The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Crazy January 1, 2016

Last night I spoke with Elihu. He’s in Florida with his dad and his dad’s other family, and for the most part, he’s loving it. He’s got a racoon tan around his eyes and sand lodged in his sneakers. Aside from the occasional all-American family gatherings which he must endure – replete with football-watching menfolk and salads that contain marshmallows – it’s been a happy time for him. Which makes me happy, too. Yet it’s never easy on this end when lil man is absent; our family if rife with dysfunction, depression and a deep apprehension for the future ahead. My son can be a lovely, shining distraction in such times. But these days, even Elihu’s presence might not have changed things, cuz they’re dark. I know, that doesn’t sound like a nice way to kick off the New Year, but hey. It’s true. I’m always ready and eager to find the hidden silver lining in any crappy experience, and I’ll broadcast my good findings when I discover them, but I will never shy away from telling my experience the way it is, no matter how it looks.

Last night, New Year’s Eve, was my brother’s 50th birthday. I know how deeply he blames me for his rotted-out, stinking life. I know he thinks mom gives me all her resources, that she favors me over him, that one day she will leave her entire estate to me when she goes. That none of this is true is beside the point; Andrew is ill, and simply does not posses the ability to see things outside of his own highly personal and paranoid perspective. For years and years I’ve fought this impediment to his potentially thriving life, but now, in this brand-new calendar year, I am choosing an entirely new tack: I am finally going to let it go. Nothing can be done for Andrew unless he chooses to do it for himself.

A lesson I myself would do well to live by – I keep waiting for some mysterious exterior force to enter into my life and help sweep things into a shining new order… Hoping for a savior to come and assist me, to uplift me, enlighten me, tell me how it is that I should proceed with my new business, someone who will see and share my vision and throw herself into the ring along with me, full of fresh ideas, vigor and business savvy. I keep thinking that somehow, this magical missing element will find me and make it all better. It’s a nice fantasy, and you never know, shit happens in mysterious ways, but still… I need to get moving. I need to make connections. I need to get my ass out of the goddam house and do things for myself already. No one but me can get the ball rolling.

Last night I’d planned on attending a bonfire and maybe meeting some new people, but between my running out of fuel oil (no matter how many times you see it, it’s always a bit disheartening to see the needle begin to visibly drop each minute) and it being Andrew’s birthday, and his being drunk and storming out, and my not wanting to see my mother sit alone, I bagged. Plus the idea of coming home from a bonfire in the cold, snowy dark woods to a cold and dark house was too much for me to take on. So instead I sat with mom, drank a couple of beers and watched TV like a good American. But that’s ok – because I’m lucky enough to have been invited to join some local musicians tomorrow night for an informal jam. Just the sort of thing I’ve been missing these past years. It won’t be too long before I’ll be back out into the world and making my new way.

During the day I’d been messaging back and forth with my brother’s only remaining friend on the planet, a fellow, who as far as I can tell, is living in the Bay area and is doing well for himself and his family. He spends hours on the phone with my brother, as much chatting about nothing in particular as he does conducting a covert attempt to draw out my brother’s feelings as a means of getting to the bottom of it all – and maybe even finding a fix to Andrew’s grim situation. However sane and successful this guy might be, sadly this fellow seems to have bought my brother’s skewed story, which is this: I, Andrew’s sister, am the cause of everything that is wrong with his life. He has been profoundly abandoned and unrighteously neglected by our mother. Mom pays my way, and leaves him out. I get all the accolades, he gets no respect. I live for free in a house she owns… You get the idea. What my brother doesn’t understand is that while yes, I do live in a home our mother provides for us, he too lives in a home provided for him. The difference is that I pay my own bills (while also raising a child), and mom takes care all of his expenses. But he’ll never see this. Because he can’t.

The truth of the matter is that my little brother has always been sick. In first grade, he came home from school reporting in a screaming rage how much the kids at school hated him, and that the whole class had “pulled machine guns on him” (I remember this specifically because as a 3rd grader I had never before heard this curious use of the word ‘pulled’). Last night, Mom recounted to me that when she’d gone back to work when we were young children, Andrew had asked her if he got a tummy ache in the middle of the day, would she be at home for him? She was honest and told her small son no. But she promised always to be there when he got home from school. And she was. So here we have a kid in whom something’s already a bit off (ie raging how kids ‘pulled machine guns’) and then you have growing feelings of abandonment on top of it: a cocktail for emotional trouble. But back then the signs were likely cast off as crazy kid’s talk, the behaviors chalked up to routine issues of childhood. My brother was quiet, funny and hyper-intelligent (when I described him once as ‘Rainman smart’ to my mom, she had a fit. “See?” she’d said, agitated and getting louder, “You think he’s crazy! Why can’t he just be smart?”) and if he brooded, it was considered merely part of his personality. It was a different time. We weren’t on the lookout for children with mental illnesses.

And while our culture is thankfully changing its feelings towards mental illness, I can tell you that it’s still not without stigma. I do think my mother’s thoughts about mental illness have changed over the past few years, but in her world it’s still not a comfortable subject. Yeah, I do think that personally she feels shame, maybe embarrassment, and even responsibility. Likely, she sees it this way: Mentally Ill Child = Crazy Child = Failure of Parent. Even I myself – dealing daily with panic and anxiety issues – have only just discovered a metaphor that allows for a deeper understanding of what it is to have a mental illness: If someone felt nauseas in their stomach – would you try to tell them they didn’t? Furthermore – you wouldn’t expect them to simply turn off the bad feelings, would you? Mental illness is the same as a tummy ache. It’s physical and it’s real, and it cannot be changed through will and desire alone.

Every now and then my brother’s friend will reveal a tidbit about Andrew heretofore unknown to us, and last night came this bombshell: Andrew remembers mom once saying that she ‘regretted ever having him’. Where the hell had this come from? Never once in mom’s life has she said or done anything that would have implied such a thing. Not even in the heat of an argument. Never. It shocked me to hear that Andrew thought this. And these days, in this crazy world, nothing much shocks me anymore.

I joined mom and Andrew last night, birthday gifts in tow, and tried to assimilate myself into the kitchen quietly. But I suppose I spoke too candidly, too animatedly, too something-or-other, and before ten minutes had passed, my drunk, brooding brother stood up and walked out. I followed him out into the snow, calling after him, begging him not to leave. He stumbled in the frozen ruts of the driveway and mumbled something unintelligible. This, by now, was sadly nothing new. I stood and watched, to make sure he made it safely to his house, some 200 feet down the driveway. The year that dad died, Andrew had fallen in the snow, and we were worried he’d pass out and die there. It’s always a concern in the cold months. On Christmas Eve, my 80-year-old mother had been worried enough to walk the rough terrain around his house, tapping her cane on the windows and calling out to him. Finally, he came to the window and barked at her he wasn’t leaving his house. Usually his rages are brought on by an event or a comment, but this was new – it was unprovoked, and as such, more unsettling than usual.

Among his concerns for his future, Andrew is worried that I will get everything when mom’s gone, and he will go the way of the poor house. Frankly, the way the market is, I expressed to mom that I personally held out no hope of a dollar being left when she died. She took immense offense to this, even though I protested – the markets were continuing to dive, and after all, she had her own expenses to pay. It was simple math! She’d been smart about her estate planning, yes, but no one can outrun a horrible market – this in no way reflected badly on her! Try as I might to de-escalate her emotionally charged reaction, I couldn’t. Maybe it was because my lack of trust showed a lack of respect and acknowledgement for all of her hard work and forethought. Her generation does things ‘the right way’ after all; they take care of their own, they don’t take handouts, and there’s great shame if things don’t work out that way. But things can change in unexpected ways, I tried to explain to my mom. And in light of my own experience, I thought it was prudent to be prepared for the worst.

At one time in my life I thought my husband had my back – emotionally and financially – as he had always promised me. Many times over the years my ex husband assured me I had nothing to worry about. He said his own mother had worried all of her married life that her husband would leave her unsupported. My fears were just as unfounded as hers, he had told me. But as it turned out, that wasn’t the case. I went from fancy restaurants to food stamps almost overnight. I reminded my mom of this. Shit can change in unpredictable ways!

I tried to assure mom that I was forever indebted to her for taking care of everything I couldn’t – tuition for my son, heating oil and injections of cash when there was no income in sight – but that didn’t assuage her agitation. I wanted her to know that I was being practical here, not personal; at the end of the day, no one really had my back. And it didn’t bother me. It was better to be emotionally prepared for lean times than to count on help. I tried to assure her that I wasn’t worried – and besides, the key thing here was not my future, but my brother’s. The issue at hand was that Andrew needed to know he would always be taken care of. I assured her that when she was gone Andrew would be cared for. I promised I would intercede, that I would not let him go without a home, without food or heat. And if there was no money left, then social services and governmental support would always be there for him, and I would always be able to advocate for him. I had hoped to ease her mind, but I don’t think it worked.

As long as my mother is living, and my brother too, there is nothing I can do to change their dynamic. The best thing I can do is remove myself as far as possible from the mix. I’ve spent countless hours on the phone, writing letters, emails, standing in lines, filling out forms – all to help Andrew get better. But with this new year has come a new realization – I cannot do anything for him. I cannot repair anything, and I can’t change the way he lives or thinks, nor can I change the way my mother behaves or thinks. While I may think the short and easy answer is a little tough love from mom – if she cannot bring herself to do it, then it’s not an answer. I explained that she was ‘an enabler’, but judging from the look on her face, I wasn’t sure she’d gotten my meaning. When I suggested that she withhold payment of his electric bill until he agreed to see a counselor, she moaned in classic passive-aggressive tones “I know, I know. It’s all my fault. You’ve made that perfectly clear.” So around and around we went with no real meeting of the minds.

I had simply wanted to remove a burden from her load, but it had backfired. She was not thrilled when I posited a long life of continual, low-grade poverty for myself (sorry, but I don’t see any gleaming opportunities from where I stand today). Honestly, I’d love to have money, and if I did, I’d use it well and wisely, and I’d share it too – but if that never happens, I need to be happy with what I have. Lowering one’s expectations softens the blow of reality. Hell, even years ago – when I had all the money I needed – I’d often say ‘lower your standards and you’ll be happier with the results’. Cuz seriously, it’s so true! Because then, any good that comes your way is lovely and unexpected icing on the cake! Yeah, I prefer to avoid disappointment by moderating my expectations. Crazy? Meh.

As I’ve been writing this, coincidentally, I’ve been talking on the phone to a friend of mine back in Chicago who is enduring her own battle with addiction. She’s an alcoholic, and last night, on New Year’s Eve, she had decided she would admit herself to the rehab program at a local hospital. (Like me, she is, although intelligent and accomplished at many things, living in poverty. Sadly, Medicaid offers very few options for inpatient recovery addiction programs. To my great relief there was a good local hospital available to her.) My thoughts were partly on her last night – was she there yet? Was she trembling yet? How crappy did she feel? I had told my mother about her. “Why does she need to go back to rehab if she’s already been through it before?” my mother asked, honestly confused. I promised my mother that rehab was very, very hard. That it might take several tries before someone had the strength to follow through all the way. And that even then it was not a fail-proof solution.

And as I explained this to my mother, inside I came to a new, deeper understanding about Andrew. He needed to want it, to crave it, to be willing to fight for it – all on his own. If a professionally successful mother of three had a hard time mustering the focus and will it took to get clean, how on earth could my brother even begin? In that epiphany I was no longer convinced that recovery was an option for him. Certainly it would never happen as things were now. Later on my friend called me from intake. We chatted a bit, laughed a bit, and I felt hopeful for her. She too knows that this time it still might not take; that this is a harsh and unkind world, and it will be difficult to go it without a drink. Her road will be hard. But I’m so grateful that she’s at least back on the path. Not everyone gets as far as that.

New Year, new game. I can’t play that old one anymore. I’m letting go of Andrew and his burden, I’m going to move into my future with focus and fortitude. The YMCA approved my reduced membership fees, so I’ll get back on that path. Haven’t moved in a long time, so my body will appreciate it. I’ll devote to my new business the time it requires, and I’ll figure out how to improve those things that I’m currently doing my best to avoid. Sometimes it might seem pure folly to use some arbitrary mark on a calendar as a reason to undertake great changes, but hey, if not now, then when? This will be a good year for me and my son, I just kinda feel it. At least I’m reasonably hopeful that it will be. One never knows. Serendipity and unexpected blessings are just as crazy and unpredictable as the scary stuff. Truly, it’s a mixed bag, and you’ll never know until you go.

So like I said, I’m going forward into this New Year with guarded, modest and humble expectations. That way, the little successes along the way will appear huge and thrilling! Imagine how wonderful it will feel when happy, unplanned-for events fall into my path when all I meant to do was just get through the day! Now that’s my kind of crazy.

Elihu with tanI’ll tell ya what’s crazy… Dad talked Elihu into cutting his precious hair – which he’d been intentionally growing, with my support for a year now – all because the family was having professional photo portraits taken on the beach. My kid felt duped, and he’d held back tears. He was deeply sad when we spoke this afternoon, but he’s a good kid, and he accepted it without complaint. We’ll be back on the quest for long locks upon his return. Love my boy so deeply it hurts sometimes.

 

 

Up Is Down December 27, 2015

coop pic

The day after Christmas we buried our beloved red hen, Thumbs Up. Elihu wasn’t here, but he was on the phone with me as I placed her in the ground. I put the phone on speaker and set it down as I shoveled the dirt upon her, my son sobbing along with me the whole time. Chickens may live well over a decade, yet this gal hadn’t quite made five years. Somehow we’d always thought she’d be here as Elihu grew up. With a personality more like a golden retriever than simple red hen, she animated our household in the most delightful way, and it’s hard to imagine how different the energy will be around here now that she’s gone. I’m almost surprised at how deep my grief is over this loss. My father died two years ago tonight, and while it should go without saying that I dearly miss him, this recent loss is just so fresh and acute that I cannot shake it. And with my son so very far away, my heart is breaking all the more.

These days I’m larger than I’ve been in years, and that too is nagging at my heart. Being unable to fit in my beautiful clothes, and becoming out of breath just going up a flight of stairs, all of this has me grieving for a time when I felt and looked my best. In the past I’ve managed to pull myself up and out of my funks, and I’ve shed as much as fifty-five pounds in one year, but I don’t know where the resolve will come from now, and I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever turn things around. My fingers are getting knobbier and ache with arthritis each day; this alone is a hard reality to accept. Every evening I take my relief in glasses of wine, the worrisome double-edged sword; it’s the much longed-for and soothing end to my day, yet it’s a source of countless useless calories that only add to my problem. I manage to pull myself through the days until that blessed evening hour when a sleeping pill will take me away from this waking world. And when the next morning arrives, I am once again overwhelmed and under-confident that I can do anything about it all.

When I hear about successful people who have jobs, money, families and such, becoming overwhelmed with depression, it’s hard to understand. Me, it seems that if you can pay your bills, then things couldn’t be all that bad. Right? But then I look objectively at myself; I have a lot going for me, so this current state of my spirit can’t really be justified. But still, I can’t help but wonder how differently I’d feel about life if only I had a little bit more money. If I had a job – and a paycheck. I know how glorious I feel each year when I get my tax return – the whole world opens up. Fuel oil, a haircut and color, new shoes for the kid, a barrel full of scratch grains for the flock, dinner in a restaurant – all sorts of things become possible, and with that possibility I feel a certain spiritual uplifting. It’s crazy, honestly, because none of this shit really changes my day-to-day reality, but somehow, having just a tad more than enough can feel so very, very good.

Recently I learned that Facebook had been charging me methodically over the past few months for many small commercial posts. Somehow (and I am not alone judging by the hundreds of comments just like mine, oh how I pray it comes to a class action suit one day!) I misunderstood a one-time ‘boost’ for a contracted series of boosts, thereby creating a slow but devastating hit to my PayPal account. Now this is the ‘slush’ fund I count on for Christmas and other treats. Imagine my surprise when I went to buy a couple of gifts for my son to find under the tree on his return, and there was nothing left. What the hell? Following the charges, I found the source of the problem. And I realized it was a case of ‘me versus the machine’. I would not win this fight, nor would I ever see that $300 again. Holy fuck. I was feeling shitty enough right now. Now this. Mom had made it plain that she was unable to help at this time – property taxes were approaching – so I knew I couldn’t go to her. I asked an old friend if he could loan me the sum – just til early January, as that’s when my students were returning – but after a few days there was no response. Feeling ill about having appealed to him for help, I’d been wishing I could take it back. But that wasn’t possible. What was posted was posted. Ugh.

Phooey. Thumbs Up is dead, I’m broke and fat, and my kid is a thousand miles away.

The up side is that my mother is still here, my neighbors are all wonderful and supportive, and I have friends who help buoy my spirits through the lifeline of the internet. My house is warm (bless this mild winter!!) and my son is has two goddam tubas and a myriad of instruments to keep him happy. We have six happy fish, three happy frogs and fifteen remaining fowl. I have a view of Vermont and a fucking grand piano. Ok, so my Wurlitzer needs a bunch of work, but hey. I have one.

Looking back over the years I see this same sort of lament over and over here on the blog. And it gets a little tiresome, I know. Sometimes it kinda feels like reading the journal of a middle school girl: ‘poor fat me, no one has it as bad as I do, no one understands me’ again and again. Things aren’t really so bad, I know it, but still…  I haven’t figured out how to pilot this Studio thing, I haven’t approached anyone to join the board yet, and my office is a fucking nightmare of unfiled paper and undone to-do lists. Yes, the refrigerator is organized, the pantry tidy, and the floors are as clean as they’re going to get for now. My house is in order now, but my life is not. It’s up to me, I know it. Holding out hope that I’ll find the oomph inside me to get the Studio going, to lose twenty-five pounds, to get my teaching materials filed and organized. But from where I sit today, I can’t imagine how I’ll get any of this shit done.

Yesterday I was rocking my sweet Thumbs Up after she had died. I was holding her against my breast, her neck against mine… I looked out past the Christmas tree to the hills beyond and remembered the year before last; I had been rocking in that same chair, looking out over that same view, tears streaming down my cheeks as I anticipated the imminent death of my father. Here I was again, so sad, so sad. Still, this was part of life. Nothing so wrong with being sad, I thought to myself. Maybe the best thing one can do is just invite the sorrow in and push through it hard. Sad doesn’t last forever, after all. Nothing does. Which ultimately, I suppose, is a great gift.

On Christmas morning I rose in an uncharacteristic panic; in my gut I had felt something to be very wrong. I sat up in bed and felt fear wash through my body. Without second-guessing myself I ran to the coop. The backyard was eerily quiet… where was Bald Mountain? I opened the door – the coop was nearly empty. Had there been an attack? Had the automatic chicken door opened too early and allowed a predator to enter? Adrenaline flushed through me. There, on the top roosting bar, were two old gals. Usually there were three. Shit. Thumbs Up…. where was she? I panicked, opened the other door and searched the run. There, in the far corner, was my girl. Hunkered down, seeking solitude, I knew in an instant this was a bad sign. She’d been in and out of the kitchen clinic several times over the past month, and I knew things weren’t good with her. But I didn’t know they were this bad.

I rushed her inside and this time decided to demystify her ailment. I knew it was an impacted cloaca of sorts; she couldn’t pass normally, and this was dangerous. I risked cutting into her flesh and creating a possibility for infection, this I knew, but I had to do something. So I did. I removed strange-looking tissue and tried to relieve her as much as possible. I bathed her and dried her and returned her to a bed in the mud room. We’d lost a hen here just a few weeks ago – this was ominously familiar. I stayed with her for a while, talking to her and taking photos that I knew in my heart would be the very last ones…

I called mom, the one person on the planet besides my son who ultimately has my back at the end of it all – and told her what was going on. God bless my mom. Offering me guidance and advice – here she was at nearly 81, and here I was at the age of 52 – and my mom was still my mom. It almost felt physical, the relief upon hearing her consolation. I was touched by her care and concern for me. She was saying things that made me feel better… Even if I might have said those same things to myself, hearing it from my mother was different. Yes, we agreed, there was nothing left to do for Thumbs Up. I might as well go on with my day as planned. I would go to the nursing homes and visit those who had no visitors.

With a book of carols and a harness of old-fashioned jingle bells in my bag, I headed out. First I visited my old next door neighbor who was happy at my unexpected visit. Her daughter and son-in-law soon arrived, and it was nice to see her tiny apartment full of people and holiday spirit. Satisfied to know she would have company for the day, I took my leave and went to another retirement home nearby.

The second nursing home was empty save for one woman who sat alone in the lobby while Christmas music played quietly, almost as if mocking the cheerless atmosphere. A large tree and a multitude of poinsettias beside a gas fireplace tried to give the place a cozy, home-like feel, but they were too contrived to do the trick. There was no one at the reception desk, in fact the office and dining room were dark when I arrived. I walked up to the woman, sat on the couch beside her and began talking. We passed a half hour before we saw another resident walking past. The woman I’d been speaking with said her son was coming to get her, but she didn’t know when. I’d begun to wonder if these plans were real or imagined.

The woman who next joined us was tall and lean, with her shoulder-length silver hair in a striking blunt cut. She, it turned out, was from Holland. She recounted a long life; how she’d come here at the age of 23 knowing no one, how she ended up going back to school for chemistry, how she married and had children, settling in a well-to-do New Jersey suburb. She wondered at her old home, the one in which she and her husband had shared over fifty Christmases. “Ach” she said, waving a hand in the air, “It was sold years ago. Who knows where all my things have gone. All my chairs, the curtains, the paintings….” She seemed disgusted, heartbroken and resolved all at the same time. My heart ached again, but I didn’t let on. Here it was my job to be the giver-of-cheer and hope. I asked if I might see her room here, how she had decorated it, where was it that she now lived. Both she and the first woman enthusiastically offered to take me on a tour.

We passed the rec room, which I knew to have a piano, as I’d played it years ago for a program my friend had organized. I sat down and opened the book of carols. The room was half-darkened, and the carpet sucked up every sound. In the quiet I began to play “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to which the ladies began to sing. I moved gently into several more slow and beautiful melodies, after which I felt it best to conclude. Then we three moved down the long corridor to the first apartment. It belonged to the tall Dutch woman who had introduced herself as Nellie; I learned from the plaque on her door that her full name was Pietrenelle. Adorned with white ceramic windmills and wooden shoes, her room was much as I would have expected. We moved on to visit Phyllis’ room, after which we headed back to the lobby. Two more folks had arrived in anticipation of dinner, and soon the smells of food began to waft into the air. I was surprised to see a middle aged man accompanied by a bulldog come through the front doors. “Dan!” Phyllis said, her countenance lifting as she saw the two. “Are you Dan?” I said, looking at the man and then gesturing to the dog. “He should be Dan!” I laughed. “He is actually a she...” he responded. Dan had not a clue as to the reference I was making (Yale’s school mascot is a bulldog named Dan. My dad was a Yaley, and of course, my son shares a name with the school’s philanthropic benefactor, Elihu Yale.) “…and her name is Lucy”.

I assured the women that I would be back to visit again, and I could see happiness and relief on their faces. This, if only a small bit of hope in the world, was better than none. I had done something. Not much, but the last two hours had been very pleasant, and I hoped the effect would last a little while.

When I arrived home I saw a horrible sight: Thumbs Up had fallen from the bench and was now propped up, wings spread, on the laundry detergent bottle. She was breathing in and out very, very fast. I tried to move her, and her head wobbled. Then she erupted in a spasm of movement, writhing her way across the floor, faltering on wobbly legs. This reminded me of a nervous disorder, but until now it had only seemed a gastric affliction. None of this mattered now. I gathered her up and put her in a nest on the floor. I tried to share her experience, breathing in and out breath for breath. Shit. This was horrible to watch. I couldn’t touch her, it would have caused her more pain. Her eyes were half opened; she was trying to maintain. Mom was waiting for me; she’d gone all out and made a thirteen pound turkey and all the works of a Christmas dinner. I really did not want to leave my precious girl. My heart yearned to hold her as she died – but I knew it could be an hour yet. Showing my mother love by being with her for supper was ultimately more important. I left reluctantly, and before I closed the door I told my beautiful red hen goodbye and that I loved her.

When I returned two hours later Thumbs Up was dead, as I’d expected. But her death had been violent; she had gotten up and out of her bed and died a few paces away, her bowels evacuated on the floor. I imagined her last minutes, I knew they were painful. The only consolation now was that she was gone. I was surprised by my immense and immediate grief; I ran to her, held her close to my heart and wept as I hadn’t – in two years.

She died on Christmas, and I placed her underneath the tree that night. The next morning I held her for a long time before I dug the hole, called Elihu, and finished saying goodbye. Yesterday I made my errands, and today, while I’d planned to finally assess my overflowing office, I’ve done nothing but choose photos and write. As casual as this blog may appear, it takes hours to create a post – even longer when dealing with pictures. Uploading is tedious and time-consuming. In between I take little breaks to look at the tree, or out the window at my flock. Like prodding a fresh wound to see if it still hurts – I’ll rest my eyes on the little white marker under the flowering quince bush.

Everything has its time, everything has its season. We get fat, we get thin. We get sick, we get better. We lose our way, and then we find it. We all flourish, we all fade. And whatever goes up, no matter how we might wish it otherwise, will eventually come back down. What a path is this life! Bless us all as we make our way through this great, mysterious journey. A hearty thumbs up to us all, and also to that little red hen who gave us such delight along the way.

IMG_0486I got to spend some time with Miss Lucy, the newest addition to the neighborhood. That was a treat.

IMG_0528Got busy getting down to all that grunge at the bottom of everything. This takes time. Glad it’s done.

IMG_0557The day before Christmas. All is well, and it sure doesn’t look like anyone will be dying anytime soon. Thumbs Up is the light red one on the left in back.

IMG_0576Butt shot – look away if you find it gross. Part of chickening. Austin, our comic guinea fowl enjoys the platform feeder. He thinks he’s a songbird.

IMG_0567Thumbs Up was calm in her bath as I removed scar tissue and gunk. It almost seemed as if she knew I was trying to help her. Such a good girl.

IMG_0594Getting her warm and dry. Again, while many hens might have protested, she stood there willingly. Perhaps because she was almost done with it all… Who knows.

IMG_0700Christmas day, she was different. After all, she herself had sought seclusion. I brought her to the stoop for a last visit with her flock.

IMG_0755I opened the door, and as she has so many times before, she hopped up and walked inside. I know no one else would have been able to tell, but she had an unsettled look about her. She made strange sounds and stood a little too erect, plus her eyes had a distracted appearance. Call me crazy, but hey, she died only hours later. I try to honor the ‘God voice’ when it tells me something. It’s a mistake to ignore it.IMG_0759Specks, the only hen who we’ve had longer then Thumbs Up, watches as her sister comes inside.

IMG_0650See how her tail is drooping? This is an unhappy hen, likely in physical discomfort.

IMG_0762I would take her pain on myself, if only I could. How can I love a hen so much?

IMG_0790My new friends at the nursing home, Phyllis and Nellie. Oh, and Lucy, the bulldog.

IMG_0824A sight I’ve seen all my life. Mom does it all.

IMG_0835Always superb.

IMG_0834This silver had been in my father’s family for a long time.

IMG_0857I smooch my old cat, Mina. She can’t live with us as Elihu is very allergic. My ex husband and I got her over 15 years ago. She is ancient now, and she won’t be here too much longer herself.

IMG_0885I expected to see Thumbs Up gone when I got home, but it was shocking nonetheless. My heart positively broke. Strange that we’ve butchered and eaten so many of our own birds, but this, somehow, was entirely different.

IMG_0957So beautiful were her colors.

IMG_1067I finally place Thumbs Up in her little grave. Pumpkin, the only remaining red hen, comes to see what’s going on.

IMG_1080A small piece of limestone marks the spot where Thumbs Up rests under the flowering quince bush.

Thank you, little red hen. Don’t tell the rest of the flock – but you were always our favorite.

 

 

First Friday November 28, 2014

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal...,Mommy Mind — wingmother @ 12:12 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

In all of my life I have never participated in this Black Friday stuff. And to be honest, I don’t recall there even being such a phenomenon for the first half of my life. Maybe it existed, but not the way it does today. Seems it’s picked up speed over the past decade, too. It would never have interested me anyway; the sorts of gifts I like to give are books signed by the author (usually after having sent them my own personal copy first, months before, with a brief letter of enquiry along with means for postage paid return) or a cherished print returned to its owner matted and framed (who can justify such a costly project for themself?), a rare kitchen tool, or maybe a case of a favorite wine. Useful things, beautiful things – things that certainly cannot be gleaned from a mad rush to Kmart at five in the morning just after the tryptophan has worn off. I don’t mean to sound like a snob here, but I probably do. If that’s how I appear, so be it.

I do realize there are deals to be had on this celebrated day, yet I still can’t help but feel that even so, why wait til the most crowded, stressed-out day of the shopping year to acquire things one needs? With a little forethought and some careful planning – not too much, mind you, as one means to decrease the stress associated with purchasing, not increase it – one can find good prices on coveted items throughout the year. Me, I waited a good year before buying a tv, and even then it took me weeks to find the best deal, once I’d found the model I wanted. I don’t often exercise such prudent self-restraint, but it was a big purchase, and goddam it, I meant to do it right. And I did.

So are we creating needs we don’t have in order to justify buying stuff at outrageously ‘good’ prices? Or do folks enter those double doors before daybreak with lists in hand, on the search for only the things they came for? Or is it mostly a free-for-all, a mad dash to random endcaps and display bins, hands grabbing frantically to see what lady luck has in store…? My former mother-in-law would both fascinate and frustrate me with her own method of shopping for ‘stuff’ (I think we can all agree that this whole exploration is about shopping for things and not food… That’s another topic altogether). She would return from the store, usually Target or Kmart (that alone drove me nuts as she easily had the means to visit much higher quality establishments), and proceed to show us all that she’d bought – and tell us about all the money she’d saved in doing so. “See?” she’d say, bright with sincerity, “These were half off, so I got two for the price of one!”. Only thing was, she hadn’t bought a single thing anyone in the family needed – or even wanted. She hadn’t gone to the store for anything in particular, just a deal. And what she came back with was always crap. Pressed to recall what that crap was exactly, I cannot remember. But trust me, the shit she came back with had me wanting to drop my jaw and shake my head in amazement, but back then I was a polite thing, and for the most part I withheld editorial comment. (For the most part.)

I myself am a dedicated, purposeful shopper. I always know what I’m looking for. And when I find it, I’ll often buy several of the sought item, because shopping is not for me a stress reliever (I admit that if I had more money, it might be) and I like to make sure I’m set for a while. So today, my son and I will embark on our first ever Black Friday experience, in search of several very specific items, all of which we are fully prepared to learn are sold out. The purchases are not the biggest reason for our trip, however. Today we’re going out on something of an anthropological excursion to see how it is that our fellow citizens live. I don’t get out much, so I think it might even be fun. We’ll have a modest lunch while we’re out, and perhaps make a few impulsive stops along the way. It’s a lot of gas and driving, but we’ll enjoy the ride – we’ve got our music to keep things lively, including the requisite polka collections and of course, a little Steely Dan classic named in honor of the day.

________________________________________________

Post Script: Our outing was a great disappointment; my son realized that the very items he’d wanted (along with every other sixth grade boy in the area) and had hoped would be marked down in price were, in fact, not selling for a penny less, nor would they be anytime soon. He’s currently studying economics in school, and if ever there were a real-life lesson on the subject, here it was. He was able to get something for his little brothers, but all in all, the experience was a letdown. And even by mid-afternoon the lines, both in the stores and out on the street, were long and slow-moving. Happily, I’d brought some new polkas along, and sure enough, that was the only consolation to the day.

Our feeling is that it’s probably best to acquire gifts online (and only after reading the product reviews!). At the end of the day we are true homebodies, happiest when our chickens are safely tucked inside their coop, and we ourselves back at home, snug and warm. Malls and masses of humanity just don’t do it for us. No matter, it wasn’t a day wasted, it was a lesson learned. After all, you never know until you go…

 

 

 

November’s News November 20, 2014

Today the sixth grade went on a field trip to see a production of The Secret Garden by Albany’s Capital Repertory Company. A quick, last-minute search informed me that it was a musical – not what I’d expected (Lucy Simon, Carly’s big sister wrote the music, Marsha Norman the lyrics). At first my heart sank at the discovery, but no matter, I figured it would be a good production. Happily, the show did not disappoint, and even though I, as a driver and chaperone, paid my own gas and parking, I feel it was worth the expense. These rare day trips are always worth whatever small sacrifice I need to make, because this era of ‘parents going along too’ won’t last forever. Plus I want very much to have these shared memories with my son, and with his classmates, too.

In Elihu’s first full year at Waldorf I was present for just about every single field trip the class took. The following year, in spite of a full schedule playing piano at the school, I somehow managed to attend most of the trips, and even though I had to beg out of a class again today, I managed to go along once again. I don’t take any of this for granted, I feel it’s a true gift. As a parent with the flexibility to be there, it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t go when I was able. Although on the car ride back Elihu played the perfect eleven-year-old boy, making crazy jokes with his buddies and laughing the whole ride, when it was just the two of us again driving home from school, he effused over the production. He told me that he ‘was in tears for much of it’. (I found it moving too, but not to the degree that he did.) And that each actor played an instrument – and sang as well – he found that more than impressive. When we got home he was excited to call both his father and grandma to tell them about his day at the theater.

Tomorrow is the fall school assembly, and although the orchestra’s too large to fit on the stage and so won’t be performing (much to Elihu and grandma’s great disappointment), Elihu will be singing with the middle school chorus as well as doing a spoken word piece with his class, and also a eurythmy performance in costume. (As a self-respecting sixth grade boy he cannot openly admit to enjoying his movement performance, but in private Elihu has several times told me how beautiful the costumes are and how much he’s looking forward to wearing them.) Tomorrow should be another good production. And for once I’m not accompanying anything, and I will be thoroughly enjoying my non-participatory role in the audience.

A couple of days ago I had my first hair cut and color in over seventh months. (I know.) I just love the place I go to; it’s homey, comfortable and casual and I almost always meet someone new and enjoy some pleasant conversation when I’m there. I have a great respect for those who can cut and style hair; they express such nuance with each creation. And that no two heads are the same just makes what Wendy does for me all the more impressive. She’s a talented woman, and I’m grateful that I found her. (She always makes Elihu feel like a rockstar, too.) It’s been so long since I’ve felt like spending the money on myself, but truth be told, there’s almost never a good time. Somehow, this month my bills were caught up and I’d even managed to tuck some Christmas gifts away early, so I was able to free myself from the guilt of the extra expense and enjoy being there. Freedom from worry is good, yes – but even better is that fresh haircut feeling. ! And I know I’m just kinda sneaking this in here – but I’ve lost 15 pounds since September on a renewed dieting campaign, and it hasn’t been til now that I’ve felt I deserved spending the money on my hair. Diet results or not, I’ve done a lot over the past seven months. I’ve covered some ground and made some improvements in my corner of the world. This was a nice reward.

Beyond today, I’m not sure what will fill our time when school lets out for break, as the Thanksgiving vacation week looms long and empty at the moment. It’s the first Thanksgiving that Elihu will have been here in years. Last year, while Elihu was in Illinois with his father, we four Conants had our last meal together while dad was alive. I remember the food was so good that we ate robustly, hardly checking in a moment with each other. It was only as dad wiped his beard and began to push away from the table that I realized…. this was probably was, no – it was – our very last meal together as a family. I’d felt both sad and grateful in that moment – sad that it had felt so natural that I’d let it pass without any special moment of savoring it, grateful that we, who hadn’t eaten as a group around the same table in a decade or more, had all been here together one final time. In a way it was perfect that Elihu was absent; it gave us our last real moment as a family. I’m grateful for it, grateful, grateful. Hard to believe it was a year ago. That the season of my dad’s death was a year ago. This year, thank God, we’ll have the energetic addition of young Elihu to help keep things happy and bright. Mom’s even inviting another couple to join us. Things feel much better than they had originally. One concern however, is Andrew. After several months of attending AA meetings every single night, he’s fallen off the wagon yet again. (An intervention was never done at the insistence of a friend in AA who ended up mentoring – and then giving up on – Andrew.) This is an emotionally charged time, and Andrew is a goddam time bomb. It’s one thing to call the sheriff in to prevent him from taking a knife to me with immediate family present, it’ll be a horror show if it happens in front of folks we don’t know all that well. (I suppose it would be even more horrific should he actually make good on his threats.) With his nephew being present, that might help mitigate things. Never can tell with Andrew. We shall see.

Martha was taken to the hospital day before yesterday – her sixth (or perhaps seventh?) such visit over the past year. I’m always prepared for it to be ‘the time’, but it never is. I was glad that Elihu’d brought his string bass to the farm the other night to play for her. He played her favorite song “Simple Gifts” and other things, all of which made her happy and brought up stories from when she was a music teacher at Skidmore College half a century ago. Then Elihu found a shofar from the farm’s music room and after a few minutes found he could play a couple of discernible notes on it. That again brought up another story. Mom too was there with us in the kitchen, and Martha’s hound dog Masie made the rounds sitting on our feet as we visited… “If this visit to the hospital is to be Martha’s last, at least we had a good time the other night” I had thought to myself. But within a day she was given the green light, and yesterday I found myself wheeling Martha back up the stairs and into her enormous farm house once again. Which is where she ought to be. It’s always best to be home.

And tonite I find myself actually enjoying my home in a free moment. To-do lists done for the day, laundry, dishes, tidying… All of it done. The kid is even asleep. Often it takes Elihu a very long time to fall out, but today was full and after reading a chapter or two he was ready to sleep. I so seldom find myself in this place – usually it’s not until late that I can sit in front of my computer. Usually I feel the dull panic of a night growing later, and the morning looming just around the corner… But right now I am fairly content in the middle of a peaceful night, in my cozy, candle-lit living room in the middle of a month that hasn’t turned out as badly as I’d expected it to. As far back as I can remember, this was the month I always hated most of all. It was bleaker than any other month. It was gray and cold and snowless. And aside from a recent dusting of snow (we’re six hours east of the snowbound region of New York), so far this is just about as I remember all Novembers to be. But somehow, what with all life’s tiny diversions, I haven’t been so disheartened by the month this time around. Yes, it’s been cold and bleak out, but thankfully there’s been enough going on inside to keep our lives warm and colorful. Ah, but let’s all hope that it doesn’t get too colorful around here in a week’s time… Because as much as we all like a good story, I think we can agree that sometimes no news really is good news.

 

Dragons and Crumbs September 28, 2014

Yesterday the Waldorf School held its annual Michaelmus celebration at the local state park. The day was warm and sunny, and the children all had a wonderful time. (See last year’s post for more on the story behind the seasonal celebration.) With a large-scale enactment of Saint Michael (pronounced Mike ay El) slaying a dragon put on by the twelfth grade, a morning-long quest in the woods for the children in the Lower School led by the eighth grade, hearty autumnal stew for lunch followed by a round of games in the field, the day was full and satisfying for all. In the morning, while the kids were hiking about in the surrounding forest completing their challenges, the eleventh graders helped prepare vegetables while a few members of the faculty worked in the shelter at portable stoves to cook the soup. Elihu was in such high spirits afterward, that he and three of his happy classmates talked me into an impromptu after-school gathering at our house, where in spite of the incredibly beautiful weather, they preferred to spend the better part of their time playing rounds of Pokemon. They’d had such a good day of outdoor activity, I easily acquiesced. It made my heart so happy to see them having such fun together. My son went to bed that night a very contented boy.

Earlier in the week we’d had a few small adventures; catching a beautifully colored turtle by the local pond, relocating a few of our frogs to a safer wintering spot, getting some trees to plant in front of the new construction house at the end of the driveway plus other various and sundry pleasantries that come with an unscheduled life in the country. Like finding odd-looking, misshapen eggs in the nesting boxes, or dining on squash that emerged from our compost pile, or taking a walk in the woods to discover a trash pile from well over a half century ago languishing in the leaves, filled with the bulbous forms of antique car parts and other, more mysterious unidentified objects rusting away… And still more surprises – finding a praying mantis, getting to rumble down the road in a neighbor’s borrowed truck, learning how to play a chromatic pattern on the piano complete with a left hand part and visiting with two grandmas in one day.

When Elihu was five, we stumbled upon the Rosh Hashanah celebration taking place in Saratoga’s city park, and since then we’ve made it an annual part of our own family tradition. We’re not Jewish, but we love the idea of tashlich. It’s the act of casting the crumbs from one’s pockets into living, moving water, that the sins and transgressions they represent be washed away, giving one a chance to start the new year with a fresh, clean slate. This is personal business, as those casting the crumbs are mindful of what those pieces represent, and they do so with somber introspection. (And after the casting they then read from the book of the prophet Micha about repentance. Micha? Michaeal? Hmm…) In the Jewish tradition, it is G-d who sits in judgement of these sins, and who at week’s end – Yom Kippur – will offer forgiveness as He sees fit. Elihu and I like to believe that all people are always forgiven, as we would always endeavor to forgive others (successful or not, at least it’s our goal!). Furthermore, I do not believe in a Creator that condemns or forgives; a parent loves her children no matter what they do, good, bad – or even very bad. (I realize some of you may well feel differently.)

It’s a lovely practice to cast away ones sins and recommit to living in the world with a renewed sense of love and respect. And Fall feels a perfect time for this sort of inventorying of the self. After having shed the things that no longer serve us, be they leaves or sins, we can now turn inward and give our full attention to the big changes ahead.

The slaying of dragons, the falling of leaves and the casting of crumbs tells us that fall is now fully underway.

IMG_4313The colors are here.

IMG_4259Early in the morning the teams assemble for their treks in the woods.

IMG_4284Preparations are being made…

IMG_4281Lots of soup…

IMG_4303…for lots of kids.

IMG_4290It takes a lot of help…

IMG_4326…and a little decoration, too.

IMG_3937The dragon has rehearsed its part…

IMG_4271…which is now acted out on the enormous playing field.

IMG_4337My foley station – sound effects for a rural village (cows, sheep, cowbells and birds) plus the battle and slaying of a mighty dragon (timpani and cymbals) and finally a happy recessional (tambourine with voices). Lots of fun to do this little bit.

IMG_4386Soup’s on! The tenth graders help serve the younger kids.

IMG_4347Elihu and pal Roger.

IMG_4353The teams added a colored band to their staff for each challenge they met.

IMG_4391Somehow, there was enough for everyone. No one left hungry.

IMG_4398Sweet Sadie.

IMG_4407Our friend Cally, a talented young horsewoman and singer, too.

IMG_4441Time for games!

IMG_4452The girls, adjusting their pony tails in unison as they head back to the bus.

IMG_4474Driving back to school on the Spa State Park’s iconic Avenue of the Pines.

IMG_4504And after school, a pickup game of Pokemon. Perfect!

IMG_4520Sweet little eggs from our youngest hens.

IMG_4245I love my mod duvet cover. Got it a while ago, but happily just rediscovered it. It refreshes the spirit to have something new around, doesn’t it?

IMG_4228Something else that refreshes my spirit: trees to provide a natural barrier between us and the new house at the end of our driveway.

IMG_4106And this is how we got em there… thanks to Stephanie and Zac for lending us their truck. Ah, the feel of a diesel!

IMG_4068 The praying mantis we found on the new trees.

IMG_2937This guy’s lived in our plastic pond all summer, now we need to move him to the muddy creek bank where he can hunker down for winter.

IMG_4032And the beautiful Eastern Red Belly turtle I found trying to cross the road. Apparently they’re not terribly common, so we were really lucky to have seen her up close. Look at those striking markings! And the red was so very vibrant. Her eyes had lines that ran right through them – altogether a stunning creature.

IMG_4040Saying goodbye.

In an instant, the turtle slips away into the pond.

IMG_4165We like to visit this lovely pond in Congress Park on Rosh Hashanah.

IMG_4182I don’t know why, but I like to know there’s a local Orthodox Jewish community here in Saratoga. Maybe it’s nostalgia for my old home near West Rogers Park in Chicago.

IMG_4192While some cast crumbs for their sins, some cast em more for the ducks. !

IMG_4202This one is pretty young…

IMG_4207She’ll need to migrate soon – but how can she with these tiny pin feathers? Hurry up and grow!

IMG_4220Elihu meets Esther.

IMG_4216And shares his duck with her.

IMG_4243Now we’re enjoying an evening at home with the emerging colors of fall outside our window.

IMG_4061Some lovely hydrangeas I picked from the cemetery on the hill.

IMG_4126The maple’s beginning to glow… see how the ripples in the window tint look almost like rain…

I love the shifting moods that the changing colors create. There’s a melancholic feeling in the air, and yet there’s also a bright little spark of hope for what lies on the other side. For now we’ll savor the scented air and enjoy listening to the final evening choruses of crickets before the world slows down to its long, cold sleep.

 

Process: Day One December 29, 2013

It’s been just about four hours since my father died. I have already experienced a strange variety of feelings… they fade in and out, they linger, they twist and change, and then depart, leaving me unsettled and unsure of anything. One minute I think I have a handle on things, yes, I get it, it’s ok, I feel invigorated even; dad is free and he knew we all loved him, all is as it should be… and then seconds later I feel a dark sort of terror sucking me in, telling me that this is but the beginning of unending, lifelong heartache that will never conclude. The sort of horrifying truth that leaves your chest empty of air and has you crumpling to the floor in profound despair…

And on top of this, there’s now another new and strange brew of bad feelings beginning to emerge, and I don’t like it. Why and I feeling like this? Where is this coming from? Everything about my father’s death was exactly as it should have been! It was all and more than we could ever have hoped for! And yet here they are, sneaking their way into my psyche in spite of my knowing better: guilt and regret. My gut begins to feel sick, truly nauseous, and there is a low rumbling of dread building by the second. So many things I had wanted to talk with him about – but I stop myself. I couldn’t; being a single mom of a kid allergic to cats made it difficult, plus mom was always there. (It was nearly impossible to speak only to him without constant interjections from mom when she was within earshot.) Then I remember those years when she was away at work and I had NO job and I still never went to him, recorder in hand…. Ich. I want to throw up. But I remind myself that I did what I felt comfortable with. Given the same stretch of history to do over again, I’d probably do the same again. My father and I, while we clearly shared a very deep love for each other, we did not have the greatest success simply talking. I did ask him questions, and I do have some stories, and some answers. And they will have to be enough. I counsel myself away from the path of guilt and regret, and I’m able to feel a little better. But still, they lurk. My stomach reminds me.

Just a couple of hours before I’d felt surprisingly ok as mom and Andrew and I moved about the kitchen, chatting and even laughing together as dad lay, dead and gradually losing warmth, in the other room. We’d made it through together. We’d done it. For a few minutes everything seemed clear-cut and simple. We’d each had our sobbing breakdown, but we’d pulled out of it before long. And now we were in the kitchen, almost as if nothing had happened. Wait, wait, hold on a second – what just happened here? Wait, where’s dad? Whoah – oh no, oh shit, he’s over there. And he’s not breathing anymore. Really?? Oh my God. Is this real? Yes, it is. And it’s ok. It’s all as it should be. Hm. But wait, we’re laughing. Should we be laughing here? Yeah, that’s ok too. But the sorrow is so acute, the laughter so short on its heels. Strange.

Even after doping up on an entire sleeping pill – something that would usually knock me right out – I find that after a mere hour’s nap I am up, alert, my mind churning over and over again the micro-events of the past eight hours. It seems a blur, and my memory is already becoming fuzzy on some of the details, so I try to get a handle on the timeline. I’m concerned that I’m already forgetting how everything occurred. To begin with, I got out my date book and stared at the past week, trying recall how it was we got here from there, and so soon. I remember once holding the strong impression that dad wouldn’t go til ‘sometime in the new year’, thinking that to be yet months off… Even at Thanksgiving (all four of us were together and actually had a pleasant time, an amazing gift I realize now) if anyone had told me that my dad would die just around Christmas, I still woulda thought they were way off. Guess it was my way of stalling. No matter how much you know it’s coming, it aint the same as the real thing. No way.

After I make a little map of the last two weeks’ events I relax a bit. I have a better picture now of how quickly things happened. From mobile man sitting at the table eating toast and eggs less than two weeks ago (ok, so mom will tell you half of the breakfast ended up on the floor, a sign things had deteriorated even more from the previous day) to couch-bound dad, which would have been fine had he been able to get up and use the bathroom, but here is where he began to require the kind of care no one likes to think about. Here, a big corner was turned. And within two days of moving to his new home on the couch, the big hospice bed arrived. So he gets moved to the bed. Comfy, continuously moving air mattress to prevent bed sores and keep up circulation. Nice. Funny, you know he’s not leaving that new bed alive, but even then it’s not real. You’re just going with the flow. So dad’s in a bid hospital bed now. In your mind, you adjust your thinking til it feels ok. Normal. After all, he is still recognizable. His spirit is there – you can’t imagine anything else, can you? Likely he will live in this bed forever now. His friends will have to come to him, but that’s ok – at least he’s comfortable.

Then he will begin to move slowly in the bed, frail and without the muscle to simply turn on his side (a right-side sleeper like me, I can sympathize and so brought from home all my extra down pillows to help him achieve some variety in positions) and he will look half asleep, his eyes having that faraway look, not quite connected. But you hold his hand, you engage him, and he shows you a sign. ‘Yes! Robert’s totally still with us!’ you think, still under some crazy illusion that this is just some aberration and that in a day or two things will start to right themselves again.

And then there is that first day of the deep sleeping, and that heavy, open-mouthed breathing from which you cannot bring your beloved father back. And to be honest, he hasn’t got the strength to communicate a thing, so you can only guess how present or not he is at this point. His mouth looks so very dry, oh my God, how must that feel? While just yesterday you’d have offered him a water-soaked sponge on a stick to relieve the dryness, now that tiny trickle of water might cause him to choke. Ok, so you want him to die, but not like that! So at this point you just wait. The breathing continues, and every few hours its pattern and sound changes. You look up from your book, you glance at your mother who’s heard it too, then you softly agree with each other that we’ve reached ‘something new’, and then after perhaps leaning in to touch your father’s hand or kiss his brow, you whisper something encouraging to him and return to your reading. What else can you do? You are now in the thick of the vigil. And as a friend said to me just yesterday, “the vigil is awful’. Yes, it’s hard. And who knew it could go on so long?

Mom and I sat by dad’s bedside yesterday from two in the afternoon until he died, shortly before midnight. Now I am writing from the morning after, I’m sitting on the couch from which I can see dad in his bed just like the days before. It’s comforting that his body is still here. That just shouldn’t be; I understand he’s not present in his body anymore, I had felt it a few moments after his last breath. No magic, spiritual moment occurred for any of us really, but when a minute had passed since his last whisper of a breath we had to conclude he was gone. I looked at his face, and it seemed different. Yes, yes, he was finally dead (and as if to confirm it, a cat had meowed from his office twice at that moment). But oh how strong is sentiment, and oh how strong the pull of the familiar. I have seen wailing women in far-off countries throwing themselves upon their husband’s and father’s bodies and can remember thinking ‘dead bodies aren’t worth fussing over like that’. Furthermore, isn’t that a little, well, gross? But now it’s my daddy. And I am not for one moment put off by the fact that his body is dead. My possessive, primitive heart tells me in a panic that this is all I have left of him, and so I linger, touching him, kissing him, examining his fingers in a way I’d wanted to all of my life. Pouring over him, noticing his hair, his arms, his freckles… Please don’t forget these things, I beg my unreliable memory. The funeral home will be here to pick him up shortly. First a nurse from hospice will come and help get him into some pajamas (another thing one doesn’t think much about until the situation is upon them: what will dad wear as his body departs this plane? Are the cotton/poly blend pajamas from Walmart ok?). It doesn’t sound very dignified, but what would be dignified about wrestling his now-stiffening body into a suit? Sheesh. So many little things pop up when you’re finally here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The men from the funeral home finally arrived. They looked much as one would have expected, in fact it seemed a little too cliché. Funny even. In hindsight I even think the older man looked a little like Peter Sellers. I didn’t notice it then, but it’s just as well. I think humor may have its limits. Certainly there was nothing funny about this moment. There were two men, in black wool overcoats and ties rolling in a gurney upon which they would take my father out. They were wonderful; not grim at all, but respectful – and they had an attentive, gentle manner which helped us bear the action at hand. Just as they began to unfold the layers of body bag and drape, I called out for them to stop – I wanted to put on some of dad’s music first. It just felt right, I hadn’t planned it, but the air was so thin, lacking of something…. I found the cd and pushed play. Not too many years ago dad had recorded this beautiful live performance of him playing Couperin; I had recently learned from friend Ken Slowik that the piece been written – fittingly for our needs now – as a memorial tribute to a deceased colleague. Gorgeously and deeply melancholic, it gave the room an air of dignity and beauty that was entirely befitting dad’s final moments in his home.

Perhaps it was going too far – but I was desperate not to forget this scene – and so I took a short video. But I stopped it after a few seconds to be present. I watched as they wrapped dad, as they lifted him, as they zipped him up to his neck. And then I saw my mother lean over to kiss dad’s forehead at the very same time that the final passage in the music played. The timing was so uncannily perfect. Again, things had lined up in the best possible way. They then wheeled the gurney towards the door. We joked a bit about dad and mom having moved so many harpsichords in and out of the house, this process was in many ways similar. Earlier we’d shown the two gentlemen some photographs of dad and his instruments, so they understood what we meant and shared in our amusement. Shortly we were outside in the gray, snowy day, at their vehicle which sat, like so many before, open and ready to receive its cargo. Dad was lifted in, feet first, his white-haired head still visible. He was one good-looking dead man, I have to say. The hospice gal who’d last come (and helped us get him in his final outfit) remarked that his skin looked wonderful, that his coloring was beautiful. And I’d have to agree; while he began to turn a little yellowish at the end, he never looked bad. In fact, as I took one last look at him in the hearse, I thought to myself what a handsome man, and what dignity he possessed, even in death.

But we, being the Conants, had to avail ourselves of the opportunity to note the humor and irony in this final step. Through the years we’ve taken hundreds of photos of our guests departing down the long driveway. We all raise an arm to wave farewell as we watch them reach the middle, and by the time the cars are at the road, mom will make a comment about the direction in which they choose to head out. We have done this for thirty-some years, why stop now? I had the younger funeral attendant take a pic of Andrew, mom and me waving at the hearse, and as they drove away I took one last picture of Andrew and mom, arms raised to wave goodbye to dad… “Well, Daddy, guess you won’t be goin down Braim Road again” mom remarked as the big black vehicle took a left.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It’s now the day after the first day, and as I go over my earlier writing for edits and corrections I still feel stunned. I alternate between acceptance and panic, really. One moment I’m listing for myself all the perfect things about the past two weeks – the past two months or two years, even – and I note how everything resolved itself as well as it could. So many things to grateful for, not the least of which is that dad died at home, with each one of us touching him, and knowing he was loved. But sorrow is not something you can negotiate with or rationalize; the very next moment it washes over me and I find myself weeping with a freshly-broken heart. I know that this will go on for a long time. I also know that it will lessen, and that life will surround me, distract me, fill me and satisfy me again. I hope. Cuz right now I feel that queer, wide-open sort of sad that sees no resolution, that doesn’t expect to feel entirely good and right ever again.

Elihu comes home on New Year’s Eve day, which is also my brother’s birthday. My son’s homecoming will in of itself be a gift for Andrew. That man could use a little light in his life. I’m going to suggest he come along with me to the train when I pick Elihu up. We’ll see Fareed then too, as he’s on his way to the city, and then on to London to visit with his daughter. It’ll be a brief, on-the-platform hello and goodbye, but even seeing Fareed for a quick greeting might also help my brother. Don’t know. Worth finding out. And then, we will know the greatest peace our hearts can know at this time – when Elihu is with us again. Throughout this process of my father dying I have been thankful that my son wasn’t here for this – I couldn’t have expected him to sit through a ten hour vigil. So things have indeed all worked out as well as they could have. And soon I will know the tender relief of holding my child in my arms again. I can hardly wait.

Finally, I’m done with this intense part of the process. And I can say that I’m proud of myself for it too; I’m proud of all of us who’ve lost a parent, for truly it is an initiation of sorts into full adulthood. We who live through a loved one’s death – no matter who it is who dies – are brave people. This process of being human, as I’ve noted before, is not for wimps.

Ok, one big life lesson down, I suppose it’s time to move things along. My process isn’t over yet…

 

Christmas Last December 25, 2013

On a bright and sunny Christmas morning, peaceful and still in my little house, it’s difficult to imagine all that’s going on across the land at the very same moment. Living rooms are ankle-deep in wrapping paper, parents are sitting nearby, watching the chaos, relieved they pulled it off and children are awash in new toys and chocolate. Yet at the very same time hospital beds are occupied by people for whom this day is much like any other, some are just waiting, some are in pain, some are not even aware of being there. Some young women are realizing that their new baby’s birthday will be today, and some people are getting ready to watch a loved one breathe for the very last time. Yes, it’s a holiday, but everyday life does not take day off.

When I went out to tend the chickens, I discovered a hen taking cover underneath the water trough. When she tried to move, she faltered and fell. I’d seen her only just last night, on her roost and doing as fine as always. How did this happen? And what, pray tell, took place? It seemed her leg was broken, yet I couldn’t imagine how. Her back showed signs of pecking, a bare spot and a fresh scab told me that she’d somehow sunk down the pecking order and had begun to show evidence of it. Unpleasant as that was, it did not explain a broken leg. Immediately I picked her up and brought her in to the house. Likely she’d be housebound and in my care for the next week. I thought of all the folks, animal and human, whose needs continue, acute and mundane, regardless of the celebrations. My father, awaiting his death, still needed to be changed and moved in his bed, and this hen still had an injury that needed attention. I kept thinking to myself that this was a good year for Elihu to be away. Not sure how I could possibly have been present for these situations otherwise.

As I think about my son on this morning, far away and in the midst of his own magical Christmas morning, I do realize that it’s the last such Christmas that he’ll believe in Santa – already the signs have been showing over the past week – and I’m a bit sad that I’m not there for it. Yet in the end, it doesn’t really matter. While we have distinct, clearly defined holidays on our calendars, time itself is a bit fuzzy. Events stretch out over time… not believing in Santa doesn’t happen in a second, instead it’s a process. A slow calculation built upon a growing body of evidence. Likewise, a natural death does not happen all at once. It too is a process, a gradual slowing down. And while there may truly be one final breath, it in of itself is not the dying. And so I realize that I can have no regrets on this, the final Christmas that Elihu believes, and that my father lives.

All I can do is be fully present in the moments I’m given. I can take some peace in knowing that I will carry the memory of this day with me until the end of my own, and it’s in this way that I’ll make this final Christmas day last.