The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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.

 

Out, Away, Over November 28, 2013

A lot has happened in the past twenty-four hours. Just yesterday Elihu and I awoke to a cold house. I knew we were approaching the witching hour, and had begun to keep the house at a brisk fifty-five degrees in order to stall the inevitable. I’d done my paperwork and made the calls to receive our long-anticipated annual heating oil grant, so now it was just a waiting game. My heart positively sank to think I might have to live out the holiday weekend in a cold house. I had lots to do, and doing it in forty degrees did not appeal. Thankfully, I learned I’d been relieved of this fate when we returned home from school yesterday to find footprints in the snow and a respectable seventeen inches of oil in our tank. You know that feeling when your paycheck first hits your checking account? That blissful moment of security, of hope… of possibility? That’s exactly what I felt when I retrieved the oil-soaked yardstick from the tank. To know that we’ll be warm for the next couple of months gives me the greatest relief. This oil is a gift I fully appreciate. I no longer take something as basic as this for granted – the way I did in my previous life. In my fine, suburban Northshore home, going without heat never once appeared on my radar – not even close. But here, now, it’s a real concern. There’s no pipe that magically delivers fuel into your home. The thermostat no longer hovers endlessly, mindlessly, in the mid seventies all winter long. (I remember my mother telling me as a youngster to go and put a sweater on if I was cold. Now, my kid tells me the same thing when I begin to complain about the chill inside our house!) There are consequences here in the country for not properly budgeting your resources. And even while I admire the replenished level in my tank, I do that know I’ll have to start saving for my next tank soon. But this does give me a week or two of respite. And that’s pretty big. Definitely something I’m thankful for.

And Elihu is gone now too. No longer a bittersweet event, instead it’s a time I savor and use wisely. Like my fuel oil, it too won’t last, so I must use it as efficiently as possible. Last night I allowed myself some veg time, as I waited for his father to call and let me know he’d arrived ok in Florida. With about two hours to kill, I grazed my way through the leftovers in the fridge as the comedy channel played. I surfed the internet, seeking out all the information I could on the culture of Orlando. With Steven Colbert in the background, I perused Wikipedia articles and poured over images. It struck me that this place was very sci-fi like in its growth. It reminded me of the bizarre city of Benidorm, Spain. Once a nothing little coastal town, it sprung up virtually overnight, growing into a cluster of vertical glass hotels and artificially created tropical gardens. I first saw the place when I awoke from a nap in the backseat of our car. It was nighttime, and we were driving north to Barcelona. I thought I was dreaming at first; in the middle of a vast, black nothingness arose the futuristic vision of a gleaming city. When I figured out that I wasn’t still dreaming I awoke the others and alerted the driver. This we had to see. Glad we did – it was probably the most surreal place I’ve ever visited. Nothing natural about it. No evidence (that we could see) of any history or organic pattern of growth. This was a cancer on the land that had struck quickly. It strikes me that Orlando is much the same. First came the early settlers and later the orange farm magnates (Dr. Phillip Phillips, crazy!) and finally giant tourism-based corporations (Walt and friends) and then boom! – from the 1980s til now the place has exploded. It’s a manufactured destination, like its Spanish cousin. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. And if one goes there with that in mind, and one visits not for the indigenous, historical characteristics, but instead goes with the goal of experiencing a fantastically fabricated, commercial smorgasbord, then I suppose it’s a fine place to visit. I’m not a fan of the whole Disney/theme park thing in general, but I readily cop to enjoying the luxury of a five-star hotel. I remember well what it was to travel, stay and dine in top-tier luxury. And no matter one’s ethics or values, I believe few humans would ever disdain such an experience. And that’s likely what Orlando is built upon. Transient luxury and faux finery are better than none at all, I suppose.

Elihu called around eleven. He was beyond thrilled to finally be in Florida. (A couple of hours earlier in the Albany airport he’d said to me “I think I’ve been to all fifty states now.” And yes, after a seven thousand mile tour with his dad this past summer, plus all of his previous travels, I agreed he’d come close. “How about Hawaii?” I asked. “No” he answered, “that doesn’t count; because Hawaii is its own country”. I assured him it was not, that it was the fiftieth state. Impressed by this fact, he added it to the list of places he aspired to visit, coming in right behind New Zealand and Australia.) He was beside himself with anticipation being in a place where it was not only warm (when just this afternoon he’d been lobbing snowballs at me) but where there was also an abundance of wildlife. His father had told us that the place was “sick with water birds”, so he was stoked. I’d even packed Elihu our favorite pair of binoculars – this was an opportunity no self-respecting birder could miss. And dad had reported seeing a golden-colored tree frog in his friend’s pool. This trip promised some serious stuff for a nature-loving young man.

He and his father had called me from their table at a restaurant in the Orlando airport. It was situated inside a giant atrium with both an enormous palm tree and a Christmas tree bedecked with lights and holiday decorations. The height of the ceiling impressed him as did the panoramic view of the airport beyond. It being nighttime, he could finally see outside – and was aware of distance in a way that he cannot perceive at all by day’s light. He told me he could see lights twinkling in all directions. “The ceiling here is like nine stories tall and I can see outside for miles!” he told me excitedly. My heart rose in my chest at his joy. How happy I was that he got it; that he was fully getting his sense of place. I was also very thankful that his first vision of this place was at night. I would never have told him that, as it would bring attention to the vision thing, and likely turn our conversation sour. But this was all I could think as he continued to tell me with great, childish excitement, about all the new and wonderful things he was seeing for the first time. I was so grateful for the dark of night, for the sparkling lights and the promise of a magical stay to come. ‘Enjoy this my dearest son’, I thought to myself, ‘because like your most fantastic dreams, before long this too will be nothing but a memory.’

Elihu safely and happily off in his own world for the next few days, I went next door to see how life had been going for mom and dad. Andrew had spent much of the past week drunk, and dad had just had a particularly bad episode. Following a long and challenging night, mom had finally gotten to bed after four a.m. With these two variables in the mix, plus a visit that needed to be made to housebound friend Martha, we agreed that our Thanksgiving would not be a sit down dinner at a given time, but rather we’d adjust ourselves to things as they happened. Mom agreed that she’d still make all the food (this gives her joy and purpose, believe me) and she’d just set it out for us to eat as we showed up. I’m still not sure how this will all happen; a trip to Martha’s means that dad is left alone. If Andrew and I go along as well, that is. Maybe I’ll stay back with dad. Not sure. Might have to bring some Scarlatti along with me! Hm. I begin to think that this might be a nice little opportunity to spend some time alone with dad – without others (namely mom) around. Mom tends to speak for him more and more… taking away what little voice he has left. He’s much more himself when she’s not around (no mystery there – she’s been hen-pecking at him for fifty years!) Yeeks, such a relationship they have. Symbiotic, I guess. They each seem to stoke the other in ways that work. Not saying it’s healthy, but it’s been going for decades. On some levels it obviously works for them. Who am I to judge? Happy or not, they are deeply linked and dependant upon each other. I guess it’s getting scarier for mom these days, and that’s upping her need to control things. She’s not from a generation that expresses themselves well – or at all – so that makes things all the more difficult at this stage of their lives. At least she’s giving in to it slowly and is finally accepting help (been pushing the in-home respite caregiver thing well over a year and only this week has she had someone to the house!!). Yeah, tomorrow will be a strange day for all of us Conants.

Fareed’s family is beginning to turn a corner too. Nelly, I understand, is now living with Fareed and his new wife (in our old home – and in the very room we’d once planned for his folks to live in as they aged. Same plan, different spouse.) She’s receiving some in-home care too. As both she and Martha have begun to have in-home care, my own mother is finally coming around to the idea that this is a good solution. Far cheaper than a full-on nursing home. And, though no one likes to talk about it, I added today that it increases the likelihood of Nelly or dad dying at home. I know neither of us – my ex’s family nor mine – have ever spoken in such specific language about this final stage, but at the very least I am confident that all four of them would hope to die at home rather than at an old folks’ home. Imagine them comfy at home, with a nurse to visit and make sure they’re taken care of, family around to visit and keep them connected… until that final time when they  just become too tired to stay around much longer…. could one wish for a better end?

Most of us contemporary American types aren’t good at talking or thinking about death. But it’s a-comin no matter. So I’m readying myself as best I can. Almost envy my peers who had no warning. Whose parents went quickly, tidily. Yeah, right. That’s easy for me to say. I don’t suppose any one way of losing a parent is easier than any other. No easy way to see this through, no matter what happens. But it will happen. And for those folks who are living through a lingering, meandering process, it can give those final holidays and landmarks a surreal and almost sickeningly poignant feel… knowing damn well this is the last time, knowing damn well that by Spring he either won’t know you any more… or he’ll be gone. Or maybe he’ll live another ten years knowing no one. Maybe. Anyway, you’re getting there. And you look back on last year and realize that it was your last, real Thanksgiving. Wow. It’s over. And yet, somehow, it’s not. Not yet. Not quite. A strange netherworld in which to live.

Being out of a resource, being far from home, or seeing a long-standing tradition come to a close are all things that get one to thinking. Thinking about the things we cherish, the things we take for granted, and the very transient nature of life. I know it’s hard to convince a teenager or a twenty-something that life is fleeting, but that’s ok. You’re not supposed to think that way when you’re young. You shouldn’t be thinking like that, or at least I don’t think so. Instead, you should be living those moments, feeling what it is to be in that experience, smack in the middle of your life. It’s that first half of life that gives you the standards by which you make your later-in-life observations (you know, like the ones I’m making here!). You can’t truly realize how precious things are until you know different. I do realize that life doesn’t always work like this for everyone, but it seems the usual course for most. Me, I find myself looking back and marveling over the routines I’d always taken for granted as the ordinary landscape of my life. And actually, I’m finding a lot of extraordinary in my past that I hadn’t quite noticed before. Never know what ya got til it’s gone… or til it’s almost gone, I should say.

Tonite I’m thinking to myself how blessed is the ordinary. How thankful I am for all of the ordinary I’ve ever known. I may go without for a time, or I may go for a time knowing true abundance, but either way, I must find as much contentment as I can with whatever it is that I have. If things aren’t going so well at present, at least I know that I have a future to look forward to. (Sometimes it’s nice to know that things keep changing.) Happily, I can say that in this moment, on this day, I’m thankful to have just enough.

 

That Old House September 16, 2013

Feels like I’m banging my head against a wall. Just when will my mother stop making excuses, and when will she stop making this into a bigger deal than it is? Just what will it take for her to get one lousy in-home nurse to come out and do an interview? Make one call, make one appointment. Then sit back and wait for the person to come to her. Seriously, just one phone call. But no. She can’t seem to get this done. There’s got to be more going on here than meets the eye. I suppose it might be hard for me to give way too if I were in her position – after all, I do like my personal power. I like having control over my little world. Yeah, I guess I understand. Seems I’m just a chip off the old block I guess. Man.

Had felt there was some progress being made, but now I’m not so sure. Although my mom’s been adamantly denying her need for outside help with the household and with my dad’s care for the past year, she’s recently begun to acquiesce. And I felt some relief at this; it seemed we would finally make some progress. But it doesn’t seem so from my vantage point in this moment. She seems a bit stuck. Not sure why, exactly. I really don’t know what’s in my mom’s head. She and I might talk for hours about things that need to be done in my home and what project is next on the list, but at the end of it all, we don’t talk about her own future in any real detail, her own plans or expectations for the near future. We talk about wills, yes, and how things will work after she and dad are gone, how Andrew will be provided for and our property divided, but we don’t much discuss that delicate nether world that comes in between now and then. I have no idea what her personal hopes are for her future. I just don’t know what’s going on inside her head. For we have never, ever been a family that talked about such things. It’s probably at the root of the reason my marriage failed; I didn’t address head-on issues that I knew were brewing under the surface. Yeah, the Conants are really really good at acting like things are just fine. Does my mother fear my father dying? Does she fear him moving to a nursing home? Might his death actually give her relief? Does she wish for dad’s own relief? Or would she experience relief if he simply no longer lived in the house with her? Or does the prospect of him moving out frighten her? Does she envision a solo, late-in-life travel chapter? Does she secretly wish she had more freedom from her job as caregiver so that she might do things, go places?

Honestly, I don’t think she thinks any of these things, but I can never be sure. I personally suspect she’s comfortable with things as they are. With her doing everything, with dad at home, with things getting just the smallest bit more challenging as time goes by, in increments that she can still stay on top of. Regardless of my impressions, I won’t leave this conversation unspoken – I certainly intend to ask her about her true feelings, but not right now.  Recently, she’s been quite upset with me. She feels I’m on a jag to get her to move faster than a pace at which she’s comfortable. (When I’d move a bit too fast as we tackled the attic recently she’d cry out “I’m not dead yet!” or “You can do that after I’m gone!” The martyr meter was peaking to be sure.) My God. It’s kinda like dealing with a hoarder. Things go at a snail’s pace. Can we please get moving here?  She understands this is a conversation started a few years ago, but only now is she beginning to even accept that she needs to do something about it. I’m trying to get her to make an action plan. To consider the landscape of the next few years. Look, I know it’s not as easy as I make it out to be. These are the final years of her life we’re talking about here, and although not a one of us will ever say as much, we all know it. Can’t be easy hearing a conversation that involves the end of your partner’s life – and ultimately, the end of yours, too.

I will give her props for tackling the attic a little while back. She went ahead and had a roll-off container delivered, and even paid for a few extra days as we sat on stools and waded thru stuff that had remained in storage above the garage for the past 25 years since they moved here from Chicago. It was a good ninety degrees in that attic, and a good ninety percent of the stuff there was covered in cat pee which had been reduced through heat and time to a sticky amber goo…. I tried not to find fault with her housekeeping – or rather her keeping of five cats – but the pee was so prevalent and so vile that I found myself getting slightly angered as I worked. I had to tell myself it was no one’s fault, this languishing, forgotten, smelly mess… I reminded myself that life gets busy, things out of sight become out of mind, and cats, well, they pee on stuff that’s outdoors and covered in dust. How can the cats possibly tell that these are decades-old family treasures? Hell – how can we even tell? I talked myself out of a bad mood more than a handful of times, and found that the heat and stink were worth it when we’d unearth something with a story or a memory. I knew it was good for mom to do this herself, to see these things again. No one would ever dare say such a thing out loud, but it was a form of closure. This was a process that was enabling mom to go forward from here with some renewed energy. I know personally a good bit about taking stock, assessing the inventory of a house and how invigorating it is to know just what you have and where it all is. It is empowering. I kept this forward in my mind as I toiled in the heat, in order to be as present as I could for mom; to witness her things, her life, her keepsakes, her stories and rememberings. This was important stuff. I know I was a bit crabby, and I hope I didn’t ruin the whole experience with my mood. And at least I took pictures. So we’ve still got those. Plus some nice little mementos. That should help.

It was my most recent visit to the house that pushed me over the edge. As I sat idle for a few moments while waiting for dad to sit up on the side of the bed so he could stand, then finally let me assist him in getting on his robe (which he asked me about three consecutive times each less than a minute apart. Talk about short-term memory loss!), I began to look around. There was a layer of dust and cat hair covering every single surface within my gaze. Truly, every last item and inch of space was coated in grime and grit. It’s no wonder my kid needs two benadryl just to make a thirty minute visit! Just like I had in the attic, I began to get angry. Why the hell couldn’t my mom just ‘break down’ and call someone to help her clean? But more importantly – how was is she didn’t even notice it? I do understand how it’s hard to be objective about things you’re around every day, but come on. At the very fucking least think of your grandson! Wouldn’t you like him to be able to visit for more than fifteen minutes – and without having to leave in an asthmatic episode every time? My mother seems to have all of her wits and discretionary powers fully on board – except when it comes to the filth in which she and dad now live. And I don’t get it… or do I? Maybe her pride won’t let her fully accept that things are finally beyond her ability to fix. Yeah, I guess that’s got to be a crappy and powerless way to feel. If she even realizes she’s feeling it. Her generation winces at such self-inventory. Part of the problem as well, I think….

It began to strike me as selfish that she should realize this and yet do nothing. I thought of her ‘to do’ pile on the desk downstairs; the desk she tells me she hasn’t managed to sit down at all week, but which is overrun with things she must get to. Her ‘urgent’ business? To wade through the dozens of appeals for money from native american groups, animal shelters and campaigns to fix cleft palates for children in far-away countries….  Thank-you gifts from past donations litter the office; silly miniature dream-catchers, cat magnets, calendars and more useless stuff that stays where it is because of course to simply throw it all out would be wasteful. ! It’s all crap that nobody has room for, let alone a person with almost eighty (sorry, seventy-eight) years of accumulation on her hands already. A foot-high stack of envelopes sits waiting for her attention, and she feels its pull. Yet somehow, arranging for a nurse come out and help out with dad for two hours a week doesn’t compete with the pile. Nor does calling a cleaning service. And while I’m capable of doing such things for her, she gets angry and frustrated should I bring it up. My hands are tied from helping. And if I begin to think about it much, I too get very upset.

Thankfully, with my son’s allergies, I don’t have to actually face this dilemma in person too often. Sadly, Elihu and I have long since given up the idea of coming over for regular, weekly dinners. Too much cat dander to battle with. And with school, homework, music lessons and life in general – all that plus dad’s late waking in the day (he’s usually just getting up as we’re having supper) it doesn’t always work out too well. Today, after Elihu’s first bass lesson we did pop over for a visit. Elihu sang to dad, and told him about the lesson, and the two banged out some fun rhythms on the counter together, but with little to say, homework yet to do and the allergies mounting, we were gone inside of fifteen minutes. I think back to just a year ago, when it might still have been possible for dad to get out for a visit. I think two years back, when he himself walked over to our house to say hello. And now he’s hard-pressed to get from the island to the couch. His spirit is recognizeable, and even more so when mom’s not around – but any real-world level of functioning I can now sadly recognize is gone. I feel the pall of regrets sneaking in on me, and I have to remind myself that I’ve always done what I could. Perhaps I could have done more, been a better daughter, lobbied harder to get him in the car and out into the world, but my own life has been full these past few years. So I try not to go there. Rather, I try to give dad our love and good cheer when we visit, and Elihu and I are both sensitive to our role as carriers of delight and entertainment. We haven’t much to share, but a new song or story from our week seems to lift dad’s spirits. Beyond that, I don’t think there’s much we can do. I think we’re doing the best we can, and it’s done with love. But still, it’s just so sad.

I remember when my parents built their new home. A post and beam, passive solar beauty of a house with hand-cut pegs joining massive, exposed timbers. They had a lofted living room long before two story great rooms were the rage. Filled with harpsichords, art, oriental rugs, plants, cats and guests, it was always a comfortable, earthy home to visit. There were post-concert parties in the summer, wood-stove warmed holidays in the winter. The front door has never once been used by a single guest, save a confused visitor or a Jehovah’s witness. Everyone had always come in through the garage and into the kitchen. For years it’s been a house well-lived in, but these days not so much. Thankfully the tv is on much of the time and does its job of keeping the airspace filled with an energy of some sort which downplays the emptiness. Without it the house rings with silence. Not even the Bob and Ray CDs or the recent harpsichord recordings of a colleague are listened to anymore. The technology of a boom box is beyond my father now, and when my mother comes home the tv becomes the soundtrack to the busyness of the kitchen. But it’s what works for them, and that’s what matters now. God bless Turner classics. Those old movies keep them comfortable. The movies remind them of a time in their lives in which they ceased to grow older. And who could blame them for insulating themselves like this against the coming changes? I can’t blame them for staying with what’s comfortable, and I can’t begrudge them for not trying to keep up with the rest of us.

I also can’t help but indulge in a moment of poignant reminiscing whenever I visit. I still think of this place as mom and dad’s new, post-retirement home… the place where they were to start their new life after Chicago… and in my heart it almost seems like only a couple of years ago. It’s hard to understand that this place isn’t mom and dad’s new house anymore. It’s hard to imagine all the life that’s transpired since then. And it’s hard to understand that my parents – as well as their beautiful home – are finally getting old.