We’re lucky here at the Hillhouse, to see the sun rise from our kitchen and living room windows. It’s interesting to track the changing spot on the horizon from which it lifts; just a week ago it was a tree or two to the left, but now it’s marched along the rim of the forest a surprising distance. It’s funny the way the heavenly bodies move, imperceptible as one watches, quite noticeable when one does nothing but turn away for a moment and then look back again. All day long the sun makes her progress just like this, slow, steady, never stopping. Like a willful, living creature, diligently keeping to her task, dedicated only to that one singular movement. What a contrast is the peace and stillness of a sunrise to the frenetic cauldron of action and emotion swirling around far below it on the surface of this globe. A sunrise is deceptive: it leads one to believe, if only for a second, that everything everywhere has taken a pause, that nothing at all stirs upon the earth… that all is, in this very moment, perfect and right with the world. 

Yeah, I like the sense of peace that I get from a sunrise. The sense of possibility. The best possible feeling of what it is to stand here, as a human, witnessing. But it doesn’t always play out that way. When I awoke today, the sorrow I’d forgotten in sleep had come to wrap itself around me again. As I looked out the window, I saw that all the trees were bathed on one side in a deep magenta, a sign that this was the moment. I went to the living room in time to watch the sun as it lifted free of the treetops and burst its rays over the countryside. This one particular moment of a sunrise is an interesting thing; it isn’t always the moment of joy and peace that one might think. For me, it seems to heighten whatever mood it is that I’m already feeling. On a brilliant summer morning, with the promise of a full and rich day before me, my chest fairly bursts at the sight. But today, a day on which I remember again the intense sorrow of losing my father, and with him all the questions I never thought to ask, the sun wrenches it all out of me all at once, and it hurts. Soon my face is covered in sunshine and tears.

It occurred to me shortly after waking that tomorrow is mom’s first birthday without dad in fifty-four years. They, as some readers will remember, shared the same birthday. My heart sinks to my feet. What can we possibly do to make it easier? See to it that she keeps busy, I suppose. Maybe we should go to that Weight Watchers meeting after Elihu’s bass lesson. Maybe that will help. Maybe we can stop by, maybe we can bring a bottle of champagne (that would’ve had my dad clapping his hands in happy approval). Maybe we can have her over here for supper. Hell, I don’t know. What to do? My heart breaks all on its own, and now it’s breaking for my mother. Crap. There is never a good time for goodbye, no matter how full and rich a life may have been.

All morning I’ve been remembering my father’s friends that have gone before – and there are a good number of em. In fact, there were very few folks from my father’s world left – and in terms of a physical presence in his life, essentially there were none. I thought back to the last time dad had been to the farm. It was this past July, and it was Martha’s 86th birthday. I remember on that day dad had been speaking in a nonsensical way, that he had once again turned a corner. But that didn’t lessen his pleasure at being there; he was happy, a soft smile on his face the whole time (in spite of the temperature in the kitchen reaching up into the high 80s). I had known it even then; after nearly fifty years of sitting in this kitchen, after hours and hours of drinking, smoking, storytelling, cussing, shouting and laughing, this was the very last time dad would be sitting in this space. The last time he and Martha would be in the same room together. (As it turned out, they would have one final visit with each other in person. They were both patients at the ER at the same time in late summer, and I had thankfully snapped one picture then.) I watched them, both at the farm and at the hospital, knowing in my heart that these oldest of friends were saying their last goodbyes. I also realized neither one of them was even aware of it. I guess one just kinda tends to feel as if nothing will ever change. That things, somehow, will always be thus. Silly humans, we.

At the time of dad’s death his functioning life had long since ended.  Dad had no life outside of his home, no pressing endeavors to attend to, no ability to play the harpsichord – nor the piano, no ability to walk outside on his own, no car to drive, no ability to read, no social life, no old college chums to call and check on, no pals from his former lives to chat with…. He had nothing at all but mom, his cats, the opera on the weekends, and the tv. (Yes, he had Elihu and me too, but we were only there a few short visits a week.) And I suppose a few years of this life might eventually grow tedious, no matter one’s lack of abilities. Dad was still very much aware of his surroundings, and as familiar and comfortable as they may have been, at some point I guess there’s not a lot to hang around for anymore. I can’t help but remind myself that it’s really only us we’re sad for; a quick recounting of all that dad did not have in his most recent life helps set me straight. Wherever he is – or is not – is just fine for him. It’s us that’s the problem. Actually, it’s mom that I’m worried about. How must it feel? Seriously, how must it feel? I’m sad, Elihu is only sad in passing, but it’s mom I keep thinking of. Tomorrow, this first birthday in over half a century without her mate, this will be a landmark. She’s just gotta get through it.

Life marches on, enough distractions for us that dad’s death is somewhat tempered. I still have loads of new music to learn (and the arthritis in my fingers worsens almost daily). I still haven’t told Elihu that his beloved teacher is leaving. Waiting til the last possible moment, as not to spoil his final day of vacation. And thankfully the temperature outside is going up, so we won’t have to worry about bringing the goose into the kitchen overnight as we did on Friday, when outside temps were ten below. Ironically, shortly after we saved the goose from losing his little webbed feet to frostbite, we ourselves ran out of heating oil. ! Must remember that in terrible cold like this it takes a bunch more fuel than usual. See? Lots to keep us going, many new dramas appear on our horizon. Just like the sun on its  never-ending path, the events of our lives march tirelessly onward, sunrise to sunset and all the moments in between.

Mundane Matters

Had a low grade headache for over twelve hours now. Thinking back, I might attribute it to a couple of glasses of wine last night. Been without it for a while, and thought it would be fun to have a glass as I endeavored to make our first all vegetarian meal (at Elihu’s request). Having found $25 while cleaning the house, I felt I’d hit paydirt, so off we went to the market to buy some tempeh and wine. To the dollar store for a pair of sweet little wine glasses. As Elihu settled in to watch another documentary by his beloved David Attenborough, I filled the pretty glass with my first taste of wine.

Now, at five am, I think I would have better without it. Too late, but lesson learned. Clean living is easier on the body. Tempting in its absence, the very thing that seems to offer a tiny spark of hope ends up to disappoint in its presence. Oh the quandary of being human.

Awakened by the constant pain, my mind starts going. And I realize that sleep is not going to take me away again. I rise and go to make a pot of tea, discovering two more dead mice in the new traps. Two last night, two this morning. Plus the nine last week that finally succumbed to my five gallon bucket trick. Merely the tip of the iceberg, but a good start. This brings me to a mundane, domestic matter that has troubled our little cottage for a while now. Mice. I have finally found the answer. A company called Tomcat makes these clever little traps – so easy to set my son can do it. Bulky, plastic things, they act just as traditional traps do; they snap closed on the mice as they investigate the bait within. It’s easy to pinch the trap open again, dumping the poor victim, its large, black eyes still staring at the world, into the garbage can with all the rest of our mess. I say a prayer, ask for its forgiveness, then try to shake it off. Never a pleasant experience, in spite of the fact that his tiny death was my objective.

I pour a cup of tea and step outside. As I watch the horizon grow light, I think back on Thanksgiving. My brother Andrew had blown up just before we were to sit down to dinner. It began when he brought my cat, Mina (who lives with my parents now as Elihu is quite allergic) to the table, and lowered her down to meet the eyes of Martha’s hound dog, who was resting at her feet. The dog whimpered with excitement, my cat hissed and fear blazed in her eyes. She’s a fraidy cat to begin with, and my heart jumped to see her distress. “Andrew”, I begged, “Please don’t do that to Mina! Please, don’t do that!” Instantly, he looked at me with wrath I cannot fully describe, nor understand. He erupted, and said something about my inability to stop talking, and that I was Satan himself. “Satan!“, he repeated. Then he told us he couldn’t eat with me here – that he wouldn’t come back until Satan had left. It got worse. Later on. Suffice to say, that when he did return, there was an incident which left my son sobbing in fear and confusion, had me running to dial 911. It was his worst blow up in years. Andrew is a dry drunk. He’d begun to taste the wine again recently, and with those first dangerous sips an anger began to loosen in him, an anger that has been for the past ten years directed at me. I am the reason his life sucks. I realized that night how strong he was; fueled by rage, I truly felt he might kill me. That night, and several since, Elihu has asked me if we could please lock our doors at night. We’ve been here three years and have never locked them once. Maybe this isn’t so mundane a topic after all, but it swims around in my brain alongside everything else that keeps me from sleeping.

I hear my son coughing in his sleep. He’s been a little asthmatic lately, and that is worrying to a mother. He’s a good kid, and will even do his nebulizer in the night some times without even waking me. He doesn’t want to trouble me. That’s ok, I tell him, that’s exactly what I’m here for. And it is never, ever trouble to me. I hope he gets that. There. He’s stopped coughing, I relax a bit.

A mosquito whines by my head as I write. We’ve had a rash of them lately. They seem to emanate from the toilet – or somewhere in the bathroom. But we flush often, we even turn on the tap to keep things moving in the sink. But still we seem to have a hatchery somewhere, and they escape into the bedrooms, their high, zinging sounds strangely out of place this time of year. Or maybe not, as it’s been so warm. Even seen some outside.

It’s the first day of December now, and yet the weather is still so mild. Global warming? I wonder. It just feels wrong. Rather than fret about this, I’d better turn my concern to filling the oil tank. Knowing my oil man has received his voucher from the state, I’ve called him to ask if he can deliver some. No response. It’s all ok for now – I’m grateful for the mild weather. But we have less than ten gallons now, and if it gets cold, it’ll be uncomfortable. Thanks to this past year, I can report we’re good at living in a house at 58 degrees. We’ve gotten used to it. I’m surprised. I like things toasty. But it is amazing what one can live without. One does adapt.

I ponder our dependency on outside help. For food, for heat. My mind wanders to an email I received recently from an adult student of mine. While she thought she was being funny – and no doubt thought I’d share her amusement – I did not. It was something to the effect of ‘we good guys’ carrying the weight of all the country’s ‘indigent’ folks… paying for their food, their heat. Not sure she realized – maybe it’s hard to see me as one of the ‘indigent’, what with my gleaming, new grand piano, harpsichord and view of the mountains out my living room window – but if it weren’t for the benevolence that still remains embedded in our system, my son and I would be on the street. We are her ‘indigent’ folk. Really. I consider whether to address it or not. Maybe at our next lesson I will. Maybe I will also remind her that she cancels a lesson for every two she schedules, and that this reduces my income, making it even harder to ‘pull my own weight’. Maybe I should have her pay up front. Another thought in the maelstrom.

Christmas. It’s coming, and I have less than $30 to my name. A friend in the Midwest recently sent us some money to put towards Elihu’s gifts. After some internal debate, I ended up disclosing the amount to him, and telling him he may use half for a toy of his choice. (House rule: spend half, save half. That goes for Elihu and his money – mine is gone towards living costs almost before it comes in.) He, being about all things that fly, began to research in earnest the options before him. He read product reviews, watched test flights on Youtube – all on his own – until he arrived at the perfect, affordable remote controlled helicopter. Lest I think I do not have a ‘boy’ boy – this recent experience has me smiling to myself at this newly revealed aspect of my son. He has spent a fair amount of time watching videos of flying toys, he has learned new terms; he is immersed. He ordered his helicopter on Friday, and each morning it’s the first thing on his mind when he wakes. So he’s got that gift for which I am so very grateful, but what else? I’m glad I had the presence of mind to purchase little bird-related items through the year, when I had just a bit of extra cash, but what now? His father probably won’t send our monthly support for a week or more yet, and I cannot buy a thing until then. I look to new students; there’s one possibility. But then I must pay for Elihu’s drum lesson, and that will simply cancel out the new income. Argh.

There’s really no end to the matters that swim around in my head. Thankfully, I’d taken some pain reliever an hour ago, and now my headache, while still there, is only a shadow of its former self. That’s good. And really, everything is good. As the new language of our culture tells us, all we have is the moment. And right now, I mean right now, it’s ok. It’s good. Elihu is sleeping quietly, I got all the dinner dishes washed last night, I have my long-awaited vacuum cleaner bags (the house has been quite dirty this past month as I was out) – plus I finally have a way to reduce the mouse population. Bald Mountain, our dominant rooster, is crowing. It’s now light outside. Soon I’ll get dressed and let the birds out for the new day.

But for now I’m going to let all my thoughts alone for bit as I enjoy a moment of stillness on my couch. The giant living room window faces east, and from my seat I can see a wide, sweeping expanse of hills and sky. Although I don’t, I could choose to see this every morning if I wanted. So this too, I suppose, is mundane. Nonetheless it is a good thing. And it matters.