The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Grounded January 23, 2015

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Because Elihu missed four days of school from having the flu lately, he’d been a bit behind in his homework. He was staying on track, and we’d talked to his teacher, so I wasn’t worried. But he was. Poor kid’s been having a hell of a time getting to sleep over the past few months, and now, what with this school thing, it’s worse. Part of the reason is that in addition to school, there are a few other things weighing on his mind.

A few days ago he pulled his two oldest helicopters off the shelf and began an online quest for replacement parts. He misses seeing the giant one fly – it was his first, and we both have nice memories with it. “It isn’t right that it costs more to replace the broken parts than to buy a whole new one. It’s just a waste. It’s not right” he had lamented to me earlier that night. He’d admitted to me that he felt a deep sentiment towards this one particular heli – the big orange one he’d had since he was himself tiny – like the kind of feelings someone usually reserves for favorite stuffed animals. And I’d agreed. This machine was our friend, and we owed it to him to get him back in the air.

But it didn’t seem likely, from what we were learning. In fact, if we wanted to fly this one again, it just made economic sense to get a new one and use it for parts. Elihu resigned himself to this, but I could tell it disappointed him deeply. This was just another mild defeat which added to his sinking mood. I knew there was another piece too – one which he’d been keeping to himself because it was just too heartbreaking to speak aloud, and that was the absence of an old school chum from his life. The boy whose mother felt I made “bad parenting choices” by way of removing feathers from a dead owl or using a cuss word within earshot of my kid… She removed her son from the Waldorf School last year (no, I was not the reason for the change, although I’m sure it relieved her to be rid of me), and Elihu’s had a huge hole in his heart ever since. I emailed her recently about getting the boys together – completely on her terms, on her turf, whatever could work – but heard nothing back. That’s the way she handled the situation last time, and apparently it was still her method. Last year it took me three emails plus an intervention by the class teacher to get her to admit the reason she wouldn’t agree to our sons playing together. (Ironically she’s a psychologist and her job is to help people through communication. !) Plus the blog. She finds that to be the most dangerous of my bad parenting choices. Even after I removed every last image or mention of her son – and apologized profusely – even then it wasn’t enough to pacify her (when I apologized in person she had literally said “no worries”). And so my kid suffers. Many tears have fallen over this lost friendship, and we’ve spent hours parsing over the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what might yets’. Elihu has learned to stuff it down, to forget it for now. But tonight, feeling the stress of being behind in his work, unable to fly his favorite toy and long out of touch with his old best friend, he succumbs.

He’s curled up into such a tight ball on his bed that I can’t lean in to kiss his forehead. Instead I kneel beside his bed and put my arms around him. “Mama, I’m really scared. I really am.” I hate to hear this from my brave, spirited and wise boy. But I can’t indulge in my own feelings of fear and uncertainty; I need to provide comfort. “What are you afraid of, sweetie?” I ask. “I’m just afraid,” he answers me. “Of everything.” I tell him that I am too, and that sometimes we just need to break things down and tackle them one at a time. He was behind, but still keeping to a schedule, so that was good. We’d found a website that sells his old helicopter, and that was good. And we’d sent an email to his friend, so we’d done all we could on that front. Until his friend was a teenager with his own ability to communicate with us, sadly that one would have to wait. But besides, wasn’t life sometimes magical for us? Didn’t the possibility exist that we might see him sometime when we were out and about in the world? After all, didn’t crazier, more serendipitous things happen to us from time to time? Elihu nodded his head a bit. I stroked his back and sat with him in silence for a moment. When he gradually straightened up, I could feel the bed was wet with tears where his head had been. I leaned in and kissed him. “It will be ok. It will.”

After our talk I’d left him to sleep, but even after two hours had passed he hadn’t been able to turn off his mind, to forget all that troubled him. Finally, he stormed into my room with Lenny, his favorite stuffed parrot, and harumphed as he dove into my bed. I didn’t say anything, I just turned off my computer and joined him. I understand so well the challenges of sleeping at night; my own thoughts race through the never-ending to-do lists and possible future scenarios, both hopeful – and frightening. Always just a couple steps ahead of a dire economic state, I live with a constant, low-level of stress which I’m afraid has somehow bled over into my son’s consciousness. I know our household is full of humor, music and nature. I know unquestionably that I have given Elihu the very best home life possible within my means. But I also know that he, like me, feels the edge on which we live. And he, like me, is physiologically prone to anxiety and panic. And he, like me, has no social life to distract or entertain him. He has but one friend with whom he meets outside of school, and those dates are too few, I know. He, like me, is for all intents and purposes, a loner. And that’s not a bad thing; for the most part we both enjoy living a quiet, isolated life in the country. Being a loner truly isn’t the same thing as being lonely, but tonight it really does feel just as bad as it sounds.

I realize that this will pass. Elihu’s an insightful kid, and so he knows this too. Things won’t always be thus. And no matter who or what it is that’s doing the flying – even his old favorite aviator, the tireless Wandering Albatross – not a one of them can keep on flying forever. Eventually everything must spend a little time on the ground.

 

Sunrise January 5, 2014

We’re lucky here at the Hillhouse, to see the sun rise from our kitchen and living room windows. It’s interesting to track the changing spot on the horizon from which it lifts; just a week ago it was a tree or two to the left, but now it’s marched along the rim of the forest a surprising distance. It’s funny the way the heavenly bodies move, imperceptible as one watches, quite noticeable when one does nothing but turn away for a moment and then look back again. All day long the sun makes her progress just like this, slow, steady, never stopping. Like a willful, living creature, diligently keeping to her task, dedicated only to that one singular movement. What a contrast is the peace and stillness of a sunrise to the frenetic cauldron of action and emotion swirling around far below it on the surface of this globe. A sunrise is deceptive: it leads one to believe, if only for a second, that everything everywhere has taken a pause, that nothing at all stirs upon the earth… that all is, in this very moment, perfect and right with the world. 

Yeah, I like the sense of peace that I get from a sunrise. The sense of possibility. The best possible feeling of what it is to stand here, as a human, witnessing. But it doesn’t always play out that way. When I awoke today, the sorrow I’d forgotten in sleep had come to wrap itself around me again. As I looked out the window, I saw that all the trees were bathed on one side in a deep magenta, a sign that this was the moment. I went to the living room in time to watch the sun as it lifted free of the treetops and burst its rays over the countryside. This one particular moment of a sunrise is an interesting thing; it isn’t always the moment of joy and peace that one might think. For me, it seems to heighten whatever mood it is that I’m already feeling. On a brilliant summer morning, with the promise of a full and rich day before me, my chest fairly bursts at the sight. But today, a day on which I remember again the intense sorrow of losing my father, and with him all the questions I never thought to ask, the sun wrenches it all out of me all at once, and it hurts. Soon my face is covered in sunshine and tears.

It occurred to me shortly after waking that tomorrow is mom’s first birthday without dad in fifty-four years. They, as some readers will remember, shared the same birthday. My heart sinks to my feet. What can we possibly do to make it easier? See to it that she keeps busy, I suppose. Maybe we should go to that Weight Watchers meeting after Elihu’s bass lesson. Maybe that will help. Maybe we can stop by, maybe we can bring a bottle of champagne (that would’ve had my dad clapping his hands in happy approval). Maybe we can have her over here for supper. Hell, I don’t know. What to do? My heart breaks all on its own, and now it’s breaking for my mother. Crap. There is never a good time for goodbye, no matter how full and rich a life may have been.

All morning I’ve been remembering my father’s friends that have gone before – and there are a good number of em. In fact, there were very few folks from my father’s world left – and in terms of a physical presence in his life, essentially there were none. I thought back to the last time dad had been to the farm. It was this past July, and it was Martha’s 86th birthday. I remember on that day dad had been speaking in a nonsensical way, that he had once again turned a corner. But that didn’t lessen his pleasure at being there; he was happy, a soft smile on his face the whole time (in spite of the temperature in the kitchen reaching up into the high 80s). I had known it even then; after nearly fifty years of sitting in this kitchen, after hours and hours of drinking, smoking, storytelling, cussing, shouting and laughing, this was the very last time dad would be sitting in this space. The last time he and Martha would be in the same room together. (As it turned out, they would have one final visit with each other in person. They were both patients at the ER at the same time in late summer, and I had thankfully snapped one picture then.) I watched them, both at the farm and at the hospital, knowing in my heart that these oldest of friends were saying their last goodbyes. I also realized neither one of them was even aware of it. I guess one just kinda tends to feel as if nothing will ever change. That things, somehow, will always be thus. Silly humans, we.

At the time of dad’s death his functioning life had long since ended.  Dad had no life outside of his home, no pressing endeavors to attend to, no ability to play the harpsichord – nor the piano, no ability to walk outside on his own, no car to drive, no ability to read, no social life, no old college chums to call and check on, no pals from his former lives to chat with…. He had nothing at all but mom, his cats, the opera on the weekends, and the tv. (Yes, he had Elihu and me too, but we were only there a few short visits a week.) And I suppose a few years of this life might eventually grow tedious, no matter one’s lack of abilities. Dad was still very much aware of his surroundings, and as familiar and comfortable as they may have been, at some point I guess there’s not a lot to hang around for anymore. I can’t help but remind myself that it’s really only us we’re sad for; a quick recounting of all that dad did not have in his most recent life helps set me straight. Wherever he is – or is not – is just fine for him. It’s us that’s the problem. Actually, it’s mom that I’m worried about. How must it feel? Seriously, how must it feel? I’m sad, Elihu is only sad in passing, but it’s mom I keep thinking of. Tomorrow, this first birthday in over half a century without her mate, this will be a landmark. She’s just gotta get through it.

Life marches on, enough distractions for us that dad’s death is somewhat tempered. I still have loads of new music to learn (and the arthritis in my fingers worsens almost daily). I still haven’t told Elihu that his beloved teacher is leaving. Waiting til the last possible moment, as not to spoil his final day of vacation. And thankfully the temperature outside is going up, so we won’t have to worry about bringing the goose into the kitchen overnight as we did on Friday, when outside temps were ten below. Ironically, shortly after we saved the goose from losing his little webbed feet to frostbite, we ourselves ran out of heating oil. ! Must remember that in terrible cold like this it takes a bunch more fuel than usual. See? Lots to keep us going, many new dramas appear on our horizon. Just like the sun on its  never-ending path, the events of our lives march tirelessly onward, sunrise to sunset and all the moments in between.

 

Heartsick November 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

One More Goodbye August 30, 2012

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal... — wingmother @ 12:57 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The husband of an old friend died last night. It had been years maybe since we’d talked in person, but she’d showed her love and support often on Facebook in response to my blog posts. I didn’t usually respond with much more than a thumbs up – a virtual nod of the head, an invisible wink of recognition across the vast space in between us. I knew she was going through a truly difficult time, and because of it I often felt guilty when I’d complain about my own situation in my posts. My life these days was so much easier than hers. She had a deep and frightening heartbreak looming on her horizon; her husband had been battling cancer for the past year. He was now in hospice. In spite of her upbeat demeanor, she knew what was coming next. I don’t know how they dealt with it – head on or voices hushed – but she was being stronger and more publicly stoic than I myself could have been. And in spite of all this, she was still witnessing the joy in the little things around her; only days ago she paid tribute to a spider web made in her bicycle wheel! Every time I’d see her name I’d say a small prayer for the family. I watched from afar. Nothing I could do. I couldn’t read what was going on inside; her mood seemed much the same as it had been the past year – hopeful, grateful, cautious. She’d done so much to cheer me through this nightmarish tour of divorce, I really felt I wanted to offer my friendship now. I didn’t want to email – I wanted to call. The old fashioned way. Her number was unlisted, so as I made my way through old boxes of date books and ancient to-do lists in my office, I was on the lookout for her number. I knew it was there somewhere, but I couldn’t find it.

Until tonight. Better late than never. The number looked familiar, and I dailed it. I got a recording. It told me the number no longer existed. Damn it. That was it. Nothing more to do. I just can’t email her right now, that just seems lame. And anyway, I really have no idea what kind of a place she’s in. Does she want to talk? Or just stay with family? Or take a pill and sleep a deep, forgetting slumber? God, I don’t know. I’m going to let it be. And just send her and the girls my love. Her husband? I myself believe he’s just fine. In fact, I’m relieved for him. It’s just the ones left behind I hurt for. What a heartbreaking planet this is.

It doesn’t matter how damned prepared you are – how well you know it intellectually that your dear one is dying – when that moment actually comes, it has got to turn your world upside down. I once experienced the death of a good friend, and it was like the breath had been sucked out of me. I walked around like a zombie for months. And he was a friend – he was not a partner, a spouse. I don’t know how that feels. I can’t imagine.

I pray that the girls can all find sleep tonight. I pray that the love they shared as a family helps sustain them during the difficult months to come. And dear Dennis, I’m so glad you don’t hurt anymore. Wish I’d known you better, but what I did know of you was kind and loving. You’ve been loved by friends and family – and that includes, of course, all of your beloved animals. I’ll bet that right now there are a whole bunch of furry creatures who are really happy to see you again!

Enjoy your peace. Goodbye for now…