This past summer has been an emotionally difficult season for me.
At a time when most of my peers have been wrapping up their careers, and at a time when I had fancied myself to be starting my career anew, I instead discovered my future to have fallen far short of that expectation. This has consumed me, and I have been stuck. And when my son returned from his trip to Europe late this summer, he knew it too, straight away.
“You are becoming happy in your sadness” he’d said after I’d admitted that I was still bereft at the end of my recent musical employment. “You are becoming happy to be sad. It’s not acceptable. You’re letting this become your story. ” He paused, and then he let a few minutes of dark highway pass, as if for effect. “Do not let this become your story.”
Although whatever had happened was in the past, he could tell that I was still dwelling on it – nay, simmering in it. What was gone – and how it had all gone down – was becoming toxic to me. “You have to move on” Elihu said, as we drove home in the inky darkness. It stung to hear him so critical, so serious. He was hardly my kid anymore; he was a peer offering sage advice. My mental health depended upon it, and we both knew it. I’d been able to push it away during the lonely summer months, as I’d had no one to counter my mood, no one to discuss it with. But he was home, and now I had the outside perspective I’d needed. Yeah. Time to move on. But to what?
With no musical comrades, no peers and no dear friends in physical proximity, “moving on” seems truly daunting. Elihu has been my closest companion for the past nineteen years, and it is a tall order to replace such an insightful and considerate person with whom I can discuss things. I do have a few close friends – my oldest bestie from high school having recently become a cherished part of my life – but she is far away and has her own life to contend with. And in the end, no one can really take the place of my son. People warn against considering your child to be a peer, but I dunno. I have often said jokingly that I gave birth to a 50-year-old man. Not so funny as it is true.
Music seems to be fading into my past, and it breaks my heart fiercely. I have new projects – unrelated to music – which I should really dive into, but I flounder. I try to convince myself that I need new headshots, new recordings. That I need to write songs. Sure, I can always do that, but is it truly necessary at this point? Who fucking cares? I’ve worked mostly as a sideman; at 59 it’s a little late to pretend I’m a solo artist. So what is it that will earn me money, give me a sense of joy, self-respect and fulfillment? Is music even my path anymore? I am beginning to doubt it. I mourn the richness of my musical past and miss the brief taste of how it felt to make music again with other humans (that gave me joy, albeit short-lived). For now, I suppose it’ll have to go on hold while I discover what the next practical move should be.
What that will be, I don’t know. I’m grateful for my spiral-bound pads, filled with writing, lyrics, poems and project to-do lists, yet following through and assembling any of it into meaningful content seems as challenging as losing these goddam extra pounds I’ve solidly re-packed onto my frame over a season of self-soothing and grief.
Last night, a violent late-summer storm pelted the house with sheets of rain and gusts of wind that knocked out power and toppled trees. I stood in the screen porch, feeling fully the might of the wind and water, and I asked the force to please wash me free of the past; wash me clean that I might start over again, from this moment forward…
It’s been a few weeks now since Elihu has returned to campus. He is an autonomous individual. I am no longer a full-time parent. The Queen has died, lain in state, and been buried. Things are different now. It’s time for the new order.
I suppose it’s time for Elizabeth 2.0 now. And when I figure out what form that will take, I promise you’ll be the first to know.
If one were to believe in karma, or in a certain “this-therefore-that” way of thinking, a belief that each event is the product of other events, all serving to bring forth one particular outcome, then things would be easier to justify, easier to handle emotionally. But these days I’m not too confident about it.
Once I was. And it was a less stressful way to live. Everything happens for a reason. Easy.
Sure, one can see in hindsight with some clarity how things build upon each other. Some consequences are so clearly related to things that came before that one can’t help but make the association. And there are those segments of our lives when things just seem so perfectly scripted that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t all “meant to be”, or that we might not have just earned the perfect outcomes through a withdrawal from some sort of energetic bank account.
I’m a mass of conflict these days. Just a few months ago I could not have felt stronger, more hopeful. Great things were within my grasp – I’d say I even sat squarely in the middle of some moments of pure perfection. Things I’d dreamed of for ages had finally come to fruition. And somehow it felt as if I’d earned all of it through my years of sacrifice and toil and hope… The world owed me some good shit now, cuz I’d been through a lot, and I certainly deserved it. Right?
A lot of people deserve good things. And a lot of people will never, ever receive these things. Most people on the planet will live fairly crappy lives, ones in which merely existing is the only goal, lives in which nothing out of the ordinary will manifest. But what on earth have they done to deserve these horrible fates? Not a bloody thing. Not in this life, at any rate.
Where is the parity? There seems to be none.
Not to say that there isn’t a direct correlation between hard work and its reward. Of course that can exist. But to me, that kind of opportunity seems a luxury. For me personally, I feel that reward doesn’t always seem to be a reliable outcome of hard work. Cuz I work a shit ton. I toil, I clean, I sort, put away, file, fix, tend, check in on, shop, cook, learn the tunes, learn the gear, teach the students. All for what ends up being not enough income to pay bills in anything like the real world. Were it not for the home provided for me by my mother (the Hillhouse itself), I truly would be out on the streets. And at 59, that’s a crappy thing to know about myself. All this work, just to exist in another person’s dwelling, and without the means to sustain myself in the most primitive way. Demoralizing.
Yes, I might see my reward as existing in my son. He is undoubtedly a remarkable human, and he’s destined for great things, he’s happy and launched. Yes, I’ve enjoyed a life densely packed with experiences that most folks don’t have.
But here I am on the other side, with the remainder of my life an expanse of nothingness. No rewards in view, no destinations. Got some ideas, a couple of projects I’d like to accomplish, idealized visions of what I’d like to write or perform. But any one thing on the list seems to require an investment of energy which I just can’t seem to summon anymore – or money, which I simply don’t have. My gear is old, my clothes are outdated, and the blog isn’t free. So what now? As I see it, it’s a game of waiting and simply slogging it out, hoping for a few more good moments before the finish line.
My inner conflict is further stoked by a secret disdain which I feel for some people. Shameful, but true. Look at those ham hock arms, listen to the horrible way in which they speak to their children, look at that antagonizing shit they post across their vehicles… And then I realize that if there were to be a catastrophic event and we were all thrust together, I would see their humanity first. My heart would soften when our eyes met… I would see the fragile person within. I would feel forgiveness, and I would understand that their life was a product of the situation into which they were born. And I wouldn’t care that they still believed in Trump. (Many of my friends would disagree with me on this quite fervently, but I say humans are humans at the end of the day. I don’t have to hang out with them, but I don’t have to hate them either.) How dare I feel so superior?
As I was standing at the window just now, looking out at the tall weeds surrounding the vacant chicken coop with a deep feeling of despair growing inside, my eyes landed on a moth, clinging to the wall. That creature and I both have hearts, I thought. A vague feeling of hope overcame me. For just a second, I felt some relief. It felt as if we were all in this together, every creature on this globe. Good outcomes and bad outcomes, we all experienced them. Moths too. Imagine flying towards a thing that your whole essence tells you to be the ultimate goal, only to find your life extinguished? That doesn’t seem fair, to be sure.
“Who ever told you life was fair?” my mother would often say to us as children. I could never form a response, shamed, scolded and immature as I was back then, but now I understand what I had been thinking but couldn’t articulate. “Everyone”. From the time we’re tiny, we’re told to play fair. What a strange incongruity. Play fair, nothing in life is fair. I suppose that both are true.
We earthly creatures are all linked in some way, sharing this bizarre brew of the tragic and the magic. And strange as is may seem, in view of the unfavorable odds with which we are presented, it appears that each one of us somehow manages to maintain a tiny feeling of hope. Each one of us has a heart which continues to beat.
This is the first June 12th in several years which has passed rather uneventfully.
Last year on this day my son graduated from high school. Two years ago on this day I permanently injured my eye. Today had been my former in-laws’ wedding anniversary. This is also the birthday of my ex-husband’s second son, the out-of-wedlock child who inspired me to move with Elihu from the Midwest to upstate New York and start a new life.
It’s interesting to me that the day which used to cause me such anguish now hardly registers as a day of note. Even my eye injury (something which is still an ongoing cause of mild discomfort) falls to the status of the everyday. And my son’s half-brother’s birthday is not the hurtful anniversary it used to be. In fact, I’ll likely suggest before the day is through that he might call him. Can’t say that I don’t feel a slight twinge when this other family is mentioned, but at this point, it’s simply part of our reality.
The past several weeks have been painful for me, in the wake of an imprudent move of mine regarding an old friend. I lost a professional situation in the mix as well, but it pales in comparison. Yet somehow, the internal anguish which has dogged me recently without much letup has tempered a bit today.
This morning and afternoon I have passed the hours in the sunshine and in the shade, reading, leisurely walking about the waist-high grasses of our property, and just being with my son. When Elihu and I walked together down the long, wooded driveway to the road at his suggestion, my heart was made light. We two always enjoy great conversation, and much laughter. It’s something I’ve never taken for granted, but perhaps in this final time before he leaves for the rest of the summer, I cherish his company even more. These days I am living moment by moment, noticing the peace and comfort of my life, and regarding it far less casually than is my habit.
“I am not grateful for my life,” answered Elihu when I asked him if that was how he had felt, “but rather I feel privileged to be here”. He went on to cite the exceptionally rare chance that each one of us had at becoming humans, let alone coming to be in such a safe and thriving time and place. Prone to depression as I am, it’s easy for me to want to give it all up, to get it done with already, just fucking leave. But something about the way in which Elihu presented his case and the manner in which he spoke had reached me. It inspired me just a little. And a little is something. Today it was the something I needed.
On Wednesday my son leaves to spend the summer in Europe with his father and the other family. I’m thrilled for him, but I admit that a tiny piece of me still feels a tad jealous. I wish that I was going with him on this adventure. But instead, after having raised him on my own, and having done all the of heavy lifting during those densely-packed academic times, the trend continues; his father gets to share with our son all of the magical, other-worldly experiences, all of the travel and adventure. (Fits the term I recently learned of “Disney Dad”.) But it’s ok. Elihu’s life will be so enriched by the events ahead. This makes me happy. It makes me feel grateful.
Actually, it makes me feel privileged.
Postscript: Another contributor to my improved mood is the success of my mother’s recent surgery, and her favorable prognosis. She is faring well and her recovery looks to be complete. An enormous relief.
My son is at the kitchen table adding to an already thirty-five thousand word essay on his unfavorable feelings about Abrahamic religions, and I am sitting just outside the door in the sunshine, putting the world off just a bit longer, myself also writing. Or at least trying to. The material isn’t coming the way it usually does. There is a dull sense of dread present in my gut today which is making everything much harder to do. There is quite likely a bit of unpleasant news waiting for me soon in my inbox, and I cannot bring myself to look. And there is some information forthcoming from my mother’s doctor which also might not be good.
This day, however, is a counterpoint to the threatening unknown which awaits.
It is the most perfect sort of late spring day one could wish for – clear skies, just the right temperature and no heavy humidity to weigh things down. The occasional breeze delivers the rare scent of irises. Every so often a single-engine plane buzzes by overhead, preparing for its descent into the nearby community airfield. Water trickles endlessly over the rocks in our small pond, and the usual backyard birds do their thing. The chipmunk who I hand feed each morning has paused for a very un-chipmunk-like length of time in a crook of the apple tree, as if he too knows how perfect a day this is and wishes to take it all in. Knee-high grasses dotted with stands of pink and yellow flowers bend in the wind, common fritillaries and the occasional Karner Blue butterfly dancing among the blossoms. This is a moment I do not take for granted. I hope to linger in this pleasantness of the day and in this state of unknowing for as long as possible.
My mother has had a recurrence with breast cancer. She’s 87, so when I heard this, my first thought was that this was the ‘get out of jail free’ card she’d hoped for. There would come a decline in her health, a need for increasingly generous doses of morphine toward the end, and then finally she’d die a peaceful, pain-free death at home, something she’d long made clear that she wanted, and something which I had promised her I’d make happen when that time arrived. Instead, she is choosing to have a mastectomy, followed by a home-based recovery. No chemo, but likely radiation. If she were a decade younger, it might not concern me as much as it does. If her strength and mobility were a bit better I’d be more confident that the surgery would do more benefit than harm. As things stand, I’m apt to think this action might make her remaining time on the planet less than ideal.
I think some skilled nursing might be in order after the surgery, maybe a few days at a rehab center. But my mother is insisting that I’m making a big deal out of this and says if her doctor’s not concerned, then why should she be? She insists that she won’t need help and reminds me that there’s hardly anything left of her breast now anyway, as if that somehow mitigates the trauma. But she’s a good planner, and so has already made and frozen food for the recovery period, something which will certainly help. (Recently she made a slightly dramatic comment about maybe finally being able to get her favorite pizza after the surgery – as if for the past several years she has been actively prevented from enjoying this perceived luxury. Her Silent Generation stoicism and predilection for passive-aggressive comments drive me positively nuts.)
So tomorrow we’ll learn whether the cancer has metastasized or not. Mom got a funny feeling from the way in which the doctor talked about her case, and it has her suspecting that the news might be bad. I’ve got a funny feeling about a recent situation in my life that has me suspecting bad news, too. And so here we exist, in this perfect spring day, neither of us knowing the outcomes that await us.
My son being home offers a nice distraction from my empty calendar and ignored inbox. There are still meals to be made and a bit of shuttling around to be done while he’s here. Errands, haircuts, doctor appointments and prepping the Airbnb all help to fill the space. But my students are just about wrapped for the summer, and there are no gigs on the calendar, aside from a few solo shows in the fall. There’s time for a few farmers market dates I suppose, but still, those offer very little motivation to get out of bed in the morning. When Elihu goes to Europe with his dad for the summer (he leaves in a week), I will be faced with long days. But then again, mom may need my help. From where I sit right now, I just can’t tell.
The following few months contain a lot of unknowns.
It’s times like this when I need those lists, those spiral bound notebooks which I filled up when I was light-of-heart and full of inspiration. It’s times like this when I’m so grateful to have reconnected with my high school bestie. There is no tribe to which I belong in this town, and now that my son’s life is expanding and taking place mostly elsewhere, it has me further questioning where home should be, and what it is that I should be doing in this world. I almost don’t even feel that I can say with complete integrity that I’m a writer or a musician, when there is so little pay and work isn’t consistent. The only thing I’ve ever known myself to be with absolute conviction is a mother.
I hear Elihu moving about the kitchen making some food. He and I have both done very little today. I didn’t make anything to eat, just couldn’t find it in me. I called out to him to bring me some naan just now, and he did. I’m glad for the company, and for the bread. I’m glad for the fine spring day.
It’s come to pass now. I’ve just been to New York City for a rehearsal. It was my first time playing with other musicians in almost two decades. And it was fun.
But it was also work. I had learned my parts, yet I’d still missed a few details. The music director and the leader were kind about it though and helped coach me as best they could. But in the end, there were a few nuances I couldn’t get in the moment, and which I promised to make good on by the time we met in Chicago for our first show.
I know I talked too much. I’m accustomed to being the funny one, the one in charge, the most colorful character in the room – but it wasn’t so in this situation (nor was it really appropriate for me to add my unnecessary commentaries). For as many times as I scolded myself during the rehearsal to please stop talking, I failed at that effort. It had been so long since I’d been in the company of professionals that I felt downright provincial, and it threw me off. I felt like the chicken farmer from upstate who couldn’t stop chittering about how exciting it was to be in a big city and playing with a real band. Sheesh.
But all in all, it went well. And it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re all assembled on stage and playing (we have some guests for the upcoming date in Chicago who are joining us – it promises to be a night of gorgeous sounds). How perfect is it that our first show will be in my hometown? It seems like something from a dream. And yet it’s real. Very real. When it’s all said and done, I will have driven a few thousand miles and moved a whole lotta gear. I will have spent hours upon hours learning and practicing. Man, it’s just such a lot of work. But strangely, that seldom enters my mind. It’s just what one does in order to play music. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a joy. And not everyone can do it, so I’d be foolish to waste such a gift.
It does make one wonder, though, why in hell would anyone go to all this trouble and invest all this time and money only to end up barely breaking even? Any sane person would question the whole thing. But musicians, we don’t tend to focus on the effort or expense. If we did, I can promise you there would be no live music! So why do we do it? For me, honestly, it feels like I’ve never had a choice. And look, I know, no one made me do this. But I’ve always felt that playing music was so naturally a part of my life that there were no other options. I did go to college and I tried to do things the “right” way, but it simply wasn’t my path. Learning, rehearsing, loading in and loading out, it’s been part of my life ever since I was sixteen and my mom drove me and my suitcase Rhodes to rehearsal in our powder blue ’65 Valiant.
This new situation is more than just about the opportunity to play music, it’s about the opportunity to work with people who are very good at what they do. Over the past fourteen years I’ve been so musically lonely. When I lived in Chicago there were so many excellent and talented musicians with whom to work that I never experienced a shortage of projects, and I was always challenged. But here in my country life I haven’t had any musical relationships at all. Of course I’ve been busy raising a child, but still….
So this is why I bought a new keyboard, spent hours learning material and just drove four hundred miles for a rehearsal.
After giving birth to my son almost nineteen years ago, I pretty much checked out of pop culture. Being essentially a single mom from day one, I didn’t have the time or energy for anything else. So yesterday, when I heard of drummer Taylor Hawkins’ death, I wasn’t hit hard the way so many of my friends and fellow musicians were. What had bothered me were the headlines that told us “10 different substances” had been found in his body. The implication was tawdry and disrespectful; it was sensationalistic language that didn’t demand a backstory. It basically left readers with the takeaway that this was just another sad and perhaps unremarkable casualty of rock ‘n’ roll. Who needed to read further? Not having any previous sentiment for the man, I was surprised at how offended I was by these cheap headlines. There had to be more to the story.
Indeed, there was.
I read the Rolling Stones interview with Taylor from June of last year. Despite his expletive-rich conversation, he revealed himself to be soft and vulnerable on the inside. I recognized in Taylor an aspect of myself. I saw this tender fallibility in many of my friends, too. This man was simply trying to do his job, just trying to get through. Imagine a musician playing huge arenas who must fight his fear to even be on that stage! There’s no place to hide. All he can do is power through it. Or medicate through it. A human does what he or she must, simply in order to get through.
It’s so easy to be star-struck. I’ve met a number of famous people in my day, some who inspired me to offer up some inane fan-banter, and some who later became known to me in human and intimate ways. At first, you feel their energy, their focus, and perhaps you sense that they are existing in something of another world. And there is no doubt that their hard work and rare talent should be respected, and it is often true that their thinking takes them elsewhere. But at the same time, one must always remember that people of elevated visibility are not gods or goddesses. They are humans. And they are also just doing their best to get through.
My father was a harpsichordist of some note. His esteemed career took him to many stages in many countries. As a child, I would see him as two different men; the fellow who shuffled around the house in his slippers and bathrobe, doting on his beloved cats, and that other man – the one who wore a white bow tie, tux and tails, who warmly received us backstage, the gentleman who greeted fellow musicians in French or German. When I visited people in the early music circles, they would often ask if Robert was my father. It was a point of pride for me, but it also gave me instant credibility, and just a hint of my own star power by proximity. What I did not know about my father til just a few years ago – was that he struggled with stage fright. He may even have dealt with panic attacks. From what I know through my experiences, and what I’ve pieced together from anecdotes told about him many years later, I’ve come to suspect that I may have inherited my genetic predisposition for depression and panic from him. My famous yet fearful father.
For many years I was married to a well-known musician. Although I did enjoy most of the experiences that came with the territory, I’ll admit that I had very little tolerance for the super-intense fans. They seemed somehow clueless to the fact that this man also shuffled around the house in his robe and doted on his cats. (There is one thing to be said for people who achieve a certain level of fame: they become quite adept at graciously interacting with fans. I’m not sure I could successfully cultivate this important skill. My ex was, and still is, expert in this area.) These people didn’t seem to get that he was just a guy. I know that it’s what being a star is about – cultivating an other-worldly aura – but still, that fan behavior never sat well with me. It seemed such an unrealistic burden to cast upon someone. Whenever I meet someone of high esteem, I try to relate to them as honestly as I can. My goal is to bear witness to their humanity, not their star power.
It’s the humanity of this fellow Taylor that endears him to me. It’s the fact that he was not an irresponsible or reckless person, but rather a man dealing with recovery, with fame, with stress. Such a potent mix of things – a situation that few of us can understand. That this man dealt with insecurities and fear – even when he was at such a high level of fame and accomplishment – is a testament to the emotional frailty that is present in all of us. Human beings are all just doing the best they can, just to get through.
None of us is the person we would have the world believe we are.
Let’s try to realize that there is so much more to every story than we will ever see. We must trust that no one is having an easy time of it; this is a hard planet.
Be an attentive and forgiving audience; everyone is putting on the best show they possibly can.
This is an unconventional post for me; I should like to briefly introduce myself – and in some way, qualify myself to a completely new and unforeseen audience.
My name is Elizabeth Conant. I’m a 58-year-old woman, originally from Chicago, who has recently concluded a 15-year run as a single mom in rural upstate New York. Although I’ve worked mainly as a piano teacher and accompanist in this past chapter, in my previous city life I was a working musician.
This blog began in earnest some ten years ago when I desperately needed a conduit to the word in the wake of a traumatic divorce (I know, what divorce isn’t traumatic?) and cross-country move.
I’ve dealt with depression and panic attacks since adolescence. Thankfully, these issues are currently much less acute than they’ve been in past years. That may well be because I now stand at the threshold of a curiously inviting time of freedom and possibility.
In some respects this collection of writings might be construed as an online diary, but I hope that readers may find contained within the 650+ posts some substantive content which pleases or inspires them.
Welcome to The Hillhouse and thank you so kindly for stopping by.
It’s here. My new, post-child life. The one I’ve both dreaded and longed for. What will occupy my time? Will I ever know a social life again? Will I ever travel? Perform music? Will my life expand – or will it contract?
Without any preparation or forethought, a few lovely things recently appeared on my horizon and have now been firmly penned into my calendar. In due time I’ll share my progress, but for now, suffice to say, life has thrown a couple of sweet surprises in front of me. Certainly the aging thing isn’t slowing down, and my fingers are looking more like my 87-year-old mother’s than the ones I’ve known ’til now – yeah, the mortal shit continues to do its thing – but on a personal level things look promising. I don’t make any more money than I have in the past – in fact, I have less of it than ever before – but I’m not lacking in things I need. I’m lucky.
My son spent almost two weeks here with me after returning from holiday break at his father’s, one week being a bonus of time due to extended virtual classes. Just last night I drove him to campus, and he was beyond thrilled to be back. Having used his extra time studying and preparing for his new courses, he was more than ready. Plus, in the extra week, my son had also taught himself to play trumpet. Shortly before I left, he was standing with his eyes closed, playing variations from the Carnival of Venice. When he hugged me goodbye – my son is not a hugger, mind you – he squeezed me really tight and told me that he loved me. Oh, his joy. My joy. Truly, a mother could not wish for more.
From the parking lot I can see Elihu’s dorm room window, and before I drove off into the night, I stole one last peek at him. He was still playing his trumpet.
It’s one thing to leave a happy child to his bright future. It’s another thing to return home to one’s own bright future. How grateful am I that this moment in time, one which I’ve dreaded for ages now, does not bring with it the despair it might have, had things worked out otherwise. I now have things to look forward to. But, beforehand, there’s a lot on my plate which needs my attention: figuring out my way around a Mac, gaining facility with a new program, learning a bunch of music (maybe you get where this is going). So before I can fully enjoy the experiences ahead, I have a lot of work to do. For me, it’s fairly daunting. I’m not a techie, and I really don’t like dealing with gear (least of all new gear). Thankfully, I have friends who can help. And, as my son always scolds me when I ask him for answers, there’s always an Indian dude on YouTube who can tell me how to get the job done.
On a personal level there is also a nice treat headed my way in the next few weeks. I’m going to drive my deer-battered car to Chicago, where I will not only unload all of my vintage gowns and dresses, but I will stay with my bestie from high school, visiting a handful of old friends while I’m in town. There will be food to savor, sights to see and memories to revisit. Plus there’s another little excursion I’ll make in addition to my midwestern trip. This is a piece of seriously serendipitous magic at play. (I’m sending a demure wink of appreciation to the party responsible.) Hopefully these adventures will refresh me and prepare the way for the rigors ahead.
Thrilled am I at the changes that await. Thrilled am I to be at the doorstep of my life’s next big shift.
Please forgive the mom brags to follow, but I feel compelled to elaborate on my son’s progress in life, and at RPI. I hope you might find it interesting…
Firstly, Elihu has made his autonomy more real than ever; he has deleted all of the videos on social media in which he’s appeared in a humorous or childish manner. He wishes to present himself as professionally as possible – and home vids are not something he wants in that mix. It presented a true shift in the way I had to think about him with relationship to me; I could no longer casually involve him in my posts. His role as my child is ours alone, it is a private thing. I get it, I certainly honor it, but I kinda mourn the change too.
My son is an Aerospace major, and a Chinese minor. He taught himself how to write and speak Mandarin before he went to college, and just this past week he tested into Chinese 3 for the spring semester. Elihu had a nice piece written on him for the school blog, he played solo tuba at the school’s fall concert (go to 3:07 to hear RPI president Dr. Shirley Jackson give him a lovely introduction, or go to 25:10 to hear him play Bach), he played in several ensembles (jazz, classical and early music) and has been invited by the outgoing president to perform at her invitational farewell concert. He’s written a tuba concerto as well as auditioned for soloist with the orchestra. In an effort to keep up his beloved German, he began a German conversation club with happy results. He also tried to start up an indoor model-building aviation club, but sadly there were not enough takers. He’ll persist, however, and I have no doubt he’ll be successful. He’s won numerous scholarships; not a penny will we pay in tuition, room, board or materials – all due to hours upon hours of his hard work. (He knows damn well it’s far beyond this mother’s purview!)
As an avid linguist (he is conversant and literate in five languages now) Elihu is thrilled to share the company of students from all over the globe, giving him the opportunities to hear and practice new languages. His roommate is Chinese, however the student’s first language is not Mandarin, and his accent makes understanding tricky – but this is precisely the stuff that inspires my child; he’s using this situation to expand his understanding of Chinese languages.
Elihu has made friendships with several PhD students and faculty members. He is networking and enjoying the camaraderie of similarly-minded (um, shall we just say “brilliant”?) folk. And as you can easily understand, all of this fills my heart to bursting. Funny, but of the twelve schools that Elihu applied to, this one was last on his list, and it was the only one (we still don’t understand this at all) which accepted him! It was RPI which awarded him a $100,000 scholarship should he choose to attend. And yet even still – it was last on his list. Isn’t it strange how life works? It seemed such a disappointment at the beginning, and yet it’s turned out to be that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has provided the very best situation for my son. I still can’t believe how it all worked out so well. It wasn’t what either of us had envisioned.
Today my son is a high school graduate, and I am free.
One year ago today I injured my eye, and I have found myself a prisoner of that event ever since. Today, standing in the bright morning sunshine of a fine spring day (floaters still clouding my vision and an ever-present feeling of a foreign object still being in my eye), I find myself wavering between elation and terror at the future ahead. What will describe this new chapter? My opportunity or my injury?
I cannot convey the depth and breadth of our experiences over the past year, for they have been many and mighty. And today, as I sit in a house filled to the brim with the mess of one final week of tumult and year’s end chaos, I panic slightly at the idea that nothing will right itself on its own. All of it rests on me. I realize that my son and I have just concluded, and very successfully so, this era in our lives, so I should take heart. I just need to do this one final time. In the future there will be no such messes, no such disorder. All I have to do is muster the fortitude to do this once more. Somehow, however, this doesn’t seem to make it any easier. This time I don’t know where or how to begin. And so I nibble on the leftovers from last night’s graduation dinner, I pick at the frosting from the cake, I take a sip of the last dregs of a can of Mike’s hard lemonade I found in the door of the fridge. I feed the chickens, refill the suet, make the coffee. I begin a new post. I look over my Facebook feed. I stall.
Inside, the house is a riot of unwashed dishes, half-cut onions, piles of unopened mail, schoolwork and artwork and piles of musical charts to be filed, dirty clothes in heaps in nearly every room, and pair upon pair of muddy shoes, too (how do two people amass such a mess?). Clean laundry that languished too long before I could dry it (and now smells slightly funky) confuses the system in my mudroom and will force me to start the whole shebang all over again. The lawn is knee-high and rife with land mines of fallen branches and rocks that must first be found and marked before the grass can be cut. (And this is five open acres, no small task) The coop looks like a right proper hillbilly homestead with traps set, both humane and lethal, retired kiddie pools, garden tools, a few pumps and pond paraphernalia, a wheel barrow full of plastic junk and two metal grain bins, knocked on their side by the white whale of raccoons (who evades me still), their contents now fermenting and turning rank in the wake of recent rains. All a girl can say is oy.
This day is further loaded, as I think on it. Funny how June 12th used to mean different things in different chapters in my life. In my married years, it was my parents-in-laws’ wedding anniversary. Many years later it became known as the birthday of my former husband’s out of wedlock child, the day that changed everything for Elihu and me. The day that launched us on our voyage here at the Hillhouse. For years I was conflicted about the day: should I curse it or thank it? I certainly cannot curse any child, for his birth is not his own choice. But you can understand that it was a shocking time for me, all those years ago, and were it not for the miraculous way in which our lives turned out, I might still be nursing my wounds over it. I can’t say that June 12th doesn’t bring a bit of reflection. I have never before felt such acute emotional pain as I did on this day, thirteen years ago.
And now, the date has yet another meaning. Another change of plans that I must somehow accept. An injury that I must see as a catalyst to a yet unseen future that awaits, one that otherwise would not have been possible. Thinking back over the past year, I realize that I sought out new experiences as a means of distraction from my discomfort, and I can clearly see what the injury has offered thus far: my first forays into relationships with men since my divorce, a new awareness of physical health and fitness, a bad outcome with a relationship which offered an opportunity for me to step into a better sense of self-worth (the caveat here is that this is, sadly, still a work in progress), and lastly, a host of music performance videos and the small victories that I achieved as I learned how to organize and present myself in a new format. Overall, it’s been a good year. Every time I started to sink into self-pity, I used a new goal to pull myself up and out. Yeah, for the most part it’s worked. Mostly.
As friends and regular readers will know, I tend to indulge in excessive amounts food and alcohol to take the edge off when the shit just feels relentless. But somehow I managed to pull up and out of the habit last summer. I began to see an opening, a time when life would be mine again, and so I wanted to prepare myself, to lean in… I wanted to forget this troublesome eye injury and set my sights on the future… While I did get leaner and became increasingly dedicated to my physical improvement (and really came to look forward to my workouts), I suffered a bad muscle injury, and within weeks of a diminished routine, I fell off the fitness wagon entirely. This in turn had me newly depressed and brought along with it a resurgence of daily episodes with panic attacks. I kept up with the challenges as they arrived, but it was a struggle.
Added to the frenetic pace of Elihu’s final year and all that went on with me personally, stress began to mount… I lost a good portion of my hair inside of a few weeks in late winter (whether due to stress or changing hormones, it’s an alarming experience to say the least), the arthritis in my hands became significantly more advanced in a short amount of time (my doc said it was one of the worst cases of OA he’d ever seen in the hands of someone my age), and I saw a dear friend through a year of health problems which ended in her death two weeks ago. It’s definitely been a trying chapter. So naturally I fell back on the self-soothing mechanisms that I always have. The pendulum began to swing back, and I just let it. Knowing that I was creating a situation that would have consequences down the road, I continued on anyway, savoring the hell out of those carbs which I’d fastidiously ignored since last summer. Watching as one glass of wine with dinner easily turned into a whole bottle. I jumped into the pool, right into the deep end. And so here I am today, treading water, wondering how I’m gonna make it out again. I know I will, but the side of the pool still looks to be a long way off.
Things ebb and flow, and today I’ll just have to take it easy on myself. This day has become a strange landmark in my life, and I should pause to take stock: what does June 12th mean this time around? Might I look at it perhaps as a day of hope? Today is the first day I’m not the full-time mother of a high school student. The first day in which I have nowhere to be, no one to answer to (let’s forget for the moment about the some two thousand emails and two full voicemail accounts which must be gone through on Monday). Today I’m not waiting for the other shoe to drop, it already has. It’s what happens after that which intrigues me, and keeps me from giving up and crying into my hands. How can I give up? My son is about to launch himself into the world – a prospect which is nearly as thrilling for me as it is for him. I have my book to look forward to (yes, friends, I am going to set about the task of editing and formatting content from this blog for a publish-on-demand book) and there is the business of getting healthy and fit again. Lots to do, lots to do.
Once I can get this house in order again, I’ll begin to figure out what this new game’s gonna look like. If I can just hold on to that feeling of hope again, if I can just remember that out of chaos comes order, that a catalyst is necessary for growth, that growth, change and evolution are what this whole silly planet is about…
If I can just get myself there again, it’ll be a perfect storm of possibility, and I’ll be right in the eye of it.
This morning I took my son to have his first covid vaccine. As he is still 17 and a minor, I was allowed to accompany him. But for his second vaccine in three weeks, I will be made to wait outside.
There really is no way to prepare a mother’s heart for this transition. Of course I’ve known it was coming and have tried as best I can to make peace with the new reality. Come this Wednesday, Elihu will no longer be a minor. No longer will I be the keeper of his medical records, no longer will I be responsible for his money, no longer will I be the recipient of his grades. How very strange indeed. I have been this person’s sole keeper in every way for the entirety of his life – and in just one moment the whole thing comes to a close. Thankfully he is an incredibly responsible person, and he is well-equipped to take the reigns. But me, I’m just not ready to hand them over.
When Elihu was two and a half years old he had a bad case of the flu, and I took him to the emergency room. There was a one-year-old in the waiting room, and Elihu doted on the tiny boy. The child had had an earache and was frantically crying in distress, to which Elihu responded with such tenderness. He cooed to the toddler, helped distract and soothe him. They spent a good fifteen minutes together, and by the time we were called in, Elihu had coaxed the child into a quiet and peaceful state. It was shortly after we got into the car and began to drive home that Elihu spoke his very first sentence. “When I grow up, I want to have a baby, Mama”. I looked in the rear view mirror, stunned at what I’d just heard. I saw him just sitting there, his pacifier returned to his mouth and looking out the window. My tiny boy, such a huge concept. My son had always been different, even at that age I’d known it. This sentence was just the first of many confirmations. He has always been wise beyond his years.
I first knew there was something distinctly different about my son when he was four months old. Aside from being colicky and hard-pressed to sleep without me next to him, I just knew something was not right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but clues were starting to add up. When I walked him outside in a stroller, he’d close his eyes and slump to the side, but when we’d enter a dark indoor space he’d sit up and open his eyes. He couldn’t open his eyes in the great room of our home, the south wall of which was entirely made of windows, but he came to life in the dark basement playroom. I knew he had an inability to see in bright light, but until he could speak to us, we’d be left to guess about how he experienced his world. One evening I remember nursing and then rocking him, trying unsuccessfully to get him to sleep. And so I held him tightly to me and twisted my torso from side to side, desperate to find the rhythm that would finally take. I remember pulling him away from my chest and looking into his eyes, to find that his pupils were rapidly bouncing up and down. I flushed with adrenaline; had I just done this to him? Had I shaken my baby? A careful inventory of my actions told me that I had not, and yet something had changed. I remember wishing so dearly that I could just know if he was afraid, if he was in discomfort. How, oh how could I make it better?
It was my friendship with the keyboard player in Steppenwolf that became the key to understanding what was ‘wrong’ with Elihu. Years earlier I’d met John Kay, the lead singer and fellow who penned the iconic song “Born to Be Wild”, and I’d known him to have some condition with his eyes that made him colorblind, light-sensitive and also unable to drive (ironic, isn’t it? His song is the anthem for bikers everywhere, and yet John’s never driven a day in his life). As I sat at my desk pondering my son’s situation, I flashed back on this memory and immediately fired off an email to Mike. He responded, confirming my suspicion. And there it was. Without an internet search, without a doctor’s diagnosis. I’d learned that my son had Achromatopsia. Now, finally, I knew.
I’d had some neighbor girls take Elihu to the park, and instantly I felt a deep panic, an intense need to find and hold my baby. Now that I knew, I had to make it better. I ran through the streets until I spied the small clump of kids – Elihu was riding on the shoulders of one of the taller girls, his eyes squinted shut. I grabbed him from her and held him to my chest, shielding his eyes from the daylight. I shall always remember how I felt in that moment; I become a fiercely protective mother, and in that instant I became wholly dedicated to my son’s comfort and ease. In the months that followed I found a low vision doctor in Chicago – who actually specialized in Achromats – and Elihu would soon get his first dark glasses. He would take his first steps outdoors, and our world would become a little less stressful. And even though his father loved him dearly, he did not share my concerns for our son. He wasn’t moved by Elihu’s first steps in daylight, he thought I made too much of Elihu’s light sensitivity, and he would often chastise me for coddling our boy. But I didn’t care. Like I said, my mother’s heart was fierce. Nothing would prevent me from being Elihu’s champion.
There was so much I needed to impart to my son. Ever since he could walk it was my deepest desire to equip him to live as well as possible in this difficult world. My heart longed to give him ease, to give him insight and understanding. There was so much to teach him – where to begin? Folks who know me understand that I’m pretty frank and unedited in my speech. I say what I mean, and I believe for the most part that it’s better to express than to withhold. And that’s the tack I took with my son. If my four-year-old wanted to know how an engine worked, I was going to explain it to him. Seriously. He was going to get the real story, not some dumbed-down explanation meant just for kids. I always spoke to my tiny son as if he was an adult. That’s not to say I didn’t coo to him as a baby, or speak in tender, maternal tones to him – in fact I always spoke to him as gently and lovingly – and respectfully – as possible. I never scolded him as if he were an idiot. I always offered an explanation of actions and consequences, as if he understood. Because if he didn’t yet understand, he would at some point.
How could I teach him about the seasons, the holidays, the traditions of our world? How could I convey the context, the meanings of so many seemingly random cues? And if he saw no color at all, and if indeed the world was hazy and hard to see, how could I teach him to discern things? All of this nagged at me during my son’s childhood. And so I chose to read to him. A lot. (I wish now that I’d kept a list of the dozens upon dozens of books we read. I implore all new parents who might be reading this to keep a log of the tomes you read to your child. In revisiting them you will also revisit shared childhood memories.) Since my son’s vision was not great, and since reading for a good length of time fatigued him, I felt it was best that I take on the job. Every night of his life until he was around ten or eleven I lay next to him and read. Oh the places we went together. The adventures we had. What a huge and full life we had just from our nighttime books alone. This, I think, is in large part why my son turned out to be such a thinker. Having limited vision has also contributed; he has been left to live much of his life inside of his thoughts. While the other kids were watching movies or playing video games, Elihu was identifying birdsongs, inventing melodies of his own or creating lines of poetry.
My mother’s heart had always been heavy with the knowledge that my son would not always be able to join his classmates in so many experiences that most kids consider mundane. Swimming doesn’t work well on account of the bright light that usually accompanies the experience. Moving fast – as in running – is dicey in that Elihu can’t really see things until they’re upon him. When he was smaller the two of us had a system we used while out walking whereby he would minimize the many missteps, falls and scrapes that came of his limited vision. Elihu couldn’t always discern differences in grade, so as we walked together I’d quietly offer “step up” or “flat surface” as we went along. So imagine my surprise when one day at lunchtime my legally blind child whizzed by me on a bike in front of his school! His fifth grade teacher had taught him in just a few periods. I’d always wondered how – or even if – we would tackle this skill. I cried! Oh such gratitude I had for that dear woman! This step was huge. And it opened new doors for my son that I had previously thought would never be options. And can you imagine that my twelfth-grade son has been getting straight As in his phys ed classes? In fact he is even rather aggressive in some sports – but if you’d told me this a few years ago I would not have believed it possible.
Elihu’s father had decided to leave the marriage our son was five. I’d thought that Elihu was too young to grasp the situation, and so when we moved across the country to live in a house next door to his grandparents, I’d thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. He would have everything he needed, lots of nature around, and family too. I always welcomed his father into our home, and have always encouraged their relationship, so he saw his father quite a bit in the early years here at the Hillhouse. (My friends never understood this arrangement; they thought it was wrong to have my ex stay here with us. I thought it was the humane and right thing by way of both dad and son. My comfort could take a back seat for a few days here and there.) I did absolutely everything I could to ensure my son had the best possible childhood. I think I did the best I could with my situation.
However, it became apparent in the first few years post-move, that Elihu had been deeply saddened by the change. I’d thought that if I’d kept up appearances and continued to be of relatively good cheer that it would mitigate any possible negative outcomes. I hadn’t wanted my son to suffer the emotional challenges that other children of divorced parents do. Yet for a while my dear son really was troubled. If I’d expected him to be sensitive to the nuances of life, how was it that I thought he wouldn’t notice this huge life change? A year or so after we moved here I chose to speak to him candidly about the divorce, how it had troubled me too, but how both people needed to be in agreement for marriage to work, and how his father and I were not in agreement. I believe that the truth helped him to understand and make some peace with the situation. It was a really tough experience for both of us, but we got through it by addressing it honestly. Hard a time as it was, it helped us each to grow and become more emotionally resilient.
I needn’t worry about my son now. In fact, I’m tremendously eager for the life that awaits him. He is completely ready to take on absolutely anything. (Recently I apologized – again – for having brought him into this crappy world. I asked him if he might be a bit discouraged about the challenges ahead. “On the contrary,” he answered. “I’m excited. I’m gonna make life my bitch”. !!) Me, I’ve never been particularly good at anything – I don’t enjoy working hard (unless it involves music or writing, then I’m all in), I never did well in school, never had a real day job, never felt like I did things the right or ‘normal’ way. Whatever that may be. However there is one thing I know that I have done very well: I have raised a happy and successful human being. I have given my son love, respect, education, humor and a shit-ton of really good, home-cooked meals. I have spoken to him as a peer. I have held nothing back. There are plenty of books on child-rearing which will tell you I did a lot of things wrong. Most parents would probably frown on my parenting choices. So glad I didn’t listen to all that static.
Such a strange thing that along with my greatest success also comes my greatest challenge: letting it all go. How do I do that? Elihu has been my partner for seventeen long years. Seeing him off into the world is going to be the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. But it’s essential for my growth, for his too. It’s a mandatory part of the process. And once I’m past the fear, I know there’s going to be a lot of joy.
Because this next chapter of our lives is going to be huge. Major, in fact.
With a GPA of 4.3, an extensive lists of personal achievements, fluency in four languages plus some pretty exceptional writing skills, Elihu and I had felt he had a fairly good chance of being accepted at the nation’s top schools, but it proved to be a surprise when he was rejected by all of the places where he applied (save Harvard, more on that shortly).
We both understand that this year is a unique one; with gap year students plus those forced to wait a year due to the pandemic, there are a whole lot more students vying for spots. At the end of the day Elihu has been accepted by RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York) with a generous scholarship, but in that he attended two summer programs there – and it’s a mere 35 minute drive from home – he’d rather go somewhere new, different and a bit further from home. Plus his interest in liberal arts has really ramped up over the past few years, so he’s been hesitant to commit to a technical school.
He has been put on the Harvard waitlist, and he’s done everything in his power to distinguish himself from the crowd. He’s personally written to every administrator who might have a part in the final decision. Truly, he’s been tenacious. But in an unexpected twist, Elihu has been strongly advised by several mentors not to choose Harvard, even if accepted. They make the point that he will more easily rise to the top in a less demanding school, and that he can attend an Ivy for graduate work if it still appeals. Interesting input, and it will remain under consideration.
How surprising to us that at this late date Elihu still does not know where his future lies. To his credit he’s completely calm about the whole thing. Not much he can do. He’s done his very best, and now it’s just time to let the universe do its thing… Feel free to visit my Facebook page for updates. (We have been told that Harvard will respond with their decision by mid May.)