The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Changing Times November 6, 2013

It’s good that it happens gradually. Like pregnancy, kind of. You get some time to get used to things becoming different, time to get adjusted to your changing and new reality. Now it’s for sure. You’re not exaggerating, you’re not guessing, you’re not making this worse than it is. Now you can truly see that your mom or dad is not the person they once were. Yes, you recognize them somewhere ‘in there’; you can still recognize those certain little familiar things – a mannerism, a tone of voice or signature gesture – and you know that yes, that is definitely still my dad. And yet….

Today my mother was working as an election judge all day at the polls, so she needed me to check in on dad. Today also happened to be my busiest day at school, so I had to pull the emergency card to run home during recess duty. Apparently the night before he’d fallen to the floor next to the bed, and since mom couldn’t get him up again, she’d just given him a pillow and covered him with a blanket for the time being. Somehow she was able to get him back into bed before I got there this morning, but I myself was hard-pressed to even get him in an upright, sitting position on the side of the bed. This was a new stage of the game. I don’t remember it being like this. I’d thought it might take some cajoling, some sweet talk and encouragement to get him up and moving, but this time those tactics were just not enough.

When I arrived, dad began to speak to me quite normally, and even with some degree of refreshed enthusiasm at seeing me. But within a mere few words I realized that we’d gone into a new territory, one which we’d visited briefly before, but from which he eventually returned. Having spent a half hour with him on this visit, I could tell that there wasn’t a whole lot of hope for him returning to his sentient self of just one week ago. I was still holding out hope that Elihu could bring him out of it, but for the mean time it was all on me. So I listened to him talk. I tried to get a sense of what he was describing, the scenes he was trying to convey to me, and who was there with him. I tried to learn the general feeling of his remembered encounters – knowing full well they were from his dreams (he sleeps nearly twenty hours a day) – but also knowing that in his dreams lay the keys to understanding what still resonated as important – and even urgent – in my father’s mind.

He told me that he had been attending a party at someone’s house – as he awoke from his sleep he patted the bed sheets and told me ‘this’ belonged to harpsichordist Louis Bagger and dad said he only hoped he could take good enough care of it… I wondered if by his linens he meant a harpsichord… perhaps a loaner from his old friend? A waste of time to try and make literal sense of it… just follow… He went on to describe this party… it was in the home of some arts patrons – Jewish people, he added – and everyone is very keen on being seen, on having being invited… it’s a very tony affair, yet the food has all been brought by guests. He tried several times to recall the names of people who were present for the party, yet he stumbled, pointed his finger into the air as if to prod the memory loose, but gave up. I re-directed dad to fill in more details for me about the gathering. What did the place look like? It was someone’s home. A fine one, a very large place too, and packed to the gills. Where there musicians present? Yes, as celebrated guests. Are you one of them? No, but I’ve been invited. Do you feel uncomfortable there? No, but I don’t usually know these people well. And so went our conversation, as I tried to glean insight into my dad, his fears, his joys, and the things that, after fifty years’ absence from his single life as a professional musician in New York City, still loomed large somewhere deep in his psyche.

Things morphed again when he began to descend into a more surreal landscape; dad’s own father (whom we as grandchildren had called Papaw) was there, and I found it interesting that he referred to my grandfather as ‘Papaw’ and not ‘father’ as he would have addressed him back then. Dad told me he was concerned that Papaw was not entirely happy with the party. Papaw was expressing some dissatisfaction, perhaps even slight contempt for the goings-on. (That sounded in- character for him; my grandfather was a successful, self-made man, one from a family of thirteen children… he was a sitting judge and a man of some means; a slightly egocentric sort of fellow who looked down on folks who didn’t demonstrate self-respect or carry themselves with dignity. He had made it known that he didn’t entirely approve of dad’s choice of careers.) Then dad took on a new facial expression, and looked up at me. “Is Nana anywhere about?” he asked me, slightly concerned. Again, interesting to me. Because while ‘Nana’ registers as my grandmother, my dad had always called his mom ‘mother’… his use of ‘Nana’ blended the lines between generations in a dreamlike, nebulous sort of way. No matter, I knew who he meant, and so I answered that I didn’t think she was here now, but that she was doing well. He seemed worried about her. “Is Nana coming later?” he asked. And I answered him that she was. It seemed to give him a small measure of relief, and when I saw that, I felt my somewhat misleading answer was in fact the best thing I could have said. This was a new world, and with it came new rules.

My ten year old son understands well. Several times tonight he’d wink both his eyes at me (like his dad he can’t close just one) as a signal to me that he knew, that he got it, that he was right there with me. Dad would say something bizarre, and we’d just look gently to each other as if to confirm that things were still ok. What was of prime importance here was not getting facts or timelines correct, but to understand the emotions at the bottom of all the remembrances. What was the gist of what dad was feeling? This was what was most important. What he was feeling physically – that was another ballgame, and soon we found ourselves a bit limited by those new rules as well.

Dad’s had a hernia for a while, but it only bothers him every so often. Maybe I got him up into a sitting position too abruptly, I don’t know, but for whatever reason his hernia is back today, and it hurt him so much that he wasn’t able to stand up and make it down the stairs for a proper supper. (Secretly I wonder if this might not be the first night of his life that he’s no longer able to join the family downstairs for dinner. Is that new era now upon us?) I’d brought some delicious home-made chicken soup (made with the chickens we’d butchered last week) for supper, and now, as it was apparent that we wouldn’t be dining downstairs, I heated up our bowls and brought them to the bedroom. I held dad’s bowl and watched him eat. Funny how I delighted in seeing such small, insignificant gestures again… the things I’ve seen him do all my life but never really noticed til right now. How with so much of his word recovery gone, so much of his life’s context gone, so much twisted around and re-arranged in his head, yet look how he can still wipe his beard in that way – how he can still take a napkin from me without a second’s pause and use it exactly as he should… how naturally he pockets it, and pulls it out to use again… the way he did it, it is still so him… Such silly nothings really, stuff that everybody does. But seeing him do these few, small and natural things brought me immense joy. My wrist was straining to hold the bowl of soup for him, and my cheek muscles were getting hot from smiling so hard. I was focusing all on my father. It was an unusual place for me to be. As he’s sunk into his dementia, I’ve been more easily ‘allowed’ into his mind, into his world. After a lifetime of tentative eye contact and the most fleeting emotional connections, this is precious stuff here.

We visited like this for about a half hour, during which I fed him some toast (home made sage bread from us) and some chocolate Boost (old folks’ nutritional drink) through a straw (mom had none, now she’s stocked. In future she’ll need straws all the time, I’m pretty sure) and I got him lying back down again and comfy. Gone now is the strong, invisible wall that’s been  between us our whole lives. Now, his condition makes it possible – and easy even – for me to express my love for him. For me even to hold his hand. I can remember over the past few years looking at dad’s hands and wishing I could hold them for no good reason. In my family we just don’t do such things. God no. The emotional separation and fear that exists in my parent’s home is almost a real enough thing to knock upon with your fists… Just this evening as we tried to rouse dad from his bed to have some supper, Elihu said to me that ‘you can just feel the sad in this house’. Yes, it’s the reason I haven’t pushed harder to visit them. While I’ve wished for family dinners, and have attended a few, I can say they’ve not become routine for us. It’s a heavy, dark and depressing house to be in. Between Andrew’s alcoholism, mom’s denial and dad’s dementia (not to mention years without a proper housecleaning!) the house is just friggin heavy. Not a pleasant place in which to linger. And with us being so busy, it just makes it easier to pretend the whole situation doesn’t exist. But today, when I get the extremely rare opportunity to look into my dad’s eyes – people, this is big – I realize that I need to be here now. Finally, the defenses are down (well, dad’s at any rate!) and I can begin to share the same space with my father in a real way.

I don’t know how things will turn out. Dad’s gone downhill very quickly the past two weeks even. Nonsensical speech (although I do think there’s something there to be learned if one listens) and an incredibly weakened body make for some big decisions in the immediate future. Mom’s new song is “the next stop will be the emergency room”, but she doesn’t seem to want to take it further. Ok, so ER. Then what, mom? I’ve been trying to get her to find a visiting nurse twice a week for, oh, what, like a year now?? Even two weeks ago she was saying “we’re not there yet”. The emergency room is NOT a haven for super-old folks with old-people problems. Sorry. It’s either nurse at home – or nursing home. And while Elihu himself suggests that the best idea would be to turn dad’s ground floor office into the new bedroom and get a nurse in to help bathe him twice a week – I have a feeling that mom would rather just get him out of the house completely. And ya know what happens then, right? Forgotten by family, far from home, shuttled around under relentless flourescent lights and shoved in front of crappy American TV, confused and finally detached from anything that reminds them of who they are and BAM! There you go. An aging parent who’d rather be dead if only that were a goddam option. !!!

I’d like to keep him at home with someone stopping by to help. But can my mother, at 78, reverse a lifetime habit of controlling her household down to the last cat hair and learn to accept a caregiver into her home?? This is the larger question. Fuck dad’s outcome. Keep the household on mom lockdown at all costs. Sheesh.

So Elihu and I watch and wait from the sidelines. The good thing here is that finally I can express my love for my father without censorship; there is a lot of hand holding now, and deep eye contact that never, ever existed before. And there are some increasingly less tentative loving touches being given on backs, legs and feet…. there are kisses and the gentle smoothing of hair, there are more expressions of love being shared than ever before in our lives. Once upon a time we had all the words we could use, and all the time in the world to use them. Now we have little of either, but it seems that true communication is finally possible. I wonder at the obstacles of the past fifty years that had made this sort of expression so impossible, so embarrassing, so unthinkable. There are just so many cultural rules, and the generations of yesteryear often didn’t cultivate open expressions of love. At least I’m glad to have this chance now, it’s better than never.

It’s hard to wrap my head around the shifts that are taking place. Funny how you just go through life thinking things will always be thus. (I thought I’d be twenty-seven for a hundred more years.) It seems your kids will always need help pouring their milk. It seems you’ll always be able to jump down those last five stairs from the landing. It seems like you’ll always have dark hair. Hell, it seems as if you’ll always have hair! But no, it won’t always be thus, and change, in every single moment, is always upon us. Though the shifts in our own bodies may be far too subtle and slow-moving for us to witness ourselves, from time to time our mortality can’t be avoided. A sudden reflection of one’s face in a window, the choice to take a safer footing, the need for an extra layer around the shoulders… tiny signs arise. The falling leaves and dropping temperatures remind me that we are all constantly on the move through infinitely changing times.

October 2013 A 730Grandpa and Elihu

October 2013 A 732

My arthritic, middle-aged hand next to his. So many concerts given with his hand, so much talent there.

October 2013 A 737

Dad’s more relaxed now, you can see it on his face. That, plus he loves his only grandchild so very much and can’t stop admiring him.

Post Script: I am very frustrated with my aging computer. In spite of having recently had someone in to clean it up, it is behaving in strange and new ways. In the above post I see many words appearing in red and underlined with crazy embedded hyperlinks. I wish I could remove them, but haven’t a clue as to how they got there. Today I’m wishing I had a computer that wasn’t as old as my fifth grader. !!

 

Culture of Two October 6, 2013

It’s begun to dawn on me today that the time of just we two – Elihu and me, that is – will be coming to an end before too long. Tonight, my son is spending the night with his twin friends, Jonah and Phoenix. Together, the three of them are joy personified. They revel in each other’s company and never tire of wanting to play together. Although I still get a kiss goodbye and a good solid hug, I am so quickly forgotten when Elihu is with them. And while it really does lift my spirits as a mother to see him so supremely happy, I can’t help but wince just a little way deep down at how easily he moves away from me. I know it’s right and good, but still…. And when I got home tonight and had no one to talk with about the day, no one to talk with about upcoming plans, future projects… I realized that I missed my kid. A lot. Gone one friggin night and I was missing him! Don’t get me wrong, I hold dear my precious little time alone – tonight is a very rare occasion indeed – but something about a one-off night on my own just gets me off my groove, leaves me feeling just a bit little adrift and aimless…

Truly, I exaggerate, for aimless I really aint. Tonight, in fact, I’ve been working for the past seven hours on Elihu’s Halloween costume. And I cannot get that kind of quality work done when he’s home, so it’s just as well he’s out. I know he’s had a great night and so have I. As I begin to envision my son’s enormous satisfaction with the costume, I pause, realizing that this might well be the last such costume I make for him… and the thought gives me a little pang in my heart. I know that life at Waldorf is a bit different, that childhoods in that culture last a bit longer than those of kids in other schools – yet still, I’m not confident that next year he’ll dream of a costume the way he has up until now. It might not be a priority in the presence of his peers… I can already just see half a dozen sixth grade boys out trick-or-treating… the roughhousing and craziness, the running on ahead, the leaving of parents far behind…  It will no longer be my young son and me alone, taking our time to prepare for each house, adjusting the costume just so, getting into character before ringing the bell…. Until now, I’ve loved our Halloweens. It’s been just we two, alone in the dark night, each of us feeling the thrill of a costume unlike any others, each of us marveling at the fine homes of Saratoga, lingering to admire gardens and courtyards, taking in the decorations on the massive front porches… I just can’t see any of that happening in a posse of boys. And it looks as if this year, now that we’re fully ensconced in our new school, we’ll be joining his classmates in a group on Halloween. That means mom and son night won’t be. I wonder if I might enjoy a half hour of our own, but I tell myself not to count on it. Not to hope for it. His new friends are so important to him. And I’m relieved that he finally has a thriving social life. But the more it develops, the less I’m a part of it. This year’s Halloween reminds me of the middle school years just around the corner. Things will change, I know. And it’s all as it should be, but I’m just not sure I’m ready. I’ve had him so much to myself up until now, that having less of him – relatively all of a sudden – may be hard.

The other night, as Elihu got out of the bath and was drying off, I noticed hair on his legs I hadn’t noticed before. I’m not sure if I’ll always be able to talk with him easily about his body and the changes that are coming soon, but thankfully these days it’s still ok. I felt comfortable pointing it out, and he himself was kinda pleased. He giggled. And did I see just the faintest haze of hair on his upper lip, too? Oh my God, did I? It’s hard to see the change in my own son – I’m still only now adjusting to the changes I’ve seen in the other kids at school. One summer, so much change. And it’s subtle stuff, it’s not as if you can so much pinpoint any one single thing – it’s just an overall look of maturity. Has my own child grown too? I myself find it hard to detect, being with him every day as I am. But I know he must be… Each day that he continues to call me ‘Mommy’ I consider a blessing. It simply can’t call me that for much longer, can he? I certainly don’t want him embarrassed by it. Again, I’m thankful that we live in the Waldorf world which is much more nurturing and like home than school. Elihu still takes up my hand as we walk to and from school, and he still kisses me goodbye. I can say with confidence that he would not do the same were he attending his old school. But it’s different here. Yeah, childhood is precious and unhurried here, but nonetheless, boys will be boys, and kids will grow up. So I take not one moment – or good-bye kiss – for granted.

With the house to myself for a night I find that order is easily restored; the dishes for one rare night among many are all washed and put away, the laundry’s in and the house is in general good order. Most days I find myself complaining more than I’d like to admit about all the stupid housework life requires of me – about the never-ending dishes, the cooking of food, the sorting of piles and putting away of things – and while I tell Elihu it’s just the way it is – it’s not anyone’s fault – I do know that when he’s not here, there’s much less to do. I as one person eat less (I certainly require less thoughtful food preparation), I don’t burn through clean clothes as he does, and I don’t have as many toys to put away. Yeah, it’s a quieter, easier household when he’s not around. And yet he’s a pretty good kid too – tidies up, is mindful of things, helps out. But no question, there’s less work with just me. And it occurs to me – that pretty soon, at least a lot sooner than I think – it will be just me. And I won’t have dirty dishes to bitch about. I won’t have piles of crap to put away. I won’t have to stress over cooking ‘nice’ meals…  I won’t have a reason to bitch anymore, will I? What I will have will be an empty house. A lonely house. A house of one. Ich. That doesn’t sound so nice. Maybe I don’t mind the housework. There’s not a lot, really, and it’s gotta be a hell of a lot easier than having a family of four or more… Yeah, I think I like what we’ve got. I like our tiny family.

It’s time to turn in now. The paper mache costume is in the basement drying, the house is tidy. I’ve enjoyed a nice night to myself and was grateful I didn’t have to make supper or do dishes. But still, I’m not yet ready for a house that’s this clean and quiet every single day. I’ll take the extra housework if it means I’m still lucky enough to enjoy life with just me and my boy. I enjoy the simple life of just one person for sure, but for now I think I still prefer the culture of two.

 

Catching Up June 4, 2013

Elihu and I have been running, running, running the past few weeks. This is a busy time for everyone it seems. End of year recitals, plays, projects and papers… Field trips, parties, good weather at last. As I write this, Elihu is in bed deeply asleep. When I went to wake him this morning I made the offer I make only a handful of times a year – “do you want to miss main lesson?” I asked him. Usually, because he loves school so very much, this question will rouse him out of his slumber and he’ll find it in him to get up and out of bed. Today however, he paused, said nothing, but shook his head up and down. Within seconds it seemed he was back asleep. Thankfully, at Waldorf – and at this time of year in particular when things are wrapping up and there’s no real urgency to school now – sleeping in is something we can allow without guilt. Such a relief! His old school would never had permitted such an exception. Thank goodness we’re where we are. Such a supportive place is this Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs!

Here are some pics of a recent field trip to a classmate’s farm and a few assorted shots from here and there….

May June 2013 Alice 018Elihu and Nora admire the phlox. The Hudson River is just past the field in the middle of the scene, and we live somewhere in the hills you see in the distance

May June 2013 Alice 024This is Jonah’s place – so he knows his way around

May June 2013 Alice 044This is Phoenix, Jonah’s twin brother, their stepmom Jessalyn, and their goats

May June 2013 Alice 040Jessalyn is also the eighth grade teacher at Waldorf

May June 2013 Alice 055Lunchtime!

May June 2013 Alice 065Tobias and Andrew, always together. It would be an understatement to say they’re into sports. !

May June 2013 Alice 060The whole gang at lunch. Fourth grade teacher Abigail Reid is in the middle.

May June 2013 Alice 114The fourth grade!

May June 2013 Alice 120Back on our own little farm…

May June 2013 Alice 125Elihu just loves our old rooster, Bald Mountain

May June 2013 Alice 156He loves Maximus, too

May June 2013 Alice 159We love that gorgeous wingspan!

May June 2013 Alice 183At grandma’s retirement party

May June 2013 Alice 244with grandma…

May June 2013 Alice 245and just a little later that night, busking in Saratoga

May June 2013 Alice 247The contents of a boy’s pockets: a toy car from when his dad was little, and his lucky turkey. !

May June 2013 Alice 173

Zonked! We all need to catch up a little sometimes…

 

T Minus 29 April 8, 2013

I know I’m making far too big a deal of this. My fiftieth birthday is one month from yesterday. Most of my friends have already been there, done that and most likely can’t get too worked up yet again about another person’s 50th. For those who’ve passed the mark, it’s simply their reality. It’s history, old news. Some like to tell you to ‘get over it’ or admonish ‘it’s just a number’… But it’s not so easy for me. I’m getting sentimental about it; I’m missing an era in my life that is quite definitely over.

To be more specific, there are two main reasons I’m ticking away the moments of my final forty-something year with a mild sense of ill ease: one is, of course the obvious; the irrefutable evidence that my body has passed its aesthetic prime. It’s a for-sure thing now. There’s no going back. Like Nora Ephron, I too have begun to hate my neck. I pinch the skin under my chin and rather than see it spring back to its resting form, it stays pinched. This is quite shocking to me. This is the crepe-y sort of skin that belongs to an ‘older woman’ –  my mother, or one of her peers… but certainly not me. This new discovery isn’t making me feel very good ‘in my skin’ as they say. It feels like someone else’s neck is on my body. It’s a new phenomenon, it’s disturbing, and I don’t see it getting any better with time. That’s sadly the truth.

The second reason for my ill ease: I’m not in Chicago at the time of this event. Rather, I’m here in Greenfield, where I simply haven’t got a whole lot of friends with whom to mark the day. I’d like to throw out a post on Facebook and have my Chicago peeps meet me at Dave’s Italian Kitchen and call it a day. The way I did when Fareed and I had our rehearsal dinner. The way we did when our son was born. The way we did for my fortieth. And so many other celebrations throughout our lives… Yeah. I wish I felt that I was home for this big one. But I suppose in a way, I am.

It is of course because of my parents that I’m even here to celebrate. And they’re just next door. So maybe I’ll just call the few friends I do have here and have em over to my parents. My dad never gets out, he might enjoy it. Mom’s a natural host with few opportunities to do so these days… It’s worth considering I suppose. I just feel like the date’s coming closer and closer and I have made no preparations – none mental, emotional nor logistic. (It’s my son’s 10th birthday on April 28th which takes priority!)

I just finished watching a movie called “Melancholia” in which a planet collides with Earth and ends everything. It was stunning how the film created that reality… one moment the planet looks like a benign second moon lighting the sky, the next day it’s a huge orb taking up half the horizon… And it sorta feels like my fiftieth birthday is that rogue planet, looming closer… nothing much one can do to prepare. But at least it might be worth having a really good party. Right?