The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Next January 1, 2015

IMG_2875Dad didn’t quite make it to 2014, and enigmatically, his few and final words to his grandson were: “When beautiful January comes….”  Last January we experienced unusually heavy snows and low temperatures, and dad’s Studio flooded and froze; both the floors and walls were ruined. It was a stunning and heartbreaking loss, but after a thoughtful reassessment of the situation, what followed was the beginning of an important, year-long process of re-birth… Was my father being prophetic or poetic?…. Who knows? Either way, January will always make me think of my father’s mysterious, near-final words which, intentional or not, heralded the way for the next chapter in our lives…

After having passed the first anniversary of my father’s death, I find myself thinking more about it than I have in months. It’s strange terrain now. There’s an inclination to feel that somehow he’s slipping further away, that somehow it’s slowly becoming more and more like he never existed at all… I know this isn’t really true, and if nothing else, I and my son are proof that he was here. And Elihu’s our insurance that his line will continue forth into the world… (Not that the planet actually needs more humans!) But why even think like this? Very few people on this earth will ultimately be remembered for the long haul. Most of us, except for the very slim part of the earth’s population that comes to know some true degree of fame, will indeed become forgotten after a while. After all, life moves on, and the void left behind naturally fills in with new creations, new endeavors… There are only so many stories one can pass down to the next generation, there is only so much time in which to tell them. Beyond a certain point, it just doesn’t make logistic sense that we’ll all be remembered by our descendants.

It gives my fragile ego a small amount of relief to think that now I’ve left behind a digital footprint, and that in some way I, my family and my life, will now never die… Perhaps in a century’s time my long-dormant blog will fall to the bottom of the searches, and it may ultimately come to languish in a virtual state of suspension, but still, it’ll be there, somewhere. To know that gives me the variety of comfort I imagine folks derive from erecting several tons of marble to mark their final resting place. When I lived in Chicago I was a fan of the city’s beautiful cemeteries, and it boggled my mind to ponder the immense amount of industry that went into their memorials. I would stand in the middle of a peaceful forest with headstones and statuary as far as the eye could see in every direction, the only sound being a soft hush of white noise from beyond the cemetery walls… In that peaceful, natural oasis it was hard to imagine the toil it must have taken to erect these monuments – let alone dig the holes in the middle of a frozen winter! I think of horse teams pulling great loads of stone, of the pulleys and levers, the carts, the wheels, the manpower… I imagine how loud and chaotic it must have been at one time. I imagine all the horrible job site injuries that must have happened; the crushed fingers, the sprained muscles and worse… All of this motivated by the need for men and women to memorialize themselves unto eternity. Really, doesn’t it all seem so silly, so vain? So futile?

Ok, so if burying one’s body in a cemetery and spending a chunk of your estate on a piece of granite to mark the site is a ridiculous notion – especially because without an accompanying bio and headshot, future passersby will have absolutely no idea what you were fabulous for and why we should even remember you – then what should one do with one’s own body? A good question. A question I’ve wondered at for years, but until my own father died, I never truly followed it through to a conclusion. There are no easy answers. Even for me, a gal who has not a fraction of a doubt that our souls continue on to another realm of existence after this flesh-and-bone school of life. I mean, I may not care what happens to me after I’m gone (I don’t worry about my body’s disposition in any way affecting my soul’s successful transit outta here), but thinking about it now is what’s hard. Either way, it’s just plain icky. Biological life is wet and smelly, and there’s no tidy way around it. Everyone knows this, of course, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty application of the concept, screw it. It does not help.

Having already muscled through the notion of my dear father’s body being scorched to ashes by a turbo-powered blow torch (and having visited the place and seen it with my own eyes as part of my process of closure; here’s a link to the post “Tiny Trip”, scroll down to the very end), I suppose one could say I’ve made some progress. Yes and no. And I like to think I’m pretty laid back about things. Again, yes and no. I’ve butchered chickens. I’ve tried to participate responsibly in death, bringing it swiftly, honoring the sacrifice of life. I’ve tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible about things. But it’s just so strange, this territory of a non-living body that once was a real, living person. It’s hard to reconcile those images. So in order to help myself do just that, I searched out – and found – a book on this exact subject. It’s called “Stiff” by Mary Roach, and I highly recommend reading it if you too would desperately like to demystify death and the culture of cadavers. The author is delightfully witty, and without her good humor it might be all to easy to simply shut the book before the end of the first chapter. (Even so I had to put it down every so often and take a break from it before resuming.) Still and all, I don’t know. I just don’t.

But Elihu does. Since he was quite small he’s known what he wants done with his body after he’s through using it. When we first began talking about death, burial and such, he would get very emotional about it – insisting that he wanted his own dead body to be taken into the forest and left for nature to take over. I explained that it would likely lead to a whole mess of legal trouble – that the people who laid him there to rest might even possibly end up in jail. This made him angry. It was surprising to see such a young child express such indignation. He found it fundamentally wrong that he and his family be forbidden from doing the most natural and correct thing possible. Whenever we found ourselves discussing it, he’d get very upset. Likely he now understands more clearly how small eighty acres is in actuality, and that barring a life on the Alaskan frontier, a burial in the family’s woods won’t be an option. But no matter, this kid is not worried. This, after all, is the same kid who scolds “it’s just a dead bird” when I wince upon pulling a frozen hen out of the chest freezer, wondering which gal it might have been… This is the kid who told his grandfather not to be afraid to die, because it was “just like turning the page in a book”. This is the kid whose last words to his grandpa were “See you shortly”. So thankfully I’m in good hands. I think I’ll leave it up to him. I just don’t want to know is all.

Do you know what thanatology is? Until a couple of hours ago I had never heard the word before. And that kinda surprises me, having conducted more than my fair share of searches on death and dying. (Here’s a link to a gal whose life’s work is all about death. If you have the time, the panel discussion is interesting, although it’s more theological than thanatological.) Thanatology is simply the scientific study of death. It deals with the forensic aspects of death – like those hard-to-think-about physical changes that occur in the post-mortem period. Plus thanatology also includes study of the social implications of death. Really? Such a thing exists? As well it should! There is only one thing we can absolutely count on in life, and that is our death. But even so, we so seldom talk about it directly and specifically… and that drives me nuts.

In re-reading the posts I wrote last year at this time, I’m fascinated to remember the tiny details of dad’s final days. I begin to see patterns – of course I’d read about them before my experience with dad, and I’m somewhat aware of the landmarks that one meets as one gets closer to death – but today I was able to see the whole process with so much more clarity. The events that I might have ever-so-slightly doubted the validity of last year – even while experiencing them for myself – I now know these to be real and universally recognized sign posts on the final path. It’s exciting to know that it’s not as mysterious as we might feel it to be… Last year, when I’d asked a nurse what exactly we were to be on the lookout for in dad’s final days, she gave me a short list. But then she added “I don’t think he’s there yet. He still has some transitioning to do.” What in hell did that mean? Just why such goddam cryptic language? At least I knew to be on the lookout for blue skin. But still, she left me guessing, and I didn’t appreciate it. So now between the local hospice volunteer training and this thanatology stuff, I might be closer to making peace with things one day. We’ll see.

Then after the bodily issues, there’s the tricky business of what comes next. I have known and loved some hard-and-fast atheists and agnostics in my life, and I’m absolutely fine with the idea that nothing at all comes next. The tidy nature of it does have its appeal. (Given the true definitions of those terms, I might be either one myself; I neither know unquestionably what I believe, nor do I believe there is one single creator, but rather a collective energy of awareness and love that permeates all. Another post, another time.) And for those who believe that we need to keep our bodies whole and pretty for the rapture – that’s cool too. (Only what about the plastic fillers, chemicals and wires used to keep folks pretty while they wait? Yeeks. Wouldn’t want to come back like that.) Ultimately, no one truly knows. But in my thinking I’m certain about the general gist of things. I used to worry about losing the respect of my dear friends for whom belief in an afterlife means you really aren’t as intelligent as you might once have seemed. Mech. And as for heaven or hell? As I see it, none of that exists. There is no good, no bad. Just a re-integration of our essence back into a loving non-space in which an assessment of our progress is made; a timeless, placeless ether in which to assimilate, learn and regroup in an atmosphere of acceptance and perfection.

Me, I think that our essence – the unquantifiable God spark that makes us us – transits out of this physical dimension and moves into that non-space ‘afterworld’ upon death. Like the signal from a station which your radio is not programmed to receive; it still exists, but you can no longer hear it. This all might even yet seem like so much fluffy conjecture if I hadn’t beheld my father beginning to ‘transition’ out of this world… There are some who might chalk it all up to a simple physiological process of the body breaking down, but I don’t. I watched as he was greeted by deceased family members, and listened through tear-filled eyes when he told me how much he missed his parents. Unknown to him, he followed form perfectly. He pointed to crowds of people in the corner of the room, “waiting on the curve” and asked me who they were (how honored I was that he could share his visions with me) and he said he was “in pleasure” as he watched them. I know now that he was in the middle of his process. By that time he was not altogether ‘living’ anymore. Like a radio station on I80 in the middle of hilly Pennsylvania, the signal was beginning to fade.

So I’m good with it. And not. I feel that dad is doing just fine where he is. It’s just me, mom and Andrew that have the rough road. Once, last year when I was missing dad as acutely as ever, I wondered out loud if dad was with me, if he knew about the Studio, if he approved of what I might do with the place…. Elihu was tired of my laments, and curtly told me that grandpa had “work to do” and it wasn’t fair to bother him with things that were now my business. “He can’t always be here with you, mommy. He’s got a lot of things to do.” I may have a wise kid, but still something inside tells me that outside of this time-space realm, the rules are different. If there is no such thing as locale, if ‘reality’ is as plastic and ethereal as our dreams, then I like to think dad is smiling, telling me it’s all fine, and that he’s right here with me when I need him to be.

But forward movement is required on this plane, so I can’t let my progress falter. Dad is where he is, and for the time being, I’m still right here. Nothing to do but keep going. Everything has happened as it should, and I’m striving to understand it the very best I can, so that I can move on with confidence toward whatever it is that will happen next on this great adventure.

 

Pause July 18, 2012

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal... — wingmother @ 12:44 pm
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It was Martha’s birthday yesterday. Even Elihu had almost lost track of how old she was. Day before yesterday she was once again admitted to the hospital, and although her condition had been reported the worst yet, when we went to visit her we found her very much on top of things, sitting upright in her chair and eating lunch, a birthday card and new African violet plant on the table beside her tray.

She was 86. She had been born in the hospital in Binghamton, New York, and although it seemed more than likely it was not an air conditioned place in 1926, I had to confirm it for myself. “Was it hot?” I asked her, unable to wrap my head around giving birth in a stuffy, un-air conditioned room in the middle of July. “My birthdays have always been on one of the hottest days of the year” she announced as she lifted the fork to her mouth. I watched the lone silver bracelet dangle from her arm as she spoke. I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t see Martha wearing that bangle. Guess she probably didn’t wear it while she was driving the tractor all those years ago. Maybe she wore it when she taught music at Skidmore. Where did it come from? Did her mother once wear it too? Did it sit inside the bedside table drawer at the Binghamton Hospital while her mother gave birth to her eighty-six years ago?

I pressed her for more details. All she knew about the day of her birth, besides that it was very hot, was that as her father turned to walk away down the hall from the delivery room the doctor had shouted after him to come back – and asked if he would mind helping. So he did. “I don’t know why the men weren’t allowed in the delivery rooms back then, but they weren’t. This was unusual” she informed us. Yes, I thought, this seemed like it would have been around the time when men – except the doctors of the patients themselves – were first officially shunned from the birthing rooms. (My mother told me that the ob/gyn doc who delivered me wasn’t even allowed in the room for the birth of his own child because he was a man! Absolutely insane.) So her dad had helped deliver her. This was something. And I wanted something – because I was increasingly aware that I needed to start collecting all the personal history I could from her now, while she was still very much the Martha I knew. It’s easy to think it will always be thus, but one day she will turn the corner. One day she will be too weak to talk. One day she will die. Impossible to imagine right now, seeing her here like this, very much in control of her world. But she’ll die too. We all will. Yup. We’re all headed there eventually. But you never really believe it. Not until it happens.

This morning I’d decided to call my cousin, the one whom I’d hoped to visit in Philly soon. I felt a little foolish that I’d blogged about going to see him when I hadn’t actually spoken to him in a long time. I also knew that it was just an outline of a hoped-for intinerary – and that the visit might not happen. But in a flash of unmeditated inspiration, I simply picked up the phone and dialed his number.

I got his wife, whom I’d never met nor spoken to before, but within minutes I was being briefed on the recent and surprise decline of my other cousins’s health. She told me of her husband’s sister, my cousin, who lived in Florida with her 86 year old mother, my aunt. About a month ago she’d had a stroke. (I made a quick inventory: I thought to myself she wasn’t much older than me – but then again, I realized once more, I’m older than I think I am. Old enough to have a stroke it seems.) Today she was close to death. My cousin’s wife and I stayed on the phone for almost an hour while she recounted for me the events of the past month. In contrast, I pictured Martha, a long, good life behind her and death well-earned but yet not arriving, sitting in her chair, her silver bracelet dangling from her arm. None of it seemed fair.

My cousin, at the time of our speaking, was failing fast after four weeks of a crazy, unforseen downward spiral. Her skin was now mottled, her lips blue, her kidneys had failed, her blood pressure was a shadow of its former self. As we spoke, another level of my awareness was marveling at the strangeness of it all: one minute my long-lost cousins are distant family, living only in dim memories from my youngest years, the next minute I’m witness to family intimacies I’ve hardly earned in my years of absence. But I stayed on the phone, listening, giving this in-charge yet nonetheless distraught woman my audience, my witness. A small voice inside told me just to listen. She’d been through more than I understood these past few weeks, and somehow, by marriage alone, yes, but somehow – she was my family. I had to be there. So I listened, dumbstruck as she recounted for me how my cousin had gone from a viable person to a dying waif inside of mere weeks.

We discussed whether my own 86 year old aunt should be there to witness her daughter’s passing or not. My vote was yes, unquestionably. My cousins’s wife, an ICU nurse for many years, was inclined to vote no. She advised that people look pretty horrible in those final moments – that they look much better after being cleaned up at the mortuary later on. But I still thought to myself – if Elihu were dying, it would be my deepest desire to be there, holding his hand, telling him I loved him and giving him my blessings to go. We talked, she talked, I interjected here and there, but mostly I listened. I tried to understand what her husband, my cousin, could possibly be feeling right now. I tried to imagine if Andrew were dying. My baby brother? I might begin to understand, yet it was different. He and I had hardly a civil relationship. My cousins knew each other as adults, as people. I tried to imagine relating to his heartbreak – but from where I sat I really couldn’t. I was beginning to feel I wasn’t relevant in this moment, and sensed our conversation was coming to its natural close when I heard the woman’s cell phone ring. She answered it while I, witnessing from the home phone in her other hand, listened.

I was standing in the kitchen hall when I heard her voice repeat the words she’d just been told. The clear, strong and in-command nurse I’d just been speaking to for the past hour evaporated, and a heartbroken woman responded in her place…”She’s passed?” she questioned in a weak, broken voice. My cousin had just died.

I don’t remember how I concluded the conversation – but I almost wished I could have simply hung up. I felt a bit like a voyeur now. They had serious heartbreak to deal with here. I had to go, but how? What do you say? I think I ended up saying something lame like “hang in there” – but what I’d really wanted to say was “I love you”. True, I didn’t know this woman at all really, but that seemed irrelevant. I wanted to hand over my love to her, to comfort her, to help in some way. My cousin had just died, while we were speaking, in fact, and yet my heart wasn’t broken, hers was. The only thing that would help now was the passage of time, and the return of far-flung family members. True, I was family, but I had no role in this event save to offer my love and support from afar.

Mid-summer, mid-life I sit here, wondering at it all. This is such a friggin hard planet to live on. Wealth and poverty sit side-by-side, death comes too early for some, too late for others. My father has no reason to get out of bed; simply living is a chore he does not need or even want, yet he goes on. Living. My cousin dies while her mother holds her hand and watches her go. How is any of this just? I keep to my belief that it all happens as it’s supposed to – while my more agnostic friends will smile and shake their heads at me – and yet it doesn’t make this crap easier to swallow. It doesn’t feel right, regardless of whether there are lessons here or not. Regardless of whether God is actively challenging our faith or not. Some find comfort believing everything is simply a scientific event with no moral, spiritual or ethical motivation behind it. Some find comfort in just the opposite way of thinking. Right now I’m apt to say none of it really matters.

This life is a hard one, and that we know. Nobody would argue that. It takes a lot of resolve, a good sense of humor and some common sense to make it through. That, and a moment every now and again to pause and reflect, to the best of our limited ability, on the wonder of it all.