The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Next January 1, 2015

IMG_2875Dad didn’t quite make it to 2014, and enigmatically, his few and final words to his grandson were: “When beautiful January comes….”  Last January we experienced unusually heavy snows and low temperatures, and dad’s Studio flooded and froze; both the floors and walls were ruined. It was a stunning and heartbreaking loss, but after a thoughtful reassessment of the situation, what followed was the beginning of an important, year-long process of re-birth… Was my father being prophetic or poetic?…. Who knows? Either way, January will always make me think of my father’s mysterious, near-final words which, intentional or not, heralded the way for the next chapter in our lives…

After having passed the first anniversary of my father’s death, I find myself thinking more about it than I have in months. It’s strange terrain now. There’s an inclination to feel that somehow he’s slipping further away, that somehow it’s slowly becoming more and more like he never existed at all… I know this isn’t really true, and if nothing else, I and my son are proof that he was here. And Elihu’s our insurance that his line will continue forth into the world… (Not that the planet actually needs more humans!) But why even think like this? Very few people on this earth will ultimately be remembered for the long haul. Most of us, except for the very slim part of the earth’s population that comes to know some true degree of fame, will indeed become forgotten after a while. After all, life moves on, and the void left behind naturally fills in with new creations, new endeavors… There are only so many stories one can pass down to the next generation, there is only so much time in which to tell them. Beyond a certain point, it just doesn’t make logistic sense that we’ll all be remembered by our descendants.

It gives my fragile ego a small amount of relief to think that now I’ve left behind a digital footprint, and that in some way I, my family and my life, will now never die… Perhaps in a century’s time my long-dormant blog will fall to the bottom of the searches, and it may ultimately come to languish in a virtual state of suspension, but still, it’ll be there, somewhere. To know that gives me the variety of comfort I imagine folks derive from erecting several tons of marble to mark their final resting place. When I lived in Chicago I was a fan of the city’s beautiful cemeteries, and it boggled my mind to ponder the immense amount of industry that went into their memorials. I would stand in the middle of a peaceful forest with headstones and statuary as far as the eye could see in every direction, the only sound being a soft hush of white noise from beyond the cemetery walls… In that peaceful, natural oasis it was hard to imagine the toil it must have taken to erect these monuments – let alone dig the holes in the middle of a frozen winter! I think of horse teams pulling great loads of stone, of the pulleys and levers, the carts, the wheels, the manpower… I imagine how loud and chaotic it must have been at one time. I imagine all the horrible job site injuries that must have happened; the crushed fingers, the sprained muscles and worse… All of this motivated by the need for men and women to memorialize themselves unto eternity. Really, doesn’t it all seem so silly, so vain? So futile?

Ok, so if burying one’s body in a cemetery and spending a chunk of your estate on a piece of granite to mark the site is a ridiculous notion – especially because without an accompanying bio and headshot, future passersby will have absolutely no idea what you were fabulous for and why we should even remember you – then what should one do with one’s own body? A good question. A question I’ve wondered at for years, but until my own father died, I never truly followed it through to a conclusion. There are no easy answers. Even for me, a gal who has not a fraction of a doubt that our souls continue on to another realm of existence after this flesh-and-bone school of life. I mean, I may not care what happens to me after I’m gone (I don’t worry about my body’s disposition in any way affecting my soul’s successful transit outta here), but thinking about it now is what’s hard. Either way, it’s just plain icky. Biological life is wet and smelly, and there’s no tidy way around it. Everyone knows this, of course, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty application of the concept, screw it. It does not help.

Having already muscled through the notion of my dear father’s body being scorched to ashes by a turbo-powered blow torch (and having visited the place and seen it with my own eyes as part of my process of closure; here’s a link to the post “Tiny Trip”, scroll down to the very end), I suppose one could say I’ve made some progress. Yes and no. And I like to think I’m pretty laid back about things. Again, yes and no. I’ve butchered chickens. I’ve tried to participate responsibly in death, bringing it swiftly, honoring the sacrifice of life. I’ve tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible about things. But it’s just so strange, this territory of a non-living body that once was a real, living person. It’s hard to reconcile those images. So in order to help myself do just that, I searched out – and found – a book on this exact subject. It’s called “Stiff” by Mary Roach, and I highly recommend reading it if you too would desperately like to demystify death and the culture of cadavers. The author is delightfully witty, and without her good humor it might be all to easy to simply shut the book before the end of the first chapter. (Even so I had to put it down every so often and take a break from it before resuming.) Still and all, I don’t know. I just don’t.

But Elihu does. Since he was quite small he’s known what he wants done with his body after he’s through using it. When we first began talking about death, burial and such, he would get very emotional about it – insisting that he wanted his own dead body to be taken into the forest and left for nature to take over. I explained that it would likely lead to a whole mess of legal trouble – that the people who laid him there to rest might even possibly end up in jail. This made him angry. It was surprising to see such a young child express such indignation. He found it fundamentally wrong that he and his family be forbidden from doing the most natural and correct thing possible. Whenever we found ourselves discussing it, he’d get very upset. Likely he now understands more clearly how small eighty acres is in actuality, and that barring a life on the Alaskan frontier, a burial in the family’s woods won’t be an option. But no matter, this kid is not worried. This, after all, is the same kid who scolds “it’s just a dead bird” when I wince upon pulling a frozen hen out of the chest freezer, wondering which gal it might have been… This is the kid who told his grandfather not to be afraid to die, because it was “just like turning the page in a book”. This is the kid whose last words to his grandpa were “See you shortly”. So thankfully I’m in good hands. I think I’ll leave it up to him. I just don’t want to know is all.

Do you know what thanatology is? Until a couple of hours ago I had never heard the word before. And that kinda surprises me, having conducted more than my fair share of searches on death and dying. (Here’s a link to a gal whose life’s work is all about death. If you have the time, the panel discussion is interesting, although it’s more theological than thanatological.) Thanatology is simply the scientific study of death. It deals with the forensic aspects of death – like those hard-to-think-about physical changes that occur in the post-mortem period. Plus thanatology also includes study of the social implications of death. Really? Such a thing exists? As well it should! There is only one thing we can absolutely count on in life, and that is our death. But even so, we so seldom talk about it directly and specifically… and that drives me nuts.

In re-reading the posts I wrote last year at this time, I’m fascinated to remember the tiny details of dad’s final days. I begin to see patterns – of course I’d read about them before my experience with dad, and I’m somewhat aware of the landmarks that one meets as one gets closer to death – but today I was able to see the whole process with so much more clarity. The events that I might have ever-so-slightly doubted the validity of last year – even while experiencing them for myself – I now know these to be real and universally recognized sign posts on the final path. It’s exciting to know that it’s not as mysterious as we might feel it to be… Last year, when I’d asked a nurse what exactly we were to be on the lookout for in dad’s final days, she gave me a short list. But then she added “I don’t think he’s there yet. He still has some transitioning to do.” What in hell did that mean? Just why such goddam cryptic language? At least I knew to be on the lookout for blue skin. But still, she left me guessing, and I didn’t appreciate it. So now between the local hospice volunteer training and this thanatology stuff, I might be closer to making peace with things one day. We’ll see.

Then after the bodily issues, there’s the tricky business of what comes next. I have known and loved some hard-and-fast atheists and agnostics in my life, and I’m absolutely fine with the idea that nothing at all comes next. The tidy nature of it does have its appeal. (Given the true definitions of those terms, I might be either one myself; I neither know unquestionably what I believe, nor do I believe there is one single creator, but rather a collective energy of awareness and love that permeates all. Another post, another time.) And for those who believe that we need to keep our bodies whole and pretty for the rapture – that’s cool too. (Only what about the plastic fillers, chemicals and wires used to keep folks pretty while they wait? Yeeks. Wouldn’t want to come back like that.) Ultimately, no one truly knows. But in my thinking I’m certain about the general gist of things. I used to worry about losing the respect of my dear friends for whom belief in an afterlife means you really aren’t as intelligent as you might once have seemed. Mech. And as for heaven or hell? As I see it, none of that exists. There is no good, no bad. Just a re-integration of our essence back into a loving non-space in which an assessment of our progress is made; a timeless, placeless ether in which to assimilate, learn and regroup in an atmosphere of acceptance and perfection.

Me, I think that our essence – the unquantifiable God spark that makes us us – transits out of this physical dimension and moves into that non-space ‘afterworld’ upon death. Like the signal from a station which your radio is not programmed to receive; it still exists, but you can no longer hear it. This all might even yet seem like so much fluffy conjecture if I hadn’t beheld my father beginning to ‘transition’ out of this world… There are some who might chalk it all up to a simple physiological process of the body breaking down, but I don’t. I watched as he was greeted by deceased family members, and listened through tear-filled eyes when he told me how much he missed his parents. Unknown to him, he followed form perfectly. He pointed to crowds of people in the corner of the room, “waiting on the curve” and asked me who they were (how honored I was that he could share his visions with me) and he said he was “in pleasure” as he watched them. I know now that he was in the middle of his process. By that time he was not altogether ‘living’ anymore. Like a radio station on I80 in the middle of hilly Pennsylvania, the signal was beginning to fade.

So I’m good with it. And not. I feel that dad is doing just fine where he is. It’s just me, mom and Andrew that have the rough road. Once, last year when I was missing dad as acutely as ever, I wondered out loud if dad was with me, if he knew about the Studio, if he approved of what I might do with the place…. Elihu was tired of my laments, and curtly told me that grandpa had “work to do” and it wasn’t fair to bother him with things that were now my business. “He can’t always be here with you, mommy. He’s got a lot of things to do.” I may have a wise kid, but still something inside tells me that outside of this time-space realm, the rules are different. If there is no such thing as locale, if ‘reality’ is as plastic and ethereal as our dreams, then I like to think dad is smiling, telling me it’s all fine, and that he’s right here with me when I need him to be.

But forward movement is required on this plane, so I can’t let my progress falter. Dad is where he is, and for the time being, I’m still right here. Nothing to do but keep going. Everything has happened as it should, and I’m striving to understand it the very best I can, so that I can move on with confidence toward whatever it is that will happen next on this great adventure.

 

Offense and Owls March 29, 2014

Unfortunately, I just can’t seem to sleep in this morning. While I’m sure I could use the extra rest, my mind and body are awake now, and there’s no going back. Maybe it’s my age, or the two glasses of wine I had last night with dinner. Either way, I’ll take it as a rare opportunity to have the house to myself for a while, as Elihu continues to sleep deeply. And I know that boy needs it. Yesterday, finally in the car and on the way home after school, he asked me if this hadn’t been the longest week of our lives. Poor kid had been sick the way I’d been the previous week, and he plays a rather large part in his class play, so had been rehearsing all week as well. I knew how he felt. For me, the longest week of our lives had been the one just before.

In addition to the drama onstage, there’s been a good deal of interpersonal drama going in private. The situation with Elihu’s classmate – or with his classmate’s mother, I should say more correctly – finally came to a head. And after more than four months of my having waited to learn which of my many trespasses offended her so deeply, we finally got our answers. Let me tell you, this experience has taught me a few things. Firstly, there are many ways in which to live; you cannot for one moment take any of your own beliefs, values or customs to be the clear and obvious path. No matter how sensible you may think your own approach to life, I can guarantee that some aspect to how you live will offend or frighten someone. Secondly, every now and then you’ll need to apologize as humbly and simply as possible, without caveats or explanations – even when you know your intention was good and wish fervently for the offended party to get that. Yeah, sometimes I guess you just gotta let things go. It was a great exercise of restraint for me to pen a simple letter of apology (my third or fourth apology, but perhaps a physical card in hand will seal the deal) without qualifying myself. Just had to say I was sorry. And crap, I am. I will live differently from now on.

So, just what was it that I did to convince a fellow mother that her child should not be allowed to be in my or my son’s presence outside of school? Firstly, I used profanity. (Old friends will likely be nodding in agreement. This will not come as a shocker to some.) Last Halloween Elihu and I had been invited to join his classmate’s family and another one as well for some dinner and trick-or-treating. We met at an Irish pub, enjoyed a meal and a couple of beers (I waited to order one until I made sure the other adults were drinking. In the Waldorf community I’m usually careful to observe before I jump in. It’s still a fairly new world for us, so I watch things first…) Apparently, I swore ‘more than once’ during the night, and made a ‘sexually lewd’ comment when in my car, with the windows down for her boys to hear… I don’t doubt that I swore. Rain was coming down in buckets, and I was having trouble getting my kid’s elaborate costume in the car without smashing it. I’d had two drinks (not as an excuse, but hey, I don’t drink often, and when I do, I feel it, and so does my tongue) and I can totally see my cursing the damn thing as I wrestled it into the back seat. Yes, I am fairly confident I used profanity. And at the table too – I mean, what the hell? I’m finally out with grown-ups, the kids are running around the restaurant being silly and there’s a general volume level in the room that just seems to soften the blow – if not flat-out invite – words of color and emphasis. Ya know? Course I do admit to having far more of a potty mouth than would be acceptable in many homes, but then again I’d been hearing about “Jesus H. Christ and his twelve raggedy-ass disciples” since I could remember, and I’d known since an early age that many things in life weren’t worth “a pinch of sour owl shit”. Nuff said.

The bit about a ‘sexually explicit’ remark still has me scratching my head… I run through the likely culprits, and I find none fit. I admit that I enjoy punctuating language with an occasional well-placed swear word, and I have hung out with enough men and musicians to have become fairly adept at sexually crass expressions of speech, but man, I could not for the life of me I imagine what it was that I’d said. And she’d said she didn’t care to repeat it either, so I’ll have to give up on learning from this one. Hey, if she was looking for bad parenting choices, she might have found greater offense in the fact that I paid our $44 tab entirely with singles from my kid’s tip jar. I didn’t know we’d be joining them til the day before and hadn’t set any extra funds aside for it, so I was fairly panicked when the check arrived and I didn’t have quite enough… but Elihu did. Hey – I wouldn’t doubt it that this had me swearing under my breath! It had me feeling like a crappy mom for sure. I told him that I was using his money and assured him that next pay-day it would all be returned. Then I slunk over to the hostess’ station and asked her to please swap out my many small bills for some larger ones. I didn’t want the unnecessary embarrassment of paying our portion with forty-four singles… I was trying to stay as ‘normal’ as possible that night. But I’d used my kid’s money to pay for my beer and I’d sworn like a sailor. Not so normal, I guess.

Then there was the owl. The one from which the two boys had removed feathers and talons. That I had allowed the boys to ‘dismember’ this creature was deeply offensive to this family’s Native American beliefs. (Blonde haired and blue-eyed child, I would never have guessed.) What we’d done that day had shocked the parents – so much so they weren’t even able to share it with me; these past four months I was none the wiser for what I had done. But I too had my own feelings about the owl….We knew this owl personally; it was our own Barred Owl – the one that always hooted at two in the morning and once sat on a branch above our heads and allowed us to look our fill at his black-eyed beauty. We’d shone a flashlight up at him and watched as he did what owls do. He would sit still as a stone for minutes on end, then in an instant rotate his head nearly all the way round. He was mysterious, grand and silent. We tired of watching him long before he flew away, and left him in the darkness again, telling him with our hearts how much we loved him as we headed back down the long driveway to the house. How grateful we were that he lived here. It made us feel deeply good to know that he was always somewhere about. Heartbreaking news arrived one day when neighbor Zac told us he had a dead barred owl for us – it had been hit on the road – and he’d bring it over for Elihu to see. We just knew it was our owl. It was with mixed feelings that we beheld the giant bird up close, but it was smashed and dead, all we could do now to honor it was to bear witness, maybe to save some feathers and talons, and to wonder how it was that such a creature survived year after year…

I’d saved the owl in an enclosed tub for several days (otherwise he’d have been dinner for someone else), knowing that Elihu’s classmate was coming over. I’d thought it would be interesting to see it up close, and the mementos would be an unexpected treasure. After all, how often do you get this kind of opportunity? I wondered at what else we could do; taxidermy cost too much. Leaving it out in the woods – as we do with sick, dead hens, that didn’t feel right either. Hell, nothing felt right. Might have buried it, but the ground was already cold and hard. So I decided we’d harvest what we could, then burn it with a little ceremony. Have not cultures been reverently burning their dead since ancient times? I got a woodpile ready as the boys began to learn just how hard it really is to remove feathers from such a robust creature. Pliers were required, and as for the talons, wire cutters were the only tools that worked. I can’t say that there wasn’t a slightly violent feeling involved in the process, but I kept reminding myself that we’d have these feathers and talons – and this remembrance of our friend – for years to come. (Butchering chickens is a kind of violent act as well, but we eat them, so we feel it’s only correct that we must know what it is so kill them, too.) I reminded myself that this creature’s soul had now returned to its creator – that it was now just decomposing matter. If life on a farm teaches nothing else it teaches this: once something is dead, it’s gonna get stinky and messy real soon. Unless you’re gonna eat it – get rid of it. When Elihu and I throw out dead organic matter – whether eggshells for the compost heap or dead hens for the resident raccoons – we always say the items are ‘going back to God’. And that, I believe, is the best way to throw things out. To release them back into the cycle; to allow them to integrate back into the substance from whence they came. Look, getting rid of a dead creature always evokes queer feelings. Sorrow, honor, regret, wonder…. finding a good point of resolution isn’t easy. The day my father was cremated was difficult for me; I still have a very hard time in knowing that his beloved body no longer exists in this physical world… But in the end, when soul and spirit have departed the mechanism, we are left with something that is indeed only physical matter. I don’t believe it hurts to remember the soul that once animated the body by saving just the smallest token. I still have a lock of my father’s hair…

So, after over four months of wondering, the case was finally solved. Foul language and removing parts from a dead owl were my unknown transgressions in the eye’s of our friend’s mother. But I still think that trumping these was the third and still unforgivable offense I’d originally thought was long off the table: that of having once posted an image of her happily smiling child on this blog. Upon learning her feelings about it, I removed all mention of her kid without a moment’s hesitation. I’d not only apologized in a couple of emails, but in person too. I made a point of checking in with her, asking if we were good now. She’d said yes, but clearly was being polite to avoid any confrontation (this is to me ironic in that by profession she counsels others). So here we were, back at the largest issue in her mind: the fact that I had exposed her child to the internet. A place she suggested in a recent email that I must certainly agree is known by all to be a ‘VERY’ (her use of caps) dangerous place. (The world itself is a dangerous place too, but one cannot stay indoors all of one’s life.) Ok. I understand how it can be, but do you really feel your child’s well-being is threatened by one lone image of his smiling countenance on a blog? Sheesh. I obviously do not share this woman’s feelings. But I respect that she feels the danger is very real. But besides taking action, and apologizing, what more could I do? No more, but no matter, the damage has been done. In her mind I had been crossed off the list. She wasn’t going to take any chances on a wild card like me.

In her mind proper values are self-evident, obvious. But in my mind, there’s an interesting twist to this whole thing… What I myself find a little hard to understand is that her child routinely rides on a motorcycle with his father… This is a risk I personally am not willing to take. When I lived in Chicago I once had a motorcycle, and I loved riding. But when I got pregnant, I decided that I couldn’t justify that kind of risk anymore. Someone depended upon me now – there was no room for accidents or injury in my life. When my child is out and on his own and no longer depends upon me, I may get back on a bike again. But not before. This for me is an unacceptable risk, one I feel is far more real and dangerous than mention on any blog. Amazing, isn’t it, how differently people feel about things? I’ve learned a lot from this chapter. One thing is for sure – I’m not going to go around sharing with folks whom I don’t know well that ‘I have a blog’. Too much of a hot-button issue. You just don’t know how it’ll resonate with people. Instead – from now on I’m simply going to say that I’m a writer. I like that better anyhow. And writers can use all the colorful language they like.

Last night mom, Elihu and I went out to dinner at the iconic Hattie’s – a place where the fried chicken still tastes the same as it did forty years ago – and then enjoyed a show afterward at the high school. Each year they produce a top-notch quality musical. This year it was Footloose. Doesn’t seem old enough yet to be hip or ironic, but I guess it’s enjoying a resurgence of sorts, and in spite of having played some of the songs to death in wedding bands years ago, it was still fun to see. The choreography was impressive, and we all enjoyed it. The angel of serendipity was again on our sides; we got a parking spot in front of the restaurant, and then three seats together in the front row – and in front of the percussionist no less. Afterwards in the swarms of people crowding the lobby we ran into two girls we knew from their days at Elihu’s old elementary school – and it made me so happy to see them now as such talented, beautiful young women. It was a nice way to end the evening for Elihu to hug them and say hello. We headed out into the foggy night and in less than fifteen minutes Grandma was dropping us off at home.

The calm inside our house was such a contrast to the whirlwind week now behind us. We were delirious with anticipation of what lay ahead… ‘Imagine’ I said as we smiled to each other… ‘we have NO plans for two days!’ I tried not to dwell on the mountain of dishes, the baskets of laundry, the mess of recycling strewn across our yard… Yes, there was work to be done. But nowhere to be, no one to answer to…. no one to offend. And maybe, somewhere out in the vast, dark woods, there might still be an owl sitting patiently on a branch, waiting, like us, for the first faint stirrings of Spring…