The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Minor/Major April 25, 2021

This morning I took my son to have his first covid vaccine. As he is still 17 and a minor, I was allowed to accompany him. But for his second vaccine in three weeks, I will be made to wait outside.

There really is no way to prepare a mother’s heart for this transition. Of course I’ve known it was coming and have tried as best I can to make peace with the new reality. Come this Wednesday, Elihu will no longer be a minor. No longer will I be the keeper of his medical records, no longer will I be responsible for his money, no longer will I be the recipient of his grades. How very strange indeed. I have been this person’s sole keeper in every way for the entirety of his life – and in just one moment the whole thing comes to a close. Thankfully he is an incredibly responsible person, and he is well-equipped to take the reigns. But me, I’m just not ready to hand them over.

When Elihu was two and a half years old he had a bad case of the flu, and I took him to the emergency room. There was a one-year-old in the waiting room, and Elihu doted on the tiny boy. The child had had an earache and was frantically crying in distress, to which Elihu responded with such tenderness. He cooed to the toddler, helped distract and soothe him. They spent a good fifteen minutes together, and by the time we were called in, Elihu had coaxed the child into a quiet and peaceful state. It was shortly after we got into the car and began to drive home that Elihu spoke his very first sentence. “When I grow up, I want to have a baby, Mama”. I looked in the rear view mirror, stunned at what I’d just heard. I saw him just sitting there, his pacifier returned to his mouth and looking out the window. My tiny boy, such a huge concept. My son had always been different, even at that age I’d known it. This sentence was just the first of many confirmations. He has always been wise beyond his years.

I first knew there was something distinctly different about my son when he was four months old. Aside from being colicky and hard-pressed to sleep without me next to him, I just knew something was not right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but clues were starting to add up. When I walked him outside in a stroller, he’d close his eyes and slump to the side, but when we’d enter a dark indoor space he’d sit up and open his eyes. He couldn’t open his eyes in the great room of our home, the south wall of which was entirely made of windows, but he came to life in the dark basement playroom. I knew he had an inability to see in bright light, but until he could speak to us, we’d be left to guess about how he experienced his world. One evening I remember nursing and then rocking him, trying unsuccessfully to get him to sleep. And so I held him tightly to me and twisted my torso from side to side, desperate to find the rhythm that would finally take. I remember pulling him away from my chest and looking into his eyes, to find that his pupils were rapidly bouncing up and down. I flushed with adrenaline; had I just done this to him? Had I shaken my baby? A careful inventory of my actions told me that I had not, and yet something had changed. I remember wishing so dearly that I could just know if he was afraid, if he was in discomfort. How, oh how could I make it better?

It was my friendship with the keyboard player in Steppenwolf that became the key to understanding what was ‘wrong’ with Elihu. Years earlier I’d met John Kay, the lead singer and fellow who penned the iconic song “Born to Be Wild”, and I’d known him to have some condition with his eyes that made him colorblind, light-sensitive and also unable to drive (ironic, isn’t it? His song is the anthem for bikers everywhere, and yet John’s never driven a day in his life). As I sat at my desk pondering my son’s situation, I flashed back on this memory and immediately fired off an email to Mike. He responded, confirming my suspicion. And there it was. Without an internet search, without a doctor’s diagnosis. I’d learned that my son had Achromatopsia. Now, finally, I knew.

I’d had some neighbor girls take Elihu to the park, and instantly I felt a deep panic, an intense need to find and hold my baby. Now that I knew, I had to make it better. I ran through the streets until I spied the small clump of kids – Elihu was riding on the shoulders of one of the taller girls, his eyes squinted shut. I grabbed him from her and held him to my chest, shielding his eyes from the daylight. I shall always remember how I felt in that moment; I become a fiercely protective mother, and in that instant I became wholly dedicated to my son’s comfort and ease. In the months that followed I found a low vision doctor in Chicago – who actually specialized in Achromats – and Elihu would soon get his first dark glasses. He would take his first steps outdoors, and our world would become a little less stressful. And even though his father loved him dearly, he did not share my concerns for our son. He wasn’t moved by Elihu’s first steps in daylight, he thought I made too much of Elihu’s light sensitivity, and he would often chastise me for coddling our boy. But I didn’t care. Like I said, my mother’s heart was fierce. Nothing would prevent me from being Elihu’s champion.

There was so much I needed to impart to my son. Ever since he could walk it was my deepest desire to equip him to live as well as possible in this difficult world. My heart longed to give him ease, to give him insight and understanding. There was so much to teach him – where to begin? Folks who know me understand that I’m pretty frank and unedited in my speech. I say what I mean, and I believe for the most part that it’s better to express than to withhold. And that’s the tack I took with my son. If my four-year-old wanted to know how an engine worked, I was going to explain it to him. Seriously. He was going to get the real story, not some dumbed-down explanation meant just for kids. I always spoke to my tiny son as if he was an adult. That’s not to say I didn’t coo to him as a baby, or speak in tender, maternal tones to him – in fact I always spoke to him as gently and lovingly – and respectfully – as possible. I never scolded him as if he were an idiot. I always offered an explanation of actions and consequences, as if he understood. Because if he didn’t yet understand, he would at some point.

How could I teach him about the seasons, the holidays, the traditions of our world? How could I convey the context, the meanings of so many seemingly random cues? And if he saw no color at all, and if indeed the world was hazy and hard to see, how could I teach him to discern things? All of this nagged at me during my son’s childhood. And so I chose to read to him. A lot. (I wish now that I’d kept a list of the dozens upon dozens of books we read. I implore all new parents who might be reading this to keep a log of the tomes you read to your child. In revisiting them you will also revisit shared childhood memories.) Since my son’s vision was not great, and since reading for a good length of time fatigued him, I felt it was best that I take on the job. Every night of his life until he was around ten or eleven I lay next to him and read. Oh the places we went together. The adventures we had. What a huge and full life we had just from our nighttime books alone. This, I think, is in large part why my son turned out to be such a thinker. Having limited vision has also contributed; he has been left to live much of his life inside of his thoughts. While the other kids were watching movies or playing video games, Elihu was identifying birdsongs, inventing melodies of his own or creating lines of poetry.

My mother’s heart had always been heavy with the knowledge that my son would not always be able to join his classmates in so many experiences that most kids consider mundane. Swimming doesn’t work well on account of the bright light that usually accompanies the experience. Moving fast – as in running – is dicey in that Elihu can’t really see things until they’re upon him. When he was smaller the two of us had a system we used while out walking whereby he would minimize the many missteps, falls and scrapes that came of his limited vision. Elihu couldn’t always discern differences in grade, so as we walked together I’d quietly offer “step up” or “flat surface” as we went along. So imagine my surprise when one day at lunchtime my legally blind child whizzed by me on a bike in front of his school! His fifth grade teacher had taught him in just a few periods. I’d always wondered how – or even if – we would tackle this skill. I cried! Oh such gratitude I had for that dear woman! This step was huge. And it opened new doors for my son that I had previously thought would never be options. And can you imagine that my twelfth-grade son has been getting straight As in his phys ed classes? In fact he is even rather aggressive in some sports – but if you’d told me this a few years ago I would not have believed it possible.

Elihu’s father had decided to leave the marriage our son was five. I’d thought that Elihu was too young to grasp the situation, and so when we moved across the country to live in a house next door to his grandparents, I’d thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. He would have everything he needed, lots of nature around, and family too. I always welcomed his father into our home, and have always encouraged their relationship, so he saw his father quite a bit in the early years here at the Hillhouse. (My friends never understood this arrangement; they thought it was wrong to have my ex stay here with us. I thought it was the humane and right thing by way of both dad and son. My comfort could take a back seat for a few days here and there.) I did absolutely everything I could to ensure my son had the best possible childhood. I think I did the best I could with my situation.

However, it became apparent in the first few years post-move, that Elihu had been deeply saddened by the change. I’d thought that if I’d kept up appearances and continued to be of relatively good cheer that it would mitigate any possible negative outcomes. I hadn’t wanted my son to suffer the emotional challenges that other children of divorced parents do. Yet for a while my dear son really was troubled. If I’d expected him to be sensitive to the nuances of life, how was it that I thought he wouldn’t notice this huge life change? A year or so after we moved here I chose to speak to him candidly about the divorce, how it had troubled me too, but how both people needed to be in agreement for marriage to work, and how his father and I were not in agreement. I believe that the truth helped him to understand and make some peace with the situation. It was a really tough experience for both of us, but we got through it by addressing it honestly. Hard a time as it was, it helped us each to grow and become more emotionally resilient.

I needn’t worry about my son now. In fact, I’m tremendously eager for the life that awaits him. He is completely ready to take on absolutely anything. (Recently I apologized – again – for having brought him into this crappy world. I asked him if he might be a bit discouraged about the challenges ahead. “On the contrary,” he answered. “I’m excited. I’m gonna make life my bitch”. !!) Me, I’ve never been particularly good at anything – I don’t enjoy working hard (unless it involves music or writing, then I’m all in), I never did well in school, never had a real day job, never felt like I did things the right or ‘normal’ way. Whatever that may be. However there is one thing I know that I have done very well: I have raised a happy and successful human being. I have given my son love, respect, education, humor and a shit-ton of really good, home-cooked meals. I have spoken to him as a peer. I have held nothing back. There are plenty of books on child-rearing which will tell you I did a lot of things wrong. Most parents would probably frown on my parenting choices. So glad I didn’t listen to all that static.

Such a strange thing that along with my greatest success also comes my greatest challenge: letting it all go. How do I do that? Elihu has been my partner for seventeen long years. Seeing him off into the world is going to be the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. But it’s essential for my growth, for his too. It’s a mandatory part of the process. And once I’m past the fear, I know there’s going to be a lot of joy.

Because this next chapter of our lives is going to be huge. Major, in fact.

______________________________________________________________________

An update on the college journey:

With a GPA of 4.3, an extensive lists of personal achievements, fluency in four languages plus some pretty exceptional writing skills, Elihu and I had felt he had a fairly good chance of being accepted at the nation’s top schools, but it proved to be a surprise when he was rejected by all of the places where he applied (save Harvard, more on that shortly).

We both understand that this year is a unique one; with gap year students plus those forced to wait a year due to the pandemic, there are a whole lot more students vying for spots. At the end of the day Elihu has been accepted by RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York) with a generous scholarship, but in that he attended two summer programs there – and it’s a mere 35 minute drive from home – he’d rather go somewhere new, different and a bit further from home. Plus his interest in liberal arts has really ramped up over the past few years, so he’s been hesitant to commit to a technical school.

He has been put on the Harvard waitlist, and he’s done everything in his power to distinguish himself from the crowd. He’s personally written to every administrator who might have a part in the final decision. Truly, he’s been tenacious. But in an unexpected twist, Elihu has been strongly advised by several mentors not to choose Harvard, even if accepted. They make the point that he will more easily rise to the top in a less demanding school, and that he can attend an Ivy for graduate work if it still appeals. Interesting input, and it will remain under consideration.

How surprising to us that at this late date Elihu still does not know where his future lies. To his credit he’s completely calm about the whole thing. Not much he can do. He’s done his very best, and now it’s just time to let the universe do its thing… Feel free to visit my Facebook page for updates. (We have been told that Harvard will respond with their decision by mid May.)

 

Close to Closing April 7, 2021

This is a first.

I’m writing this post, using thumbs only, on my phone. And my kid has been rejected by his top three choices for college.

Although letdowns of this magnitude are not Elihu’s usual lot, he is being characteristically stoic and undaunted. Rather, I’m the one who’s most upset at the recent news.

This will be the briefest of posts, for I wish only to convey something of an update on our life’s progress here at the Hillhouse.

With my son’s having a GPA of 4.3 and a slew of exceptional accomplishments in many disciplines – plus a mind possessed of top-notch critical thinking skills and fluency in four languages – I cannot understand how it is that Elihu was not accepted by MIT, Yale nor Princeton. Truly, we had thought the challenge ahead would simply be choosing between the acceptances, not coming to terms with the rejections. At the moment Elihu is on the final waitlist at Harvard, but they had over fifty-seven thousand applicants and have fewer than two thousand spots. So it doesn’t look very hopeful. I get it. And so does my son. But still. It’s a challenge to accept that his future reality will be quite different from our imaginings.

This college application experience reminds me a lot of what it feels like to buy a house. When you find that perfect place, you fall in love with a vision of how your new life will be when you live there. And you begin to imagine all the details that will go along with it. The finished basement, the gorgeous backyard. The programs, the campus… Your mind’s eye gives birth to a whole new world which your heart instantly and happily inhabits. You know what your future feels like in this new neighborhood, in this new school. You can just feel it. You know it deep in your bones. This will be your new home. This will be your new school.

There are superstitions that come into play before the deal is closed, before that acceptance letter arrives, that time in which your future hangs in the balance and nothing is certain except for your strong feelings on the matter. Before that house is yours, before that college accepts you, the world is open to all kinds of signs and foreshadowing of the success to come. You stop to pick up pennies in the parking lot that previously you would’ve stepped over, and they become lucky signs from the universe that things are destined to go your way. The year of your father’s graduating class at Yale pops up in the tally on a receipt and you think to yourself that it’s a done deal: some all-knowing force is surely giving you the nod; your kid is in.

And then – just like that – the deal falls through, the college sends a letter of rejection.

The house will not be your home after all. And your dream college will forever more remain just a dream. And then your thinking changes. No amount of lucky pennies or prayerful friends seem to have mattered in the end, did they? Had the prayers and good energy meant nothing? Perhaps all of your hopeful preparations had been for naught anyhow, perhaps the outcome had already long been determined by divine providence… But in the end, none of this really matters. Because no matter the hows and whys, the big question still remains: just what happens now?

Today we find ourselves in a completely new place. In a strange limbo we hadn’t anticipated. It seems that all we can do is continue to live. Collect the eggs, do the homework, enjoy the arrival of spring. We’ve made our offers, so all we can do now is wait. Elihu has had a fairly high-end technical school in his back pocket the whole time, much of it already covered by a generous scholarship which he was awarded this past year. It had always been there as a sort of last-ditch insurance. So it’s ok. It’s just not ideal. And I’m sorry if I come off sounding like we’re entitled, but my child has worked his ass off and I believe he deserves to study at a top institution. These rejections have been a bitter pill for me to swallow, but of course the kid is being level-headed and pragmatic about it all. We both know that covid is to blame for the flood of applicants. We both know that it is an unusual year. But me, I’m a mother who’s always done everything I could to support my child, so I can’t be anything but deeply disappointed.

What’s done is done. Elihu can have no regrets, he’s done everything right, he’s done everything to the best of his ability. There are a couple of schools remaining on the list, and by the end of this month we should know what the options are. Before long we’ll find that new home, we’ll sign on the line and close the deal.

 

Middling March 8, 2021

In this first week of March, Elihu and I exist in an interesting and unique place in our lives.

Today we are at home, each of us ensconced in our own projects, each working in our own individual spaces, yet each of us knowing and feeling the other to be not far away. We are together, yet alone. Every so often one of us will approach the other to share our most recent achievement, and the other will bear witness. We offer praise, critique, input, advice. We share a moment together before retreating back to our respective workplaces. And I love this way of living. We two are so comfortable together, so attuned to each other’s nuances and ways of thinking. Elihu speaks aloud his newly learned Chinese vocabulary, and I repeat it to the best of my ability. I see that the tree sparrows have returned, and he joins me at the kitchen window to watch them on the feeder while we marvel together at their precisely timed arrival. Elihu references a beginning line from a Tom Lehrer parody, and I finish it. I play an arrangement idea at the piano for a pop song I’m working on, and then Elihu plays me a favorite passage from a Brahms symphony. Sometimes we’ll play a short improvised duet of tuba and piano. And after we’ve enjoyed the other’s company for a short while, the moment concludes most naturally, and we each return to our solitude. But it is a safe sort of solitude, as in the back of our minds (at least in the back of this mother’s mind) we both know that the other is but a room away. And this, at least for me, is the key element to this current state of domestic bliss.

March is a time which has always been both hopeful and trying; it is the time of year when trees begin to drip their sap onto the car windshield, assuring us that the cold will break before long, yet it is also the time of year when the winter can offer up its worst in ice storms and heavy snows, burdening our hearts with a desperate feeling that the green will never reappear. For me, March has always represented the flat and still center of the year. A day in mid March has a strange, etheric, out-of-time sort of feeling to it. Neither winter, nor summer, neither active nor passive. It is the still center of existence. This day in particular has felt just like that. Not only in that is is that time of waiting for Nature to shift, but this year it is also for the fact that Elihu and I have no idea whatsoever where he will be going to college. Having heard from only one school (which although a top-notch institution, is his last choice), we are left to wonder at the trajectory of his life, even at this late date in the academic year. While most of his peers have been accepted and are already shifting their thinking to what will be their new homes and lives, we are left unknowing. We are left with a great expanse ahead with no landmarks. It doesn’t bother Elihu though, as he is deeply embedded in his senior project, and spends most of his waking hours in his workshop. He is engrossed, he is focused. And besides, my son is a person who knows how to fully inhabit the present. So he’s ok. And me? Yeah, I’m ok too I suppose. But I’m also not ok. Like March, I’m somewhere in between.

Not knowing isn’t so bad, actually. In fact, it’s kinda fun. It reminds me of how I used to feel, when as a touring musician I’d wake up on the road in a strange new place and for the first few minutes of consciousness in the morning I would try to recall where I was. New York? Ohio? Georgia? Was I in a closet? In a living room? A motel? I would enjoy those first few moments of not knowing. It was a short suspension of reality. I was awake, and yet it was like being in a dream. A strange in-between. And so it is in a similar place in which I find myself to be these days. Existentially in the middle. But truthfully, it feels good. Today we had no place to be, no deadlines to meet. We had only to do what we pleased. Me, I was upstairs at the piano working out new arrangements and making videos, while Elihu was at his bench, wiring up the the innards of his morphing-wing airplane. We crossed paths a few times, laughed at every meeting (ours is a relationship filled with humor) and enjoyed the alone-but-not-alone way of life in our tiny cottage. It was a kind of heaven for us both.

I mentioned to Elihu this concept of not knowing. The idea that at this very point in time, today, March 7th, 2021, we had absolutely no idea where he would be living for the next four years. No idea where life would take him after the summer. I marveled over how odd it felt – after all we had always been ones for planning and knowing. This was an unusual phenomenon for us both. He stopped on his way back downstairs, pausing for a moment on the landing, and considered the idea more deeply. He agreed. It was rather a strange situation to be in. We both stood for a moment, feeling the silence, feeling the unknowing. Then we parted and returned to our workspaces. Before sitting back down at the piano I looked out of the east-facing picture window in our living room. I could see the thawing surface of Saratoga Lake some ten miles distant, and I saw the Vermont mountains behind in the waning sunlight of late afternoon. The poignancy of the moment was acute; this life of ours had always been so full, so busy, so relentless, so unending…. And yet now the end of it all was finally within sight. The late afternoon light gave me that sad, distant and aching feeling in my chest, adding to the gravity of this impending farewell. How many times had I looked out at this same view and felt content, secure in my heart that life was full and good? Sure, many times I have lamented the load I’ve carried without benefit of a partner, many times I’ve grumbled aloud about domestic chores and the drudgery of it all, but many more have been the times I have reflected on how full a life I’ve had, and how lucky I am to have shared much of this adventure with such a person as Elihu. Many times over the past twelve years I have stood at this same window, looking out at the expanse beyond, feeling so deeply fortunate to be in the midst of a pretty wonderful life.

This is a fascinating place in which to exist. If I’m to be completely honest, I fairly dread being without my dearest companion close at hand, but at the same time I am also eager for it to begin; I have so many projects and interests. It always amazes me when people find themselves bored after retirement. It also amazes me that my mother asks what I’ll do with “all of my time” after the kid is gone. How do I begin to answer that? There is always so much to do! So much to learn. Too much! I’m confident things will be ok, I’m fairly certain that I will find my new groove before long. My son will have some major adjusting to do as well. But he’ll do fine too. We’ll both be ok. Knowing that we have both been actively preparing for these upcoming life destinations, I can rest easy in this space in time. Oh and what a rare thing it is not to know where the future will take us! It is actually a pleasurable sort of suspense.

At this moment we are just where we’ve always planned on being. We are ready. Plain and simple, we are here. At the end, at the beginning, and, at the same time, right in the very middle.