The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Morph August 1, 2018

Waiting. Waiting three weeks for my son to return from China. Waiting to muster the resolve to stop drinking empty calories in wine and light beer to help make it through. Waiting for the renewed oomph to workout regularly again. Waiting for the hope, the inspiration, the vision. Waiting for the skills to run this silly arts venue. Waiting not to be afraid. Waiting for the arthritis in my body to cease its progress. Waiting to play more interesting solos. Waiting to learn how to earn a livable wage. Waiting. Waiting for something, something to change inside of me…

I suppose that’s not completely accurate. I’m changing alright. Without my understanding – and before I could gather my wits and fully understand that it was truly underway – my body joined that population of the fading. Of those past their physical prime. Past their mental prime too. It feels like very little prime overall is left in my own personal pump. But I need to make what’s left last just a while longer. I’m bitching, whining, doing this passage-of-time thing without a lotta class, and I know it. Searching rather desperately for ways to age without losing me. How do I do this? Waiting for the answer. Reading essays of those who’ve gone through this themselves, remembering how my ancient father lamented that as a little boy he’d watch men like him and think that he would never become a tottering old man himself, and yet there he was… Watching half a dozen monarch caterpillars turning into butterflies in my kitchen. Posting a pic of the glorious new creature perched on my nose. Noticing the vague new contours of my face. Realizing that the changes that await me are not like the those of the caterpillar. Thinking back… just when¬†exactly was I a butterfly? And when I was a butterfly, did I fully understand how glorious it was to fly? Not completely. But now, of course, I begin to get it.

When I awoke early this morning, at around 4 am, I checked my phone and saw that my son, who had not texted or called me anytime in the past few days, had arrived with his father and the ‘other’ family in China. I have a friend in Beijing who told me not to expect communications of any kind, so this was a surprise, and a relief. But with this news a queer and foreign feeling entered my consciousness and made me feel almost weightless and sick: my only child was without me¬†on the other side of the planet, and I had no control over a single thing that would happen to him. I felt as if I were in a dream, I felt untethered and all of a sudden, without a distinct purpose.

You may say that my child being half a world away is the reason behind all of this self-sorry nonsense. And goodness, Elizabeth, we all age. Mine are first world problems, are they not? I suppose if I knew how it was that I would make a living for the remaining several decades (something tells me I’m not off the mortal hook for a while) I might rest easier into this shift. But facing growing old and having no substantive source of income is a huge stress to me. I suppose I could get a job as a clerk at some shop in town – but the last time I did, upon moving here ten years ago, it did not end well. I have never done well at traditional desk/cashier/clerk-type jobs. But I have enjoyed moderate success at hundreds of unusual jobs; I’ve been everything from Tony the Tiger (yes, costume, paycheck from Kellogg’s and all) to deckhand on a boat. I’ve also typed, answered phones and fumbled at cash registers, I’ve taught classes, I’ve hosted radio shows, I’ve raised chickens, sung a cappella in front of thousands of people… Oh so many jobs, hats, achievements, and yet… These days if you ask me what it is that I do for a living, I do not know how to answer that.

Folks are fond of telling me that “I should write a book”. Yeah, I dunno. Isn’t that what this blog already is? And who needs another memoir on their bedside table? I would like to pen a Wikipedia page for my father, but even that seems just insurmountable from where I sit right now. There are too many things to do, too many administrative tasks that need my attention. (How on earth would I manage to organize my content into a book when I can’t even keep my website updated in a timely fashion?) So many ruminations thread through my brain in the long hours of the night when I cannot sleep, but retrieving them while sitting at the keyboard just isn’t happening even as it used to a year ago. In real time I forget words and names which I know I wish to use, yet cannot retrieve from my mind. Things are indeed different now than a couple of years ago. It seems I am truly entering into a new personal age. I just don’t know what the fuck it will be about.

I also worry that there will be no one with whom to share it with. But is this not a choice? I see my mother and several other older friends who deeply cherish their independence and solo lifestyle – just as I do – and I see their individual worlds contracting. My mother tells me she has so much work to do, and then I see her at her desk attending to a stack of solicitations from Native American groups and alley cat rescues. A pile of dream catcher key chains and return address labels with cat photos attest to her main business these days. I can’t begrudge her this; it is her role at this late stage of life. These are the tiny reasons that drive her, that help to give her a purpose. I get that. And she funds much of The Studio’s ongoing needs too, so she derives her sense of purpose through this as well. If only I could.

The Studio, the few students I have and the even fewer gigs, none of it serves to define my reason for leaving a carbon footprint. I have three more years to shepherd the kid into college – and that alone will be a part-time job, with all the scholarships and such that we must hunt down – but when he is launched and out, what then? I have told Elihu that I intend to follow him. That I will not be a burden, but that I will also not allow myself to live far away. I want to know his wife, my grandchildren. I wish to be solitary, but not. Kind of like my mom and her son. Just enough, but not too much. So this plan lingers, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and that helps. But the space in between now and then is still fuzzy. Waiting. Waiting…

A couple of the chrysalises in the kitchen have stopped in the middle of their process. While one hatches, the neighboring package turns darker still; no patterns begin to show beneath the papery outsides. For some unknown reason, the change has ceased. There will be no butterfly, there is nothing more to wait for. It’s tempting to see this as some cryptic sign from the universe, but I scold myself that it is not.

For these creatures, stopped in the middle of their great changing, the waiting is over, the most exciting parts of their lives are history. I wait, and I wonder. Will another change arrive for me? I am fairly sure the most exciting parts of my life are over too, and I am certainly not going to grow wings again, but I hold out hope for one more chapter, just one more adventure… I await one more chance to morph.

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Dear Readers: Although I thank you in advance for your sincere love and concern, please do not send me private messages suggesting I seek professional help, do not suggest that I take a 9 – 5 job, that I hire someone to do the admin work for me (with what money?) or offer solutions. If you have a good house sitting gig in Saratoga, or wish to simply underwrite my low-key life in the country, that’s fine. Otherwise, don’t fret. (Also, haters, please, don’t share your hate or contempt for my feelings. There is nothing productive that comes of all that nonsense.) This too shall pass, and please remember that this blog has always represented my deepest, most uncensored expression, and if we all took an honest look inward I’m pretty sure our revelations wouldn’t always appear as the bright and shiny aspects of our best selves that we might wish them to be.

 

Heartbreak of Delete April 30, 2013

It really wasn’t his fault. I’d asked Elihu to go and get the phone by hitting the find button on the phone base. He hit what looked to him like the page button. Yeah, it does kinda look like it. The little icon of the phone and the icon of the garbage can are very similar in shape. Once again I learned something about his eyesight when he told me that he could barely tell the difference between them. Even though he sees fairly well up close, these buttons were virtually indistinguishable from each other. And so, with one touch Elihu erased two voice messages from my father that I’d kept on the phone for months. They were the last times dad was able to call me on his own. The last time I heard him call me ‘sweetie boopis’, a term of affection he’d used for mom and me ever since I can remember. Dad no longer called me this. Dad no longer even called. With mom now retired and home all the time he had no need to call me during the day anymore. In fact, dad had ceased calling me altogether sometime over this past fall. I’d noticed it, and so had saved the two messages from dad on my machine. And having downloaded many hundreds of photographs over the weekend, I’d actually put it on this week’s to-do list to archive those two precious messages. But in one split second they were deleted without any warning. The timing was more than ironic, the poignancy of the loss so acute, that when I learned what Elihu had just done, I lost it.

I’m usually good about small traumas. I don’t freak out over things as I certainly might have ten years ago. After having my husband tell me about his other children and his choice to leave our marriage – after news like that all else fairly pales. Nothing has ever come close. But this loss hurt. As I sobbed into my hands and rocked in disbelief, not caring if Elihu himself hurt or not, I realized why it grieved me so. Because dad had turned a corner sometime over the past few months, and I had so very little of his old self documented. Nothing recorded, no videos, few photographs. I’d been so busy living my own life until now that I’d taken the mundane for granted. Those voice messages had still sounded like the dad I knew. They were a window into a time that I realized with great reluctance was now gone. Over the past few months dad has become almost childlike – but it didn’t really hit me until I saw him at the party. He was definitely changed. Due partly to the natural progression of whatever age-related disease he has (dementia or Alzheimer’s – jury’s still out) and partly as a result of my mother’s incessant expression of control. She babies him like crazy, stealing away whatever little power he might still have over his own life. I know she may think she’s doing it for his benefit (that is if she’s even aware of her behavior), but I can say that since she’s retired recently dad’s gotten worse – and much, much faster than ever before. Take away someone’s motivation for initiative and you rob him of a basic human need. I know she can never see it, but even my young son can. We don’t like to visit their house for too long, not just because of Elihu’s cat allergies (it’s a five cat household) but also because mom is quick to react negatively (she even takes personal offense at Elihu’s allergic reaction to her cats; she’s often convinced he’s overreacting), and she’s quick to tell others what they should do and or how they should be doing it. It’s exhausting to be in mom’s household too long, and I know even my father in his declining powers is aware of it. Fighting her need to be in charge is difficult even for a vigorous and healthy person; naturally dad in his state can only acquiesce to her dominant nature.

It’s been my own personal quest not to become as she is; not to try to assert myself into the outcome of every situation. And while it’s a work in progress, I have done a good job. But with this one tiny event – the erasing of those two precious messages – my anger rises and I begin not only to hurt, but to feel sorry for myself. To see myself as my mother sees herself; a martyr to life. I begin to think that I lost something because I didn’t take care of the task myself. I mutter to myself under my breath that if ‘I don’t do something myself it doesn’t get done right’. I fume, I cry, I throw something across the room. I know Elihu doesn’t deserve this, so I take my tantrum outside. What happened is sad, yes, but I also know there’s something bigger at the root of it than the loss of those recordings. What is it? I pace, I cry, I feel my heart positively breaking. Then it dawns on me. I know what’s bothering me, I do. I’m scared about losing my father. And I’m scared that when he’s gone I’ll have very little to remind me. Of his voice, his smile, his essence. I know it’s silly human sentimentality, and in the end sentimentality is only superficial, but nevertheless it’s in me to my core. What will I do when he goes? Other people’s parents die, I know. But what happens when mine do? Even mom, as tiring as she can be sometimes, she is still my mother. How on earth will I continue when she’s gone for good? How will I cope with this sorrow? Now whenever the phone rings from next door I think “Oh no, this is the call…”

When Elihu was little we read a book by Richard Scarry called “The Best Mistake Ever”. In the story Huckle’s mother gives him instructions to go to the store and buy a short list of things for the household. He forgets his list, but with the help of his friend Lowly Worm he reconstructs it the best he can from memory. Instead of oranges he gets orange soda, instead of potatoes he gets potato chips, instead of cream he gets ice cream. When he arrives home his mother is very upset about it until the doorbell rings and it’s his Aunt and cousin who’ve come by for a surprise visit. They all have an impromtu party with the things that Huckle and Lowly have brought back, and it’s agreed on by all that the party was thanks to ‘the best mistake ever’. What a wonderful idea. I just loved the story, and although I’d heard this concept before in other contexts, until I read that particular story I didn’t fully get that the potential for unforeseen possibilities lay in the wake of mistakes – small mistakes as well as the really big ones. Even my then four year old son got the metaphor and soon we were both making lemonade from lemons; always quick to cite minor mistakes as ‘the best mistake ever’. (When Fareed made his life-changing decision I immediately thought of this story. At first it was a very bitter pill, but now it seems to be so true. If it hadn’t been for that we would never have known the life we have now.) And so with this current little episode of heartbreak I try to apply the story, I try to imagine how I might turn this around. How I might use this small loss to serve us better, how I might learn something or experience something good that otherwise I might never have known. I didn’t sleep well last night because I just couldn’t get past the sting of the loss. But this morning I awoke with some inspiration.

Friday night dinners. We’ll invite ourselves over for supper once a week. I might never hear my father’s voice again on my answering machine, but I could still make some videos of him with Elihu. We could still ask him questions – he was still very capable of conversation, especially when it was about things from the past. Yesterday – even earlier in the same day – was not something dad could speak about with any true clarity, but if one were to ask him about years past, especially his youth, he always had something to say. I told mom about my idea and she agreed. Elihu did too (he needs to dope up pretty well to go over there. And as long as our stay is an hour or less we can put up with the cats and the control issues. !) So we Conants have a plan for our future Fridays. Perhaps we’ll even learn some new things about dad – all on account of that unexpected mistake. Maybe my heartbreak itself can be erased as easily as those recorded messages.