The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Year Anew January 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christmas Last December 25, 2013

On a bright and sunny Christmas morning, peaceful and still in my little house, it’s difficult to imagine all that’s going on across the land at the very same moment. Living rooms are ankle-deep in wrapping paper, parents are sitting nearby, watching the chaos, relieved they pulled it off and children are awash in new toys and chocolate. Yet at the very same time hospital beds are occupied by people for whom this day is much like any other, some are just waiting, some are in pain, some are not even aware of being there. Some young women are realizing that their new baby’s birthday will be today, and some people are getting ready to watch a loved one breathe for the very last time. Yes, it’s a holiday, but everyday life does not take day off.

When I went out to tend the chickens, I discovered a hen taking cover underneath the water trough. When she tried to move, she faltered and fell. I’d seen her only just last night, on her roost and doing as fine as always. How did this happen? And what, pray tell, took place? It seemed her leg was broken, yet I couldn’t imagine how. Her back showed signs of pecking, a bare spot and a fresh scab told me that she’d somehow sunk down the pecking order and had begun to show evidence of it. Unpleasant as that was, it did not explain a broken leg. Immediately I picked her up and brought her in to the house. Likely she’d be housebound and in my care for the next week. I thought of all the folks, animal and human, whose needs continue, acute and mundane, regardless of the celebrations. My father, awaiting his death, still needed to be changed and moved in his bed, and this hen still had an injury that needed attention. I kept thinking to myself that this was a good year for Elihu to be away. Not sure how I could possibly have been present for these situations otherwise.

As I think about my son on this morning, far away and in the midst of his own magical Christmas morning, I do realize that it’s the last such Christmas that he’ll believe in Santa – already the signs have been showing over the past week – and I’m a bit sad that I’m not there for it. Yet in the end, it doesn’t really matter. While we have distinct, clearly defined holidays on our calendars, time itself is a bit fuzzy. Events stretch out over time… not believing in Santa doesn’t happen in a second, instead it’s a process. A slow calculation built upon a growing body of evidence. Likewise, a natural death does not happen all at once. It too is a process, a gradual slowing down. And while there may truly be one final breath, it in of itself is not the dying. And so I realize that I can have no regrets on this, the final Christmas that Elihu believes, and that my father lives.

All I can do is be fully present in the moments I’m given. I can take some peace in knowing that I will carry the memory of this day with me until the end of my own, and it’s in this way that I’ll make this final Christmas day last.

 

Evidence December 16, 2013

“I still don’t understand how people can not believe in Santa”, Elihu said from the backseat as I drove him to friend Keithie’s house for a birthday party. I considered for a second asking him to explain his thinking, but decided instead to let him do the talking. We were on thin ice here, and I wanted to see where this was going. How he, in his ten-year old world was working this all out. “I mean, how can you not believe when there’s so much physical evidence of Santa?” he continued. Again, I said nothing. I so did not want to blow this by leading the witness. So, uncharacteristically of me, I remained silent in the front seat and contributed nothing to the discussion. “How do people explain  all the presents if they don’t believe in Santa? How can they? How is it possible that there are so many presents around the tree if it’s not Santa?” he said with a hint of impatience. Ah, I thought to myself – presents, of course. I got what he meant. And from that perspective, I can understand his thinking. Kinda hard not to believe in the face of all that physical evidence. I knew he’d be spending the next few hours with some rough-neck country kids who hadn’t believed in Santa since Kindergarten. I prayed to myself that the topic wouldn’t come up, cuz these boys probably wouldn’t hesitate to tell them what they thought. We were traveling outside the nurturing, childhood-preserving culture of the Waldorf School, so anything was fair game. But Elihu was resolute and fully committed to Santa, even now. Even moments after singing “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” and discovering for the first time the lyric “you may say there’s no such thing as Santa, but as for me and Grandpa we believe”. (I had felt a pause in the car. A moment of thought, of mulling things over after hearing that line, but then somehow sensed he’d made it work and it didn’t end up challenging his beliefs). So if those boys had other ideas, I had a feeling Elihu still wasn’t ready to buy em.

The last few years we’ve had a handful of unexpected things happen to us around Christmastime which have certainly helped to keep the magic alive. When Elihu was six, we returned from seeing Santa to find that one long-awaited paper white bud had finally opened, a miracle he attributed to the Christmas Spirit we’d generated by being with Santa. One year we pulled in the driveway to find a beautiful, wrought iron birdfeeder holder – complete with birdfeeders and bags of seed. I myself was so stunned that I didn’t have to worry about faking a thing. Equally as surprised as Elihu, I searched my mind for the likely suspects while Elihu just accepted it with the most matter-of-fact attitude. He knew it was Santa, who was being kind to pay an early visit here in Greenfield, as he knew that Elihu would be in Illinois for Christmas. While it was thrilling, it wasn’t beyond belief for him at all (as it was for me!). And last year we had a fresh Christmas tree miraculously show up on our doorstep. Again, he took it in stride. My mouth was still hanging open while he was already working on getting it into the house. This year the miracle was perhaps smaller, but it gave me pause. A few years ago I made a large outline of a dove in white lights which I hang over our garage door. It’s a pretty large installation, so finding that half of it didn’t light (after I’d checked and then gotten up on the extension ladder to hang it, argh) was a huge bummer. I decided to keep it lit anyway, hoping it would motivate me to take it down and fix it before too many days passed. But one morning we woke up to find the whole bird perfectly lit up. It had just fixed itself overnight. I was flabbergasted and incredibly relieved. Elihu, however, has come to expect the unexpected and simply told me it was simply “the little extra bit of magic that hadn’t shown up yet”. ! Whatever the cause, I was appreciative and grateful, and secretly I took it as a sign that things were going to be alright. That I should finally free myself of that persistent, internal hum of worry that followed me through my days and nights…

I shouldn’t read meaning into things that aren’t meant to convey anything special, and yet the spontaneous re-lighting of the dove, and just in time for our party (mostly snowed out – the only folks who came were neighbors with tiny children. It was one of the loveliest parties ever) signaled to me that the world was ok, and some magic force wanted me to know it. My heart was lifted, my stress eased just a bit. Things seemed hopeful again. But as with anything in life, things never stay just so for long.

Whether it was the storm, the county plow truck or our own ‘dumb Mike’ the plow guy, it didn’t really matter – but the sign for our family’s Studio – the concert hall in which dad had hosted his Festival of Baroque Music – had become dislodged from the frame and now hung awkwardly, threatening to fall into the roadside ditch. There for many a year, many a storm, and today it goes. A strange feeling of something not being right – of being somehow different and wrong – came over me as I saw it. It’s a large, heavy sign, and I surprised myself in finding I was able to free it from it’s frame and drag it to the safety of our driveway, where I rested it against some trees. Then we continued up the driveway, past the Studio itself and up to mom and dad’s house for a quick visit. Things, I’d just heard, had been quite strange and different with dad the night before. The broken sign at the road seemed to me like an omen of sorts.

Last night had been brutal. Dad was found in the morning sitting on the couch in his own excrement, upset, detached, unable to make sense of the simplest instructions. Mom and Andrew were able to clean him up, and somehow mom got some food into him too. But by the time Elihu and I arrived, dad was slumped over in his chair, his hands nervously moving, twittering in a strange, new fashion, his gaze fixed on the floor. When I went to him and tried to say hello, he didn’t even lift his gaze. After some coaxing, he did respond to me, but returned within seconds to odd little non sequiturs, bits of sentences that still – God bless him – were very well-constructed and incredibly ‘almost’ plausible-sounding. And after some tricky discussions about action plans for the next forty-eight hours (mom is so defensive and controlling about the whole subject it’s very difficult to make progress. It’s the old ‘lead a horse to water’ thing going on) we decided he needed to be returned to the couch, where he’d likely stay the night. It took all four of us – me, mom, Andrew and Elihu to get dad to the couch. Yeah, things were different now.

I know there are good days and bad days, and they can come and go, but even so, this really did seem to be an entirely new level here. (I was losing my faith that we’d see him bright and engaged again as we did just two weeks ago.) We got him comfortable as possible, but his hands were still trembling, tugging, moving, searching for something… he was still unsettled. But as the minutes passed be began to grow more calm. That was good to see. Before we left, Elihu did his best to connect with grandpa. He leaned way over, putting his face inches from dad’s. Elihu told him that he loved him so much, and immediately dad’s face transformed from that of a vacant, old man to that a young boy’s grandpa. He smiled, made eye contact with his grandson and said “Oh Elihu, I love you so very much too”, they kissed goodbye and then we left. On the way out I put my arm around mom’s shoulder, told her I loved her too, and that I knew this was hard. Once again, I saw her eyes become damp. She does not cry. She does not relinquish control. This is going to be a very hard time for her.

On the way down the driveway I see the sign, resting on its side for now. The sign was due to come down in the next couple of months anyway. We’re having a parking lot put in the woods just to the left of the Studio – phase one you might say in ‘our’ (my) plan to separate the Studio from mom and dad’s property. If we’re going to have our own stand-alone arts center, we can’t share a driveway with the neighboring house. And much as my mother may use her best dramatic passive-aggressive tone when speaking of ‘my plans after she’s gone’ – as if I can’t wait for her to leave already (!) she must understand that one day her house – gorgeous and memory-filled as it may be – is a house that someone else will be living in one day. (I point out to her that I already have a perfectly good house. What do I need with this one? This she seems to understand. And yet, she must not get it completely, it seems…. sheesh.) And I am fairly sure a new family wouldn’t want to share their driveway with an arts center. Cars, people, comings and goings… Naw. So we’ve got to do a little restructuring now. So, as I said, the sign was due for a move soon, anyway. It just came unexpectedly, abruptly, like this new phase with my father. Who is finally the least like my father of all the versions I’ve seen so far. Yes, it feels there is a changing of the guard coming soon, and that there are signs all around, both little and big, to help remind us.

I got home tonite to find two pieces of mail. One, a bill. The second, quite likely a solicitation for money from my kid’s school. Already the guilt began to grow inside when I recognized the Emma Foundation – crap, another campaign I am in no position to contribute to. But I would, if I could! Crap, I say to myself under my breath as I open the letter. And at first, I can’t understand what it is I’m seeing and reading, because my expectations were so the other direction…. And then, I get it. And probably because of all the emotions that have gone on over the past day – seeing my dad like this, seeing the imminent end of my child’s innocence, realizing that there is so much unknown before me – all of it and more – it all just sort of wells up in me and I do what I know my own mother would benefit from ever so much more than even me in this moment: I cry, I cry, and I cry. I get a mix of feelings – it’s kind of in the same space as a mystery Christmas tree showing up from out of nowhere at your door just when you had no idea how you’d be able to afford one yourself, it’s that, it’s a feeling of instant humility, a prideful dash of ‘do we really appear that needy?’ and then finally, a gentle reconciliation with what’s just been given to you in love – and most likely after a healthy process of consideration. In this case, a vote has likely been passed, several folks have been putting their heads together on this, and they came out voting for Elihu. He is the recipient of a generous donation towards his Waldorf tuition. The note is even signed by the mother who lost her own ten year old child and who created this fund in order to create a lasting legacy in her daughter’s honor. Wow. Hardly a humbler, more honored feeling than this.

Change is everywhere, yet it’s so embedded in the everyday that we can’t see much of it for ourselves. The evidence of that change is there, but actually recognizing it for yourself is the challenge. In my own casual, armchair efforts to better myself as a student of life, I’ve long reminded myself to notice the tiny voice within, magnify it ten times, and then heed its message. Sometimes we know something’s changing, but we don’t want to believe it. Some will think me a naïve tree-hugging Spiritualist to hear me say that I do believe things happen as they are supposed to (not to be confused with things happening as we’d hoped they would). As with my surprise divorce and out-of-character cross-country move, these were unwelcome changes that created the opportunity for so many new experiences we’d otherwise never have had. Suffice to say, sucky things can beget better things.

The evidence tells me my father is going to die soon. The evidence tells me that my son is growing up. Both of these are hard things to understand.  Thankfully, the evidence also shows us that there are some people in this world who act towards others in love and kindness and will go to great efforts to do so.

And it still does kinda seem there’s an awful lot of evidence to support this Santa thing too.

 

Some December Pics December 6, 2011

Marching Band in front of Saratoga Springs Town Hall

Elihu, finally without glasses

Elihu loves the tuba. Has since he was 3. Just a couple more years...

The marching band's on break

Elihu follows the band on Broadway

Santa tells Elihu about the geese he sees from his sleigh

Santa, checking the children's holiday spirit

The field where we cut down our tree

We two, with our newly cut tree behind

Our Christmas tree.

 

Santa December 5, 2011

Santa visited us here in Greenfield the other night. There were very few kids in attendance, perhaps because so many had seen him at the Victorian street walk in nearby Saratoga just the night before. Santa gave each child, as he does each year when in our tiny town, an unrushed, generous turn, engaging each child in thoughtful conversation in a way I doubt many Santas do. I drove by the small community center to check the line before I zipped off to pick up Elihu, who was at the moment, making gingerbread houses at a friend’s place.

When we returned, Elihu was pleased to find his classmate Jack, the other book-loving kid in his class for whom Star Wars was also of no interest. The two boys giggled and ran around on the lawn outside til I called him in for his turn. As soon as he approached the chair Santa called out to him. “Elihu! It’s so good to see you!” Elihu has come to expect that Santa will not only remember him, he will also recount in lovely detail his observations of the birds he sees while flying in his sleigh. And so the conversation begins. The room is full of chatter, and it’s hard to pick out exactly what is being said. Hoping not to ruin the mood, I catch a little on video. I keep wondering if this is the last year. Jack’s mother and I share our concern and wonder if living in Greenfield might not help extend the magic. It’s hard to know; we are not so isolated from the world as we might hope. I myself have searched Elihu’s face, his physical language, his tone of voice for signs of doubt. I think this year Elihu is still truly on board. As usual, Santa shows no sign of needing to wrap thing up. They continue to talk, and I back away, letting the moment be.

Soon it is time to light the town tree. As he does each year, Santa leads all the children out the door and around the corner to the large tree in front of our tiny town hall. He sings as he walks, ho hos and such, chatting with the kids who run at his heels. When he gets to the tree, Santa tells us that with enough holiday spirit he can light the tree, but first we must show him how much we have. He bends to a child in front and asks if they have the holiday spirit. He then touches their nose and his index finger lights up. He touches the noses of several children before he turns to address the small crowd. He asks us all to shout in chorus “Merry Christmas!”, and when we do, the tip of his right index finger glows red. But it flickers out. “Ho ho! Come on now! I need all of your holiday spirit!” He leads us again, and this time we’ve done it. Santa sweeps his arm upward and points to the giant tree with his glowing finger and it bursts into life. The large, colored bulbs turn on and the crowd claps, every face smiling. But what’s this? Do we hear sirens? Could it be already? Yes, it’s time for Santa to get back to work. He must leave Greenfield now, and the fire truck is coming to whisk him away. The hook and ladder truck pulls up alongside the gathering, lights whirling and sirens blaring, and Santa picks up his pack. He turns to wave at us once more as a fireman, clad in his working gear, gives Santa some help getting up the stairs and into the front seat. His finger still glowing, Santa waves goodbye to us as the truck pulls off into the night.

When Elihu was six, and we’d just come home from lighting the tree with Santa, a tiny blossom had opened on our paper whites. We’d waited for weeks for that first flower. He was beside himself. “Look, mommy!” he said, stunned. “Look how much Christmas spirit we had! We even had enough to make the flower bloom!!” He was thrilled. He was pure belief, pure joy. That was year before last now. He may still believe in Santa, but he and Jack had just discovered that there was a giant electrical box under the tree, and they just knew someone inside the building had turned the tree on, not our Christmas spirit. That jig was up. Gone too, no doubt, was the idea that spirit had once opened a blossom. “Come on, tell me, what did you guys talk about??” I asked after we got home. “Well,” he started quietly, “he told me he sees the geese when he flies. He’s actually flying right next to them in the air. He says the setting sun looks beautiful shining off their bellies. Can you imagine that? That must be amazing.” I wait a bit, then ask – what else? “Did you tell him anything you wanted?” I ask Elihu. “No” he said. “He asked me, but I just told him that I already have everything that I want. I told him I had everything I needed. I just told him that I was happy.”

Me too. Thanks, Santa.