The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Year Anew January 1, 2014

Some folks have been complaining about 2013, bidding it good riddance, speaking of it with various expletives and such. My first response is to think something like ‘damn right, this was a painful and terrible year, hell with it’…. but then I realize, bad things happen every year. Good things too, and if I take the glass half-full attitude, I realize that the old year wasn’t, in my own personal world, half bad. That my father died in 2013 doesn’t make it a bad year. It makes it a precious year. One in which I enjoyed all my final moments with him, one in which I had the honor of witnessing his death. That is no small gift. Yeah, the past year has been rich, full and good. (That being said, I’m still ready for a new one.)

It’s the weight loss season again, and so I begin to do a little review of 2013 and my advances – and retreats – on that front. I’d started last year on the crazy Atkins diet, and while it was successful, and I ended up looking pretty good for my 50th birthday and subsequent trip ‘back home’ to Chicago, by the time fall came, and with it home-made apple pies and fresh home-baked bread, I let it all go. I knew I was begging trouble, but it was a quality of life thing for me. I’d had it with eating nothing but meat, cheese and vegetables for the past six months and I meant to enjoy all I’d missed now. I realized I may have gone too far in ‘catching up’, but some little voice told me ‘screw it, you made your goal, now live’. And really, in that time and place I wanted to be there. Joining my son every night, sharing the same menu and this time having home-made dessert. I’d never baked bread before in my life, so the discovery in fall of 2013 that I could do so – and easily – without even so much as a loaf pan – that kinda blew my mind. And once you’ve made it, you feel you gotta eat it. There’s only so much that two people can eat though, and it’s hard to enforce portion control when there’s always more on hand. And so I ate. And then with the stress of a bigger work load, plus my dad’s decline and death, I ate to soothe myself. And while that tiny voice told me I needn’t eat quite so much to make myself feel better, I did. I knew full well it would come to this, and it has. I am back to exactly the same weight as I was one year ago today. Almost twenty pounds are back. Which means that I saw my body change by forty pounds. Yeeks. If I think too long about it, or catch a glance of my pudgy jaw line in a mirror, I want to weep, to sink into despair. Cuz I was there, goddamit, and now I’m back. But that’s ok. That is what New Years are for. Starting over.

Over the past year I’d been very intrigued with death and dying, too. Scared shitless of losing my father, and wondering what exactly it was that a person’s natural death looked like, I’d gone on YouTube binges that would freak many people out. I watched embalmings, assisted suicides, cremations, interviews with people who knew they were dying. Anything and everything so that I might better get what it was to witness a loved one die, and then make those after-life decisions none of us ever really talks about. I meant to demystify death. I’d read my share of Elizabeth Kubler Ross years ago, but never did click with her old-school language. ‘Yack, yack, yack’, I remember thinking. Let’s get down to it, lady! So in 2013 I began to read more on near death experiences – something I’d known about for years, but had begun to read now from a new perspective. And when my own father began to point towards the corner of the room, asking me who all those people were, and when he told me he saw my cousin, and that he missed his mommy, I was glad I’d re-read the literature on this experience. I do get that many folks think these end-of-life occurrences are merely the brain playing tricks on itself in the final moments of life, however I certainly do not. Me, I know that a soul is what animates a body, and quite simply, it has a separation process to undergo at the end. And while I would never had dared to speak my opinion on this subject so candidly in the past, now I feel I can. I’m off that hook – I’ve experienced it myself, I know. And I’m not quite as afraid of death as I was. The loss is still so very sad, and I can see it will continue on…. But having been with my beloved father during his transition has helped confirm for me what I already believed. So now I go into my own future, and move closer to my own death, with some important questions resolved.

My son’s now approaching an age in which his entire outlook on the world will change and mature. Ten now, eleven in a few months, 2014 will likely be the year in which the true magic of childhood ends. Santa, the birthday angel and the Easter Bunny won’t be visiting after long. Even in the cocoon of Waldorf, he will soon know for sure. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I’ve savored his small years, even documented a few of them here on this blog, so I can’t feel that I wasn’t present for them, or appreciative. I was. As I write this, he’s sleeping in, catching up after a whirlwind visit to Chicago and dramatic return. Over his visit, and while I was sitting vigil with dad, Elihu was going through a pretty big health scare, having visited the emergency room for knees that had blown up so they’d awoken him in the night – he said it felt like knives – and being told it might possibly be juvenile onset arthritis. Or Lyme disease. And in that I myself had fretted all fall over the Lyme v. growing pains debate – only to be told by nurses and moms alike not to worry (!!) – I kinda knew. And what relief that it was Lyme and not arthritis. So we’re dealing now with that, and the stock regimin of antibiotics to follow. (I am just kicking myself because I really did suspect it but caved to everyone else’s opinion.) Mom, Andrew, Elihu and I went out to dinner late last night (he had his favorite escargot and frogs’ legs) and we were very late to bed. Now he’s sleeping like a teenager, and deservedly so. But what he doesn’t know is that Santa made one final visit to us here at the Hillhouse last night. He even knocked some of the ashes out of the fireplace as he’s done before. Santa knows that it’s the eighth day of Christmas. He knows Elihu is back home. As I sit here and write, I’m keeping an ear out for his bedroom door, for the footsteps, that momentary pause…. He’ll run in to get me, and I’ll be sitting here in my chair, unawares, and then he’ll tell me, with a look of amazement on his face, that Santa has come! Yesterday, when Elihu asked me if I though Santa might come here, I took on a somber tone and cautioned him not to be disappointed, after all Santa had already been to Illinois. But look! He made it here after all! This is a Christmas I will savor, because by next year it will be brand new territory.

Ah, such ambivalence I feel for brand new territory. I listened as my elderly father expressed his longing to be back in his childhood home and wondered to myself, where exactly, do our hearts consider to be true home? Is it the home and hearth of our tender years – or the home we made as young parents to our own tiny ones? I suppose there’s no one answer. But there is one truth for us here on earth; time continues to move forward, and our situations, though they may appear to pause in time at different stages of our life, continue to evolve and change. A sorrow and a blessing. A missed memory and the happy anticipation of a new experience. They exist so closely, these disparate conditions, and they tug our hearts in such different directions. I can’t say that I’m thrilled with the march of time, but I also can’t say that I don’t want to watch my son grow up and one day create a family of his own. I admit it, at my age, and having seen what the end of life looks like and knowing I’m closer to it than I am to my youth, I’m not moving into the future with the zeal that I once did. I’m moving toward it with a more measured approach. It’s coming no matter what, but I’m not running to meet it anymore. It’ll be here – and gone – soon enough.

 

Song of the Spheres January 1, 2012

It was on a New Year’s Day, more than half my life ago, that I heard it. I’ve only told the story a handful of times; I’ve seldom felt that anyone would really believe me. I’ve also never felt brave enough to take the chance that my listeners might think me crazy. In the telling of this story they’d know that I wasn’t entirely legitimate or believable anymore. There was the great possibility that my audience might think that I experienced something entirely in my imagination. Maybe even pity would ensue. “And she seemed so together..”. What still surprises me about this event long ago was that I was in no particular way educated or prepared to receive such an experience; I wasn’t focused on things metaphysical or spiritual nor was I in any special state of mind that day when I set out for a walk in the woods. It was a snow-covered New Years’ Day like any other here in upstate New York.

It was cloudy and gray on that first day of January. That’s always been my favorite kind of weather – I love the mood it sets. Timeless, directionless, calm. It just feels centered, peaceful. We four Conants were in our tiny farmhouse, each doing nothing much out of the ordinary. Without much to occupy myself, I decided to take a walk outside. All my growing up I’d spent hours upon hours in the woods in wintertime. My brother Andrew and I had so much fun as kids playing on the frozen expanses of water that lay in low spots in the forest, breaking the ice like glass and marveling over the beautiful shapes and patterns it made. Today, rather than head out to the low parts of the woods, I thought instead I would head up the hill and explore the woods just beyond the edge of our open yard. There was a stand of many uniform-sized Scotch pines that clustered together in that spot, creating a space in the woods that was unlike all others. Only recently did I learn that the trees had been planted there by the property’s previous owner. That explained the perfect, almost surreal quality to the area.

I’d been walking only a very short time when I arrived at what seemed to be the center of the trees. I drank in the vision; hundreds of pine trees, all the same shape and size, going on in each direction as far as I could see – trunks, straight and black against the snow, me in the middle. Me, nowhere. Me, anywhere. I might even have panicked as to how to get home but for the tracks I left in the snow. I was truly free to feel the essence of what it was to be here, now. The forest was quiet. Not a snap of a twig, not a rustle of a rabbit, nothing. All was softened by a foot of snow. Then, after a few moments of silence, something began to change, almost imperceptibly at first. I may have thought my ears were ringing. I do remember wondering – if only for a split second – if I might not be hearing music coming from the old house. But any wondering vanished as the phenomenon began to grow. Something was happening. I was imagining nothing. I was hearing music. Gorgeous, sophisticated music. This was very real.

I don’t remember feeling scared. I do remember feeling a sense of urgency; I knew this was a rare phenomenon and that I had to understand it as best I could, and as quickly as I could. I would be methodical and identify its elements. First, where was it coming from? I turned in circles, looking out to the branches, hearing the music flowing around me, from above, from below. From everywhere. As soon as I thought I’d found the right direction, and stood facing it, even cupping hands to ears, it would slip somehow, and it then seemed to come from another direction. And I cannot say it changed directions, it was more like it truly seemed to come from each  direction equally. “Ok”, I thought, “Forget that. Just try to concentrate on what kind of music it is.” So I listened a moment more. It was contrapuntal, with several different voices. They were moving toward each other, away from each other, moving in parallel – many lines that wove themselves together in the most organic way. The first thing that came to my mind was Bach. That would have to do for now, I had to identify the instruments. I listened. Bells, clear, pure-toned bells. Yes…. No… As soon as I was satisfied with my answer, the sound morphed. Into voices. Yes, voices. Male? Female? Can’t tell. Both? Yes… No… no, wait… then again, it changed. It became horns. Pure, sine-wavelike tones that seemed to be French horns, no, kind of, but not exactly… I realized that the music was all these things at once. After I’d spent maybe three or four minutes trying to identify its components, I realized that I’d done all I could. All that was left was to simply enjoy it. To soak it in. So I just stood there, marveling. Dumbfounded and yet not. I just stood there, alone, in the music.

Within maybe a minute of having given up my efforts to identify the music, it began to fade. Now I did panic. I remember calling “No! No! Please, don’t leave!”, turning in circles, trying to recapture the source, the moment. I was begging it not to leave, and realized that tears were coming down my face. But it continued to fade, as gently as any sound could ever disappear, and then in a few more seconds, it was gone. And the woods were quiet again. Not a thing felt any different than it had just a few minutes earlier. I’m surprised I wasn’t more shaken up. Rather, I wiped away my tears, collected myself and stood there. Wow. What had just happened? Why had it happened? Did it have something to do with it being New Year’s Day?? I knew it might never make sense to me as long as I lived. But even then, I knew I had been very, very lucky that the music had chosen to come to me. It would just have to be my secret.

I didn’t spend any more time in the woods. I walked down the hill, back to our small house. Without disclosing too much, I thought I’d at least inquire whether Dad had been playing records on his mother’s ancient all-in-one stereo cabinet, as he sometimes does over the Christmas holidays (I can hear him in my mind singing in a bold voice along with the music…”dance then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance, said He…”) but no. He hadn’t. “Why?” my mom asks, facing the sink, finishing some dishes. “Oh, I thought I heard some music when I was out in the woods.” I answer in the most non-committal way possible. Even if he had been playing records, there’s no way that tiny box could have carried all the way out there… “Maybe you heard something from the Michel’s?” she posits. ‘Forget it’ I thought, and let it drop. I didn’t mention it again to anyone for years.

A few years later, my parents sold their home in Chicago and moved year-round to upstate New York, where they then built their dream home, just up the hill from the small cottage where we’d spent our vacations. Once, after one of my father’s Baroque concerts, a group of friends and musicians enjoyed some food and drink ‘up at the house’ afterward, as was always the tradition. A woman who’d known me all my life, and who in the early years had sung at my father’s music festival was in the group that night. Perhaps because she was a dowser, and unapologetically so, as well as being a church-going woman of gentle character (loved by all who knew her), I felt comfortable enough to tell my story. I remember Ruthie looking at me, with that smile of hers, unsurprised, listening. When I finished, no one but she had anything to say. She pointed out that the house itself stood where those trees once did. Perhaps, she suggested, that the universe may have known of things to come. Hmm. Was that all it was? A heads up? A little nod from spirit that this is an auspicious spot to build a new house? Perhaps it was part of the equation. Don’t know. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I was very lucky that day. So I’ll just take it at that.

There is a sad and beautiful song called “The Night We Called It A Day” in which the lyrics mention hearing ‘the song of the spheres’. Sometimes, when I’d sing that line, I’d think to myself that I actually had heard that song. I wondered, had Mr. Adair? Or was he just using it as a poetic lyric? Just how many people had actually heard the ‘song of the spheres?’ Besides – was that what I heard? If so – if that music had been given a name – I must be one of many who’d heard it too. I’ve googled and searched. Never found any account similar to mine. Not until this past summer. I finally met two other people who’d also had their own unique and unexplainable auditory experiences. Made me feel a little better to hear their stories. Validated. Not so crazy, not so alone. That feels good. And I’m getting braver. That feels good too.

Now I’ve told my story. A nice way to start the new year, I think. May we all grow braver in the coming year, ears attentive and hearts wide open.