Truly, friends, I’m not searching for pity. Only witness. For I cannot be the only one who has begun to entertain thoughts about the descent we shall all experience, if, as they say, we are “lucky” enough. I’m not sure I concur about the lucky thing. Not yet. There may still be adventures ahead that will re-invigorate and inspire me onward, but as of this writing, they are slim. Not nonexistent, but definitely slim.
The osteoarthritis in my hands is noticeably worse than it was six months ago. My fingers hurt nearly all the time, they cannot close into a fist, and I drop things frequently. In the early part of this past year I lost about a third of my hair; after a traumatic emotional experience it began to come out in handfuls, and in spite of supplements and a good diet I’ve yet to see any of it return.
The inner fortitude and motivation I could summon in the past is evasive these days. No longer can I hit the gym daily, marking my progress in a guaranteed slimmer and stronger physique. No longer can I make moving into a daily habit, as piecemeal as is my life, as frail as is my current stamina.
One night or two a week I dig deep, and summon the balls-to-the-walls energy and fuck-this-word motivation to hit the pavement and run long and hard. But it’s often at midnight, when, after having jittered a leg over the side of the bed for a good hour in hopes of finally growing sleepy, I give up and instead don my nighttime run-in-the-road garb. Headlamp, headphones and reflective vest on, and I’m out. Usually for an hour or two. Chewing up the road in front of me, leaving miles of tricky grade behind. But I tell you, if it weren’t for those old school R&B hits, I’m not terribly sure any of this would be possible. And sometimes it takes a few shots of whiskey to light the spark. Yeah, I know. My kid doesn’t think it’s terribly safe either. But the alternative is lying there, all fucking night, thinking. Thinking about all the nasty shit that’s coming. Cuz it is. Yeah, you can protest. Be better than me. Fine. Yeah, think what you want. You do you, as they say.
My tone has changed, hasn’t it? I know it has. And because I’m not a fan of polluting this lovely Hillhouse journal with the stuff that’s rolling around in my head these days, I’ve purchased a new domain on which to share my thoughts. But somehow, I can’t find the resolve to deal with the details. To figure out how to re-engineer things. All the templates seem lame. Can’t even figure out which font to use. I just can’t care quite enough to get it going. Not yet. But I will. Somehow, in the end, I always get shit done.
In the interim, however, I’m gonna bitch. I’m gonna kvetch, I’m gonna let off some steam. Cuz it’s been building for a while.
The events of this aching world tire me. For the most part I just ignore them. It’s always been my feeling that the best way to help improve the world is just to be nice. Help folks out, do something that makes someone breathe easier. Create those rings that ripple out into the world and make things just a tiny bit better. Despair not; leave the rest of the world to fight over that bigger picture. Instead, take a walk in the woods with your kid. Play the piano for a few minutes. Arrange some flowers, feed the birds, bring the mail in for a neighbor. You know, stuff that gives energy to nature, to beauty, to service. Cuz really, what the hell else can we do? What else will benefit the world as immediately as any of these things?
In a month or so I’m getting out of town. Frankly, it’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings. But happy as I am to know that before long I’ll be visiting old friends and driving down the pot-holed streets of some big Midwestern cities, it’s more than disappointing that I can’t represent in the way I’ve always been accustomed; this time going ‘home’ I’ll be an aging lady with a few extra pounds and a bunch of new wrinkles.
Somehow I don’t think of myself as an almost-60 someone, until, that is, I see myself in an unexpected reflection (as opposed to the staged camera-above-the-face-suck-it-all-in pose). It almost always takes me aback, and yet this aging shit has barely started (if all goes “well”). It seems my former husband was correct; growing old is going to be a challenge for me. He always said it wouldn’t be hard for him, as he’d never known what it was go be good-looking to begin with, so he’d never know the loss of it. I was never flat-out hot, but I was attractive enough. And as my ex also said – I was pretty enough to entice men, but not so beautiful as to intimidate them. Suffice to say that with youth and a modicum of good looks come power. And that sort of power can only diminish with age. Again, protest if you like. But it’s true. If you don’t believe me – try applying for a job without any prior experience at 60. Let me know how it goes.
What’s the point of this? To let you know that your secret thoughts aren’t yours alone. There are probably many of you – especially those who are around my age – who concur. Those who may be thinking the same things but dare not express such ideas aloud for sounding self-sorry. Incorrect. Faithless. Me, I’m gonna go there. Cuz it’s kinda what I do, right? I tell you what I’m thinking.
Over the past year or so my mother has taken to muttering things under her breath about morphine and dying. She’ll tell you the lethal dose she’d need. She’ll make comments about hopefully not being around next year at this time and other such things. Clearly, doubled over with arthritis and without the physical stamina she possessed even a few months ago, she is tired and just about done with this world. And yet, when I once posited that I thought people should be able to choose their own exit, she yelled “You mean as in suicide?” with a look of horror on her face. And she’s not a religious woman. She’s politically liberal. She listens to NPR. You get it. So one might think she’d be fairly neutral on the topic of death. But truly, who is? I told her it was just semantics; death by choice was a far better way to phrase it than using the word suicide. She just screwed up her face in outrage and disbelief. But now look at the way she’s thinking. My mother is not too thrilled with her situation these days. Growing older is more often than not a decidedly un-fun thing to do.
My dear friend Ganga disagreed with me on this subject. She enjoyed a deeply spiritual experience here on this plane, and she felt every single moment was precious. Me, I argued that wishing for an exit when you felt your life’s work was satisfyingly concluded – and making it happen, too – that was a fine outcome, and it in no way conflicted with the sanctity of life. On this we never would agree, and yet we always loved and respected each other regardless of that difference.
When she weighed around seventy pounds and was too weak to even bring a fork to her mouth, I had spoken my truth as much as I felt was helpful and relevant. I sought to understand how she felt from the inside. For those on the outside, she appeared very close to death (in fact she died two days after I made my inquiry). I told her that we’d never been anything less than frank with each other, and that I wanted to know how she was feeling (this was my way of gently allowing her to tell me that she was aware that death was coming – and that she was perhaps even afraid of it). “How do you feel, physically?” I added, hoping she might take a closer, more honest inventory of her situation. I guess I’d wanted her to admit her frailty and accept my emotional support. But instead, she surprised me with her answer; “I feel robust in my body.” It was then that I realized how strongly a human clings to life. It was then that I realized that she was living her truth until her very last breath. I was shocked, and I was impressed. It was intriguing to say the least.
My son, mother and I have discussed this issue of ‘death by choice’ a few times, and both of them believe that the human instinct to survive is so innately a part of our DNA and cultural programming that very few people would ever choose to end their own life. I don’t know how my mother truly feels though. Her tone is so passive-aggressive that I simply can’t know how likely she would be to end her life if there were a legal and humane way in which to do so. I do know that my son knows my feelings. I wish to have the choice.
Friends, don’t worry. It’s not on the to-do list yet. Besides, it’s sadly not legal. However one day it might be, and the tools might be available. And if it were, I might take advantage of that freedom. Then again, I might not. I just can’t know until I’m there.
It aint over ’til the aging, overweight lady sings.
In and of itself it’s not really anything out of the ordinary, however what brings some irony to the situation is that my friend once wrote a book about dying, and how to lose one’s fear of it. And she is not approaching her death as she herself has counseled so many others to do.
Back in a time when generous book advances were more common than today, she’d made a pretty penny from her work even before it had hit the presses. The book was written a few years after she had begun what was to become her most important gift to the world, the creation of a non-profit organization called ‘God’s Love We Deliver’, an operation which daily delivered fresh-cooked meals to sick and homebound people in metro NYC (in its beginning it delivered several hundred, today it’s upwards of seven thousand a day). Ganga had garnered some major street cred back then from ‘God’s Love’ which no doubt had something to do with the book advance. GL had also caught the eye of some well-known folks who had either chosen to sit on the board or give the gift of their time, money and visibility: comedienne Joan Rivers, socialite and philanthropist Blaine Trump (yes, that Trump family – by a former marriage – yet I personally believe her to be cut of a far different cloth), designers Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, among many others. When Ganga began to teach classes to men dying of AIDS on how to approach the end of life, it raised her profile in the culture of death awareness. She was a guru of sorts on the subject. Her teachings on acceptance of death were a perfect compliment to her mission to assist the victims of the AIDS epidemic with home-delivered, high-quality food, delivered with love. She advocated for both a loving approach to a person’s final days, as well as a practical approach to the death that was to follow. In fact, she encouraged people to lose their fear of death and accept it as a potentially wonderful experience.
She and I met late one night in line for the pharmacy at CVS some six years ago. It was her adorable Maltese dog named Bobby McGee who pulled me into her orbit, (she used to waitress at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan back in the day, where Janis Joplin was a customer of hers, hence her dog’s name) but it was the conversation about death which we stumbled upon so organically which called me to her friendship. I told her I had wished there was a book that addressed death in a simple, pragmatic way – and she told me that there was; she herself had written just such a book! I recognized in her a fellow human of similar energy and drive, so when she told me, I didn’t doubt her for a moment, and I eagerly awaited the story that was to follow. And so it was that she gave me the thumbnail of her life’s work. After hearing about her experiences, I knew that this was a woman I had to know better. How lucky was I that this special woman lived right here in my town?
That night when I got home I ordered her book, and read it cover-to-cover shortly after it arrived. In the wake of my surprise divorce a few years earlier, and in an effort to preserve my sanity and understand how better to make sense of the experience, I had dived deep into the study of things philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and so the main idea which she posited of an existence beyond this physical world was not foreign to me or without serious merit and consideration. I liked what I read, and I was relieved to find someone for whom the topic was so easily discussed (and especially so as it was examined outside of any religious constructs).
Ever since we met, death has been an easy topic of conversation for the two of us to continue. In fact, there has never been a subject we two couldn’t discuss. We always enjoyed deeply candid conversations; it was the main reason we two felt so connected. (I wrote on my kitchen white board something she had said to me this past week: “Your conversation is nourishing”.) But now, whether it’s due to her severe lack of memory or her primal, instinctive fear of the finality, she has come to completely deny that her death is nearing. Actually, it’s not so much that she denies it, for the subject never even arises. She simply carries on as if it were life as usual. She behaves as if her life is now the same as it has ever been, when any other person in the room can plainly see that it is not. And for some reason which I cannot identify, but respect nonetheless, I am uncharacteristically unable to address the subject with her. It just doesn’t feel as if there would be any real benefit from the discussion, and so I leave it be.
Recently she broke her left hip (she’d managed to get somewhat better and at least ambulatory after she broke the right one plus a kneecap two years ago), but after this second surgery she has simply gone downhill. And at this point, all the signs are there; she weights a mere seventy-six pounds, and hasn’t the strength to move her legs or adjust her position in the bed. She can’t even put food on her own fork, and beyond that just getting the food to her mouth has become a challenge. And tonight as I was tucking her in and trying to get her comfortable (this is hard to do at this point as she’s so very skinny and pressure on her bones hurts), we both noticed how purple the tips of her fingers had turned, and how cold they were to the touch. She assured me that they didn’t feel cold. Another sign…
Yet somehow she can’t even see this for herself. The past few days she’s rationalized that her current condition is the exception to the norm; today she is unusually tired, or she ate enough at the previous meal, or maybe it’s that she’d rather enjoy my company that waste our visit by eating. A few days ago I brought a chopped liver sandwich (her father made chopped liver and she often waxes nostalgic about it) and she ate with enthusiasm and delight – but a mere three bites. That was all she could take. All the logic in the world couldn’t convince her that this was hardly enough caloric intake to maintain her health, let alone make up for the twenty-plus pounds she’d lost since she’d her surgery.
The hospice nurse and social worker (the latter is truly an absolute bitch, how or why she came to this career choice is beyond my comprehension) arrived while I was visiting a few days ago, and I was asked to please leave the room. I waited outside while they told my friend of the change in her care from rehab to hospice. It didn’t seem that my friend understood. When I was invited back in, something had changed. It seemed that Ganga had made the case for my being family of sorts; she wanted me there to hear the information. The women gave their spiel again. I interpreted it for my friend in the gentlest way I could. “Oh no, I don’t want hospice!” she said adamantly. I explained that if she gained weight, if she showed an increase in strength and if she made some overall progress, that her status as a hospice patient would be changed back to that of a rehab patient. This new change in care was just a measure of relief for her; she wouldn’t be made to adhere to a strict diet (she always complained about choices being made for her), and she wouldn’t be made to endure physical therapy (through which she screamed in fear and pain the whole time). She could enjoy the break she so often asked for. Still, it didn’t seem to matter. The word hospice is loaded, and as lacking as my friend may be in memory and physical abilities, this was not lost on her.
I realize that it’s not important that she be completely aware of her patient status. And anyway, having her truly understand the situation is not really possible; her lack of short term memory prevents any new information from sticking. And whether she knows that her death is coming before long or not – it doesn’t change a thing. What does matter is that I try, as her friend, to maintain a certain level of joy, satisfaction and physical comfort in her remaining experience here. I will continue to bring her her favorite foods, whether she takes one bite or not. I will play the chants of Muktananda from her days in the ashram in India, and I’ll hang his picture on her wall. I will bring her my favorite down pillow and comforter from home. I will do everything short of burn her favorite incense (I’ve already been spotted as a rule-breaker on the floor, no need to tempt complete banishment from the place) in order to keep her as content and happy as possible. We will simply have to live each moment to the best of our ability. From here on in I will do my best to keep her life worth living.
I too might have to employ this approach with respect to my own life these days. We’ve lost fourteen birds – some dearly beloved and deeply important to us – over the past six weeks. My mother is eighty-six now and her health and strength wain visibly as the months go by. My own body has continued to change in unpleasant ways that break my vain heart daily, and behind all of this is the knowledge that my son and only life companion will be leaving me forever in just a few months, sooner even, when one considers he will pass much of the summer with his dad. How I will manage, as a single person in the world with very few friends? This I do not yet know. I will simply have to continue to witness the joy and beauty in my life as it appears. I can do no more, and I realize that it won’t serve me to do any less.
I understand that everything is transitory. I have worked for years on getting this knowledge to live inside of me. Yeah, I get it – and yet I don’t. There is the intellectual aspect of me which is well-informed and trusting, but then there is the deeper, more animalistic feeling that I just can’t shake. Yes, I do believe it to be true, as my old family friend Martha always used to say, that ultimately “everything always works out”. My head believes it, but on some level my gut doesn’t quite trust it to be so. Elihu will often defend Ganga’s seemingly strange behavior these days by reminding me that we are physiologically wired to stay alive, and that that drive is strong. Primal. Instinct wins over intellect here, he tells me. Must be what’s going on in Ganga’s experience. She knows it’ll all work out. And yet she can’t quite bring herself to accept it. Understandable, because the next thing on her to-do list is to die. Easy to rationalize when it’s someone else’s experience I guess. I certainly can’t know for sure that I myself won’t behave in the very same way when my own death shows itself to be coming soon.
Ironically, the day that Ganga died I had successfully made my online reservation for a visit at the rehab facility, and even had the screen shot to prove it (the online system didn’t always print out the time I reserved, so this time I thought I’d beat the system). Elihu and I went to visit Grandma after school, and after that I was going to go make my visit (feeling certain it would be my last). As I was getting in the car to leave, I received a call from her sister. Ganga has died peacefully at 4 pm, less than an hour earlier.
In my mind I played back last night’s visit. A dear friend with whom she’d started God’s Love We Deliver and her husband had made the long drive from Maryland to hold Ganga’s hand and be there with her in the time that remained. I remember seeing all three of them there in the gentle light of the small table lamp, her friend reading poems to her, holding her hand… I remember thinking it would merely be selfish if I were to interrupt the vibe by wishing to hold Ganga’s hand once more, or to kiss her on the head… I had only ever kissed her once, a few days earlier. I had been so conflicted about doing so (it still felt awkward to offer such a tender gesture for a woman who, like me, spoke her mind and swore like a sailor), but I made myself do it, and for this I’m now very relieved. So as I took in the scene, and before I pulled closed the curtain between us, I simply said “I love you Ganga, I’ll see you tomorrow”.
I last saw Ganga on Tuesday night, the first of June. She died the following day at 4 p.m.
It is Friday night now, and tomorrow morning I will make the drive, early morning, to witness my friend’s cremation. Naturally, I had to take some action in order to learn where and when it was to happen. It still amazes me that our culture is just fine with the idea of a loved one’s body being whisked away in the night and returning a few weeks later in a small five pound box, no questions asked. Seriously, no one is sentimental? Curious? In need of closure? Sigh.
As I write this, my friend’s body still exists. Ganga still exists in corporeal form. But in a matter of hours, she won’t. And this doesn’t matter at all, really. I can hear her in my head saying “Oh Elizabeth it’s bullshit. Don’t think for a moment that the body means anything.” At least I think so. That’s been kinda eating at me the last two days. I used to think I knew exactly what she would have said. But now I start to doubt…
It’s now Saturday morning. In two hours’ time I will watch the smoke rise from the wide-bore metal smokestack, carrying with it a portion of Ganga’s body upward and into the ether. Then I will pray, I will chant, I will wish her a loving and peaceful transition. I will probably cry too. And then her form as I knew it, the form which made me smile with its familiarity, the form that once served her so well and which later let her down so deeply, that crazy mass of now-decrepit cells will be nothing but bones and ashes, and smoke in the air. That which was.
It’s still super early. I didn’t wake up in a good place in my sleep cycle, so now I’m desperately groggy and trying on many excuses to see if I can allow myself to sleep in and simply miss the whole affair. But how often does one get this sort of chance to witness the final departure of a dear friend? With a mixture of sorrow, anticipation and a tiny bit of dread, I’m going to pack my bag and head off now.
I arrived at Albany Rural Cemetery a bit before 8 am, (as I’d been told that Ganga would go in first thing in the morning) and the kind woman I’d spoken to on the phone was there in the office. They were a bit backed up; Ganga’s cremation had first been moved from Friday afternoon to early on Saturday, and now it seemed as if they wouldn’t get to her until noon or later. It was time to elicit some more information to see if I might not nudge things a bit in my favor; I did my ‘thing’ and expanded the conversation as much as I felt her to be comfortable with (ok, I probably went a bit beyond that). She told me the guy who was working the crematorium’s name was Damien. “You’ll know who he is. He’s got a lot of tattoos.”
I parked in the shade just past the chapel, crematorium and mausoleum, all of which were housed in the same terra cotta-colored stone building. I walked around the perimeter once, and noticed that there was a large hall on the lower level with a door that was unlocked. It was a mausoleum, its towering walls made of smooth marble squares, some occupied, some yet awaiting their tenants. There was a table with a vase of plastic flowers and a guest book on it by the doorway. I stopped to read the entries. They were all family members come to visit parents and grandparents. Not a one of the messages was terribly interesting, and they all seemed to be desperate with loss and sorrow. I looked for something more personal or unique, but nothing stood out. We miss you Grandma, we love you Papi… Does it all just end like this? Not a lot of hope for closure or transition on those pages.
I decided I would leave a message of my own for Ganga. I sat down on the cool stone stairs, held the book in my lap, thought for a few moments, and then filled in a page. I took a pic, then returned the book to the table and stood back for a moment to regard the setting. All at once a bald man in a gas mask came running down the stairs at top speed, stopping short at seeing me – I believe I remember him even putting a hand to his heart, because it was clear that I’d scared the shit out of him. We both paused for a moment and I saw that his head was covered in vividly-colored tattoos. “Hi, are you Damien?” I asked, but he didn’t answer, he just offered a muffled “Oh I’m sorry!” from behind the mask and made a sort of slight bow of apology, and then ran back up the flight of stairs. It seemed as if he couldn’t hear me with the headgear on. I remained in the hall for a few more minutes, noting the fact that, as Sarah had told me, that because they were so backed up, the place wasn’t presentable to the public at the moment. Cardboard body boxes were stacked up in the common area, and a very industrial-looking apparatus used for holding caskets was parked in an adjacent hallway. At the end of the day, it’s a physical world, and there are physical jobs that need to be done.
Within a minute or two the bald man came back down the staircase, this time sans gas mask. Again he apologized, and of course I did too. Why should he ever expect a stranger to be here at 8 a.m. on a Saturday? I saw that he was indeed heavily tattooed (plus he had a thrice-pierced lip). Oh what a kind man he was; I told him why I was there, that it was important for me to be here when my friend was cremated. He said Sarah was right, they were a bit backed up, and it would probably be around noon by the time he could get to her. That was ok, I answered. I’d tour the cemetery and bide my time ’til then. So Damien left to get back to his job. But then a few minutes later he came down the stairs again. “I can get your friend in at 9” he offered. “You shouldn’t have to hang around here for so long”. I thanked him, this time I was the one offering a slight bow of gratitude. “I’ll get things going.” Damien offered. “And I’ll have your friend in at 9”. “Um… so which stack will she be in?” I asked, referring to the pair of metal chimneys. Without hesitation he answered “The one on the left”. I nodded. “Ok, thanks”. He turned to leave. I felt a slight rise in my adrenaline. “Wait!” I called out, and he stopped. In my mind I considered the things I might do as a symbol of our connection in this final moment – perhaps he could retrieve a lock of her hair? Perhaps he could take the flowers in my hand and have them burned along with her? In a flash I realized all of the legal and logistical problems that even a tiny request might create, and quickly said “Never mind”. No, there was nothing left to be done. He nodded, smiled kindly, turned and left.
I found a spot under a deliciously-scented flowering mock orange bush just twenty feet outside of the furnace portion of the building. I pulled out my phone to check that I had the chant correct. Om Namah Shivaya. I pulled out Ganga’s book, and then her small bible. I had brought a cushion to sit on, and was wearing her red beaded necklace from India. I tried to imagine that now tiny body, that white-haired dynamo of a woman, lying just behind that vent, behind that brick wall. That body was in lousy shape when she left it, and certainly it was less than that now. But being the deeply sentimental person I am, I couldn’t help but try to picture her in my mind’s eye. I could imagine her laying there, a mere shell of the woman she once was, and with that image fixed in my head, I said my own quiet inner farewell to that familiar form.
A few minutes before nine I heard some machinery begin to operate, and I saw the wavy heat lines of burning fuel rising from the stack (for me it was the one on the right; I was on the opposite side of the wall from Damien). Ok, I thought, it has to get up to speed first… And then, a moment or two after nine, there was one initial blast of sound, and one puff of black smoke… The smoke didn’t last. Within a minute the black smoke returned to the invisible waves of heat, rising, which continued for another hour and forty minutes. (Later I surmised that this initial burst of smoke may have been the easily-burned parts of the package like her hair, her nightgown, the dry skin, the box… the rest of the material was wetter and denser and would just be a low and slow process.) The initial plume stunned me into tears, as I realized the transformation was underway. I reached for her bible, the one with her initials embossed on the cover and which had been given to her at her first communion in St. Louis another lifetime ago, and I turned to a page in which she had once inserted a laminated card with the Saint Francis of Assisi prayer that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hate, let me sow love…” I read it aloud, through tears. I took a moment to consider it more deeply, and I read it again. And then I set to chanting. I readily admit that I’m years out of any meditative practice, so the chanting went in spurts – as did my focus. I needed to relieve my joints too, so a few times I stood, I walked, I considered the vapors rising from the stack. I thought of my friend’s physical state by now, and how I was moving beyond my sentiment for it. I stood in the shadow of the wavy heat lines on the pavement, and noted how our forms were casting shadows together. Likely it was far more fuel than body, but still… It was us, together for one last moment here on earth.
My friend had wasted away to a mere seventy-plus pounds at the end of her life, so after about an hour and forty minutes I began to wonder if it wasn’t time. But how to know? Would there be some mystical sign? Did she plan on letting me know? And within seconds of my pondering this, I heard two short sirens go off, and then the engines let down and began to hum a little more quietly. Yeah, I was pretty sure that this had been the timer, and our dear Ganga was finally cooked. It made me laugh.
I got in my car and as I slowly pulled away I saw Damien, leaning against the arched entrance, smoking a cigarette. Passing more time while her remains cooled down before they could be processed. “Man, I bet a lot of this job is just waiting, huh?” I asked, elbow hanging out my open window. That began a ten minute conversation in which we covered a lot of ground; he’d taken the job as grounds keeper originally, as he liked being outdoors, but then the guy working the crematory needed a sub, and pretty soon what Damien had once thought an unthinkable task had now become his new full-time job. He said it was particularly hard seeing the kids and babies that came in. He shared with me that while he’d never seen a ghost, once he had been overwhelmed with the scent of vanilla while mowing the lawn, the summer air around him filled with nothing but dust and grass seed. I mean, it is a cemetery. Certain subjects come up. Ghosts and unexplainable events must be covered at some point I should think. And it’s always nice when you meet another soul who has shared similar experiences, and with whom censorship is not necessary. Natural candor is a beautiful thing. Hey, it’s what I had with Ganga.
Ganga would’ve really liked this nice young tattooed man who reverently loaded her into the furnace of evermore. I’m sure it woulda made her smile. And I’m sure if she could’ve seen everything with the clarity of her former self, she would’ve been pretty happy with the way in which the last few weeks went down. (On some level I’m sure she knew well what was going on; she left after all was resolved.) Ganga had made peace with her long-estranged son, her son’s father, spent time with her daughter and her sister, and saw once again her beloved friend from the old days, who’d journeyed far just to hold her friend’s hand at the end. Ganga asked after Elihu at every one of our visits, and she was deeply satisfied to know where he was going to school, and that he himself was happy with the choice (she was adamantly against him attending an Ivy League for numerous reasons) and the last time Elihu visited with her, he had held her hand for a long time and had told her that he loved her. He sobbed the whole way home, a behavior very uncharacteristic of him. I told her about this the following day, and told her that for reasons he didn’t himself even understand, Elihu loved her so very deeply. “I feel the same way” she answered.
In the end, everything really did work out. And I know that Ganga is doing fine wherever she is now. I know it. I can just feel it in my bones.
My former mother-in-law probably never really liked me. But I suppose, after being family for over two decades, she had likely come to love me in some way. I know that I can say the same of her. She was never terribly kind to me, but it didn’t hurt me as much as it might have, because I realized she had come from a different world. Hers was a culture in which women served their men, a culture in which her power lay in her role as daughter, sister, mother and wife. Catholic by birth, spiritual by nature and married to a Muslim man for over fifty years, she was, to say the very least, a mixed bag. She was never entirely comfortable with the fact that I had my own life, that I had my own pursuits, and most of all, that I didn’t give it all up in service to my husband.
Nelly was born in Chile in the early ’30s, raised in Peru (where her father oversaw the crews that cut into the dense jungle to build roads – something akin to a culture of the Wild, Wild West in America) and lived her adult life in the Midwest, starting her American adventure in Ohio, then moving to Chicago. My ex-husband was her only son. The trio was close, and despite my being married into the family, I never made it into the inner sanctum. The group was rife with personal dysfunction, yet in spite of this, they each enjoyed a good deal of financial and professional success. I marveled at Nelly over the years; how she could be so savvy with some things, so progressive in her spiritual beliefs, and at the end of the day she didn’t really have any close or lasting relationships, nor did she really seem to engage deeply with anyone outside her small family. She’d have short, intense friendships that would burn out when she, clueless to the needs and expectations of her companions, would demand too much of them or leave them worn out. Nelly lived in her own world, and she created it the way she wanted it. She, a woman who dyed her hair fire-engine red using her husband’s Congo red laboratory stain, was indisputably one-of-a-kind. She drove me nuts, but I do owe her a debt of gratitude for helping to create a major shift in my life and my understanding of the world.
Nelly had been a designer and a very skilled dressmaker in her early years, and she always had an artistic and musical sense. She wrote poems, she sang, she painted. As she lay in her bed this past year, Fareed played guitar for her, Riaz played recordings and delighted as she hummed along, and Elihu recalls reading her poems aloud. Shortly after she died yesterday in the early morning, peacefully in her sleep, Fareed picked up her book of poems and it fell open to this page…
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.)
Thumbs 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?
This 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 leavethingsbe. 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.
Mother 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.
At 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.
She 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!
I’m trying to imagine how everything might look right now if I knew I were dying.
Tonight the moon is out, and from every window in my house I see a gentle, rural scene. Beyond my kitchen window to the north I can see a thinly wooded forest through which the moonlight passes, leaving slender shadows in the sparkling snow. To the right of that there is a deep swath of open yard which stretches up and over the rise; it’s defined at the far end by a stone wall and row of trees beyond which lies another large field. I can also see the lights from my neighbor’s homes in the distance, and it feels nice to know they’re not right upon us, but still, just close enough. I like knowing that. Through my living room window to the east I see the ridge of the horizon, and lights twinkle from the hills beyond the Hudson River. There are people living out there, under those twinkling lights, and I like knowing this, too.
It’s a modest house for sure, but it’s cozy, it’s comfortable, and I think that most of the people in this world would be happy to call this place home. For just a second or two I’m able to conjure the feeling that I’m looking at it for one of the very last times, and for however many times I’ve so deeply missed the homes I’ve lived in before this one, for however many times I’ve lamented ending up here, alone at the end of a long, country driveway – now, in this moment, this place feels like the most important place of my whole life. Tonight, this place is my only home. It’s where I want to be. And until recently, it’s where I’ve always felt safe from the world.
Less than an hour ago I heard that a friend, who’d discovered her breast cancer in what she’d thought to be its earliest stages, had learned through her recent surgery that it was worse than previously thought. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. A diagnosis I’ve heard many, many times in the past decade of my life… It doesn’t always end the same way, but it’s a long, difficult road to travel no matter the severity of the disease, and I don’t envy those who’ve had no choice but to take up the charge. I’ve seen friends fight tenacious cancers, some triumphing after incredibly brave battles, some succumbing after equally courageous campaigns. And in the end, who in hell knows why some people make it, and some people don’t? No one, of course, deserves to get cancer. And no one deserves to die of it either. But when the patient is either the parent of a young family or a practitioner of the healing arts, it somehow seems all the more unacceptable.
Last night, Elihu and I had dinner with a neighbor, who brought up the subject of another town resident who was, although putting up a kick-ass fight, dealing with a lethal cancer. His mother had died of it, and he himself hadn’t even discovered it until it until quite recently – when it was already stage four. He was a relatively young guy, and with three young children he had a lot to live for, but still, it didn’t look good. Truthfully, it looked bad. But in spite of how imminent his death appeared, my heart lightened to hear a new tone in our hostess’s voice as she offered rather brightly that of course he still had a chance. (Funny how one latches on to hope – however small or unlikely it promises to manifest.) I myself had only learned of his diagnosis a few weeks back – after, I’d seen him in a local liquor store and given him some grief about his newly launched vodka business. He’d cited some local lore on his product label about which I questioned his firsthand experience. But he sure showed me; he’d known more about it than I’d thought he would, and even had the class to acquiesce about a point on which he may have put something of a romantic spin for the sake of salesmanship.
After my needless challenge of his new product line had concluded, he cheerfully asked after Elihu, remembering his charismatic performance at the Greenfield Elementary Talent Show a few years back. Our kids had ridden the bus together for a few years, and Elihu, whether this man knew it or not, had fairly idolized his namesake son. Maybe I should have told him? I wasn’t sure how relevant it was at this point. Just as well I didn’t go on…. In hindsight, I so wished I’d have stopped babbling sooner, and just played it a bit cooler. I had remembered to congratulate him on the new business, but still, I guess I just feel as if I’d been a bit foolish, a bit trivial spewing all that ridiculous banter to fill the space. I know it’s the common, everyday stuff that matters – it’s banter mostly that keeps the world turning – I just wish I’d been a little less enthusiastic in my pursuit of it. After all, there was some serious courage on display right in front of my eyes, and here I was chattering on as if it was a day like any other. Of course it was a day like any other – and when you’re sick, don’t you wish for your life to go one all around you as if it truly were business as usual? But then clearly, it is not just another day. A confusing mix of realities.
Both my parents have had cancer. My cousin’s been undergoing repeated rounds of chemo over the past several years in an effort to keep her colon cancer at bay. Our grandmother died of colon cancer. I myself, for the second time in as many years, have pre-cancerous polyps growing inside of me which need to be removed. The office gal at the gastroenterology group is nonplussed at my status; it’ll be months yet before I can even get in for a first appointment, much less get the things lopped off. “They’re slow growing” the gal on the other end of the phone tells me in a near monotone, the subtext being “We know what we’re doing. Don’t freak out here.” In past years it’s been another thing to tick of the to-do list, this year it’s something that begins to really frighten me. I mean, whatif? What’s to say it shouldn’t be me too? There is no fucking justice in the assignment of disease. I am just as human as the dad down the road with the young family, or my friend and acupuncturist with the breast cancer. I am just as unsafe as they are from a surprise diagnosis. Nothing saved my old college beau from dying of Leukemia before he turned forty, or my dear musician friend dying from esophageal cancer shortly after that, or my old childhood pal passing from lung cancer before fifty. None of those jovial, loving and spirited young men deserved to go, nor did their loved ones deserve to lose them. From my earth-bound perspective these good souls deserved none of the shitty hands they were dealt.
In spite of the cheery demeanor that goes out before me in the world, I live my life in an ever-present, low-grade state of fear. And lately, I’m more keenly aware of just why. Making my way through life feels like I’m walking through a field of land mines. And now that I’m past that fifty mark, people in my life have begun to leave at an increasing rate. Right and left I hear stories, I learn that ‘so-and-so is gone’, or ‘didn’t I hear that she had only months to live?’ or ‘it was so sudden, and then he was gone’… It almost doesn’t shake me quite so much – at least not as much as it did say a couple of years ago. And also because many of my friends who have died have been out of my immediate, day-to-day world, their deaths have seemed somewhat unreal and distant. But the frightening reality of death has settled in all around me now, and I find that I’m even giving my eleven year old son simple directives should it be learned that I too have something possibly terminal. I’m not sure how comprehensive Medicaid is, but I am surely at its mercy. If a treatment isn’t covered, it isn’t going to happen. I feel a growing pressure to archive the work of my life, to get it organized clearly – so clearly that someone other than me could go through the mementos and understand their context and stories. I want my footprint to be tidy and identifiable, even if I know it will only eventually recede back into the rolling sea.
We passed a house today that I’ve always liked; it was a small cottage nestled into the side of a mountain, part of it was made of local stone, the rest a deep gray clapboard with white trim and tidy black shutters. Many were the daydreams I’d had about what life might look like if I myself lived there… Today I saw that it had recently suffered a fire. Gutted. It was black with soot, and dusted with the flurries that had started to fall again. I know most people’s first hope would have been that the residents got out safe. Somehow, I always take that as a given. Instead, my first thought is usually I hope they were able to save a few favorite things. But this time, after a moment’s more thought on the matter, I changed my mind. No, that wasn’t what I hoped for this time. This time I really did hope that they’d made it out safely, and hadn’t dawdled on account of the memento box.
My arthritic hands have started to make playing the piano painful; they’re beginning to twist in different directions and ache all day long. My vanity had already given up, but this new physical challenge of simply playing – of doing the only thing in the world that I’m truly qualified to do – is breaking my heart. It’s making me fear for the shape my fingers will be in ten years from now if they continue at this rate. But then, I remember my friends and what they face. And as with everything in life, when the road gets harder than you could have ever imagined in your worst dreams, the unimportant stuff somehow falls away. It’s not about living so much pain-free as it is about just plain living. It’s not so much about grabbing a box of mementos on the way out. It’s about steeling yourself, gathering your courage and getting the hell out of harm’s way.
Tonight I’ll be thinking of my friends – all of those who face deeply frightening health challenges at this time – and I’ll be sending them as much love as the airwaves can hold. I’m surprised to find I’m not quite out of hope yet, in fact I’m turning up the dial now, and I’m emitting as much hope out into the world as best I can… I pray they receive it, and like some sort of beacon, it will help them find their way out of the burning house in time…
My dad died one year ago tonight. As I sit here, I try to remember the feeling of the day, the order in which things happened. I’ve lost track of some details – some things are fuzzy, and that bothers me. But I’m lucky to recall this distinctly: I remember most how normal the day had felt. For the first time in years, it was just we four Conants together in the house. All of us at our posts, a low level of activity and busyness going one which had created a feeling of normalcy and well, comfort. My mom was in the kitchen puttering about, my brother at the dining room table on his computer, my father was sleeping in his hospice bed in the side room, and I sat in between them, on the couch in the living room, taking it all in. Feeling how homey it was. I knew we were waiting for dad to die, we all did, but still, it felt good to be there. All of us together, one last time. I can’t know how mom and Andrew were truly feeling, but I remember that I was quietly petrified, but somehow doing ok. In spite of what we where there for, it was a good afternoon. One year ago today.
We were all touching dad when he went; mom and Andrew holding his hands, I was holding both his feet. After sleeping quietly for hours and hours, it was a little after eleven at night when dad uttered two loud vocalizations. I alerted my brother and mom, and then it began. The final half hour. And at the very end, he faked us out three times – we’d thought he’d taken his final breath when he’d take another breath in… By the third one we were actually laughing – and crying of course too – because here was dad, in his last moments on earth, taking a curtain call. When he finally passed, our cat Mina, who stays on dad’s desk in his office (and had gotten up on his bed earlier that day – a move very uncharacteristic of her) meowed twice, as if to confirm that dad had finally left us. Finally, we could cry. Mom, who I’ve seldom seen cry in my entire life, allowed herself tears. Andrew too. And after years of being at the receiving end of my brother’s hate and venom (it’s not his fault, he is not well), I hugged him, told him I loved him and that he was the best brother ever. So thanks, dad, for helping each of us find a little closure in your passing.
When you finally lose a parent, it feels like an initiation. Having two parents – especially two who are still under the same roof – feels a bit like a bonus these days. I’m sorry I didn’t take more pictures and videos of us all while we were together, and I’m tempted to indulge in regret. It just kinda felt as if it would always be thus. I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again more than a few times: this is a hard planet to live on. Even when you have it good, it’s still not easy.
My agnostic friends will think I’m making stuff up in order to feel better about the whole thing – but me, I know that we move on to another plane of existence after this. I know it aint over, and that I’ll see my dad again. I even know he’s aware of me here and now, and that when I think of him, I send him my love and energy through the ether, and he receives it where he is. I know this. For my friends who don’t believe there’s anything beyond our simple, earth-bound lives, all I can say is, I can’t wait to see the look on your face when we meet again…
Here are some photos I’ve been digging up all morning. I’m missing a chunk of time in between when Elihu was little and now – but for some reason, life must have taken over and I just neglected to take pictures for a while. I guess I just kinda forgot that it’s the everyday things that are more worth remembering than the exceptional. But I’m lucky to have these. And so lucky that I got to be the daughter of Robert Conant.
Some pics from dad’s professional life…
An early promo shot.
Dig this one. !
Entertaining the troops at Fort Dix, 1951. (I have this Challis harpsichord now here at the Hillhouse.)
The Conants start the Festival of Baroque Music at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.
Working with Robert Shaw.
This may have been a bit beneath his dignity, but hey, a gig’s a gig. With Paul Doktor on viola.
Love this shot. Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.
Henryk Schering and dad at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.
The Viola da Gamba Trio of Basel, Switzerland was an important part of dad’s professional life for many years. (With August Wenzinger and Hannelore Mueller.)
Always loved this one.
Dad as conductor.
Taken from the balcony of the Studio.
Studs Terkel’s interview with dad on WFMT in Chicago.
Kenneth Slowik was a huge part of our lives growing up as well as a very important part of dad’s professional life, and we still count the Slowiks as family.
The Festival of Baroque Music celebrated its 50th season in 2009. At that time it was the longest running early music festival in the country.
Now some pics from dad’s personal life…
Dad as a young lad in Severance, New York on Paradox Lake, early 1930s.
Before my time! Nancy and Robert are married in NYC, 1955.
1963, Hamden, Connecticut. Guess who’s on dad’s lap?
Andrew and me backstage with dad at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, early seventies.
We four Conants in front of the Studio, Greenfield Center, New York, early eighties.
Dad and me at the Studio, early nineties.
A snapshot of the many talented young men who helped dad to run the Festival of Baroque Music through the years; they’re all really like family to us, and the Slowiks, Ken (far left) and Peter (3rd from the left) have been part of our family for over three decades.
Dad and Mom in their spots. This is one of those things I kinda never thought would change.
Dad and Elihu, Christmastime of 2005.
This is how dinners looked for years and years. Many happy meals around this table thanks to mom’s amazing talent as cook and hostess.
Since Elihu could talk, he and his grandpa enjoyed speaking to each other in this made-up, Eastern-European-sounding language, complete with hand gestures and lots of crazy nuances. It was incredibly funny, and amazing to behold. Dad himself was extremely gifted at doing impressions and speaking in accents, and was known for his ever-present sense of humor. There was a lot of profound hilarity through the years in this household!
Grandpa and Elihu are having a good time.
A few years later, Elihu shows grandpa a duck he caught at Congress Park.
I like this one of these three.
Grandpa, winding the Grandfather’s clock. ! (This clock is the same one behind dad and me in that first shot of me as a baby on his lap at the harpsichord.)
The ‘new’ sign. Can’t believe it was four years ago now. Deep down I think that I just couldn’t bear to do anything with the place until he was gone. It still feels like his place; just putting up the new sign (replacing his Baroque Foundation sign) was kind of a big step.
The Studio that dad built in 1974 – architect, Michael Curtis. The place has looked a bit cheerier in years past, but it will once again. All in time.
Post Script: Here’s a recording of dad playing – granted, his is the 3rd of 4 harpsichord parts (I know, four harpsichords? Wow) and it’s impossible to know what exactly he’s playing, but nonetheless, he’s in there somewhere…
A young woman will end her life this weekend. Her name is Brittany, and I’m incredibly grateful to her.
Some of my friends know this about me – and certainly my son knows it better than anyone – that if I am ever faced with a terminal illness, I intend to make the choice whether to let the disease take me – or whether I will choose to take my own life first. Likely, I’d opt to leave before my quality of life declined to such a point that it was creating unnecessary discomfort and distress – in me or my loved ones. I’ve been adamant about this for a long time now, and after being present for my father’s death last year, I began to think more deeply on the subject. Caught up as I’ve been – as we all are – in the micro details of my ongoing life, I hadn’t thought much on the subject for a while. Until last week.
I very seldom pick up a People Magazine, but when I saw the headline, I had no choice. I had to know this woman, to know her name, have her picture in my mind, I had to know her story… Yes, it was about her, but it also involved those who loved her, too. I couldn’t avoid the big question – what about her mother? I am a mother, and I cannot fathom what it would be to live this nightmare; to know that you must support your child in their choice to end their own life. Such an excruciating paradox; the height of love’s expression: to let your child go as an act of compassion. How, I wondered, even long after I’d read and re-read the article, was this all going to work? I myself now have the experience of holding a family member’s hand as he died, but that was far different. It was his time. We were ready. How in hell can any of her family or dear friends be ready for such a thing? It’s beyond my comprehension. It’s beyond the comprehension of us as a society. For now, at least. It’s my great hope that it will not always be.
Maybe Brittany has begun a more public conversation about the choice to die issue than ever before, and maybe this time it’ll pick up momentum and blossom into a new awareness across our culture. Maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of a new era. Daily our planet wrestles with a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ dance over social constructs that in my opinion, should be old news and long in place by now. I feel as if we should be beyond all this pettiness by now and be done messing around with other people’s lives and trying to prevent them from making the choices they need to make, but in reality, I suppose we’re still only at the bottom few rungs of the ladder.
But even if it’s a slow progress, we are moving upward, and thanks to my hero Brittany, it’s front-page conversation at the moment. Because Brittany is a beautiful, intelligent, articulate and young woman, she makes the issue relatable and relevant to a whole new population for whom this subject might previously have been as irrelevant as discussions on Medicare benefits. I mean it’s one thing if we’re talking about your grandma who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s after eighty good years, but it sheds an entirely new light on things when you’re discussing death by choice with a twenty-something.
There’s nothing more to be said now. Only three days are left in which her mother may hear her voice, in which her husband may hold her hand, in which her friends may sit by her side. How will Brittany’s innermost thoughts change in the final hours? What on earth is that experience like? Has fear gone completely – or does it ebb and flow? How brave she is to go where few have gone, and from where none can report back. But truthfully, I’m not so worried about her. She’ll be fine. It’s those she leaves behind that have a longer and harder road ahead. Strength to all of you. I send you my love and most supportive energy. There are thousands of us thinking of your family right now, and if we could share the burden of your heartbreak, we would. And thank you so very much, Brittany. I pray for your smooth and peaceful transition. Hope to meet you on the other side someday.