The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Bag O Dad October 9, 2015

My father’s ashes have resided on North Broadway in Saratoga Springs for nearly two years now. We pass the funeral home each morning as we drive to school. Some mornings we wave and say hello to grandpa, sometimes we call out to him, letting him know that we haven’t forgotten, and we’ll come to get him soon… but most days we do forget. In our minds, that historic mansion on North Broadway is just where dad lives now. Among the tony, gentile and wealthy folk he so often joked about. He had liked to speak in different accents, and would happily interject “I weesh to be reech” into conversations – he even said it again just a few days before he died, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Many were the times he would tell us how life would look for a gentleman of such means; he made mock instructions to his imagined staff, told us how he’d lunch with Marylou or take tea on the veranda. For as long as I can remember, he would make good fun of the money’d folk and their upscale habits, but deep down, I don’t think dad would have minded one bit if such fortune were to have befallen him. Had he the money to express himself fully in this world, I have no doubt he would have surrounded himself with the finest of everything (most notably wine and double-manual harpsichords.)

We’ve always liked knowing he was there, quietly resting on a shelf in the fine home. It feels familiar now, to know that dad “lives on North Broadway”. As I said to the funeral director on the phone today – when I finally felt it was time to see if dad hadn’t overstayed his welcome – that it had been dad’s pleasure to have lived across the street from the Riggis, he generously offered that it instead was the Riggis who were honored to have had him as their neighbor. The Riggi’s enormous home – one which they themselves like to call the ‘Palazzo Riggi’ – has become something of a tourist destination, especially on Halloween. Readers may recall that Elihu won a $100 bill from Mrs. Riggi herself last year for his unique costume. While I posed with the Riggis and my son for a quick selfie, I noticed the Burke Funeral home mansion just behind the camera, and in that second the clash of realities seemed surreal. I said a quiet hello to him as we left the decadent celebration, and once again I wondered how long it would take for me to face the idea that dad was now no more than a shoebox of dust. It still didn’t feel real. Telling ourselves that dad was there somehow offered me some comfort. But the idea of actually seeing – and holding – the small box of his remains felt too real. Last fall I still wasn’t ready. God bless those folks at the funeral home. They’d never once called to tell us to come and pick him up. In fact, the funeral director had even said, shortly after dad’s death, that there was no hurry. I’m not sure most funeral homes are so lax. Don’t know, but I’d like to believe that we’ve been given some good, old-fashioned small-town care here. Yeah, it’s felt nice to know dad was there, taken care of and safe. I feel silly saying that, but there it is.

And here we are. I think we Conants are ready. Tomorrow would have been mom and dad’s 56th wedding anniversary. They married on 10/10 in Manhattan’s upper East side on a fine fall day. After their service they celebrated at the Harvard Club (a Yale man at the Harvard Club? Shhh…) and as they entered the limousine to take them away into the night, they received a telegram of congratulations. Can you imagine? There’s a photo of them, somewhere, in the back seat of the car, leaning in to read the message. It was truly an entirely different era. I think it’s just as well my father’s no longer here with us in this modern world; he was an old-school gentleman and scholar. His was a world of typed correspondence and hand-written notes… it was a slower, gentler world; a world of telegrams, paper and ink.

Although my mother doesn’t come out and say it in so many words, I can sense she might be starting to wonder at how things will end for her. I’m sure she wonders how long she’s got. How can you be 80 and not have such thoughts? I know that I, at 52, have come to understand in a much more profound and real way just how limited our lives are. As comfortable as we humans may have become at ignoring our ultimate fate, there still comes a moment or two when the idea finally gets your attention. I tell ya, knowing that in the next couple of hours I’ll be putting a box with what’s left of my dad’s body into the back seat of my CRV is a little surreal. And it makes this whole idea of actually dying begin to feel very possible. ! Look, I know this is business as usual; all of us deal with death. And at some point in many people’s lives they’ll be faced with the receipt of a loved one in powdered form; in a box, a bag, or if the comedy of life insists, all over the kitchen floor. (I was greatly relieved when Danny told me that the cremains were inside a bag which was then inside a box. !) I shouldn’t be making this such a big deal. But when it’s your first time, when it’s your deal, it is big. I do feel I’m readier for it than I was a year ago, but to be honest, my heart begins to race at the thought of holding dad’s remains. This morning I was missing my father deeply. Maybe having what’s left of him back home again will help soften that. And then again, maybe not.

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The experience of ‘picking dad up’ was made easier by the good-humored funeral director who welcomed us inside and never let up with amusing anecdotes and corny jokes. It wasn’t a show meant to distract – it was this fellow’s genuine personality. He recounted stories about terrifying nuns at Catholic school in his youth, and allowed Elihu his own boisterous expression as he bounded through the halls and jumped down half the staircase on our way out.

We then took dad out to lunch before heading back to mom’s. We hadn’t prepared her for his return, but in that I’d mentioned it recently, I suppose it wasn’t such a surprise. Mom doesn’t let on much of her inner feelings, and while she didn’t cry, I think I saw her eyes moisten just a bit. I’m glad that dad is home again, on this, the eve of their 56th wedding anniversary. Very likely he’s still somehow nearby, smiling and wishing his love upon us all, hoping that we can still feel his presence, and wishing very dearly that we should not be so sad… After all, this is a family of some deep-seated good humor, and we’re also pretty good about getting back to the simple things in life, which at the end of the day, are the reasons we’re all still hanging around.

IMG_0146A fine, rainy fall day as we head out.

IMG_0155Nostalgic for the way things used to be, I swing by Martha’s on the way to town. Still can’t believe she’s gone, too.

IMG_0166One year ago this week Saratoga’s Banjo Man, Cecil Myrie died. I see the Jamaican flag on Broadway and it reminds me… It was purely by coincidence that the Jamaican flag had been hung above Cecil’s makeshift memorial last year. Now it’s hanging at the other end of the strip. (We’ll be planting a memorial tree for him soon. Took a year to pull off!)

IMG_0179The Burke Funeral Home. One of the famous North Broadway mansions of Saratoga Springs.

IMG_0186Ok, this seems quite unexpected and unrelated… But our host insisted on showing us this very fancy, custom shower from the ’30s. Water came in at ya from all directions. Turns out mom and dad had one very much like it in their first NYC apartment on W 57th. And why shouldn’t it have had the finest appointments? “It was a very high class building” she reminded me, citing neighbors like Jose Ferrer, only a few doors down…

IMG_0189Elihu jokes around a bit with Nancy. She is, as my mother (also named Nancy) would say, “a good egg”.

IMG_0188So this is it. Sheesh. No pomp or ceremony. Tom just finds our box in the pile of other folks waiting to go home too.

IMG_0196I take a quick pic of the Palazzo Riggi from the second floor window.

IMG_0202Elihu’s like a ghost as he runs to the door, while I and my host (whose hand is in the far right) are making a much more measured and middle-aged descent down the carpeted staircase.

IMG_0203 (2)Finally, here we are. They even gave me a carryout bag. ! Oy. Bob in a bag. ! I do like the way it matches the mums, I suppose. !?!

IMG_0214Now this is the life to which my father could have grown accustomed with little effort. This fine Saratoga home belongs to the Wait family, the matriarch of which was once a board member for dad’s Festival of Baroque Music.

IMG_0234We’re at the Olde Bryan Inn. It’s a cozy place, perfect for a rainy afternoon lunch with dad.

IMG_0218Hmm, do ya think anyone suspects dear old dad is sitting right beside me??

IMG_0222Ah well, here’s to you, dad. Miss you.

IMG_0258We didn’t give mom much warning, but she seems ok. As she gives dads remains a heft, she says that she misses Annie (her cat who died two weeks ago today) a lot too – letting on that she must also be missing her husband. She never says so, that’s not her way. But she’s gotta be missing him, and especially today, on the eve of their anniversary.

IMG_0271She assesses the box, and the accompanying note of verification. (Dad’s correct date of death was December 27th, but as we couldn’t get anyone to formally pronounce him dead until the 28th – he died shortly before midnight – it will forever be legally recognized, albeit incorrectly, as the day he was legally pronounced dead. Oh well. We know.)

IMG_0302Within moments, it’s life as usual. The box sits in and among all the other day-to-day crap and clutter. Mom goes back to unpacking her groceries, and Elihu’s got his nose in a book on amphibians.

IMG_0307A closer look at the newly discovered book given to him by grandma.

IMG_0310And shortly thereafter, a live specimen in hand.

IMG_0324You’re a good-looking creature, little one. Please hunker down safely before winter, won’t you? You are one of the simple joys that keeps us going here on this sad, funny, ridiculous, heartbreaking and incredibly challenging planet. Good night frog, good night to all. And welcome back, dad. I know it’s not really you there in that box, but still.

It’s nice to have you home.

 

Tiny Trip June 22, 2014

I don’t get out much these days, but I did get out yesterday for what I’d thought would be a fairly straightforward overnight visit with an old friend from my elementary school days in Chicago, and who now lives in mid-state Vermont. It was a short trip, but densely packed with new and memorable experiences.

My childhood pal is moving across the country to the Seattle metro area. She’s lived here in the Northeast for three years and I haven’t yet been to see her (she and her family have, however, been to visit me). It’s hard to believe that it was only yesterday morning that I was throwing a toothbrush and a favorite pillow into a bag and hitting the road. It feels like I’ve been gone a week. My head is full of images, my heart is heavy with a final, impromtu stop I made on the way back, and I’m saddened to learn that shortly before I returned home this evening we lost Amity, our last pure white hen from the old flock. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now, siting here in my cozy chair in something of a daze; post gin and tonic, post review of new photos, post whirlwind tour of historic Vermont, post the loss of one more hen. And although I may feel uncertain about many things in life, there is one thing I do know for certain: I love being home. And after having just seen a thousand different ways to live, having a head swirling with images, places and possibilities – and even loss – I know one thing for certain, that I need none of it right now, thank you. I’m relieved at the peace of being still and doing nothing at all. I’m more than happy to be back.

Once again, some time away has given me the experience of seeing my own corner of the world through brand new eyes. And I remember again how much this place means to me. I’d rather look out at the distant mountains of Vermont than live in between them. I like to assess it all from afar, nestled as I am here in my small, hillside niche in the woods. I have just the right amount of sky and trees, and just the right amount of house, both which give me more joy than they had just the day before yesterday. A day trip is a lovely experience in of itself, and it’s also a healthy way to help remind one just how blessed a thing is home.

IMG_6785The road as I start out… Vermont has always seemed idyllic and just out of reach; now I mean to examine these once-distant hills more closely.

IMG_6835This shot is uncharacteristically ‘un-claustraphobic’ of the Vermont byways; the roads almost all run parallel to the many rivers that run in the valleys between impassable mountain ranges. Usually one is in the woods, under cover of endless pines, a stony river bed close to one side. This is what makes travel through the state either extremely tedious or a journey of great beauty and mystery, depending on how urgently you may want to get somewhere. I always start out intrigued, but after a couple of hours of meandering alongside a shallow river in the deep woods I can get a little short of patience.

IMG_6829There’s precious little flat land in between the hills, but farmers find and use what they can.

IMG_6853After driving two and a half hours on two lane roads, at last I’ve arrived at Dina’s house. The small town of Randolph is a mere stone’s throw down the road.

IMG_6892First things first; lunch at ‘Wright at Home’, an even closer stone’s throw from the center of town.

IMG_6891Chatting with the locals…

IMG_6890The kitchen is in full view of the dining room. Cute, sarcastic and vintage signage decorates the place.

IMG_6885Dina’s son Sam figures out how to use my fan (given to me by another classmate from our elementary school who spent the past year in Spain).

IMG_6873This cutie is Thomas, the younger of Dina’s two sons.

IMG_6869Small town action! The local hippie artist has a mild run-in with the town cops.

IMG_6894We walk back up the hill after lunch. Nice place, huh?

IMG_6851Sam stands in the doorway of the carriage house-turned apartment unit.

IMG_6854Earnest, the boy’s dad, made a catapult for them. When I left it was still on the front lawn for anyone to take. It could be yours…

IMG_6917Dina and her friends enjoy one last soccer game before she moves…

IMG_6906While the women play a game I go investigate a nearby river behind the athletic field. Spied several species of birds and enjoyed some time also doing nothing at all but enjoying the perfect breeze and the gentle sound of moving water.

IMG_6926I took a walk around the field and learned the name of the high school mascots.

IMG_6937The gals at game’s end.

IMG_6941The town’s high school class is graduating tonight under this tent in the same field, so we go to pay a visit. Dina and a friend wave to each other under a gloriously-clouded sky.

IMG_6947Ah, the good old U S of A.

IMG_6974The band gets ready. Love that sousaphone.

IMG_6980Dina knows a lot of people here in this small town. Turns out our visit is a perfect opportunity for her to say goodbye to many friends.

IMG_6994The graduating class and their teachers line up for the processional.

IMG_6997Families await the graduates.

IMG_7018Elihu will get a kick out of this kid’s cap.

A little window into the moment.

IMG_7039Dina says good-bye to Tom, a local cop.

IMG_7043Main Street, early evening.

IMG_7055Looking North, towards the ice cream shop, a favorite of locals. I myself don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but highly recommend both the ‘maple creamee’ soft serve and ‘coconut crunch’ hard ice cream.

IMG_7064A taxidermied white panther in the window of the local barber shop. When I was small, I’d heard stories about black panthers still living in areas not far from my current home, but never of white ones. Today, panthers are extremely rare, but thankfully their smaller cousins the bobcats can still be found in the woods around the Northeastern US.

IMG_7062A wonderful and successful addition to Randolph’s downtown, restaurant One Main offers an enticing menu and a casual yet upscale vibe for locals to enjoy. Send an energetic gift of good thoughts to owner Shane, as he faces some health challenges at the moment. Seldom met anyone so radiant and positive, I’m sure he has a successful future ahead of him.

IMG_7063But like in so many small towns, keeping it alive and vital is an ongoing challenge.

IMG_7059Every building in this town is picture-perfect, like something from a set. This is the train depot. You can catch a train here and be in New York City in five hours.

IMG_7067Plus there’s a movie theater – with first run films. Love that awning!

IMG_7070We visit a neighbor’s house for dinner – Earnest, Dina and hostess Phyllis seen here in what I think is probably the most inviting, homey kitchen I’ve ever been in.

IMG_7074At the dinner table in this landmark Victorian house. Hosts Phyllis and Richard are on either end, and we’re joined by Earnest and Dina’s two sons, two neighbor kids and one of the hosts’ twin daughters. I have not sat at a table with so many people in probably twenty years. One of the most enjoyable dinners in just as long, too.

IMG_7100Captain lives in this beautiful house too; she may be the world’s only one-eyed Bernese Mountain dog.

IMG_7083This house is known as “Mari Castle”, and it was built by a speech writer for Abraham Lincoln and named for his wife. And if you might be interested in living in this gorgeous gem of a house, it’s for sale! A beautiful coach house and small chapel-made-office building are also on the property.

IMG_7125Here’s a photo postcard of the place from years ago…

IMG_7128…and here’s a picture that Dina took of the place in winter.

IMG_7103The coach house and neighboring mid-century chapel.

IMG_7069Some readers may know my love of things mid-century. This was the first building to catch my eye as I drove into town. My heart skips a beat when I see such a roof line. I’m not kidding.

IMG_7121The main doorway.

IMG_7110The stunning original wood arches inside. It was difficult for me to see the interior so altered from its original beauty.

IMG_7116The same arches as seen from the second floor. Even though it pained me to see the place so transformed (into a doctor’s office), I gotta say they did a tasteful job of it.

IMG_7085At three in the morning, Dina and family get loaded into the car to drive to Logan airport. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t taken any photo of me and my friend of 45 years, hence my last-minute selfie (and disheveled appearance). I’m amazed I’m old enough to have known someone this long. Wow.

IMG_7142Like me, this fellow stops to gas up on Main Street before heading out (note the barber shop in the background).

IMG_7145Virtually all Vermont towns are situated alongside a river.

IMG_7155Kayakers wave hello as I shout a greeting to them.

IMG_7189Even in the fairly populated city of Rutland the mountains beckon from beyond the utility poles and roofs… What a sky, huh? I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day to travel.

IMG_7164This trip, I decide to visit the mountain settlement of Killington. When I was small it was a modest and barely developed ski area. Now it’s a ritzy destination. Kinda reminds me of an American version of Zermatt, Switzerland.

IMG_7181The view up…

IMG_7166…and the means by which one gets there.

IMG_7168It’s just not possible to convey the feeling of being atop such a mountain; this photo doesn’t come even close. Those who ski (a population of which I am regrettably not a member) will know exactly what that is. So will those who hike and climb mountains. It’s the most expansive, exhilarating feeling. Also, in my case, it can inspire sudden bouts of panic. This didn’t happen to me in my younger years; I hope to discover a way to mitigate such altitude-related episodes, as they really suck and I can see them eliminating future adventures.

IMG_7204I continue South, down historic route 7, past Manchester’s famous Equinox hotel.

IMG_7210Had to stop when I saw this place.

IMG_7212Chickens everywhere.

IMG_7213If only I could afford one of em. Played the ‘hey, I’m an artist too’ card, but no go. Wouldn’t even consider the slightest mark down. I was seriously interested, but he seriously didn’t care. Ah well.

IMG_7208Onward I go, still heading South. I pass another farmer, doing things old school. One just doesn’t see those huge machines the way one does in the Midwest, where fields go uninterrupted for miles. Life here in Vermont has a gentler, more organic feel.

IMG_7195I saw these two fellows dressed in such odd-looking garb that I just had to stop and ask them what they were about. Daniel, left, and spokesman Michele, right, tell me they are cave enthusiasts, here from Montreal for the wonderful underground cavities unique to this region. Lots of white marble comes from this area too. Here, Michele writes down some sites I can visit to learn more. Tonight they are celebrating the birthday of a fellow caver by descending 140 vertical feet into a cave and sharing a glass of champagne at the bottom. !!

IMG_7197Off they go…

IMG_7220My ultimate destination en route home has been in the back of my mind all afternoon. I’m headed for Bennington. It’s the burial-place of poet Robert Frost, and the town in which my father, harpsichordist Robert Conant, was cremated. I need to see the place in order to give myself some closure. This obelisk is a monument to Revolutionary War soldiers which sits at the far end of Main Street, up the hill. The funeral home where dad was cremated is off frame and to the left, at the other end of Main Street.

IMG_7221Within a short time I’m at the base of the monument.

IMG_7223Here’s the church behind which Mr. Frost is buried. He himself did not belong to a church, but said if he were to have, it would have been the Congregational Church. His gravestone is the only one in the cemetery to face East instead of West.

IMG_7224Some ancient headstones just next to the Congregational Church.

IMG_7237The view of mountains to the East.

IMG_7227The signs that show the way are many and the effect is comical.

IMG_7229Here’s the Frost family plot. The center marks the poet, his wife and five children, the far one his grandchildren (one of whom is still living) and the marker in the foreground is completely empty. ! That’s thinking ahead, huh?

IMG_7231Here’s his famous epitaph; “I Had A Lover’s Quarrel With The World”.  I placed the small, white stone in between that line and ‘his wife’ on the line below.  Like hers too: “Together Wing to Wing And Oar To Oar”

IMG_7240Leaving the cemetery, the light is especially magical.

IMG_7246This next step is kind of surreal for me. Might be for you too. Get ready to see a side of life – or death, rather – that none of us ever really thinks much about until the choices are directly in front of us and ours alone to make. Even then we tend to think of it as some far-off, unreal sort of process that somehow doesn’t ever really happen, especially not to our beloveds. Cremation happens, and it has to happen somewhere. In this case, it’s on Main Street behind a cheerful looking house.

IMG_7247I walk around to the back. I’m ready, I guess…

IMG_7267It’s strange to see this for myself. The doors on the right are the last ones my father passed through looking as I knew him. My heart stops for a second when I recognize the facility for what it really is.

IMG_7250How bizarre it seems… That after such a marvelous, accomplished life, a body becomes merely something that must be gotten rid of somehow. And here it is. No pomp or circumstance to it, really. It’s just a super-powerful oven.

IMG_7256How mundane it looks, I think to myself – and in a way, it’s almost funny. The final end of my father in the un-glamorous back-end of a building with a wheel barrow and garden tools stashed behind. It makes me smile even. I wonder if dad too is seeing how hard it is to grasp for the earth-bound soul.

IMG_7251This is where my father’s physical matter met again with the world of its creation… And this is where I begin to cry. Please forgive me the next image; I realize for some it may be too much, but for me it’s the very reason I’ve driven so far today. I need to understand more completely what this process was. I remind myself the whole time that this happens thousands of time every day, in every single corner of the world. Most of us will never care to see it for ourselves, but some of us, whether we dare to express it aloud or not, may find ourselves unsettled until we see it with our own eyes…

IMG_7260The last place where hundreds of people’s loved ones – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – have entered in bodily form. I look in the window in something of a trance. How can this be? I wonder over and over to myself. What an illusion we create and sustain for ourselves all life long that we shall ever be as we are now. We aren’t even as we were last year, or even yesterday for that matter. We weren’t even around one hundred years ago, and we won’t be here one hundred years hence. We know all this. So why is this idea of burning the bodies of our loved ones – and seeing the very sentence itself in print and the photo of the place in which it happens – so unthinkable? Why? If my father were here, he’d put his arms around me and tell me not to be sad, not to concern myself with the loss of his body. I know it. And I also feel very strongly that he still exists very close by, like a person on the other side of a one-way mirror, and he smiles at me and lovingly wishes I wouldn’t trouble myself so. But then again, I can’t help myself. I’m still on this side of the mirror, and no matter how hard I try to expand my consciousness on the matter, I just can’t. This feels creepy. It feels sad. But somehow, it does help.

IMG_7277I return to my car and see a tattooed dad and his family pass by the funeral home on a summer night’s stroll. Life keeps on goin.

IMG_7278Ok, for some this will undoubtedly be too far… I wanted something local to bring home from my trip, and this mom and pop store was across the street. It was here that I picked up some cheese and smoked meat; it was impossible for me to overlook the Monty Python-esque humor in it. I can promise you dad would have laughed too.

IMG_7304I’m headed home now. I pass the marble-enfused rocks of Vermont on highway 7 as I head North.

IMG_7287I’m a bit emotionally spent by now. Got lost a few times (in a region divided by vertical, North-South mountain ranges it’s not a simple thing to get from East to West) and by now had had it with winding, two lane roads and picturesque New England villages.

IMG_7294One more Vermont vista…

IMG_7301… and then New York again, at last. I love a trip, but truly, there’s no place like home.

 

 

Comfort December 31, 2013

Yesterday was a false start. Or a false ending, rather, as dad didn’t make it to the crematorium. Like any other business, it too has its busy days, and I guess, as the old joke goes, yesterday, folks were ‘just dying to get in’. So I took the opportunity to arrange for the obituaries, making sure his name was correct, the date of death as we wanted (and not as it must legally be forever recorded), and of course, making sure everything was paid for. Amazing the costs involved. A small fortune just to run the obits. “This is a long piece” one woman at a paper warned me. Yeah, and dad had a long, full life. Can’t skimp now. Gotta share as much as I can. With the papers taken care of and other tiny distractions we made it through our day, but the phone call never came. That last call from the undertaker, the siren of that final trip, it never came. So I find myself here, on the morning of New Year’s Eve, my brother’s birthday, and the final day of the year, awaiting the news. It’s still something I dread, and if I think too much about it find my heart beginning to beat faster and harder. Still his beautiful hands lie folded on his chest, still he looks as he did. By tonight, by the time I’m on the train platform welcoming my young son back into my arms, my father’s body will have been transformed…

This blog feels to be getting a bit tedious by now; just how much pondering of one subject, no matter how important to me personally, is too much? It kinda feels like I’m pushing things here. But since I mean to document my adventure through life accurately, and since I am still living through this event, I’ll continue, in hopes that it doesn’t put people off. And if it does, skip it. I’m writing more for my own healing than for anyone’s amusement at this point. But if you’ll stay with me for one more paragraph, you may be uplifted to read what follows shortly….

As I was checking the stats this morning, I saw that an old post – a writing that even predates this blog – had been read. I remember that night, that journal entry. I remember Elihu singing to Mr. Roosevelt, his giant red rooster, downstairs in the office. He’d been trying to draw him, and was coaxing him to relax, to stay put, to allow Elihu a moment of stillness. Luckily, I’d had pen and paper and was able to scribble down what Elihu had been saying to his bird. My son often speaks like this. He is a thoughtful, loving and reverential boy. But it’s not often that I’m equipped to take down his wisdom as I was that evening. I feel lucky. And, in reading my young son’s words (he was six when he spoke them) I take comfort from them. His words speak to me, to my father, to the feeling of love and peace that must await us in that next world… Somehow, it almost feels as if my father has gently directed me to re-discover these innocent, healing words.

Elihu, age six, speaking to his rooster…

I come in peace, I come in peace, you can relax, I am coming to be with you in peace

To know your soul, I’m coming in peace. I come to warm your soul and to warm the soul of the earth

I come to warm the face of planet earth, I come in peace, sit and relax and do not worry

I come in peace, I mean no harm. I really don’t. Sit and relax by my side.

As soon as I’d entered the last line above, the phone rang. The funeral director told me that dad had left, and was now on his was to Bennington. And at noon, he said, we should be ready with that glass of wine… Here we go. Here goes dad, and here comes the conclusion to one part of the journey. And hopefully with it, comfort and peace.

 

Ashes December 30, 2013

Today my dad will be cremated. Not something we haven’t talked about, not a word we’ve never uttered before, still it feels bizarre. To know that your father’s body will be put into an extremely hot oven and burned to ashes. On one level it seems out-of-body strange, yet on another it seems as practical and down-to-earth as it gets. Certainly (at least in my heart) it honors the body so much more than filling it up with chemicals, inserting plastic filler or wires to hold things just so… And yet, it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around. It’s just not something most folks have to deal with more than a few times during the entire course of their lives – and even if we do have to make these end of life decisions, it’s not dinner table conversation. But maybe it should be. Maybe it would be a little easier territory if we made it less mysterious.

As I’ve gone through the past two days, doing errands and catching up on life, I’ve been constantly, ever-so-subtly aware that my father still exists. That his body, just as I saw it last, still lies in Saratoga, his white hair just so, so too his beard, those certain spots on his forehead, and those marvelous hands. They all still exist, I tell myself over and over as if clinging to this fact to make things better. As I drove to the grocery store I took the long way around, passing the funeral home and pondering my dad, still there, somewhere within that enormous Victorian mansion, lying there, hands on his chest in his navy blue flannel pajamas. It’s a refrigerated room, of course. Can you imagine how cold he is? I think. But he’s just a body, I remind myself. Just plain old organic matter that would become a stinking mess if you left it out. I go around and around, considering both sides of this idea to no fruitful conclusion. There is none to be made.

I had to pull over and park. I sat, studying the house, looking into the upstairs bedrooms-turned-offices and just wondered at this unknown world. In the end, it’s just a business for these guys. My father is just another body and I am just another client. But in what limited experience I’ve had with professionals in the death industry, I can say that they are by no means cold and jaded. While it may be business as usual for them, the folks I’ve met so far have been extraordinarily compassionate and kind. This funeral home is on North Broadway, a street lined with ancient trees and opulent mansions from the grand years of Saratoga Springs. Just across the street is the new-moneyed, Disneyesque Riggi mansion, all bedecked for the holidays in thousands of tiny white lights. A few houses to the north is the grand white house of Charlie Wait, the president of the local bank. I remember my dad getting a business loan on a mere handshake with Charlie’s father years ago. I remember the lobby’s vaulted ceiling and the huge oil paintings on the wall. I remember how they chatted like old friends…. I laugh to myself at dad’s final address. He was forever making jokes about wanting to be rich, forever positing funny scenarios of himself in that good life – instructing the staff, taking his lunch on the patio, making important calls… So now here he is, residing on tony North Broadway. It makes me smile. I snap a picture of the funeral home, and now starting to cry, I drive home through the rain.

Last night I called my mom. Didn’t stop by, as I’d been too busy trying to find Christmas gifts for Elihu and shopping for the produce that I’ve gone without the past week or more. To be honest, while I’d thought also of her throughout the day, I’d quickly turned my attention to something else, as I was afraid to consider how she was really doing. I have a full life and much to do to keep my mind off of dad’s passing, but mom, she lived virtually in service to him. Truly, her life was in her home; her cats, my brother, my dad. And all my life mom has always cooked exceptional food for us. In dad’s final days, while things did become radically different, she took no less care in feeding him. Rather than spending her days researching recipes, she was now more concerned with quantity of food ingested, the times of the feedings and their caloric content. And she did it well. She stayed on top of things. She’s always stayed on top of things. But now there’s no pressing matter to stay on top of anymore. We talked about it, she herself realizes that she’s got some thinking to do. What will she live for now? How will she define herself? These are questions we all have to face – certainly I myself have some personal experience with those particular questions! But I have a child, and for the time being, no matter what happens to me, I am primarily defined by that role. But to be partnerless, childless, occupationless…. that is something different. Yeah, mom has a challenge ahead of her. And while it may be a transitory challenge, the one most immediately before her – and me too – today, is that of saying the final goodbye to dad as we knew him.

I’ve asked the funeral home to please call us when dad’s on his way – and the crematory, which is a good forty-five minute ride across the border into Vermont, will call us when dad’s ‘going in’. Or whatever terminology they use. The funeral guy himself wasn’t too specific in his language – I still find there’s a lot of dancing around the truth here. While he was enthusiastically supportive about our wanting to know exactly when it was that dad was being cremated – his language was surprisingly euphemistic. Hm. Probably how they need to speak for the comfort of most people. For me, his vague, cryptic language was not so reassuring. But I guess most folks probably appreciate it. Again, I wish this was all easier to talk about. I’ve also been wishing I knew what we could do to mark this final passing of dad’s body… Mom and I had talked about raising a glass of wine to him as he went up to the skies, but is that fair to Andrew? Then, last night, I got it. We’ll light a candle. And then, when dad is gone, we’ll blow it out. Up will waft that thin trail of smoke, and up will waft dad, out and over the snowy Vermont countryside. From that vantage point in the sky I’m sure one can see Greenfield… Then the ashes will come home. Some will be dispersed in the lake where dad spent his boyhood summers, some will go to the veteran’s cemetery, and just a tiny bit will remain here with us.

It’s funny how sentimental we are as humans. Even though I may believe that dad is in a much better place, and even though I know full well that his soul is no longer attached in any way to that old man’s body lying in the funeral home, it still means so much to know that we’ll have something left of dad, even if it’s just a box of ashes.

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Post Script: Dad’s obituary is now up on the funeral home’s site at www.burkefuneralhome.com and folks may make remembrances there if they choose… I’ve heard many stories and anecdotes about dad recounted in the past two days – some I’d even forgotten – so I encourage people to share any one of them publicly on the funeral home’s site…  thanks again for all the love and support.

Btw – dad passed at 11:51 p.m. on the 27th, but as he wasn’t officially pronounced dead by a ‘professional’ until the following morning, the date of death will legally be considered to be the 28th. Sheesh.