The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

May Bird May 7, 2018

Today is my birthday. Spent most of it in the windowless basement, at my desk, bravely muscling my way down the to-do list. But I know that it’s sunny outside. It is a fine spring day. The pic at the top of this post will attest to it. (Our late friend Ace, a Vietnam vet who returned from the war with a distant look in his eye and a ceaseless need to create art, he made this lovely bird. It’s a fine piece, and easily overlooked as its rusty patina blends in so well with the woodland setting. Today however, I sure did notice it. And how lovely a thing it is! I feel so lucky to have such a piece of work.)

It’s in my nature to bitch and moan about all the crap before me, all the stuff I never seem to get done, all the events that happen as if they were scripted by some omnipotent prankster… But my wise young son would remind me that all of this stuff – good and bad – is in and of itself the very essence of life. The serendipity, the monotony, the endless to-dos, the hitches and pitfalls, the windfalls. It is no one’s spiteful creation, it is no one’s gift, it simply is. My taking anything personally – the challenges, even the rewards – is as unwarranted as are the curses my mother directs towards her iPad; none of it is personal. It just is. Perhaps energy and intention can help to guide events, but I can’t think of life as actually having it out for me. Yeah, some unpleasant shit has come down on me, but at the end of the day I am not working twelve hour days in a sweat shop making clothes I could never myself dream of owning… For the most part, I have it good.

And although I know it was serendipity at its finest, it still feels like I got a little knowing nod from the heavens just now…

Having accomplished more administrative tasks in one day than I can remember, I treated myself to a quick walk outside in the sunshine. As we do often around here, I heard a small plane in the air above the house. Sometimes we run for the binoculars, but it was approaching too fast. I stood and watched… It banked, more sharply than I’m accustomed to seeing small planes turn, and it intrigued me. The plane got closer and closer, and then, when the plane was directly above my head, the engine noise changed and – the nose of the plane turned completely downward! What? I’d experienced stalls in small planes, but I guess I just didn’t expect it, and it truly frightened me, until I realized the pilot was crafting a lovely, controlled corkscrew pattern. I gasped. It was so thrilling and beautiful… Then the plane pulled out of the fall and turned west again, out and over the woods, leaving me there on the ground, full of adrenaline and joy.

A few months ago the Studio’s underground power line broke. Everything stopped. For a moment I freaked out, I wanted to just run away from the whole thing. Then one day I pulled myself up and I created a GoFundMe page. It was deeply humbling to see such love and support from friends and community, near and far. What had seemed like a targeted assault on my good intentions was now transformed into an expression of support and hope.  After a good deal of post-construction red tape, we will be hooked up again this week. What a ride. The last year has been rife with good news/bad news scenarios, and it has been exhausting, but it’s also helped toughen me up. OK, so now someone is suing me for a fall on the ice this past winter, but hey, it doesn’t scare me. Well, maybe a little, but seriously, this whole life thing is just one crazy illusion. One crazy game. You hope it goes well, but in the end, you can’t take it personally. You just gotta get through.

My oldest childhood friend lost her father this past week. Paul meant a lot to me, and to Elihu too. I always called him my second father. Thankfully Elihu and I both had some very lovely visits with him over the past few months, so we don’t feel too many regrets gnawing at us over things unspoken. (In fact, Paul called Elihu “one of his special people” on our last visit, and that meant a lot to my son.) This man, dearly beloved by his large family and the community in which he lived, had enjoyed a productive, long and full life. His death is something that shocks me when I remember it all over again, but what helps bring me ease is knowing how beautiful a life he led. He lived simply, he played the cards life dealt him (some of them would seem quite unfair indeed), and he did it all with gratitude, a sense of humor and lots of love. This is the way I wish to live out the rest of my game here on earth.

Whether it’s serendipity or divine providence, I dunno, but something about double fives feels lucky to me today.

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Dear readers, would you please consider subscribing to Elihu’s YouTube channel? He has put such a lot of work into both building the aircraft and the filming an editing the videos; what a wonderful birthday present it would be to his mother if you would just tick that subscribe box…

 

Up Is Down December 27, 2015

coop pic

The day after Christmas we buried our beloved red hen, Thumbs Up. Elihu wasn’t here, but he was on the phone with me as I placed her in the ground. I put the phone on speaker and set it down as I shoveled the dirt upon her, my son sobbing along with me the whole time. Chickens may live well over a decade, yet this gal hadn’t quite made five years. Somehow we’d always thought she’d be here as Elihu grew up. With a personality more like a golden retriever than simple red hen, she animated our household in the most delightful way, and it’s hard to imagine how different the energy will be around here now that she’s gone. I’m almost surprised at how deep my grief is over this loss. My father died two years ago tonight, and while it should go without saying that I dearly miss him, this recent loss is just so fresh and acute that I cannot shake it. And with my son so very far away, my heart is breaking all the more.

These days I’m larger than I’ve been in years, and that too is nagging at my heart. Being unable to fit in my beautiful clothes, and becoming out of breath just going up a flight of stairs, all of this has me grieving for a time when I felt and looked my best. In the past I’ve managed to pull myself up and out of my funks, and I’ve shed as much as fifty-five pounds in one year, but I don’t know where the resolve will come from now, and I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever turn things around. My fingers are getting knobbier and ache with arthritis each day; this alone is a hard reality to accept. Every evening I take my relief in glasses of wine, the worrisome double-edged sword; it’s the much longed-for and soothing end to my day, yet it’s a source of countless useless calories that only add to my problem. I manage to pull myself through the days until that blessed evening hour when a sleeping pill will take me away from this waking world. And when the next morning arrives, I am once again overwhelmed and under-confident that I can do anything about it all.

When I hear about successful people who have jobs, money, families and such, becoming overwhelmed with depression, it’s hard to understand. Me, it seems that if you can pay your bills, then things couldn’t be all that bad. Right? But then I look objectively at myself; I have a lot going for me, so this current state of my spirit can’t really be justified. But still, I can’t help but wonder how differently I’d feel about life if only I had a little bit more money. If I had a job – and a paycheck. I know how glorious I feel each year when I get my tax return – the whole world opens up. Fuel oil, a haircut and color, new shoes for the kid, a barrel full of scratch grains for the flock, dinner in a restaurant – all sorts of things become possible, and with that possibility I feel a certain spiritual uplifting. It’s crazy, honestly, because none of this shit really changes my day-to-day reality, but somehow, having just a tad more than enough can feel so very, very good.

Recently I learned that Facebook had been charging me methodically over the past few months for many small commercial posts. Somehow (and I am not alone judging by the hundreds of comments just like mine, oh how I pray it comes to a class action suit one day!) I misunderstood a one-time ‘boost’ for a contracted series of boosts, thereby creating a slow but devastating hit to my PayPal account. Now this is the ‘slush’ fund I count on for Christmas and other treats. Imagine my surprise when I went to buy a couple of gifts for my son to find under the tree on his return, and there was nothing left. What the hell? Following the charges, I found the source of the problem. And I realized it was a case of ‘me versus the machine’. I would not win this fight, nor would I ever see that $300 again. Holy fuck. I was feeling shitty enough right now. Now this. Mom had made it plain that she was unable to help at this time – property taxes were approaching – so I knew I couldn’t go to her. I asked an old friend if he could loan me the sum – just til early January, as that’s when my students were returning – but after a few days there was no response. Feeling ill about having appealed to him for help, I’d been wishing I could take it back. But that wasn’t possible. What was posted was posted. Ugh.

Phooey. Thumbs Up is dead, I’m broke and fat, and my kid is a thousand miles away.

The up side is that my mother is still here, my neighbors are all wonderful and supportive, and I have friends who help buoy my spirits through the lifeline of the internet. My house is warm (bless this mild winter!!) and my son is has two goddam tubas and a myriad of instruments to keep him happy. We have six happy fish, three happy frogs and fifteen remaining fowl. I have a view of Vermont and a fucking grand piano. Ok, so my Wurlitzer needs a bunch of work, but hey. I have one.

Looking back over the years I see this same sort of lament over and over here on the blog. And it gets a little tiresome, I know. Sometimes it kinda feels like reading the journal of a middle school girl: ‘poor fat me, no one has it as bad as I do, no one understands me’ again and again. Things aren’t really so bad, I know it, but still…  I haven’t figured out how to pilot this Studio thing, I haven’t approached anyone to join the board yet, and my office is a fucking nightmare of unfiled paper and undone to-do lists. Yes, the refrigerator is organized, the pantry tidy, and the floors are as clean as they’re going to get for now. My house is in order now, but my life is not. It’s up to me, I know it. Holding out hope that I’ll find the oomph inside me to get the Studio going, to lose twenty-five pounds, to get my teaching materials filed and organized. But from where I sit today, I can’t imagine how I’ll get any of this shit done.

Yesterday I was rocking my sweet Thumbs Up after she had died. I was holding her against my breast, her neck against mine… I looked out past the Christmas tree to the hills beyond and remembered the year before last; I had been rocking in that same chair, looking out over that same view, tears streaming down my cheeks as I anticipated the imminent death of my father. Here I was again, so sad, so sad. Still, this was part of life. Nothing so wrong with being sad, I thought to myself. Maybe the best thing one can do is just invite the sorrow in and push through it hard. Sad doesn’t last forever, after all. Nothing does. Which ultimately, I suppose, is a great gift.

On Christmas morning I rose in an uncharacteristic panic; in my gut I had felt something to be very wrong. I sat up in bed and felt fear wash through my body. Without second-guessing myself I ran to the coop. The backyard was eerily quiet… where was Bald Mountain? I opened the door – the coop was nearly empty. Had there been an attack? Had the automatic chicken door opened too early and allowed a predator to enter? Adrenaline flushed through me. There, on the top roosting bar, were two old gals. Usually there were three. Shit. Thumbs Up…. where was she? I panicked, opened the other door and searched the run. There, in the far corner, was my girl. Hunkered down, seeking solitude, I knew in an instant this was a bad sign. She’d been in and out of the kitchen clinic several times over the past month, and I knew things weren’t good with her. But I didn’t know they were this bad.

I rushed her inside and this time decided to demystify her ailment. I knew it was an impacted cloaca of sorts; she couldn’t pass normally, and this was dangerous. I risked cutting into her flesh and creating a possibility for infection, this I knew, but I had to do something. So I did. I removed strange-looking tissue and tried to relieve her as much as possible. I bathed her and dried her and returned her to a bed in the mud room. We’d lost a hen here just a few weeks ago – this was ominously familiar. I stayed with her for a while, talking to her and taking photos that I knew in my heart would be the very last ones…

I called mom, the one person on the planet besides my son who ultimately has my back at the end of it all – and told her what was going on. God bless my mom. Offering me guidance and advice – here she was at nearly 81, and here I was at the age of 52 – and my mom was still my mom. It almost felt physical, the relief upon hearing her consolation. I was touched by her care and concern for me. She was saying things that made me feel better… Even if I might have said those same things to myself, hearing it from my mother was different. Yes, we agreed, there was nothing left to do for Thumbs Up. I might as well go on with my day as planned. I would go to the nursing homes and visit those who had no visitors.

With a book of carols and a harness of old-fashioned jingle bells in my bag, I headed out. First I visited my old next door neighbor who was happy at my unexpected visit. Her daughter and son-in-law soon arrived, and it was nice to see her tiny apartment full of people and holiday spirit. Satisfied to know she would have company for the day, I took my leave and went to another retirement home nearby.

The second nursing home was empty save for one woman who sat alone in the lobby while Christmas music played quietly, almost as if mocking the cheerless atmosphere. A large tree and a multitude of poinsettias beside a gas fireplace tried to give the place a cozy, home-like feel, but they were too contrived to do the trick. There was no one at the reception desk, in fact the office and dining room were dark when I arrived. I walked up to the woman, sat on the couch beside her and began talking. We passed a half hour before we saw another resident walking past. The woman I’d been speaking with said her son was coming to get her, but she didn’t know when. I’d begun to wonder if these plans were real or imagined.

The woman who next joined us was tall and lean, with her shoulder-length silver hair in a striking blunt cut. She, it turned out, was from Holland. She recounted a long life; how she’d come here at the age of 23 knowing no one, how she ended up going back to school for chemistry, how she married and had children, settling in a well-to-do New Jersey suburb. She wondered at her old home, the one in which she and her husband had shared over fifty Christmases. “Ach” she said, waving a hand in the air, “It was sold years ago. Who knows where all my things have gone. All my chairs, the curtains, the paintings….” She seemed disgusted, heartbroken and resolved all at the same time. My heart ached again, but I didn’t let on. Here it was my job to be the giver-of-cheer and hope. I asked if I might see her room here, how she had decorated it, where was it that she now lived. Both she and the first woman enthusiastically offered to take me on a tour.

We passed the rec room, which I knew to have a piano, as I’d played it years ago for a program my friend had organized. I sat down and opened the book of carols. The room was half-darkened, and the carpet sucked up every sound. In the quiet I began to play “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to which the ladies began to sing. I moved gently into several more slow and beautiful melodies, after which I felt it best to conclude. Then we three moved down the long corridor to the first apartment. It belonged to the tall Dutch woman who had introduced herself as Nellie; I learned from the plaque on her door that her full name was Pietrenelle. Adorned with white ceramic windmills and wooden shoes, her room was much as I would have expected. We moved on to visit Phyllis’ room, after which we headed back to the lobby. Two more folks had arrived in anticipation of dinner, and soon the smells of food began to waft into the air. I was surprised to see a middle aged man accompanied by a bulldog come through the front doors. “Dan!” Phyllis said, her countenance lifting as she saw the two. “Are you Dan?” I said, looking at the man and then gesturing to the dog. “He should be Dan!” I laughed. “He is actually a she...” he responded. Dan had not a clue as to the reference I was making (Yale’s school mascot is a bulldog named Dan. My dad was a Yaley, and of course, my son shares a name with the school’s philanthropic benefactor, Elihu Yale.) “…and her name is Lucy”.

I assured the women that I would be back to visit again, and I could see happiness and relief on their faces. This, if only a small bit of hope in the world, was better than none. I had done something. Not much, but the last two hours had been very pleasant, and I hoped the effect would last a little while.

When I arrived home I saw a horrible sight: Thumbs Up had fallen from the bench and was now propped up, wings spread, on the laundry detergent bottle. She was breathing in and out very, very fast. I tried to move her, and her head wobbled. Then she erupted in a spasm of movement, writhing her way across the floor, faltering on wobbly legs. This reminded me of a nervous disorder, but until now it had only seemed a gastric affliction. None of this mattered now. I gathered her up and put her in a nest on the floor. I tried to share her experience, breathing in and out breath for breath. Shit. This was horrible to watch. I couldn’t touch her, it would have caused her more pain. Her eyes were half opened; she was trying to maintain. Mom was waiting for me; she’d gone all out and made a thirteen pound turkey and all the works of a Christmas dinner. I really did not want to leave my precious girl. My heart yearned to hold her as she died – but I knew it could be an hour yet. Showing my mother love by being with her for supper was ultimately more important. I left reluctantly, and before I closed the door I told my beautiful red hen goodbye and that I loved her.

When I returned two hours later Thumbs Up was dead, as I’d expected. But her death had been violent; she had gotten up and out of her bed and died a few paces away, her bowels evacuated on the floor. I imagined her last minutes, I knew they were painful. The only consolation now was that she was gone. I was surprised by my immense and immediate grief; I ran to her, held her close to my heart and wept as I hadn’t – in two years.

She died on Christmas, and I placed her underneath the tree that night. The next morning I held her for a long time before I dug the hole, called Elihu, and finished saying goodbye. Yesterday I made my errands, and today, while I’d planned to finally assess my overflowing office, I’ve done nothing but choose photos and write. As casual as this blog may appear, it takes hours to create a post – even longer when dealing with pictures. Uploading is tedious and time-consuming. In between I take little breaks to look at the tree, or out the window at my flock. Like prodding a fresh wound to see if it still hurts – I’ll rest my eyes on the little white marker under the flowering quince bush.

Everything has its time, everything has its season. We get fat, we get thin. We get sick, we get better. We lose our way, and then we find it. We all flourish, we all fade. And whatever goes up, no matter how we might wish it otherwise, will eventually come back down. What a path is this life! Bless us all as we make our way through this great, mysterious journey. A hearty thumbs up to us all, and also to that little red hen who gave us such delight along the way.

IMG_0486I got to spend some time with Miss Lucy, the newest addition to the neighborhood. That was a treat.

IMG_0528Got busy getting down to all that grunge at the bottom of everything. This takes time. Glad it’s done.

IMG_0557The day before Christmas. All is well, and it sure doesn’t look like anyone will be dying anytime soon. Thumbs Up is the light red one on the left in back.

IMG_0576Butt shot – look away if you find it gross. Part of chickening. Austin, our comic guinea fowl enjoys the platform feeder. He thinks he’s a songbird.

IMG_0567Thumbs Up was calm in her bath as I removed scar tissue and gunk. It almost seemed as if she knew I was trying to help her. Such a good girl.

IMG_0594Getting her warm and dry. Again, while many hens might have protested, she stood there willingly. Perhaps because she was almost done with it all… Who knows.

IMG_0700Christmas day, she was different. After all, she herself had sought seclusion. I brought her to the stoop for a last visit with her flock.

IMG_0755I opened the door, and as she has so many times before, she hopped up and walked inside. I know no one else would have been able to tell, but she had an unsettled look about her. She made strange sounds and stood a little too erect, plus her eyes had a distracted appearance. Call me crazy, but hey, she died only hours later. I try to honor the ‘God voice’ when it tells me something. It’s a mistake to ignore it.IMG_0759Specks, the only hen who we’ve had longer then Thumbs Up, watches as her sister comes inside.

IMG_0650See how her tail is drooping? This is an unhappy hen, likely in physical discomfort.

IMG_0762I would take her pain on myself, if only I could. How can I love a hen so much?

IMG_0790My new friends at the nursing home, Phyllis and Nellie. Oh, and Lucy, the bulldog.

IMG_0824A sight I’ve seen all my life. Mom does it all.

IMG_0835Always superb.

IMG_0834This silver had been in my father’s family for a long time.

IMG_0857I smooch my old cat, Mina. She can’t live with us as Elihu is very allergic. My ex husband and I got her over 15 years ago. She is ancient now, and she won’t be here too much longer herself.

IMG_0885I expected to see Thumbs Up gone when I got home, but it was shocking nonetheless. My heart positively broke. Strange that we’ve butchered and eaten so many of our own birds, but this, somehow, was entirely different.

IMG_0957So beautiful were her colors.

IMG_1067I finally place Thumbs Up in her little grave. Pumpkin, the only remaining red hen, comes to see what’s going on.

IMG_1080A small piece of limestone marks the spot where Thumbs Up rests under the flowering quince bush.

Thank you, little red hen. Don’t tell the rest of the flock – but you were always our favorite.

 

 

Bag O Dad October 9, 2015

My father’s ashes have resided on North Broadway in Saratoga Springs for nearly two years now. We pass the funeral home each morning as we drive to school. Some mornings we wave and say hello to grandpa, sometimes we call out to him, letting him know that we haven’t forgotten, and we’ll come to get him soon… but most days we do forget. In our minds, that historic mansion on North Broadway is just where dad lives now. Among the tony, gentile and wealthy folk he so often joked about. He had liked to speak in different accents, and would happily interject “I weesh to be reech” into conversations – he even said it again just a few days before he died, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Many were the times he would tell us how life would look for a gentleman of such means; he made mock instructions to his imagined staff, told us how he’d lunch with Marylou or take tea on the veranda. For as long as I can remember, he would make good fun of the money’d folk and their upscale habits, but deep down, I don’t think dad would have minded one bit if such fortune were to have befallen him. Had he the money to express himself fully in this world, I have no doubt he would have surrounded himself with the finest of everything (most notably wine and double-manual harpsichords.)

We’ve always liked knowing he was there, quietly resting on a shelf in the fine home. It feels familiar now, to know that dad “lives on North Broadway”. As I said to the funeral director on the phone today – when I finally felt it was time to see if dad hadn’t overstayed his welcome – that it had been dad’s pleasure to have lived across the street from the Riggis, he generously offered that it instead was the Riggis who were honored to have had him as their neighbor. The Riggi’s enormous home – one which they themselves like to call the ‘Palazzo Riggi’ – has become something of a tourist destination, especially on Halloween. Readers may recall that Elihu won a $100 bill from Mrs. Riggi herself last year for his unique costume. While I posed with the Riggis and my son for a quick selfie, I noticed the Burke Funeral home mansion just behind the camera, and in that second the clash of realities seemed surreal. I said a quiet hello to him as we left the decadent celebration, and once again I wondered how long it would take for me to face the idea that dad was now no more than a shoebox of dust. It still didn’t feel real. Telling ourselves that dad was there somehow offered me some comfort. But the idea of actually seeing – and holding – the small box of his remains felt too real. Last fall I still wasn’t ready. God bless those folks at the funeral home. They’d never once called to tell us to come and pick him up. In fact, the funeral director had even said, shortly after dad’s death, that there was no hurry. I’m not sure most funeral homes are so lax. Don’t know, but I’d like to believe that we’ve been given some good, old-fashioned small-town care here. Yeah, it’s felt nice to know dad was there, taken care of and safe. I feel silly saying that, but there it is.

And here we are. I think we Conants are ready. Tomorrow would have been mom and dad’s 56th wedding anniversary. They married on 10/10 in Manhattan’s upper East side on a fine fall day. After their service they celebrated at the Harvard Club (a Yale man at the Harvard Club? Shhh…) and as they entered the limousine to take them away into the night, they received a telegram of congratulations. Can you imagine? There’s a photo of them, somewhere, in the back seat of the car, leaning in to read the message. It was truly an entirely different era. I think it’s just as well my father’s no longer here with us in this modern world; he was an old-school gentleman and scholar. His was a world of typed correspondence and hand-written notes… it was a slower, gentler world; a world of telegrams, paper and ink.

Although my mother doesn’t come out and say it in so many words, I can sense she might be starting to wonder at how things will end for her. I’m sure she wonders how long she’s got. How can you be 80 and not have such thoughts? I know that I, at 52, have come to understand in a much more profound and real way just how limited our lives are. As comfortable as we humans may have become at ignoring our ultimate fate, there still comes a moment or two when the idea finally gets your attention. I tell ya, knowing that in the next couple of hours I’ll be putting a box with what’s left of my dad’s body into the back seat of my CRV is a little surreal. And it makes this whole idea of actually dying begin to feel very possible. ! Look, I know this is business as usual; all of us deal with death. And at some point in many people’s lives they’ll be faced with the receipt of a loved one in powdered form; in a box, a bag, or if the comedy of life insists, all over the kitchen floor. (I was greatly relieved when Danny told me that the cremains were inside a bag which was then inside a box. !) I shouldn’t be making this such a big deal. But when it’s your first time, when it’s your deal, it is big. I do feel I’m readier for it than I was a year ago, but to be honest, my heart begins to race at the thought of holding dad’s remains. This morning I was missing my father deeply. Maybe having what’s left of him back home again will help soften that. And then again, maybe not.

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The experience of ‘picking dad up’ was made easier by the good-humored funeral director who welcomed us inside and never let up with amusing anecdotes and corny jokes. It wasn’t a show meant to distract – it was this fellow’s genuine personality. He recounted stories about terrifying nuns at Catholic school in his youth, and allowed Elihu his own boisterous expression as he bounded through the halls and jumped down half the staircase on our way out.

We then took dad out to lunch before heading back to mom’s. We hadn’t prepared her for his return, but in that I’d mentioned it recently, I suppose it wasn’t such a surprise. Mom doesn’t let on much of her inner feelings, and while she didn’t cry, I think I saw her eyes moisten just a bit. I’m glad that dad is home again, on this, the eve of their 56th wedding anniversary. Very likely he’s still somehow nearby, smiling and wishing his love upon us all, hoping that we can still feel his presence, and wishing very dearly that we should not be so sad… After all, this is a family of some deep-seated good humor, and we’re also pretty good about getting back to the simple things in life, which at the end of the day, are the reasons we’re all still hanging around.

IMG_0146A fine, rainy fall day as we head out.

IMG_0155Nostalgic for the way things used to be, I swing by Martha’s on the way to town. Still can’t believe she’s gone, too.

IMG_0166One year ago this week Saratoga’s Banjo Man, Cecil Myrie died. I see the Jamaican flag on Broadway and it reminds me… It was purely by coincidence that the Jamaican flag had been hung above Cecil’s makeshift memorial last year. Now it’s hanging at the other end of the strip. (We’ll be planting a memorial tree for him soon. Took a year to pull off!)

IMG_0179The Burke Funeral Home. One of the famous North Broadway mansions of Saratoga Springs.

IMG_0186Ok, this seems quite unexpected and unrelated… But our host insisted on showing us this very fancy, custom shower from the ’30s. Water came in at ya from all directions. Turns out mom and dad had one very much like it in their first NYC apartment on W 57th. And why shouldn’t it have had the finest appointments? “It was a very high class building” she reminded me, citing neighbors like Jose Ferrer, only a few doors down…

IMG_0189Elihu jokes around a bit with Nancy. She is, as my mother (also named Nancy) would say, “a good egg”.

IMG_0188So this is it. Sheesh. No pomp or ceremony. Tom just finds our box in the pile of other folks waiting to go home too.

IMG_0196I take a quick pic of the Palazzo Riggi from the second floor window.

IMG_0202Elihu’s like a ghost as he runs to the door, while I and my host (whose hand is in the far right) are making a much more measured and middle-aged descent down the carpeted staircase.

IMG_0203 (2)Finally, here we are. They even gave me a carryout bag. ! Oy. Bob in a bag. ! I do like the way it matches the mums, I suppose. !?!

IMG_0214Now this is the life to which my father could have grown accustomed with little effort. This fine Saratoga home belongs to the Wait family, the matriarch of which was once a board member for dad’s Festival of Baroque Music.

IMG_0234We’re at the Olde Bryan Inn. It’s a cozy place, perfect for a rainy afternoon lunch with dad.

IMG_0218Hmm, do ya think anyone suspects dear old dad is sitting right beside me??

IMG_0222Ah well, here’s to you, dad. Miss you.

IMG_0258We didn’t give mom much warning, but she seems ok. As she gives dads remains a heft, she says that she misses Annie (her cat who died two weeks ago today) a lot too – letting on that she must also be missing her husband. She never says so, that’s not her way. But she’s gotta be missing him, and especially today, on the eve of their anniversary.

IMG_0271She assesses the box, and the accompanying note of verification. (Dad’s correct date of death was December 27th, but as we couldn’t get anyone to formally pronounce him dead until the 28th – he died shortly before midnight – it will forever be legally recognized, albeit incorrectly, as the day he was legally pronounced dead. Oh well. We know.)

IMG_0302Within moments, it’s life as usual. The box sits in and among all the other day-to-day crap and clutter. Mom goes back to unpacking her groceries, and Elihu’s got his nose in a book on amphibians.

IMG_0307A closer look at the newly discovered book given to him by grandma.

IMG_0310And shortly thereafter, a live specimen in hand.

IMG_0324You’re a good-looking creature, little one. Please hunker down safely before winter, won’t you? You are one of the simple joys that keeps us going here on this sad, funny, ridiculous, heartbreaking and incredibly challenging planet. Good night frog, good night to all. And welcome back, dad. I know it’s not really you there in that box, but still.

It’s nice to have you home.

 

Lining Up April 19, 2015

Every time I hear someone refer to the ‘circle of life’ I cringe. Because I don’t think of life a a circle at all. Seasons, migratory and mating patterns might be cyclical in nature, but our tiny private lives are not. To my thinking the circle idea is just plain wrong. If this were a circle we were in, we’d end up at the place where we started, and we’d do it all over again. (For the sake of this conversation, let’s not concern ourselves with the afterlife – I’m just talkin worldly stuff here.) People are fond of explaining away the death of a pet to their little ones by saying that ‘it’s all part of the circle of life’. I think it might be better to tell the child that every living thing in the world dies. Life always comes to an end. Yes, it can be sad, but it happens to all of us. When I hear someone say ‘circle’, I kind of expect things to start all over again. And in a way they do – only the subsequent rounds are played with a new cast in brand-new situations. There may be similarities in old and new events – but still, that doesn’t make the whole play a circle. It’s still just a trajectory of actions moving into the future. The way I see my life here on this mortal coil – it’s a line. You start at the beginning, and you proceed through all sorts of events until you reach the end. And if you’re successful, you make it to old age. Then you die. You travel from point A to point B, making a line. Not a circle.

The eighth graders are doing the Lion King for their class play, and I’m playing piano. One of the most popular songs from the play is, of course, the ‘Circle of Life’. I’ve become a bit more immune to the expression due to the number of times I’ve now heard it, but as I listen I can’t help but reflect more deeply on the transient nature of our brief lives here on the planet. Yesterday Elihu and I attended the funeral of one of Greenfield’s old-timers, and today we’ll go to a birthday party of two wee ones. Life and death side by side like this make me more keenly aware of this finite timeline we’re all living, and how important it is to live with intention and gratitude as we go along. Our sense of time may slow or speed up depending on our age and our circumstances, but at the end of the day, when it’s time to say goodbye forever, it always seems as if life wasn’t quite long enough – even when it was. I’m sure that Olga, at 94, felt it had been long enough. And I never worry about those who’ve died. All those prayers for the dead strike me as just plain useless and beside the point. I’m not worried about them; it’s those of us left behind who need the prayers. Those of us who are left behind to bear the heartache and loss have a much harder job by far than the ones who are dead and gone. Those of us whose lines are still being drawn, those whose ending points are still somewhere over the distant horizon…

IMG_7482Elihu had never been to a funeral before, so I thought it would be a good life experience for him to have. We didn’t know Olga well, but she was our neighbor and it felt good to know she was always there. Her passing truly marks the end of an era here in Greenfield.

IMG_7485As soon as we walked in we saw the Carrico clan… they live across the big field, and a couple houses over from Olga.

IMG_7509Elihu loves little kids, and we’re so glad to have these wonderful girls as neighbors.

IMG_7496Stephanie’s belly is more like a circle than a line for sure! She’s coming along with mystery baby number four!

IMG_7488Inside, Elihu marvels over the changes that happen in a long lifetime.

IMG_7492Olga, young and old.

IMG_7489It’s nice to see smiles on such a say day.

IMG_7519The funeral procession makes a long line up Lake Ave.

IMG_7521After Catholic Mass at the local church, the family brings Olga to her final resting place in the town cemetery. Elihu had also never been to a church service like this – while it was in reality about forty-five minutes, he could’ve sworn it was three hours. ! Talk about experiencing time differently! (I so get it though.)

IMG_7545It was a lovely day, a lovely service, a lovely goodbye.

IMG_7552The line between the cemetery and the field seems to stretch on forever….

 

Shift February 17, 2015

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Big shifts are underway. Frustratingly, the two I’m most keenly interested in are difficult to pinpoint and identify. Although the changes are slow-moving and subtle, sometimes it seems they appear overnight.

My own face and body are morphing into a form I never expected to see myself inhabiting, and my son, while still just a boy, occasionally evokes shadowy premonitions of the years ahead. I’ll catch a glimpse of his back and shoulder and understand it to be the sculpted shape of a young man, but then that idea falls away again and I’ll realize that it’s still just my little boy. A subtle turn of the head or bending of a limb will look somehow new and different, and again the approaching future reminds me that it’s coming. But still, it’s only a hint – nothing I can define, measure or quantify… And after my vision fades, it’s still a young boy’s body I see, and I’m relieved. Yes, I know big changes are coming, and deep inside I’m beginning to get ready. But my feelings remain mixed: being a single mother to a young child is exhausting; am I not indeed ready for the next chapter? I know that I am, and in fact I’m so looking forward to seeing what kind of young adult my son is to become – but I also know how terribly I’ll miss aspects of this intimate, magical time in our lives. Getting ready, breathing in….

Unlike the vaporous nature of the visions I have of my son, the snapshots I see of my own body are not momentary illusions, nor do they portend for more lovely visions to come. The relatively new jowls bracketing my jaw line are not an aberrations caused by the light. In fact, with more light and more careful scrutiny the changes appear more advanced than I might otherwise have thought. Low res pictures and dimly lit rooms may offer comfort and push the truth off to a comfortable distance, but I can’t fool myself for long. I know what’s going on here. And yeah, I know I’ve said it before, but likely I’ll say it again a whole lot before my run on this planet is through: This wasn’t really supposed to happen to me. Of course I know that’s not exactly true; I knew age would befall me, it’s just that somehow I imagined the whole process would be a tad bit, well, sexier. Aging didn’t seem all that bad when I saw the relaxed elegance of over-fifty models carrying firewood or sipping tea in LL Bean catalogues, or when women of a certain age happily rode bicycles alongside their silver-templed life mates during insurance commercials. It was possible to age with style and ease! It was really all about attitude, right? Yeah – the right attitude, a good head of hair, a long inseam and a snappy, clean jaw line. ! If I had those goin for me, I’d happily take the wrinkles around my eyes and the mane of silver. But age doesn’t manifest so neatly in most of us. Sigh.

At the risk of belaboring this discussion, I feel I need to completely clear about things. In order to become more comfortable with the subject of aging, I wish to blow the goddam top off of all this polite, tip-toeing around that folks do when talking about getting old. I have a low tolerance for euphemisms…. Please, friends, can we be as honest as possible with each other? I once knew a man who said that “woman don’t go gray. They go silver.” And while I still think it’s kinda cute – it obscures the truth of the experience. I’m sorry, but unless you look something like Emmylou Harris, gray hair for you will likely detract from the drama of your look rather than add to it. (I do know one person who has been blessed with a head of truly gorgeous gray hair. In this case I might even be tempted to call it silver. Yes, Francine, I’m talking about you.) I will not have this ‘glass half full’ nonsense about how beautiful a person’s wrinkles are, how the lines around one’s eyes are ‘earned’…. Bull fucking shit. I’m sorry y’all. I don’t find them ugly per se – wrinkles do not diminish my love for or attraction to a person – but they don’t demand my admiration as does the dewy, smooth skin of a young person. Come on. I am so tired of pretending shit’s what it isn’t.

Having said all of that, I’m going to need a way of living inside this wrinkling body while feeling somewhat ok about it. It’s been a while since I fell off the workout wagon, and I know that once I’m back on the horse again, that’ll help me feel better. And one day, I’m tellin ya now, if I should ever come across $5K that doesn’t need to go out as soon as it comes in, I’ll be making an appointment at a local surgeon’s office to get some help pulling things up again. Yeah, I’m not above it. Just not rich enough yet to put it on the list of options. So for now, it’s all about going inside to make the needed adjustments. And also – it’s about living for something else besides me, which brings me to another shift that’s underfoot these days…

Any moment I’m going to get a call from the forester, and I’ll don my snowshoes and join both him and the head logger in the woods. These guys are fantastic and fastidious and they’ve stayed in communication with me throughout the job. My parents got screwed over by the last outfit they had harvest their woods, some twenty-odd years ago, and this time I made it a top priority to find folks I could trust. The logger had some questions and asked that I accompany them on a walkabout, so he could make sure that he didn’t cut what I’d hoped to keep. So far the process has been as unobtrusive as I believe logging can be; the very roads on which they remove the trees recede from view into the forest from just a few feet away; the roads themselves are few and the cuts selective. (Might be one reason we’re not making the big money that we could if we cut more dramatically.) The other day I explored our property as I hadn’t since I was a child. It was thrilling, inspiring, and from the newly formed trails had me expanding my ideas about hosting nature walks in tandem with art classes. In the past I’d been asked by small folk music groups if I could offer camping space… Soon the answer will be yes. And there’s a huge basin of wetland that my parents had once discussed making into a pond (at the time there was state money available for it if it was to be left a wild area. Something to re-investigate.). There’s some gentle topography to the woods and even a creek – which one of the workers noted to me was not yet ‘categorized’, meaning it had yet to be named. ! See what I mean? So much potential has opened up now, there are so many options before us….

While I don’t know how exactly it is that I’ll be using the Studio and the surrounding eighty acres of woodland, I do know that I will be sharing this space with people. I have a list of ideas, some likely not very realistic (hell, none of this seemed remotely possible two years ago!), some more practical than others, but I’m not comfortable sharing them yet. In the year’s time since the Studio’s big flood, I’ve posited so many possible scenarios and gotten so ahead of myself, that in going forth I’m going to make an effort to chill out a bit. To hold my cards a bit closer to my chest. Not to run through the halls blabbing my big ideas, lest they turn out to be wildly unrealistic and naive. Bad enough I suppose that I’m beginning to create all this infrastructure without so much as a concrete business plan. I do, however, have a general trajectory in sight, and above all else, my goal is to add some love and light to the world. I want to help bring people together, to create community without pressure, without the need for people to spend beyond their means… I’d like to create a space where people can come by for no good reason. I’d like to provide a platform for people to create, learn, perform and interact, all without the pressures of holding their work to professional standards. The summer art classes, while not personally mine, have set a nice tone for the place. Deep in my mind’s eye, I do have a vision for the place. From where I stand today, I simply cannot know how much of that will come to pass – hell, if any of it will come to pass. I may not know exactly what I’m doing, but I still dearly wish to succeed at it, whatever the final product may end up looking like. And with all of you here as my witnesses, failing becomes far more unpleasant a thought; I’m motivated by both lofty and not-so-lofty reasons. But whichever direction this whole project goes, it’s safe to say that things are improving.

I, my son and the Studio are all on the edge of something new. The ground trembles as the trees fall, my son’s legs ache as they grow longer, and for the first time in my life, my fingers actually hurt when I play the piano. It’s such a confusing mix of happy anticipation for the new adventures ahead – and dread for the disappointments that will also come along with that same future… My heart skips a beat sometimes when I realize that there’s no possible way of ever going back (or is it just A-fib?  !). I know what I’m getting ready for, and yet I don’t.

Although I may not know much about the particulars of this next chapter, I do know this for sure: the big shift is finally underway.

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This came my way via Facebook yesterday… Worth a quick peek.

 

Memorial Tree December 4, 2014

It would be the closest thing to a formal ceremony my family would ever have for dad. The funeral home that handled dad’s affairs held an interfaith service and candlelit walk the other night in memory of those who’d died this past year. Time feels very different these days, and truly, it is hard to comprehend that it’s been almost a year since my father’s been gone. Christmastime will forever carry with it a different sort of mood. But it’s ok; his life ended in as near perfect a way as we could have hoped. For the most part, dad was dad up until the end. In spite of that, I do know that the last year or two wasn’t necessarily enjoyable for him. The last month was the worst of it, really. So it was a good thing that he finally left.

Time has taken some of the edge off; the hurt isn’t so acute as it once was, but instead, now I find that his death has become a regular part of my life. I must think of dad several times each day, missing those little, familiar details I can never again hear or see… Daily my sorrow is refreshed in little ways. It’s a selfish thing though; I personally believe he’s enjoying a much more harmonious, peaceful and loving existence wherever it is that he lives now. It’s just this damned one-way mirror makes it impossible to confirm my hunch. Man, sometimes this life thing really pisses me off. And sometimes I think it’s all a very clever way in which to stoke our sense of hope, and strengthen our ability to have faith. And then again sometimes I feel like it’s all a stupid, hurtful game, and I’m done with it – I’m out of patience with the whole ridiculous, painful joke.

Death wouldn’t be so bad if we could just get a little note from our departed loved ones, just to let us know that they got there ok, that maybe they miss us, and that they want us to know that it’s not so bad. Not bad at all, in fact. Oh, and if they could just assure us that we’ll be fine too, and before we know it, somehow, we’ll be together again.

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 Elihu put his dove on the tree in memory of his grandfather. He started to sing Kum Ba Yah on the walk back to the church. I sang harmony with him, and our song ended just as the candlelit walk was over. Kinda perfect. And Elihu was the first to remember some funny anecdotes about dad at the end of the evening, bringing a bit of spirited joy back to the night. Thankfully, he’s kept his outlook positive and hopeful around this sad change of life, even down to the parting words he last spoke to his grandpa: See you shortly…

 

November’s News November 20, 2014

Today the sixth grade went on a field trip to see a production of The Secret Garden by Albany’s Capital Repertory Company. A quick, last-minute search informed me that it was a musical – not what I’d expected (Lucy Simon, Carly’s big sister wrote the music, Marsha Norman the lyrics). At first my heart sank at the discovery, but no matter, I figured it would be a good production. Happily, the show did not disappoint, and even though I, as a driver and chaperone, paid my own gas and parking, I feel it was worth the expense. These rare day trips are always worth whatever small sacrifice I need to make, because this era of ‘parents going along too’ won’t last forever. Plus I want very much to have these shared memories with my son, and with his classmates, too.

In Elihu’s first full year at Waldorf I was present for just about every single field trip the class took. The following year, in spite of a full schedule playing piano at the school, I somehow managed to attend most of the trips, and even though I had to beg out of a class again today, I managed to go along once again. I don’t take any of this for granted, I feel it’s a true gift. As a parent with the flexibility to be there, it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t go when I was able. Although on the car ride back Elihu played the perfect eleven-year-old boy, making crazy jokes with his buddies and laughing the whole ride, when it was just the two of us again driving home from school, he effused over the production. He told me that he ‘was in tears for much of it’. (I found it moving too, but not to the degree that he did.) And that each actor played an instrument – and sang as well – he found that more than impressive. When we got home he was excited to call both his father and grandma to tell them about his day at the theater.

Tomorrow is the fall school assembly, and although the orchestra’s too large to fit on the stage and so won’t be performing (much to Elihu and grandma’s great disappointment), Elihu will be singing with the middle school chorus as well as doing a spoken word piece with his class, and also a eurythmy performance in costume. (As a self-respecting sixth grade boy he cannot openly admit to enjoying his movement performance, but in private Elihu has several times told me how beautiful the costumes are and how much he’s looking forward to wearing them.) Tomorrow should be another good production. And for once I’m not accompanying anything, and I will be thoroughly enjoying my non-participatory role in the audience.

A couple of days ago I had my first hair cut and color in over seventh months. (I know.) I just love the place I go to; it’s homey, comfortable and casual and I almost always meet someone new and enjoy some pleasant conversation when I’m there. I have a great respect for those who can cut and style hair; they express such nuance with each creation. And that no two heads are the same just makes what Wendy does for me all the more impressive. She’s a talented woman, and I’m grateful that I found her. (She always makes Elihu feel like a rockstar, too.) It’s been so long since I’ve felt like spending the money on myself, but truth be told, there’s almost never a good time. Somehow, this month my bills were caught up and I’d even managed to tuck some Christmas gifts away early, so I was able to free myself from the guilt of the extra expense and enjoy being there. Freedom from worry is good, yes – but even better is that fresh haircut feeling. ! And I know I’m just kinda sneaking this in here – but I’ve lost 15 pounds since September on a renewed dieting campaign, and it hasn’t been til now that I’ve felt I deserved spending the money on my hair. Diet results or not, I’ve done a lot over the past seven months. I’ve covered some ground and made some improvements in my corner of the world. This was a nice reward.

Beyond today, I’m not sure what will fill our time when school lets out for break, as the Thanksgiving vacation week looms long and empty at the moment. It’s the first Thanksgiving that Elihu will have been here in years. Last year, while Elihu was in Illinois with his father, we four Conants had our last meal together while dad was alive. I remember the food was so good that we ate robustly, hardly checking in a moment with each other. It was only as dad wiped his beard and began to push away from the table that I realized…. this was probably was, no – it was – our very last meal together as a family. I’d felt both sad and grateful in that moment – sad that it had felt so natural that I’d let it pass without any special moment of savoring it, grateful that we, who hadn’t eaten as a group around the same table in a decade or more, had all been here together one final time. In a way it was perfect that Elihu was absent; it gave us our last real moment as a family. I’m grateful for it, grateful, grateful. Hard to believe it was a year ago. That the season of my dad’s death was a year ago. This year, thank God, we’ll have the energetic addition of young Elihu to help keep things happy and bright. Mom’s even inviting another couple to join us. Things feel much better than they had originally. One concern however, is Andrew. After several months of attending AA meetings every single night, he’s fallen off the wagon yet again. (An intervention was never done at the insistence of a friend in AA who ended up mentoring – and then giving up on – Andrew.) This is an emotionally charged time, and Andrew is a goddam time bomb. It’s one thing to call the sheriff in to prevent him from taking a knife to me with immediate family present, it’ll be a horror show if it happens in front of folks we don’t know all that well. (I suppose it would be even more horrific should he actually make good on his threats.) With his nephew being present, that might help mitigate things. Never can tell with Andrew. We shall see.

Martha was taken to the hospital day before yesterday – her sixth (or perhaps seventh?) such visit over the past year. I’m always prepared for it to be ‘the time’, but it never is. I was glad that Elihu’d brought his string bass to the farm the other night to play for her. He played her favorite song “Simple Gifts” and other things, all of which made her happy and brought up stories from when she was a music teacher at Skidmore College half a century ago. Then Elihu found a shofar from the farm’s music room and after a few minutes found he could play a couple of discernible notes on it. That again brought up another story. Mom too was there with us in the kitchen, and Martha’s hound dog Masie made the rounds sitting on our feet as we visited… “If this visit to the hospital is to be Martha’s last, at least we had a good time the other night” I had thought to myself. But within a day she was given the green light, and yesterday I found myself wheeling Martha back up the stairs and into her enormous farm house once again. Which is where she ought to be. It’s always best to be home.

And tonite I find myself actually enjoying my home in a free moment. To-do lists done for the day, laundry, dishes, tidying… All of it done. The kid is even asleep. Often it takes Elihu a very long time to fall out, but today was full and after reading a chapter or two he was ready to sleep. I so seldom find myself in this place – usually it’s not until late that I can sit in front of my computer. Usually I feel the dull panic of a night growing later, and the morning looming just around the corner… But right now I am fairly content in the middle of a peaceful night, in my cozy, candle-lit living room in the middle of a month that hasn’t turned out as badly as I’d expected it to. As far back as I can remember, this was the month I always hated most of all. It was bleaker than any other month. It was gray and cold and snowless. And aside from a recent dusting of snow (we’re six hours east of the snowbound region of New York), so far this is just about as I remember all Novembers to be. But somehow, what with all life’s tiny diversions, I haven’t been so disheartened by the month this time around. Yes, it’s been cold and bleak out, but thankfully there’s been enough going on inside to keep our lives warm and colorful. Ah, but let’s all hope that it doesn’t get too colorful around here in a week’s time… Because as much as we all like a good story, I think we can agree that sometimes no news really is good news.

 

Time Neverlasting May 6, 2014

Tomorrow, on the 7th of May, 2014, I will be fifty-one years old. The novelty of turning fifty now past, I find myself wondering how to emotionally approach this very average-sounding, non-landmark of a birthday. It’s interesting to me that although aging is a concept I admittedly have a hard time with, I haven’t invested a lot of energy or thought into it – certainly not the way I did last year’s birthday. And when I do pause for a moment to consider what’s happening here, I feel a bit stuck. I’m getting older, but somehow I’m still not adjusting. Somehow, I still don’t believe it.

This time last year I was twenty-something pounds lighter after a long and successful campaign on the Atkins diet. I passed my fiftieth summer looking and feeling great. I even got to visit Chicago, got to sing in front of some audiences, eat some fabulous food, visit much-missed friends and favorite places… And all while not being two dress sizes too big for me. (Say what you will, I don’t care. You’re right, I am not liberated, modern or emotionally responsible about this; life just feels a whole lot better as a size 10. Sorry, but for me it’s true.) There were some moments in which I felt absolutely glowing and good; positivity and energy radiated from me without effort… It had been some years since I’d felt this way, and I was a bit surprised to notice how familiar a feeling it was – and how not only enjoyable it felt to look and feel good, but how powerful it was too. To have virtually no reservations about how I visually presented to people. I zipped up old favorite dresses and they felt as good as super-hero costumes. But this year, I live in a different body, and the thought most forefront in my mind each day is this: man, I fucking blew it. And once again, I look and feel frumpy. Tossed many of most of my fat clothes last year, and bought a couple new skinny outfits too, which now I simply cannot wear. Crap. Choosing clothes was hard enough, now it’s an extra tricky challenge. Oh dear Lord, whatever have I done to myself? No matter, it is what it is. The question that I’m left with now is this: what do I do next?

Ok, so I’ve quit smoking, I’ve done the fad diet thing, I’ve gone months without a glass of wine, I have myself a brand-spanking new giant tv and a dvd player and all the Richard Simmons workout videos I can ever use. The trick here seems to be to get it all going at the same time. Since being a mother I haven’t ever had my game on like I had in the old days. Almost… but not quite. Like a bump under the rug, one weakness or another shows up in a corner while the rest of the room looks tidy and put together. So the game plan for going forward seems obvious, but daunting: just get plain healthy. It makes sense, really. It would be so much more enjoyable to feel lighter, more flexible, less driven by a jones and more by an organic desire just to be well. I can guess such a world exists, but it may as well be on another planet the way I feel right now. Gotta be honest here, food is the great reward at the end of a long and tiring day. The pure pleasure of sitting down to a tub of hummus and a stack of pita break with my kid when we return home is a highlight of the day. What would replace that? What will I look forward to if I don’t have my snacks, my wine? I have to figure it out, because I can’t eat as I used to, and while I may love my after school snacks, I sure don’t love the new body that came with em. So one goal for the ‘new year’ might be an overall re-tuning of my routines. A more watchful eye on portions and a workout time scheduled into my day just like I’d make time for practicing or teaching. I guess. A healthy, flexible and trim body sure would be a nice birthday present to give myself. And if I plan on going low and slow, it’ll probably take me a year to get my gift ready…

The eighth grade is doing “Tuck Everlasting” for their class play, and I’m playing the music for it. Even though Elihu read the book rather recently himself, and even though it’s something of a kid’s classic, I hadn’t read it myself and wasn’t even sure of the premise. As I sat there today composing little pieces for the interludes between scenes, I learned about its theme of accidental immortality and the frightening repercussions. And then in the midst of pondering my own process of aging and the reservations I still had about it – it hit me: Yes, I actually do want to grow old. Yes, my God, I do. Can you imagine not growing old? Staying just as you are now – forever? I know there’s nothing new to this message, but still. As I sat there, watching the characters talk about living until the end of time… I could feel the terror in it. And I thought of my father and his life, well-lived, perfectly wrapped up, ending with closure and rightness. Why should I fear concluding what is happily finished? I’m not done yet, and have much still to learn, but I can’t bring my experience to a happy ending unless I grow old first. So I guess I kinda need this birthday tomorrow. I remind myself that at least we’re all going at the same speed. And we’re all headed the same place, so I may as well relax and try to enjoy myself along the way.

My mother had a little accident a couple of days ago. Don’t want to say that she had a fall – it sounds like such an old-lady thing to have happen – but that’s exactly what it was. She said it was because she ‘broke her own rule’ about running for the phone. She turned and stepped on her gym bag and fell. The irony was a killer – she’d just gone to the Y to begin working out again after years away (hmm, do I sense a trend?) and had only just placed the bag there. She’d injured herself out of her effort to improve her health. ! (And who was the caller? You guessed it. I do feel kinda guilty about it.) Thankfully, she didn’t go the ultra old-lady route and break a hip, instead she just really whacked her back and kidneys. She’s so sore she thinks that she may even have fractured a rib. I was on the phone with her today as I sat at the piano between classes when the eurythmy teacher came up to me showing surprise on her face –  as I wasn’t supposed to be using my phone inside the school. But when she heard the conversation I was having with mom, she lightened. When I hung up she advised me that it wouldn’t always be like this. Being there for my kid, then for my folks. One day they’ll all be gone, and it’ll be just me again. And then, how did she put it? I’ll be free to work on ‘my own biography’. I added that it was a pity that I’d have to be doing it without benefit of youth. But she just waved her hand in the air and made a face that said ‘nonsense’… She insisted that most women found their most fruitful and enjoyable years to be in their fifties and sixties. Could be. She herself was good evidence of that. She definitely had an idea that I needed to add to the pot.

As my father would struggle across the floor with his cane he’d tell me that he remembered as a boy looking at old men like him and thinking that he’d never be like that… and then he’d laugh and say, ‘but look, here I am!’ I’d chuckle along with him, deep down thinking the very same thing that he once thought as a boy. How self-righteous of me! Ah, but how human. How mortal… Thank goodness there’s an end to it. I like the process of learning things, of doing things, but I also love being able to cross things off the list too. And one day, there’ll be an end to the to-do list that is my life. So for now I’ll just have to throw myself into it, while I’m able, because I think I’m beginning to understand that it won’t last forever.

IMG_2637An abstract image (the most forgiving type) of me, a guinea feather and dad’s wedding ring on the eve of my 51st birthday

 

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.

 

Going December 17, 2013

Let me tell you a bit about the scene: Mom and Dad’s house is an open-plan, post and beam beauty in which life takes place in the kitchen – which is the first room you walk into through the garage (as with most of the world, they never, ever use their front door). As soon as you come in, the dining room is just beyond the large kitchen island, and the L of couches to its right. (A Franklin stove sits near the couches but has been dark and unused for the better part of the past two years, unlike decades before when it was well-tended and in daily use.) There is a large tv that bisects the kitchen and the living/dining area, and it is constantly on. Mostly it’s the old black and white movies, sometimes it’s the cooking channel, and in the evenings it’s set to the local weather. Mom has become ever so slightly hard of hearing these days, and so the tv plays at a volume that adds a certain frenetic energy to the room. I always have to turn it down in order to hold a conversation. And through it all, dad – at least the past few years – has either been sitting at the island on a stool, sitting in his chair to the side, or lying down on the nearby couch. Since we four Conants moved him from the stool to the couch this past Sunday night he has lain there ever since, and it’s my suspicion it may well be where he remains until he dies. Because there’s little question about it now: my father is dying.

As I’ve said before, we Conants – at least mom and dad, Bob and Nancy, that is – aren’t very comfortable with physical displays of affections. Or spoken expressions, either I suppose. It was only through a very intentional campaign made by my ex husband years ago (when he was still my very new boyfriend) that I learned to say “I love you” to either of them. Thank goodness it was over the phone – I don’t think I could have done it in person. But at the end of my catch-up calls on Sunday evenings from Chicago to sleepy Greenfield, just as I was about to hang up, Fareed would lean in close to my face and mouth in an exaggerated way ‘AND I LOVE YOU!’ and he’d shake me til I said it. I thank my ex for a couple of things in my life, and this is one of them. From that time forward it because customary to end conversations with an ‘I love you’. But in person, not so much. And after I moved here, even less. Only in the past few months have I made an effort to revive it. Because, well, now’s the time, you know?

When my parents began their post-city lives here they found themselves in a cozy little social group which included a gay couple (that they were gay never registered to me until I was way into my own adulthood – they were simply my beloved Jim and Everett), an ‘older’ (as in my age now) opera singer, husband and wife musicians who ran an old-fashioned farm and maybe a couple extra characters that joined in the parties and concerts over the years. But the core group was always Frank and Martha, Jim and Everett, and Ruthie. Over the past decade I’ve seen all of them die. Except Martha, that is.  (One might joke that she aint never dying. And if you knew her, you’d laugh, shake your head and tend to agree.) Since only the trio has been left, it’s naturally had me wondering who would go first. And now I’m pretty sure we know.

Mom did finally call someone to learn our care options at this point. And finally, there it was, “Hospice”. For me it wasn’t a shocker, but the idea hit mom like a train. I heard it in her voice on the phone – she even readily admitted that even she wasn’t emotionally prepared for hospice to be brought up (the suggestion actually surprised her!). Later, when we visited, her eyes began to well with tears as we talked about the next phase. She’s held out til the last possible moment, and while I myself might have done many things differently, none of that matters now. Dad is still happy, so if we can keep him comfortable and healthy, he will die here at home. That, in my world, is a HUGE blessing. But regardless, it is still the death of my mother’s partner of over fifty years we’re talking about here. As much as we might toss it all around like so many common plans for the to-do list, we all know what this means. We are getting ready to have dad die, right here, and very soon. She is facing the biggest good-bye of her life. And after that, the house will be empty. She will be alone. Shit. This is hard. So goddam hard. It’s not like we didn’t know it was coming, either. “So how long did you think he might still live, Mom? Three years? More?” “Oh God no!” she snapped. “But then what, like another year?” I pressed. I’m not sure she herself knew. One doesn’t tend to actually sit down and map this stuff out. “I don’t know. His mother lingered like this for years….” she trailed off. That may have been so, but it looked like we were closer than that. Never know though. You hear stories of folks being put on hospice care and then living for years… Just never really know. But then again you kinda do….

Now that it’s real I feel a mix of three things: first, concern for my mother (and Martha too). How will she react? Will she allow us to see her cry? Childbirth gets so heavy that all modesty goes out the window; will she behave in a similar way with the death of her spouse? How does this work exactly?? Next, my brother. Just how will he react? How will this affect him? His drinking? Will this be what he needs to finally rise up and get healthy or will he sink to his own final funk? And then I myself feel a queer mix of sorrow and relief. The two battle it out inside me; when I take a closer look at his existence, it seems we only want him around us for ourselves, plain and simple. He himself would probably greatly appreciate an escape from this tired, confused body. But even as my mother had admitted a few weeks back, just having him there – even if he’s asleep, checked out, for all intents and purposes ‘not there’, his energy and presence is still very much there. And you feel it. You just know he’s there in the room. And it makes a difference. We both try to imagine the house without dad in it somewhere (as it’s been for the past quarter century) and the house seems almost pointless. Good thing mom has that goddam tv to fill the house up with crap and distraction I guess. Sigh. Elihu has great compassion for mom and her need to ‘fill the space’. “She just doesn’t want to really understand how far things have gone. She’s scared, so she tries to ignore it.” Yeah kid, probably a good bit of truth to that. Whenever I mutter about mom under my breath he says “I understand. She doesn’t mean it. She’s just trying to figure out how to behave”. Yeah, once again, thanks for keeping me on track. This isn’t easy for any of us.

When we went over earlier today, dad was resting on the couch. It was a different sort of resting now. Having continued to lose weight, his cheeks took on an extra sunken look in his horizontal position. Honestly, in his current condition, if you just glanced at him, you might think he was already gone. But no, he is there. He is there. Still. While Elihu chatted with grandma, tv continuing to do its thing, I sat next to dad, hoping for something. Some new pearl, some word, a smile…. Sadly, gone was my hope for a cute anecdote or story, it was all he could do to recount his two childhood pals by name for Elihu last time; now he related tiny blurred scenes to me, and all I could do was to try and understand what he was seeing as best as I could. Which I noticed became increasingly hard to do as mom continued to badger me with useless and uninteresting facts about this and that… a constant stream of crap that may as well have come from the goddam nightly news… Can’t that wait? I’m thinking, but biting my tongue lest it come out as I think it might… Please, lady, just shut up!! Can’t you see I’m trying to hear what dad is saying? But I don’t move, my focus is essential here. I listen, then I place my hand on his. We are connected now by touch, and I swear I feel him relax. His eyes have been closed the whole time. “Hi Dad, it’s me, just sayin hi”. He opens his eyes and smiles gently. “I love you so very much, dad” I tell him. And in a not-too-faint voice he answers me “Oh Elizabeth, I love you so very much”. Then he closes his eyes again. But my hand is still on his, we are still engaged with each other. Mom comes over to us and leans over the couch. I hope she doesn’t stay long, because she’ll probably start asking him what he wants or trying to make sense with him, asking him things that require answers – hell, that require opinions. And dad just doesn’t care now. Can’t you see that, lady? I’m thinking. Dad opens his eyes and looks at mom, saying “Pop is here…” then trails off. Mom laughs it off as the nonsensical mis-firings of an Alzheimer’s-riddled brain, and thankfully, she leaves. But I know that something is going on in there, and I stay with it. Me, I believe he’s just seen his father. His Pop. A pause. He closes his eyes and smiles. “I am in pleasure” he says, with a slight tone of humor. But then again, I take it to mean that he’s feeling ok too. He’s letting me know. “Susan” he then says, his eyes opening and looking a bit off into space. “You mean Susan, your niece?” “Yes, Susan. Where is she?” he asks. Now me, I personally believe he’s probably just seen Susan himself. She knows he’s coming soon, so she’s letting herself be seen. “Your niece Susan died about a year and a half ago. It was rather sudden. She was living with Jean in Florida. She got very sick and died.” What else to say? Sorry was not what this was about. He seemed to be thinking of – if not actually seeing – family members that were now gone. Sorry was the opposite of what was going on here now – all I felt was ‘yeah, this is it. Yes, there is some love and comfort awaiting him when he goes.’ And thank goodness! It makes me feel much better about things. A moment passed after the Susan thing, then he raised a finger and pointed a bit out and to the right… “who are all those people waiting by the curve?” he asked. “Oh, Dad, I wish I could see them too, I wish I knew who they are, but I don’t.” As if to keep things real, keep humor in the house (a staple of our family) he summons a bigger voice and in a funny accent says “I weesh to be reech”. He repeats it again, closes his eyes, and a wide, happy smile settles on his face.

This is the fork in the road at which many of my friends may choose to part from my company. Because for me, I do not believe dad’s words are meaningless bits of information, retrieved randomly from disparate areas of the brain…. I do not see this as a purely physical phenomenon taking place. Surely it is on some level just that, but there is another equally ‘real’ phenomenon occurring now which is not something than can as yet be quantified by science. I recognize my father is becoming less vibrationally in tune with this reality, and he is now becoming aware, if only in the faintest way, of the new reality he’ll soon be joining. Bunk and booey to my neurotransmitter-as-only-real-data-channel thinking friends, I know. My dear friends of the ‘it’s either working or it aint’ school of thinking will know dad’s behavior to be nothing more than a failing system of data transmission. In short: a body breaking down. Yeah, I’d agree with that. But I’m going to take that other path from here on, the one that knows we are more than an organic machine, and that there are countless energies we are a part of that no meter or machine can measure. I know that ‘real’ can be real without tests, trials and placebos. My dad’s death is certainly a real experience to him, and that, ultimately serves as the Truth here and now. Quantifying or qualifying his Truth does seem rather silly, don’t you think? A moot point really.

One day I do hope we’ll have the opportunity for a good laugh together about it all as we re-evaluate our Earthly lessons and kick back for a little respite after our exhausting lives on this tricky planet. Cuz I believe this is one tough-assed school. And I believe we’ve come here to work on things. We’ve found the right groupings and scenarios and countries, bodies, talents and occupations – the whole shebang – so that we might most effectively learn what it is we need to in order to become better. Dare I say, more Godlike. When I put it like that, kinda makes me laugh. I mean man, this planet don’t exactly seem like a good choice for a mission like that, huh? Pretty crappy place sometimes. Sure aint easy, even when you do have it easy. Plus there is this existential uncertainty which thrums through us our whole lives, nagging at us to try and answer it if we dare listen. But thankfully, there are lots of diversions here to muffle its drone. Yeah, you can easily go through your life and never give a shit about anything but just getting by. The challenge, however, is to care, and to widen your sphere of caring and loving influence. And we all know that is much, much easier said than done. The distractions are so very tempting – and easy. But a life spent mostly on the path of love and caring is one spent pretty well, at least I think so. Certainly more of a step ahead than not. And my dad has made many steps forward here. He’s also had to carry some burdens that I wish he hadn’t. He grew up knowing he was loved, but he grew up in a culture where love was not expressed. A handshake from dad before he went off to the Army. Nurses instead of mother. Boarding school from a young age. I’m glad that now, in these final, restful moments on the couch that I can tell him I love him.

Because if he’s going soon, all he really needs to know is that we love him. The rest will sort itself out on the other side.