering this, I heard two short sirens go off, and then the engines let down and began to hum a little more quietly. Yeah, I was pretty sure that this had been the timer, and our dear Ganga was finally cooked. It made me laugh.
I got in my car and as I slowly pulled away I saw Damien, leaning against the arched entrance, smoking a cigarette. Passing more time while her remains cooled down before they could be processed. “Man, I bet a lot of this job is just waiting, huh?” I asked, elbow hanging out my open window. That began a ten minute conversation in which we covered a lot of ground; he’d taken the job as grounds keeper originally, as he liked being outdoors, but then the guy working the crematory needed a sub, and pretty soon what Damien had once thought an unthinkable task had now become his new full-time job. He said it was particularly hard seeing the kids and babies that came in. He shared with me that while he’d never seen a ghost, once he had been overwhelmed with the scent of vanilla while mowing the lawn, the summer air around him filled with nothing but dust and grass seed. I mean, it is a cemetery. Certain subjects come up. Ghosts and unexplainable events must be covered at some point I should think. And it’s always nice when you meet another soul who has shared similar experiences, and with whom censorship is not necessary. Natural candor is a beautiful thing. Hey, it’s what I had with Ganga.
Ganga would’ve really liked this nice young tattooed man who reverently loaded her into the furnace of evermore. I’m sure it woulda made her smile. And I’m sure if she could’ve seen everything with the clarity of her former self, she would’ve been pretty happy with the way in which the last few weeks went down. (On some level I’m sure she knew well what was going on; she left after all was resolved.) Ganga had made peace with her long-estranged son, her son’s father, spent time with her daughter and her sister, and saw once again her beloved friend from the old days, who’d journeyed far just to hold her friend’s hand at the end. Ganga asked after Elihu at every one of our visits, and she was deeply satisfied to know where he was going to school, and that he himself was happy with the choice (she was adamantly against him attending an Ivy League for numerous reasons) and the last time Elihu visited with her, he had held her hand for a long time and had told her that he loved her. He sobbed the whole way home, a behavior very uncharacteristic of him. I told her about this the following day, and told her that for reasons he didn’t himself even understand, Elihu loved her so very deeply. “I feel the same way” she answered.
In the end, everything really did work out. And I know that Ganga is doing fine wherever she is now. I know it. I can just feel it in my bones.
When the lilies of the valley finally arrive, I take pause and fully immerse myself in the rarest of spring moments. There is a robust patch of the gorgeously-perfumed flowers in a local cemetery, and for the past twelve years I have carved out one or two special mornings in mid May all to myself, for no other purpose than to drown in the sweet scent and to lose myself in the almost meditative state which picking them induces. Until today, that is.
The men that cut the lawn and polish the headstones all know me by now. Each year at this time I stop to say hello and chat for a few minutes, and so I’ve become something of a nodding acquaintance with them. I also know Carol, the elderly woman in the single-room cottage beside the front gate who keeps impeccable hand-written lists of every person who’s either entombed there, or who has plans to be. When I am sitting in the grass, leaning in and picking stems from between the hostas, or even when I am breathing in the powdery-sweet scent of the apple blossoms which top the family plot where the lilies of the valley grow, I don’t ever worry that someone might stop and ask what business I have in being here. I’m respectful, I am grateful for the peaceful surroundings, and I am bearing witness to the deep beauty of the plants and trees which have been intentionally placed there. One might think there’s not a thing wrong with this, and yet…
This morning I was aware of a large, older model domestic vehicle coming to a stop behind me. At first I figured it was just another visitor, but then I realized that someone was trying to get my attention. It was Carol. She likely had not remembered me, although I’ve visited with her a few times in the shack, and although I myself had expressed interest in giving tours of the cemetery… I knew her at once, and I also knew why she had stopped. I was to cease my flower picking. It seems a member of the family from whose plot I was harvesting my bouquet of muget had seen me a few days earlier and mentioned it to her. (My mind went immediately to the fellow whose birth year on a stone there is yet to be followed by a second date.) The family is big in the local bank, one at which my family and I have been doing business for decades, and so at the very least I figured it was no great transgression. I’ve more than paid the value of a few weed-like stems in fees alone! But I guess that’s not the point. As I drove away (in my mind thanking the family for the gift, as I do every year) I realized that yet another era had just come to an end.
Today it’s more than midway through May, and today I know without a doubt that I am more than midway through my life. As Elihu comes to identify more specifically what it is that he wants out of the new life that awaits him, I too find myself more reflective about how it is that I wish to spend my remaining years. I told him yesterday, and I do mean it, that should I find, in the next few years, that I am to die of some unexpected malady, I’m ok with it. “And I’m not being dramatic. I mean it. Of course I can’t really know if I wouldn’t want to fight it, but I don’t think that I would. I have a few things yet that I’d like to accomplish, but overall, I’m ok. I’ve had an amazingly full life.” I paused. “You get that, right?” He said that he did. What a good young man. While a deeply sentimental person, he is also an extremely no-nonsense fellow. I know of no one more pragmatic. And so he believes me, and this gives me some relief.
The two saddest words I can ever hear are “gone by”. When May goes from almost too cool to mid-summer hot, and the blossoms begin to brown at the edges, my heart sinks in a most profound way. As a young girl the words “gone by” would hurt so deeply. Coming to terms with the end of beauty was always a very hard thing for me. I kinda feel like my life is at that point right now. The time where the blossom is giving way to its fruit. That time when the perfume disappears, when the color fades and the organism ceases its show and turns to the task of simply living. I know, it’s a trite and obvious metaphor. But my awareness is there almost every waking moment these days. It’s just how it is. And being at this place in the game now, I don’t see any point in withholding these thoughts of mine. After all, it’s what I’m here for. Hey, it’s probably what you’re here for, too…
I can’t be sure whether it’s due to my uber honest, soul-bearing content or issues with panic – or perhaps even neurological issues which stem from a previously broken neck and one brief but physically intense event last fall – or some combination of them all – but I just experienced a rather unnerving, immediate and frightening electrical sensation through my neck and head while writing the previous sentence. I’ve been having a lot of strange events lately in fact. Having issues with gait and balance. Bad rushes of heart palpitations. Maybe it’s why I shared those feelings with my kid. I dunno. On the whole I’m just kinda tolerating life right now. The way I present to the world on Facebook and Instagram is for the most part highly curated. That might also be what fuels my unease. So I’m trying to keep things as honest as I can in this forum as a means to make sure I don’t mislead the witnesses entirely.
Midway is a challenge. The beautiful bits have faded, the beginning is so far behind, and the ending is potentially any time now. Is this truly midway? Who can ever know? May be… May be not.
(Maybe take a closer look at the monument at the top.)
This past year has been full of extremes, both good and bad. Covid played its part, but there was so much more. And I understand more profoundly today, even as I didn’t just a few months ago, that there will be no letup anytime soon; this life of mine will continue to be a challenging go-round on the globe.
I lost a couple of friends to the virus, and that still feels incredibly surreal. The death of my town’s music store owner still feels like a bad dream from which I’ll awake before long. He had been a treasured friend ever since I moved here from Chicago almost thirteen years ago – and he championed all I endeavored to do at the Studio. He sponsored all of my shows, he lent me gear, offered ideas for programs and strategies to grow the business. We passed hours chatting in the store, talking about everything from music to relationships to parenting. I drive by his place every morning and still blow him a kiss, imagining him downstairs, behind the counter, ready to greet everyone who enters like an old friend… It’s strange how we humans eventually acquiesce to the most unthinkable outcomes. Slowly, it seems I’m growing to realize that he is gone. His death reminds me that life as we knew it is also gone.
This week – this moment, in fact – I am beset with an anxiety that is deeper and more complex than any I’ve yet known. Firstly contributing there are the mundane matters of aging (about which I shall dish shortly), and secondly there is the physiological aspect of my condition which is separate and apart from that. The panic and anxiety is its own thing, I can assure you. (Tonight it is acute, and writing is helping to distract and alleviate the symptoms. At the moment I am struggling to feel ‘in my body’; part of my personal experience with panic is a frightening lightness and separation from my corporeal form which is truly terrifying, and while I have developed some tricks to mitigate it, at the end of the day old-fashioned distraction works best). I am experiencing both concerns at the same time these days, so teasing out which portion of my discomfort is age-dependent and which is involved with panic and depression is not truly possible.
I wish I could tell myself that things will get better, but honestly friends, has not the hill been surmounted? At the age of fifty-seven – and add one more year to the tally on May 7th – is my life not all on the downslope from here on in? From where I sit right now, that appears to be the clear and honest truth. I look at my mother – whose badly deformed hands I have inherited, and whose U-curved spine I’m yet hoping to avoid – and I can’t help but wish it ends long before that becomes my reality. She tosses off passive-aggressive asides under her breath about wishing to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ as she struggles to make her way around the kitchen, holding on to the counters like a rock climber. She never comes out and says it directly though; her generation doesn’t do that sort of thing. That I’ve actually heard her expressing feelings aloud is rather unusual, and it further supports my claim that such an aged state of infirmity is no desirable place to be. Yet even as I continue to age, I wonder if there might still be some tiny thrills ahead, despite the changes already underway – perhaps even major insights that might yet enrich my life… I hang on to some hope for all of that, and I’ll certainly put in the effort to that end – but I’m not holding my breath. And please friends, don’t protest. Honestly. The way I feel these days, I’m pretty sure the majority of my life’s sweet spots are behind me now.
It hardly seems I have any right to be in such a condition… Do I not live a fairly rarified life here on this planet? Am I not at the very top of the existential pyramid? Have I not a list of projects I’m eager to do? Do I not have a beautiful home full of beautiful things? Have I not a son who is happy, successful and who loves me? Yes, I have all of these things. But it’s the things that can’t be properly explained, seen or quantified which really do throw a spanner in the works. It’s nothing new, of course; the mental health stuff has been with me, albeit just under the surface, since I was a teenager. I’m great at presenting to the world like everything’s working fine – and in fact, I’m a super-high functioning human being, no false modesty about that here. But no matter how I may appear, my depression and panic are real, and they can make certain patches exceptionally rough for no apparent reason. And the past month or so has been just such a patch.
My state of mind is subject to a few different influences, and I’m fairly sure I know what most of them are. The constant financial stress I live with definitely contributes (my income arrives in $40 doses through a handful of ‘side hustles’. That term taunts me, as there’s nothing ‘side’ about it; it’s my only income. But I agree, I sure do hustle for it). Some of my concerns come of vanity. Some are born of self-pity. Some are related to the despondency I feel over the neglect I show to many old friends with whom I just can’t seem to find the time to communicate. I shouldn’t wish to be forgotten by my friends, but I myself am doing just that with so many people. There are half a dozen folks whom I owe a nice long conversation, and many more who deserve a good catching-up via email, but I’m always just too beat at the end of the day to make any of it happen. And that makes me feel crappy.
There’s also the eye injury. It’s a 24/7 affair. It physically bothers me almost every moment of day of every day. In order to distract myself I learn music. I make videos. I do chores. I walk in nature, I take care of my chickens and my home, I cook for my son, I do errands for homebound friends and caretake for a few elderly neighbors. I do, do, do… The panic and depression which has returned is likely also due in part to the chaotic, frenetic nature of my average day.
The episodes come in waves though, and they’re not always perceptible to me. One morning, a few months ago, I came to the breakfast table feeling deliriously free of that low-grade shitty feeling that cloaks me most of my waking hours – and it felt simply wonderful. The sheer absence of feeling bad was itself so good! When I told Elihu that, he simply responded “Manic much?”. Hm. “Really, is it that bad?” I asked. He told me it was, and reminded me that I’d felt good last week, and that I’d be feeling really bad again soon. I was truly surprised. In that moment I couldn’t remember having felt this kind of relief in ages. “Wait, really? I felt like this just last week?” He told me that he was pretty sure I had. I don’t have much interaction with people save what I carefully select for social media, so who else but Elihu would know? I guess I’ll have to believe him. From where I sit tonight, I pray he’s right. If I’m feeling this bad right now, relief’s gotta come soon, right? Sleep doesn’t even help; I sleep so very little – three, maybe four hours a night – and often wake up mid-way in terror. It’s pretty brutal these days.
And there are all of the physical landmarks which I am fast-reaching (I suppose you could file these under both self-pity and vanity too). A musician whose arthritic fingers have doubled in size in less than a year? A hand that can no longer grasp the wheel of my car before I’m sixty? Dang. Then there is the lost jawline, the strange crinkly texture of my skin in areas of my body that I was sure had a longer life expectancy than this… An alarming loss of word recall, a new stiffness in my hips and hair that has thinned dramatically. What the actual fuck? I thought this shit would hit home in my mid sixties, certainly not before… I put in my time raising my son, turning down dates and saving myself for that sweet spot post-child when I could pick up where I left off, maybe even really enjoy myself a little before things went downhill. And things were looking pretty OK not too long ago; I’d lost seventeen pounds and was working out six days a week – I was feeling and looking good just a couple months ago until I injured myself and then absolutely tanked. I suppose the depression has built up since I fell off the fitness wagon – and I can say most assuredly that working out really helps keep panic attacks at bay. But somehow I’ve lost control of my life again – caretaking for everyone else, and finding no time left for me. It’s quite likely that the lack of control over my life has exacerbated my overall discomfort.
Fifty-seven started ok. The pandemic really didn’t change a thing for me. Errands continued to consume my life. While friends were staying home, ordering meal services and letting their hair grow long I was out doing the shopping and everyday errands for my own camp. By the time May rolled around I was back to business as usual (sans students I should add, and therefore sans any sort of meaningful income), albeit donned in a mask and using sanitizer after every stop. Life only came to a halt for me when I got hit in the eye with a log while attempting to clean up my property in mid-June. That forced my hand. For a couple of weeks the world went on without me as I laid in bed, healing. (At the end of the day I’m lucky. Less than a half an inch toward the center of my eye and I would’ve been blinded. But still, the never-ending discomfort and diminished vision suck. No way around it.)
Then came the adventure with Mr. High School Crush. Ow. That sure went from good to bad really fast. But hindsight and some online study showed him to be a classic misogynist. Knowing that his strange behavior was a real, definable thing was so helpful. The cycle he thrived on was “Idealize, Devalue, Discard”. His MO was to throw a ‘love bomb’ (intense and sudden displays of affection and desire, etc.), get me in close – and then berate me, finally showing himself to be the victor – and me the devalued loser. I still don’t know what caused him to turn on a dime the last time he visited. I asked him, but he never answered. And by not responding he retained the upper hand, so to speak. I had no information to work with, so I couldn’t even counter him, nor could I gain any insight. But frankly, there is no insight to be had; his process requires that he find an offense in order to make himself right, and me wrong. I’m sure he took something I said or did and built it up in his mind to be a major transgression.
In his final text to me he angrily called me ‘self-centered’ and told me that he had revoked my title of ‘Lady’. Sheesh. That’s crazy talk I know, but the even crazier thing is that in my weak emotional states I re-play his words and it brings up the hurt all over again for no good reason. (There does seem to be a little ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ thing going on here.) Once, after it appeared to have ended (on our last parting he had smiled, hugged and kissed me, then driven off, thereafter ceasing any form of communication for many weeks, leaving me to wonder what the hell had happened), I sat at the kitchen island, weeping into my hands. Elihu asked me what was up – and I lamented that I’d thought I’d been falling in love. He very soberly responded “You weren’t falling in love, mom. You were falling in sex.” Thank you, kid. You’re my sage, always. (Um, first sex since the ex. Can you blame a girl?)
And as for the minor rock god? Well, while we had fun (and recorded some music too, although not our best work to be sure), and I’m glad to count him as a new friend, it wasn’t what I might’ve hoped for. We’d already cultivated a playful, flirty vibe, so I’d thought we might’ve enjoyed some good physical chemistry as a result. But he too was mired in his own experience with depression – and his is far, far worse than mine – so the garden wasn’t fertile. We did get physical, but that’s all it was. Whether it was the dulling effect of the meds he was on or his own natural response, he simply did not offer any noticeable emotional connection. I suspect that even if he had been feeling whole and healthy, he and I probably still wouldn’t have had a thing anyhow. But I’ll never know for sure, and that too nags at me when I’m in this low sort of state. Kinda feels like I wasn’t good enough for either of these fellows – not even the one with whom I had music and good humor in common – and that hurts a little bit. And I didn’t even want relationships with them! Just wished for a moment of connection, pleasure and friendship. Seemed so simple, but it turned out be be so elusive. Then again, I was dealing with men who brought their own challenges along with them. I guess the playing fields weren’t exactly level. Shouldn’t bother me all these months later, I know, but it does.
This has past year Elihu has been a senior in high school (whaaaat? Just seeing that in print makes me a bit woozy), so naturally, it’s been a huge year for him. And by association, for me too. Despite his having a 4.3 GPA, being in the 99th percentile with his SATs, having both fluency and literacy in three languages and a list of credentials that is truly hard to fathom, all of the Ivy Leagues passed on him, except for Harvard and Cornell, both which have waitlisted him (we won’t know their decisions for another few weeks). But he was accepted at RPI with generous scholarships, and the appeal of a debt-free degree is strong, so it may even win out over Harvard. The case has been made to us that he can use his undergrad years to kick some academic ass, and then he can do his post-grad studies at a fancy shmancy school. Might be the plan. Still not sure.
Injury, romance, heartbreak, success, failure, stress and hope plus fifty more items somewhere in between. I’d say that’s quite a variety of life experiences. One wonders what can possibly lie ahead. I learned a lot at fifty-seven, let’s hope that I can leverage that new insight and cultivate a really great fifty-eight.
This morning I took my son to have his first covid vaccine. As he is still 17 and a minor, I was allowed to accompany him. But for his second vaccine in three weeks, I will be made to wait outside.
There really is no way to prepare a mother’s heart for this transition. Of course I’ve known it was coming and have tried as best I can to make peace with the new reality. Come this Wednesday, Elihu will no longer be a minor. No longer will I be the keeper of his medical records, no longer will I be responsible for his money, no longer will I be the recipient of his grades. How very strange indeed. I have been this person’s sole keeper in every way for the entirety of his life – and in just one moment the whole thing comes to a close. Thankfully he is an incredibly responsible person, and he is well-equipped to take the reigns. But me, I’m just not ready to hand them over.
When Elihu was two and a half years old he had a bad case of the flu, and I took him to the emergency room. There was a one-year-old in the waiting room, and Elihu doted on the tiny boy. The child had had an earache and was frantically crying in distress, to which Elihu responded with such tenderness. He cooed to the toddler, helped distract and soothe him. They spent a good fifteen minutes together, and by the time we were called in, Elihu had coaxed the child into a quiet and peaceful state. It was shortly after we got into the car and began to drive home that Elihu spoke his very first sentence. “When I grow up, I want to have a baby, Mama”. I looked in the rear view mirror, stunned at what I’d just heard. I saw him just sitting there, his pacifier returned to his mouth and looking out the window. My tiny boy, such a huge concept. My son had always been different, even at that age I’d known it. This sentence was just the first of many confirmations. He has always been wise beyond his years.
I first knew there was something distinctly different about my son when he was four months old. Aside from being colicky and hard-pressed to sleep without me next to him, I just knew something was not right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but clues were starting to add up. When I walked him outside in a stroller, he’d close his eyes and slump to the side, but when we’d enter a dark indoor space he’d sit up and open his eyes. He couldn’t open his eyes in the great room of our home, the south wall of which was entirely made of windows, but he came to life in the dark basement playroom. I knew he had an inability to see in bright light, but until he could speak to us, we’d be left to guess about how he experienced his world. One evening I remember nursing and then rocking him, trying unsuccessfully to get him to sleep. And so I held him tightly to me and twisted my torso from side to side, desperate to find the rhythm that would finally take. I remember pulling him away from my chest and looking into his eyes, to find that his pupils were rapidly bouncing up and down. I flushed with adrenaline; had I just done this to him? Had I shaken my baby? A careful inventory of my actions told me that I had not, and yet something had changed. I remember wishing so dearly that I could just know if he was afraid, if he was in discomfort. How, oh how could I make it better?
It was my friendship with the keyboard player in Steppenwolf that became the key to understanding what was ‘wrong’ with Elihu. Years earlier I’d met John Kay, the lead singer and fellow who penned the iconic song “Born to Be Wild”, and I’d known him to have some condition with his eyes that made him colorblind, light-sensitive and also unable to drive (ironic, isn’t it? His song is the anthem for bikers everywhere, and yet John’s never driven a day in his life). As I sat at my desk pondering my son’s situation, I flashed back on this memory and immediately fired off an email to Mike. He responded, confirming my suspicion. And there it was. Without an internet search, without a doctor’s diagnosis. I’d learned that my son had Achromatopsia. Now, finally, I knew.
I’d had some neighbor girls take Elihu to the park, and instantly I felt a deep panic, an intense need to find and hold my baby. Now that I knew, I had to make it better. I ran through the streets until I spied the small clump of kids – Elihu was riding on the shoulders of one of the taller girls, his eyes squinted shut. I grabbed him from her and held him to my chest, shielding his eyes from the daylight. I shall always remember how I felt in that moment; I become a fiercely protective mother, and in that instant I became wholly dedicated to my son’s comfort and ease. In the months that followed I found a low vision doctor in Chicago – who actually specialized in Achromats – and Elihu would soon get his first dark glasses. He would take his first steps outdoors, and our world would become a little less stressful. And even though his father loved him dearly, he did not share my concerns for our son. He wasn’t moved by Elihu’s first steps in daylight, he thought I made too much of Elihu’s light sensitivity, and he would often chastise me for coddling our boy. But I didn’t care. Like I said, my mother’s heart was fierce. Nothing would prevent me from being Elihu’s champion.
There was so much I needed to impart to my son. Ever since he could walk it was my deepest desire to equip him to live as well as possible in this difficult world. My heart longed to give him ease, to give him insight and understanding. There was so much to teach him – where to begin? Folks who know me understand that I’m pretty frank and unedited in my speech. I say what I mean, and I believe for the most part that it’s better to express than to withhold. And that’s the tack I took with my son. If my four-year-old wanted to know how an engine worked, I was going to explain it to him. Seriously. He was going to get the real story, not some dumbed-down explanation meant just for kids. I always spoke to my tiny son as if he was an adult. That’s not to say I didn’t coo to him as a baby, or speak in tender, maternal tones to him – in fact I always spoke to him as gently and lovingly – and respectfully – as possible. I never scolded him as if he were an idiot. I always offered an explanation of actions and consequences, as if he understood. Because if he didn’t yet understand, he would at some point.
How could I teach him about the seasons, the holidays, the traditions of our world? How could I convey the context, the meanings of so many seemingly random cues? And if he saw no color at all, and if indeed the world was hazy and hard to see, how could I teach him to discern things? All of this nagged at me during my son’s childhood. And so I chose to read to him. A lot. (I wish now that I’d kept a list of the dozens upon dozens of books we read. I implore all new parents who might be reading this to keep a log of the tomes you read to your child. In revisiting them you will also revisit shared childhood memories.) Since my son’s vision was not great, and since reading for a good length of time fatigued him, I felt it was best that I take on the job. Every night of his life until he was around ten or eleven I lay next to him and read. Oh the places we went together. The adventures we had. What a huge and full life we had just from our nighttime books alone. This, I think, is in large part why my son turned out to be such a thinker. Having limited vision has also contributed; he has been left to live much of his life inside of his thoughts. While the other kids were watching movies or playing video games, Elihu was identifying birdsongs, inventing melodies of his own or creating lines of poetry.
My mother’s heart had always been heavy with the knowledge that my son would not always be able to join his classmates in so many experiences that most kids consider mundane. Swimming doesn’t work well on account of the bright light that usually accompanies the experience. Moving fast – as in running – is dicey in that Elihu can’t really see things until they’re upon him. When he was smaller the two of us had a system we used while out walking whereby he would minimize the many missteps, falls and scrapes that came of his limited vision. Elihu couldn’t always discern differences in grade, so as we walked together I’d quietly offer “step up” or “flat surface” as we went along. So imagine my surprise when one day at lunchtime my legally blind child whizzed by me on a bike in front of his school! His fifth grade teacher had taught him in just a few periods. I’d always wondered how – or even if – we would tackle this skill. I cried! Oh such gratitude I had for that dear woman! This step was huge. And it opened new doors for my son that I had previously thought would never be options. And can you imagine that my twelfth-grade son has been getting straight As in his phys ed classes? In fact he is even rather aggressive in some sports – but if you’d told me this a few years ago I would not have believed it possible.
Elihu’s father had decided to leave the marriage our son was five. I’d thought that Elihu was too young to grasp the situation, and so when we moved across the country to live in a house next door to his grandparents, I’d thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. He would have everything he needed, lots of nature around, and family too. I always welcomed his father into our home, and have always encouraged their relationship, so he saw his father quite a bit in the early years here at the Hillhouse. (My friends never understood this arrangement; they thought it was wrong to have my ex stay here with us. I thought it was the humane and right thing by way of both dad and son. My comfort could take a back seat for a few days here and there.) I did absolutely everything I could to ensure my son had the best possible childhood. I think I did the best I could with my situation.
However, it became apparent in the first few years post-move, that Elihu had been deeply saddened by the change. I’d thought that if I’d kept up appearances and continued to be of relatively good cheer that it would mitigate any possible negative outcomes. I hadn’t wanted my son to suffer the emotional challenges that other children of divorced parents do. Yet for a while my dear son really was troubled. If I’d expected him to be sensitive to the nuances of life, how was it that I thought he wouldn’t notice this huge life change? A year or so after we moved here I chose to speak to him candidly about the divorce, how it had troubled me too, but how both people needed to be in agreement for marriage to work, and how his father and I were not in agreement. I believe that the truth helped him to understand and make some peace with the situation. It was a really tough experience for both of us, but we got through it by addressing it honestly. Hard a time as it was, it helped us each to grow and become more emotionally resilient.
I needn’t worry about my son now. In fact, I’m tremendously eager for the life that awaits him. He is completely ready to take on absolutely anything. (Recently I apologized – again – for having brought him into this crappy world. I asked him if he might be a bit discouraged about the challenges ahead. “On the contrary,” he answered. “I’m excited. I’m gonna make life my bitch”. !!) Me, I’ve never been particularly good at anything – I don’t enjoy working hard (unless it involves music or writing, then I’m all in), I never did well in school, never had a real day job, never felt like I did things the right or ‘normal’ way. Whatever that may be. However there is one thing I know that I have done very well: I have raised a happy and successful human being. I have given my son love, respect, education, humor and a shit-ton of really good, home-cooked meals. I have spoken to him as a peer. I have held nothing back. There are plenty of books on child-rearing which will tell you I did a lot of things wrong. Most parents would probably frown on my parenting choices. So glad I didn’t listen to all that static.
Such a strange thing that along with my greatest success also comes my greatest challenge: letting it all go. How do I do that? Elihu has been my partner for seventeen long years. Seeing him off into the world is going to be the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. But it’s essential for my growth, for his too. It’s a mandatory part of the process. And once I’m past the fear, I know there’s going to be a lot of joy.
Because this next chapter of our lives is going to be huge. Major, in fact.
With a GPA of 4.3, an extensive lists of personal achievements, fluency in four languages plus some pretty exceptional writing skills, Elihu and I had felt he had a fairly good chance of being accepted at the nation’s top schools, but it proved to be a surprise when he was rejected by all of the places where he applied (save Harvard, more on that shortly).
We both understand that this year is a unique one; with gap year students plus those forced to wait a year due to the pandemic, there are a whole lot more students vying for spots. At the end of the day Elihu has been accepted by RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York) with a generous scholarship, but in that he attended two summer programs there – and it’s a mere 35 minute drive from home – he’d rather go somewhere new, different and a bit further from home. Plus his interest in liberal arts has really ramped up over the past few years, so he’s been hesitant to commit to a technical school.
He has been put on the Harvard waitlist, and he’s done everything in his power to distinguish himself from the crowd. He’s personally written to every administrator who might have a part in the final decision. Truly, he’s been tenacious. But in an unexpected twist, Elihu has been strongly advised by several mentors not to choose Harvard, even if accepted. They make the point that he will more easily rise to the top in a less demanding school, and that he can attend an Ivy for graduate work if it still appeals. Interesting input, and it will remain under consideration.
How surprising to us that at this late date Elihu still does not know where his future lies. To his credit he’s completely calm about the whole thing. Not much he can do. He’s done his very best, and now it’s just time to let the universe do its thing… Feel free to visit my Facebook page for updates. (We have been told that Harvard will respond with their decision by mid May.)
I’m writing this post, using thumbs only, on my phone. And my kid has been rejected by his top three choices for college.
Although letdowns of this magnitude are not Elihu’s usual lot, he is being characteristically stoic and undaunted. Rather, I’m the one who’s most upset at the recent news.
This will be the briefest of posts, for I wish only to convey something of an update on our life’s progress here at the Hillhouse.
With my son’s having a GPA of 4.3 and a slew of exceptional accomplishments in many disciplines – plus a mind possessed of top-notch critical thinking skills and fluency in four languages – I cannot understand how it is that Elihu was not accepted by MIT, Yale nor Princeton. Truly, we had thought the challenge ahead would simply be choosing between the acceptances, not coming to terms with the rejections. At the moment Elihu is on the final waitlist at Harvard, but they had over fifty-seven thousand applicants and have fewer than two thousand spots. So it doesn’t look very hopeful. I get it. And so does my son. But still. It’s a challenge to accept that his future reality will be quite different from our imaginings.
This college application experience reminds me a lot of what it feels like to buy a house. When you find that perfect place, you fall in love with a vision of how your new life will be when you live there. And you begin to imagine all the details that will go along with it. The finished basement, the gorgeous backyard. The programs, the campus… Your mind’s eye gives birth to a whole new world which your heart instantly and happily inhabits. You know what your future feels like in this new neighborhood, in this new school. You can just feel it. You know it deep in your bones. This will be your new home. This will be your new school.
There are superstitions that come into play before the deal is closed, before that acceptance letter arrives, that time in which your future hangs in the balance and nothing is certain except for your strong feelings on the matter. Before that house is yours, before that college accepts you, the world is open to all kinds of signs and foreshadowing of the success to come. You stop to pick up pennies in the parking lot that previously you would’ve stepped over, and they become lucky signs from the universe that things are destined to go your way. The year of your father’s graduating class at Yale pops up in the tally on a receipt and you think to yourself that it’s a done deal: some all-knowing force is surely giving you the nod; your kid is in.
And then – just like that – the deal falls through, the college sends a letter of rejection.
The house will not be your home after all. And your dream college will forever more remain just a dream. And then your thinking changes. No amount of lucky pennies or prayerful friends seem to have mattered in the end, did they? Had the prayers and good energy meant nothing? Perhaps all of your hopeful preparations had been for naught anyhow, perhaps the outcome had already long been determined by divine providence… But in the end, none of this really matters. Because no matter the hows and whys, the big question still remains: just what happens now?
Today we find ourselves in a completely new place. In a strange limbo we hadn’t anticipated. It seems that all we can do is continue to live. Collect the eggs, do the homework, enjoy the arrival of spring. We’ve made our offers, so all we can do now is wait. Elihu has had a fairly high-end technical school in his back pocket the whole time, much of it already covered by a generous scholarship which he was awarded this past year. It had always been there as a sort of last-ditch insurance. So it’s ok. It’s just not ideal. And I’m sorry if I come off sounding like we’re entitled, but my child has worked his ass off and I believe he deserves to study at a top institution. These rejections have been a bitter pill for me to swallow, but of course the kid is being level-headed and pragmatic about it all. We both know that covid is to blame for the flood of applicants. We both know that it is an unusual year. But me, I’m a mother who’s always done everything I could to support my child, so I can’t be anything but deeply disappointed.
What’s done is done. Elihu can have no regrets, he’s done everything right, he’s done everything to the best of his ability. There are a couple of schools remaining on the list, and by the end of this month we should know what the options are. Before long we’ll find that new home, we’ll sign on the line and close the deal.