The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

When Is When December 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soaring HenShe left us like an angel in flight.

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Remembering Martha June 20, 2015

It’s been one week since Martha died, and I’m still in a sort of stunned place. I think all of us are. I don’t fully get it yet; as with the passing of anyone close, you find yourself thinking about the person as if you’re going to see them again – and then you remember all over again. Having seen her coast gradually down to a stop – and then seeing the rapid decline in her final few days – that helps to acclimate me to this new reality of a post-Martha world, and it helps me to know unquestionably that Martha’s death was not only inevitable, but in the end, welcomed. And in her last few days, even Martha – who always spoke as if decades of life still lay before her – finally let on that she knew what was coming, and that she was at last ready.

She died in the wee hours of Saturday morning, on the 13th of June. The day before had been rainy, and the house had been once again full of friends and visitors. But on her last day she didn’t do or say much. She was merely hanging in there, breathing and sleeping, and no doubt still listening to us all as we visited, shared stories and laughed. I was surprised to see how much she’d changed in the past twenty-four hours; her eyes had become sunken, pink orbits and her skin waxen and cool. But mom, Elihu and I had been lucky to have been with her one day earlier when she could still communicate. I hadn’t realized on a conscious level that this would be my last true visit with her, but that’s how it turned out. More importantly, she was able to let me know something that concerned me more than anything else. She had been crabby with me – actually, she’d been a downright bitch – in the last few weeks, but that was ok; somehow she was blaming me (and mom, too) for her situation, and I recognized it for the impaired thinking it was (I know this well from experience with my brother). I knew that she loved me, and in spite of the things she was saying to me at the time, I loved her too. I knew she was comfortable and pain-free for the most part. And she was home; that was key. But what of her true, innermost feelings about what was taking place? I was worried that she was full of fear – and too proud to let on. She had hardly the energy to speak, but when I went to her side and placed my hand on her head, she simply said to me “I am not afraid.” I told her that I was so very glad to hear this, but I didn’t want her saying this for my sake – or for appearances. I didn’t want her doing the stiff upper lip thing to the very end! Of course she didn’t have the energy to explain her thoughts, but she made herself perfectly clear by repeating, as loudly as she could, one more time: I am not afraid.

In that same visit Martha had revealed herself to be living one foot in our world, one foot in another. Once, a week before, when I was passing the morning with her, I asked her where her thoughts were. “All across the spectrum”, she’d answered. In the final few days, it seemed the spectrum had become even wider. (I remember this same near-the-end phase of dear friend Jim Lewis. He was an actor, a gentle man and a thoughtful one. He seemed lost and agitated in his last days. When I asked what this was like, he too, answered me simply with all of his focused effort: “I can’t place my place.” This seems to be the brief state of confusion through which many pass just before death.) Martha opened her eyes and looked at mom and said weakly…. “I’m just remembering that I’m in my beautiful home, with all of my friends, and my puppy…” Truly, these were the most important things. My most urgent hope through these past few months was that she die at home. And now finally here she was, with her beloved black hound dog by her side and all her dearest friends nearby. And all in that amazing farmhouse. The same house in which her own mother had died, the house in which no doubt others had also died – and been born, too. In and out of reality though she may have been, she knew where she was, and she was not afraid. We’d almost made it.

I kinda wished I’d been more aware of my last kiss and goodbye, but as it was there was some general laughter and conversation going on, plus the concern of a rapidly approaching summer storm, so Elihu and I left Martha’s bedroom much as we would any other visit. Which was probably best, anyhow. That’s how Martha would’ve liked it. No fanfare or drama. Just everyday life. Mary, the overnight nurse, was surprised shortly after three a.m. by what she said sounded like “a man’s voice talking”. She got up and went in to check on Martha in time to see her exhale one final time. There has been some speculation on who exactly it might have been who ‘came to get her’, and most agree it was her dad – and likely not her sometimes-philandering husband. After telling me the story, mom quickly added her take – a staunch, no-frills opinion that Martha would have no doubt shared – and said that we could forget the idea of anything paranormal having occurred here; that it was just Martha’s deep, robust voice, uttering one last vocalization. Ok. She can believe that. And maybe that’s the truth. But Mary does this kind of thing for a living, and she’s got a career that depends a lot on observation. Like my friend the retired state trooper who saw an image of Ruthie in the porch of her house (and knowing nothing about her), I’m going to go with the nurse’s take on the event. Me, I believe that someone who loved her very much came back to help her across the threshold. My humanist friends can think me delusional or at best, self-comforting – but I don’t care. Whether her concsiouness has gone on to a new experience or has been extinguished forever, it doesn’t really matter. Martha lived a very full life and had a positive influence over countless people, and she concluded that fruitful life as peacefully as ever one might hope.

Game over. Game won.


Martha Ward Carver
was born on July 17th, 1926 in Binghamton, New York
to F. Erwin Ward and Isabella Post Ward of Deposit New York,
and died at her home in Greenfield Center, New York on June 13th, 2015.

Martha Ward Carver, 88, grew up in Deposit, New York and graduated from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1947 with a degree in public school music, as it was then called. She served as Supervisor of Music in the elementary and junior high schools of Greenfield, Mass from September of 1947 to June of 1955.

She returned to Skidmore College in the fall of 1955 to join the Music Department faculty, implementing the music education program. After fifteen years at Skidmore she chose to leave the campus in favor of domestic life on the farm.

Martha was a long-time friend of the Festival of Baroque Music and attended performances every year from its beginning in 1959 to its final season in July of 2011. She was a member of the Saratoga County NAACP, and SEAD (Saratogians for the Equality and Acceptance of Diversity). Ms. Carver left over one hundred acres of farmland to Saratoga PLAN.

Ms. Carver is predeceased by her husband, Frank Carver, originally of Milo, Maine, and her brother Charles (Chuck) E. Ward of Ballston Spa, NY, and is survived by her stepson, Robert J. Carver of Nokomis, Florida; her foster son, Michael Spiak and his wife Kelly of Greenfield Center, NY; nieces and nephews Susan Ward of Catskill, NY; Braden Ward of Oneonta, NY; Mary Jane Benenati of Norwich, NY; Mark Ward of Walton, NY and cousin M. Edward Hartz of Wilmington, NC in addition to a loyal support group of friends and neighbors as well as her faithful and beloved dog Macy.

At Martha’s request there will be no funeral service. She has donated her body to the Anatomical Gift Program at Albany Medical Center.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Deposit Educational Endowment Program (DEEP), Deposit, NY, 13754 or the Yellow Rose Fund, Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY, 12866.

Remembrances may be made on the Hans Funeral Home website at www.hansfuneralhome.com.


IMG_0030Martha, at two.

IMG_0043A regal portrait of her father, F. Erwin Ward (I only remember him smiling.) I recently learned that the “F” was for Francis – which would also turn out to be his son-in-law’s name!

IMG_0041Martha, right, with her brother and only sibling, Chuck. Decades later the two ended up living just miles apart on the same road in tiny Greenfield, hundreds of miles from Deposit, where they grew up – purely by chance. I still can’t wrap my brain around that kind of coincidence.

IMG_0034Martha, on the right, an unidentified young boy in the middle, and brother Chuck on father’s knee. Circa 1928.

IMG_0028I like this shot of the family – and Ma Ward (Isabella) almost seems to be smiling! Martha’s signature haircut identifies her. Circa mid ’40s.

IMG_0048It probably isn’t fair to use this pic of her mother, but she really did always have a scowl on her face. This is rather harsh, but comic, too. Man, she scared me as a kid.

IMG_0049Same tailgate picnic as above, Martha doesn’t look much happier, nor does dad. Think it’s just an ill-timed shot.

IMG_9706Ma Ward may have been the stern one – but her brother’s certainly got a twinkle in his eye.

IMG_0048The young high school graduate.

IMG_0014The Skidmore College Graduate, nicknamed ‘Marty’.

IMG_0016Martha is accompanying a local choral group. I have this dress – and it came with a story: Just as Martha was ascending the final stair to the stage – audience and chorus awaiting her – she heard a loud rip, and then heard the room gasp slightly. She looked down to see she’d stepped on her organza skirt and it had ripped all the way up the front. With many layers beneath it, she paid it no mind and continued on her way. Later, she simply took some scissors and cut a triangle out of the front to make it look ‘right’. When I pass on this dress one day, the story and pic go with it.

IMG_0021Martha Ward Carver and Francis Speed Carver on their wedding day in Chicago, May 12th, 1956. He was teaching in South Dakota, she in Greenfield, Mass, so they met in the middle. After the wedding they both flew back to their respective jobs ’til they were concluded. It would be Frank’s teaching job at Skidmore College which would soon bring them to Greenfield Center, New York.

IMG_0023This is a cute shot.

IMG_0060A studious group of Skidmore Music faculty listening to a hi-fi; her husband Frank, standing far left, Martha center, and friend and soprano Ruth Lakeway standing behind in black. (All three very important to dad and mom’s Festival of Baroque Music).

IMG_0038Martha, busy – as always – with a project.

IMG_9698Martha with some of the first musicians from the first Festival of Baroque Music, held at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.

IMG_9700Martha, violinist Renato Bonacini and his wife, and conductor, Fritz Rikko.

IMG_0057A graduation ceremony at Skidmore, likely for of one her students.

IMG_0265Martha loved kids, and they flocked to the farm to be with her. Martha used everyday activities to teach. (That’s my brother Andrew – so cute!)

IMG_0288Martha and me.

IMG_0285This pic makes me contemplate the way in which our roles shifted during our lives.

IMG_0259Her famous “Texas Cake”, a chocolate cake recipe she learned from an organist in Texas whose name is lost to us, but this cake became a staple at the farm. I’m not a fan of cake – and chocolate’s not my go-to flavor, but this cake I always love. There is nothing like Martha’s Texas Cake.

IMG_0287My mom and baby Andy on Sylvia, in front of the old barn, which burned to the ground in the early seventies – and on Martha’s birthday! Frank had made the mistake of packing wet, green hay, which created fumes that combusted. Sadly, this is how many barns go. It took the giant, gorgeous maple tree in front of the house too. Totally transformed the feel of the place and was a devastating loss for us all.

IMG_0283Little me on a big horse. Also, in front of the grand, original barn. Martha and Frank’s farm made these kinds of experiences possible for so many kids. Life at the farm added tremendously to the quality of my childhood.

IMG_0044Martha, my dad (always picking a piece of lint off the floor!), Frank and mom. Mid ’70s.

IMG_0032This photo really captures the feeling of Martha at home.

IMG_0027Martha, her folks, her sister-in-law Claire (also a talented musician) and brother Chuck, circa early ’80s.

IMG_0281Me and my little brother Andrew, playing in the driveway in front of that gorgeous farmhouse.

IMG_1049Life in the kitchen just a few weeks ago – much as it had been for the past five decades.

IMG_0027Ever a busy place – Martha presided over the kitchen from her chair as nurses, friends and family came and went.

IMG_0134Elihu is about to play “Simple Gifts” for Martha on his mandolin. We all know we’re getting close, and on this last night there’s a different feeling in the air.

IMG_0054Her dearest friend in the whole world, Michael, holds her hand as she gets ready to leave us.

IMG_0162This was my last look back at the farm on the night she was to pass. I kinda knew she was close. The sky musta known too; it was already crying.


We all kinda thought Martha’d make it til her 89th birthday on July 17th. Trying to assign some meaning to the 13th – or at least perhaps discover a clever way in which to remember it – Mom learned that Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday fell on June 13th this year. ! Martha and Queen Elizabeth were neck and neck til now… But that’s ok, Martha will always reign supreme in our world.

 

Losing Martha May 25, 2015

IMG_1392Martha Ward Carver and husband Francis Carver. He was a talented musician, and in 1947, at the age of 24,  he was the youngest ever conductor of the United States Marine Band. Martha recalled taking me to hear “Johnny Denver” at SPAC when I was young, as Frank had played flute in the orchestra. She also recalled bringing her whiskey sour along in a peanut butter jar. I love the stories that are being retold in this final chapter. People come and go, but stories live on. A consolation for our hearts as we prepare for goodbye.

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This is a first. I’m not writing this post from my favorite chair, but rather writing this in Martha’s kitchen, while she lies in bed, waiting for me. Or Mike. Or whomever it is that will come to help her get up and going. The night nurse just left, and she went over the instructions for Martha’s care. I suppose I get it, but I’m stalling. Cuz I don’t want to go there. I know it doesn’t matter in the end, and I’m making too big a deal of it, but still… I am not looking forward to helping her with a bedpan, to wiping her, to dressing her, hoisting her and getting her to sit upright, and then, finally, into her transport chair. I don’t want to see her old lady naked body, I don’t want to feel the vulnerability of a woman who, as of this very moment, still seems as indomitable – and formidable – as an Army sergeant. I don’t want to know her as a frail, ancient woman. On some level she’s acquiesced to her current station in life – still assuring us all “she doesn’t mind a little dirt”. That the ever-present grime and dust covering every surface in her home is there by choice, and not because she’s unable to tend to it. She assures us that a wet bed is tolerable. It doesn’t phase her, she says. All this is her way of maintaining control. And control is at the heart of the present issue: death is the one thing Martha cannot control. No matter what she says or doesn’t say, I know it’s got to be on her mind these days. She may be stubborn, but she’s not stupid.

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Yesterday, when I sat through my first shift with her, I watched her in the long, silent moments, and wondered what she could possibly living for now. Mike had established his vineyard there, horses were happily grazing in the fields, the barn had been lovingly maintained, and all of it would one day be home to him and his family. Her affairs were in order, both legal and personal. She was now almost completely blind, hard of hearing, and paralyzed on one side from a stroke decades ago. She could no longer walk, or even stand on her own. What on earth was keeping her here? The only reason I could come up with was fear. Martha’s been a strong atheist all her life and feels that when it’s over here, it’s all just plain over. While I’ve known atheists to feel the same and face death with no fear – I think that the opposite could easily be possible too. She might well be petrified of not existing. Either way, me personally, I don’t see that there’s necessarily anything to fear. If there’s nothing beyond this existence – then what’s the difference? What the hell would you know? You’d be gone, after all. Kinda like going under for surgery – or even simply going to sleep. You’re gone, and you don’t even know it. And if the other scenario is true – if our awareness simply moves into another plane of existence filled with eternal peace and light and populated with those who’ve died before us – then that promises to be pretty awesome. So what’s the big deal? As long as you don’t fear being relegated to a fiery, eternal hell (which as an atheist is not an option), then what have you got to lose? Whether simply ceasing to be, or floating off through the ether in complete peace and love, as I see it, you stand only to gain from the experience. Either scenario seems like a pretty good deal to me. But this is not a conversation I’m brave enough to initiate with Martha. So instead, I watch and wonder, and wait…

Today is my second day with Martha. We made the choice for hospice and home care too recently to cover all the shifts this week (she must have 24/7 care now) – and this being Memorial Day weekend the shifts didn’t fill as easily as they might have otherwise. Thank goodness my son’s finally old enough to be left alone without too much concern. I told him that I’d likely have to be here tomorrow morning too. That disappointed him. He told me that our lazy breakfasts together were “kinda what made the weekends special”. While none of us really knows how long Martha will hang in here, we’re all pretty sure she’s got enough steam in her to last at least another month (her 89th birthday is July 17th. I suspect she’ll stick it out til then). So that means I’ll be here at the farm quite a bit in the near future; it’s likely our weekend breakfasts will be on hold for a while we wait this out. Because that’s exactly what we’re doing these days: we are literally waiting for Martha to die.

I’m sorry to be so blunt, but this time I honestly wish she’d just go. Even since yesterday she’s slowed. Not enough to prevent her from swearing like a sailor at me this morning when I took up my post, ripping her oxygen tube out and throwing it at me with her good arm. I didn’t take it personally. I knew she was still coming to terms with the idea that someone must always be with her. “You and your mother are hell-bent on controlling me” she yelled. I didn’t respond. This can’t be easy for her. She’s still as sharp as ever, so being prisoner in her ancient, non-responsive body has truly got to suck. I had tried unsuccessfully to sit her up, so by then there was nothing to do but wait until Michael arrived to help. She continued to hiss at me, but I didn’t respond. There would have been no point to it. I sat down and began looking through a dusty copy of “Yankee Expressions” while she continued to cuss and tell me all that I’d done to annoy her. “Elizabeth, how in hell do you push my buttons so?” she asked. I paused. “It’s a talent.” I replied. “Ha! That was a very good answer!” she bellowed. I was pretty sure I heard her smile.

Martha didn’t sleep well last night, and so she’s nodding off in her chair now. I too am finding this business of sitting around and doing nothing all day is a bit tiring, and while I’m getting good work done filing and organizing my many photographs, I’m getting sleepy too. Drives me nuts that it’s sunny and warm outside. Makes me sad that it’s a holiday weekend, and I can’t be home with my son. But I scold myself as I remember that this is the woman who taught me how to read music. This is the woman who hosted me as a child through lambing season, the woman from whom I learned about haying, gardening, about interesting words and old-fashioned kitchen implements. Certainly she instilled in me a respect for the importance of knowing ones cardinal directions. When someone at the nursing home had recently asked what our relationship was, I offered that Martha was really my second mother. “Does that sound right to you?” I’d asked her, and she’d nodded. In my family we don’t speak very easily about our intimate feelings. So this alone was pretty big. Yeah, Martha’s had a lot to do with the person I am today, so I need to be here. There will be plenty of fine Spring days to come. This is where I need to be right now.

It helps that I’ve been through this process with my father. Now I’m familiar with some of the landmarks of the end days, and I keep an eye out for signs. But no matter how aware and ready one feels, it’s still a strange waiting game. Hard to grasp that this is a process a that awaits each and every last one of us. If I could have one wish for all of my companions on the planet, it would be for a swift and dignified demise, free of fear and pain, and in the company of those whom we love. Life is not for wimps. Neither, it seems, is death.

IMG_0988Mike, Martha’s favorite person in the world, checks in to see how she’s doing. This guy has so much on his plate – a family, a new job, a vineyard – and Martha. He’s handling it all so well.

IMG_0971Martha always enjoys hearing “Simple Gifts”.

IMG_1005Martha’s hound dog Masie runs to join Elihu as he visits with the horses. I did the very same thing as a child – and the fields look very much the same now as they did back then. Even the apple tree in the field remains. There’s a poignant quality to the afternoon light over the field, but yet at the same time there’s a hopeful feeling here too. The farm existed long before all of us were here, and it will likely continue on long after we’re gone.

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Post Script: Elihu often enjoys hearing me read the posts aloud before I publish them; in fact he’s offered many helpful and insightful editorial suggestions over the years which I’ve used and very much appreciated. Today, however, when I read this to him, he responded angrily. He was aghast that I spoke like this about Martha. He felt strongly that I shouldn’t publish such writing. I never discount his feelings, and in fact I’m sure that if he feels like this, so too do others. So I apologize if this post is distasteful to some. I hope you’ll understand that I feel it’s imperative to write with as much honesty as possible. I also feel strongly that many of us here in the US need to learn how to talk about death far more openly and comfortably than we do at present.

 

Next January 1, 2015

IMG_2875Dad didn’t quite make it to 2014, and enigmatically, his few and final words to his grandson were: “When beautiful January comes….”  Last January we experienced unusually heavy snows and low temperatures, and dad’s Studio flooded and froze; both the floors and walls were ruined. It was a stunning and heartbreaking loss, but after a thoughtful reassessment of the situation, what followed was the beginning of an important, year-long process of re-birth… Was my father being prophetic or poetic?…. Who knows? Either way, January will always make me think of my father’s mysterious, near-final words which, intentional or not, heralded the way for the next chapter in our lives…

After having passed the first anniversary of my father’s death, I find myself thinking more about it than I have in months. It’s strange terrain now. There’s an inclination to feel that somehow he’s slipping further away, that somehow it’s slowly becoming more and more like he never existed at all… I know this isn’t really true, and if nothing else, I and my son are proof that he was here. And Elihu’s our insurance that his line will continue forth into the world… (Not that the planet actually needs more humans!) But why even think like this? Very few people on this earth will ultimately be remembered for the long haul. Most of us, except for the very slim part of the earth’s population that comes to know some true degree of fame, will indeed become forgotten after a while. After all, life moves on, and the void left behind naturally fills in with new creations, new endeavors… There are only so many stories one can pass down to the next generation, there is only so much time in which to tell them. Beyond a certain point, it just doesn’t make logistic sense that we’ll all be remembered by our descendants.

It gives my fragile ego a small amount of relief to think that now I’ve left behind a digital footprint, and that in some way I, my family and my life, will now never die… Perhaps in a century’s time my long-dormant blog will fall to the bottom of the searches, and it may ultimately come to languish in a virtual state of suspension, but still, it’ll be there, somewhere. To know that gives me the variety of comfort I imagine folks derive from erecting several tons of marble to mark their final resting place. When I lived in Chicago I was a fan of the city’s beautiful cemeteries, and it boggled my mind to ponder the immense amount of industry that went into their memorials. I would stand in the middle of a peaceful forest with headstones and statuary as far as the eye could see in every direction, the only sound being a soft hush of white noise from beyond the cemetery walls… In that peaceful, natural oasis it was hard to imagine the toil it must have taken to erect these monuments – let alone dig the holes in the middle of a frozen winter! I think of horse teams pulling great loads of stone, of the pulleys and levers, the carts, the wheels, the manpower… I imagine how loud and chaotic it must have been at one time. I imagine all the horrible job site injuries that must have happened; the crushed fingers, the sprained muscles and worse… All of this motivated by the need for men and women to memorialize themselves unto eternity. Really, doesn’t it all seem so silly, so vain? So futile?

Ok, so if burying one’s body in a cemetery and spending a chunk of your estate on a piece of granite to mark the site is a ridiculous notion – especially because without an accompanying bio and headshot, future passersby will have absolutely no idea what you were fabulous for and why we should even remember you – then what should one do with one’s own body? A good question. A question I’ve wondered at for years, but until my own father died, I never truly followed it through to a conclusion. There are no easy answers. Even for me, a gal who has not a fraction of a doubt that our souls continue on to another realm of existence after this flesh-and-bone school of life. I mean, I may not care what happens to me after I’m gone (I don’t worry about my body’s disposition in any way affecting my soul’s successful transit outta here), but thinking about it now is what’s hard. Either way, it’s just plain icky. Biological life is wet and smelly, and there’s no tidy way around it. Everyone knows this, of course, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty application of the concept, screw it. It does not help.

Having already muscled through the notion of my dear father’s body being scorched to ashes by a turbo-powered blow torch (and having visited the place and seen it with my own eyes as part of my process of closure; here’s a link to the post “Tiny Trip”, scroll down to the very end), I suppose one could say I’ve made some progress. Yes and no. And I like to think I’m pretty laid back about things. Again, yes and no. I’ve butchered chickens. I’ve tried to participate responsibly in death, bringing it swiftly, honoring the sacrifice of life. I’ve tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible about things. But it’s just so strange, this territory of a non-living body that once was a real, living person. It’s hard to reconcile those images. So in order to help myself do just that, I searched out – and found – a book on this exact subject. It’s called “Stiff” by Mary Roach, and I highly recommend reading it if you too would desperately like to demystify death and the culture of cadavers. The author is delightfully witty, and without her good humor it might be all to easy to simply shut the book before the end of the first chapter. (Even so I had to put it down every so often and take a break from it before resuming.) Still and all, I don’t know. I just don’t.

But Elihu does. Since he was quite small he’s known what he wants done with his body after he’s through using it. When we first began talking about death, burial and such, he would get very emotional about it – insisting that he wanted his own dead body to be taken into the forest and left for nature to take over. I explained that it would likely lead to a whole mess of legal trouble – that the people who laid him there to rest might even possibly end up in jail. This made him angry. It was surprising to see such a young child express such indignation. He found it fundamentally wrong that he and his family be forbidden from doing the most natural and correct thing possible. Whenever we found ourselves discussing it, he’d get very upset. Likely he now understands more clearly how small eighty acres is in actuality, and that barring a life on the Alaskan frontier, a burial in the family’s woods won’t be an option. But no matter, this kid is not worried. This, after all, is the same kid who scolds “it’s just a dead bird” when I wince upon pulling a frozen hen out of the chest freezer, wondering which gal it might have been… This is the kid who told his grandfather not to be afraid to die, because it was “just like turning the page in a book”. This is the kid whose last words to his grandpa were “See you shortly”. So thankfully I’m in good hands. I think I’ll leave it up to him. I just don’t want to know is all.

Do you know what thanatology is? Until a couple of hours ago I had never heard the word before. And that kinda surprises me, having conducted more than my fair share of searches on death and dying. (Here’s a link to a gal whose life’s work is all about death. If you have the time, the panel discussion is interesting, although it’s more theological than thanatological.) Thanatology is simply the scientific study of death. It deals with the forensic aspects of death – like those hard-to-think-about physical changes that occur in the post-mortem period. Plus thanatology also includes study of the social implications of death. Really? Such a thing exists? As well it should! There is only one thing we can absolutely count on in life, and that is our death. But even so, we so seldom talk about it directly and specifically… and that drives me nuts.

In re-reading the posts I wrote last year at this time, I’m fascinated to remember the tiny details of dad’s final days. I begin to see patterns – of course I’d read about them before my experience with dad, and I’m somewhat aware of the landmarks that one meets as one gets closer to death – but today I was able to see the whole process with so much more clarity. The events that I might have ever-so-slightly doubted the validity of last year – even while experiencing them for myself – I now know these to be real and universally recognized sign posts on the final path. It’s exciting to know that it’s not as mysterious as we might feel it to be… Last year, when I’d asked a nurse what exactly we were to be on the lookout for in dad’s final days, she gave me a short list. But then she added “I don’t think he’s there yet. He still has some transitioning to do.” What in hell did that mean? Just why such goddam cryptic language? At least I knew to be on the lookout for blue skin. But still, she left me guessing, and I didn’t appreciate it. So now between the local hospice volunteer training and this thanatology stuff, I might be closer to making peace with things one day. We’ll see.

Then after the bodily issues, there’s the tricky business of what comes next. I have known and loved some hard-and-fast atheists and agnostics in my life, and I’m absolutely fine with the idea that nothing at all comes next. The tidy nature of it does have its appeal. (Given the true definitions of those terms, I might be either one myself; I neither know unquestionably what I believe, nor do I believe there is one single creator, but rather a collective energy of awareness and love that permeates all. Another post, another time.) And for those who believe that we need to keep our bodies whole and pretty for the rapture – that’s cool too. (Only what about the plastic fillers, chemicals and wires used to keep folks pretty while they wait? Yeeks. Wouldn’t want to come back like that.) Ultimately, no one truly knows. But in my thinking I’m certain about the general gist of things. I used to worry about losing the respect of my dear friends for whom belief in an afterlife means you really aren’t as intelligent as you might once have seemed. Mech. And as for heaven or hell? As I see it, none of that exists. There is no good, no bad. Just a re-integration of our essence back into a loving non-space in which an assessment of our progress is made; a timeless, placeless ether in which to assimilate, learn and regroup in an atmosphere of acceptance and perfection.

Me, I think that our essence – the unquantifiable God spark that makes us us – transits out of this physical dimension and moves into that non-space ‘afterworld’ upon death. Like the signal from a station which your radio is not programmed to receive; it still exists, but you can no longer hear it. This all might even yet seem like so much fluffy conjecture if I hadn’t beheld my father beginning to ‘transition’ out of this world… There are some who might chalk it all up to a simple physiological process of the body breaking down, but I don’t. I watched as he was greeted by deceased family members, and listened through tear-filled eyes when he told me how much he missed his parents. Unknown to him, he followed form perfectly. He pointed to crowds of people in the corner of the room, “waiting on the curve” and asked me who they were (how honored I was that he could share his visions with me) and he said he was “in pleasure” as he watched them. I know now that he was in the middle of his process. By that time he was not altogether ‘living’ anymore. Like a radio station on I80 in the middle of hilly Pennsylvania, the signal was beginning to fade.

So I’m good with it. And not. I feel that dad is doing just fine where he is. It’s just me, mom and Andrew that have the rough road. Once, last year when I was missing dad as acutely as ever, I wondered out loud if dad was with me, if he knew about the Studio, if he approved of what I might do with the place…. Elihu was tired of my laments, and curtly told me that grandpa had “work to do” and it wasn’t fair to bother him with things that were now my business. “He can’t always be here with you, mommy. He’s got a lot of things to do.” I may have a wise kid, but still something inside tells me that outside of this time-space realm, the rules are different. If there is no such thing as locale, if ‘reality’ is as plastic and ethereal as our dreams, then I like to think dad is smiling, telling me it’s all fine, and that he’s right here with me when I need him to be.

But forward movement is required on this plane, so I can’t let my progress falter. Dad is where he is, and for the time being, I’m still right here. Nothing to do but keep going. Everything has happened as it should, and I’m striving to understand it the very best I can, so that I can move on with confidence toward whatever it is that will happen next on this great adventure.

 

One Gone October 1, 2014

IMG_4914

Yesterday I lost an earring. It was one of the pair that I’ve worn nearly every single day since I left Illinois, now just over six years ago. They were a lovely pair of ‘little nothings’ the shopkeeper and I had agreed when I bought them as a memento to mark the beginning of my new life. Tasteful, elegant, simple and understated. A pretty pale blue, a color that might match the water or the sky on any given day. Perfect little accessories; always there, always giving me the confidence to feel put together and tidy, even when I mostly wasn’t. You’d hardly even notice them on me, yet still, they did their job, and when I went without them, I always felt unfinished. Those sparkly little nothings did their thing just as they were meant to. Except when all of a sudden one was gone.

Somehow, either while planting the new trees at the end of the driveway, or more likely, while getting a quick shower in before running out to teach, one had silently freed itself from my ear. Instantly, the one remaining earring had become completely useless. Instantly alone. All of a sudden this thing that had always been there, was not. These earrings weren’t given to me by a friend, they hadn’t been in my family for generations. They shouldn’t have meant so much – and truly, after all the loss I’ve learned to accept over the years it really is nothing – and yet, still, they meant a lot to me. As a pair. But that one, lonely remaining earring had no purpose anymore. All it did was make me sad. It reminded me of what was gone, of things that can never be retrieved. How perfect things had been, and how perfect they no longer were. How things change in an instant. How one thing can make all the difference. This musing launched me into a new line of thinking and I began to miss other things too; landscapes, homes, bands, people – things that were once here but are now gone. Things I miss still. I’ve been missing my dad a lot this past week, and this one remaining earring makes me think of him again. One thing without the other. Ich.

We’re about to lose another precious thing right now, as Saratoga’s beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie is in his final hours. His bone cancer has accelerated rapidly over the past few weeks – just since Elihu and I popped over for an impromptu visit and short jam last month. We both feel very lucky that we were able to sit and make some music with him one last time, because it would be our last opportunity. Our jam was cut short by acute pain in Cecil’s chest, and we left him in hopes of taking him out to play on the street one more time. When we called next, he was feeling much worse and declined to go. I was relieved to hear that some of his friends had been able to catch him on a good day and did in fact get him out on Broadway for one final performance. I just can’t get it through my head that we will never again hear strains from Cecil’s banjo floating over the Saratoga streets again, the backdrop of that town for the past three decades. For as long as I can remember – either while living here or visiting – Cecil was always present. He was as dependable and permanent it seemed as the buildings themselves. Slowing to a stoplight on the main drag of town, windows open, there he was. Singing out “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and accompanying his song with that signature, folksy style that shouted Cecil’s name alone. My son had grown up knowing him, and in fact, as I think back on our relationship with the man, I recall something special… The first two dollars that Elihu ever made busking were given to him by Cecil, from his own banjo case. And we have them still. Above Elihu’s bird collection, tucked away in his closet, are those two dollar bills, kept as a reminder of this very generous gift, one which essentially started my son’s career as a paid musician. It was certainly an inspirational moment for Elihu. For us it really was the beginning of an era.

A now here we are at the ending of an era. It’s so sad, and it makes us feel that we feel we need to do something. But what? Hoping to create some way of honoring our friend, Elihu and I come upon an idea. When one thing ends, another thing begins, right? It seems a good idea, so we make some plans… After Elihu’s bass lesson today, we’re going to head over to the hospital to say our goodbyes to Cecil. Elihu is going to ask Cecil for his blessing to play banjo and sing on Broadway. Elihu and I have been wondering lately how he might increase his musical offerings, and this seems a natural fit. Elihu sings loud and well, he’s gifted with stringed instruments, and Cecil had been his first mentor on the street. Certainly Elihu can do this with love in Cecil’s memory with or without his blessing… But just maybe it might mean something to our friend. It’s one gift we can give to Cecil before he leaves us. He’s given us so much; it lifts our hearts to think we might be able to give something back to him.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll hear those familiar songs brought to life again in a new way over the streets of Saratoga; a living remembrance of that one, cherished voice that we’ll always miss so dearly… the one that’s gone.

IMG_0889Bringing flowers from our garden to Cecil, not too long ago.

IMG_0903Cecil shows Elihu the bass box.

IMG_0934Cecil gives me a little lesson.

IMG_4850The last time I saw Cecil out on the street, he was in a wheelchair being pushed by his wife – they were passing this vacant lot in their neighborhood when I waved and shouted hello to them. A perfect place to pick some flowers for him.

IMG_4848Sunflowers for Cecil.

IMG_4856A very sad time.

IMG_4866Marianne and her son-in-law Prince, both from Cecil’s church, come to pray for him and say goodbye.

IMG_4867Nurses do God’s work on the planet. Dan’s own young sons have grown up knowing Cecil and his music.

IMG_4855A view to the south from his windows.

IMG_4928Cecil’s youngest son Josh.

IMG_4930Elihu sang a beautiful song for Cecil and told him that he loved him. Hard to believe that Elihu’s known Cecil for more than half his life. Cecil even tried to speak and opened his eyes while we were there. We know he was with us, even if he couldn’t communicate well.

IMG_4852Some of Cecil’s discography on display.

IMG_4853Now this is how we all remember him. Our banjo man on Broadway.

Goodbye and thank you, Cecil Myrie, we love you so, and we’ll miss you dearly.

And to use Elihu’s parting words to his own dying grandfather, we’ll ‘see you shortly’.

A video of Cecil playing Don’t Worry, Be Happy (a little too dark to see him well).

A much shorter video of Cecil at his post on Broadway by the now-gone parking lot (here you’ll see him fine).

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Here’s a link to a post from two years ago in which Cecil played a part…

 

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.

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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.

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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…

 

Maestro’s Finale December 28, 2013

Robert S Conant

Robert Scott Conant of Greenfield Center, New York, passed away in his home on the evening of December 27th, 2013 at the age of 85. He died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by his loving family and cherished cats. He is survived by Nancy J. Conant, his wife of 54 years, daughter Elizabeth Scott Conant, son Andrew Frederick Conant and also his beloved ten year old grandson, Elihu Scott Conant-Haque, all of whom live in Greenfield Center, New York, as well as nephew David Conant of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania; nephew Douglas Conant of Champaign, Illinois; grandnephews Matthew and Gregory Conant and sister-in-law, Jean Conant of Holiday, Florida. He is predeceased by his father, Frederick Banks Conant, mother Bessie (Scott) Conant, brother David and niece Susan.

Robert and Nancy Conant were married at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan on October 10th, 1959, Fr. David Gillespie presiding. Though seven years apart in age, Bob and Nancy shared the same birthday.

Robert Conant was born on January 6th, 1928 in Passaic, New Jersey. His father was a judge, his mother a talented pianist. He attended Choate, where on a school trip to Manhattan to hear a concert by the iconic harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, he was first inspired to dedicate himself to the study and performance of the harpsichord. Mr. Conant went on to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale University, class of ’48 and ’56 respectively, where he would later teach as well as become curator of the Yale Instrument Collection. Mr. Conant made his professional debut at Town Hall in Manhattan in 1951. He later taught at Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University under Rudolph Ganz, from which he retired in 1986.

Mr. Conant performed and recorded with many groups and individuals here and abroad including the American Bach Society, The Collegium Musicum, Robert Shaw Chorale, the Viola da Gamba Trio of Basel with August Wenzinger and Hannelore Mueller, the Alfred Deller Trio, Henryk Szeryng, Fritz Rikko, Paul Doktor, Janos Scholz, Renato Bonacini, Josef Marx and Kenneth Slowik.

Mr. Conant was a pioneer of the early music revival of the post World War II years, promoting the use of historically accurate instruments and tunings. Mr. Conant created the Foundation for Baroque Music in 1959, and began to host an annual concert series, The Festival of Baroque Music, the first several of which took place at the Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, NY, and which later moved to its permanent home in The Studio in Greenfield Center, NY, an open-plan concert hall designed for its superb acoustics. The Festival of Baroque Music ran continuously for 52 years, concluding in July of 2011. In addition to his love for early music he was an avid supporter of twentieth century music and commissioned several new compositions for harpsichord. He received a Lifetime Award from Yale University as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saratoga Arts Council. When appearing before an audience, Robert spoke with masterful eloquence as few can.

There will be no formal visitation; online remembrances may be made at http://www.burkefuneralhome.com. The family would like to express their deepest appreciation for the exceptional level of care given by hospice workers. In lieu of flowers, friends may make donations to The Community Hospice of Saratoga in Robert’s name.

Bob entertained friends and family with his great talent for hilarious, spot-on impersonations and will be remembered by everyone who knew him for his ever-present sense of humor, cheerful demeanor and endearing smile. Robert loved all things beautiful, sonorous and poetic, and he lives on through our enjoyment of great music and art.

Please note that the link to www.burke@burkefuneralhome.com may not bring up Robert’s page just yet, as there is still a bit of paperwork to complete before he’ll be represented on their site. Visit back soon and you should be able to leave a remembrance. Thank you all for your love and support.