The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Ushering In December 31, 2019

When we arrive at a milestone, I think it’s human nature to offer up proclamations about the event’s significance. It feels restorative and hopeful at the conclusion of one chapter, and at the dawn of another, to identify the things that have happened, to acknowledge the lessons we’ve learned from those experiences, and to posit an improved vision for the future that awaits us.

I too feel the urge to summarize, to identify my overarching life themes of the past decade. A quick look through my personal journal entries from the past several New Years Eves shows that although I’ve lived through many, many adventures over the past ten years, my hopes at this time of year are nearly always the same. And each year my failings are also nearly identical. I have likely been wrestling with the same private demons for my whole life. While I do seem to get some purchase onto new ground each year that passes, sadly it seems to be at a much slower pace than I might have envisioned a decade or two ago.

This is not to say that I am the same person as I was in 2009. Good Lord no. Not a one of is, I should think.

It was in 2009 that I first called New York my home. And it was in 2010 when I first began to refer to our little homestead here as The Hillhouse. Shortly after that, I found I could no longer tolerate the emotional turmoil in my life without an outlet, and so my inner life found its way into an outer expression in The Hillhouse in Greenfield. I had no idea what I was even doing back then – all I knew is that I had to write, I had to get what was in me out of me. My objective was not to “have a blog” – I’m not even sure I quite knew what a blog was back then – all I knew was that I was starting my life all over in a new part of the world and I felt very alone. Heartbroken and hopeless. It was too much for me to bear, so I looked for expression and connection through the only means I had available.

Although it may seem far too obvious, I can see that today is a perfect marker, a perfect delineation between my then and my now (and beyond)….

The very first and most obvious piece of evidence I think of is that of my advancing age. At 56 it might not seem that aging should be foremost in my mind – but it is. And it’s more than just vanity. Yes, a great deal of it – if I’m to be completely honest – is about vanity, but more disturbing are the physical changes that are occurring that will come to adversely affect me at some point. There’s the stuff that’s to be expected: weight gain (one must become vigilant about careless food and drink after 50, I’m convinced of it now!), there’s the loss of height, but most alarming is the rapid change in my hands and my joints. My spine is succumbing to gravity, my hips are so much tighter than they’ve ever been, and my fingers seem to lose their grip on something daily. At age 18 I broke my neck, and in the past few months the injury has come back to cause me some concern; I now feel slight electrical tingling in my arms and even my head itself, and from this new reality I don’t know if there is any retreating.

This is tolerable when I think on the few things of value I may yet add to the planet. One thing, of course, is my son Elihu. He is what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning, and I know for sure he is the main thing that keeps my almost 85 year old mother going too. There are a few things I still need to do (doesn’t everyone feel that way?) and if I can conclude this personal business then I believe my growing impairments will be slightly less frightening. I have a list – lest you think I’m just wishing for a few more good nights on the town and a couple more singing dates – and I will henceforth take care to clearly map out the steps and check them off in a timely fashion. First thing on the list: get the kid into MIT. In the coming year all else will be a sidebar. My job now is to support my son in any way that he needs. Once he’s launched, I can turn my attention to the rest.

I look so different, so much older, than I did when we moved here from Chicago. And I kinda wished someone would’ve given me a heads up. Maybe then it wouldn’t have come as such a surprise. But is anyone ever truly ready for this? For me, things were pretty much ‘business as usual’ until I hit 53. Then stuff just kinda started to change really fast. I look at my friends through the lens of Facebook, and I can see the witching hour making itself apparent in their countenances too. Protestations are silly. I am SO not a fan of people talking about “internal beauty” or “80 years young”. Fuck that. Seriously, fuck all that bullshit. The bloom is off the rose already. There is no going back. No 60 year old is more beautiful to gaze upon than a 30 year old, and reduced flexibility and mobility suck. Sure I’m smarter, more experienced and more insightful than I was even a decade ago – but that aint gonna stop my hands from dropping the last wine glass on the kitchen floor or finding my limbs painfully stiff after a half hour on the couch. Sure, I workout regularly – and plan now to workout even more, and yes I will be increasingly mindful of the things that I need to do in order to stay at the best of my physical abilities, but the march of time – the physical declining of my body – this will not ease up as time passes. And this is a reality that is only just now truly settling in. I feel that the more deeply I can make peace with this aging thing, the easier it’ll be to move through it. To move through the next decade, more specifically.

And then there is my mother. She too is proof of the big changes that have transpired over the past decade, as her own physical situation has deteriorated quite a bit in just the past few years. I can look at her and get a fair idea of what lies ahead for me. I have her hands, her bad and scoliotic back, her bad right knee… It doesn’t worry me as much as it might have if I’d had no warning; at least none of this will come as a surprise to me. What is a tad surprising is the way in which my mom has recently begun to make offhand remarks about her death. We were looking at a reclining chair for her a few days ago and she said something about choosing a color that I liked. And I can assure you there was no hint of humor in her voice… While a year ago she would talk about living to see Elihu graduate from MIT (yes, we do like to put this particular cart before the horse), now she has amended that to say that she would be happy just to live to see him be accepted at MIT. And that is a different thing. Her heart is in continual Afib these days, so as a result she’s very easily winded and finds her energy gone after simple tasks. I can understand how she’s losing the resolve to envision things she once did. Her talent and gift to the world has always been that of superb cook and host; with that role diminished to only a handful of dinners a year, and hardly the energy to see those to fruition as things are presently, I can imagine this hits her hard. We Conants don’t really talk about feelings as a family. Never have. And so as we find ourselves in this new territory – on the verge of a decade that promises to bring change upon us more dramatically than ever before – deep inside I think we are feeling the sorrow of imminent goodbyes and major shifts in our reality…

I’ve spent a good deal of time wondering at the things one must do in order to find resolution and conclusion in life. My feeling is that if one takes all the chances one can, if one makes strangers smile and occasionally rescues spiders from the vacuum cleaner, if one is generally a kind person who does things to the best of their abilities – then there should be no regrets, no nagging feeling that their life has somehow missed its mark. I have very few regrets – I might even be so bold as to say I have none – because I know that if I were presented with the same choices in the same time and with the same emotional tools as I had at the times of those choices – then I would most likely behave in the same way. If one simply acts as a good person in their own sphere of influence, then I honestly believe they’ve done a fine job at being human. And I should think that believing this would help a person to accept the changes and losses that life inevitably brings. Of course my ending is not showing itself to me in an acute or obvious way at the moment, so it’s easy for me to say this now. We shall see.

When we moved here just over a decade ago, a majestic beech tree stood in the yard. It was enormous, and right after the view, it was usually the first thing one noticed on the property. A few years into our residency here the tree began to drop its topmost limbs. Where once we could see only branches, now the sky was showing through. I was told by many folks that the tree was in the process of dying. At first it was alarming; we really loved our beech tree and couldn’t imagine the space without it. Maybe it was dying – I mean, after we’re grown and have physically matured, are we all not in the process of dying? – but yet it was still so beautiful. It never ceased to be stunning. It’s probably lost a third of its volume in the past few years – it is not the tree we first knew. But this does not stop it from being regal. It does not prevent us from loving it as we did. These days I can begin to imagine how the space will look when it’s finally gone. Where there once was shade there will be a great patch of light. It will be a huge change on the property. And then, one day, it will not. When the reigning tree has reached its limbs to the sky and then finally dropped them all onto the ground, it will have been the completion of a tree’s perfect life.

And that resulting patch of sunlight will usher in a fresh new chapter.

 

 

Red Truck Days March 8, 2015

It’s March, and that means it’s time for the Missoula Children’s Theatre to roll into town! Each year I play piano for this magical production, and although my son’s peers are no longer at the Greenfield Elementary School which hosts the program, I still have some young friends there – some have attended the Studio’s art camp, some are my piano students, some just friends and neighbors. These kids work incredibly hard all week, starting with auditions on Monday and ending up with a performance on Friday night – complete with lines, songs, blocking, choreography, costumes, makeup and sets. Whew! The whole shebang is made possible by two young and talented actors who bring the production to town in the back of the MCT’s famous red Ford 110 pickup truck.

Meanwhile, Elihu’s sixth grade class also had their annual class play this week, so you can understand it’s been a crazy-busy time for us both. Elihu had a generous role as the Muslim emperor in a play called “Crusader, Muslim and Jew”, which, as the title implies, explores the divides between the three religions and in the end (in the most convoluted, surprising twist you can imagine) highlights how ultimately we are all, most importantly, from the same human family. Lots of text to memorize for this one, but my kid’s got a magnetic mind for lines, so I didn’t worry for him. In fact, all the Waldorf kids are true whizzes at memorizing; they’ve been reciting verses and singing songs for years. (The sixth grade is also known as being particularly gifted in singing and acting – a very spirited bunch. A perfect place for Elihu. !)

I finally went to see an arthritis doc about my hands. Basically, he just confirmed for me things I already knew. It’s osteo, not rheumatoid. That’s a small blessing, I guess. But it is frustrating that in this day and age we still don’t know why people get it. It’s genetic, that we know, but in the end, knowing that is of no help. I did receive a script for a stronger anti-inflammatory, as well as a topical cream which has proven to bring a little relief during painful flare-ups (or long sessions at the piano). The doc is himself a classical pianist, and he told me that he also counseled a local jazz pianist about her hands. He told me that she happened to be convalescing nearby – so after my appointment I headed out to meet her. Little did I know I’d arrive just in time to hear her performing! A fantastic surprise.

Now that we’ve crested our end-of-winter busy spell, our attention begins to turn to the season ahead. When that red truck leaves town we know it’s just a matter of weeks before the snow will be gone. Hard to believe today, when flurries still fall, and the snowbanks are six feet tall. But just the other day, as I was cleaning the ice off of my car, I could have sworn that I smelled it. I stopped what I was doing and checked again. Could it really be? Yes, definitely, there was a new smell in the air. The birds are crowding onto our platform feeder with a renewed vigor – and that too tells me something is afoot. Change is coming. Our clocks have sprung forward as well. So now there’s finally some evidence that winter will be leaving soon.

Elihu and I have decided to enjoy the snow while it’s still here, and we’re going to use our snowshoes to visit the wetlands far back in the woods. Come Spring it won’t be accessible anymore, so there’s a benefit to the still-frozen ground. Knowing it won’t always be thus makes us appreciate it all the more. One more round of snow, then we’ll be more than ready for the great change ahead.

IMG_3021Homework continues, no matter what else is going on.

IMG_3024At the Waldorf School, students write in cursive. There’s a lot of writing, but my kid seems to be a bit more verbose than necessary. Hm. I wonder where he got that from?

IMG_3060The sixth grade’s play takes place in ancient Jerusalem.

IMG_3288Mr. Esty leads the final number at the dress rehearsal.

IMG_3347Thank you Cally for repairing Elihu’s costume on the spot!

IMG_3320The benevolent Muslim Emperor Salahadin and Jewish Merchant Nathan agree to be friends and shake hands.

IMG_3308Emperor Salahadin and his good buddy Roger.

Salahadin and Nathan ponder which of the three great religions is best.

The play ends with a song.

IMG_3296The cast, hamming it up.

IMG_3361Within minutes the class was out of costume, back in the classroom and winding down over some friendly games of chess. (Me personally, chess is not a de-stressor. !)

IMG_3279This is what my fingers look like these days. We can thank Dr. Heberden for lending his name to these enlarged distal joints.

IMG_3280Can’t fold them over side by side anymore, and this is as far as I can bend my index finger.

IMG_3159I don’t have a ‘before’ image to help give a better context, but even so you can see how the bone has grown, flaring out at the outer joints. It’s most noticeable in the middle finger.

IMG_3162I really liked everyone at this doctor’s office – and I love that the doctor’s wife has her dance studio in the same building. I love the idea promoting health and movement together. Btw – when I remarked to the nurse that I was rather disheartened at the lack of advancement in the understanding of arthritis, he pointed out to me that ten or fifteen years ago everyone in the waiting room would have either been in wheelchairs or walkers. He insisted that things are better – and that prevention entails healthier living and continued movement.

IMG_3167Now I’m visiting local jazz pianist and icon, Lee Shaw at a rehab center. I arrived just in time for her set!

IMG_3184Close to 90, this woman sounds as good as ever. I was thrilled to hear her.

IMG_3193Wish I could remember this bassist’s name, but he too was top-notch. He and I exchanged a smile when she started to play Billy Strayhorn’s ballad “Chelsea Bridge”. Seriously, what a treat.

The Great Lee Shaw

IMG_3376I got my new anti-inflammatory pills. Only problem is, I can’t open the package. If I could, I wouldn’t need the damned meds! ‘Press here’ indeed…

IMG_3377Screw it. That’s what scissors are for.

IMG_3486Backstage Missoula madness begins!

IMG_3503Grace is now a sixth grader, but she came back to help with the show.

IMG_3508This is Kevin, one of the MCT directors and magic-makers.

IMG_3499Hard to believe these boys are brothers! I bet they don’t always get along so peacefully…

IMG_3387The show’s underway.

IMG_3409Jessie – the cobra’s head – is the daughter of an old friend, and second to the end of the tail is little Coco, one of my piano students.

IMG_3541The entire 64 member cast and both directors. (Sixtyfour, did you get that?!)

IMG_3585A little last-minute post-show merchandise sale…

IMG_3587..and then it’s time to pack it all away again.

IMG_3601Twins Kestrel and Miakoda are regulars at the Studio’s summer art classes and worked backstage at this years’s MCT show.

IMG_3608Elihu pitches in too.

IMG_3597Can’t forget Sam! He helped out with everything!

IMG_3621I love the spirit that the Missoula Children’s Theatre brings to town; everyone pitches in to help get things done, and it puts everyone in a happy and upbeat mood.

IMG_3637

All of the scenery, lights, costumes, makeup and scripts fit into the bed of this ‘little red truck’. It’s more than a marvel. It’s miraculous, really.

IMG_3643Goodbye and thank you, Olivia and Kevin! All the best to you in your future careers!

IMG_3577Now that the dust has settled and the week has ended, it’s back to the bottom line.

 

Crossed Fingers November 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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