The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Crossroads October 2, 2019

Elihu’s big brown eyes looked at me from across the tiny kitchen table. His eyes don’t meet mine much; having limited vision and a ticky disposition, his eyes often dart around, glancing low and to the side, seldom directly at me. “I’m at a crossroads”, he said. I waited for more; sometimes he just says something as a setup with a punchline to follow. I saw no smile beginning on his face, and he said nothing. “You’re at a crossroads?” I asked. He waited another moment. “Yes. And it just hit me tonight”.

It was already past eleven on a school night, and we’d just returned from his weekly rehearsal with the Empire State Youth Orchestra, the highlight of his week. It was a place where he’d finally found his brethren, a place where he had finally found his joy – one that other peers could share with him. A solitary child, this was a revelation and a relief –  for both of us. Last night he’d had a sectional rehearsal with the other low brass players. Elihu had never worked with anyone like this coach before. The session was less about playing, and more about discussing the conceptual aspects of being a musician. Elihu revealed his mathematician’s mind in his answers to the coach’s questions. When no other kids spoke up, Elihu would proffer a response. He was a year younger than the others there, and he was the only one who wasn’t planning on pursuing a career in music, and yet he was more engaged in the conversation than the rest. Elihu said that he could see the thought passing through the coach’s mind: Why wasn’t this kid going to study music? Elihu said that all of a sudden he sort of popped out of his body and viewed the scene from a third person’s perspective. “And the question became obvious to me too: Why wasn’t I going to study music?”

When I’d arrived to pick Elihu up after rehearsal, the teacher who’d led the sectional slowed as he passed me in the parking lot. He turned to me, his horn cases hanging there at his side, and he seemed to be forming a thought. He seemed to want to say something to me, but then after a beat he turned and walked on. I’d noticed this, and had wondered if there hadn’t been some observation he’d wanted to share with the kid’s mom. Perhaps.

Elihu and I began to talk about this idea. Sometimes, when one has a talent or an affinity for something, one feels an obligation to honor it formally. And this was why, I reiterated to my son, I was adamant about finding him a school with a strong music program. He didn’t have to major in music, he just had to keep playing. At the end of the day, we knew where his passion lay. Aviation consumes his thoughts (when he’s not thinking about tuba!) and it has since day one. Ok, so he has picked up the french horn in the past month, yes he can play any recorder extremely well, he can get some sound on a trumpet now too, but that is all stuff that he can continue to do on his own. He’s so naturally talented that it creates in each of us the temptation to just go for it. To take it and excel. But at some point one has to choose. And so we sat together at that tiny island in the kitchen, the silence heavy around us, reviewing the case in our thoughts. Music was important, but aviation was more important. “I think I feel a little sad”, he said. “Yeah, I know what you mean”. But what can one do? Only so much.

This morning when we were talking in the car about his last two years in high school, mapping out the landmark events and making mental notes, we came to realize that next year, his senior year, he won’t have the time to play in the symphony. There will be no concerto audition next year; this year was it. “This is my music year” he said quietly, but confidently. “Yup, this is your music year sweetie. So enjoy the hell out of it.” We turned on the classical station and listened with running commentary until we arrived at school.

It has been months since I’ve written about our lives. A half a year, more specifically. And this mystifies me – how is it that I can’t cull a few hours from my schedule to write a silly post? Partly it’s due to a lack of time and a full life, but it’s more than that. It’s that phenomenon of having so much to do, not doing it, and then falling even further behind. So much has happened that it becomes more and more daunting to try and catch up. Where oh where could I even begin?

This past spring we had Leevi living with us, the exchange student with whom Elihu lived last year at this time in the south of Germany. He became a part of our family, and we had a crazy-full life. His room became a recording studio, and I took on double the mom taxi duties. Feeding another body was a challenge too; I ended up putting groceries on my credit cards, something I’m still feeling the weight of. But this was an experience I could not refuse. The past year was about language and travel, and debt be damned, we won’t remember the bill, but we’ll always remember the experiences.

On the heels of Leevi’s departure, I had Elihu begin private French lessons. My thinking is this: Elihu’s schedule will never be as open as it is now, and his brain will never be as plastic and adept at taking in new skills as it is now. I noted to him that I made the most pronounced advances in my musical skills – learning techniques that continue to serve me now – between the ages of 14 and 18. He concured, and so, taking this to heart, he threw himself into the language lessons and he is now comfortably trilingual. For many other folks from around the world this is nothing to write home about, but for an American kid, I think it’s a tidy achievement.

On the last Saturday of summer this year, we finally buried the old rooster Bald Mountain and Austin, our goofy guinea fowl. We’d spent the sunny hot day harvesting grapes on the vineyard that now lives on Martha’s farm. When we returned home, we collected the frozen bodies from the chest freezer where they’d lain for almost two years now. It was a perfect day; warm, sunny, the air full of tiny flighted creatures buzzing off in all directions. Elihu carried Austin, and I carried Baldie. We set them down, side by side, in the hole that was dug beneath the flowering quince bush, where the old flock used to rest in the afternoons. We stepped back, but it wasn’t quite right. I kneeled down and scooched them together, so that they were spooning. “That feels better, doesn’t it?” I asked Elihu. “Yes, it does feel better”. We stood there, saying nothing, looking at our beloveds. This was to us like saying goodbye to a dog or cat. “We had them both for eight years”, Elihu said, looking down at the two birds. I said nothing, as I wanted to leave space. And then, Elihu started to cry. At first the edges of his mouth curved down in an alarming way, and soon he was sobbing. My son so seldom cries. This was hard to see, but necessary for him. I had already had my cry, but he hadn’t. I touched his arm to offer some comfort – knowing how he disdains physical contact – but what else could I do? He continued to cry, and I waited. And then he turned, and he put his arms around me.

“This is the end”, he said through tears. The late afternoon sun was still warm, but it seemed that a chill was waiting to take its place. “It’s over. My childhood is over. It just came to me. These guys were my childhood. And now, they’re really gone. And so is my childhood”. I could not disagree. Truly, this was the end of that chapter. I’d often felt ridiculous for not having buried them sooner – but life just never presented a window. Now I could see that it was perfectly timed. In the time since the fellows had left us – two years this coming December – we took a small comfort in knowing their familiar bodies still resided with us. Seeing them again after all these months was also somehow comforting – it presented us with a sweet opportunity for closure. We stroked their beautiful feathers one last time, we marveled over Baldie’s enormous spur, over Austin’s helmet. After a few moments more, looking down onto our old friends, we each threw a fist of dirt to begin the farewell.

And then the young man took the shovel and filled the hole.