The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Ganga’s Bones (or Death in Three Parts) June 7, 2021

Part I

I have a dear friend who is dying.

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.

Part II

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.

Part III

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.

Ganga (Ingrid Hedley) Stone, October 30th, 1941 – June 2nd, 2021

 

Family of Friends July 13, 2013

Here are some of our dear friends. We really just think of them as our extended family. It’s these folks who motivate us to visit Chicago when we can…

July 2013 trip B 439We met Marja first. Been years since I’ve seen her, but it’s like no time has passed.

July 2013 trip B 446And next, Judy joins us. She’s had a rough year, losing her husband to pancreatic cancer. The following day she and her two daughters are going to Costa Rica for a well-deserved break.

July 2013 trip B 448The three of us together again after many years. Marja toasted to all of us finding our bright, new lives as re-created women. We three are embarking on husband-less lives for the first time. We’re in different places regarding those losses and life changes, but things will definitely continue to get better for all of us.

July 2013 trip B 532The core of Evanston women we almost always see when we’re here. Doree next to me, Della across from her, and our host Priscilla, in back on right (in whose home we always stay. It’s just across the street from our old house.)

July 2013 trip B 494We love Mr. Lee! He’s been feeding us for years…

July 2013 trip B 553And I love these three men too. Great musicians, but more important, men of warm hearts, each with a wonderful sense of humor as well. Gus, on the left, leads the Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago from the banjo chair; I thoroughly enjoyed singing with them for many years. Marshall in the middle is a multi-instrumentalist who, knowing me to be a guitar widow, once rode his bike to my house, guitar on his back, on my birthday, and serenaded me and Eli with an acoustic version of the Kiss ballad “Beth”. Tommy, why he pre-dates my ex husband, as he asked me out just a few hours before Fareed did, some 27 years ago. Don’t let his straight face and cool demeanor fool you. He’s a sweetie – as well as a deft, surfer-style guitarist.

July 2013 trip B 604And here’s Ann… Originally from Montana, she’s a long-time resident of the Chicago area now. She was Elihu’s first babysitter. Once a week she came to take over for a couple of hours. Fareed wasn’t around much to spell me, so this gal stepped in. She’s known Eli since he was just a few months old. I am still grateful to her for the respite she provided me.

July 2013 trip B 593Yay! Three-fourths of the Sniderman family! Dan plays trombone in The Prohibition Orchestra. I’d bring tiny Elihu to our gigs while his wife Lisa was pregnant with their first. Lil Elijah came after. (Joella’s sitting next to Elihu on my side of the booth.)

July 2013 trip B 611Rob, the fellow on the left was, was first known to me decades ago as ‘the guy who worked at Second Hand Tunes’. He’s a highly knowledgeable man of music, as is Bill, on the right, expert on all things R&B as well as a – gasp – published author on the subject!

July 2013 trip B 630And Richard is a greatly talented professional artist, specializing in vehicles of transportation. Trains, cars, planes. Elihu was deeply thrilled to see him draw. It was Richard who gave Elihu his first set of gray-scale markers. (Elihu sees no color.)

July 2013 trip B 796But at the end of the day, THIS is why we came. It was our old friend Carl Wilson’s 100th birthday on June 30th, 2013. He expressed a desire to see me at his birthday party – but was told it was impossible. He had no idea I would not only be there – but that I’d be singing, too! He wanted to hear ‘Stardust’ but got one better; he and I danced while singing it together as the music played. Everyone’s heart was bursting. A moment for the ages.

July 2013 trip B 786Carl, holding his great grand niece, who is just six weeks old. Wow.

July 2013 trip B 768Here he is, dancing with the always lovely Blair…

July 2013 trip B 771And check this out! Would ya ever have thought? He’s a hundred years old!  Hope we’re all getting that! Inspirational indeed.

July 2013 trip B 814Folks danced…

July 2013 trip B 811…and danced

July 2013 trip B 762Folks also sat it out in the sun while a nice breeze kept things from getting too warm.

July 2013 trip B 797Christie, the gal in blue, grew up in our old house across the street. Her father, Eugene Stoyke, was the architect of that gorgeous mid-century gem, built in 1955. Charlie, her husband, now enjoys beekeeping and silently panicking his uptight, new-moneyed neighbors. That’s Priscilla behind me. It’s her house we’re in, and I’m wearing the requisite fighting badger red and white in honor of her late husband and UW alumnus, broadcaster Les Brownlee (who is known to have coined the phrase “eyewitness news”).

July 2013 trip B 779My old friend, Mike. One of the greatest jazz guitarists around. It was an absolute joy to sing with him that afternoon for Carl’s landmark birthday. Mike is also the parent of a ten year old child; daughter Gabriella is a talented singer.

July 2013 trip B 823The party continued long after we stopped playing.

July 2013 trip B 834These two each got to sing a couple of tunes on the mic.

July 2013 trip B 871Here’s Priscilla and Elihu in the living room of her home. Which also feels very much like our home when we’re there.

July 2013 trip B 890Now it’s on to friends Chloe and Brad. They’ve got the good stuff.

July 2013 trip B 896Now this is something lil man will never forget.

July 2013 trip B 912Man, Chloe. You and your house are too cute.

July 2013 trip B 924Wait – we’re kinda cute together too, aren’t we? She was in my wedding. Another lifetime.

3Chloe and Brad lead a favorite Chicago-based band, The Handcuffs. Bye guys, thanks for such a great visit!

July 2013 trip B 978A too-short, but very enjoyable visit with our friends Stacy and Jeff. Once a rock guitarist who currently owns a recording studio, Jeff has just completed his training as a registered nurse. His wife, a performer, comedian, singer and writer, is a woman full of great warmth and spirit. In spite of some personal health challenges thrown at her over the past few years, she continues to demonstrate that it’s possible to live in love and kindness in spite of a profoundly crappy situation. This is their new baby Lulu. She is the gentlest, sweetest and most loving dog you’ll ever meet. She’s convinced me that Pitbulls are a very misunderstood breed.

July 2013 trip B 968And it’s on to the Stacey’s house. I played in a band with Julian and Jordan’s mom and dad – and I ‘knew’ Julian (younger, at left) when his mom was still pregnant with him. She was playing bass with a rather loud band in hopes of bringing on labor. Then, when the two were toddlers, I’d pick them up and ‘put them away’ when I was done playing with em. I’d pretend to squeeze the small boys into a bookshelf or bin, the refrigerator, sometimes even the stove. ! Made for loads of laughter. Now just look at em. Jordan (right) got married this past week. Julian’s the drummer in the family, and in fact he first learned to play on my old set.

July 2013 trip B 975Here we are with the addition of little sister Alaina. She has got the most beautiful voice, and her songwriting talents far exceed her age. Seems she’s moving to Nashville soon. Alaina Stacey. Remember that name.

July 2013 trip B 981And here’s mom Cindy! She’s trying on her dress for Jordan’s wedding. Not her usual attire, I feel I must add. !

July 2013 trip B 990Papa Chris Stacey.

July 2013 trip B 1008The two pretend to fall asleep at the end of our visit. Cuties.

summer trip 2013 A 138We stopped by to visit neighbors Rafael and Dennis on the 4th… Miss living next door to them.

summer trip 2013 A 209And neighbor on the other side, Jan. She once gave me the best piece of advice ever regarding moving into a new home: don’t make any big changes – especially with the lawn and garden – until you’ve lived there for one full year. That advice helped me in my two subsequent homes to make the best choices possible.

summer trip 2013 A 230We have a short visit with Fareed’s parents.

summer trip 2013 A 245The whole gang (at Reza’s).

summer trip 2013 A 274My ex mother-in-law, Nelly, and me.

summer trip 2013 A 284Guess only Elihu can get her to soften up a bit. If he can’t, nobody can!

summer trip 2013 A 282We did have a fun time hanging with Elihu’s dad. But there’s so much behind my ex’s eyes that I’ll never know – and that I probably never did know to begin with. Still, he’s great at just having a party (as a jam band guitarist, much of his time spent playing music is about creating that kind of energy). In spite of all the past hurt, I’m able to enjoy the occasional visit with this rather eccentric family, dad and grandparents too. But it’s probably just as well I don’t live near them anymore. Even after nearly three decades of living as a family, his folks have never seemed entirely thrilled with me. (But as Fareed always said, no one was ever good enough for him in their eyes. So I don’t take it personally). But we’ve been through a lot together, and I do love my former parents-in-law in spite of the craziness we’ve experienced through the years, so I made sure to tell them that when they dropped me off at the train. Never know when – or even if –  there’ll be a next time. Life, after all – friends and family included – is full of surprises, both good and bad.

 

Happy Boy May 29, 2013

Elihu: I just have a question.

Keith: Yeah?

Elihu: Are you happy?

Keith: Yeah, I am. Are you? Or are you bored?

Elihu: I’m not bored. I’m the opposite. Whatever that is.

Sitting on the computer, enjoying a moment of down time in between household chores, I listen in on Elihu and his buddy Keithie. They’re both playing with a remote controlled car on the kitchen floor. They’re sharing it, and there’s not much to their play. Yet they are having an absolute ball. When I heard that little tidbit just now, I had to open a new post and get it down before it was lost to a busy life. Too many moments are forgotten in spite of our best intentions, and I really wanted to remember this one. These two boys have less and less in common each passing year, yet they continue to enjoy themselves whenever they’re together. They enjoy a relationship that started in their kindergarten class – and for that alone I’m fairly certain that decades hence they will still be fast friends no matter what happens between now and then.

They’re taking their game all through the house, giggling and carrying on so much that I have to check and see if it’s really just a simple rc car that’s inspiring all this play. Yes, it is. That, and the imagination of two ten year old boys. Still in that place of illusion, of true play. I know it won’t be thus much longer. Last night, after we’d finished reading and had turned out the light, just as I was dozing off Elihu startled me awake. He hadn’t been getting sleepy, instead he’d been thinking. “Do you realize I’ll be in fifth grade next year?” I swear he almost sounded panicked. It seems he’s always been far too aware of himself to be a true peer of his classmates. We’ve spent hours discussing the way in which one’s thinking and priorities change as one ages. He’s keenly aware of how precious this time in his life is. Maybe because I’m his mother, and it’s on my mind too. But regardless of that, he has an innate sense of the deeper meanings behind things – all on his own. There’s some nurture for sure, but it’s more nature than anything else. Shortly after he turned five, he once turned to me and said in all seriousness “You do know that I’m more forty-five than five, don’t you?” His tone was firm, and his eye contact direct. “Yes, sweetie” I said, imparting all the sincerity I could, “I do know that.” And I did. I was taken aback at his statement, and yet on some level, I might have expected as much. There’s just always been something different about my child. And I admit that I’ve always been just the teensiest bit sad for him precisely because he is so aware, so thoughtful…

The giggling continues, and it lightens my heart. He might think of himself as ‘more fifty than ten’ on some days, but today there’s no question. He is still a little boy. And thankfully, a very happy one too.

end of may 2013 012

Keithie and Elihu share time on the coveted DS.  This was one lovely afternoon. Not an argument between the two all day; a good time was truly had by all. Me included. !

 

Ho Ho, Huh? December 5, 2012

In our four years here we haven’t kept a lot of holiday traditions; each year has been slightly different – and in fact this year is the very first Christmas for which Elihu will actually be here with me. Each year we try to make that important visit with Santa, and to watch him light the town tree, and each year we grow narcissus bulbs. That’s about it. Yeah, we get a tree, but never even do that the same way twice. Last year we cut one from a field and ended up modifying it a bit; I drilled holes in the trunk and stuck in branches to fill it out… (you can see pics of that tree under December 2011 in the archives to the right). Some things remain simple and routine, yet each year we’re met with a nice surprise or two that continues to make a believer of me.

When we arrived home this afternoon we found a Christmas tree leaning against our kitchen door. Huh? I just love that first moment after such a discovery… our jaws drop, we look at each other, then our mouths close and turn to smiles… And while it may be offensive to some, yes, some hearty expletives are uttered too (Elihu is skilled at this, he knows exactly when and when not to, and when he does, gotta say, he’s right on). So holy crap and hot damn, we have ourselves a tree. Although we don’t keep too many rigid traditions, I will admit to being a late starter at Christmastime, and I really like it that way. (Remember please that the three wise men didn’t even get to the manger – and give their gifts – until January 6th – Epiphany, ya know? And much of the Christian world correctly recognizes this day as the big one.) Plus, I’m kind of a control freak. I like to choose a tree. It’s kind of a big deal. I take pride in having my home reflect my own aesthetic choices, and the size and shape of a Christmas tree is a pretty big one – plus it’s one which comes only once a year. So ironically, in this holy moment of true giving, my less-than holy self is having a tiny tantrum.

How can I be like this for long? Elihu and I both know that somewhere out there is a person who is so excited for us, who couldn’t wait to bring us this gift, whose whole day was uplifted at the thought, who is right now happily wondering what we are saying and thinking at the surprise. And this makes us laugh. How can we not honor that and be just as joyful? After some preparations, we get the tree inside, and my able nine year old adjusts the bottom as I hold it straight (just love that my kid can finally help out like this – he does too.) We stand back. Hmm. It’s short and stout. It’s not quite the shape or size we would have chosen, but we note that it’s a good tree for a country cottage. We also remind ourselves that a tree hadn’t even been in our budget this year. It smells so nice. We thank the tree for giving her life to us, and we promise to love her and dress her up beautifully. We take a moment and just admire the real, living tree before us. Wow. Christmastime indeed.

We put the clues together and we assess who might have done this. I have an idea, and yes, it’s becoming more evident. After a trip next door to tell Grandma and Grandpa our news (this is too good for the telephone) we pick up the phone and call our suspect. We have her on speaker, and she’s good…  She brightly exclaims that we’ve been ‘elved’! – and tells us that she too had been elved last year when she came home from work to find the pole at her driveway wrapped in Christmas lights… I listen carefully to her voice. Yes, she’s good. And I like that she is, cuz way down deep she’s got me believing. Course the kid’s here too, so she’s gonna do her best, but damn, I really do believe her. It makes such sense, ya know?

Ho Ho Ho! We’ve been elved!

 

Heartsick November 3, 2012

The girls had hardly slowed their pace to say a final goodbye, so Elihu had run after them as they walked down the sidewalk from school. He put his arms around Cora til she finally hugged him back. Then he’d hugged Sophia before returning to me. There was nothing else to be done. This was their last day at school and now they were going home. Next week they wouldn’t be coming back to school at all because they were moving. I looked down in time to see the corners of Elihu’s mouth turn down in the most acute expression of distress… and I realized he was crying. Sobbing, in fact. An instant, electric sort of sensation shot through me at the sight of it – my son’s heart was breaking for the first time. Tears came to my eyes too; my heart was breaking to know it.

I put my arm around him as we walked. Most times he might have pulled away; he was getting to an age where he found my overt affection embarrassing. But now he leaned into me heavily, weeping quietly. How my own heart hurt at this parting; his grief was equally mine. There was nothing to say. There was simply no point in trying to console him with words, so I just held him tight. After we were in the car I drove a block farther down the street so that we might pass the twins, and he rolled down the window. Usually he’d shout out something in their own private language, but all he could say this time in between sobs was an earnest and final goodbye. Cora stopped walking for a moment and looked up; her smile fell away when she saw him. She raised an arm to wave once more, then turned to catch up with her sister. We let them cross in front of our car, and they were gone.

I didn’t say anything as we drove. Instead I waited for the moments in which I could offer him the most relief. I let him cry, watching his face in the rear view mirror (something which can feel a bit like spying when you’re with a low-vision child as they cannot see you back). This was real, and it was intense. And it wasn’t merely a case of a first heartbreak; the girls had been the first – and only – kids at the new school to get him, or to at least take a real interest in being with him. The three spent nearly all their free time together. “What will it be like without them?” he asked through more tears. “There’s nobody – nobody like them. There’s nobody to replace them”. There was a long space of quiet and sniffling before he spoke again. He was beginning to test out some survival thinking; “Who will be with me now?” he asked, “Who will I have to do things with? Will I be alone again?” As I watched him in the mirror I could see his crying lessen, and I could see him beginning to consider his new future without the twins. His mourning was by no means over, but my spirit brightened to think he might be working to put some hidden, positive spin on the situation.

I too thought about it all – I myself felt there was very little chance he’d find the same magical chemistry elsewhere as he did with the girls – and that it was probably best that we made peace with that. No use over-lamenting the obvious loss. Elihu needed to move gently forward to new relationships that were yet ahead. I was careful not to broach the territory of our family philosophy that “all things happen as they should” too soon in his grieving – because offered at the wrong time it would seem nothing but a stupid, posturing platitude. It might even make him angry. So I held off for a bit, but it wasn’t long before a window appeared where I could successfully present the idea. “And you know,” I added to the reasoning” – this might be the beginning of a whole new chapter between all of us – we might end up learning about a whole new thing through them. They’re just an hour and a half drive away, we can visit them easily! We can camp near them, go mountain climbing…” Now Elihu and I are not particularly outdoorsy types. We love being outside, and with our chickens, we also enjoy an occasional walk through the woods, but we own neither a tent nor a sleeping bag and have never found ourselves inspired to acquire either one. But this might be the universal energy pulling us toward a path we’d otherwise never have considered, right? Perhaps we’ll go up to visit the girls, and in so doing we’ll meet a whole bunch of interesting folks doing interesting things and maybe we’ll end up doing things we’ve never done before… Who knows? I go on for a bit, if not quite believing it, then wanting very much to believe it; I need to sell a happy ending to Elihu. There could be an unexpected and wonderful outcome here, there could be…Yet there is a very small voice within me (in the old days my husband and I would call it my “reality meter”) that tells me this is rubbish, and that if we ever really do go and visit the girls, we’re getting a motel room and making a weekend of it and there’s an end to it. No romance, no destiny, no universe “opening up surprising new opportunities”, certainly no ridiculous camping adventures.

We ride silent for a while. Lots to digest. Not much action to be taken for now, so all we can do is sit quietly as we drive out into the hills on our way back home. I’ve put off getting the mail for a few days (Halloween week the household chores pile up as we rally to get the costume perfect and then stop everything to go on several holiday-related outings) and so I come back from the mail box with a big load. When we pull in the long, leafy driveway we’re greeted by our honking goose Maximus, his head raised as he ascertains whether we are family or visitor. The chickens peck through the fallen leaves, enthusiastically kicking up wet debris behind them, ever searching for tasty bites beneath the litter. They have broken off into several smaller groups, and to watch them walk alongside the car gives us both a lift. There’s no way you can watch chickens doing their thing and not be cheered in some way. It’s one of the joys of having them around. And so our hearts are softened, if not simply distracted, and we hurt a little less. We haven’t arrived at any new strategy, nor fully convinced ourselves that this time there is a cosmic silver lining. But we’re home, it feels good to be here.

As I sit in the car, going through the pile of mail in my lap, I notice a shape in front of me several feet off the ground. I look closer; there is something in the apple tree. I leave the mail on my seat and go to investigate. Elihu, who had never climbed this tree in the four years he’d lived here was now halfway up it, and had ended up on a branch Sophia’d been on just last week. I smiled with pride, he laughed in joy. “So the girls taught ya some tricks after all, huh?” I asked. I could hear his confidence waning just a bit as he asked me how to get down, and I told him that Sophia had jumped from just where he was standing. “Ah – but that’s what the girls would do. Maybe you should -” but before I could suggest he take the careful route back down, he’d jumped from the branch and was standing in the wet grass laughing with satisfaction. Before he’d known the girls he’d never been on a scooter or climbed up a tree. They didn’t coddle him, but they also didn’t leave him in their dust as they easily could have done. They stayed around, just long enough for him to lose his fear. They supported him just by being there. Did they even realize this? I’m not sure they did. Secretly, my mother’s heart sends them a deep message of gratitude across the ether. Thank you so very much, Cora and Sophia, for being such good friends to my son. I will always appreciate it.

They’re off on their own new adventures, and thanks to them, I think my son may be a bit more emboldened to strike off on some new ones of his own. And that seems like a good start to help heal a sick heart.