The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Goodbye Nel September 15, 2016

To read all of Nelly’s poetry, you can visit poemsbynel.com.

nel

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…

The Harbor

Swiftly the winter days

Rinse their glum

At the harbor

Spring will be here soon

In bloom

______________

Drunk in love

With loving

Stringing metaphors

Staggering

I am

________________

Silvery water

Turns into mirror

Shining holds the image

Of the sky

________________

Anticipating sweetness

I see the seagulls

Twirling and dancing

Above

_______________

The lone boat glides

With the lone rower

Across the silky waters

Good bye…

 

 

When Is When December 16, 2015

IMG_2683

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soaring HenShe left us like an angel in flight.

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Hope Burning March 3, 2015

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, what if? 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…

 

Gone One Year December 27, 2014

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…

IMG_4697An early promo shot.

Early Promo Shot 001Dig this one. !

Fort Dix, 1951Entertaining the troops at Fort Dix, 1951. (I have this Challis harpsichord now here at the Hillhouse.)

the first Baroque Fest with mom and dadThe Conants start the Festival of Baroque Music at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.

robert shaw choraleWorking with Robert Shaw.

dad and Paul DoktorThis may have been a bit beneath his dignity, but hey, a gig’s a gig. With Paul Doktor on viola.

IMG_4682Love this shot. Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.

IMG_4685Henryk Schering and dad at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

IMG_4667The 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.)

IMG_4704Always loved this one.

IMG_4692Dad as conductor.

IMG_4668Taken from the balcony of the Studio.

IMG_4678Studs Terkel’s interview with dad on WFMT in Chicago.

IMG_4672Kenneth 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.

FBM's 50thThe 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 boy 001Dad as a young lad in Severance, New York on Paradox Lake, early 1930s.

mom and dad wedding

Before my time! Nancy and Robert are married in NYC, 1955.

dad and me at harpsichord in Hamden

1963, Hamden, Connecticut. Guess who’s on dad’s lap?

me dad afc at orch hallAndrew and me backstage with dad at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, early seventies.

Conants by the StudioWe four Conants in front of the Studio, Greenfield Center, New York, early eighties.

dad and me in the StudioDad and me at the Studio, early nineties.

IMG_5756A 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.

IMG_6547_0001Dad and Mom in their spots. This is one of those things I kinda never thought would change.

IMG_6527Dad and Elihu, Christmastime of 2005.

IMG_0553This is how dinners looked for years and years. Many happy meals around this table thanks to mom’s amazing talent as cook and hostess.

Dad's 80th Birthday 103Since 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!

Dad's 80th Birthday 112Grandpa and Elihu are having a good time.

elihu, grandpa and duckA few years later, Elihu shows grandpa a duck he caught at Congress Park.

IMG_4660I like this one of these three.

IMG_6519_0001Grandpa, 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 Studio new signThe ‘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 studioThe 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.

Dad's 80th Birthday 050Dad and ‘the two Jims’ at dad’s 80th birthday. These guys have been around the Festival for over twenty-five years. The stories they retold at dad’s ‘living wake’ last year had us all but peeing in our pants. It was a perfect send-off for dad. (That’s Martha, seated at left.)

Dad's 80th Birthday 016And here is the only known photo of the four men in my life: Dad, brother, ex-husband and son. Goofburgers.

1231102110This is how dad spent much of his last few years, resting on the couch. The lamp in the background hung in his childhood home in Passaic, New Jersey.

Elihu with hand over heartAlmost as if a sign of things to come, young Elihu reverently puts his hand over his heart in the same room in which his grandfather would leave this world.

Dad's HeadshotThere is just never a good time for goodbye.

As Elihu said to you in his final parting: see you shortly…

Robert Scott Conant, January 6th, 1928 – December 27th, 2013.

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… 

 

Three Days Left October 30, 2014

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.

Brittany ended her life yesterday, November 1st, 2014, with her family and loved ones beside her.