The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Preparation April 25, 2015

Such a strange mix of life and death going on here in Greenfield. Elders passing, babies expected, pets dying, chicks hatching…. And yet not for a moment does it slow. Every day life presents its obligations without fail; students must be taught, supper must be made, rehearsals must be prepared for, and dust bunnies nestled comfortably in the corners of my house grow steadily in size, reminding me that they aren’t going to vacuum themselves. The wind blew the porch door open this morning and the entire flock decided to take shelter there for a few hours, leaving generous-sized poops all over a formerly clean-swept floor. I could cry, but at least it’s a sunny day, and good for starting all over again.

Tomorrow is Elihu’s twelfth birthday party, and there’s so much to do before then. Meanwhile, Martha lies in the hospital, getting nearer to her death. She’s certainly fooled us all before, rallying from her hospital bed to her post in the farm’s kitchen, but it won’t be happening this time. We who love her have even finally conceded that she will not be dying at home as we’d all very much hoped for. It’s simply not possible; Martha is far too weak. This time there will be no rehab. A bad UTI has had her in and out of reality the last few days, and that was a shocker for all of us. We had never seen the indomitable Martha like this. Signs of fear and agitation reminded me of my dad in his final days. I knew it was mostly due to the infection, but still. We’d turned a corner.

Last night, after Elihu’s school spring assembly, we’d gone to visit Martha. We were relieved to see her much restored to her old self. Elihu sang for her, and mom and I made small talk and related news of the day. (I’d been to see her earlier that day and enjoyed the privilege of singing her to sleep with “April Showers”.) When we left, Elihu leaned in to kiss her, and he told her he loved her. “I love you too,” she answered, and then offered “You are one unusual child.” We knew what she meant. I myself had been honored the day before – in the midst of an infection-induced episode – with the only open acknowledgement of affection I would likely ever hear from Martha… I told her I loved her, and she responded “I should hope so!” She’d also told me to ‘stop being a sissy’ and help her out of the bed. When I told her it just wasn’t possible she’d scolded me, telling me I’d better help her because she’d known me since I was ‘one young girl’. Even in her altered state, she was all Martha.

When we left her last night, she was still all Martha. When I asked how she’d felt, she admitted to me that she was tired. Very tired, all the time. On this bright and sunny morning when a new chick has begun to peep from inside its shell and a new life is ready to appear at any moment, I’m so keenly aware that just a few miles away, Martha lies in her bed, waiting for her own transformation.

IMG_7945This little gal/guy came a few days early. (Each year we time it such that the eggs in our incubator hatch on the day of Elihu’s birthday party.)

IMG_7801Mom shows Elihu the grave in which she and Andrew buried their cat only moments earlier. Ginger had to be put down without warning in the wake of a cardiovascular trauma. Such a shock. Mom doesn’t need more loss at this time. Neither does my emotionally fragile brother.

IMG_7803Little Annie, now at least sixteen, follows Elihu and Mom. We’ve all told Annie she’s not allowed to die. ! She acts like a kitten; those who don’t know her all assume she is. She’s a precious spot of joy in mom’s world.

IMG_7581Mom, Martha and Elihu, a few days before she took a turn for the worse. She was very present at the time of this photo, and very much herself. Even got a little vid of her reciting a poem she’d written years ago for a childhood friend (who died just last month. This life/death stuff is getting intense. Ich.)

Martha used to write little ditties like this for special occasions. Here’s her poem:

It was May 1st, 1922, now that you’ve come to ask it

That Mrs. James of Chatham, Mass

Got Viv in her May basket.

IMG_7898Not the selfie I’d like to see, but I had to take it.

IMG_7889Can’t remember ever holding Martha’s hand in my adult life. She even told me she was afraid. This is a woman who has never, ever shown vulnerability. I assured her things would be ok. And they will.

IMG_7902Elihu played Simple Gifts on his alto recorder. It’s her favorite song.

At first he was reluctant to play, as Martha shares a room, but he did – and see how Martha enjoys it. Glad he played.

IMG_7899And then he says goodbye and tells her he loves her.

IMG_7973Ending the night with a very fine performance by Mr. Esty’s sixth grade class at the Waldorf School’s spring assembly. They sang a song from Schoolhouse Rock about interjections. Wow! A big hit.

Here’s the performance. Worth a listen. Some may remember this from Saturday mornings long ago.

IMG_7375I’m crazy-sentimental about everything, and this turning twelve stuff has me – and my lil man too – a little nervous. This relentless marching forward of time is certainly a mixed bag. It’s easy to get nostalgic and long for earlier days, no matter what age you are, and yet there’s still so much ahead to be excited about. I think the best way to prepare for the future is simply to enjoy the present day to its fullest, for one day many years hence, these too will be the good old days.

 

Marching On March 14, 2015

A lot of things are happening around here all at once. Progress is being made at the Studio, the logging job is almost wrapped up, and the snow has melted a good foot since last week. Martha’s been admitted to the hospital again, a friend turns 90 today, and the birds are making more noise than they have in months. Frustratingly, technical difficulties follow me; a new desktop computer which I purchased in December is rife with problems and is still in the repair guy’s shop some two months later. My printer’s out of commission now too. Personal costs (like a crazy $411 electric bill for last month and the unexpected computer repairs) are adding up and I’m getting worried about my financial future. But regardless of these stressors, there are happy and hopeful moments along the way. The air has begun to smell like promise and freedom, and it gives us the resolve to keep marching on.

IMG_3959Just last week the snow was this deep…

IMG_3139 The weight of it required a shoveling of the Studio’s roof, as seams inside had begun to widen under the burden.

IMG_3140It’s a pity we had to spend money on this job; within days it was all melted.

We watch as the loggers move trees like they were twigs.

And they load em up like they were nothing at all too.

IMG_4095The cutting has come to an end, now the wood needs to be loaded and trucked out. Next week they’ll turn their attention to cleaning up and leaving a level surface behind.

IMG_4214Another load goes out.

IMG_4301From my kitchen window I can see a truck full of our trees disappearing down the road. (Look to the left on the horizon.)

IMG_4183 I left for a couple of hours and came back to find they’ve taken out the exterior wall and begun to frame in the new kitchen! Hoo haw!

IMG_4195A closer look from the outside in…

IMG_4189… and now from the inside out.

IMG_4353Garrett’s making progress with the interior of the main hall.

IMG_4271Where there were huge cracks a week ago, it’s all sealed up, primed and ready to paint.

IMG_4372A view from the rear of the hall towards the stage area.

IMG_4363Behind the stage area are these doors through which my father moved harpsichords to be stored in the greenroom. Mom and I never liked the look of the wood in the background – and although I do hate to cover up natural wood, we’re opting to paint the doors to match the wall.

IMG_4342Look! Rick and Scott have the outside wall up already! They’re moving fast. In the far right corner is the new door leading out of the kitchen to the north side of the building.

IMG_4345The new exit, the future kitchen wall.

IMG_4338The Studio’s all sealed up and taking on its new shape.

IMG_4288Mom called and told me Martha was needing help, so I drove over to the farm.

IMG_4296For me, this is my life’s epicenter. I’ve known this place longer than any other.

IMG_4292I arrive to find the ambulance has just taken Martha to the hospital. Masie, her hound dog, remains behind in a big, empty house.

IMG_4293Mike straightens out the pictures on the kitchen wall. Martha’s leaving this place to Mike and his family after she’s gone; without children of her own, he’s the closest thing to a son she’s known. He’s planted his vineyards in the field that we hayed as children. The Farm has a bright future.

IMG_4321At the hospital.

IMG_4332The nurses ascertain that Martha’s too weak to sit up on her own.

IMG_4313Elihu visits with Martha.

Elihu recites the poem “Ozymandia” by Percy Bysshe Shelley for Martha. Missed the beginning, but it’s still impressive.

IMG_4336He tells her he loves her and says goodbye.

Later on, Elihu does his impression of Martha. She is known for giving her helpers incredibly detailed instructions on how to do every last little task. A knowledge of one’s cardinal directions is imperative if one is to assist her. Elihu cracks me up here. He’s nailed her perfectly.

IMG_4399At the end of our day we make a pit stop at Saratoga Guitar to get some advice from Ed, the resident guitar tech, bass and tuba player, friend and maker of gourmet hot sauces and other goods.

Elihu gives an impromptu performance…

IMG_4411… and enjoys himself a little longer.

IMG_4424Maybe one day we’ll add one of these to the collection…

IMG_4427The campaign for Saratoga’s Banjo Man, Cecil Myrie, is not forgotten. I’m leading the efforts to erect a memorial plaque for him downtown (should have progress reports soon).

IMG_4425Love an old-school music store.  Always a nice end to a busy day.

 

Cecil Departs October 7, 2014

Saratoga Springs’ beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie, died this morning. While I haven’t heard directly from his family yet, what I gather is that he was likely asleep when he passed, as for the past few days he’d been heavily medicated to relieve the terrible pain he was experiencing. Earlier this past summer, Cecil was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a type of bone cancer, and the pain he felt at times was excruciating, as his very ribs themselves were fracturing from the cancer. He was one tough cookie though, because even while uncomfortable he still wanted to play music – still had it in him to pull out not one but two banjos at our last visit – plus the bass box too. I’m not a string player by any means, but he coached me as I stumbled my way through the three all-important chords. Bless him for giving us that last precious hang. I wish we’d heard him one last time on the street, but I’m grateful we were able to hear him one last time at all.

Over the past week we visited him a handful of times; sometimes he could barely open his eyes, other times his face would light up and he would try to talk to us. But recently, with the morphine, plus the dryness of mouth that the drugs were giving him, it was even more difficult to understand him. And hey – it was hard enough to understand him to begin with on account of that thick Jamaican accent of his! On one visit I had a moment alone with him, and I leaned in and stroked his head. I told him he was loved by so many, and that all of his friends and family were thinking of him. I told him that I was sure he would soon be in a much better place, that soon he would enjoy that perfect freedom… I’m not as scared as I once was about talking about death with the dying, so I pressed on, hoping for some insight into the thoughts of one who is so very close… “Cecil, are you afraid of dying?” I asked him. “No, no, not really” he said, in a thoughtful way. Then he went on to say more, but try as I did, I couldn’t make it out. He was obviously elaborating on his answer, but I would have to be satisfied with what I got. No, he wasn’t afraid. Good. Cuz I can imagine a lot of people are. I wondered what he was lingering for then, were there any family members yet to see again? I heard he was caught up with everyone. Maybe it’s just hard to let go of your loved ones, maybe one lingers so as not to break the hearts of those left behind. Who knows. As wonderful as the next world may be, there are still a lot of wonderful things about this world that might be hard to break away from.

Yesterday I’d had a flash of inspiration. I looked into my music closet and found my grandmother’s ukelele, now almost a hundred years old. I figured out three chords and quickly jotted down the lyrics to a couple songs, played through them through a couple of times, then with Elihu and his djembe, headed to the hospital to play for Cecil. How happy he would be to hear someone sing for him, I thought. When we arrived, he was in a peaceful sleep, with a CD of his from the old days in Jamaica playing softly, and the article from the weekend’s paper had been taped up on the wall for him to see. We lingered a moment, and looked at him. What to do? We both knew it made no sense to wake him. Elihu cautioned me not to kiss him lest I wake him from his rest. So we just stood for a moment, and watched him sleep, the soft calypso music gently filling the room. The song playing was the last on the CD; fittingly, it was Jamaica Farewell.

Today we returned to the hospital, again ready to play for Cecil, but my heart sank to my knees when I saw the cleaning cart in front of his room. I knew what that meant. We entered the room and were surprised to find our own next door neighbor there. She worked in the housekeeping staff, and was just finishing up with his room. She’d known Cecil too; she always knew the patients. A week or so ago we’d told her about having a friend in the hospital – and she now learned who it was we’d meant. Wherever Cecil went, he was known and loved. He possessed an understated congeniality; pleasant, low-key and friendly to all.

I want to thank you Cecil, because you’ve got me excited to learn a stringed instrument now! More than that, you’ve hipped me to a whole new world of songs, and you’ve opened up a new way in which my son and I can play music together. I’d never thought that I could learn anything new at my age, and with my arthritis, no less. But you’ve got Elihu and me looking eagerly to a new musical future. There’s not a soul who can take your place, but we hope it makes you happy to know that a piece of you will continue to live on in us and all the music we’ve yet to play.

My love and wishes for peace and healing go out to all of Cecil’s family and friends in this deeply sad time.

IMG_4951My last picture with Cecil, just day before yesterday. I hope it didn’t hurt when I made him laugh.

IMG_5048A beautiful fall day on which to leave us.

IMG_5437We thought of you as we dusted off our old, almost-forgotten banjo.

IMG_5486Elihu can even make some good sounds on it already.

IMG_5482It’s a sad day, yes, but we think Cecil would want us to enjoy ourselves…

IMG_5530Lying on our backs in the leaf pile, we look up to the heavens and think of our friend.

This is the song Elihu sang for Cecil on one of our visits.

 

The Other Shoe August 8, 2013

Thursday morning

We’re going to take dad to the hospital today as he’s been complaining of stomach pains for a few days now. While mom and I think it might be good old-fashioned constipation, and he’s been drinking more fluids to help things along, the pain hasn’t really gone away. Mom suspects all he needs is some hydration by way of an IV. That, and the overall stimulation that another atmosphere and new people might provide. I’m not so sure this will have a happy ending. Martha, the other matriarchal figure in our lives, is also in the hospital today. She awoke around four this morning because she was having difficulty breathing. Martha knows the drill well. She pushes the button on the pendant around her neck, calls her friends Doreen and Mike, and shortly an ambulance arrives. She’s been in the hospital – admitted through ER – many times over the past couple of years. Sometimes things appear dire, yet she always ends up returning to her large, historic farmhouse in Greenfield. And every time she enters the place, I pray she makes it home again. Above all things, Martha is a woman who must die in her house. And no matter how infirmed her state, it seems she always has the resolve to make sure that one day she will.

My father, on the other hand, might have a different story. If admitted, he might be considerably disoriented by an extended stay in the hospital. Mom’s hope is that he ends up staying for a few days. She’s even posited his going then to a rehab facility in town (Martha’s done that herself several times). But if he can be made well by a simple round of hydration, then why would he need to stay there? My suspicion is that mom isn’t even aware of her own secret wish to be relived of her care-taking duties, if only for a couple of days. I’ve been lobbying hard for a weekly visit from an private nurse, but mom continues to say ‘we’re not there yet’. ! A few days ago she began to acquiesce, and told me her intention was to call the office of the aging and schedule an in-home interview, yet every manner of obstacle has prevented her from doing so. She doesn’t work, dad doesn’t get up til way past noon. What on earth could be preventing her from calling, save her own, deeply-embedded fear of entering this next phase? This is all a sad new territory for sure, and it’s made even harder to navigate by virtue of my parents’ values and upbringing. They are not a generation that discusses their feelings. And my mother is definitely not one to accept help. This creates a challenging environment when it comes time to deal with these issues of aging. Man, if there’s one thing I’ve made good and clear to my own son, it’s that he should do what he needs to do when the time comes. If I don’t know who he is and I can’t wipe my own butt – then  by all means ship me off. And honestly – you may think me morbid, I do not care – I am all in favor of assisted suicide (however loathe that term) if a person should face an irreversible, debilitating disease. It’s even my hope to be able to sock away enough money to have that be a viable option one day (one possible place is in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s legal there). After all, looking to my father and paternal grandmother, the genetic possibility for growing old with dementia is a potential reality for me. I cannot pretend it isn’t.

_______________________________________________________

Thursday, early evening

I’ve been at the hospital for much of the afternoon with mom and dad. The staff at Saratoga Hospital continues to impress me, and I’m so very grateful for their service today. Turns out dad just had a hernia. Not a big surprise, he had one on the other side years ago which he had fixed surgically. The doc massaged it back into place, and dad felt relief right away. He had a CT scan which showed some ‘white matter’ around his brain; the ER doc surmised that it may have been many ‘tiny strokes’, but mom and I wonder if it might not simply be evidence of his memory loss and the related diminishing brain volume. Either way, my feeling is that it doesn’t so much matter. In my eyes, it’s my father’s quality of life and comfort that is most important now. Little prevention can be done to stop the progress of what’s probably inevitable. Guarding against falls is another concern of mine now too (mom and dad have a tile floor, argh. Knock on wood). In the end, dad’s cheerful, as well as he can be, and most importantly, feeling better. And I for one am relieved that he didn’t need an overnight stay in the hospital. (Although mom might feel differently.)

Martha was just down the hall, and on the way out, we wheeled dad into her room for a visit. It only just occurred to me right now – that it might have been the last time that dad and Martha will ever see each other in person. On Martha’s 87th birthday, just a few weeks ago, it took dad nearly fifteen minutes just to get inside her house. It was a huge production. I think we all knew as we watched his incredibly slow progress to the car afterward, that this was probably his final visit to the farm. This whole chapter is bizarre and bittersweet. I realize I’m lucky to have both of my parents alive and doing relatively well. So many of my friends are in that stage of life when they’re losing theirs. I watch, I wait, I worry. Nothing to do but try to savor the time remaining.  It’s tough for me, yes, but I think of my folks. My dad is actually blessed by his dementia; he can’t truly appreciate that his life is reaching its end. And my mother, while she herself is actually doing ok (in spite of bad arthritis and chronic back pain), I can’t help but I wonder if there’s not a low-grade worry present in her thoughts about how her own end will come. An occasional passive-aggressive aside will come out every now and then which betrays a darker side to her concerns. On the face of it however, she jokes, she makes light… There is a mildly haunting sense to this time in all of our lives, although none of us ever says as much. But even if we were to talk, what would we say? I’d like to think that Elihu and I will face these tough conversations with absolute honesty when the time comes, but I can’t know that for certain. I cannot begin to assume that I will behave any differently, or approach the last years of my life with any more candor than my folks. I just don’t know how it will feel to be in that situation. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to face it, but it’s been a bigger challenge than I’d thought just turning fifty!

For now, I cherish the little things that have been so familiar to me all of my life. That certain, charming way my father has of laughing. The way my mother always shows concern, the way she always takes care of things, and makes me feel in the end like everything will always be alright. I can’t grasp in this moment, today, that one day they will be gone. And as frustrated as they can make me, they are my only parents, and I love them so. Every remaining moment is important, because you never truly know when the other shoe will finally fall to the ground.

ER 2013 126I am a fan of Saratoga Hospital. The staff there have all been so kind and gracious.

ER 2013 063Dad was in good spirits all afternoon.

ER 2013 053There’s his gallbladder. All looks just fine.

ER 2013 078Now we’re in Martha’s room for a visit. Note how she raises her hand for emphasis as she speaks. She is still in control! And she remembers the name of every last person who comes into her room – not only that, but she remembers where they live! Martha always inquires where people are from. That’s signature Martha Carver. !

ER 2013 091That profile I know so well.

ER 2013 097You can see what a production it is to move dad.

ER 2013 101Aaron was so kind and patient.

ER 2013 105Mom needs a cane these days – she can’t walk far without it. Even so, she’s the rock in the duo so far.

ER 2013 113So fragile looking.

ER 2013 122What a relief. I asked mom if she needed help on the other end – getting him back inside the house – but she insisted she didn’t; she said it simply took a long time. I can’t help but wonder each time he leaves the house if this will be the last time he does. You just can’t ever know for sure.