The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Ganga’s Bones (or Death in Three Parts) June 7, 2021

Part I

I have a dear friend who is dying.

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.

Part II

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.

Part III

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.

Ganga (Ingrid Hedley) Stone, October 30th, 1941 – June 2nd, 2021

 

Losing Martha May 25, 2015

IMG_1392Martha Ward Carver and husband Francis Carver. He was a talented musician, and in 1947, at the age of 24,  he was the youngest ever conductor of the United States Marine Band. Martha recalled taking me to hear “Johnny Denver” at SPAC when I was young, as Frank had played flute in the orchestra. She also recalled bringing her whiskey sour along in a peanut butter jar. I love the stories that are being retold in this final chapter. People come and go, but stories live on. A consolation for our hearts as we prepare for goodbye.

______________________________________

This is a first. I’m not writing this post from my favorite chair, but rather writing this in Martha’s kitchen, while she lies in bed, waiting for me. Or Mike. Or whomever it is that will come to help her get up and going. The night nurse just left, and she went over the instructions for Martha’s care. I suppose I get it, but I’m stalling. Cuz I don’t want to go there. I know it doesn’t matter in the end, and I’m making too big a deal of it, but still… I am not looking forward to helping her with a bedpan, to wiping her, to dressing her, hoisting her and getting her to sit upright, and then, finally, into her transport chair. I don’t want to see her old lady naked body, I don’t want to feel the vulnerability of a woman who, as of this very moment, still seems as indomitable – and formidable – as an Army sergeant. I don’t want to know her as a frail, ancient woman. On some level she’s acquiesced to her current station in life – still assuring us all “she doesn’t mind a little dirt”. That the ever-present grime and dust covering every surface in her home is there by choice, and not because she’s unable to tend to it. She assures us that a wet bed is tolerable. It doesn’t phase her, she says. All this is her way of maintaining control. And control is at the heart of the present issue: death is the one thing Martha cannot control. No matter what she says or doesn’t say, I know it’s got to be on her mind these days. She may be stubborn, but she’s not stupid.

___________________________________________________

Yesterday, when I sat through my first shift with her, I watched her in the long, silent moments, and wondered what she could possibly living for now. Mike had established his vineyard there, horses were happily grazing in the fields, the barn had been lovingly maintained, and all of it would one day be home to him and his family. Her affairs were in order, both legal and personal. She was now almost completely blind, hard of hearing, and paralyzed on one side from a stroke decades ago. She could no longer walk, or even stand on her own. What on earth was keeping her here? The only reason I could come up with was fear. Martha’s been a strong atheist all her life and feels that when it’s over here, it’s all just plain over. While I’ve known atheists to feel the same and face death with no fear – I think that the opposite could easily be possible too. She might well be petrified of not existing. Either way, me personally, I don’t see that there’s necessarily anything to fear. If there’s nothing beyond this existence – then what’s the difference? What the hell would you know? You’d be gone, after all. Kinda like going under for surgery – or even simply going to sleep. You’re gone, and you don’t even know it. And if the other scenario is true – if our awareness simply moves into another plane of existence filled with eternal peace and light and populated with those who’ve died before us – then that promises to be pretty awesome. So what’s the big deal? As long as you don’t fear being relegated to a fiery, eternal hell (which as an atheist is not an option), then what have you got to lose? Whether simply ceasing to be, or floating off through the ether in complete peace and love, as I see it, you stand only to gain from the experience. Either scenario seems like a pretty good deal to me. But this is not a conversation I’m brave enough to initiate with Martha. So instead, I watch and wonder, and wait…

Today is my second day with Martha. We made the choice for hospice and home care too recently to cover all the shifts this week (she must have 24/7 care now) – and this being Memorial Day weekend the shifts didn’t fill as easily as they might have otherwise. Thank goodness my son’s finally old enough to be left alone without too much concern. I told him that I’d likely have to be here tomorrow morning too. That disappointed him. He told me that our lazy breakfasts together were “kinda what made the weekends special”. While none of us really knows how long Martha will hang in here, we’re all pretty sure she’s got enough steam in her to last at least another month (her 89th birthday is July 17th. I suspect she’ll stick it out til then). So that means I’ll be here at the farm quite a bit in the near future; it’s likely our weekend breakfasts will be on hold for a while we wait this out. Because that’s exactly what we’re doing these days: we are literally waiting for Martha to die.

I’m sorry to be so blunt, but this time I honestly wish she’d just go. Even since yesterday she’s slowed. Not enough to prevent her from swearing like a sailor at me this morning when I took up my post, ripping her oxygen tube out and throwing it at me with her good arm. I didn’t take it personally. I knew she was still coming to terms with the idea that someone must always be with her. “You and your mother are hell-bent on controlling me” she yelled. I didn’t respond. This can’t be easy for her. She’s still as sharp as ever, so being prisoner in her ancient, non-responsive body has truly got to suck. I had tried unsuccessfully to sit her up, so by then there was nothing to do but wait until Michael arrived to help. She continued to hiss at me, but I didn’t respond. There would have been no point to it. I sat down and began looking through a dusty copy of “Yankee Expressions” while she continued to cuss and tell me all that I’d done to annoy her. “Elizabeth, how in hell do you push my buttons so?” she asked. I paused. “It’s a talent.” I replied. “Ha! That was a very good answer!” she bellowed. I was pretty sure I heard her smile.

Martha didn’t sleep well last night, and so she’s nodding off in her chair now. I too am finding this business of sitting around and doing nothing all day is a bit tiring, and while I’m getting good work done filing and organizing my many photographs, I’m getting sleepy too. Drives me nuts that it’s sunny and warm outside. Makes me sad that it’s a holiday weekend, and I can’t be home with my son. But I scold myself as I remember that this is the woman who taught me how to read music. This is the woman who hosted me as a child through lambing season, the woman from whom I learned about haying, gardening, about interesting words and old-fashioned kitchen implements. Certainly she instilled in me a respect for the importance of knowing ones cardinal directions. When someone at the nursing home had recently asked what our relationship was, I offered that Martha was really my second mother. “Does that sound right to you?” I’d asked her, and she’d nodded. In my family we don’t speak very easily about our intimate feelings. So this alone was pretty big. Yeah, Martha’s had a lot to do with the person I am today, so I need to be here. There will be plenty of fine Spring days to come. This is where I need to be right now.

It helps that I’ve been through this process with my father. Now I’m familiar with some of the landmarks of the end days, and I keep an eye out for signs. But no matter how aware and ready one feels, it’s still a strange waiting game. Hard to grasp that this is a process a that awaits each and every last one of us. If I could have one wish for all of my companions on the planet, it would be for a swift and dignified demise, free of fear and pain, and in the company of those whom we love. Life is not for wimps. Neither, it seems, is death.

IMG_0988Mike, Martha’s favorite person in the world, checks in to see how she’s doing. This guy has so much on his plate – a family, a new job, a vineyard – and Martha. He’s handling it all so well.

IMG_0971Martha always enjoys hearing “Simple Gifts”.

IMG_1005Martha’s hound dog Masie runs to join Elihu as he visits with the horses. I did the very same thing as a child – and the fields look very much the same now as they did back then. Even the apple tree in the field remains. There’s a poignant quality to the afternoon light over the field, but yet at the same time there’s a hopeful feeling here too. The farm existed long before all of us were here, and it will likely continue on long after we’re gone.

________________________________________________

Post Script: Elihu often enjoys hearing me read the posts aloud before I publish them; in fact he’s offered many helpful and insightful editorial suggestions over the years which I’ve used and very much appreciated. Today, however, when I read this to him, he responded angrily. He was aghast that I spoke like this about Martha. He felt strongly that I shouldn’t publish such writing. I never discount his feelings, and in fact I’m sure that if he feels like this, so too do others. So I apologize if this post is distasteful to some. I hope you’ll understand that I feel it’s imperative to write with as much honesty as possible. I also feel strongly that many of us here in the US need to learn how to talk about death far more openly and comfortably than we do at present.

 

Lining Up April 19, 2015

Every time I hear someone refer to the ‘circle of life’ I cringe. Because I don’t think of life a a circle at all. Seasons, migratory and mating patterns might be cyclical in nature, but our tiny private lives are not. To my thinking the circle idea is just plain wrong. If this were a circle we were in, we’d end up at the place where we started, and we’d do it all over again. (For the sake of this conversation, let’s not concern ourselves with the afterlife – I’m just talkin worldly stuff here.) People are fond of explaining away the death of a pet to their little ones by saying that ‘it’s all part of the circle of life’. I think it might be better to tell the child that every living thing in the world dies. Life always comes to an end. Yes, it can be sad, but it happens to all of us. When I hear someone say ‘circle’, I kind of expect things to start all over again. And in a way they do – only the subsequent rounds are played with a new cast in brand-new situations. There may be similarities in old and new events – but still, that doesn’t make the whole play a circle. It’s still just a trajectory of actions moving into the future. The way I see my life here on this mortal coil – it’s a line. You start at the beginning, and you proceed through all sorts of events until you reach the end. And if you’re successful, you make it to old age. Then you die. You travel from point A to point B, making a line. Not a circle.

The eighth graders are doing the Lion King for their class play, and I’m playing piano. One of the most popular songs from the play is, of course, the ‘Circle of Life’. I’ve become a bit more immune to the expression due to the number of times I’ve now heard it, but as I listen I can’t help but reflect more deeply on the transient nature of our brief lives here on the planet. Yesterday Elihu and I attended the funeral of one of Greenfield’s old-timers, and today we’ll go to a birthday party of two wee ones. Life and death side by side like this make me more keenly aware of this finite timeline we’re all living, and how important it is to live with intention and gratitude as we go along. Our sense of time may slow or speed up depending on our age and our circumstances, but at the end of the day, when it’s time to say goodbye forever, it always seems as if life wasn’t quite long enough – even when it was. I’m sure that Olga, at 94, felt it had been long enough. And I never worry about those who’ve died. All those prayers for the dead strike me as just plain useless and beside the point. I’m not worried about them; it’s those of us left behind who need the prayers. Those of us who are left behind to bear the heartache and loss have a much harder job by far than the ones who are dead and gone. Those of us whose lines are still being drawn, those whose ending points are still somewhere over the distant horizon…

IMG_7482Elihu had never been to a funeral before, so I thought it would be a good life experience for him to have. We didn’t know Olga well, but she was our neighbor and it felt good to know she was always there. Her passing truly marks the end of an era here in Greenfield.

IMG_7485As soon as we walked in we saw the Carrico clan… they live across the big field, and a couple houses over from Olga.

IMG_7509Elihu loves little kids, and we’re so glad to have these wonderful girls as neighbors.

IMG_7496Stephanie’s belly is more like a circle than a line for sure! She’s coming along with mystery baby number four!

IMG_7488Inside, Elihu marvels over the changes that happen in a long lifetime.

IMG_7492Olga, young and old.

IMG_7489It’s nice to see smiles on such a say day.

IMG_7519The funeral procession makes a long line up Lake Ave.

IMG_7521After Catholic Mass at the local church, the family brings Olga to her final resting place in the town cemetery. Elihu had also never been to a church service like this – while it was in reality about forty-five minutes, he could’ve sworn it was three hours. ! Talk about experiencing time differently! (I so get it though.)

IMG_7545It was a lovely day, a lovely service, a lovely goodbye.

IMG_7552The line between the cemetery and the field seems to stretch on forever….

 

Three Days Left October 30, 2014

A young woman will end her life this weekend. Her name is Brittany, and I’m incredibly grateful to her.

Some of my friends know this about me – and certainly my son knows it better than anyone – that if I am ever faced with a terminal illness, I intend to make the choice whether to let the disease take me – or whether I will choose to take my own life first. Likely, I’d opt to leave before my quality of life declined to such a point that it was creating unnecessary discomfort and distress – in me or my loved ones. I’ve been adamant about this for a long time now, and after being present for my father’s death last year, I began to think more deeply on the subject. Caught up as I’ve been – as we all are – in the micro details of my ongoing life, I hadn’t thought much on the subject for a while. Until last week.

I very seldom pick up a People Magazine, but when I saw the headline, I had no choice. I had to know this woman, to know her name, have her picture in my mind, I had to know her story… Yes, it was about her, but it also involved those who loved her, too. I couldn’t avoid the big question – what about her mother? I am a mother, and I cannot fathom what it would be to live this nightmare; to know that you must support your child in their choice to end their own life. Such an excruciating paradox; the height of love’s expression: to let your child go as an act of compassion. How, I wondered, even long after I’d read and re-read the article, was this all going to work? I myself now have the experience of holding a family member’s hand as he died, but that was far different. It was his time. We were ready. How in hell can any of her family or dear friends be ready for such a thing? It’s beyond my comprehension. It’s beyond the comprehension of us as a society. For now, at least. It’s my great hope that it will not always be.

Maybe Brittany has begun a more public conversation about the choice to die issue than ever before, and maybe this time it’ll pick up momentum and blossom into a new awareness across our culture. Maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of a new era. Daily our planet wrestles with a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ dance over social constructs that in my opinion, should be old news and long in place by now. I feel as if we should be beyond all this pettiness by now and be done messing around with other people’s lives and trying to prevent them from making the choices they need to make, but in reality, I suppose we’re still only at the bottom few rungs of the ladder.

But even if it’s a slow progress, we are moving upward, and thanks to my hero Brittany, it’s front-page conversation at the moment. Because Brittany is a beautiful, intelligent, articulate and young woman, she makes the issue relatable and relevant to a whole new population for whom this subject might previously have been as irrelevant as discussions on Medicare benefits. I mean it’s one thing if we’re talking about your grandma who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s after eighty good years, but it sheds an entirely new light on things when you’re discussing death by choice with a twenty-something.

There’s nothing more to be said now. Only three days are left in which her mother may hear her voice, in which her husband may hold her hand, in which her friends may sit by her side. How will Brittany’s innermost thoughts change in the final hours? What on earth is that experience like? Has fear gone completely – or does it ebb and flow? How brave she is to go where few have gone, and from where none can report back. But truthfully, I’m not so worried about her. She’ll be fine. It’s those she leaves behind that have a longer and harder road ahead. Strength to all of you. I send you my love and most supportive energy. There are thousands of us thinking of your family right now, and if we could share the burden of your heartbreak, we would. And thank you so very much, Brittany. I pray for your smooth and peaceful transition. Hope to meet you on the other side someday.

Brittany ended her life yesterday, November 1st, 2014, with her family and loved ones beside her. 

 

Curve Ahead July 31, 2014

Where to start? The cast of characters is growing, from Log Cabin Joe to Hillbilly Al and a handful in between, and the sub-plots are multiplying. A house is being built to the great heartbreak of all who live nearby, another beloved house which we all had hoped might stand is going to be torn down, people will be moving in, and people will be moving away. A ghostly visage was spotted, serendipity threw in a few hard turns, neighbors popped by unannounced and set to framing out a new step in front of my house (because I’d asked to borrow some scrap lumber to do so for myself), and a potential blind date turned into a new and interesting friendship. Neighbor Chad, a former professional speed skater and dad to those cutie boys Ryan and Brandon, faces surgery to repair a torn ligament he got from falling out of a tree while deer hunting last year, my new met-on-an-almost-blind-date-but-not-quite friend must wear a heart monitor for another week and remain in the company of people at all times, lest he pass out while alone, with no one to call for help (hence his staying on as my house guest.) A couple more art classes to go at the Studio, some concrete being poured and set, a wall going up in the basement, the lawn to be cut and a coop door yet to be hung, the various comings-and-goings that all of this activity entails, including the requisite gear; earth movers, spinning concrete trucks, tractors, trimmers, boxes of tile, great, heavy balls of clay, five gallon buckets and rags to clean up… All of this is chugging along, plus a small group of family and friends is planning for an intervention with my brother at the beginning of next week. A few days later, Elihu comes home. Whew!

The past three days have seemed almost like a week with all the chaos and activity. My guest, Ken, erupted in laughter at it all (as I casually pulled a dead mouse out of a drawer, dumped it into the trash and continued to start the morning coffee without missing a beat), just imagining the highly entertaining cable series he absolutely insists my life should be. “I’m just wondering where we should put the camera” he’d said, smiling, shaking his head… I’ts not often that friends get a view from the inside here at the Hillhouse. Yeah, I’ve had guests before, but somehow life here has never been quite as animated and unpredictable as it has of late.

Night before last, as Ken and I sat on the couch enjoying a rather deep, existential discussion, I saw behind him, approaching from the kitchen and through the short hallway, a rather healthy-sized bat. Living in the country as I do, you might think this has happened before. And indeed it has happened in every other place I’ve lived – but not here. Until the other night, that is. I was watching with great concern that the poor beast not knock over some precious breakable as she continued to encircle the room, but soon realized that this creature was deftly missing – with room to spare – every obstacle in her path. I was impressed! My friend, himself a pilot, must surely have been sharing my amazement… maybe…. I glanced over at the couch. Ken was clearly not bearing respectful witness to the miracle of flight taking place right before our eyes… Humor me if you will; picture a black Mr. Clean; tall, built; a take-no-prisoners kind of physique that lends itself well to the military and police work (he’s retired from some twenty years of exactly that) – and now picture that same gentleman covering his face with my over-sized pink velvet throw pillow, ducking down and shrieking like a girl every time the bat made another pass around the room. One had to laugh. Thankfully, he had to laugh too. We both did. I admit, that lil creature was movin fast, and to us it felt like a random, unpredictable flight that might easily have ended up in someone’s face. I was finally able to catch her by trapping her in between two frog nets, but then she hooked her way out, and flew off to the mudroom. The door to the mudroom remained closed, while the backdoor to the outside stayed wide open. My second house guest eventually left and did not return. So far as we know.

And there was the apparition. And the change in my route. Why had I chosen to double-back and take Locust Grove instead of 9N as I’d intended? Having just given Ken a brief history of my folks and the Baroque festival, I figured I’d use my mistake as an opportunity to point out soprano Ruth Lakeway’s empty house. When we crested the hill and I indicated the house, Ken told me he saw a woman in the porch. I gave him a look. “White hair, lavender colored, long sleeved top” he said. “Wait, you’re not shitting me?” I asked, in almost a panic. He insisted that as an officer of the law – not to mention an artist who painted and drew landscapes, people and animals, he was trained in observation. He knew what he’d seen. That was enough for me; I turned around and made my way back to the house.

There were in fact people at the house. They emerged from the garage – on the other side of the house – when we pulled in. Still, none fit the description. It didn’t matter at this point, and it was soon forgotten as I re-acquainted myself with the new owners, who were in the middle of a project. They were removing items from the house, preparing it. I kinda knew what was coming next. It was known that the house had done nothing but take on water since Ruthie’s death eight years ago, and that the mildew and moisture had finally won. Although the woman who now owned it had known and loved Ruth as I had, and had herself dreamed of one day living in the sweet house, it would never come to be. The house now had to be torn down. I looked at Karen to see if this was the truth, and her eyes teared up. She insisted they’d had every manner of professional opinion on the matter. It was coming down. I made no attempt to be stoic… I began to cry. It was clear that she was just as heartbroken as I was. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my grief.

In her day Ruthie had created a wide sphere of influence through her loving presence in the community and her unique, gentle demeanor. With no husband or children of her own, she had given her time and energy to her church, her voice students and so many more. This house was for me a sacred place, as it was to many others as well. I marveled over our being there, in that moment. Over the circumstances. Had I not made the ‘mistake’ of driving down her road, had Ken not spotted that visage in the porch – I wouldn’t have known this was happening. I wouldn’t have been able to take the lamp from her back porch so that I might use it in mine, I wouldn’t have been able to remove Ruth’s windchimes and then hang them on my own porch in remembrance of her. Did Ken see Ruth? Yes, I believe so. I believe she was helping as best she could to gather me into this event of closure. As we all stood on the front lawn, talking and comparing stories, Ken told them what he’d seen earlier. The consensus seemed to be that this was all meant to be, we had all found our ways there in order for this to happen. There were tears, hugs, prayers and goodbyes. And for me, there was gratitude.

From the insane to the mundane, the silly to the serious, it’s been a crazy mix of life here lately, and yet the next week may hold still more… Mom has finally come around to understanding that Andrew will never, ever get better on his own (yes, we’ve been here before, but I feel this time it’s different) and she can begin to see that he has only good things to gain by taking part in a detox and rehab program, and he has only potential danger and harm if he doesn’t. Plus this heaven-sent former cop of a friend has brought to our attention how devastating it could be should a civil case ever be made against Andrew in the event of an alcohol-related death. This is some serious shit, and although I’ve been making my case for several years now, it’s taken this financial threat to bring it home. That, and a little magical aligning of the stars. We’ve got a great family drama scene on deck, and I’m eager to finally see it through to its conclusion. Which will in of itself be but a beginning to a whole new chapter…

I checked in with Waldorf today, and it seems I’m just about off the hook. They’ve covered nearly every class except for a day or two of the high school. There’s a slight chance they might need me to cover for a bit, but it doesn’t appear that it’ll pose a conflict with my new work at the Studio. This is beyond my wildest dreams, and the feeling of freedom and possibility has me a little giddy. It’s almost like I have too much oxegyn, too much space, too many options, too much opportunity. My unexpected house guest and the little surprise detours of late have stalled my progress for the time being, but it doesn’t worry me. We’re approaching a Great Change. Middle School for Elihu, and with it all the changes of pre-teen life. A new situation for my mom and brother, a new career for me, a new house in the neighborhood, two new families moving in, one moving out. A parking lot going in the woods for the Studio along with a network of roads into the forest, a new heating system and myriad other upgrades. Networking, meeting people and growing programs, seeing plans become real…. I’m at the cusp of a whole new chapter in my life. I’ve been riding it out on a long, slow straightaway for the past few years, and finally now I see a big curve up ahead.

Breathe in, hands at ten and two… I’ll give it just a little more gas, and we’ll be taking that turn before we know it.

 

 

Tiny Trip June 22, 2014

I don’t get out much these days, but I did get out yesterday for what I’d thought would be a fairly straightforward overnight visit with an old friend from my elementary school days in Chicago, and who now lives in mid-state Vermont. It was a short trip, but densely packed with new and memorable experiences.

My childhood pal is moving across the country to the Seattle metro area. She’s lived here in the Northeast for three years and I haven’t yet been to see her (she and her family have, however, been to visit me). It’s hard to believe that it was only yesterday morning that I was throwing a toothbrush and a favorite pillow into a bag and hitting the road. It feels like I’ve been gone a week. My head is full of images, my heart is heavy with a final, impromtu stop I made on the way back, and I’m saddened to learn that shortly before I returned home this evening we lost Amity, our last pure white hen from the old flock. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now, siting here in my cozy chair in something of a daze; post gin and tonic, post review of new photos, post whirlwind tour of historic Vermont, post the loss of one more hen. And although I may feel uncertain about many things in life, there is one thing I do know for certain: I love being home. And after having just seen a thousand different ways to live, having a head swirling with images, places and possibilities – and even loss – I know one thing for certain, that I need none of it right now, thank you. I’m relieved at the peace of being still and doing nothing at all. I’m more than happy to be back.

Once again, some time away has given me the experience of seeing my own corner of the world through brand new eyes. And I remember again how much this place means to me. I’d rather look out at the distant mountains of Vermont than live in between them. I like to assess it all from afar, nestled as I am here in my small, hillside niche in the woods. I have just the right amount of sky and trees, and just the right amount of house, both which give me more joy than they had just the day before yesterday. A day trip is a lovely experience in of itself, and it’s also a healthy way to help remind one just how blessed a thing is home.

IMG_6785The road as I start out… Vermont has always seemed idyllic and just out of reach; now I mean to examine these once-distant hills more closely.

IMG_6835This shot is uncharacteristically ‘un-claustraphobic’ of the Vermont byways; the roads almost all run parallel to the many rivers that run in the valleys between impassable mountain ranges. Usually one is in the woods, under cover of endless pines, a stony river bed close to one side. This is what makes travel through the state either extremely tedious or a journey of great beauty and mystery, depending on how urgently you may want to get somewhere. I always start out intrigued, but after a couple of hours of meandering alongside a shallow river in the deep woods I can get a little short of patience.

IMG_6829There’s precious little flat land in between the hills, but farmers find and use what they can.

IMG_6853After driving two and a half hours on two lane roads, at last I’ve arrived at Dina’s house. The small town of Randolph is a mere stone’s throw down the road.

IMG_6892First things first; lunch at ‘Wright at Home’, an even closer stone’s throw from the center of town.

IMG_6891Chatting with the locals…

IMG_6890The kitchen is in full view of the dining room. Cute, sarcastic and vintage signage decorates the place.

IMG_6885Dina’s son Sam figures out how to use my fan (given to me by another classmate from our elementary school who spent the past year in Spain).

IMG_6873This cutie is Thomas, the younger of Dina’s two sons.

IMG_6869Small town action! The local hippie artist has a mild run-in with the town cops.

IMG_6894We walk back up the hill after lunch. Nice place, huh?

IMG_6851Sam stands in the doorway of the carriage house-turned apartment unit.

IMG_6854Earnest, the boy’s dad, made a catapult for them. When I left it was still on the front lawn for anyone to take. It could be yours…

IMG_6917Dina and her friends enjoy one last soccer game before she moves…

IMG_6906While the women play a game I go investigate a nearby river behind the athletic field. Spied several species of birds and enjoyed some time also doing nothing at all but enjoying the perfect breeze and the gentle sound of moving water.

IMG_6926I took a walk around the field and learned the name of the high school mascots.

IMG_6937The gals at game’s end.

IMG_6941The town’s high school class is graduating tonight under this tent in the same field, so we go to pay a visit. Dina and a friend wave to each other under a gloriously-clouded sky.

IMG_6947Ah, the good old U S of A.

IMG_6974The band gets ready. Love that sousaphone.

IMG_6980Dina knows a lot of people here in this small town. Turns out our visit is a perfect opportunity for her to say goodbye to many friends.

IMG_6994The graduating class and their teachers line up for the processional.

IMG_6997Families await the graduates.

IMG_7018Elihu will get a kick out of this kid’s cap.

A little window into the moment.

IMG_7039Dina says good-bye to Tom, a local cop.

IMG_7043Main Street, early evening.

IMG_7055Looking North, towards the ice cream shop, a favorite of locals. I myself don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but highly recommend both the ‘maple creamee’ soft serve and ‘coconut crunch’ hard ice cream.

IMG_7064A taxidermied white panther in the window of the local barber shop. When I was small, I’d heard stories about black panthers still living in areas not far from my current home, but never of white ones. Today, panthers are extremely rare, but thankfully their smaller cousins the bobcats can still be found in the woods around the Northeastern US.

IMG_7062A wonderful and successful addition to Randolph’s downtown, restaurant One Main offers an enticing menu and a casual yet upscale vibe for locals to enjoy. Send an energetic gift of good thoughts to owner Shane, as he faces some health challenges at the moment. Seldom met anyone so radiant and positive, I’m sure he has a successful future ahead of him.

IMG_7063But like in so many small towns, keeping it alive and vital is an ongoing challenge.

IMG_7059Every building in this town is picture-perfect, like something from a set. This is the train depot. You can catch a train here and be in New York City in five hours.

IMG_7067Plus there’s a movie theater – with first run films. Love that awning!

IMG_7070We visit a neighbor’s house for dinner – Earnest, Dina and hostess Phyllis seen here in what I think is probably the most inviting, homey kitchen I’ve ever been in.

IMG_7074At the dinner table in this landmark Victorian house. Hosts Phyllis and Richard are on either end, and we’re joined by Earnest and Dina’s two sons, two neighbor kids and one of the hosts’ twin daughters. I have not sat at a table with so many people in probably twenty years. One of the most enjoyable dinners in just as long, too.

IMG_7100Captain lives in this beautiful house too; she may be the world’s only one-eyed Bernese Mountain dog.

IMG_7083This house is known as “Mari Castle”, and it was built by a speech writer for Abraham Lincoln and named for his wife. And if you might be interested in living in this gorgeous gem of a house, it’s for sale! A beautiful coach house and small chapel-made-office building are also on the property.

IMG_7125Here’s a photo postcard of the place from years ago…

IMG_7128…and here’s a picture that Dina took of the place in winter.

IMG_7103The coach house and neighboring mid-century chapel.

IMG_7069Some readers may know my love of things mid-century. This was the first building to catch my eye as I drove into town. My heart skips a beat when I see such a roof line. I’m not kidding.

IMG_7121The main doorway.

IMG_7110The stunning original wood arches inside. It was difficult for me to see the interior so altered from its original beauty.

IMG_7116The same arches as seen from the second floor. Even though it pained me to see the place so transformed (into a doctor’s office), I gotta say they did a tasteful job of it.

IMG_7085At three in the morning, Dina and family get loaded into the car to drive to Logan airport. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t taken any photo of me and my friend of 45 years, hence my last-minute selfie (and disheveled appearance). I’m amazed I’m old enough to have known someone this long. Wow.

IMG_7142Like me, this fellow stops to gas up on Main Street before heading out (note the barber shop in the background).

IMG_7145Virtually all Vermont towns are situated alongside a river.

IMG_7155Kayakers wave hello as I shout a greeting to them.

IMG_7189Even in the fairly populated city of Rutland the mountains beckon from beyond the utility poles and roofs… What a sky, huh? I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day to travel.

IMG_7164This trip, I decide to visit the mountain settlement of Killington. When I was small it was a modest and barely developed ski area. Now it’s a ritzy destination. Kinda reminds me of an American version of Zermatt, Switzerland.

IMG_7181The view up…

IMG_7166…and the means by which one gets there.

IMG_7168It’s just not possible to convey the feeling of being atop such a mountain; this photo doesn’t come even close. Those who ski (a population of which I am regrettably not a member) will know exactly what that is. So will those who hike and climb mountains. It’s the most expansive, exhilarating feeling. Also, in my case, it can inspire sudden bouts of panic. This didn’t happen to me in my younger years; I hope to discover a way to mitigate such altitude-related episodes, as they really suck and I can see them eliminating future adventures.

IMG_7204I continue South, down historic route 7, past Manchester’s famous Equinox hotel.

IMG_7210Had to stop when I saw this place.

IMG_7212Chickens everywhere.

IMG_7213If only I could afford one of em. Played the ‘hey, I’m an artist too’ card, but no go. Wouldn’t even consider the slightest mark down. I was seriously interested, but he seriously didn’t care. Ah well.

IMG_7208Onward I go, still heading South. I pass another farmer, doing things old school. One just doesn’t see those huge machines the way one does in the Midwest, where fields go uninterrupted for miles. Life here in Vermont has a gentler, more organic feel.

IMG_7195I saw these two fellows dressed in such odd-looking garb that I just had to stop and ask them what they were about. Daniel, left, and spokesman Michele, right, tell me they are cave enthusiasts, here from Montreal for the wonderful underground cavities unique to this region. Lots of white marble comes from this area too. Here, Michele writes down some sites I can visit to learn more. Tonight they are celebrating the birthday of a fellow caver by descending 140 vertical feet into a cave and sharing a glass of champagne at the bottom. !!

IMG_7197Off they go…

IMG_7220My ultimate destination en route home has been in the back of my mind all afternoon. I’m headed for Bennington. It’s the burial-place of poet Robert Frost, and the town in which my father, harpsichordist Robert Conant, was cremated. I need to see the place in order to give myself some closure. This obelisk is a monument to Revolutionary War soldiers which sits at the far end of Main Street, up the hill. The funeral home where dad was cremated is off frame and to the left, at the other end of Main Street.

IMG_7221Within a short time I’m at the base of the monument.

IMG_7223Here’s the church behind which Mr. Frost is buried. He himself did not belong to a church, but said if he were to have, it would have been the Congregational Church. His gravestone is the only one in the cemetery to face East instead of West.

IMG_7224Some ancient headstones just next to the Congregational Church.

IMG_7237The view of mountains to the East.

IMG_7227The signs that show the way are many and the effect is comical.

IMG_7229Here’s the Frost family plot. The center marks the poet, his wife and five children, the far one his grandchildren (one of whom is still living) and the marker in the foreground is completely empty. ! That’s thinking ahead, huh?

IMG_7231Here’s his famous epitaph; “I Had A Lover’s Quarrel With The World”.  I placed the small, white stone in between that line and ‘his wife’ on the line below.  Like hers too: “Together Wing to Wing And Oar To Oar”

IMG_7240Leaving the cemetery, the light is especially magical.

IMG_7246This next step is kind of surreal for me. Might be for you too. Get ready to see a side of life – or death, rather – that none of us ever really thinks much about until the choices are directly in front of us and ours alone to make. Even then we tend to think of it as some far-off, unreal sort of process that somehow doesn’t ever really happen, especially not to our beloveds. Cremation happens, and it has to happen somewhere. In this case, it’s on Main Street behind a cheerful looking house.

IMG_7247I walk around to the back. I’m ready, I guess…

IMG_7267It’s strange to see this for myself. The doors on the right are the last ones my father passed through looking as I knew him. My heart stops for a second when I recognize the facility for what it really is.

IMG_7250How bizarre it seems… That after such a marvelous, accomplished life, a body becomes merely something that must be gotten rid of somehow. And here it is. No pomp or circumstance to it, really. It’s just a super-powerful oven.

IMG_7256How mundane it looks, I think to myself – and in a way, it’s almost funny. The final end of my father in the un-glamorous back-end of a building with a wheel barrow and garden tools stashed behind. It makes me smile even. I wonder if dad too is seeing how hard it is to grasp for the earth-bound soul.

IMG_7251This is where my father’s physical matter met again with the world of its creation… And this is where I begin to cry. Please forgive me the next image; I realize for some it may be too much, but for me it’s the very reason I’ve driven so far today. I need to understand more completely what this process was. I remind myself the whole time that this happens thousands of time every day, in every single corner of the world. Most of us will never care to see it for ourselves, but some of us, whether we dare to express it aloud or not, may find ourselves unsettled until we see it with our own eyes…

IMG_7260The last place where hundreds of people’s loved ones – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – have entered in bodily form. I look in the window in something of a trance. How can this be? I wonder over and over to myself. What an illusion we create and sustain for ourselves all life long that we shall ever be as we are now. We aren’t even as we were last year, or even yesterday for that matter. We weren’t even around one hundred years ago, and we won’t be here one hundred years hence. We know all this. So why is this idea of burning the bodies of our loved ones – and seeing the very sentence itself in print and the photo of the place in which it happens – so unthinkable? Why? If my father were here, he’d put his arms around me and tell me not to be sad, not to concern myself with the loss of his body. I know it. And I also feel very strongly that he still exists very close by, like a person on the other side of a one-way mirror, and he smiles at me and lovingly wishes I wouldn’t trouble myself so. But then again, I can’t help myself. I’m still on this side of the mirror, and no matter how hard I try to expand my consciousness on the matter, I just can’t. This feels creepy. It feels sad. But somehow, it does help.

IMG_7277I return to my car and see a tattooed dad and his family pass by the funeral home on a summer night’s stroll. Life keeps on goin.

IMG_7278Ok, for some this will undoubtedly be too far… I wanted something local to bring home from my trip, and this mom and pop store was across the street. It was here that I picked up some cheese and smoked meat; it was impossible for me to overlook the Monty Python-esque humor in it. I can promise you dad would have laughed too.

IMG_7304I’m headed home now. I pass the marble-enfused rocks of Vermont on highway 7 as I head North.

IMG_7287I’m a bit emotionally spent by now. Got lost a few times (in a region divided by vertical, North-South mountain ranges it’s not a simple thing to get from East to West) and by now had had it with winding, two lane roads and picturesque New England villages.

IMG_7294One more Vermont vista…

IMG_7301… and then New York again, at last. I love a trip, but truly, there’s no place like home.

 

 

Beautiful January January 18, 2014

At first, it’s just another dark morning. Your mind, for the briefest second, is blank. You are in neutral, the commitments of the day haven’t come to you yet and the lack of light in the room offers you no clues. For a moment you hang there, out of time and place. But after a short window of nothingness, you remember again. And that dull, sick sort of feeling comes back into your body. In sleep there’d been relief and forgetting, but upon waking, you return to your new reality. Crap. Yeah, that’s right. I remember now. I recognize that strange thud in my gut. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Dad is gone. 

I tempt myself with possible regrets, but I try to ignore them. No point to it. I lie there in bed for a few minutes, digesting it all again for the umpteenth time. It’s not so bad, really, I suppose, I think to myself. A lovely end to a good, long life. I shouldn’t be so goddam nostalgic. It’s old news by now. But yet I still count the days. Three weeks and a day since he died. It’s not acute, but it’s still heartbreaking in a quiet, inward sort of way. As I lie in bed, I go over the last few weeks with dad, those final days. I remind myself of the peaceful and gentle nature of his passing. I remind myself how lucky we were to be with him. Then I relax just a bit. I collect myself, make a short inventory of the day to come, and take a breath. Then after another moment I get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen.

The last couple of days it has been snowy here. Not just snowy, but that most gorgeous of all kinds of snow – the puffy, sparkly kind that mounds itself high on each and every branch and twig, the kind that distills the entire landscape and all its earthly objects into a crisp, poetic vision of dark and light. In this world one can easily imagine what it is to see as my son does. There is virtually no color visible, yet the world is all the more breathtakingly beautiful because of it. I drove to town yesterday at half my usual speed, mouth agape, eyes scanning the whiteness above my head as I passed through the woods on a winding country road. Stunning, stunning, stunning. And behind it all, I hear in my head one of the last sentences I ever heard my father utter: “When beautiful January comes….” He’d said it with a smile on his face, in a happy, almost trance-like way. What on earth had he meant by this? His and mom’s birthday was on January 6th, but he certainly wasn’t going to make it til then. Did he mean his relief would finally come then? Did he mean that things would start anew? And if so, for whom? Although I’m pretty sure dad didn’t choose his words with all that context in mind, I do think that he, as was natural to his expressive and artistic nature, was trying to convey a certain feeling, an impression… What I’d felt in that moment was that he looked to the future – ours and his – as a happy, natural progression of things. That life, here or there, was a thing of beauty and wonder.

Driving through the almost surreal snowscape, I repeat dad’s words over and over to myself. When beautiful January comes… I think of all the things that a new year brings. I think about the beauty of winter, even in its starkness and cold. The possibility that awaits… I begin to give my father’s words all sorts of meanings, none perhaps intended, but all of them little insights nonetheless. We will begin our lives anew in this beautiful month, we will learn a new way to be on this earth. We will see new challenges, we will find new ways to meet them… We will see the world in a new way, we will consider things never before considered… Somehow, we will come to know that everything will all be ok. Somehow, someday soon, all this will come to be.

As I mull over all the possible interpretations of my father’s words, a memory comes to me. It was New Year’s day, many years ago. It was a gray and snowy day like it is now when I’d walked in the woods and heard the music. If I hadn’t experienced it for myself I never, ever would have believed it. But I heard it; the purest tone I’d ever known (Bells? no, voices? no, horns? no… A sine wave of some sort, yes, but what it was that created the sound was ever-undefinable). It was contrapuntal, perfect, gorgeous. And if I were to try and define it, given what I know of music, I’d say it was closest to Bach. I’d heard the music – from no fixed point that I could identify but rather from all points surrounding me – in the woods very close to, and perhaps on the very spot where my parent’s house is located today. Back then, the house was hardly a dream. I consider that it might possibly have been a real-world foreshadowing of sorts, pointing to the events that would one day take place there. I think of my father, and wonder if maybe, just maybe, I’d been standing on the very spot where he would die some thirty years later. Nothing to do but wonder…

Wonder is all I can take from my experiences. Hearing my father speak shortly before he passed, I truly do know and understand that when one departs from this existence, there is another experience awaiting us. I don’t begin to suggest that I understand what our roles become then, nor where it is that this place exists, or how it intersects with our known physical reality. I feel a bit like I’m going out on a limb here, because I know full well that not all my friends will agree with my thinking. Some might even write me off as being lost to reality. And I get that. I myself might have thought the same thing once upon a time. But just like hearing the otherwise unbelievable music as I did so many years ago, I have come to learn that there is a world that exists beyond our ability to measure and quantify. And while I still cannot know exactly what my father meant when he spoke those close-to-final enigmatic words, they inspire a tiny germ of hope that begins to grow inside…

Not much but time can offer me the solace I’d like to fully feel once again. But my dad himself has helped me just a little to move ahead into the life that awaits me with an open, expectant heart. Now that beautiful January has finally come.

 

One More Goodbye August 30, 2012

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal... — wingmother @ 12:57 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The husband of an old friend died last night. It had been years maybe since we’d talked in person, but she’d showed her love and support often on Facebook in response to my blog posts. I didn’t usually respond with much more than a thumbs up – a virtual nod of the head, an invisible wink of recognition across the vast space in between us. I knew she was going through a truly difficult time, and because of it I often felt guilty when I’d complain about my own situation in my posts. My life these days was so much easier than hers. She had a deep and frightening heartbreak looming on her horizon; her husband had been battling cancer for the past year. He was now in hospice. In spite of her upbeat demeanor, she knew what was coming next. I don’t know how they dealt with it – head on or voices hushed – but she was being stronger and more publicly stoic than I myself could have been. And in spite of all this, she was still witnessing the joy in the little things around her; only days ago she paid tribute to a spider web made in her bicycle wheel! Every time I’d see her name I’d say a small prayer for the family. I watched from afar. Nothing I could do. I couldn’t read what was going on inside; her mood seemed much the same as it had been the past year – hopeful, grateful, cautious. She’d done so much to cheer me through this nightmarish tour of divorce, I really felt I wanted to offer my friendship now. I didn’t want to email – I wanted to call. The old fashioned way. Her number was unlisted, so as I made my way through old boxes of date books and ancient to-do lists in my office, I was on the lookout for her number. I knew it was there somewhere, but I couldn’t find it.

Until tonight. Better late than never. The number looked familiar, and I dailed it. I got a recording. It told me the number no longer existed. Damn it. That was it. Nothing more to do. I just can’t email her right now, that just seems lame. And anyway, I really have no idea what kind of a place she’s in. Does she want to talk? Or just stay with family? Or take a pill and sleep a deep, forgetting slumber? God, I don’t know. I’m going to let it be. And just send her and the girls my love. Her husband? I myself believe he’s just fine. In fact, I’m relieved for him. It’s just the ones left behind I hurt for. What a heartbreaking planet this is.

It doesn’t matter how damned prepared you are – how well you know it intellectually that your dear one is dying – when that moment actually comes, it has got to turn your world upside down. I once experienced the death of a good friend, and it was like the breath had been sucked out of me. I walked around like a zombie for months. And he was a friend – he was not a partner, a spouse. I don’t know how that feels. I can’t imagine.

I pray that the girls can all find sleep tonight. I pray that the love they shared as a family helps sustain them during the difficult months to come. And dear Dennis, I’m so glad you don’t hurt anymore. Wish I’d known you better, but what I did know of you was kind and loving. You’ve been loved by friends and family – and that includes, of course, all of your beloved animals. I’ll bet that right now there are a whole bunch of furry creatures who are really happy to see you again!

Enjoy your peace. Goodbye for now…