The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Up Is Down December 27, 2015

coop pic

The day after Christmas we buried our beloved red hen, Thumbs Up. Elihu wasn’t here, but he was on the phone with me as I placed her in the ground. I put the phone on speaker and set it down as I shoveled the dirt upon her, my son sobbing along with me the whole time. Chickens may live well over a decade, yet this gal hadn’t quite made five years. Somehow we’d always thought she’d be here as Elihu grew up. With a personality more like a golden retriever than simple red hen, she animated our household in the most delightful way, and it’s hard to imagine how different the energy will be around here now that she’s gone. I’m almost surprised at how deep my grief is over this loss. My father died two years ago tonight, and while it should go without saying that I dearly miss him, this recent loss is just so fresh and acute that I cannot shake it. And with my son so very far away, my heart is breaking all the more.

These days I’m larger than I’ve been in years, and that too is nagging at my heart. Being unable to fit in my beautiful clothes, and becoming out of breath just going up a flight of stairs, all of this has me grieving for a time when I felt and looked my best. In the past I’ve managed to pull myself up and out of my funks, and I’ve shed as much as fifty-five pounds in one year, but I don’t know where the resolve will come from now, and I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever turn things around. My fingers are getting knobbier and ache with arthritis each day; this alone is a hard reality to accept. Every evening I take my relief in glasses of wine, the worrisome double-edged sword; it’s the much longed-for and soothing end to my day, yet it’s a source of countless useless calories that only add to my problem. I manage to pull myself through the days until that blessed evening hour when a sleeping pill will take me away from this waking world. And when the next morning arrives, I am once again overwhelmed and under-confident that I can do anything about it all.

When I hear about successful people who have jobs, money, families and such, becoming overwhelmed with depression, it’s hard to understand. Me, it seems that if you can pay your bills, then things couldn’t be all that bad. Right? But then I look objectively at myself; I have a lot going for me, so this current state of my spirit can’t really be justified. But still, I can’t help but wonder how differently I’d feel about life if only I had a little bit more money. If I had a job – and a paycheck. I know how glorious I feel each year when I get my tax return – the whole world opens up. Fuel oil, a haircut and color, new shoes for the kid, a barrel full of scratch grains for the flock, dinner in a restaurant – all sorts of things become possible, and with that possibility I feel a certain spiritual uplifting. It’s crazy, honestly, because none of this shit really changes my day-to-day reality, but somehow, having just a tad more than enough can feel so very, very good.

Recently I learned that Facebook had been charging me methodically over the past few months for many small commercial posts. Somehow (and I am not alone judging by the hundreds of comments just like mine, oh how I pray it comes to a class action suit one day!) I misunderstood a one-time ‘boost’ for a contracted series of boosts, thereby creating a slow but devastating hit to my PayPal account. Now this is the ‘slush’ fund I count on for Christmas and other treats. Imagine my surprise when I went to buy a couple of gifts for my son to find under the tree on his return, and there was nothing left. What the hell? Following the charges, I found the source of the problem. And I realized it was a case of ‘me versus the machine’. I would not win this fight, nor would I ever see that $300 again. Holy fuck. I was feeling shitty enough right now. Now this. Mom had made it plain that she was unable to help at this time – property taxes were approaching – so I knew I couldn’t go to her. I asked an old friend if he could loan me the sum – just til early January, as that’s when my students were returning – but after a few days there was no response. Feeling ill about having appealed to him for help, I’d been wishing I could take it back. But that wasn’t possible. What was posted was posted. Ugh.

Phooey. Thumbs Up is dead, I’m broke and fat, and my kid is a thousand miles away.

The up side is that my mother is still here, my neighbors are all wonderful and supportive, and I have friends who help buoy my spirits through the lifeline of the internet. My house is warm (bless this mild winter!!) and my son is has two goddam tubas and a myriad of instruments to keep him happy. We have six happy fish, three happy frogs and fifteen remaining fowl. I have a view of Vermont and a fucking grand piano. Ok, so my Wurlitzer needs a bunch of work, but hey. I have one.

Looking back over the years I see this same sort of lament over and over here on the blog. And it gets a little tiresome, I know. Sometimes it kinda feels like reading the journal of a middle school girl: ‘poor fat me, no one has it as bad as I do, no one understands me’ again and again. Things aren’t really so bad, I know it, but still…  I haven’t figured out how to pilot this Studio thing, I haven’t approached anyone to join the board yet, and my office is a fucking nightmare of unfiled paper and undone to-do lists. Yes, the refrigerator is organized, the pantry tidy, and the floors are as clean as they’re going to get for now. My house is in order now, but my life is not. It’s up to me, I know it. Holding out hope that I’ll find the oomph inside me to get the Studio going, to lose twenty-five pounds, to get my teaching materials filed and organized. But from where I sit today, I can’t imagine how I’ll get any of this shit done.

Yesterday I was rocking my sweet Thumbs Up after she had died. I was holding her against my breast, her neck against mine… I looked out past the Christmas tree to the hills beyond and remembered the year before last; I had been rocking in that same chair, looking out over that same view, tears streaming down my cheeks as I anticipated the imminent death of my father. Here I was again, so sad, so sad. Still, this was part of life. Nothing so wrong with being sad, I thought to myself. Maybe the best thing one can do is just invite the sorrow in and push through it hard. Sad doesn’t last forever, after all. Nothing does. Which ultimately, I suppose, is a great gift.

On Christmas morning I rose in an uncharacteristic panic; in my gut I had felt something to be very wrong. I sat up in bed and felt fear wash through my body. Without second-guessing myself I ran to the coop. The backyard was eerily quiet… where was Bald Mountain? I opened the door – the coop was nearly empty. Had there been an attack? Had the automatic chicken door opened too early and allowed a predator to enter? Adrenaline flushed through me. There, on the top roosting bar, were two old gals. Usually there were three. Shit. Thumbs Up…. where was she? I panicked, opened the other door and searched the run. There, in the far corner, was my girl. Hunkered down, seeking solitude, I knew in an instant this was a bad sign. She’d been in and out of the kitchen clinic several times over the past month, and I knew things weren’t good with her. But I didn’t know they were this bad.

I rushed her inside and this time decided to demystify her ailment. I knew it was an impacted cloaca of sorts; she couldn’t pass normally, and this was dangerous. I risked cutting into her flesh and creating a possibility for infection, this I knew, but I had to do something. So I did. I removed strange-looking tissue and tried to relieve her as much as possible. I bathed her and dried her and returned her to a bed in the mud room. We’d lost a hen here just a few weeks ago – this was ominously familiar. I stayed with her for a while, talking to her and taking photos that I knew in my heart would be the very last ones…

I called mom, the one person on the planet besides my son who ultimately has my back at the end of it all – and told her what was going on. God bless my mom. Offering me guidance and advice – here she was at nearly 81, and here I was at the age of 52 – and my mom was still my mom. It almost felt physical, the relief upon hearing her consolation. I was touched by her care and concern for me. She was saying things that made me feel better… Even if I might have said those same things to myself, hearing it from my mother was different. Yes, we agreed, there was nothing left to do for Thumbs Up. I might as well go on with my day as planned. I would go to the nursing homes and visit those who had no visitors.

With a book of carols and a harness of old-fashioned jingle bells in my bag, I headed out. First I visited my old next door neighbor who was happy at my unexpected visit. Her daughter and son-in-law soon arrived, and it was nice to see her tiny apartment full of people and holiday spirit. Satisfied to know she would have company for the day, I took my leave and went to another retirement home nearby.

The second nursing home was empty save for one woman who sat alone in the lobby while Christmas music played quietly, almost as if mocking the cheerless atmosphere. A large tree and a multitude of poinsettias beside a gas fireplace tried to give the place a cozy, home-like feel, but they were too contrived to do the trick. There was no one at the reception desk, in fact the office and dining room were dark when I arrived. I walked up to the woman, sat on the couch beside her and began talking. We passed a half hour before we saw another resident walking past. The woman I’d been speaking with said her son was coming to get her, but she didn’t know when. I’d begun to wonder if these plans were real or imagined.

The woman who next joined us was tall and lean, with her shoulder-length silver hair in a striking blunt cut. She, it turned out, was from Holland. She recounted a long life; how she’d come here at the age of 23 knowing no one, how she ended up going back to school for chemistry, how she married and had children, settling in a well-to-do New Jersey suburb. She wondered at her old home, the one in which she and her husband had shared over fifty Christmases. “Ach” she said, waving a hand in the air, “It was sold years ago. Who knows where all my things have gone. All my chairs, the curtains, the paintings….” She seemed disgusted, heartbroken and resolved all at the same time. My heart ached again, but I didn’t let on. Here it was my job to be the giver-of-cheer and hope. I asked if I might see her room here, how she had decorated it, where was it that she now lived. Both she and the first woman enthusiastically offered to take me on a tour.

We passed the rec room, which I knew to have a piano, as I’d played it years ago for a program my friend had organized. I sat down and opened the book of carols. The room was half-darkened, and the carpet sucked up every sound. In the quiet I began to play “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to which the ladies began to sing. I moved gently into several more slow and beautiful melodies, after which I felt it best to conclude. Then we three moved down the long corridor to the first apartment. It belonged to the tall Dutch woman who had introduced herself as Nellie; I learned from the plaque on her door that her full name was Pietrenelle. Adorned with white ceramic windmills and wooden shoes, her room was much as I would have expected. We moved on to visit Phyllis’ room, after which we headed back to the lobby. Two more folks had arrived in anticipation of dinner, and soon the smells of food began to waft into the air. I was surprised to see a middle aged man accompanied by a bulldog come through the front doors. “Dan!” Phyllis said, her countenance lifting as she saw the two. “Are you Dan?” I said, looking at the man and then gesturing to the dog. “He should be Dan!” I laughed. “He is actually a she...” he responded. Dan had not a clue as to the reference I was making (Yale’s school mascot is a bulldog named Dan. My dad was a Yaley, and of course, my son shares a name with the school’s philanthropic benefactor, Elihu Yale.) “…and her name is Lucy”.

I assured the women that I would be back to visit again, and I could see happiness and relief on their faces. This, if only a small bit of hope in the world, was better than none. I had done something. Not much, but the last two hours had been very pleasant, and I hoped the effect would last a little while.

When I arrived home I saw a horrible sight: Thumbs Up had fallen from the bench and was now propped up, wings spread, on the laundry detergent bottle. She was breathing in and out very, very fast. I tried to move her, and her head wobbled. Then she erupted in a spasm of movement, writhing her way across the floor, faltering on wobbly legs. This reminded me of a nervous disorder, but until now it had only seemed a gastric affliction. None of this mattered now. I gathered her up and put her in a nest on the floor. I tried to share her experience, breathing in and out breath for breath. Shit. This was horrible to watch. I couldn’t touch her, it would have caused her more pain. Her eyes were half opened; she was trying to maintain. Mom was waiting for me; she’d gone all out and made a thirteen pound turkey and all the works of a Christmas dinner. I really did not want to leave my precious girl. My heart yearned to hold her as she died – but I knew it could be an hour yet. Showing my mother love by being with her for supper was ultimately more important. I left reluctantly, and before I closed the door I told my beautiful red hen goodbye and that I loved her.

When I returned two hours later Thumbs Up was dead, as I’d expected. But her death had been violent; she had gotten up and out of her bed and died a few paces away, her bowels evacuated on the floor. I imagined her last minutes, I knew they were painful. The only consolation now was that she was gone. I was surprised by my immense and immediate grief; I ran to her, held her close to my heart and wept as I hadn’t – in two years.

She died on Christmas, and I placed her underneath the tree that night. The next morning I held her for a long time before I dug the hole, called Elihu, and finished saying goodbye. Yesterday I made my errands, and today, while I’d planned to finally assess my overflowing office, I’ve done nothing but choose photos and write. As casual as this blog may appear, it takes hours to create a post – even longer when dealing with pictures. Uploading is tedious and time-consuming. In between I take little breaks to look at the tree, or out the window at my flock. Like prodding a fresh wound to see if it still hurts – I’ll rest my eyes on the little white marker under the flowering quince bush.

Everything has its time, everything has its season. We get fat, we get thin. We get sick, we get better. We lose our way, and then we find it. We all flourish, we all fade. And whatever goes up, no matter how we might wish it otherwise, will eventually come back down. What a path is this life! Bless us all as we make our way through this great, mysterious journey. A hearty thumbs up to us all, and also to that little red hen who gave us such delight along the way.

IMG_0486I got to spend some time with Miss Lucy, the newest addition to the neighborhood. That was a treat.

IMG_0528Got busy getting down to all that grunge at the bottom of everything. This takes time. Glad it’s done.

IMG_0557The day before Christmas. All is well, and it sure doesn’t look like anyone will be dying anytime soon. Thumbs Up is the light red one on the left in back.

IMG_0576Butt shot – look away if you find it gross. Part of chickening. Austin, our comic guinea fowl enjoys the platform feeder. He thinks he’s a songbird.

IMG_0567Thumbs Up was calm in her bath as I removed scar tissue and gunk. It almost seemed as if she knew I was trying to help her. Such a good girl.

IMG_0594Getting her warm and dry. Again, while many hens might have protested, she stood there willingly. Perhaps because she was almost done with it all… Who knows.

IMG_0700Christmas day, she was different. After all, she herself had sought seclusion. I brought her to the stoop for a last visit with her flock.

IMG_0755I opened the door, and as she has so many times before, she hopped up and walked inside. I know no one else would have been able to tell, but she had an unsettled look about her. She made strange sounds and stood a little too erect, plus her eyes had a distracted appearance. Call me crazy, but hey, she died only hours later. I try to honor the ‘God voice’ when it tells me something. It’s a mistake to ignore it.IMG_0759Specks, the only hen who we’ve had longer then Thumbs Up, watches as her sister comes inside.

IMG_0650See how her tail is drooping? This is an unhappy hen, likely in physical discomfort.

IMG_0762I would take her pain on myself, if only I could. How can I love a hen so much?

IMG_0790My new friends at the nursing home, Phyllis and Nellie. Oh, and Lucy, the bulldog.

IMG_0824A sight I’ve seen all my life. Mom does it all.

IMG_0835Always superb.

IMG_0834This silver had been in my father’s family for a long time.

IMG_0857I smooch my old cat, Mina. She can’t live with us as Elihu is very allergic. My ex husband and I got her over 15 years ago. She is ancient now, and she won’t be here too much longer herself.

IMG_0885I expected to see Thumbs Up gone when I got home, but it was shocking nonetheless. My heart positively broke. Strange that we’ve butchered and eaten so many of our own birds, but this, somehow, was entirely different.

IMG_0957So beautiful were her colors.

IMG_1067I finally place Thumbs Up in her little grave. Pumpkin, the only remaining red hen, comes to see what’s going on.

IMG_1080A small piece of limestone marks the spot where Thumbs Up rests under the flowering quince bush.

Thank you, little red hen. Don’t tell the rest of the flock – but you were always our favorite.

 

 

Angels and Helis December 9, 2014

Over this past weekend the sixth graders held an event they call ‘The Angel Room’, a day in which they shepherd the Waldorf wee ones on a quest to purchase handmade gifts for their family members. The classroom is transformed into a magical winterscape, with the merchandise all laid out in the most enticing way… It tied in wonderfully with the sixth grade curriculum; Elihu’s class is currently studying economics, and this became a real-life exercise in learning how to conduct transactions, deduct expenses and realize a profit. (The proceeds from the sale go into the class fund for trips and special expenses.)

While the tiny children waited to be greeted and escorted by a sixth grade angel through the transformed classroom, they and their families spent some time in the large eurythmy room, enjoying music, puppet shows and home-baked treats. The two hours went by fast, and after so much setting up and tearing down, it’s hard to imagine it ever happened at all, because by Sunday afternoon the classroom looked as if nothing out of the ordinary had gone on. (The Waldorf school sets a great example of living life with a certain Zen-like attitude; routinely events like this are thoughtfully and lovingly prepared for – and then promptly packed away and cleaned up. The process becomes as much a reward as the goal activity itself.) The Angel Room is a relatively new tradition at the school, but I’m sure it will last for years. It brought out the very best in Elihu and his classmates and it was incredibly moving to watch their tenderness as they guided the little ones.

The day before the Angel Room was a wet and wintry day, and since Elihu was caught up with homework, and there was little to do inside, we decided to pack up his rc helicopters and head out to the mall to do a little flying. In the past we’ve used the generously sized open area outside the mall gym. With a good thirty foot ceiling and off to the side of the mall’s main corridor, the space is perfect for flying. Until one gets shut down by the mall cops, that is. I can’t help but wonder if the bored sales clerks in the neighboring jewelry store narked on us. It was quite a let down – Elihu had been waiting to practice flying his Blade heli for a while now with no luck (it requires some serious space). He took it well, and as a small consolation I arranged for him to fly some helis at one of the free-standing kiosks. Until another mall manager found him and asked him to stop. I racked my brain, where could we go now? Indoor ice rinks, nope. The Y? No. The auditorium at Skidmore College? No, probably not. And then it hit me – Lowe’s! With ginormously (that’s a sixth grade-sanctioned adjective) high ceilings and lots of airspace, it was certainly worth trying.

In minutes we were enjoying the lumber section of the home improvement store all to ourselves. Thankfully the inclement weather had kept builders away. The employees weren’t busy either, and they enjoyed watching Elihu fly and then chatting with him afterwards. One by one, Elihu exhausted the charge in each machine. We’ve never had such a golden opportunity before. It’s a great new resource and we’re thrilled to have discovered it. Maybe a little angel gave us the inspiration. One never knows.

IMG_2463Ready to fly.

IMG_2468Organization is key.

Elihu enjoys a long rc flight and tells us a little about the particulars of the craft.

IMG_2447He had a pretty good run before the mall cops shut him down.

IMG_2487Elihu got to demo the quadcopter at the kiosk. Again, until the cops caught up with him.

IMG_2623The sixth grade classroom before its transformation.

IMG_2277The short hallway into the room, before…

IMG_2499… and after.

IMG_2381

Mr. Esty gives the display some final consideration.

IMG_2374Everything looks so inviting.

IMG_2370Elihu enjoys a laugh with his classmate’s little sister Cara.

IMG_2365Beautiful! We’re ready for tomorrow…

IMG_2494Mr. Esty goes over the duties of the sixth grade angels.

IMG_2496The room awaits its first little customers.

IMG_2542Elihu takes his first charge through the room.

Elihu, showing a young one around the room of gifts.

IMG_2554Adam and Sawyer are the right guys for this job!

IMG_2578There’s a lot going on in the eurythmy room as folks wait for their turn.

IMG_2531There’s a puppet show…

IMG_2565…and music

IMG_2506Angel Norah helps the little ones color their gift bags.

IMG_2592Elihu was excited to play a couple of solo pieces.

IMG_2605A couple of the sixth grade girls did a reading of their work – it was very funny!

IMG_2520The angels take a little break and watch the show.

IMG_2645Before long, all was quiet and things were made ready for school to begin again the next morning. Everyone pitched in and made the job go much faster than I would have expected. Can you believe this is what the main hallway of the school looks like? We both feel so lucky to be a part of this oasis in such a chaotic, fast-paced, over-stimulated world. We thank our angels we found this place.

 

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.

 

The Wait December 21, 2013

Harder than the not knowing, I think, is the knowing. Knowing that my father will die any time now. Maybe during the night, maybe tomorrow. Likely after tomorrow, I think, as Elihu will be leaving tomorrow night to visit his dad in Chicago. I think dad will probably wait until he’s said goodbye to his grandson. But either way, his death is not as far off as I’d recently thought.

Seems I’ve been fooling myself in tiny ways. I talk about it, I try my best to be upfront and honest, thinking it will help me to wrap my brain around this, maybe even deep down thinking that my talk will stall the event too. And in my waking day with all its distractions and busyness I am ok. Even though I speak of it, somehow it still doesn’t fully exist as a reality. But when I awake in the middle of the night and find myself alone, the moon lighting up the snow-covered fields, I am scared again. I look to the darkened woods towards mom and dad’s home. It gives me comfort to know he’s still just there, somewhere close, still alive. And it shakes me profoundly to imagine him no longer there. It doesn’t seem real, this waiting for death. Knowing it’s coming, knowing this time it’s not a case of almost. Not a case of weeks more, not even a case of days more, and not a case of more opportunities for forgotten stories, for recountings or great revelations. I suppose there are many cases of death bed surprises, but I don’t forsee any here. The only surprise will be in the finality of dad’s absence. And waiting for that is so hard. But lest I complain too much, I stop myself in time to realize that we are very, very lucky here. My father is dying at home. So many people are robbed of that possibility. Nursing homes and hospitals are most often the places for farewell. My father’s final breath will be taken in his home, and God willing, the three of us present for his departure.

I’ve seen my mother falter now, yet still she remains ever in charge, on top of things and very much ‘in character’. I see the edges of her soul curling in though, beginning to yield to the immense wave of sorrow that is almost upon her. Her eyes tear up, but she doesn’t give in. I’ve hardly ever seen her cry in my whole life. Because she is always in charge, dammit. She holds her own world so tightly in her control. Sometimes I think if she were to cry she might never stop. She’s got years’ worth stored up. She is due. While I personally do not look forward to having to go through both dad’s death and mom’s newfound expression of grief, it will be so very good for her. And it may be healthy for us, too. She is always the rock, the solver of problems, the caretaker. Maybe relinquishing all of that – if only for a few moments – will be a very healthy thing. Might even alter our dynamic. Certainly things will be different after we experience the death of her husband and my father together. It’s funny how even though dad is mostly sleeping, and for all intents and purposes not truly with us, the family still feels normal. Each of us in our roles, the four of us existing as a unit. A dysfunctional unit to the end, but a unit nonetheless. So this too will change.

Mom is planning on going grocery shopping tomorrow and leaving Andrew to sit with dad, in order to give him some private time to use as he will with his father. He and dad have always had a sort of ‘non’ relationship. No anger really, no overt animosity, however Andrew has seldom had much to say to dad. And I can get that; Andrew’s not functioning fully as a healthy person to begin with, and then they have so very little to talk about. Dad lives in a world that we, outside his academic, early music world don’t really know or understand well. And beside the bits of humor he uses as a means to communicate, dad has never had much to bring to the table conversationally. At least not in the past five years or so. Not since he stopped being the active director of his Festival of Baroque Music. He had a full and rich life at one time, but we as children knew little of it. When he no longer had that life – essentially by the time we moved here to New York – there was simply less to talk about I suppose. Even I myself (chatterbox though I may be) had very little to say to him save small talk – and dad had little to say in response. My world was so different from his, unfathomable to him you might say. So our relationship was based mostly on an unspoken love simply because he is my father and I his daughter. I don’t know how Andrew will act. I can’t begin to know what’s going on in his head now. But I suppose, no matter what, his heart is breaking too. Because after all, this is still his father.

Elihu and I visited mom and dad tonight. Our hope was to get two good visits in, one today and one tomorrow before we leave for the airport. Elihu will say his final goodbye to his grandfather then. I was able to sit with dad tonight by myself, and I’m glad of it. Somehow, with the cover of nighttime, the gentle glow of the Christmas tree and the Robert Shaw Chorale (for whom my father once played harpsichord) singing the ancient music of the season in the background, it was the perfect environment for close, tender words. Dad smiled nearly the whole time, and I was able to elevate him in the bed to a near sitting position. I showed for him a photo I’d enlarged of the two of us from fifty years ago, me as a baby on his lap at the harpsichord. I was happy to see recognition in his face. “Oh, what a cute baby” he said. “This was in Hamden” I offered. He nodded. Good, I thought, he understands. I began to cry, and before I knew it I was almost sobbing, holding his hand and leaning over him. I had some things I wanted to say, but it still felt a little silly, cliché perhaps, to launch into this end-of-life monologue. But I had to. I started by telling him that I just couldn’t believe he was now such an old man. And said that getting old like this sure was a bitch, huh? To which he, of course, laughed weakly and solidly agreed. I thanked him for making me the musician I was. Then I thought better of that, for I’d always considered myself something of a just-enough-to-get-by, jack-of-all, master-of-none sort of musician. My dad was the real thing. So instead I said through streams of tears “Thank you for giving me the gift of music.” Holding his hand the whole time, I lowered my head many times, kissed his cheek and told him I loved him over and over. And I thanked him over and over. He said something, and I had to put my ear to his mouth. “What, dad?” “You have always been the most outstanding child” he repeated to me. And he too told me over and over that he loved me. Then he said something so out of the blue – and instantly I recognized the child in him; “I miss my dad, and my mommy too.” I’d never heard him use any word but ‘mother’ before in talking about his mom. Did he once call his mother ‘mommy’ as a young boy? I tried to comfort him, and told him that he’d see his mom and dad very soon. I hoped this gave him ease, but if so, it didn’t register on his face. Instead, he had a distant look, and he was lost to his thoughts again. I could hear that Elihu and mom were wrapping up their visit in the kitchen, and I sensed our window was closing, so I backed away and let my son move in close to his grandpa.

Elihu had drawn an Ivory Billed Woodpecker for dad, and held it up for him. Again, dad took it in with appreciation. Elihu set the picture down and himself leaned in to speak to grandpa. Elihu, wanting to convey his deepest love to his grandfather, kept saying over and over that “he was just the best grandpa ever” and he told him over and over that he loved him so much. I wish I could have heard more, but I did hear bits of dad’s response… He spoke of loving him forever and nothing would change that. And Elihu agreed. Then dad went off onto a lovely sort of speech…”Every day is a new day, and a beautiful day. And every night is a new night, and a beautiful night. And we will all live together forever…” He said more than this, but I struggled in my mind to latch onto these worlds, that I might take something away with me. Mom came over and took a few pictures of us, I took some too in a vain attempt to capture this final visit, but I doubt in the dim light any will come out. She fed him some chocolate pudding which I was happy to see he ate and enjoyed – and I was happier still to see him wipe his moustache clean. Somehow it gave a slight relief to see him doing something so ordinary without thinking twice. And then we shared a moment I believe we were so lucky to witness one last time; Elihu and dad spoke their made-up language to each other, with gestures (dad’s greatly reduced!) and all the inflections and such to imply content. It was a weaker version of their bit, but still very funny and we all four laughed. That was nice. Truly, I didn’t expect it.

We put the bed flat again for dad to rest. We’d been there nearly a half an hour, and we’d found the natural conclusion to our visit. Elihu, mom and I went to the kitchen. We needed to get home – it was already turning into a late night, and I had yet to make dinner. While mom and Elihu chatted, I snuck back for one last peek at dad, who was not yet asleep. I put my hand on his, leaned in again and told him I loved him. “I love you too, Elizabeth” he said, and then I left.

Elihu doesn’t seem as hit by this as I’d thought he would be. After all, he’s the kid who gets things. But maybe it’s precisely because he does get things that he isn’t as worked up. He even told grandpa that he should leave us now – and then said to him “don’t worry, it’s just like turning a page”. ! It could also be said that for as precocious a child as he is, he is still a child. I myself don’t remember being whalloped by my grandparent’s deaths… I do remember the heartbreak of losing my maternal grandma, but I also remember getting over it rather easily. I was eleven. Hm. He even said to me recently that he doesn’t like to get sad, because that would be like getting mad at what is, and that would be a waste of energy. Ok my little Buddha boy. I think he’ll get it at some point, but sadly for me, his memories of Grandpa Robert as a functioning, alert man are diminishing, and so he doesn’t feel the loss as he would have if there’d been no gradual decline. After all, it’s been a few years since dad was ‘himself’. But thankfully, Elihu has had five years to know him, and at least a couple of those were good. We didn’t visit as often as I would have liked, due mostly in part to Elihu’s acute allergies and mom and dad’s cat-filled house, but I can’t kick myself for that now. I remind myself that we visited as we were able. And that Elihu and grandpa had plenty of lovely moments. Elihu may not remember them well, but I do. I have to be happy with that. It’s more than lots of folks get.

I must get to bed. My stash of sleeping pills is running low – and I’ll certainly need one tonight. I can’t begin to sleep. My head continues to ache and I’m full of dread. I’m flat-out scared of saying goodbye to my only child tomorrow, and then turning back to the business of watching my father die, and watching as his lifeless body is taken away… How in hell will we do this? I know, I know… everyone goes through it. This is nothing new. For millions upon millions of people this is nothing new, I know. Only thing is, for me, it is.

And for now, the hardest part is the wait.

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Mom told me as we left tonight that dad had hemorraghed a huge amount of blood the night before and his bleeding was slight yet ongoing. He seems in a lovely state of comfort and ease, so we don’t need to worry what caused it. Our only concern is he not be in any pain. This does seem to indicate however that his death will come fairly soon.

 

Very Merry December 24, 2012

A sunny Christmas Eve day here in upstate New York. If chickens can know happiness, then ours are surely feeling that way now; post-morning walk in the field, they sit unmoving on their perches while our goose basks in the afternoon sun in what seems a state of contentment.

Early this morning, Elihu awoke with a start, going from a deep sleep to sitting upright in bed, eyes wide open, as if he’d just remembered something. “It’s not Christmas morning yet” I said, and he laid back down. “I know.” he said. “I was just practicing.” In a way very uncharacteristic of his usual 9 year old self, he went back to sleep.

I didn’t wait for Elihu to wake, I was happy to putter about on my own for awhile in the early morning hour and tend to the chores. As usual, I threw my on jacket and muck boots over my pajamas and went out to tend the chickens. I enjoyed the hens crowding about my feet, following my every move. I had fun plucking off the odd bird who jumped into the feed bin and tossing her out. I stomped through the night’s ice on the water trough and finished my odds and ends outside.

Elihu and I enjoyed a breakfast of scrambled eggs and hot sauce, while he told me all about different kinds of Albatrosses. We made up two fictional spoofs of bird species; the Glue-Footed Booby and the Wondering Albatross. We cracked ourselves up with all their various characteristics. A little later we went down the road to the post office to mail off a Christmas card to David Attenborough and also Elihu’s sister, who lives in England too. We were both amazed that we could mail a letter from our sleepy little town here in the country and know that before too long it will end up far across the ocean, thousands of miles away…

All the gifts have been wrapped, the plans have been made, the dishes all washed. For the first time in months, I have nothing to do, no obligations to fulfill, nowhere to be.  Later tonight we’ll go to a party of some very old friends. Tomorrow grandma and grandpa and Uncle Andrew will come over. And of course, tonight, long after we’ve fallen asleep, Santa Claus will come. This is my first Christmas ever with Elihu here, and perhaps the last Christmas that Santa will ever visit. So I feel very lucky.

And for now, I feel very merry too. I wish the same for all of you…

 

Gifts Assorted December 24, 2011

I played piano for a holiday party in one of the historic mansions of Saratoga Springs last night. Can’t help but reflect on how things change. Not too long ago I myself was the hostess of a similar affair. Then too, I sat at the piano and played Christmas carols and led the guests in song. Only now, my back faced the singers as I sat at an old upright, out-of-tune piano in the foyer of someone else’s home. Back then, I looked out over my ancient baby grand at my friends as they sang, enjoying their faces, the look of pleasure and togetherness I recognized on them, savoring the moment and filing away the images in my mind to remember forever. Last night, although kindly treated and fully appreciated, I was an outsider. For a moment here and there, I missed the old days, and ever so briefly, my heart became sad. Even still, having been rather cloistered away in my tiny country cottage these past three years, I was happy at the opportunity to be playing again among people.

Elihu had spent the evening running up and down the four wooden staircases, dropping wine corks down the center to the hall below, just missing the heads of guests standing in line for the bathroom. He befriended a small boy – very much of the same spirit as he – and the two darted through the forest of grown ups, following on small adventures through the house’s many rooms. As I played just about the whole three hours I was there, he had lots of time to himself. The books and drawing materials I always bring along with us to keep him entertained sat untouched at my feet as he explored the huge house, befriending cats, a dog, discovering a large game fish mounted on the wall of the billiard room on the top floor. He announced when we got in the car – and reiterated several times later on – that it had been his very favorite party ever. And this kid’s been to his share. “Why?” I asked, sincerely curious. “Because I could be alone. No one was watching me, making sure I could see something, making sure I was ok… I was with everyone and I was still alone!” I assured him I understood completely. I did. I have lived most of my life as a lone person in a crowd. It can be a wonderful feeling. Sometimes it’s just the best of both worlds.

Today Elihu flew to Chicago to be with his father for Christmas. So far Elihu has not spent a Christmas here. Probably never will. How can I deprive him of being in a household of two small boys, a mommy and a daddy on Christmas morning? I can’t. Elihu knows that Santa is old-fashioned at heart; he honors all twelve days of Christmas and seems to prefer visiting the country homes after that first, too-busy night of the holiday. That means after Elihu comes back, on New Year’s day, he may indeed find presents under our humble tree well before the wise men reach Bethlehem. So I do have Christmas with him. Only it’s just not on the 25th. And he ends up getting ‘more Christmas’ than most kids do. All around, it’s ok.

It was twenty-five years ago tonight that Fareed and I went on our first date. “VIP” seats at the Nutcracker in Chicago. They turned out to be a couple of folding chairs behind the last row of seats, hastily set up for us as the lights dimmed. Fareed had forgotten where he parked the car, so after the show we waited in the cold of the underground parking lot until it thinned out a bit and the car, a retired suburban cop vehicle, could finally be spotted. Checking first to see if it was ok with him, I removed my stockings. As it was a first date, I’d been trying to impress. Clearly, after the folding chairs and lost car I didn’t have to suffer through pantyhose all night. Off they came, ending up in the bottom of my purse. Then we were off to a fine, downtown Indian restaurant. A world opened up for me in that dinner. Then we visited his Rogers Park apartment, which was not far from my own Rogers Park apartment, the one in which we would live together for the following twelve years. It was then and there that he played for me a recording of John Williams playing the Aranjuez concerto. What did I say when it was over? I asked him if he could please play it again. To him, this seemed to seal the deal. For me, I was just trying to understand this strange new music. I needed a second pass at it. As I drove down the dark highway tonight after dropping our son off at the airport, I remembered what day it was. And our story came back. Hadn’t thought of it in years. Can it really have been a quarter of a century ago? Truly, it was the night that changed my life. I wouldn’t have my son, my life, and all that I’ve learned from it, if it weren’t for that one night, so long ago.

The first year we lived here we went back to Dekalb to visit over the holiday. I cannot imagine how I did that; I slept in my own house – along with my husband, his young girlfriend and their baby, waking up in that same house on Christmas morning to share the day with them – as if we were all some sort of a natural family. (I guess ultimately we are some type of family. Strained, not quite at peace yet, but in some way all related, like it or not.) I had been trying to show my young son that everything was ok; that I was ok, that I approved of this new family. Elihu had my permission to love them. I did not want my son to feel guilty for loving his new baby brother, however stunned I still was at the new baby even being here. (Today I realize that the antidepressants I was on back then probably enabled me to make such a brave visit, because I cannot imagine making such a visit today, ‘clean’ and fully alert as I am now.) On Christmas Eve I’d taken a prescription sleeping pill, and as it began to kick in, mercifully numbing me to the current surreality of my life, my then five-year old son told me he wanted to leave something for Santa. I was too groggy to deal with logistics this last-minute; we were in bed, for crying out loud. “Santa always gets cookies.” Elihu said. “But he’s fat; he doesn’t need cookies. I want to give him something he needs.” I struggled to stay awake for him as he thought about it for a minute. “I’ll bet he needs a screwdriver. A phillips screwdriver. He could really use that.” I told him to run downstairs and ask Jill and Daddy. So he did. A few minutes later he crawled into bed with me, happy to know that his gift for Santa – a small, phillips head screwdriver – was under the tree waiting for him. That Christmas may have been strange and painful, but I will never forget Elihu’s true love and concern for Santa as expressed in that one, tiny and meaningful gift. It more than made up for it.

I stopped in to see my parents after I dropped Elihu off at the airport. We had a nice visit. They were watching different ballet companies’ versions of the Nutcracker, a marathon of performances after which the viewers could call in and vote for their favorite. I told my folks that just that afternoon Elihu had recounted the Nutcracker for me – only he didn’t want to tell me how it ended and ruin the story for me. ! He’s a thoughtful kid. And I appreciate that. Not sure if I’m as thoughtful a kid; I often worry about my parents growing old and having all that house and life to take care of, yet I don’t stop in too often, despite my living next door. Life just seems to take over, and guilt follows. So I’m glad that I at least stopped in. Made going home to my first decadent night of house-tidying and free-form internet surfing feel better earned. Plus I knew that they were ok. And that’s something I don’t take for granted these days.

No sooner had I returned home than the phone rang. Elihu just wanted me to know that he had arrived safe and sound. “Love you so much” he said before he hung up. And then I was alone. For the first time in a long while my house was truly empty. I thought about the week before me, an expanse of time that belonged only to me and my private to-do lists. This week, I would to put my house in order. I would file every last paper, toss every last unused article, and donate every last item that needs a new home. For me, this week is truly the best gift ever.

Santa, dear man, you can forget about me this year. I’ve got pretty much everything I need.

 

Pics of Conants’ Night Out December 16, 2011

Robert and Nancy

The Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys

Elihu with Grandpa's harpsichord

Elihu, at the restaurant, post-show

Elihu and Elizabeth

These were taken Tuesday evening at the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, New York. Dad let them use his harpsichord for their performance of Handel’s Messiah. While it no doubt added to the splendor of the concert, the consensus in the Conant camp was that it was hard to hear.  Seems the sound went up to the mile-high ceiling rather than out to the audience. Nonetheless, it was a great room for the music. After a long day of school, no supper and a long drive, Elihu began to get tired, so we left before the end. Ah well – a nice evening anyway. Just wish I had a better camera. My pics are never very sharp – but they’re enough to remember the evening, and that’s really what counts.