Angels Sing, Boys Cry

Elihu is in the next room. It’s his first rehearsal with the Saratoga Children’s Choir. It might be his last too, we’ll see. We’re in the one of the classrooms in the Methodist Church – home to many cultural programs in this town. Elihu is nervous, and he’s not happy about being the ‘only second grader’. I don’t blame him, for being the youngest brings him some attention, the kind one doesn’t want as one begins a new pursuit. It’s not comfortable to negotiate a new skill with an audience. That’s how it feels to him, and as his possibly over-mothering mother, I’m sensitive to it. All I can do is send him my love from one room over, hoping it helps in some unseen way.

Just heard the first group ‘ooh’ and I smile inside. This sounds fun. This sounds good. It’s been years since I’ve heard a chorus. Kinda reminds me of the Peanuts Christmas special. Yet I can’t relax yet, my son has a hard time with his head voice as I always did. I didn’t even sing in a head voice til I was in my late 20s. Really. Strangely, the older I’ve gotten the higher my range has gotten. Maybe it’s because I’m not talking all day at school. Or partying all night and shouting over the noise of a bar. Elihu has a limited range, and like me, he favors his chest voice. I’m aware of his concern about this, and so I worry just a bit.

How is it that my sweet seven year old boy hasn’t got that pure angel voice? Does that voice not belong to all the young boys who can sing? I began to wonder this when we’d listened to the Vienna Boy’s Choir and I realized that he could not match their high pitches. As I hear the high “oohs” next door I cannot help myself, I must snoop as a mother. I will just peek in. I hope not to see my son tilt his head to the side as he strains to find the impossible note.

Well. It is neither possible for me to peek, as the doors have no windows and are shut tight, nor is it possible for me to understand what they are singing, for to my surprise – it is in German! I hear Sue coaching them on the pronunciation of the words that will take the place of the oohs they had just sung. Wow. So, that’s how you do it? Teaching a group of kids to sing parts, and in tune, much less in German, seems like magic to me. It did just occur to me, however, that maybe if you’re concentrating on the language instead, it might make the singing of pitches more natural. Often the less you think the better you perform. Just thinking. Man – what an interval! How high they are! I wish I could see him – how on earth is he doing in there?? When we are reunited – and when I take him for a special fried chicken dinner that I can’t afford at Price Chopper – he will recount everything for me. I am praying it will be an enthusiastic recounting. There are other ways it could go.

I feel lucky not to have had a daughter. I couldn’t take all that tension, the hormones, the moods, the levels of strategy. And yet, if you can believe it, my young son often reminds me of a pre-teen girl. He is so dramatic, so large and loud in his expression, particularly when he’s upset. While I understand that comes from a desire not to lose control over his life, I also wonder at why on earth his emotional riots are so violent, so unstoppable, so angry. It is this kind of riot I’m hoping doesn’t result from today’s choir rehearsal. While our dinner at Price Chopper might be one of our special mother-son moments, it also might not be. His reaction may come suddenly after rehearsal, just when he’s quite sure there’s no one left in earshot, or it might gestate a while and surface in the supermarket. I will simply have to wait and see. One never knows, do one?

Well, this chorus rehearsal is a lovely thing to hear… I so hope that he didn’t hate it. Just as we dropped his father off at the train station (just day before yesterday, and now he’s in Indonesia, what a strange world) he insisted that Elihu do two rehearsals before he made a decision about not doing it. I should mention here that I had just happily announced that the choir director was going to admit Elihu based on my vouching for him – as the youngest member – and rehearsals were to start in two days. This resulted in one of his signature pre-teen girl explosions. Ranting and crying, sobbing protests, cries of “I’m not going” and such. I believe he reacted this way because I had not prepared him for this by way of interjecting it into our phone conversations during the week. (He had been in Chicago with his father for the winter break.) He had known about this, and been excited too, but I’d let too much time go without reminding him about it. Had I gently re-introduced him to the chorus idea slowly he might not have reacted like that. But sometimes I just don’t have my mommy game on, and I just like to get on with things. To coddle, or not to coddle… Just when I think I’m doing too much of it, I’m not doing it right. Oh well.

Fifteen minutes to go. No wi-fi with which to distract me. Ah, they are embarking on a new song. A pop-ish sounding song. What is this? Mmm. I am now imagining my son, the earnest look on his face, hand on his chest, singing for me what he can recall of the song he just learned. This too might well be the outcome. Oh how I wish the door had a window, or a crack. Is this the beginning of something new? Is this a day Elihu will always remember? Will it be a fond memory? Or not? My mother once left me at a skating rink all by myself. I was good at meeting kids, I knew how to skate, she wouldn’t be gone long. How old was I? Maybe 7. It was cold, my feet hurt. I didn’t know anyone, and I was sure everyone knew I was alone and self-conscious. I went to the little warming hut and waited alone for a long time. I was alone, sad, forgotten. The feelings distilled into a memory I can recall keenly even now. I don’t want to create that kind of memory for Elihu. They are singing about ‘flying away’… oh, but how can his spirit not soar to sing those words? We saw a hawk on the way here, and he dropped his head down for the rest of the ride, imagining what it is to fly. I just know. He does this a lot, he flies. I never want to clip his wings, nor confine him to a cage.

The director is wrapping things up. Rehearsal is over. She’s saying something about an arts fest. Does she know that my kid played his djembe on the street at the last town festival and made $80? He’s a natural on his own, this group thing is so different. Can he learn how to work in a group? Can he switch gears now, learn this new skill and assimilate? Just a few minutes more…

The Result? Tears within minutes. In the hall he collapsed and began to cry. “I don’t want to do this! How long was I in there?” he cries, dramatically sprawling on the hallway floor as children walk around him. “Three hours?!” The reality is sinking in for me. It was a bit intimidating. This group, save two others who are also new, has been singing together for a semester already. I look at his book, the print is small, it is written in three staves – even as an adult I’m still not good at picking out my part from music written like this. “Mmm”. I answer him as I peruse the charts. I offer that we can make the print larger – that it’s an easy thing to do. But I know his pride is bubbling to the surface and wants to prevent me from making any special modifications. He needs it, but won’t accept it. “No, I can read it easily” he sniffs. Tears well again in his eyes. “Honey, how bout I just make a sample page with larger text and we just check it out to see?” I ask. He stops crying, and considers it. “Ok” he says. That’s better. That also confirms for me the vision thing is part of the mix. Sue sits down with us in the hall and she kindly speaks to him in a bright, hopeful way. She has authority in her voice and I think that helps him. I explain a bit more about his vision – that he can’t see any color. She’s a bit surprised, but it really isn’t the main issue, so we move on. The head voice. “I just can’t sing that high” Elihu says. “I just can’t!” I know so well his frustration. She offers a little help. We all ooh and ahh together for a bit, practicing a technique for relaxing and letting the pitch come. He’s calmed down. He lays heavy against my arm (that feels so good – the older he gets the less he rests on me, the less we snuggle as part of our day) because he is so tired. Still on Daddy time, having gotten to bed at 11:30 the night before, and after his first full day of school in a week, he is wiped. “I’m so tired, I want to go right to bed” he says, angrily. I know. He feels he has no control. We wrap up and head out to the night. We have no food at home, once again I’ve run out of food a week shy of our food stamps. “All I have is chicken soup, sweetie” I remind him. But he wants to go home. No over-budget fried chicken tonight. We go home. And we have chicken soup for the third time in a row. But we made it. Finally in bed, after some drawing time and a little reading, and we’re lying in the dark talking. I finally get him to smile, even to giggle. Ok. A new chapter. Rocky start, but a start, nonetheless.

David Attenborough

I mailed a package to Sir Attenborough today. My son and I both love him so. The envelope contained a letter from each of us, some drawings of Elihu’s, and a CD of mine. It gave me a wonderful feeling to know that the package I held in my hands would soon be held in his. He would study the return address, perhaps ponder the unusual name, Elihu….

this is my letter…

March 1st, 2011

Warmest greetings to our dearest David,

My apologies for having omitted your formal title; your ubiquitous presence in our lives makes you feel like an old friend.

I am a single mother to a precocious and funny 7 ½ year old boy. A former ‘career diva’, I left the city for the country (upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks) and have shared the past two years of my life with chickens, guinea fowl, quail and homing pigeons. Since my son can remember, you have been a big part of his life.

Since he could speak, Elihu has loved birds with an absolute passion. It is not the passing fancy of a small child. He thinks of them day, night, in his dreams. He reads about them, he draws them, he prosthelytizes endlessly about their virtues to his classmates. Elihu has a rare congenital retinal disorder called Achromatopsia and cannot see any color, he cannot tolerate light much brighter than a 25 watt bulb, and cannot see definition of objects beyond a few feet away. He is legally blind. I find it so ironic that he should insist on using color so accurately, and that he is so prolific an artist, and given how challenging sight is, that he can visually identify birds faster than anyone I know (he can do the same by ear as well). In order for him to actually see live birds, we’ve created a nice table feeder just outside our kitchen window so that he can see them only inches away. (We’ve added a film of dark plastic to help him see in the outdoor light, it’s hidden benefit: wonderful bird blind!)

I hope it makes you smile to know that far away there is a little boy who would rather read your books than any others, and for whom not a detail of your videos goes unnoticed. My beloved Elihu counts you as his own family. Your sense of humor and love for what you do is something that my son truly gets. You are one of a handful of people who have helped shape my son’s life, and I am so grateful.

I too am grateful that you were true to your heart and ditched the big time desk job for the field. I can’t begin to imagine the experiences behind the finished productions. What a wonderful treasure you must have in memories and stories!

I’ve included some of Elihu’s drawings as well as a CD of mine as a small token of our thanks. We send our love and best wishes to you and your family.


Elizabeth Conant




It’s a snowy December night in a tiny, rural Midwestern town. We are at the town’s recreation center, a building that looks rather like a four car garage. The grounds are a few open acres with a playground at the far end. Beyond the chain link fence an ocean of cornfields extends for miles out into the blackness. Big, sparkly clusters of snowflakes are falling. They seem to appear from out of nowhere when they hit the parking lot lights. A narrow gauge train idles near the sidewalk waiting for the next load of passengers, which will be shuttled along a great oval track around the park. The train will pass homemade displays of lights setup across the lawn, the ride culminating in its passage through a tunnel of lit Christmas trees near the loop’s completion. It’s a nice crowd – enough families to be lively, yet nowhere close to crowded. A good place to be at this holiday time of year.

Our four-year-old son wants to see the train up close. Already marching to the beat of a very different drummer, he wants to know if the little train has a diesel engine, and he wants to see so for himself. Currently, he is a train boy. A little bit of Thomas the tank engine, yes, but mostly he lives on a constant stream of information about the history and evolution of the train. His book collection is mostly limited to encyclopedic volumes on the subject. He has learned how to instantly multiply by two, motivated by the need to know the type of train as described by its wheel profile. He knows his ponies from his drivers. This is the place to be at Christmastime for just such a young boy.

I hold his father’s hand and our son walks ahead of us to the train. We are walking slowly. It is one of those magical winter nights. As I look upwards towards the falling flakes I feel as if I’m flying forward through space at a great speed. The snow is so perfect it hardly looks real. I look at my husband with a question on my face. He squeezes my hand reassuringly, and then winks both his eyes – he isn’t able to wink just one at a time – and he nods just a bit, with a half smile. “Nothing will change,” he says. “You’ll see. It will always be like this”. Really? I think. I wonder if I heard correctly. I feel like I’m drugged anyway. I’m not sure what’s real right now. Did he just say it will always be like this? How could it be? I wonder. Then I ask him this aloud, but my voice is soft, and it sounds like I’m talking to myself. I am in a daze. I can’t decide whether the setting takes the edge off, or if it just adds to the surreal quality of my life tonight.

Just a few weeks earlier my middle-aged husband told me he had a young girlfriend in our new community, and that he had decided he was going to make his new life with her. The words he used sounded sickly chauvinistic in this strange new context: “she’s carrying my baby” he’d said to me. They’d been through a lot together he explained; she’d been pregnant by him once before, but she’d chosen to have an abortion. They’d been on again and off again for the past two years, struggling in their lover’s dilemma. He’d thought I’d known about her.

I hadn’t.

The past three weeks since he’d told me, he’d seemed much lighter. He had been increasingly distant and less like his old self of the past couple of years. Although I wasn’t the recipient of his affection any more, at least I benefited from his lighter mood recently. He had unburdened himself. He was finally free. But my incarceration was just beginning.

Just two years earlier, I’d been in our beloved Evanston home just outside of Chicago, making tea for my husband and father-in-law who sat on the couch, and who had begun to make their pitch about my husband and me buying a business. They were proposing we buy a building in the town in which my husband taught part time, in a town 75 miles from our home. The building even came with a restaurant – one which we could own and run ourselves. At first I was puzzled; we were musicians, what did we know about running a restaurant? I paused for a moment to understand them better – wait, were they actually serious about all of this? Yes. It turned out they were.

My husband was convinced that with the current team of employees, the place would easily run itself; we didn’t even need to be there! It just didn’t sound realistic to me, and I wasn’t on board. I’d worked plenty of waitress jobs, and I knew that running a restaurant was so much more than a full time job. I also knew that absentee owners were completely at the mercy of the staff. When the cats were away, the mice were definitely hosting after hours parties.

But the pitch continued for weeks, months. It was a sure thing. A sound thing. A dependable source of income. We went to inspect the place and then pour over the pages of numbers the previous owner provided for us. (I’ve since learned about the malleability of numbers; they can be arranged as creatively as a piece of music.) Finally, we were going to own a real, money-making commercial property just like his parents. We would be real grown ups now.

The restaurant was in a small college town that was an hour and a half’s drive away from our current home; it was the town in which my husband taught three days a week at a state University. The weekly commute he made was becoming too much for him – and also too much for all three of us. Although we weren’t entirely decided, we had begun the discussion about moving. If we were going to have a second child, it really did seem to make sense. My husband made the point that until we made the decision whether to move or not, he was out there every week anyway – he would be there to make sure things ran smoothly.

Even though I was never completely convinced it was a great idea, I really did want to support my husband in his vision; is that not what your partner is for? Yet I found myself wondering if it really was his vision – or his father’s. In the end it didn’t matter; whether he was driven to acquire the property to impress his father or to satisfy his own ambition, it was becoming very important to him. He was fired up to do this, and he needed me on board. So I agreed. We went ahead and bought the building, and the business too.

For a year it seemed to go all right. My heart was still tied to the community in which I’d lived my entire personal and professional life – where we continued to live – and I wasn’t keen on moving. I was now mother to a young child with low vision issues who needed my help physically navigating about his world. I had experienced the sorrow and loneliness of a miscarriage that year too. My husband had been out of the country on the day I miscarried. He was on the road a lot. He later confessed he “knew it was over” when I miscarried.

Wait, what? A two-decade union is just “over” when the wife miscarries?

It seemed to me that this should have been a time for solidarity, love and compassion, a coming together and a re-dedication to create the family that was yet to be…  I’d kinda thought that was where we would find ourselves. But instead, no discussion was had, and I just assumed we were on the same page. The marriage went on for two more years during which he never brought up the subject. I had no idea that he’d considered us “over” from that first miscarriage. Hope pulled me forward. Our family would join us soon; our someday couldn’t be too far off. After all, we made no efforts to prevent a new soul from joining us…

When my husband wasn’t teaching, he was touring. I was on hold, waiting. Just waiting. My husband didn’t talk about looking for a house anymore. When we spoke, he talked only of the business. Things I couldn’t really help him with. I spent most of my time at home, he spent most of his time away. Within months the darkness began.

The restaurant manager in whom my husband had put his trust was ruining us. Whether she was stealing, making bad choices – or both – it didn’t matter. Here was the alarm call. What seemed like a far-off reality became my immediate to-do list. Clean, pack, list old home, find new home. Within months I was standing in the living room of our new house, surrounded by boxes, two cats and a small child. Starting over.

The next year was a whirlwind. I had to step in and run a business, I had to use whatever knowledge my previous supplemental part time jobs had taught me. I had to order food, create menus, set prices, paint walls, unclog toilets, renew liquor licenses, pass health inspections, tally time cards, hire bands, fire employees, make peace with the police, meet with the mayor, settle disputes. It was baptism by fire, and nothing I’d bargained for. My Pakistani father in law kept telling me we should just sell homemade pakoras and that would save the business. My husband told me it was not as hard as I made it seem. “I ran this from a cell phone for a year!” he would scold. And so I muscled on. In one year I experienced events that I would have expected from a decade.

Between the duties of café owner and mother I fairly passed out at the end of each grueling day. I’d noticed my husband taking on a strangely quiet distance – and our sex life was currently non-existent – but as the business was hemorrhaging money I thought it was the obvious reason for the changes in him. There was a pit of fear in my stomach nearly every day of that year. Just getting out of bed in the morning took a huge effort of will. I’d figured my husband, my partner of more than two decades, was feeling the stress too, and this was his way of riding out the tough time.

After two years we finally decided the grand experiment was over. I had a good plan. I also had a good manager. She wanted in, and I wanted out. We passed the café on to her. Now we would simply collect rent on the space. When she signed the lease, I felt the most supreme relief I’d felt in years. In spite of a two year detour, we were now poised for our new life to begin. A new life to be sure. Not one I ever could have seen on the horizon.

We wrapped up the business. Then a few weeks later, we wrapped up our marriage.

Fareed had a pregnant girlfriend, and that was that. He’d been increasingly distant over the past two years, and now, at the very least, I had finally learned why. It’s one of the worst kinds of things to hear said aloud. So painful, so strange. So unreal. So surreal.

It is now almost three years later. I live on ten acres in rural upstate New York, just outside an historic, cosmopolitan college town. I live two doors over from my aging parents with our son, who is now 7. I am now 47, and have finally come to terms with the reality that I will no longer bear another child. My husband now has two young boys with his girlfriend. The juxtaposition of her youthful, childbearing chapter and my peri-menopausal reality can weigh heavy on my heart if I think too long about it.

As with any experience in life, it’s often not until the event is well in your past that you can fully glean the insight it offers. For as much sorrow as I have felt over not having our second child, I can say now that I am glad not to be parenting two young children by myself. For I surely would have been, if I hadn’t miscarried. The relationship I have with my son would be entirely different if he had a sibling who also needed me. I simply would not be able to devote myself as fully to two children as I can to one.

I want to be truthful about our new life. Sometimes it is downright lonely. Sometimes it really hurts. The poverty we now live with can add to the sense of betrayal, especially when we’re weakened with grief. There are moments when my son weeps inconsolably that we two live alone, that he lives without siblings, without a dad, without the noise of a full house… There are moments when I too can do no more than drop my face in my hands and sob, for me, for my son…. My heart just breaks that my son will never have a father here in our home; a father to help with homework, to sit at the supper table, to wrestle with on the living room floor… I am, however, grateful that he’ll always have his father in his life. His dad visits every month or so, and our son goes back to the midwest too. When he visits his father, our son stays in our old house, in his own bedroom. He does have a father, and a father who loves him dearly. He’s ahead of many.

Although I would never have chosen any of these experiences for myself, life has given me a surprising reward in exchange. I have a relationship with my son that is so intimate, honest and strong, that I absolutely know I got a good deal – even with the betrayal and sorrow. My son and I are living a life rich in nature, music, art, self-discovery and love. A life very different from the one we might have had. I could never have envisioned our life as it is now. Everything about our new life was a total surprise; our new life simply came from out of nowhere.

In spite of the hardship, the last few years have presented me with so many opportunities. Even in the midst of my pain, I was always aware that there were lessons here somewhere that I needed to learn. Things I needed to pay attention to, to resolve. But despite my own self-coaching, learning still just isn’t as easy as it seems it should be. Sometimes, when I think I’ve got my head wrapped around this, and I’m praying for forgiveness to live in my heart – just when answers should be a moot point – questions still pop into my mind. And I often think of that snowy night at the Christmas train ride…

What did my husband mean when he said nothing would change (while holding my hand)? Everything changed! Oh how many times I’ve wondered just what exactly was he was thinking when he said those things to me! Did he mean them, or were they just words to soften the sting? Or might he have truly believed them?

When the questions and the ‘what ifs’ arise, I make an effort to send them on their way as quickly as possible. These past few years I’ve seen what a waste of energy it is to consider the things that might have happened. This happened. It’s my reality. I start from here. There is no other option.

People see the same things so very differently. What was my former husband experiencing that night?  I don’t know. What choices was he planning on making? No idea. I can only know my own experience, and I can only know the choices I make for myself.

And so, I will choose to remember the beautiful snowflakes that appeared from out of nowhere.

Letter To All

Februrary 15th, 2011
To Whomever Will Listen,

I cannot get divorced. After almost three years of negotiating with my husband, attorneys, and doing some serious reflection on new tactics, I am still no closer to a resolution. How can I fight a man when I depend upon him for support and have NO money of my own? How can I get what’s fair? I have no savings, plus marital credit card debt that I can never hope to repay as things are now.

My husband had both a part-time girlfriend and an ongoing relationship with a mistress, and both became pregnant and had children by him during our 12 year marriage (we lived together for 21 years total). Now our son and I live in poverty, and my husband’s life is unchanged. He is a musician and recently performed in Dubai and Saudi Arabia while our son and I went without heat in single digit weather. We depend upon food stamps to eat and state assistance to heat our home while my husband has experienced virtually no change in lifestyle.

When my husband disclosed his pregnant mistress (in ’08), I left our Chicago home with our 5 year old son to live next door to my aging parents in upstate New York (in a small rental property they provided for us). Initially I was represented by attorney Alan Toback of Chicago; he did virtually nothing for me but take a $20K retainer and secure a monthly support amount of $750 for me on which we two must live. He is no longer my attorney.

My husband and I discuss things calmly, we have a good time as a family when he visits. I don’t speak ill of him to our son. He has told me that he is not interested in marrying his mistress, but if we divorce, she will pressure him to do so, therefore he is not motivated to conclude the divorce. He won’t budge on negotiations. Won’t give us more to live on, won’t buy me out. We are stalled. What action can I take?

My son is too young to be left alone, he is legally blind (which brings with it a whole set of logistic challenges) and my parents are too old to take care of him. While I am working to build my piano teaching studio and gleaning some income from that, I am unable to take a typical day job, as my son needs me at this age. My current attorney advised that the judge will not increase my support by much – especially if it appears I’m not actively looking for work. As my attorney sees it, teaching piano lessons does not constitute a ‘real’ job in the court’s eyes. Is this so? I have not yet appeared in court personally as I haven’t the money to travel. Might it help me to attend a hearing in person?

My husband made over $110K a year three years ago, but now shows $80K on paper. He is able to declare what he chooses, and on paper he now shows to be making far less than I believe he makes. I have touring itineraries, articles and interviews which show he does at least 200 dates a year – and yet my attorney does not feel this is viable evidence in support of his income. Is this so? His first illegitimate child is potentially owed $850 a month in support, while our son and I together are receiving less than that for all our living expenses. How can this be legal?

I invested $66K of my own money in our first home 23 years ago and now want him to buy me out. While he agrees in principle to paying me back, he says he can’t, as he’s unable. (Anecdotally I offer that he is an only child of wealthy parents who could easily co-sign on a loan in order to buy me out. He is able.) He is just unwilling. If left to the court, the judge would order sale of our properties, yet due to the market, they are currently worth less than the purchase price – so that’s a dead end. What can I do?

I am fast losing faith in the system. Can justice come only to those who can afford it? I hope someone can prove otherwise. If anyone can recommend any positive action I might take, I welcome suggestions.