The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

When Is When December 16, 2015

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Our sick hen holds back from the flock and stands still in the sun to keep warm.

Our urge, as humans, is to help other living creatures survive. (For the sake of expanding on this idea, for the moment let’s forget that we humans have also created entire industries and careers out of actively killing fellow humans and creatures as well…). Although most of us will probably squash any spiders found ‘trespassing’ inside our house, there remains a part of the population that will search out a cup and piece of paper, and safely transport the innocent to the great outdoors. That is a population to which I belong. (My own fine line is drawn at mosquitoes, however I have been known to offer apologies and ask forgiveness before smacking the little devils into the next plane of existence.)

Recently, we had a chronically not-well hen take a downward turn. For months I’d seen the way she hunkered down on the floor of the coop at night instead of joining her mates up on the roosting bars. This alone told me something was amiss. But aside from keeping good coop hygiene and feeding them a robust diet, there was little else I could do without stepping into a whole circus of tests and expensive dietary supplements. I wasn’t going to give the whole flock antibiotics, as that would have rendered all the eggs unsafe for eating (and cost us our modest egg-selling business). Naw… Aside from saying a little prayer for her each night as I closed up, and telling her softly that I loved her and was on her side, there was little to do but wait and see how things would turn out.

About a month ago I’d had her in my kitchen, along with our treasured Thumbs Up and another new white hen. The young leghorn had a chronically prolapsed cloaca; the last bit of muscle of her digestive (and laying) tract kept coming out. I would oil up my hand and massage it gently back in, but within hours her body would begin to push and squeeze it out again – against her own will, poor girl – and I could see the look of distress in her eyes as a plum size piece of her insides (which was bright red and quite challenging for me to look at) would emerge, unable to retract back inside the poor hen. After two days of physically manipulating her back into shape only to find her elongated and pushing uncontrollably, we knew there would be no lasting fix for this gal. So our neighbor Zac helped us out by chopping off her head in one deft blow, ending her misery and pain. (We call this method “Zaxupuncture”. Sometimes the most humane of all.)

vigilThumbs Up kept the vigil with her ill flockmate for a long time. I was also amazed to see our nervous, perpetually-moving guinea fowl, Austin, walk up to the sick hen and stand there by her side, virtually motionless for a good ten minutes. Animals just seem to feel when things are changing in the creatures around them.

Recently, the chronically not-well gall, whom we call “Mother of Martha” had begun to hang around the kitchen door, almost as if suggesting she might like to come in for a respite. Thankfully, the true, biting cold of winter hasn’t arrived yet, so our flock is still in relative comfort. But this is a gesture that shouldn’t be ignored; it can be a sign that something in the bird’s constitution is amiss. And so I took her inside. But instead of perking up after a few days of r&r, she flagged even further. Home-made concoctions didn’t even do the trick this time. Believe me, I waffled inside. Was I prolonging her discomfort? Was I making her out to be more important (read: anthropomorphizing her) than she really was in the grand scheme of our small farm? Did she warrant – more to the point – did she herself even want more assistance?

Hen in A BucketThis appeared to be a sign of vitality, but ultimately it was just a last blip of activity.

Just a few days earlier she had been ticking her way across the wooden floor to observe a piano lesson one minute, head deep in the birdseed bin the next. Seemed she was doing pretty well. But the following day, she hunkered down in her corner and took on the look of an animal waiting for its time to go. And so at this time I chose not to fight it; the tiny ‘God voice’ inside me told me to just leave things be. Instead of intervening, I turned the heat up in the mudroom and made sure she was comfy with water that was very easy to get to. What else could I do now? It was really up to her. It truly felt as if she was finally at death’s door. So, having done all I could, I retired to the downstairs office to get some work done. A couple of hours later I had gone upstairs fully expecting to see her on the floor and gone from this world, but to my great surprise, instead, I found her bed empty. Keep in mind that she had been pretty well snuggled in there, and she’d been hard-pressed to move at all the last time I’d seen her; it woulda taken good bit of oomph to get up and out of her nest and onto the floor. But somehow, up and out she had gotten herself. I was so moved at seeing her silhouette in the hallway, standing there alone, waiting for someone to watch, to follow or sit beside… She was seeking some final companionship, I think. One can never know of course, but it sure felt like it.

IMG_2883Mother of Martha came out into the house for one last visit with me. This was quite a surprise, as she’d been too weak to move only hours earlier.

She stayed with me in the living room as I taught a piano lesson. But before we wrapped, I looked up to see that she had left us. Later, I found her close by the heaters in the mudroom. Now I got it. Yup, now it was probably time. I made one final effort to feed her; I slid the eye dropper full of probiotics along the length of her beak, hoping she’d take it on her own. She did. She swallowed dutifully, and uncharacteristically, without protest. Her eyes remained closed the whole time. But this time, something was very different. She clamped her beak tightly shut as I attempted to feed her the remainder of the dose. I tried a bit to pry them open, and if I’d put some more muscle into it, I might have. But somehow, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. So instead I gently wiped her chin clean, hoping to restore whatever appearance might be necessary to maintain her avian dignity, and then let her be.

After a few hours she was unchanged, eyes closed, breathing in and out. I tested her strength, seeing if she could stand, but she collapsed under her weight. No point forcing things. Rather than leaving her to sit in her mess and all alone in the mudroom, I made a brand new and clean bed for her and placed it in between the two radiators by the kitchen table. There was privacy enough, yet she was still within our sight. I turned up the heat to make sure she was comfortable. And then we waited.

IMG_2962At last she’s resting comfortably in the kitchen. We’re just waiting now.

A friend dropped by and he joined us for supper. We were a noisy bunch; laughing, talking and continuing to live life as usual. When our guest left, quiet finally returned to the kitchen. I sat beside the hen for a while. I didn’t stroke her; that would have been more for me than for her, and by now I felt strongly that she needed to be left alone. So instead, I talked to her in a low tone, and assured her that she was loved, and that she’d been a good hen. I thanked her for all the eggs and told her what a good job she’d done, and then I turned out the light and said goodnight.

That night I’d had a feeling she’d leave us, and as I’d expected – and at this point had hoped for – I found her dead in the early morning light. I’ve come upon several dead hens in my day, and none has ever succumbed in such a graceful pose as she. I took the one breast feather that had fallen from her as a keepsake, then put her body to rest in the screen porch until I found a moment (albeit several days later) to bury her.

Soaring HenShe left us like an angel in flight.

She now rests with the other favorites; King George, the button quail who lived with us cage-free and nightly uttered his plaintiff wail for a mate as he scurried along the baseboards of the house (imagine that at the same time we also had a cat – and the two of them were absolutely oblivious to each other), and there was Molly, our very first hen, white with a necklace of black dots, as well as a few songbirds who’d crashed into windows. Our three-legged gecko was also buried in this small plot by the flowering quince; this little girl had had a cancerous rear limb amputated shortly after we’d moved here (the vet took pity on our heavy emotional load at the time and did the surgery for free). Our little pullet Martha rested there too, and now her mother had come to join her.

I’ve been present at the end of a few friend’s lives – as well as a few pet’s – and from those experiences have come to recognize the ways in which living beings behave as they near the end. My father’s passage was my most intimate experience with the death process. I remember wanting desperately to know exactly when it would happen. What to look for, what signs might immediately precede the moment of death, so I would somehow be readier for his leaving us… I remember hounding the hospice nurses for more information as they cared for my father, and as his life’s end grew obviously closer. As Martha approached her death this past summer I felt more familiar with the process, and although hers was also a welcome end to a full life, it was nonetheless a deeply strange and sad time. But sad as it may have been, I was relieved to actually recognize some of the signs and events in her progress towards death, and it made me better able to handle it all.

But that’s clearly not how everyone feels about things; my mom just couldn’t seem to adjust to the reality that Dad was on his way, and for a long while she seemed to think that somehow, somehow, things might still turn around for him. Signs that were obvious to me were easily ignored by her. Funny what comes to mind – but I remember how Dad had come to a point where he could not drink on his own; a time when he needed a straw. I remember suggesting this to my mother, but she strongly resisted the idea. Inside I’d gotten very angry inside about this – couldn’t she see what was happening? He was dying already! He was thirsty! He needed to drink, and he needed our help! What on earth was she waiting for? “Someday when” was here; ‘when’ was now! Until the very last few days I don’t think she wanted to believe it. But even she had to acquiesce, and realize that ‘when‘ had finally arrived.

Every day I pass the spot where a nineteen year old boy was recently hit by a car, shortly after which he died. It’s very much on my mind these days, as there is no avoiding the roadside memorial. Also, the boy’s middle name was Elihu, and so the tragedy has fixed itself even more personally in my thoughts. I think of his mother every day too, and naturally think then of my own child, and how his life gives so much meaning to mine. I take not a moment with him for granted. Also, the older I get, the more deeply I understand how very important it is to live fully, courageously and compassionately in the moments still remaining. Those flowers at the side of the road will not allow me to forget this.

The other day at breakfast Elihu asked why grownups were always so worried about the past and the future. Why, he wanted to know, were we always worried about ‘when things were going to happen, or what things were like back when‘? “Forget the future!” he said, almost angrily as he swept a hand in the air. “Forget the past! Now is all there is! Now is when!” He apologized for sounding annoyed. I told him he was right, and that I heard him. I agreed with him that we can’t always make plans for ‘when’, but as humans, it was what made us feel safer in the world. Then I thanked him for expressing himself. I told him he really was right. I sat in our little kitchen and looked in wonder at this insightful, loving person whom I’d been so lucky to have beside me in my life, and I breathed in, grateful. Yes, Elihu was right. The most important when of all – was now.


Post Script: A heartfelt thanks to those who contributed towards our campaign to expand our media storage here on WordPress… We were able to purchase a package that will likely support us for another couple of years. Thanks to you we can continue to post new photographs without saying goodbye to the old ones! Yay!

 

Remembering Martha June 20, 2015

It’s been one week since Martha died, and I’m still in a sort of stunned place. I think all of us are. I don’t fully get it yet; as with the passing of anyone close, you find yourself thinking about the person as if you’re going to see them again – and then you remember all over again. Having seen her coast gradually down to a stop – and then seeing the rapid decline in her final few days – that helps to acclimate me to this new reality of a post-Martha world, and it helps me to know unquestionably that Martha’s death was not only inevitable, but in the end, welcomed. And in her last few days, even Martha – who always spoke as if decades of life still lay before her – finally let on that she knew what was coming, and that she was at last ready.

She died in the wee hours of Saturday morning, on the 13th of June. The day before had been rainy, and the house had been once again full of friends and visitors. But on her last day she didn’t do or say much. She was merely hanging in there, breathing and sleeping, and no doubt still listening to us all as we visited, shared stories and laughed. I was surprised to see how much she’d changed in the past twenty-four hours; her eyes had become sunken, pink orbits and her skin waxen and cool. But mom, Elihu and I had been lucky to have been with her one day earlier when she could still communicate. I hadn’t realized on a conscious level that this would be my last true visit with her, but that’s how it turned out. More importantly, she was able to let me know something that concerned me more than anything else. She had been crabby with me – actually, she’d been a downright bitch – in the last few weeks, but that was ok; somehow she was blaming me (and mom, too) for her situation, and I recognized it for the impaired thinking it was (I know this well from experience with my brother). I knew that she loved me, and in spite of the things she was saying to me at the time, I loved her too. I knew she was comfortable and pain-free for the most part. And she was home; that was key. But what of her true, innermost feelings about what was taking place? I was worried that she was full of fear – and too proud to let on. She had hardly the energy to speak, but when I went to her side and placed my hand on her head, she simply said to me “I am not afraid.” I told her that I was so very glad to hear this, but I didn’t want her saying this for my sake – or for appearances. I didn’t want her doing the stiff upper lip thing to the very end! Of course she didn’t have the energy to explain her thoughts, but she made herself perfectly clear by repeating, as loudly as she could, one more time: I am not afraid.

In that same visit Martha had revealed herself to be living one foot in our world, one foot in another. Once, a week before, when I was passing the morning with her, I asked her where her thoughts were. “All across the spectrum”, she’d answered. In the final few days, it seemed the spectrum had become even wider. (I remember this same near-the-end phase of dear friend Jim Lewis. He was an actor, a gentle man and a thoughtful one. He seemed lost and agitated in his last days. When I asked what this was like, he too, answered me simply with all of his focused effort: “I can’t place my place.” This seems to be the brief state of confusion through which many pass just before death.) Martha opened her eyes and looked at mom and said weakly…. “I’m just remembering that I’m in my beautiful home, with all of my friends, and my puppy…” Truly, these were the most important things. My most urgent hope through these past few months was that she die at home. And now finally here she was, with her beloved black hound dog by her side and all her dearest friends nearby. And all in that amazing farmhouse. The same house in which her own mother had died, the house in which no doubt others had also died – and been born, too. In and out of reality though she may have been, she knew where she was, and she was not afraid. We’d almost made it.

I kinda wished I’d been more aware of my last kiss and goodbye, but as it was there was some general laughter and conversation going on, plus the concern of a rapidly approaching summer storm, so Elihu and I left Martha’s bedroom much as we would any other visit. Which was probably best, anyhow. That’s how Martha would’ve liked it. No fanfare or drama. Just everyday life. Mary, the overnight nurse, was surprised shortly after three a.m. by what she said sounded like “a man’s voice talking”. She got up and went in to check on Martha in time to see her exhale one final time. There has been some speculation on who exactly it might have been who ‘came to get her’, and most agree it was her dad – and likely not her sometimes-philandering husband. After telling me the story, mom quickly added her take – a staunch, no-frills opinion that Martha would have no doubt shared – and said that we could forget the idea of anything paranormal having occurred here; that it was just Martha’s deep, robust voice, uttering one last vocalization. Ok. She can believe that. And maybe that’s the truth. But Mary does this kind of thing for a living, and she’s got a career that depends a lot on observation. Like my friend the retired state trooper who saw an image of Ruthie in the porch of her house (and knowing nothing about her), I’m going to go with the nurse’s take on the event. Me, I believe that someone who loved her very much came back to help her across the threshold. My humanist friends can think me delusional or at best, self-comforting – but I don’t care. Whether her concsiouness has gone on to a new experience or has been extinguished forever, it doesn’t really matter. Martha lived a very full life and had a positive influence over countless people, and she concluded that fruitful life as peacefully as ever one might hope.

Game over. Game won.


Martha Ward Carver
was born on July 17th, 1926 in Binghamton, New York
to F. Erwin Ward and Isabella Post Ward of Deposit New York,
and died at her home in Greenfield Center, New York on June 13th, 2015.

Martha Ward Carver, 88, grew up in Deposit, New York and graduated from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1947 with a degree in public school music, as it was then called. She served as Supervisor of Music in the elementary and junior high schools of Greenfield, Mass from September of 1947 to June of 1955.

She returned to Skidmore College in the fall of 1955 to join the Music Department faculty, implementing the music education program. After fifteen years at Skidmore she chose to leave the campus in favor of domestic life on the farm.

Martha was a long-time friend of the Festival of Baroque Music and attended performances every year from its beginning in 1959 to its final season in July of 2011. She was a member of the Saratoga County NAACP, and SEAD (Saratogians for the Equality and Acceptance of Diversity). Ms. Carver left over one hundred acres of farmland to Saratoga PLAN.

Ms. Carver is predeceased by her husband, Frank Carver, originally of Milo, Maine, and her brother Charles (Chuck) E. Ward of Ballston Spa, NY, and is survived by her stepson, Robert J. Carver of Nokomis, Florida; her foster son, Michael Spiak and his wife Kelly of Greenfield Center, NY; nieces and nephews Susan Ward of Catskill, NY; Braden Ward of Oneonta, NY; Mary Jane Benenati of Norwich, NY; Mark Ward of Walton, NY and cousin M. Edward Hartz of Wilmington, NC in addition to a loyal support group of friends and neighbors as well as her faithful and beloved dog Macy.

At Martha’s request there will be no funeral service. She has donated her body to the Anatomical Gift Program at Albany Medical Center.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Deposit Educational Endowment Program (DEEP), Deposit, NY, 13754 or the Yellow Rose Fund, Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY, 12866.

Remembrances may be made on the Hans Funeral Home website at www.hansfuneralhome.com.


IMG_0030Martha, at two.

IMG_0043A regal portrait of her father, F. Erwin Ward (I only remember him smiling.) I recently learned that the “F” was for Francis – which would also turn out to be his son-in-law’s name!

IMG_0041Martha, right, with her brother and only sibling, Chuck. Decades later the two ended up living just miles apart on the same road in tiny Greenfield, hundreds of miles from Deposit, where they grew up – purely by chance. I still can’t wrap my brain around that kind of coincidence.

IMG_0034Martha, on the right, an unidentified young boy in the middle, and brother Chuck on father’s knee. Circa 1928.

IMG_0028I like this shot of the family – and Ma Ward (Isabella) almost seems to be smiling! Martha’s signature haircut identifies her. Circa mid ’40s.

IMG_0048It probably isn’t fair to use this pic of her mother, but she really did always have a scowl on her face. This is rather harsh, but comic, too. Man, she scared me as a kid.

IMG_0049Same tailgate picnic as above, Martha doesn’t look much happier, nor does dad. Think it’s just an ill-timed shot.

IMG_9706Ma Ward may have been the stern one – but her brother’s certainly got a twinkle in his eye.

IMG_0048The young high school graduate.

IMG_0014The Skidmore College Graduate, nicknamed ‘Marty’.

IMG_0016Martha is accompanying a local choral group. I have this dress – and it came with a story: Just as Martha was ascending the final stair to the stage – audience and chorus awaiting her – she heard a loud rip, and then heard the room gasp slightly. She looked down to see she’d stepped on her organza skirt and it had ripped all the way up the front. With many layers beneath it, she paid it no mind and continued on her way. Later, she simply took some scissors and cut a triangle out of the front to make it look ‘right’. When I pass on this dress one day, the story and pic go with it.

IMG_0021Martha Ward Carver and Francis Speed Carver on their wedding day in Chicago, May 12th, 1956. He was teaching in South Dakota, she in Greenfield, Mass, so they met in the middle. After the wedding they both flew back to their respective jobs ’til they were concluded. It would be Frank’s teaching job at Skidmore College which would soon bring them to Greenfield Center, New York.

IMG_0023This is a cute shot.

IMG_0060A studious group of Skidmore Music faculty listening to a hi-fi; her husband Frank, standing far left, Martha center, and friend and soprano Ruth Lakeway standing behind in black. (All three very important to dad and mom’s Festival of Baroque Music).

IMG_0038Martha, busy – as always – with a project.

IMG_9698Martha with some of the first musicians from the first Festival of Baroque Music, held at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.

IMG_9700Martha, violinist Renato Bonacini and his wife, and conductor, Fritz Rikko.

IMG_0057A graduation ceremony at Skidmore, likely for of one her students.

IMG_0265Martha loved kids, and they flocked to the farm to be with her. Martha used everyday activities to teach. (That’s my brother Andrew – so cute!)

IMG_0288Martha and me.

IMG_0285This pic makes me contemplate the way in which our roles shifted during our lives.

IMG_0259Her famous “Texas Cake”, a chocolate cake recipe she learned from an organist in Texas whose name is lost to us, but this cake became a staple at the farm. I’m not a fan of cake – and chocolate’s not my go-to flavor, but this cake I always love. There is nothing like Martha’s Texas Cake.

IMG_0287My mom and baby Andy on Sylvia, in front of the old barn, which burned to the ground in the early seventies – and on Martha’s birthday! Frank had made the mistake of packing wet, green hay, which created fumes that combusted. Sadly, this is how many barns go. It took the giant, gorgeous maple tree in front of the house too. Totally transformed the feel of the place and was a devastating loss for us all.

IMG_0283Little me on a big horse. Also, in front of the grand, original barn. Martha and Frank’s farm made these kinds of experiences possible for so many kids. Life at the farm added tremendously to the quality of my childhood.

IMG_0044Martha, my dad (always picking a piece of lint off the floor!), Frank and mom. Mid ’70s.

IMG_0032This photo really captures the feeling of Martha at home.

IMG_0027Martha, her folks, her sister-in-law Claire (also a talented musician) and brother Chuck, circa early ’80s.

IMG_0281Me and my little brother Andrew, playing in the driveway in front of that gorgeous farmhouse.

IMG_1049Life in the kitchen just a few weeks ago – much as it had been for the past five decades.

IMG_0027Ever a busy place – Martha presided over the kitchen from her chair as nurses, friends and family came and went.

IMG_0134Elihu is about to play “Simple Gifts” for Martha on his mandolin. We all know we’re getting close, and on this last night there’s a different feeling in the air.

IMG_0054Her dearest friend in the whole world, Michael, holds her hand as she gets ready to leave us.

IMG_0162This was my last look back at the farm on the night she was to pass. I kinda knew she was close. The sky musta known too; it was already crying.


We all kinda thought Martha’d make it til her 89th birthday on July 17th. Trying to assign some meaning to the 13th – or at least perhaps discover a clever way in which to remember it – Mom learned that Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday fell on June 13th this year. ! Martha and Queen Elizabeth were neck and neck til now… But that’s ok, Martha will always reign supreme in our world.

 

Year Anew January 1, 2014

Some folks have been complaining about 2013, bidding it good riddance, speaking of it with various expletives and such. My first response is to think something like ‘damn right, this was a painful and terrible year, hell with it’…. but then I realize, bad things happen every year. Good things too, and if I take the glass half-full attitude, I realize that the old year wasn’t, in my own personal world, half bad. That my father died in 2013 doesn’t make it a bad year. It makes it a precious year. One in which I enjoyed all my final moments with him, one in which I had the honor of witnessing his death. That is no small gift. Yeah, the past year has been rich, full and good. (That being said, I’m still ready for a new one.)

It’s the weight loss season again, and so I begin to do a little review of 2013 and my advances – and retreats – on that front. I’d started last year on the crazy Atkins diet, and while it was successful, and I ended up looking pretty good for my 50th birthday and subsequent trip ‘back home’ to Chicago, by the time fall came, and with it home-made apple pies and fresh home-baked bread, I let it all go. I knew I was begging trouble, but it was a quality of life thing for me. I’d had it with eating nothing but meat, cheese and vegetables for the past six months and I meant to enjoy all I’d missed now. I realized I may have gone too far in ‘catching up’, but some little voice told me ‘screw it, you made your goal, now live’. And really, in that time and place I wanted to be there. Joining my son every night, sharing the same menu and this time having home-made dessert. I’d never baked bread before in my life, so the discovery in fall of 2013 that I could do so – and easily – without even so much as a loaf pan – that kinda blew my mind. And once you’ve made it, you feel you gotta eat it. There’s only so much that two people can eat though, and it’s hard to enforce portion control when there’s always more on hand. And so I ate. And then with the stress of a bigger work load, plus my dad’s decline and death, I ate to soothe myself. And while that tiny voice told me I needn’t eat quite so much to make myself feel better, I did. I knew full well it would come to this, and it has. I am back to exactly the same weight as I was one year ago today. Almost twenty pounds are back. Which means that I saw my body change by forty pounds. Yeeks. If I think too long about it, or catch a glance of my pudgy jaw line in a mirror, I want to weep, to sink into despair. Cuz I was there, goddamit, and now I’m back. But that’s ok. That is what New Years are for. Starting over.

Over the past year I’d been very intrigued with death and dying, too. Scared shitless of losing my father, and wondering what exactly it was that a person’s natural death looked like, I’d gone on YouTube binges that would freak many people out. I watched embalmings, assisted suicides, cremations, interviews with people who knew they were dying. Anything and everything so that I might better get what it was to witness a loved one die, and then make those after-life decisions none of us ever really talks about. I meant to demystify death. I’d read my share of Elizabeth Kubler Ross years ago, but never did click with her old-school language. ‘Yack, yack, yack’, I remember thinking. Let’s get down to it, lady! So in 2013 I began to read more on near death experiences – something I’d known about for years, but had begun to read now from a new perspective. And when my own father began to point towards the corner of the room, asking me who all those people were, and when he told me he saw my cousin, and that he missed his mommy, I was glad I’d re-read the literature on this experience. I do get that many folks think these end-of-life occurrences are merely the brain playing tricks on itself in the final moments of life, however I certainly do not. Me, I know that a soul is what animates a body, and quite simply, it has a separation process to undergo at the end. And while I would never had dared to speak my opinion on this subject so candidly in the past, now I feel I can. I’m off that hook – I’ve experienced it myself, I know. And I’m not quite as afraid of death as I was. The loss is still so very sad, and I can see it will continue on…. But having been with my beloved father during his transition has helped confirm for me what I already believed. So now I go into my own future, and move closer to my own death, with some important questions resolved.

My son’s now approaching an age in which his entire outlook on the world will change and mature. Ten now, eleven in a few months, 2014 will likely be the year in which the true magic of childhood ends. Santa, the birthday angel and the Easter Bunny won’t be visiting after long. Even in the cocoon of Waldorf, he will soon know for sure. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I’ve savored his small years, even documented a few of them here on this blog, so I can’t feel that I wasn’t present for them, or appreciative. I was. As I write this, he’s sleeping in, catching up after a whirlwind visit to Chicago and dramatic return. Over his visit, and while I was sitting vigil with dad, Elihu was going through a pretty big health scare, having visited the emergency room for knees that had blown up so they’d awoken him in the night – he said it felt like knives – and being told it might possibly be juvenile onset arthritis. Or Lyme disease. And in that I myself had fretted all fall over the Lyme v. growing pains debate – only to be told by nurses and moms alike not to worry (!!) – I kinda knew. And what relief that it was Lyme and not arthritis. So we’re dealing now with that, and the stock regimin of antibiotics to follow. (I am just kicking myself because I really did suspect it but caved to everyone else’s opinion.) Mom, Andrew, Elihu and I went out to dinner late last night (he had his favorite escargot and frogs’ legs) and we were very late to bed. Now he’s sleeping like a teenager, and deservedly so. But what he doesn’t know is that Santa made one final visit to us here at the Hillhouse last night. He even knocked some of the ashes out of the fireplace as he’s done before. Santa knows that it’s the eighth day of Christmas. He knows Elihu is back home. As I sit here and write, I’m keeping an ear out for his bedroom door, for the footsteps, that momentary pause…. He’ll run in to get me, and I’ll be sitting here in my chair, unawares, and then he’ll tell me, with a look of amazement on his face, that Santa has come! Yesterday, when Elihu asked me if I though Santa might come here, I took on a somber tone and cautioned him not to be disappointed, after all Santa had already been to Illinois. But look! He made it here after all! This is a Christmas I will savor, because by next year it will be brand new territory.

Ah, such ambivalence I feel for brand new territory. I listened as my elderly father expressed his longing to be back in his childhood home and wondered to myself, where exactly, do our hearts consider to be true home? Is it the home and hearth of our tender years – or the home we made as young parents to our own tiny ones? I suppose there’s no one answer. But there is one truth for us here on earth; time continues to move forward, and our situations, though they may appear to pause in time at different stages of our life, continue to evolve and change. A sorrow and a blessing. A missed memory and the happy anticipation of a new experience. They exist so closely, these disparate conditions, and they tug our hearts in such different directions. I can’t say that I’m thrilled with the march of time, but I also can’t say that I don’t want to watch my son grow up and one day create a family of his own. I admit it, at my age, and having seen what the end of life looks like and knowing I’m closer to it than I am to my youth, I’m not moving into the future with the zeal that I once did. I’m moving toward it with a more measured approach. It’s coming no matter what, but I’m not running to meet it anymore. It’ll be here – and gone – soon enough.

 

Birth and Baptism June 13, 2011

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal...,Divorce Diary,Mommy Mind — wingmother @ 12:30 am
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It was three years ago today when my husband saw his second son born. As my husband’s pregnant girlfriend was due to deliver their baby sometime around the middle of June, I’d made plans for Elihu and me to be out of town during that time. The wait was over. As my husband had not officially moved out of our house, and as the couple had no home other than that of her parents, I had begun to make peace with the idea of starting over far across the country, closer to my own family, and leaving my house to the two of them and their new baby. Just a few years before I’d left my beloved Evanston, just outside of Chicago and moved to the rural town of Dekalb so that Fareed, Elihu and I might start our life anew. Now, without my husband, I had no reason to stay in that small town. I packed for a week’s vacation and took Elihu to the place that would soon be our new home. My son and I were far away when Charlie was born, three years ago today.

A friend had insisted we come and enjoy her family’s beautiful pond anytime we cared; they were all away and busy during the daytime, we would have the dock and water all to ourselves. On that sunny, warm June 12th, 2008, I took Elihu to the pond for an afternoon of pollywogs and distraction. While he had little idea how his own life was changing, I did, and that day was heavy with a strange, sick brew of feelings. It seemed I was living in a dream. My husband was about to have a new child. The child that had blown the lid off of everything. My comprehension about it all was primitive. I could still not understand this. I’d lived through nine months with him still living in our home, each day dreading the event that he himself awaited with great excitement. Such a queer mix of things, I could do no more to keep myself sane than to leave town and come back after the babe had been born. Here I was now, with my son, on hot summer’s day, toes dangling off the dock in the cool water of a country pond while a thousand miles to the west something was changing. Here, my son was busy with nets and buckets, scooping up pond life, unaware of how his own life was changing in that very moment.

The sun and sparkling water gave me some relief. Elihu had taken an interest in the fishing gear there and for a time my energy was spent helping him bait and cast, and making sure that he didn’t hurt himself accidentally on the hooks. I was on vigilant watch against mishaps for a half hour until he lost interest and contented himself again with the net. I sat back in the Adirondack chair and looked out over the white pines that rimmed the water. I watched my son play, and thought to myself that in spite of our having been a family til now, Fareed had shared very little time with the two of us. Most of my memories around Elihu did not include his father. Instead my memories were mostly just the two of us. Walking around our Evanston neighborhood, riding the bike on the lakefront, visiting friends, even together at rehearsals, radio shows, gigs. I had Elihu with me all the time, everywhere. I’d always felt this was a time of waiting. Waiting for our new life. One in which I would set aside my gigs and projects to raise a family. A life in which Fareed would tour less, stay home more, enjoy our company. Now, it seemed, it might be just Elihu and me, alone, forever. My heart couldn’t bear this. Here Fareed was, embarking on the familial journey with someone else instead of us, his real family. How could this be happening? We’d moved to Dekalb just two years ago in order to start over, but not like this! I tried to drink in my surroundings, to buffer myself against the constant thoughts. I needed to breathe, separate myself from the pain. It felt like nature, water, air and light were the only things that could help me today. The lakeside day seemed so bright and hopeful – yet it was oblivious to our loss. It was a day of contrasts that I could not comprehend.

My thoughts were interrupted by a huge splash. I needed not an instant to think, but sprang from my chair. The pond water was a dark amber, tinted by the tannin of leaves and it obscured even bright objects only inches below the surface. As I looked down I saw the top of my son’s head descending through the water, it’s shape disappearing in the dark. In seconds I was under that water, grabbing my baby, pushing him upward, my feet sinking to the shins in the silty bottom. If I’d been rescuing anyone other than my only child, I don’t know how I’d have gotten purchase enough on the ground to push him into the air. But this was my son, my life, my everything. Somehow I lifted him above the water and again another foot upwards to the dock. I myself sank back down again after I’d set him on the platform, but in a rush of adrenaline I lifted myself up and onto the dock beside my Elihu, who was scared, and thank God, crying and alive. I rocked him, I tried to soothe him. I held him as I’d never held him before.

We sat for awhile, waiting for our hearts to stop pounding. The horrifying image of the dark water closing in over my son played again and again in my head. He might well have died. Yet he didn’t, I had saved him from that. I’d given birth to him once, and today in some way, I’d given birth to him again. He was alive, I was alive, it was ok. And once again, it was just the two of us. It seemed the universe had demonstrated in the most acute way that we two were starting over. We had emerged from the water somehow changed.

As I drove up to my parents’ house my cell phone rang. Fareed’s tone was matter of fact. While he was not overtly rejoicing in his news, his mood was light and upbeat, different from the somber tone he’d used all those months as we waited for this day. I could hear in his voice a guarded excitement about his new life. His new son had been born about forty-five minutes earlier and he just wanted me to know. He went on to tell me details about the delivery – things I didn’t want to know, couldn’t possibly share delight in – while I sat, stunned, trying to integrate what had just happened here with what had just happened there. As Fareed continued to talk, my mind began to piece together the last hour. It seemed that nearly the moment the new baby was born, my son was tumbling into the water. As the newborn took his first breath of air, my son struggled for the same. I sat, unmoving and stunned with the metaphor that had been placed so clearly in my path. This was a day of emergence and change. It was a day of cleansing and rebirth.

And if I’d not been entirely convinced before, I was now. We had been washed clean of our old life and a new one was just beginning.

 

Drummer, Different May 21, 2011

What is it, I wonder to myself, trying to pinpoint it exactly, in definite and concrete examples, that makes my son so different from his peers? The most obvious thing one might cite, the dark red glasses, are off the list from the start. That’s not it at all, it’s something else. I think back on my interactions with his peers. Once and a while one will stand out, one of many will have a similar ‘thing’ to my son; the only way I can articulate it at the moment is, they ‘get it’. Get what? And am I not sounding a bit of a snob here? Yeah, I admit that, I am sometimes a snob. But that’s not it right now either. Elihu is different; I think anyone would agree. Just what is at the essence of this difference? Might I make a list of some sort for myself? Would that help? I need to understand this better…

I sometimes feel a tinge of sorrow that Elihu is so thoughtful and aware of things in his world. There’s a hint of adult, of peer, in him that sets him apart. And because of this I sometimes miss his truly early years – the first three, I’d say – when he was really and truly a baby. Then I knew unquestionably what he was. Then at least there was no doubt, I knew where I stood. I knew where he stood. Lest I fret too much over this, I’m reminded by things he’ll say or do, ways he’ll act (see tantrums and laundry!) that do in fact tell me that he is still a young boy. Yet somehow, in some way that I’m struggling here to identify for myself, he is no longer a child. How can I say this? He is, yes, he is a kid, and yet, not…

And as for a tiny child’s adoration? Well, although my child is no longer small, I’m lucky to get that daily. In fact, it’s really one of the things that keeps me going. I can’t imagine being a mother to an autistic child who never hugged, kissed, told their mother they loved them. Truly, my heart goes out to these moms who must long for those moments with every cell in their body… I am grateful to the skies for what my son bestows upon me. When I come in to wake him each morning (or, well, nearly each morning!) he always insists I stay to snuggle. This means that we just lay together on the bed for a few moments, usually with arms or sides touching. Sometimes we hug, sometimes not. It’s just a comfortable moment in the covers, in which we simply take in being here, being together. Sometimes we talk, sometimes not. It’s just about connecting.

And regarding connection, here is another related perk of living with this aware child; he recognizes his own need for connection in the course of his day. If we’ve been doing our own things for a good bit of time and have been psychically apart in some way – after a day at school, at home, or temporarily isolated by life’s general busy-ness, Elihu will come up to me and say “We haven’t connected in a while. I need to connect.” At which time I drop what I’m doing. We find a place to just sit together. Since he’s still small enough to fit in my lap, he usually climbs up, and we just sit together, arms around each other. We’ll look into each other’s eyes and just stay there for a moment or two. And I do realize how this seems very much like a romantic exchange. I believe it is related, yet it is very different. And I can tell you that this is is one very peaceful and blessed way to recharge the batteries in a life of never-ending events. An oasis for us both. And it’s been at Elihu’s request alone (until recently, as I’ve begun to recognize when my own feelings of disconnection surface and have requested ‘connections’ of him). He alone came to know what it was to feel disconnected, and furthermore, to know the importance of turning that feeling around. He knew what he needed, how to get it, and how to ask. That, I think, is a skill that many adults don’t even have together, ya know?

In many ways I’ve created in my son the very things that now I sometimes lament having encouraged. I sometimes wonder if I’ve created a child too savvy, too adult-thinking for his own good. Yet I do not regret my teaching him. (I do regret not curbing some of my more unheatlhy actions, like muttering about people under my breath, being quick to anger, expressing opinions like they were accepted fact. I pray my ‘good’ teachings – you know, the old ‘do as I say and not as I do’ – can make up for some of my poor examples.) I’ve spoken to my son as if he were a peer for perhaps all of his life. I also know that I’ve spoken to him in a cutesy baby voice once upon a time – how can one not speak like that to an infant? I can remember playing ‘kissing factory’ – a mommy-invented, changing table game which most certainly involved baby talk. But beyond those tiny years, I’ve talked to my son with an inherent respect. I tried to impart information – and understanding – to him as I would have anyone give it to me. I’ve always wanted him to truly get things – to understand as much as he’s able. I personally believe that people rise to the expectations set for them; I expect that he can understand, so I give him the information to be able to understand. Make sense?

There’s a personal motivation for my wanting to present all pertinent information possible to my son. It comes of my own experience in part, and it also comes from the sense that Elihu and I both have of his being somehow ‘different’. Throughout my life I have often felt very, very lost in this world – often not understanding rules that seemed second nature for those around me. Kids always seemed to ‘know’ things that were an absolute mystery to me. How did they all just ‘know’ about the rules of the games at recess? Or know the icons of pop culture? Or all the types of cereal? Was it just because I didn’t care, no one taught me or that I was missing some sort of gene for this? I missed stuff growing up, and I still just can’t place what it was. It wasn’t even so cut-and-dried as not knowing the names of the teen idols or cereals. Cuz I knew of many, and my kid too knows the names to drop. There was just something else missing. I was aware of it. I just knew that I was missing things, information – something – that other kids were getting. Elihu’s dad had a similar ‘missing’ of things, cues, information and so on, however the difference with Fareed was that he didn’t know he was missing things! He was clueless, and in his case, ignorance was bliss. He was not plagued as a young child by a gnawing sense that he was missing something as Elihu and I have been. This sense of being in the dark, of living in a world parallel but apart from others is something Elihu feels very keenly. Oh how it hurts my heart to hear him express his anguish, his deep need to be like others, to see the world as they do. He’s been brought to tears wishing that he would love Star Wars and soccer like his classmates. Through his tears he condems his beloved bird guides and artists’ tools, his djembe, his drums, his difference. It doesn’t happen often, yet when it does, I let it. I don’t let my discomfort at witnessing his allow me to stifle him. Instead, I try to be a quiet audience, an emotional sponge, taking in all the sorrow, all the isolation, being a witness to it as if somehow I can bear it away from him, transform it, and leave him renewed and full of hope. My intention is for this, yet I doubt I can lessen his sorrow by much. So I do the best thing I can. I just listen. If nothing lessens the pain of these moments, at least I can feel better about them when I consider how healthy it is that he can identify that he’s feeling this way, and how lucky Elihu is to come into such an awareness at such a young age. My own feelings had no audience, had no witness, and so manifested in my high school years in the terror of panic attacks, and the near-miss of not graduating.

My talking to him like a peer – my giving him as much goddam information in as clear a way as I possibly can – talking to him with an inherent respect – I do ALL of this as a means to fill him up, to equip him with so much knowledge that if he don’t know it today, he can goddam well figure it out for himself one day. Ya know? I want him armed. I want him loved. I want him to know that I’m there for him, I’m not holding any secrets back. I’m in full transparency mode. I received an email from some mommy-related site the other day, whose topic was ‘when to have the sex talk with your kids’. Sheesh. My kid’s known how babies were made for years. He’s on the ready for those intoxicating, irrational and annoying feelings that his teenage years will bring on. I’m not saying that we’ll continue to have an open, easy dialogue about sex when those years hit, I’m just saying that we’ve been there, done that, and it wasn’t a big deal. Really.

All that and he loves flowers. I say this with unabashed pride. Yes, now I’m just bragging. Whenever Elihu comes grocery shopping with me, it’s understood that his repayment will come in the form of a long, lingering visit to the floral department. We’ll lament the high cost of the beautiful bunches, search for the most affordable items, an invariably settle on a single red rose. I’ve taken to pointing out to folks who we chat with there that Elihu sees no color. I’m not bragging in this case, but rather looking for someone with whom to share my continued amazement. The kid sees NO color at all, yet finds beauty in flowers that few people do. On a purely practical level, I do think he’s keyed into the shapes and lines and profiles in ways ‘we’ aren’t, much the same way as he’s attuned to the structural and linear differences between birds and can usually identify them much faster than color-sighted folks. Whatever, it really doesn’t matter, for his love of flowers is deep and real. He cannot be rushed when admiring flowers, whether in a shop or a garden. Man am I glad this kid found me.

Then, there’s the drumming. And I don’t mean the ‘look how cute my kid is on the drum set’ nor do I refer to the hippie-dippie sort of hand drumming that passes in a drum circle. He’s got something. I have something drum-related too, only it’s more the desire to play than the innate ability. I got myself some drums at seventeen, and spent hours on them, but never got much past some rudimentary rock skills. But my lack of ability wasn’t daunting to me; I just really needed to play. To keep that groove, that steady right foot… So, Elihu’s got this natural ability to play hand drums – he’s got this signature groove he plays on his djembe. His dad would call it a Punjabi sort of groove, and while I don’t know enough of the specifics to comment on it, I can say yes, that makes sense. It’s a swung thing, a distinct pattern that I myself cannot emulate. I haven’t tried very hard, for I admit that I’m not one to put lots of effort into something if there isn’t a flicker of natural aptitude for it. And clearly, this rhythm is something inorganic to me at the outset, which gives me a great deal of respect for Elihu’s ability to play it, and so effortlessly, so naturally. Not sure when Elihu ‘got his groove’, but he’s had it for at least a year. I think last summer it kind of just came. His dad got him a nice-sounding small djembe a couple of years ago, and last year it just made sense.

My kid also has a great sense of humor. I myself grew up with Monty Python and have exposed my son from the start to some of the more classic bits (and the naughty bits, sorry, couldn’t resist) since he was able to possibly understand them. I have perhaps desensitized him in some way to profanity in my sharing of some humor, but at the same time I have taught him the importance of using profanity in only the most carefully chosen, and appropriate places. It wouldn’t be a ‘bad’ word if we used it all the time, would it? He knows swearing is not something he’s allowed to do – at least in the proper and outside world. He also knows how funny just one little swear word can be, when inserted at the right place. Timing; that’s something he gets. He’s gotten that for as long as I can remember. Man, he’s got that thing. This kid was being sarcastic with me – and fooling me with the old straight face – since he was four! At five his greatest aspiration was to be like Calvin, of “Calvin and Hobbes”. (In fact, when he was five he went as Spaceman Spiff for Halloween.) He’s even concocted his own composite cartoon in which Calvin coaches the young and naive Caillou. Hee hee. Can you just see how loaded that one is? Maybe being outside the normal world helps him to see how funny things are. I think that’s part of it. We all know that phenomenon of the professional comedian; a loner, recluse, a person of few words who seems a whole different person altogether when on stage.

So I guess I’ve compiled a list of sorts. Self-realization, self-actualization, self-determination, self-expression. Not a bad list. Just maybe too heavy a portfolio for such a young child. Maybe that’s what that sense of humor is for.

 

Eggs of Hope May 19, 2011

It seems I’ve not mentioned an endeavor which has become rather the foundation of our homestead here in Greenfield. Months ago, when Elihu and I and realized how little money our eggs sales actually generated after we’d met our expenses, we pondered what to do with that money to maximize it’s usefulness. We came upon a book entitled “One Hen” by Katie Smith Milway in which we learned that a little can do a lot. And so Eggs of Hope was born. With our small profits we’ve begun to ‘purchase’ starter chicken flocks through Heifer International.

While the accompanying video and newspaper article at the bottom may be over a month old – very old news indeed – the business is just beginning. Today we registered our domain name and will unveil a new site soon – if dear old mom can manage one more task on her plate.

Lest you think the talk of home-grown eggs being better is all hype – as I was apt to believe once upon a time – I can tell you that the eggs of home-raised chickens are much, much better than those of their poor factory cousins. I might not have been such a believer had I not used a carton of store-bought eggs recently, as our personal use eggs had been earmarked for the incubator. Yup, our eggs’ yolks are a superb orange color, are much plumper, and lastly, they taste very much like an egg should. (Recently we learned that guinea fowl eggs have the very best egg flavor of all, but a sad footnote to this story is that Clara, our only resident guinea hen and sole producer of these delicious, miniature eggs, was recently lost to a wild animal. We miss her. See our you tube channel ‘elihusmom’ for a little cameo of Clara in the video of our chickens on the first warm day.) But life on a farm is like that. It’s sad to lose a member of our flock, but we find peace in knowing the ones we’ve lost had lived happy, healthy lives and furthermore, died that other animals, equally deserving of a meal, should eat well. We just hope they went quickly. !

Chickens are the most miraculous recyclers. Once, in the beginning of our egg pursuits, I found the idea of eating our chickens’ eggs rather gross (and that was even before they began eating bugs!). I can admit this here, because I know many others have felt the same. Before, I’d thought it was just me. Intuitively it makes no sense that the eggs one buys at the store are somehow more edible, safer, cleaner – more whatever – than the ones that just popped out of your hens today. One knows that these eggs have got to be better. Right? Yet for me, eating that first egg was not exactly easy. That was then, this is now. Now I watch with great joy in my heart as our flock happily scratches away in the grass and leaves, gleaning little insects here and there all day long. I watch their progress as they cover the wide expanse of our property, in the woods, in the field, and sometimes, to my chagrin, in my garden. I am always astounded at how much less feed I buy each month – 50 pounds less – when they are allowed to roam free and forage. I am grateful to be an integral part of this process, grateful to know that in some way I am linked to them, and through them, to the land. Hopefully, with our growing little business, we’ll be able to extend that connectedness out into our great big world. Eggs are made to hatch…

A frustrating post-script:
After spending a good 15 minutes trying different methods of inserting the link to the Saratogian article into this post, I am giving up, and asking readers to simply search for “Elihu Conant-Haque” and you will easily find the link for yourself. Sigh.