The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Cusp January 19, 2015

Two thousand fourteen was a tough year for me. Can’t say it was necessarily a bad year, but it was the year in which my father was newly gone, the year in which his concert hall suffered a flood (at my negligence; in order to save money I hadn’t properly winterized it), and it was the year in which I left the safety net of my part-time job at the Waldorf school in order to set about creating a new business. I did manage to get heating and cooling units installed in the Studio, and this past fall I spared no expense and had the place properly shut down for winter. At a glance, maybe not much. But progress, nonetheless. You might say I began to plant the seeds of change. And soon, we’re going to see them begin to sprout…

The biggest holdup – one that’s been in the works for nearly two years if you can believe it – is the logging of our family’s property. It’ll give us some start up money to get some basic fixes done to the place, not to mention a completely new floor (which still makes me sick to think of as the old floor was gorgeous…. and paid for) and some tlc on the weather-worn exterior. And besides that, we’re going to need a place to park all those cars. In the past, my parents only used the Studio in the summers, and parking on the expansive lawn worked out fine. Me, I’m going to need year-round parking, in a level place where I can clear snow and not worry about damaging the grass. Our plan is to create a parking lot in the woods just to the east of the building – in the very place that mom and dad had also initially intended for it to go when they built the Studio in 1974. Back then when they realized the cost – and saw that they had plenty of space for cars on the lawn, they shelved the plan. But now, needing access to my mom’s woods out back for the logging job, it’s become a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one proverbial stone: the loggers need a ‘platform’, or a wide space in which to park their huge equipment, and I need a parking lot. They’ll open up the space whether we use it or let it grow back again – so why not use it to our advantage? The loggers will also need to construct a proper load-bearing road into the property, complete with enormous metal culvert and lots of fill – another structure which will benefit us tremendously. And then, on top of all this ‘free’ infrastructure, we’ll get money from the lumber. It kinda seems too good to be true. Knowing what I do about life, and how the best-laid plans can quickly go awry, I’m going to be keeping a close eye on every step of the process. (In a few moments I’ll take a break from my computer and go to meet the crew for the very first time. So that makes today hugely significant in the re-birth of the studio.) As I noted to my son recently, I was eleven when I saw the Studio built, and he, at the very same age, is here to see the Studio re-built. Perfect.

As usual, other adventures continue, and recently Elihu and I went to a rehearsal of Haydn’s “The Creation” by the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center. We got great seats up front by the basses. ! I feel so lucky that this beautiful campus, along with all the cultural experiences it provides, is less than five miles from our house. Talk about the best of both worlds: peace, quiet and privacy with nature all around, and yet within minutes we can be hearing world-class music or dining at gourmet restaurants. Lucky are we!

Along with all the activity and changes going on in my life, I’ve added another to the list: hot flashes. A couple of years ago I got an IUD in order to deter the near-unending perimenopausal periods I was experiencing, and since they’d finished completely, I’d thought I was over the hump. Honestly, I didn’t think hot flashes would come til after the device was removed, if they came at all (my hope was to avoid them altogether). And now I suspect that after I have it removed one year hence, the hormonal change will descend on me with a vengeance. So this may only be the tip of the iceberg. My mother suffered badly from intense hot flash episodes for well over a decade. Even after hearing about them, I would still think to myself “It’s just a quick sensation of warmth. Really, how bad can they be?”…. Now I get it. Yeah, I’m guessing they’ll be mighty unpleasant. The first one hit at night, and initially it was not only uncomfortable, but it was frightening too, and in that respect reminded me of a miscarriage; some new variety of discomfort was growing inside me, and while it had familiar aspects to it, something very different was going on. A bit of nausea came along with it as well, and that was unexpected. But I suppose, like everything else in life, I’ll adapt and eventually get used to it.

These days I’m becoming more receptive to the idea that nothing lasts. I’m not resisting change the way I used to. Absolutely everything changes, and the sooner you surrender yourself to that notion, the easier your life will be. So here I am, standing on the edge of tomorrow, waiting for whatever comes next…

IMG_5749The other day Elihu and I marked off the perimeter of the Studio’s new parking lot with flags. This photo shows how things have looked for the past forty years on this stretch of Wilton Road, looking west. My parent’s property is on the left. Mom’s house, Andrew’s house and the Studio are all just behind these woods (that’s our neighbor’s driveway in the foreground).

IMG_5753And this is where the new driveway will be going very soon (that’s our neighbor’s house behind the big tree).IMG_5756Here’s the old salt box my folks put out in anticipation of the parking lot they never made. You can see the Studio’s white roof to the far left, beyond the woods.

IMG_5765This interesting-looking tree will go. Behind to the right (red) is the Studio, on the left is mom’s house.

IMG_5676Now we’re off to hear some music – and hopefully fly some RC helicopters too.

IMG_5673This hall both looks and sounds beautiful.

IMG_5620Best seats in the house!

IMG_5623Love the conductor’s red cowboy boots.

IMG_5616Just look how close we are to the bass section! (Note the C extensions on the necks which allow the bassists to play even lower.)

This singer performed at dad’s Baroque Festival years ago. Elihu’s music teacher from Waldorf is also playing clarinet in the orchestra.

IMG_5644Elihu has to say hello.

IMG_5645Kinda like meeting rock stars.

IMG_5658Proving true to his love of all things super-low, Elihu makes a beeline to the contrabassoon.

IMG_5653Hard to imagine I grew up with several of these in my house. Seeing or hearing a harpsichord always makes me nostalgic.

IMG_5690The house manager was sweet and opened up a classroom in the music building for us.

IMG_5704Lots of vertical room to enjoy!

IMG_5713After a slight mishap Elihu made some successful, on-site repairs. This pic may seem fairly ordinary, but actually, it’s not. Elihu is wearing his new tinted contacts here, and therefore able to see in the bright, natural light without sunglasses. A huge quality of life upgrade. He doesn’t wear them often, but when he does his world opens up.

IMG_5737Later on that night Elihu continued to be inspired by the afternoon’s concert.

IMG_5746And the inspiration carried over into the next morning.

IMG_5770After letting the girls (and boy) out for the day, I headed over to meet the forester and the logger who’ll be working in our woods over the next few weeks.

IMG_5775You can see the Greenfield hills in the distance. It’s a lovely view down my driveway, so long as I don’t look off to the right and see the vacant, new-construction house that looms over the field.

IMG_5777They’re here!

IMG_5806Assessing things from the road…

IMG_5790…and then from the interior of the woods where the parking lot will go.

IMG_5792These trees will all be gone soon – the ones marked with green tape will stay as feature trees.

IMG_5813Got the signed lumber contract in hand! It’s real now!!

IMG_5826Heading back home down my driveway. Feeling good, and excited for the days ahead.

 

Crossed Fingers November 11, 2014

The arthritis in my fingers has progressed quite a bit over the past year and a half. Just this past week my hands have undergone another big change. In fact, the change has been so rapid, it’s hard to fully comprehend. I so wish I had a baseline x-ray from before ‘the change’, or at least a photo of the way my poor fingers used to look, but practically speaking, I don’t need proof of how far things have gone. One look at my hands says it all.

In addition to watching the distal joints not only grow dramatically in girth, I’ve seen the tips of my fingers begin to bend forward, taking the shape of mini hunchbacks. When I hold my hands out, I no longer see the nails of my fingers. The disfigurement of my fingers was a little hard on my vanity at first (nearly everyone who sees my hands either makes an audible gasp or their eyes linger for a moment, and those who feel comfortable are quick to ask me if they hurt), and the occasional flare-ups were painful inconveniences, but now it’s become much more than a casual nuisance, and frankly, I’ve become worried about it. So far, it hasn’t hampered my ability to play the piano well, however it has changed how I play. Because the tips of my fingers essentially curve downward, I cannot tolerate any extra length of nail, as my nail hits the key before my fingertip (this is currently much more pronounced in my left hand). Again, that had become tolerable, and having become aware that I need to keep my left hand nails very short, I was ok with the change. But now, as of this past week, my hands are in an almost constant state of low-level discomfort. The index finger on my left hand has had a couple of distinct and alarming events, and it all has me wondering how in hell I’ll make it to my aged years if things keep up as they’re going.

Last night, the index finger on my left hand made a clicking sound, and from the middle knuckle, it visibly kinked to the left. I could see the difference from one moment to the next, because it leaned dramatically. I panicked, and quickly grasped it with my right hand and pulled. Somehow, it clicked again, and straightened back to its original position. Even so, it had been several years since my index finger had been straight, but thus far it had served me fine. But tonight it does not feel as it did even a few weeks ago; the tip of my index finger now makes continual contact with the tip of my middle finger. I suppose it would annoy and distract anyone, but somehow, being a pianist, I feel as if I’m hyper-aware of it. And to be entirely honest, it frightens me. If it continues like this, my two fingers will end up becoming crossed at some point. How can I live like that? It makes me scared, but also, it makes me angry. It really pisses me off. I know it’s not a healthy voice to indulge, but still, it rises up from within… Seriously, why me?

But of course I know the answer to that question: why not me? I have friends who are suffering far worse and more inconvenient health issues, and remembering that, I try to keep calm and concentrate on what I do still have, not what I don’t. Nonetheless, the idea that my fingers are continuing to get worse scares me, because as I understand it, once it happens, there’s no going back. This sucks, and my mind looks for solutions. I’ve been proactive in every way I can think; I’ve seen the conventional, Western doctors, I’ve done acupuncture, Chinese herbs, a small round of pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, plus I’ve done my best to change my attitude and think hopefully and positively about my outcome. I’be begun exercising, drinking less alcohol, drinking more water, using less salt. At the end of the day, it really bothers me that it appears there’s not a thing I can do to stave this off, in spite of my willingness to do whatever I’m able.

I can’t help but wonder, if it’s simply extra material that’s forming on the ends of my bones, why can’t I just have it removed? Scraped off? And furthermore, if my body can’t be stopped in its self-destructive path of breaking down its own cartilage, why can’t I just have some sort of gel injected onto the problem sites to replace it? Seems intuitive, straight forward. Yet no doctor I’ve seen has told me this is a viable option. Of all the doctors I’ve seen, not a one of them has offered any solutions. Not preventive, nor curative, nor even restorative. And again – that pisses me off. Our technology is soaring by leaps and bounds, yet when it comes to one of the planet’s most pervasive health complaints, not one fucking thing can be done about it. Nada. Oh yeah, you can take glucosmine. Chondroitin sulfate. And supplements too. But the jury’s still out on all that. Regardless, I take the stuff, cuz I figure it can’t hurt. But so far, it sure hasn’t helped.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing all the ‘old folks’ – meaning anyone in their forties or beyond – griping about the mounting disappointments of aging; new ailments, gray hair and wrinkles, having to walk back into a room to remember what you’d come there for in the first place – the usual stuff. I also remember thinking that somehow these older people didn’t get it. That maybe they’d even done something wrong somewhere along the way – made a tiny misstep or bad choice once upon a time – that earned them their current set of problems. I felt certain, so very certain, that their fate would not be mine. Somehow, I’d age without incident. If I was to get wrinkled and gray, somehow I would not be diminished by it; I would enter that phase when the time was right, and somehow, if I did actually end up getting old, I’d be ready for it. In any case, it wasn’t worth thinking too much about, as it may as well have been a century or more off into the hazy future. The grown-ups would laugh and joke to my brother and me, telling us that one day we too would find ourselves saying the same things. My mother even told me how her own mother had said the same thing to her, and that as a child, my mother too would think secretly to herself that nothing could be further from the truth. She was not going down the same path as her mother, no way…

My mother’s hands do not look good. For the past twenty years her fingers have been grossly enlarged. Her wedding band looks as if it’s choking off the finger above it, and her middle knuckles are so large that it’s become difficult for her to grasp some things. I too have noticed things slipping through the spaces at the bottom of my fingers recently, and it’s just one more goddam thing I thought was strictly for old folks. I’m not taking to all these changes very well, I realize that. And until just a couple of years ago, I’d look at my mother’s hands with pity; imagine suffering that fate. Good thing it won’t be mine, I’d think. I shoulda known I’d be wrong – physically, I take after my mother more than my dad. And while I may have gotten my musical gift from him, sadly, I did not get his hands. I’m grateful that my son Elihu clearly has his father’s gorgeous, guitar-playing hands. Slender fingers with deft, double-jointed thumbs, he’s set for a life of great dexterity and finger health. For that I’m relieved and happy. Almost makes up for my own personal disappointment. Almost.

I suppose I’ve had a good run; I’ve gotten a good deal of use and music out of these fingers. Can’t have regrets. But still… I won’t stop searching for a solution to my arthritis. And I’ll do my very best not to pout and complain about things. I’ll continue to play piano, to make music and even attempt to learn new instruments. (But I won’t be doing any hand modeling jobs, that’s for sure.) So far, it seems that all I can do is deal with things as they are. But I’m still holding out hope that one day a cure will arrive. Some sort of meaningful relief of symptoms, or at the very least a way to halt the disease’s progress. A girl can hope, right? Fingers crossed…