The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

When Is When December 16, 2015

IMG_2683

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soaring HenShe left us like an angel in flight.

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Preparation April 25, 2015

Such a strange mix of life and death going on here in Greenfield. Elders passing, babies expected, pets dying, chicks hatching…. And yet not for a moment does it slow. Every day life presents its obligations without fail; students must be taught, supper must be made, rehearsals must be prepared for, and dust bunnies nestled comfortably in the corners of my house grow steadily in size, reminding me that they aren’t going to vacuum themselves. The wind blew the porch door open this morning and the entire flock decided to take shelter there for a few hours, leaving generous-sized poops all over a formerly clean-swept floor. I could cry, but at least it’s a sunny day, and good for starting all over again.

Tomorrow is Elihu’s twelfth birthday party, and there’s so much to do before then. Meanwhile, Martha lies in the hospital, getting nearer to her death. She’s certainly fooled us all before, rallying from her hospital bed to her post in the farm’s kitchen, but it won’t be happening this time. We who love her have even finally conceded that she will not be dying at home as we’d all very much hoped for. It’s simply not possible; Martha is far too weak. This time there will be no rehab. A bad UTI has had her in and out of reality the last few days, and that was a shocker for all of us. We had never seen the indomitable Martha like this. Signs of fear and agitation reminded me of my dad in his final days. I knew it was mostly due to the infection, but still. We’d turned a corner.

Last night, after Elihu’s school spring assembly, we’d gone to visit Martha. We were relieved to see her much restored to her old self. Elihu sang for her, and mom and I made small talk and related news of the day. (I’d been to see her earlier that day and enjoyed the privilege of singing her to sleep with “April Showers”.) When we left, Elihu leaned in to kiss her, and he told her he loved her. “I love you too,” she answered, and then offered “You are one unusual child.” We knew what she meant. I myself had been honored the day before – in the midst of an infection-induced episode – with the only open acknowledgement of affection I would likely ever hear from Martha… I told her I loved her, and she responded “I should hope so!” She’d also told me to ‘stop being a sissy’ and help her out of the bed. When I told her it just wasn’t possible she’d scolded me, telling me I’d better help her because she’d known me since I was ‘one young girl’. Even in her altered state, she was all Martha.

When we left her last night, she was still all Martha. When I asked how she’d felt, she admitted to me that she was tired. Very tired, all the time. On this bright and sunny morning when a new chick has begun to peep from inside its shell and a new life is ready to appear at any moment, I’m so keenly aware that just a few miles away, Martha lies in her bed, waiting for her own transformation.

IMG_7945This little gal/guy came a few days early. (Each year we time it such that the eggs in our incubator hatch on the day of Elihu’s birthday party.)

IMG_7801Mom shows Elihu the grave in which she and Andrew buried their cat only moments earlier. Ginger had to be put down without warning in the wake of a cardiovascular trauma. Such a shock. Mom doesn’t need more loss at this time. Neither does my emotionally fragile brother.

IMG_7803Little Annie, now at least sixteen, follows Elihu and Mom. We’ve all told Annie she’s not allowed to die. ! She acts like a kitten; those who don’t know her all assume she is. She’s a precious spot of joy in mom’s world.

IMG_7581Mom, Martha and Elihu, a few days before she took a turn for the worse. She was very present at the time of this photo, and very much herself. Even got a little vid of her reciting a poem she’d written years ago for a childhood friend (who died just last month. This life/death stuff is getting intense. Ich.)

Martha used to write little ditties like this for special occasions. Here’s her poem:

It was May 1st, 1922, now that you’ve come to ask it

That Mrs. James of Chatham, Mass

Got Viv in her May basket.

IMG_7898Not the selfie I’d like to see, but I had to take it.

IMG_7889Can’t remember ever holding Martha’s hand in my adult life. She even told me she was afraid. This is a woman who has never, ever shown vulnerability. I assured her things would be ok. And they will.

IMG_7902Elihu played Simple Gifts on his alto recorder. It’s her favorite song.

At first he was reluctant to play, as Martha shares a room, but he did – and see how Martha enjoys it. Glad he played.

IMG_7899And then he says goodbye and tells her he loves her.

IMG_7973Ending the night with a very fine performance by Mr. Esty’s sixth grade class at the Waldorf School’s spring assembly. They sang a song from Schoolhouse Rock about interjections. Wow! A big hit.

Here’s the performance. Worth a listen. Some may remember this from Saturday mornings long ago.

IMG_7375I’m crazy-sentimental about everything, and this turning twelve stuff has me – and my lil man too – a little nervous. This relentless marching forward of time is certainly a mixed bag. It’s easy to get nostalgic and long for earlier days, no matter what age you are, and yet there’s still so much ahead to be excited about. I think the best way to prepare for the future is simply to enjoy the present day to its fullest, for one day many years hence, these too will be the good old days.

 

Next January 1, 2015

IMG_2875Dad didn’t quite make it to 2014, and enigmatically, his few and final words to his grandson were: “When beautiful January comes….”  Last January we experienced unusually heavy snows and low temperatures, and dad’s Studio flooded and froze; both the floors and walls were ruined. It was a stunning and heartbreaking loss, but after a thoughtful reassessment of the situation, what followed was the beginning of an important, year-long process of re-birth… Was my father being prophetic or poetic?…. Who knows? Either way, January will always make me think of my father’s mysterious, near-final words which, intentional or not, heralded the way for the next chapter in our lives…

After having passed the first anniversary of my father’s death, I find myself thinking more about it than I have in months. It’s strange terrain now. There’s an inclination to feel that somehow he’s slipping further away, that somehow it’s slowly becoming more and more like he never existed at all… I know this isn’t really true, and if nothing else, I and my son are proof that he was here. And Elihu’s our insurance that his line will continue forth into the world… (Not that the planet actually needs more humans!) But why even think like this? Very few people on this earth will ultimately be remembered for the long haul. Most of us, except for the very slim part of the earth’s population that comes to know some true degree of fame, will indeed become forgotten after a while. After all, life moves on, and the void left behind naturally fills in with new creations, new endeavors… There are only so many stories one can pass down to the next generation, there is only so much time in which to tell them. Beyond a certain point, it just doesn’t make logistic sense that we’ll all be remembered by our descendants.

It gives my fragile ego a small amount of relief to think that now I’ve left behind a digital footprint, and that in some way I, my family and my life, will now never die… Perhaps in a century’s time my long-dormant blog will fall to the bottom of the searches, and it may ultimately come to languish in a virtual state of suspension, but still, it’ll be there, somewhere. To know that gives me the variety of comfort I imagine folks derive from erecting several tons of marble to mark their final resting place. When I lived in Chicago I was a fan of the city’s beautiful cemeteries, and it boggled my mind to ponder the immense amount of industry that went into their memorials. I would stand in the middle of a peaceful forest with headstones and statuary as far as the eye could see in every direction, the only sound being a soft hush of white noise from beyond the cemetery walls… In that peaceful, natural oasis it was hard to imagine the toil it must have taken to erect these monuments – let alone dig the holes in the middle of a frozen winter! I think of horse teams pulling great loads of stone, of the pulleys and levers, the carts, the wheels, the manpower… I imagine how loud and chaotic it must have been at one time. I imagine all the horrible job site injuries that must have happened; the crushed fingers, the sprained muscles and worse… All of this motivated by the need for men and women to memorialize themselves unto eternity. Really, doesn’t it all seem so silly, so vain? So futile?

Ok, so if burying one’s body in a cemetery and spending a chunk of your estate on a piece of granite to mark the site is a ridiculous notion – especially because without an accompanying bio and headshot, future passersby will have absolutely no idea what you were fabulous for and why we should even remember you – then what should one do with one’s own body? A good question. A question I’ve wondered at for years, but until my own father died, I never truly followed it through to a conclusion. There are no easy answers. Even for me, a gal who has not a fraction of a doubt that our souls continue on to another realm of existence after this flesh-and-bone school of life. I mean, I may not care what happens to me after I’m gone (I don’t worry about my body’s disposition in any way affecting my soul’s successful transit outta here), but thinking about it now is what’s hard. Either way, it’s just plain icky. Biological life is wet and smelly, and there’s no tidy way around it. Everyone knows this, of course, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty application of the concept, screw it. It does not help.

Having already muscled through the notion of my dear father’s body being scorched to ashes by a turbo-powered blow torch (and having visited the place and seen it with my own eyes as part of my process of closure; here’s a link to the post “Tiny Trip”, scroll down to the very end), I suppose one could say I’ve made some progress. Yes and no. And I like to think I’m pretty laid back about things. Again, yes and no. I’ve butchered chickens. I’ve tried to participate responsibly in death, bringing it swiftly, honoring the sacrifice of life. I’ve tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible about things. But it’s just so strange, this territory of a non-living body that once was a real, living person. It’s hard to reconcile those images. So in order to help myself do just that, I searched out – and found – a book on this exact subject. It’s called “Stiff” by Mary Roach, and I highly recommend reading it if you too would desperately like to demystify death and the culture of cadavers. The author is delightfully witty, and without her good humor it might be all to easy to simply shut the book before the end of the first chapter. (Even so I had to put it down every so often and take a break from it before resuming.) Still and all, I don’t know. I just don’t.

But Elihu does. Since he was quite small he’s known what he wants done with his body after he’s through using it. When we first began talking about death, burial and such, he would get very emotional about it – insisting that he wanted his own dead body to be taken into the forest and left for nature to take over. I explained that it would likely lead to a whole mess of legal trouble – that the people who laid him there to rest might even possibly end up in jail. This made him angry. It was surprising to see such a young child express such indignation. He found it fundamentally wrong that he and his family be forbidden from doing the most natural and correct thing possible. Whenever we found ourselves discussing it, he’d get very upset. Likely he now understands more clearly how small eighty acres is in actuality, and that barring a life on the Alaskan frontier, a burial in the family’s woods won’t be an option. But no matter, this kid is not worried. This, after all, is the same kid who scolds “it’s just a dead bird” when I wince upon pulling a frozen hen out of the chest freezer, wondering which gal it might have been… This is the kid who told his grandfather not to be afraid to die, because it was “just like turning the page in a book”. This is the kid whose last words to his grandpa were “See you shortly”. So thankfully I’m in good hands. I think I’ll leave it up to him. I just don’t want to know is all.

Do you know what thanatology is? Until a couple of hours ago I had never heard the word before. And that kinda surprises me, having conducted more than my fair share of searches on death and dying. (Here’s a link to a gal whose life’s work is all about death. If you have the time, the panel discussion is interesting, although it’s more theological than thanatological.) Thanatology is simply the scientific study of death. It deals with the forensic aspects of death – like those hard-to-think-about physical changes that occur in the post-mortem period. Plus thanatology also includes study of the social implications of death. Really? Such a thing exists? As well it should! There is only one thing we can absolutely count on in life, and that is our death. But even so, we so seldom talk about it directly and specifically… and that drives me nuts.

In re-reading the posts I wrote last year at this time, I’m fascinated to remember the tiny details of dad’s final days. I begin to see patterns – of course I’d read about them before my experience with dad, and I’m somewhat aware of the landmarks that one meets as one gets closer to death – but today I was able to see the whole process with so much more clarity. The events that I might have ever-so-slightly doubted the validity of last year – even while experiencing them for myself – I now know these to be real and universally recognized sign posts on the final path. It’s exciting to know that it’s not as mysterious as we might feel it to be… Last year, when I’d asked a nurse what exactly we were to be on the lookout for in dad’s final days, she gave me a short list. But then she added “I don’t think he’s there yet. He still has some transitioning to do.” What in hell did that mean? Just why such goddam cryptic language? At least I knew to be on the lookout for blue skin. But still, she left me guessing, and I didn’t appreciate it. So now between the local hospice volunteer training and this thanatology stuff, I might be closer to making peace with things one day. We’ll see.

Then after the bodily issues, there’s the tricky business of what comes next. I have known and loved some hard-and-fast atheists and agnostics in my life, and I’m absolutely fine with the idea that nothing at all comes next. The tidy nature of it does have its appeal. (Given the true definitions of those terms, I might be either one myself; I neither know unquestionably what I believe, nor do I believe there is one single creator, but rather a collective energy of awareness and love that permeates all. Another post, another time.) And for those who believe that we need to keep our bodies whole and pretty for the rapture – that’s cool too. (Only what about the plastic fillers, chemicals and wires used to keep folks pretty while they wait? Yeeks. Wouldn’t want to come back like that.) Ultimately, no one truly knows. But in my thinking I’m certain about the general gist of things. I used to worry about losing the respect of my dear friends for whom belief in an afterlife means you really aren’t as intelligent as you might once have seemed. Mech. And as for heaven or hell? As I see it, none of that exists. There is no good, no bad. Just a re-integration of our essence back into a loving non-space in which an assessment of our progress is made; a timeless, placeless ether in which to assimilate, learn and regroup in an atmosphere of acceptance and perfection.

Me, I think that our essence – the unquantifiable God spark that makes us us – transits out of this physical dimension and moves into that non-space ‘afterworld’ upon death. Like the signal from a station which your radio is not programmed to receive; it still exists, but you can no longer hear it. This all might even yet seem like so much fluffy conjecture if I hadn’t beheld my father beginning to ‘transition’ out of this world… There are some who might chalk it all up to a simple physiological process of the body breaking down, but I don’t. I watched as he was greeted by deceased family members, and listened through tear-filled eyes when he told me how much he missed his parents. Unknown to him, he followed form perfectly. He pointed to crowds of people in the corner of the room, “waiting on the curve” and asked me who they were (how honored I was that he could share his visions with me) and he said he was “in pleasure” as he watched them. I know now that he was in the middle of his process. By that time he was not altogether ‘living’ anymore. Like a radio station on I80 in the middle of hilly Pennsylvania, the signal was beginning to fade.

So I’m good with it. And not. I feel that dad is doing just fine where he is. It’s just me, mom and Andrew that have the rough road. Once, last year when I was missing dad as acutely as ever, I wondered out loud if dad was with me, if he knew about the Studio, if he approved of what I might do with the place…. Elihu was tired of my laments, and curtly told me that grandpa had “work to do” and it wasn’t fair to bother him with things that were now my business. “He can’t always be here with you, mommy. He’s got a lot of things to do.” I may have a wise kid, but still something inside tells me that outside of this time-space realm, the rules are different. If there is no such thing as locale, if ‘reality’ is as plastic and ethereal as our dreams, then I like to think dad is smiling, telling me it’s all fine, and that he’s right here with me when I need him to be.

But forward movement is required on this plane, so I can’t let my progress falter. Dad is where he is, and for the time being, I’m still right here. Nothing to do but keep going. Everything has happened as it should, and I’m striving to understand it the very best I can, so that I can move on with confidence toward whatever it is that will happen next on this great adventure.

 

Cecil Departs October 7, 2014

Saratoga Springs’ beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie, died this morning. While I haven’t heard directly from his family yet, what I gather is that he was likely asleep when he passed, as for the past few days he’d been heavily medicated to relieve the terrible pain he was experiencing. Earlier this past summer, Cecil was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a type of bone cancer, and the pain he felt at times was excruciating, as his very ribs themselves were fracturing from the cancer. He was one tough cookie though, because even while uncomfortable he still wanted to play music – still had it in him to pull out not one but two banjos at our last visit – plus the bass box too. I’m not a string player by any means, but he coached me as I stumbled my way through the three all-important chords. Bless him for giving us that last precious hang. I wish we’d heard him one last time on the street, but I’m grateful we were able to hear him one last time at all.

Over the past week we visited him a handful of times; sometimes he could barely open his eyes, other times his face would light up and he would try to talk to us. But recently, with the morphine, plus the dryness of mouth that the drugs were giving him, it was even more difficult to understand him. And hey – it was hard enough to understand him to begin with on account of that thick Jamaican accent of his! On one visit I had a moment alone with him, and I leaned in and stroked his head. I told him he was loved by so many, and that all of his friends and family were thinking of him. I told him that I was sure he would soon be in a much better place, that soon he would enjoy that perfect freedom… I’m not as scared as I once was about talking about death with the dying, so I pressed on, hoping for some insight into the thoughts of one who is so very close… “Cecil, are you afraid of dying?” I asked him. “No, no, not really” he said, in a thoughtful way. Then he went on to say more, but try as I did, I couldn’t make it out. He was obviously elaborating on his answer, but I would have to be satisfied with what I got. No, he wasn’t afraid. Good. Cuz I can imagine a lot of people are. I wondered what he was lingering for then, were there any family members yet to see again? I heard he was caught up with everyone. Maybe it’s just hard to let go of your loved ones, maybe one lingers so as not to break the hearts of those left behind. Who knows. As wonderful as the next world may be, there are still a lot of wonderful things about this world that might be hard to break away from.

Yesterday I’d had a flash of inspiration. I looked into my music closet and found my grandmother’s ukelele, now almost a hundred years old. I figured out three chords and quickly jotted down the lyrics to a couple songs, played through them through a couple of times, then with Elihu and his djembe, headed to the hospital to play for Cecil. How happy he would be to hear someone sing for him, I thought. When we arrived, he was in a peaceful sleep, with a CD of his from the old days in Jamaica playing softly, and the article from the weekend’s paper had been taped up on the wall for him to see. We lingered a moment, and looked at him. What to do? We both knew it made no sense to wake him. Elihu cautioned me not to kiss him lest I wake him from his rest. So we just stood for a moment, and watched him sleep, the soft calypso music gently filling the room. The song playing was the last on the CD; fittingly, it was Jamaica Farewell.

Today we returned to the hospital, again ready to play for Cecil, but my heart sank to my knees when I saw the cleaning cart in front of his room. I knew what that meant. We entered the room and were surprised to find our own next door neighbor there. She worked in the housekeeping staff, and was just finishing up with his room. She’d known Cecil too; she always knew the patients. A week or so ago we’d told her about having a friend in the hospital – and she now learned who it was we’d meant. Wherever Cecil went, he was known and loved. He possessed an understated congeniality; pleasant, low-key and friendly to all.

I want to thank you Cecil, because you’ve got me excited to learn a stringed instrument now! More than that, you’ve hipped me to a whole new world of songs, and you’ve opened up a new way in which my son and I can play music together. I’d never thought that I could learn anything new at my age, and with my arthritis, no less. But you’ve got Elihu and me looking eagerly to a new musical future. There’s not a soul who can take your place, but we hope it makes you happy to know that a piece of you will continue to live on in us and all the music we’ve yet to play.

My love and wishes for peace and healing go out to all of Cecil’s family and friends in this deeply sad time.

IMG_4951My last picture with Cecil, just day before yesterday. I hope it didn’t hurt when I made him laugh.

IMG_5048A beautiful fall day on which to leave us.

IMG_5437We thought of you as we dusted off our old, almost-forgotten banjo.

IMG_5486Elihu can even make some good sounds on it already.

IMG_5482It’s a sad day, yes, but we think Cecil would want us to enjoy ourselves…

IMG_5530Lying on our backs in the leaf pile, we look up to the heavens and think of our friend.

This is the song Elihu sang for Cecil on one of our visits.

 

One Gone October 1, 2014

IMG_4914

Yesterday I lost an earring. It was one of the pair that I’ve worn nearly every single day since I left Illinois, now just over six years ago. They were a lovely pair of ‘little nothings’ the shopkeeper and I had agreed when I bought them as a memento to mark the beginning of my new life. Tasteful, elegant, simple and understated. A pretty pale blue, a color that might match the water or the sky on any given day. Perfect little accessories; always there, always giving me the confidence to feel put together and tidy, even when I mostly wasn’t. You’d hardly even notice them on me, yet still, they did their job, and when I went without them, I always felt unfinished. Those sparkly little nothings did their thing just as they were meant to. Except when all of a sudden one was gone.

Somehow, either while planting the new trees at the end of the driveway, or more likely, while getting a quick shower in before running out to teach, one had silently freed itself from my ear. Instantly, the one remaining earring had become completely useless. Instantly alone. All of a sudden this thing that had always been there, was not. These earrings weren’t given to me by a friend, they hadn’t been in my family for generations. They shouldn’t have meant so much – and truly, after all the loss I’ve learned to accept over the years it really is nothing – and yet, still, they meant a lot to me. As a pair. But that one, lonely remaining earring had no purpose anymore. All it did was make me sad. It reminded me of what was gone, of things that can never be retrieved. How perfect things had been, and how perfect they no longer were. How things change in an instant. How one thing can make all the difference. This musing launched me into a new line of thinking and I began to miss other things too; landscapes, homes, bands, people – things that were once here but are now gone. Things I miss still. I’ve been missing my dad a lot this past week, and this one remaining earring makes me think of him again. One thing without the other. Ich.

We’re about to lose another precious thing right now, as Saratoga’s beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie is in his final hours. His bone cancer has accelerated rapidly over the past few weeks – just since Elihu and I popped over for an impromptu visit and short jam last month. We both feel very lucky that we were able to sit and make some music with him one last time, because it would be our last opportunity. Our jam was cut short by acute pain in Cecil’s chest, and we left him in hopes of taking him out to play on the street one more time. When we called next, he was feeling much worse and declined to go. I was relieved to hear that some of his friends had been able to catch him on a good day and did in fact get him out on Broadway for one final performance. I just can’t get it through my head that we will never again hear strains from Cecil’s banjo floating over the Saratoga streets again, the backdrop of that town for the past three decades. For as long as I can remember – either while living here or visiting – Cecil was always present. He was as dependable and permanent it seemed as the buildings themselves. Slowing to a stoplight on the main drag of town, windows open, there he was. Singing out “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and accompanying his song with that signature, folksy style that shouted Cecil’s name alone. My son had grown up knowing him, and in fact, as I think back on our relationship with the man, I recall something special… The first two dollars that Elihu ever made busking were given to him by Cecil, from his own banjo case. And we have them still. Above Elihu’s bird collection, tucked away in his closet, are those two dollar bills, kept as a reminder of this very generous gift, one which essentially started my son’s career as a paid musician. It was certainly an inspirational moment for Elihu. For us it really was the beginning of an era.

A now here we are at the ending of an era. It’s so sad, and it makes us feel that we feel we need to do something. But what? Hoping to create some way of honoring our friend, Elihu and I come upon an idea. When one thing ends, another thing begins, right? It seems a good idea, so we make some plans… After Elihu’s bass lesson today, we’re going to head over to the hospital to say our goodbyes to Cecil. Elihu is going to ask Cecil for his blessing to play banjo and sing on Broadway. Elihu and I have been wondering lately how he might increase his musical offerings, and this seems a natural fit. Elihu sings loud and well, he’s gifted with stringed instruments, and Cecil had been his first mentor on the street. Certainly Elihu can do this with love in Cecil’s memory with or without his blessing… But just maybe it might mean something to our friend. It’s one gift we can give to Cecil before he leaves us. He’s given us so much; it lifts our hearts to think we might be able to give something back to him.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll hear those familiar songs brought to life again in a new way over the streets of Saratoga; a living remembrance of that one, cherished voice that we’ll always miss so dearly… the one that’s gone.

IMG_0889Bringing flowers from our garden to Cecil, not too long ago.

IMG_0903Cecil shows Elihu the bass box.

IMG_0934Cecil gives me a little lesson.

IMG_4850The last time I saw Cecil out on the street, he was in a wheelchair being pushed by his wife – they were passing this vacant lot in their neighborhood when I waved and shouted hello to them. A perfect place to pick some flowers for him.

IMG_4848Sunflowers for Cecil.

IMG_4856A very sad time.

IMG_4866Marianne and her son-in-law Prince, both from Cecil’s church, come to pray for him and say goodbye.

IMG_4867Nurses do God’s work on the planet. Dan’s own young sons have grown up knowing Cecil and his music.

IMG_4855A view to the south from his windows.

IMG_4928Cecil’s youngest son Josh.

IMG_4930Elihu sang a beautiful song for Cecil and told him that he loved him. Hard to believe that Elihu’s known Cecil for more than half his life. Cecil even tried to speak and opened his eyes while we were there. We know he was with us, even if he couldn’t communicate well.

IMG_4852Some of Cecil’s discography on display.

IMG_4853Now this is how we all remember him. Our banjo man on Broadway.

Goodbye and thank you, Cecil Myrie, we love you so, and we’ll miss you dearly.

And to use Elihu’s parting words to his own dying grandfather, we’ll ‘see you shortly’.

A video of Cecil playing Don’t Worry, Be Happy (a little too dark to see him well).

A much shorter video of Cecil at his post on Broadway by the now-gone parking lot (here you’ll see him fine).

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Here’s a link to a post from two years ago in which Cecil played a part…

 

January’s End February 1, 2014

So is this what dad had in mind when he mused “when beautiful January comes….”? I mean, really? I can’t imagine he meant to imply anything so specific as the tumultuous events of the past few weeks, of course, but I wonder if he might not have had a clue – on some level – that things were about to change. That the course of events in my life and at the Studio were about to shift and gain momentum in a slightly new and refreshed direction. That things would soon be very different. Personally, I’m not good with change, or ‘different’; things were just fine as they were, thank you. (At least they weren’t scary.) A major event was needed, apparently, to get my full attention and suggest we might try looking at things in a new way. Ok already. Got it.  Now I’m listening….

I haven’t had the time to visit the Studio again since my heart-sickening discovery the other day. I need to take photos, I need to remove items, to spend more time truly assessing the damage. Maybe today. I’m a bit weak at the thought of it. But strangely, at the same time I’m just a bit invigorated. Already I’ve shared my experience with people, already I’ve begun to make plans, to imagine possibilities that never would have occurred to me if all of this ‘tragedy’ hadn’t happened. I think that I really am beginning to believe in the possibility of surprise, happy endings. Note: I am still cleverly offering myself an out; I’m not entirely convinced there’ll be a happy ending here, just more inclined than a couple of days ago to think there might be one waiting for us not far down the road… Just to be clear. ! Gotta cover my butt. I mean, how stupid would I look if I got all excited about this great new future of the Studio, and then – nothing happened. (It’s the dimmer vision of the two, but I can still see that possibility, too.) Because the huge to-list ahead, frankly, just doesn’t seem possible when I think with my brain from last week. This week’s brain, however, seems to think there’s hope… Hm. Crazy? I still don’t know what’ll end up happening. I’m as curious and eager as anyone to see the outcome.

At first, in those hours shortly after my epiphany regarding the new course of the Studio – the flash of inspiration that involved radiant heating, re-purposed floor and all, I’d felt divinely guided. And even now, in this moment, I do believe in that concept on some level. But in spite of the wonderful and loving support of friends – and the confidence I have in a larger force at work here – I’ve still felt that familiar shadow of doubt creeping in on me again… “Come on, silly. You’re thinking way too big here. Sounds great, but, really? Ya really think you can pull a project like this off??” The voice of ‘reality’ has begun already. The magic is so soon under threat of realistic goals and most-likely outcomes… I stop myself for a moment, and let it all just settle. I sit and think. Consider the road ahead. Really and truly, can there actually be a future for this vision of the Studio that I hold close my heart? I can surely see it – hell, I envisioned it when I’d moved here five years ago – but still it’s hard to place my faith in it. I mean, when I take a step back and look at the bigger picture on paper it really doesn’t look like a plausible scenario. After all, we live with the help of food stamps, we run out of heat a time or two each winter and I have to work full-time plus teach on the side and be a mom (oh yeah, and take care of a bunch of chickens and a ornery gander. Not to mention get in a garden). As things stand right now, this Studio thing is pretty much just on me, and I already have so much on my plate. Or am I forgetting something…?

I pause again to digest, to consider the resources within my current world of friends and acquaintances. One thing I learned in running a cafe and nightclub was to delegate. That is probably the most important aspect of any successful business; that the captain of the ship delegate tasks to those who are talented in what they do, motivated, energetic and most importantly, get your vision. So I guess the most immediate task before me is to clarify what it is that I see happening in this new Studio. I need to get it down on paper, I need to think about it, turn things around in mind, cull, distill, get down to the core goals. I need a mission statement. I also need a board. And before I can do a thing as a legitimate NFP, I need to transfer dad’s Foundation identify to our new one as The Studio. Can’t get weepy now, it’s as it must be. Both dad and his dear friend who’d set the Foundation up in 1959 are now gone, and there is nowhere to go but forward. So there’s a list before me. Not as if I don’t know what to do next. And I suppose the more witnesses I gather here before me (that would be you) the more accountable I become. Yeeks. Raising chickens is a smelly pain-in-the-butt of a job at times, but easier on the whole and more predictable, I’m guessing, than what’s about to come.

Got a wonderful family lawyer who can help with this, got a logger who’s willing to front me some money before the harvest, got a dozen or so folks on the sidelines, waiting for their work to begin. It’s beginning to look like the train is slowly moving already. I need to keep my destination fully alive inside my head, I need to share the vision as much as possible, I need to sow the seeds. Then I need to get in the soil and get to work. Ok. Psyching myself up here. I’ll need a lot of re-starts and re-psyches along the way, I’m sure. At the end of the day, knowing that I’m keeping dad’s life’s work alive, and moving it into the future – that’s the stuff that makes me want to ignore the fear and keep plodding ahead. I can so imagine it. Concerts, classes, lessons, recitals, kids, adults, super-old adults, baby and mom movement classes, eurythmy, ballet, sculpture, clay, mosaic, drawing, painting, yoga, modern dance, Baroque dance, theater, classical and modern, early music, jazz, trad, folk… Structured concerts and jam circles… Moneyed folks and non-moneyed folks, arts available to all. No elitist crap, everyone’s welcome. It’ll be a supportive atmosphere…. a place people are excited to visit, a meeting place of all sorts, a place where you’re safe to start from knowing nothing, a place where you can begin to learn, a place where you can hear and see the works of artists at the top of their fields…. oh boy. I get it, just gotta get it down on paper. Streamline it a bit. But here is where it starts – a storm of the brain on paper, the great master list of possibility…

So now “beautiful January” has come, and gone. A hard, hard month for me. The first days without my beloved father. (Yesterday in the car I lamented out loud that I missed dad so very much now that he was gone. Elihu spoke up from the back seat. “He’s not gone, he’s just not here.”) It’s been one of the most aesthetically beautiful winter months that I can remember – days of snow-covered woods and fields, days of white-on-white magic, the purest-looking January ever. Clean and new, patient, cold and waiting for the changes soon to follow. Such a month of extremes, this beautiful January has been, and with it has come start of something unexpected and new. Thanks for the heads up, dad.

 

Sunrise January 5, 2014

We’re lucky here at the Hillhouse, to see the sun rise from our kitchen and living room windows. It’s interesting to track the changing spot on the horizon from which it lifts; just a week ago it was a tree or two to the left, but now it’s marched along the rim of the forest a surprising distance. It’s funny the way the heavenly bodies move, imperceptible as one watches, quite noticeable when one does nothing but turn away for a moment and then look back again. All day long the sun makes her progress just like this, slow, steady, never stopping. Like a willful, living creature, diligently keeping to her task, dedicated only to that one singular movement. What a contrast is the peace and stillness of a sunrise to the frenetic cauldron of action and emotion swirling around far below it on the surface of this globe. A sunrise is deceptive: it leads one to believe, if only for a second, that everything everywhere has taken a pause, that nothing at all stirs upon the earth… that all is, in this very moment, perfect and right with the world. 

Yeah, I like the sense of peace that I get from a sunrise. The sense of possibility. The best possible feeling of what it is to stand here, as a human, witnessing. But it doesn’t always play out that way. When I awoke today, the sorrow I’d forgotten in sleep had come to wrap itself around me again. As I looked out the window, I saw that all the trees were bathed on one side in a deep magenta, a sign that this was the moment. I went to the living room in time to watch the sun as it lifted free of the treetops and burst its rays over the countryside. This one particular moment of a sunrise is an interesting thing; it isn’t always the moment of joy and peace that one might think. For me, it seems to heighten whatever mood it is that I’m already feeling. On a brilliant summer morning, with the promise of a full and rich day before me, my chest fairly bursts at the sight. But today, a day on which I remember again the intense sorrow of losing my father, and with him all the questions I never thought to ask, the sun wrenches it all out of me all at once, and it hurts. Soon my face is covered in sunshine and tears.

It occurred to me shortly after waking that tomorrow is mom’s first birthday without dad in fifty-four years. They, as some readers will remember, shared the same birthday. My heart sinks to my feet. What can we possibly do to make it easier? See to it that she keeps busy, I suppose. Maybe we should go to that Weight Watchers meeting after Elihu’s bass lesson. Maybe that will help. Maybe we can stop by, maybe we can bring a bottle of champagne (that would’ve had my dad clapping his hands in happy approval). Maybe we can have her over here for supper. Hell, I don’t know. What to do? My heart breaks all on its own, and now it’s breaking for my mother. Crap. There is never a good time for goodbye, no matter how full and rich a life may have been.

All morning I’ve been remembering my father’s friends that have gone before – and there are a good number of em. In fact, there were very few folks from my father’s world left – and in terms of a physical presence in his life, essentially there were none. I thought back to the last time dad had been to the farm. It was this past July, and it was Martha’s 86th birthday. I remember on that day dad had been speaking in a nonsensical way, that he had once again turned a corner. But that didn’t lessen his pleasure at being there; he was happy, a soft smile on his face the whole time (in spite of the temperature in the kitchen reaching up into the high 80s). I had known it even then; after nearly fifty years of sitting in this kitchen, after hours and hours of drinking, smoking, storytelling, cussing, shouting and laughing, this was the very last time dad would be sitting in this space. The last time he and Martha would be in the same room together. (As it turned out, they would have one final visit with each other in person. They were both patients at the ER at the same time in late summer, and I had thankfully snapped one picture then.) I watched them, both at the farm and at the hospital, knowing in my heart that these oldest of friends were saying their last goodbyes. I also realized neither one of them was even aware of it. I guess one just kinda tends to feel as if nothing will ever change. That things, somehow, will always be thus. Silly humans, we.

At the time of dad’s death his functioning life had long since ended.  Dad had no life outside of his home, no pressing endeavors to attend to, no ability to play the harpsichord – nor the piano, no ability to walk outside on his own, no car to drive, no ability to read, no social life, no old college chums to call and check on, no pals from his former lives to chat with…. He had nothing at all but mom, his cats, the opera on the weekends, and the tv. (Yes, he had Elihu and me too, but we were only there a few short visits a week.) And I suppose a few years of this life might eventually grow tedious, no matter one’s lack of abilities. Dad was still very much aware of his surroundings, and as familiar and comfortable as they may have been, at some point I guess there’s not a lot to hang around for anymore. I can’t help but remind myself that it’s really only us we’re sad for; a quick recounting of all that dad did not have in his most recent life helps set me straight. Wherever he is – or is not – is just fine for him. It’s us that’s the problem. Actually, it’s mom that I’m worried about. How must it feel? Seriously, how must it feel? I’m sad, Elihu is only sad in passing, but it’s mom I keep thinking of. Tomorrow, this first birthday in over half a century without her mate, this will be a landmark. She’s just gotta get through it.

Life marches on, enough distractions for us that dad’s death is somewhat tempered. I still have loads of new music to learn (and the arthritis in my fingers worsens almost daily). I still haven’t told Elihu that his beloved teacher is leaving. Waiting til the last possible moment, as not to spoil his final day of vacation. And thankfully the temperature outside is going up, so we won’t have to worry about bringing the goose into the kitchen overnight as we did on Friday, when outside temps were ten below. Ironically, shortly after we saved the goose from losing his little webbed feet to frostbite, we ourselves ran out of heating oil. ! Must remember that in terrible cold like this it takes a bunch more fuel than usual. See? Lots to keep us going, many new dramas appear on our horizon. Just like the sun on its  never-ending path, the events of our lives march tirelessly onward, sunrise to sunset and all the moments in between.