The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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… 

 

Memorial Tree December 4, 2014

It would be the closest thing to a formal ceremony my family would ever have for dad. The funeral home that handled dad’s affairs held an interfaith service and candlelit walk the other night in memory of those who’d died this past year. Time feels very different these days, and truly, it is hard to comprehend that it’s been almost a year since my father’s been gone. Christmastime will forever carry with it a different sort of mood. But it’s ok; his life ended in as near perfect a way as we could have hoped. For the most part, dad was dad up until the end. In spite of that, I do know that the last year or two wasn’t necessarily enjoyable for him. The last month was the worst of it, really. So it was a good thing that he finally left.

Time has taken some of the edge off; the hurt isn’t so acute as it once was, but instead, now I find that his death has become a regular part of my life. I must think of dad several times each day, missing those little, familiar details I can never again hear or see… Daily my sorrow is refreshed in little ways. It’s a selfish thing though; I personally believe he’s enjoying a much more harmonious, peaceful and loving existence wherever it is that he lives now. It’s just this damned one-way mirror makes it impossible to confirm my hunch. Man, sometimes this life thing really pisses me off. And sometimes I think it’s all a very clever way in which to stoke our sense of hope, and strengthen our ability to have faith. And then again sometimes I feel like it’s all a stupid, hurtful game, and I’m done with it – I’m out of patience with the whole ridiculous, painful joke.

Death wouldn’t be so bad if we could just get a little note from our departed loved ones, just to let us know that they got there ok, that maybe they miss us, and that they want us to know that it’s not so bad. Not bad at all, in fact. Oh, and if they could just assure us that we’ll be fine too, and before we know it, somehow, we’ll be together again.

IMG_2222

 Elihu put his dove on the tree in memory of his grandfather. He started to sing Kum Ba Yah on the walk back to the church. I sang harmony with him, and our song ended just as the candlelit walk was over. Kinda perfect. And Elihu was the first to remember some funny anecdotes about dad at the end of the evening, bringing a bit of spirited joy back to the night. Thankfully, he’s kept his outlook positive and hopeful around this sad change of life, even down to the parting words he last spoke to his grandpa: See you shortly…

 

January’s End February 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Going December 17, 2013

Let me tell you a bit about the scene: Mom and Dad’s house is an open-plan, post and beam beauty in which life takes place in the kitchen – which is the first room you walk into through the garage (as with most of the world, they never, ever use their front door). As soon as you come in, the dining room is just beyond the large kitchen island, and the L of couches to its right. (A Franklin stove sits near the couches but has been dark and unused for the better part of the past two years, unlike decades before when it was well-tended and in daily use.) There is a large tv that bisects the kitchen and the living/dining area, and it is constantly on. Mostly it’s the old black and white movies, sometimes it’s the cooking channel, and in the evenings it’s set to the local weather. Mom has become ever so slightly hard of hearing these days, and so the tv plays at a volume that adds a certain frenetic energy to the room. I always have to turn it down in order to hold a conversation. And through it all, dad – at least the past few years – has either been sitting at the island on a stool, sitting in his chair to the side, or lying down on the nearby couch. Since we four Conants moved him from the stool to the couch this past Sunday night he has lain there ever since, and it’s my suspicion it may well be where he remains until he dies. Because there’s little question about it now: my father is dying.

As I’ve said before, we Conants – at least mom and dad, Bob and Nancy, that is – aren’t very comfortable with physical displays of affections. Or spoken expressions, either I suppose. It was only through a very intentional campaign made by my ex husband years ago (when he was still my very new boyfriend) that I learned to say “I love you” to either of them. Thank goodness it was over the phone – I don’t think I could have done it in person. But at the end of my catch-up calls on Sunday evenings from Chicago to sleepy Greenfield, just as I was about to hang up, Fareed would lean in close to my face and mouth in an exaggerated way ‘AND I LOVE YOU!’ and he’d shake me til I said it. I thank my ex for a couple of things in my life, and this is one of them. From that time forward it because customary to end conversations with an ‘I love you’. But in person, not so much. And after I moved here, even less. Only in the past few months have I made an effort to revive it. Because, well, now’s the time, you know?

When my parents began their post-city lives here they found themselves in a cozy little social group which included a gay couple (that they were gay never registered to me until I was way into my own adulthood – they were simply my beloved Jim and Everett), an ‘older’ (as in my age now) opera singer, husband and wife musicians who ran an old-fashioned farm and maybe a couple extra characters that joined in the parties and concerts over the years. But the core group was always Frank and Martha, Jim and Everett, and Ruthie. Over the past decade I’ve seen all of them die. Except Martha, that is.  (One might joke that she aint never dying. And if you knew her, you’d laugh, shake your head and tend to agree.) Since only the trio has been left, it’s naturally had me wondering who would go first. And now I’m pretty sure we know.

Mom did finally call someone to learn our care options at this point. And finally, there it was, “Hospice”. For me it wasn’t a shocker, but the idea hit mom like a train. I heard it in her voice on the phone – she even readily admitted that even she wasn’t emotionally prepared for hospice to be brought up (the suggestion actually surprised her!). Later, when we visited, her eyes began to well with tears as we talked about the next phase. She’s held out til the last possible moment, and while I myself might have done many things differently, none of that matters now. Dad is still happy, so if we can keep him comfortable and healthy, he will die here at home. That, in my world, is a HUGE blessing. But regardless, it is still the death of my mother’s partner of over fifty years we’re talking about here. As much as we might toss it all around like so many common plans for the to-do list, we all know what this means. We are getting ready to have dad die, right here, and very soon. She is facing the biggest good-bye of her life. And after that, the house will be empty. She will be alone. Shit. This is hard. So goddam hard. It’s not like we didn’t know it was coming, either. “So how long did you think he might still live, Mom? Three years? More?” “Oh God no!” she snapped. “But then what, like another year?” I pressed. I’m not sure she herself knew. One doesn’t tend to actually sit down and map this stuff out. “I don’t know. His mother lingered like this for years….” she trailed off. That may have been so, but it looked like we were closer than that. Never know though. You hear stories of folks being put on hospice care and then living for years… Just never really know. But then again you kinda do….

Now that it’s real I feel a mix of three things: first, concern for my mother (and Martha too). How will she react? Will she allow us to see her cry? Childbirth gets so heavy that all modesty goes out the window; will she behave in a similar way with the death of her spouse? How does this work exactly?? Next, my brother. Just how will he react? How will this affect him? His drinking? Will this be what he needs to finally rise up and get healthy or will he sink to his own final funk? And then I myself feel a queer mix of sorrow and relief. The two battle it out inside me; when I take a closer look at his existence, it seems we only want him around us for ourselves, plain and simple. He himself would probably greatly appreciate an escape from this tired, confused body. But even as my mother had admitted a few weeks back, just having him there – even if he’s asleep, checked out, for all intents and purposes ‘not there’, his energy and presence is still very much there. And you feel it. You just know he’s there in the room. And it makes a difference. We both try to imagine the house without dad in it somewhere (as it’s been for the past quarter century) and the house seems almost pointless. Good thing mom has that goddam tv to fill the house up with crap and distraction I guess. Sigh. Elihu has great compassion for mom and her need to ‘fill the space’. “She just doesn’t want to really understand how far things have gone. She’s scared, so she tries to ignore it.” Yeah kid, probably a good bit of truth to that. Whenever I mutter about mom under my breath he says “I understand. She doesn’t mean it. She’s just trying to figure out how to behave”. Yeah, once again, thanks for keeping me on track. This isn’t easy for any of us.

When we went over earlier today, dad was resting on the couch. It was a different sort of resting now. Having continued to lose weight, his cheeks took on an extra sunken look in his horizontal position. Honestly, in his current condition, if you just glanced at him, you might think he was already gone. But no, he is there. He is there. Still. While Elihu chatted with grandma, tv continuing to do its thing, I sat next to dad, hoping for something. Some new pearl, some word, a smile…. Sadly, gone was my hope for a cute anecdote or story, it was all he could do to recount his two childhood pals by name for Elihu last time; now he related tiny blurred scenes to me, and all I could do was to try and understand what he was seeing as best as I could. Which I noticed became increasingly hard to do as mom continued to badger me with useless and uninteresting facts about this and that… a constant stream of crap that may as well have come from the goddam nightly news… Can’t that wait? I’m thinking, but biting my tongue lest it come out as I think it might… Please, lady, just shut up!! Can’t you see I’m trying to hear what dad is saying? But I don’t move, my focus is essential here. I listen, then I place my hand on his. We are connected now by touch, and I swear I feel him relax. His eyes have been closed the whole time. “Hi Dad, it’s me, just sayin hi”. He opens his eyes and smiles gently. “I love you so very much, dad” I tell him. And in a not-too-faint voice he answers me “Oh Elizabeth, I love you so very much”. Then he closes his eyes again. But my hand is still on his, we are still engaged with each other. Mom comes over to us and leans over the couch. I hope she doesn’t stay long, because she’ll probably start asking him what he wants or trying to make sense with him, asking him things that require answers – hell, that require opinions. And dad just doesn’t care now. Can’t you see that, lady? I’m thinking. Dad opens his eyes and looks at mom, saying “Pop is here…” then trails off. Mom laughs it off as the nonsensical mis-firings of an Alzheimer’s-riddled brain, and thankfully, she leaves. But I know that something is going on in there, and I stay with it. Me, I believe he’s just seen his father. His Pop. A pause. He closes his eyes and smiles. “I am in pleasure” he says, with a slight tone of humor. But then again, I take it to mean that he’s feeling ok too. He’s letting me know. “Susan” he then says, his eyes opening and looking a bit off into space. “You mean Susan, your niece?” “Yes, Susan. Where is she?” he asks. Now me, I personally believe he’s probably just seen Susan himself. She knows he’s coming soon, so she’s letting herself be seen. “Your niece Susan died about a year and a half ago. It was rather sudden. She was living with Jean in Florida. She got very sick and died.” What else to say? Sorry was not what this was about. He seemed to be thinking of – if not actually seeing – family members that were now gone. Sorry was the opposite of what was going on here now – all I felt was ‘yeah, this is it. Yes, there is some love and comfort awaiting him when he goes.’ And thank goodness! It makes me feel much better about things. A moment passed after the Susan thing, then he raised a finger and pointed a bit out and to the right… “who are all those people waiting by the curve?” he asked. “Oh, Dad, I wish I could see them too, I wish I knew who they are, but I don’t.” As if to keep things real, keep humor in the house (a staple of our family) he summons a bigger voice and in a funny accent says “I weesh to be reech”. He repeats it again, closes his eyes, and a wide, happy smile settles on his face.

This is the fork in the road at which many of my friends may choose to part from my company. Because for me, I do not believe dad’s words are meaningless bits of information, retrieved randomly from disparate areas of the brain…. I do not see this as a purely physical phenomenon taking place. Surely it is on some level just that, but there is another equally ‘real’ phenomenon occurring now which is not something than can as yet be quantified by science. I recognize my father is becoming less vibrationally in tune with this reality, and he is now becoming aware, if only in the faintest way, of the new reality he’ll soon be joining. Bunk and booey to my neurotransmitter-as-only-real-data-channel thinking friends, I know. My dear friends of the ‘it’s either working or it aint’ school of thinking will know dad’s behavior to be nothing more than a failing system of data transmission. In short: a body breaking down. Yeah, I’d agree with that. But I’m going to take that other path from here on, the one that knows we are more than an organic machine, and that there are countless energies we are a part of that no meter or machine can measure. I know that ‘real’ can be real without tests, trials and placebos. My dad’s death is certainly a real experience to him, and that, ultimately serves as the Truth here and now. Quantifying or qualifying his Truth does seem rather silly, don’t you think? A moot point really.

One day I do hope we’ll have the opportunity for a good laugh together about it all as we re-evaluate our Earthly lessons and kick back for a little respite after our exhausting lives on this tricky planet. Cuz I believe this is one tough-assed school. And I believe we’ve come here to work on things. We’ve found the right groupings and scenarios and countries, bodies, talents and occupations – the whole shebang – so that we might most effectively learn what it is we need to in order to become better. Dare I say, more Godlike. When I put it like that, kinda makes me laugh. I mean man, this planet don’t exactly seem like a good choice for a mission like that, huh? Pretty crappy place sometimes. Sure aint easy, even when you do have it easy. Plus there is this existential uncertainty which thrums through us our whole lives, nagging at us to try and answer it if we dare listen. But thankfully, there are lots of diversions here to muffle its drone. Yeah, you can easily go through your life and never give a shit about anything but just getting by. The challenge, however, is to care, and to widen your sphere of caring and loving influence. And we all know that is much, much easier said than done. The distractions are so very tempting – and easy. But a life spent mostly on the path of love and caring is one spent pretty well, at least I think so. Certainly more of a step ahead than not. And my dad has made many steps forward here. He’s also had to carry some burdens that I wish he hadn’t. He grew up knowing he was loved, but he grew up in a culture where love was not expressed. A handshake from dad before he went off to the Army. Nurses instead of mother. Boarding school from a young age. I’m glad that now, in these final, restful moments on the couch that I can tell him I love him.

Because if he’s going soon, all he really needs to know is that we love him. The rest will sort itself out on the other side.

 

Sad Planet November 15, 2013

What a bittersweet and frustrating planet this is to live upon. Please know that I do realize I don’t by have it particularly hard by the greater standards of the world, yet in just the past few hours I’ve come to feel at the absolute end of my patience with this stupid place (or, if not out of patience, perhaps one might say ‘beyond disillusioned’ with this silly existence.) Just what the hell kind of joke is this world?? I’m done with trying to understand, trying to justify, trying to learn from it all. I’m fucking done. And the scary thing is, I have hardly begun the real adventure. I may not like the jowly face that stares back at me from reverse-camera skype images, I may not be able to casually drop a couple of dress sizes without much effort anymore, and simply tossing off situps or running a half mile may not be such mindlessly easy activities as I remember them to be…. But BAH! This sort of stuff is nothing! These things, however surprising or abhorrent they may have seemed to me at first, they don’t begin to approach the level of personal challenges that lay yet ahead. Losing one’s looks, yeah, that sucks. Losing one’s physical prowess, hard on the ego. But losing one’s parents – and then having it happen ever so slowly – I think that sucks a whole lot more. And experiencing it all with that quintessential, ‘keep-up-the-appearances-at-any-cost’ vibe of last century’s generation is just plain exhausting.

Things in our family changed tonight. I’ve been around for half a century, and during that time I’ve only seen my mother cry twice. Tonight was one of them. And I can’t even say she was crying really, but her eyes filled with moisture, and for the first time I can recall, I could actually feel a breach in her defenses. For just an instant I saw her, as a woman, as a wife, as a person about to be left terribly, irreversibly alone. It was the first time I’d seen any honest emotion in my mother in perhaps decades. Well, emotion other than outrage or anger (granted, she laughs sometimes too). As any student of spiritual life may recognize, anger (outrage being another manifestation of the same) is simply an expression of fear. While I myself had learned of that years ago, I don’t think it truly sank in for me until I came to live here, and was forced to re-examine my own personal habits and history in the wake of my ‘great life change’. I too had felt a good amount of rage at the world throughout my life – at my partner, at my circumstances, at many things – and had never thought twice about expressing it. In other words, I expressed myself just fine (and often loudly), and without much editing. And I never stopped to wonder at the origin of such rage. I guess it never struck me as something that needed any examination. Yeah, I’d read about it before, but until I put it into the context of my own personal experiences, I didn’t really get that rage came from fear. And being afraid is, well, understandable. This is one goddam scary place to live. Yeah, I can say that I sympathize with those who live in fear. In fact, I think you’d have to be fairly dull-witted not to be impressed with the opportunities we have here for some truly fearful situations. Having said that, I’m usually the first to be chill in the face of true stress; from surviving a broken neck as well as a handful of other life-heavy episodes, I’ve fared pretty well in the face of crap. Doesn’t mean I welcome any more of it though. And it sure doesn’t mean that I’m still not pretty goddam angry about things.

My mother too has never ruminated over the reasons for her emotions (that I know). Thankfully, the study of one’s own psyche and emotional world had become a practical and accepted life skill by my generation’s coming of age, but regrettably, my parents never had such tools on their side. Hardly. Instead, a stoic attitude, stiff upper lip and general disdain for everyone else kept a person moving successfully forward in life (glaring wounds and flagrant injustices be damned and ignored; keep your eyes looking ahead, pay no mind to the nasty reality…) And so, nearing her eighth decade here, my mother still does a yeoman’s job of keeping it all inside and pretending nothing’s wrong. That it’s all business as usual. (Btw way, I borrow ‘yeoman’ from my mother. A great word; her generation’s gift to me.) So I can’t blame her for any of this. Of the crazy, ‘it’ll be fine tomorrow’ kind of talk. It’s a strange new world now, because my mother still seems to me like the keeper of all answers, the ultimate knower-of-all-things, and in spite of more and more evidence that shows otherwise (in no way downplaying the immense amount of shit she really does know!), I just can’t seem to get it. She’s the sane one in the house, the one who keeps it together. The one who does things right (or as my ex would have half-joked she’s ‘white and right’), and she’s the one who lets everyone else know that she knows. Ok, so maybe she does that with a 1950’s vintage passive-aggressive sort of flair, but hey, at least everyone knows what’s up. Well, so that’s the way it’s been for the fifty years I’ve known her. But now, in quick, minute little steps, the relationship seems to be changing. The power dynamic is shifting, just a bit. It’s not that I need or want to be right, or on top of things, or taking charge, no. I don’t need more stuff. It’s challenge enough just trying to keep up with a simple life. But mom cannot do it all herself, and as I began to interject myself into the equation tonight, lifting dad off the floor, moving furniture to barricade him safely into his bed, I realized things had changed.

Tonight the situation just kinda forced our hands. When I arrived, dad was on his knees by the guest bed, too weak to sit, too weak to pull himself up. (That he had wandered into the guest bedroom and not his own presents a new level of concern.) My mother, bent over with arthritis, was not able to move him. My brother had thankfully arrived to assist, but by the time they’d been at it a while and I had gotten there, nothing was changed. Now I myself have very little core strength these days, but I was somehow able to lift dad and get him back onto the bed. From there I got him into a lying position, but he protested and for nearly an hour made efforts to sit back up – only with no ability to follow through and even walk across the room. I’m not sure how mom would have played it had I not arrived. She talked to dad tonight as if he were as well-reasoned as ever. In fact, he is markedly changed from even a few days ago. His talk was absolutely surreal, plus he was distressed, and even sometimes uncharacteristically angry, at being confined to his bed. Logic was of no gain; he had no understanding at all of where he was, or why he was there at all. He did still know us, and he did still formulate sentences, however this time, and for the first time, they began to more closely approximate mere gibberish. At one point I said “dad, what’s your favorite Scarlatti?” and without missing a beat he replied “D major”. Ah. Mom and I smiled at each other. I made a mental note to bring it up to speed again… maybe play it for him some time… Elihu and dad have had this made-up, Eastern European-sounding language in which the two speak for sometimes great lengths of time – they use gestures, crazy facial expressions and in general, sound quite plausible. And funny. I nodded at Elihu to give it a try as the four of us sat there in a dazed lull following an episode of moving dad from floor to bed. Elihu leaned in, and said something to dad. And wouldn’t ya know, dad gave it right back to him. All four of us laughed! It was the most remarkable thing – and such sweet relief to laugh like that! Elihu gave it another go, and we had another couple rounds of solid laughs. Dad couldn’t keep it going, but the thing was, he still got there. He still had that thing. Dad has always had a talent for impressions, for quirky, off-the-beaten-path humor. And in spite of how much of his life is lost to him, a spark of this remains burning. Hope, in one tiny form.

We managed to get dad lying down, tucked tightly into his covers, and I enforced the side of the bed with antique ladder backed chairs and a large hope chest. We fed him some of that crappy, over-sweet nutritional drink that old folks use to keep up their calorie intake, then we gave him half of a sleeping pill. As I sat with mom on the bed I began to pick up on a change in her spirit. I sensed the faintest beginnings of defeat. So I put my arm around her – something that just never happens in this house – and felt that it might have helped a little bit. Not a lot though. There’s just too much heartbreak here to make much of a dent in. But I told her I loved her, and that I had no idea how hard this was for her. Elihu leaned in to kiss grandpa and tell him how much he loved him. And my father, for as feeble and absent as he’s become, he simply beamed at his grandson. His eyes sparkled, and he told Elihu how very much he loved him too. This, I thought, is the happy ending. No matter what may happen, this is it.

As we were walking through the garage to our car I heard Elihu sniffling. And then I realized he was crying. Really crying. I didn’t offer a hug, or contact of any kind; it just didn’t seem the time. He needed some space to digest what was happening. Man, it just didn’t seem fair. He’s a young kid, and his grandpa such an old man. I really wish they’d had more time together. Crap. When we got in the car I said “well, you’ve had ten wonderful years together. We can be thankful for that.” We rode home in silence.

Had a nice supper, enjoyed some laughs, and we spent a moment just sitting on the couch, arms around each other, saying nothing. Mom called to say that dad had fallen right out with the sleeping pill. Mom’s life has always been fueled by agendas, by plans, goals… and now she finds herself zapped of her usual purpose and forward momentum. I can hear a shift in her voice. She sounds smaller somehow. Like she’s finally giving in. I hear it, and I wish I could just tell her that she doesn’t need to give up or give in – she just needs to surrender some things…. and other things will fill those places one day. I want to tell her this, but of course, I don’t. But I do tell her that I love her, and that I’ll call her in the morning.

I find relief in knowing that my son’s asleep now, and so is my father. But like me, I’m guessing my mother is still up late, not quite knowing what it is she should be doing. Feeling loose in the world, alone, the line to her anchor being cut away one thread at a time while she looks on, helpless…. Like me, I’ll bet she’s thinking this is all one great big let-down. All of this life, and then this is the crappy way it has to end? But she’ll put on a good show of it come morning, I know. And she’ll keep it up for a while longer yet. And me, I’ll make the best of it too. I’ll play this game as well as I’m able, and I’ll make an effort to keep humor and love alive in my small world. For the most part I think I’ll go with the half-full attitude. But for the moment, I can honestly say that I’m not thrilled to be here at all.

Tonight, this seems like a very sad planet indeed.

 

Changing Times November 6, 2013

It’s good that it happens gradually. Like pregnancy, kind of. You get some time to get used to things becoming different, time to get adjusted to your changing and new reality. Now it’s for sure. You’re not exaggerating, you’re not guessing, you’re not making this worse than it is. Now you can truly see that your mom or dad is not the person they once were. Yes, you recognize them somewhere ‘in there’; you can still recognize those certain little familiar things – a mannerism, a tone of voice or signature gesture – and you know that yes, that is definitely still my dad. And yet….

Today my mother was working as an election judge all day at the polls, so she needed me to check in on dad. Today also happened to be my busiest day at school, so I had to pull the emergency card to run home during recess duty. Apparently the night before he’d fallen to the floor next to the bed, and since mom couldn’t get him up again, she’d just given him a pillow and covered him with a blanket for the time being. Somehow she was able to get him back into bed before I got there this morning, but I myself was hard-pressed to even get him in an upright, sitting position on the side of the bed. This was a new stage of the game. I don’t remember it being like this. I’d thought it might take some cajoling, some sweet talk and encouragement to get him up and moving, but this time those tactics were just not enough.

When I arrived, dad began to speak to me quite normally, and even with some degree of refreshed enthusiasm at seeing me. But within a mere few words I realized that we’d gone into a new territory, one which we’d visited briefly before, but from which he eventually returned. Having spent a half hour with him on this visit, I could tell that there wasn’t a whole lot of hope for him returning to his sentient self of just one week ago. I was still holding out hope that Elihu could bring him out of it, but for the mean time it was all on me. So I listened to him talk. I tried to get a sense of what he was describing, the scenes he was trying to convey to me, and who was there with him. I tried to learn the general feeling of his remembered encounters – knowing full well they were from his dreams (he sleeps nearly twenty hours a day) – but also knowing that in his dreams lay the keys to understanding what still resonated as important – and even urgent – in my father’s mind.

He told me that he had been attending a party at someone’s house – as he awoke from his sleep he patted the bed sheets and told me ‘this’ belonged to harpsichordist Louis Bagger and dad said he only hoped he could take good enough care of it… I wondered if by his linens he meant a harpsichord… perhaps a loaner from his old friend? A waste of time to try and make literal sense of it… just follow… He went on to describe this party… it was in the home of some arts patrons – Jewish people, he added – and everyone is very keen on being seen, on having being invited… it’s a very tony affair, yet the food has all been brought by guests. He tried several times to recall the names of people who were present for the party, yet he stumbled, pointed his finger into the air as if to prod the memory loose, but gave up. I re-directed dad to fill in more details for me about the gathering. What did the place look like? It was someone’s home. A fine one, a very large place too, and packed to the gills. Where there musicians present? Yes, as celebrated guests. Are you one of them? No, but I’ve been invited. Do you feel uncomfortable there? No, but I don’t usually know these people well. And so went our conversation, as I tried to glean insight into my dad, his fears, his joys, and the things that, after fifty years’ absence from his single life as a professional musician in New York City, still loomed large somewhere deep in his psyche.

Things morphed again when he began to descend into a more surreal landscape; dad’s own father (whom we as grandchildren had called Papaw) was there, and I found it interesting that he referred to my grandfather as ‘Papaw’ and not ‘father’ as he would have addressed him back then. Dad told me he was concerned that Papaw was not entirely happy with the party. Papaw was expressing some dissatisfaction, perhaps even slight contempt for the goings-on. (That sounded in- character for him; my grandfather was a successful, self-made man, one from a family of thirteen children… he was a sitting judge and a man of some means; a slightly egocentric sort of fellow who looked down on folks who didn’t demonstrate self-respect or carry themselves with dignity. He had made it known that he didn’t entirely approve of dad’s choice of careers.) Then dad took on a new facial expression, and looked up at me. “Is Nana anywhere about?” he asked me, slightly concerned. Again, interesting to me. Because while ‘Nana’ registers as my grandmother, my dad had always called his mom ‘mother’… his use of ‘Nana’ blended the lines between generations in a dreamlike, nebulous sort of way. No matter, I knew who he meant, and so I answered that I didn’t think she was here now, but that she was doing well. He seemed worried about her. “Is Nana coming later?” he asked. And I answered him that she was. It seemed to give him a small measure of relief, and when I saw that, I felt my somewhat misleading answer was in fact the best thing I could have said. This was a new world, and with it came new rules.

My ten year old son understands well. Several times tonight he’d wink both his eyes at me (like his dad he can’t close just one) as a signal to me that he knew, that he got it, that he was right there with me. Dad would say something bizarre, and we’d just look gently to each other as if to confirm that things were still ok. What was of prime importance here was not getting facts or timelines correct, but to understand the emotions at the bottom of all the remembrances. What was the gist of what dad was feeling? This was what was most important. What he was feeling physically – that was another ballgame, and soon we found ourselves a bit limited by those new rules as well.

Dad’s had a hernia for a while, but it only bothers him every so often. Maybe I got him up into a sitting position too abruptly, I don’t know, but for whatever reason his hernia is back today, and it hurt him so much that he wasn’t able to stand up and make it down the stairs for a proper supper. (Secretly I wonder if this might not be the first night of his life that he’s no longer able to join the family downstairs for dinner. Is that new era now upon us?) I’d brought some delicious home-made chicken soup (made with the chickens we’d butchered last week) for supper, and now, as it was apparent that we wouldn’t be dining downstairs, I heated up our bowls and brought them to the bedroom. I held dad’s bowl and watched him eat. Funny how I delighted in seeing such small, insignificant gestures again… the things I’ve seen him do all my life but never really noticed til right now. How with so much of his word recovery gone, so much of his life’s context gone, so much twisted around and re-arranged in his head, yet look how he can still wipe his beard in that way – how he can still take a napkin from me without a second’s pause and use it exactly as he should… how naturally he pockets it, and pulls it out to use again… the way he did it, it is still so him… Such silly nothings really, stuff that everybody does. But seeing him do these few, small and natural things brought me immense joy. My wrist was straining to hold the bowl of soup for him, and my cheek muscles were getting hot from smiling so hard. I was focusing all on my father. It was an unusual place for me to be. As he’s sunk into his dementia, I’ve been more easily ‘allowed’ into his mind, into his world. After a lifetime of tentative eye contact and the most fleeting emotional connections, this is precious stuff here.

We visited like this for about a half hour, during which I fed him some toast (home made sage bread from us) and some chocolate Boost (old folks’ nutritional drink) through a straw (mom had none, now she’s stocked. In future she’ll need straws all the time, I’m pretty sure) and I got him lying back down again and comfy. Gone now is the strong, invisible wall that’s been  between us our whole lives. Now, his condition makes it possible – and easy even – for me to express my love for him. For me even to hold his hand. I can remember over the past few years looking at dad’s hands and wishing I could hold them for no good reason. In my family we just don’t do such things. God no. The emotional separation and fear that exists in my parent’s home is almost a real enough thing to knock upon with your fists… Just this evening as we tried to rouse dad from his bed to have some supper, Elihu said to me that ‘you can just feel the sad in this house’. Yes, it’s the reason I haven’t pushed harder to visit them. While I’ve wished for family dinners, and have attended a few, I can say they’ve not become routine for us. It’s a heavy, dark and depressing house to be in. Between Andrew’s alcoholism, mom’s denial and dad’s dementia (not to mention years without a proper housecleaning!) the house is just friggin heavy. Not a pleasant place in which to linger. And with us being so busy, it just makes it easier to pretend the whole situation doesn’t exist. But today, when I get the extremely rare opportunity to look into my dad’s eyes – people, this is big – I realize that I need to be here now. Finally, the defenses are down (well, dad’s at any rate!) and I can begin to share the same space with my father in a real way.

I don’t know how things will turn out. Dad’s gone downhill very quickly the past two weeks even. Nonsensical speech (although I do think there’s something there to be learned if one listens) and an incredibly weakened body make for some big decisions in the immediate future. Mom’s new song is “the next stop will be the emergency room”, but she doesn’t seem to want to take it further. Ok, so ER. Then what, mom? I’ve been trying to get her to find a visiting nurse twice a week for, oh, what, like a year now?? Even two weeks ago she was saying “we’re not there yet”. The emergency room is NOT a haven for super-old folks with old-people problems. Sorry. It’s either nurse at home – or nursing home. And while Elihu himself suggests that the best idea would be to turn dad’s ground floor office into the new bedroom and get a nurse in to help bathe him twice a week – I have a feeling that mom would rather just get him out of the house completely. And ya know what happens then, right? Forgotten by family, far from home, shuttled around under relentless flourescent lights and shoved in front of crappy American TV, confused and finally detached from anything that reminds them of who they are and BAM! There you go. An aging parent who’d rather be dead if only that were a goddam option. !!!

I’d like to keep him at home with someone stopping by to help. But can my mother, at 78, reverse a lifetime habit of controlling her household down to the last cat hair and learn to accept a caregiver into her home?? This is the larger question. Fuck dad’s outcome. Keep the household on mom lockdown at all costs. Sheesh.

So Elihu and I watch and wait from the sidelines. The good thing here is that finally I can express my love for my father without censorship; there is a lot of hand holding now, and deep eye contact that never, ever existed before. And there are some increasingly less tentative loving touches being given on backs, legs and feet…. there are kisses and the gentle smoothing of hair, there are more expressions of love being shared than ever before in our lives. Once upon a time we had all the words we could use, and all the time in the world to use them. Now we have little of either, but it seems that true communication is finally possible. I wonder at the obstacles of the past fifty years that had made this sort of expression so impossible, so embarrassing, so unthinkable. There are just so many cultural rules, and the generations of yesteryear often didn’t cultivate open expressions of love. At least I’m glad to have this chance now, it’s better than never.

It’s hard to wrap my head around the shifts that are taking place. Funny how you just go through life thinking things will always be thus. (I thought I’d be twenty-seven for a hundred more years.) It seems your kids will always need help pouring their milk. It seems you’ll always be able to jump down those last five stairs from the landing. It seems like you’ll always have dark hair. Hell, it seems as if you’ll always have hair! But no, it won’t always be thus, and change, in every single moment, is always upon us. Though the shifts in our own bodies may be far too subtle and slow-moving for us to witness ourselves, from time to time our mortality can’t be avoided. A sudden reflection of one’s face in a window, the choice to take a safer footing, the need for an extra layer around the shoulders… tiny signs arise. The falling leaves and dropping temperatures remind me that we are all constantly on the move through infinitely changing times.

October 2013 A 730Grandpa and Elihu

October 2013 A 732

My arthritic, middle-aged hand next to his. So many concerts given with his hand, so much talent there.

October 2013 A 737

Dad’s more relaxed now, you can see it on his face. That, plus he loves his only grandchild so very much and can’t stop admiring him.

Post Script: I am very frustrated with my aging computer. In spite of having recently had someone in to clean it up, it is behaving in strange and new ways. In the above post I see many words appearing in red and underlined with crazy embedded hyperlinks. I wish I could remove them, but haven’t a clue as to how they got there. Today I’m wishing I had a computer that wasn’t as old as my fifth grader. !!