The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Pause July 18, 2012

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal... — wingmother @ 12:44 pm
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It was Martha’s birthday yesterday. Even Elihu had almost lost track of how old she was. Day before yesterday she was once again admitted to the hospital, and although her condition had been reported the worst yet, when we went to visit her we found her very much on top of things, sitting upright in her chair and eating lunch, a birthday card and new African violet plant on the table beside her tray.

She was 86. She had been born in the hospital in Binghamton, New York, and although it seemed more than likely it was not an air conditioned place in 1926, I had to confirm it for myself. “Was it hot?” I asked her, unable to wrap my head around giving birth in a stuffy, un-air conditioned room in the middle of July. “My birthdays have always been on one of the hottest days of the year” she announced as she lifted the fork to her mouth. I watched the lone silver bracelet dangle from her arm as she spoke. I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t see Martha wearing that bangle. Guess she probably didn’t wear it while she was driving the tractor all those years ago. Maybe she wore it when she taught music at Skidmore. Where did it come from? Did her mother once wear it too? Did it sit inside the bedside table drawer at the Binghamton Hospital while her mother gave birth to her eighty-six years ago?

I pressed her for more details. All she knew about the day of her birth, besides that it was very hot, was that as her father turned to walk away down the hall from the delivery room the doctor had shouted after him to come back – and asked if he would mind helping. So he did. “I don’t know why the men weren’t allowed in the delivery rooms back then, but they weren’t. This was unusual” she informed us. Yes, I thought, this seemed like it would have been around the time when men – except the doctors of the patients themselves – were first officially shunned from the birthing rooms. (My mother told me that the ob/gyn doc who delivered me wasn’t even allowed in the room for the birth of his own child because he was a man! Absolutely insane.) So her dad had helped deliver her. This was something. And I wanted something – because I was increasingly aware that I needed to start collecting all the personal history I could from her now, while she was still very much the Martha I knew. It’s easy to think it will always be thus, but one day she will turn the corner. One day she will be too weak to talk. One day she will die. Impossible to imagine right now, seeing her here like this, very much in control of her world. But she’ll die too. We all will. Yup. We’re all headed there eventually. But you never really believe it. Not until it happens.

This morning I’d decided to call my cousin, the one whom I’d hoped to visit in Philly soon. I felt a little foolish that I’d blogged about going to see him when I hadn’t actually spoken to him in a long time. I also knew that it was just an outline of a hoped-for intinerary – and that the visit might not happen. But in a flash of unmeditated inspiration, I simply picked up the phone and dialed his number.

I got his wife, whom I’d never met nor spoken to before, but within minutes I was being briefed on the recent and surprise decline of my other cousins’s health. She told me of her husband’s sister, my cousin, who lived in Florida with her 86 year old mother, my aunt. About a month ago she’d had a stroke. (I made a quick inventory: I thought to myself she wasn’t much older than me – but then again, I realized once more, I’m older than I think I am. Old enough to have a stroke it seems.) Today she was close to death. My cousin’s wife and I stayed on the phone for almost an hour while she recounted for me the events of the past month. In contrast, I pictured Martha, a long, good life behind her and death well-earned but yet not arriving, sitting in her chair, her silver bracelet dangling from her arm. None of it seemed fair.

My cousin, at the time of our speaking, was failing fast after four weeks of a crazy, unforseen downward spiral. Her skin was now mottled, her lips blue, her kidneys had failed, her blood pressure was a shadow of its former self. As we spoke, another level of my awareness was marveling at the strangeness of it all: one minute my long-lost cousins are distant family, living only in dim memories from my youngest years, the next minute I’m witness to family intimacies I’ve hardly earned in my years of absence. But I stayed on the phone, listening, giving this in-charge yet nonetheless distraught woman my audience, my witness. A small voice inside told me just to listen. She’d been through more than I understood these past few weeks, and somehow, by marriage alone, yes, but somehow – she was my family. I had to be there. So I listened, dumbstruck as she recounted for me how my cousin had gone from a viable person to a dying waif inside of mere weeks.

We discussed whether my own 86 year old aunt should be there to witness her daughter’s passing or not. My vote was yes, unquestionably. My cousins’s wife, an ICU nurse for many years, was inclined to vote no. She advised that people look pretty horrible in those final moments – that they look much better after being cleaned up at the mortuary later on. But I still thought to myself – if Elihu were dying, it would be my deepest desire to be there, holding his hand, telling him I loved him and giving him my blessings to go. We talked, she talked, I interjected here and there, but mostly I listened. I tried to understand what her husband, my cousin, could possibly be feeling right now. I tried to imagine if Andrew were dying. My baby brother? I might begin to understand, yet it was different. He and I had hardly a civil relationship. My cousins knew each other as adults, as people. I tried to imagine relating to his heartbreak – but from where I sat I really couldn’t. I was beginning to feel I wasn’t relevant in this moment, and sensed our conversation was coming to its natural close when I heard the woman’s cell phone ring. She answered it while I, witnessing from the home phone in her other hand, listened.

I was standing in the kitchen hall when I heard her voice repeat the words she’d just been told. The clear, strong and in-command nurse I’d just been speaking to for the past hour evaporated, and a heartbroken woman responded in her place…”She’s passed?” she questioned in a weak, broken voice. My cousin had just died.

I don’t remember how I concluded the conversation – but I almost wished I could have simply hung up. I felt a bit like a voyeur now. They had serious heartbreak to deal with here. I had to go, but how? What do you say? I think I ended up saying something lame like “hang in there” – but what I’d really wanted to say was “I love you”. True, I didn’t know this woman at all really, but that seemed irrelevant. I wanted to hand over my love to her, to comfort her, to help in some way. My cousin had just died, while we were speaking, in fact, and yet my heart wasn’t broken, hers was. The only thing that would help now was the passage of time, and the return of far-flung family members. True, I was family, but I had no role in this event save to offer my love and support from afar.

Mid-summer, mid-life I sit here, wondering at it all. This is such a friggin hard planet to live on. Wealth and poverty sit side-by-side, death comes too early for some, too late for others. My father has no reason to get out of bed; simply living is a chore he does not need or even want, yet he goes on. Living. My cousin dies while her mother holds her hand and watches her go. How is any of this just? I keep to my belief that it all happens as it’s supposed to – while my more agnostic friends will smile and shake their heads at me – and yet it doesn’t make this crap easier to swallow. It doesn’t feel right, regardless of whether there are lessons here or not. Regardless of whether God is actively challenging our faith or not. Some find comfort believing everything is simply a scientific event with no moral, spiritual or ethical motivation behind it. Some find comfort in just the opposite way of thinking. Right now I’m apt to say none of it really matters.

This life is a hard one, and that we know. Nobody would argue that. It takes a lot of resolve, a good sense of humor and some common sense to make it through. That, and a moment every now and again to pause and reflect, to the best of our limited ability, on the wonder of it all.

 

Plymouth Ho! July 8, 2012

And here we are! On the north end of Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. Wareham, to be exact. Our drive went smoothly – we drove the three and a half hours straight without stopping. (A very compelling book on tape by author Gary Paulsen had us riveted and helped to pass the time.) We stopped first at the Mayflower II in Plymouth. The smell of salt sea air hit us right away as did the sound of seagulls. Before us was a vast expanse of water – it was an inspiring sight. Somehow, my child who sees little of any detail beyond twenty feet, he too felt the shift in our space – he too felt the wide-open of it all. We were someplace very different. Sadly, the tourists (of which we were embarrassed to be a part) were everywhere, and it was all but impossible to imagine the scene some four hundred years ago – let alone fifty. We had romantic images in our head which were quickly dashed when reality set in. I had some idea it might be thus, but Elihu was quite disappointed in the commercial nature of the whole affair.

Aboard the Mayflower we met guides in costume who were deeply in character (lots more prep for this gig than Tony N Tina’s Wedding – that’s for sure!) and really helped to bring us into the feeling of the historic ship. Later, we visited an historic town circa 1627 as well as a Wampanoag Indian village that also employed costumed, in-character guides. We both loved the visit. Really fascinating.

And food? Well, what does one eat when on the Cape? Why lobster and clams – the whole silly body of the clam, thank you very much. No strips here. Serendipity guided us with absolute skill as we were prompted to find a restaurant in which we not only sat directly over the water, but we had open windows at our elbows, salt sea air gently wafting in and birds upon birds above and below, skimming, scooping, diving, swooping. We saw our very first cormorant in the flesh as we did a Caspian tern and the black-headed laughing gulls. But almost more amazing was that we sat next to a young boy who, like Elihu, had loved birds since he was small and knew them all just as well. Truly, this kid was a bird boy; so said his grandma and he himself nodded in agreement. Thomas, if you should in fact read this, it makes us happy to know that there is another boy in the world who loves birds as Elihu does. We were very happy to make your acquaintance and hope one day to meet you again.

Perhaps the most important part our trip was made just an hour ago when we visited with my Uncle Paul and Aunt Sandy. I hadn’t seen them in almost twenty years – yet they looked instantly familiar. And for the first time, here before me was a person outside my immediate family with whom I shared a bloodline; his face, build and mannerisms all right here for me to see up close. This was new. In the tiny room I could study my uncle. He was a good looking man – something I found interesting that I’d never noticed before. I could see the resemblance to my mom at once. I sat there, feeling almost as if I were in a dream. The Conants and the Jacksons (my mom’s side) just don’t ‘do’ family. It had occurred to me earlier as I wove around the curving roads and struggled to get my bearings in the dark, that none of them would have made this sort of effort to see us. But in the end it didn’t matter. My uncle’d had a stroke a few years ago and I had to come and see him in person before it was too late. I felt very lucky as we bid them goodnight and made our way down the steps to our car.

We’ll see them again tomorrow. Thankfully we have no agenda here but to lay on the beach, find some sea critters and hang with the family. Right now we’re going to get into bed and continue reading a book about a young boy on a whaling ship that once moored in nearby New Bedford. And just a minute ago, as Elihu flew his rc helicopter (single blade, fixed pitch he’d want you to know) he said “life is too good to be true right now!” Yup. That’s pretty much how we’re feeling.

Happy Post Script: We heard from the young birder and his cousin tonite! (Finally someone taking me up on the “Say Hello” page entreat…) Come back and visit again, Thomas and Lucas – and please share some of your bird stories with us sometime…

 

Travel Campaign June 29, 2012

Elihu and I have not yet been on a trip in our own part of the country, and have hoped to do so for the past three summers now. I have relatives I haven’t seen in years, and I’m becoming keenly aware that time continues to pass…

I’m hoping to raise some money in order to make this trip, because as things are now, I’m not sure we’ll be able to manage it. I realize everyone has financial burdens – and truly your emotional support through this past year has been worth far more than money itself – but if anyone is able to donate just a few dollars towards our trip, I think it might be much easier for us to manifest.

To that end, I’ve set up an account at GoFundMe.com if friends would like to make a donation for our Big Trip East. Just visit our page at  http://www.gofundme.com/q1ke4 and hopefully it will be easy to contribute to our account if you choose.

All told, we will be traveling about 1000 miles. We need money for gas, tolls, additional insurance, motel, food, admission tickets and parking – as well as money to pay someone to watch over our flock in our absence.

Here then is our proposed Big Trip East, to be made in two separate tours:

Leg One:  Saratoga Springs, New York to Wareham, Massachusetts via Amherst

My mom’s brother is now 84 and I haven’t seen him, my Aunt nor my cousins in over twenty years. They live in Wareham, Massachusetts, and so our hope is to meet them, swim in the Atlantic and perhaps – if we can swing it – go on a whale watching boat while we’re in the neighborhood. I know they’re pricey, but Elihu really wants to go. (I caution him that he might not be able to see them for himself, but he is determined.) I also have an old and dear friend from Chicago (whom I’ve known since she herself was Elihu’s age – and now she’s a real grown up!) who lives in Amherst, and she and her boyfriend would like to go with us to a local raptor center there. Finally, an important part of this leg is visiting Plymouth. Our very own ancient ancestor, Roger Conant, (we guestimate him to be Elihu’s great grandfather x 16) arrived there on the Mayflower in 1620. There’s a historic village complete with a reconstructed replica of the ship that we can tour too. Given my personal love of sailing, I’m very excited to show this to Elihu. And my mom is from Fall River, so we’d also like to go and see the house where she grew up as we wind our way westward along the coast.

Leg Two: Fall River, Massachusetts to New Haven, Connecticut

On to New Haven, Connecticut, where I was born, and it’s there we’ll take a peek at Silliman College of Yale University, my father’s Alma mater, and hopefully we’ll be granted entry at the secretive Elihu Society. A quick jaunt north to the suburb of Hamden to see the house I remember living in as a young girl, then back to the main route west, on to New York City.

Leg Three: New Haven, Connecticut to New York City

New York City, baby! I can remember a time when hardly six months of my life went by without my visiting this grand place. I haven’t been there since Elihu was born. About time. Too much to do here for sure. Friends we really want to see, Achromat folks to meet, perhaps a visit to the Bronx Zoo Aviary. Plus we gotta see a landmark. Not sure which, statue of Liberty or Empire State Building. Chinatown is a must, gotta see those big barrels of live bullfrogs and those crazy ducks, hanging in the store windows. Might want to head to mid town – West 57th – to see the historic building in which my father lived at the beginning of his career as a harpsichordist in NYC. Lunch at Katz’s Delicatessen? Some Chinese-Cuban fare perhaps? We also have friends I know from my old life as a musician – they were regular hosts to us when we played in the city, and we must drop in and say hello. Too much to do! At the very least we need (make that I need) to break the paralysis I feel in visiting this city. We only live three hours north and in future can ride the Megabus if we like. There is truly a ‘next time’ to be had. That should take the urgency and stress out of the mix.

The First Half concludes…

We return to Saratoga for a wedding mid July – and the welcome company of house guests all the way from Paris… Then, after we get our breath and clean out the car, we hope to embark on the second half of our summer’s journeys:

The Second Half commences…

Leg Four: New York City to Bel Mar, New Jersey with West Orange in between

We have some friends, formerly of Saratoga, who now live in Jersey. Mom Marion has recently written a book on the accordion (Squeeze This!) and her kids and Elihu have a ball together. I’ll be sure to bring my melodica along for a little music making. And, as Elihu reminds me, there is an aviary not far from their home, too. Then it’s down the coast to Bel Mar. Fareed and I always used to joke that ‘one day’ we would have a home both in Bel Mar, New Jersey, and Del Mar, California. !

Leg Five: Central Coastal New Jersey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philly. I have nice memories of that town. Few, but nice. And for some reason, maybe it’s all the historical novels we read last year, Elihu is resonating with the idea of a trip to that town. Seeing the Liberty bell excites him, seeing the olden day streets and buildings… But the biggest plus of this town is meeting my own cousin face-to-face as an adult. I don’t believe I’ve seen him since I was Elihu’s age – or younger. How can this be? I don’t get it myself. When we were little we saw them on holidays, but I guess as you age life gets more complicated and family spreads out all over… I do know that my father loved his big brother so very dearly, and Uncle Dave’s death was very hard on him. I mean to right the situation. It’s about time I met my cousin again. Kinda like meeting family you didn’t know you had. This will be fun…

Leg Six: Going home

Should we meander? Find our way to Deposit, New York (just outside Binghamton) to see friend Martha Carver’s childhood home? Should we stop in the Catskills? Are there points in between we might not want to miss? Or will we high-tail it back? As I have been saying to my son since he was tiny: “You never know until you go”…

Not sure if it’ll go as planned, but I gotta try. I’ve been hoping to do this since we moved here and feel I must take action. I set up our gofundme account a few weeks ago but haven’t had the guts or conviction to make my appeal til now. Not sure what I’ve been waiting for. But I gotta ask. Just a couple of bucks each from a couple hundred friends and we can get on the road. I hope you’ll consider it. My deepest thanks ahead of time should you choose to help us out.